Spooktacular: gaming’s greatest horror moments

It’s the spookiest time of year! Unless you’re reading this feature some time other than October, in which case you’ll have to do a bit of role-play to get into the mood. Anyway, it is the spookiest time of year, so we figured we’d look at some of gaming’s super-spookiest moments, because for all the arguments of what they are and aren’t good at, one thing is certain: games can do horror very well indeed.

But rather than just carry on with our own interminable waffle about the dogs jumping through the windows in Resident Evil, or whatever, we put the questions to some of gaming’s great horror designers to find out their favourite scary moments, and just how it is people can successfully create moments of their own that could well make players totally spook out. To the max.

Seraphim Onishchenko

Role: Narrative Designer, Frogwares
Horror credentials: The Sinking City

The moment: To this day, I still remember meeting the first victims of the sand plague in Pathologic. By this point in the game, the weird and cryptic intros had scrambled my brain on what to expect. The NPCs I’d met in The Town are all extremely odd and eccentric, so I knew something was properly off about the world, but I still didn’t know why. Then examining the house of the Haruspex’s missing father, I heard a horrible moan behind. I turned around and there they were – his patients, victims of the plague, coming slowly towards me.

The plague-stricken world of Pathologic.

The advice: I often think build-up and suspense, along with clues that something horrible is coming, are the ‘secret ingredients’ to making a really impactful horror moment stick. If you get the player in a state where they expect something terrifying but they’re not sure what it is, their mind will frantically start trying to put together the trail of crumbs you’ve left to overcome this. And you can get devilishly creative with these clues. Some are real. Others are for misdirection. A bit of level and audio design tricks here and there, maybe a shadowy creature with a subtly off animation, a slight change in the music etc.

The worst fear is the fear of the unknown, but making the player hyper-aware of the fact that they don’t know what is coming, is all the more terrifying.

Masachika Kawata

Role: Senior producer, Capcom
Horror credentials: Resident Evil series, Dino Crisis series

The moment: The first chapter of the Higurashi When They Cry series was terrifying. It’s a text-based indie adventure developed by a small team, and the quality of its graphics and sound was not particularly outstanding. However, it caused a sensation online because of the story depicting madness in day-to-day life and many intriguing mysteries which are not unravelled in the first chapter. It reached a mass audience later on through various adaptations including an anime, but the first chapter still feels especially scary with its story depicting a breakdown of communication between friends.

From major titles, Dead Space was also impressive with its unique interpretation of aliens and the well-realised isolation of the space environment. Its intensity reminded me of the first Resident Evil. The boldest horror moment was the dismemberment when the player is killed, which showed – instantly – that you were dead. Unfortunately, such dismemberment could not be removed to comply with strict rules set by the Japanese ratings board, which made it impossible to officially release the game in Japan. Still, many Japanese horror game fans did import the game to experience it.

A text adventure packed with terror: Higurashi When They Cry.

The advice: The sequence of ‘unique situation’, ‘unexpected surprise’, and ‘the need for players to escape’ seems to be the key to creating a good horror moment, which I think is the case with the two titles above. Players won’t be afraid of dying as long as they are chilled out, and there won’t be any surprise if they are able to make decisions calmly. That’s why I think it’s important to make extraordinary environments to get rid of the emotional ease and reassurance of players.

Barbara Kciuk

Role: Narrative designer, Bloober Team
Horror credentials: Blair Witch

The moment: Moments such as your first encounter with Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2 or sudden appearances of Scissorman in Clock Tower are still as adrenaline-inducing as ever, but for me, the most memorable was the way Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem messed with the player. The way it crosses the fourth wall in order to scare you – who wouldn’t be terrified if the game suddenly erased all your save files or unplugged your controller in the middle of the fight? It remains both unique and terrifying, even today.

On the brink of madness in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.