Unprepared for death: How control and unpredictability are used in horror games (Part 1)

Content warning: Disturbing content, some gore, the usual deal. It’s horror, after all. Also, mild spoilers mostly related to gameplay.

In the genre of horror, the ultimate objective is to instill disturbance into people’s minds. Whether it be in books, movies, or recently, games, creators have been forever finding new methods of shocking their audiences in creative and intense ways—such as the development and popularity of jumpscares, or the use of harsh and dissonant music to accentuate a grim atmosphere.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent, one of the most genre-defining survival horror games. Won’t be talking about this one here though.

But no matter what kind of horror you are into, the most important factor in ensuring thrills for everyone involved is using unpredictability. What’s waiting behind the door? With silent footsteps the lead character treads… but with the looming threat of instant death always hanging overhead, giving the audience an unbearable suspense often leading to plugged ears and squinted eyes. But as we all know, making things predictable in horror makes it straight up un-scary. The brain doesn’t elicit as much of a response if it knows what the five senses are going to experience in five seconds’ time. And it may seem counter-intuitive, but making jumpscares too unpredictable and random can also desensitize the audience, giving it a sense of phony and nonsense that can often turn the horror into a comedy.

Horror games, while still somewhat new, have created a new type of horror experience that adds another dimension to interacting with the audience—control. As we all know, books, movies, and TV shows go the same way every single time they are watched, down to the smallest detail. That’s just how it works. While games obviously have a set of rules and a defined worldspace, what happens to the player is often dictated or at least affected by how the player plays the game, enabling a new form of immersion that can make the player feel as if they truly are in danger. However, once again, the amount of control given to a player over their fate is also an exercise in moderation. This one should seem a bit more obvious: no control means the player knows they’re dead far before they are, and too much control and the game gets boring after a couple hours and the player knows how to survive every time. This is a game-specific dimension, but in the end it relates back to the theme of unpredictability—can the player know for sure whether they can make it through or not? In the end, control and repetition are two factors related to unpredictability that I’m going to talk about in regards to how to design a good horror game. Let’s look at some examples that use these well, and some that don’t.

Too predictable: “20/20/20/20”

When Scott Cawthon first released Five Nights at Freddy’s back in 2014, the game became an instant YouTube hit. Viewers flocked to channels like Markiplier and PewDiePie, and many a viewer were able to witness the various reactions of all these people witnessing the animatronic jumpscares for the first time. And I mean, to Scott’s credit, the jumpscares were well done with skillfully designed imagery paired with great sound design, and the lore that he had built surrounding its universe was at times a bit edgy but was at least successful in building a large fanbase. The problem was that after a while, every death is telegraphed; the player knows they made a mistake, but hey. It’s just a game, let’s try again. Just a few weeks after his playthrough of the main game, Markiplier uploaded a video of him beating 20/20/20/20 mode, a mode where all the animatronics are set to the highest difficulty. He’s clearly stressed out while playing the game, but where does this stress come from? Fear? Not really, except fear of bad luck. Frustration? Absolutely. At this point, the thrill of the game was already lost not only to Mark, but also to his viewers, at least until the next game was released. The game was starting to become more of an arcade game than anything else. Scott Cawthon limited himself with the game design, trying to make the “trapped” office setting feel claustrophobic, but in the process, he created monotony within the realms of each game – in the end, FNaF 1 was just the same lights, doors, and camera layout each night. Releasing new games only meant a couple more content episodes of genuine horror before it was back to the same old all over again.

The “Golden Freddy jumpscare”. This one’ll get you once or twice.

I understand that every horror game is at least a bit predictable after having played it, but FNaF might be the most extreme case of that. I mean, at this point, even Scott Cawthon knows the gameplay isn’t scary anymore—FNaF Ultimate Custom Night, while a spin-off, is a self-satirical arcade-style score game poking fun at exactly this phenomenon, built for YouTubers to no longer post their jumpscare reactions but instead gloat about their perfect runs and high scores. I mean, just look at this. I would go so far as to say that some of the Internet doesn’t see it as a horror game anymore aside from the story. Sure, the game isn’t totally controlled by the player (Mark was sick and tired of RNG screwing him over trying to go for the 20/20/20/20), but nevertheless the way the game was built and the repetitiveness of scenarios meant that gameplay-wise, Five Nights at Freddy’s is an example of predictable gameplay reducing the impact of horror.

No control: “Hide in a closet and pray”

Japanese RPG Maker horror games have been a phenomenon of doujin culture that after a while also got popular with horror game YouTubers. A lot of them are known for having effective use of story and the 2D RPG-like (no duh) structures of the games creating unique and riveting experiences for the players. Some of these games include Ao Oni, Ib, Corpse Party, and The Witch’s House, the last of which I’ll be talking about in Part 2 (as it’s one of the best, in my opinion). There’s a lesser-known RPG Maker horror game that I originally thought was horrifyingly effective, but as I grew up and thought about it a bit more, I realized that its gameplay is laughable at best. The game in question is called Paranoiac. I will spare the details of the story, but the gameplay can be summed up as this: Night falls. You are being chased by a monster around the house. When you enter a room, there are a number of hiding spots; you must choose one before the monster enters the room. Here’s the catch though—what happens to you in the hiding spot is completely up to luck. The game assigns 1 hiding spot in each room that allows you to survive the night, 2 that lead to death, and the rest jumpscare you before continuing the chase sequence. When you enter a hiding spot, the screen goes completely black and you are left there in silence, waiting for a possible jumpscare and loud noise to appear.

Yep. (Courtesy: Markiplier)

The thing is, while this can be an effective way to create tension, the absolute biggest mistake this game could have made was telling the player that the hiding spots were decided by chance before any of this started. It completely destroys the source of shock when the player is actually jumpscared, because they know they’ve just been BS’ed out of luck rather than anything else. It’s one thing to emphasize the player’s skill as the only factor to survival, leading to an arcade-style game, but it’s another thing to give the player no real control over their fate, which completely breaks the engagement and rush of a well-made horror game. On top of that, this pattern is repeated for multiple nights with minimal changes to the environment, and while the story progresses and more is revealed, the gameplay is pretty much static. There’s effectively only one way to die, and it’s the same monster with the same jumpscare, in the same rooms, every single time. One could argue that the game is short (only 5 episodes of a playthrough = about 2 hours), but as I’ll discuss in Part 2, this is not much of an excuse. It is kind of a shame, considering that the story is actually decent (if not a bit trope-y) and the creator Uri is a well-known RPG Maker horror dev who has made other notable works such as The Crooked Man (which is also a lot better than Paranoiac). If you’re going to have a story-based horror game with bad gameplay that detracts from the shock factor, you’re better off writing a visual novel or scrapping the aspect of gameplay completely (think Yume Nikki). In short, making gameplay too unpredictable can totally detract from the effectiveness of a horror game and often turn it into some sort of comedy instead. Think of it like edgy humour—it gets cringey if you just throw in every single slur and offensive joke and call it a day. Again, it almost feels like a satire if there are just jumpscares and gore thrown left and right with no sense of pattern, which is a trap many mediocre horror games fall into. The last thing you want out of any game—not just a horror game—is for it to feel boring, even if only for two hours.

Despite my criticisms and arguments criticizing these two games, I don’t truly think they are bad games—if they were, then they wouldn’t have gotten popularized on YouTube in the first place. Both games have a well-constructed lore behind them and contributed to the horror game culture in their own unique way. My point is that it’s just a bit unfortunate that their gameplay patterns aren’t constructed in a way that’s able to synergize with the story to truly instill the feeling of horror into their players, which unfortunately holds them back from being truly legendary. The creators can and should still be proud of their creations. This is only one bad aspect out of many, and after all: if it was really a bad game, we wouldn’t have millions of views on them, now would we?

In Part 2, I’ll discuss two other examples of games that I think utilize these devices to great effect, setting a great example of how to design player-interactive yet unpredictable horror games… go check it out in a couple of days!

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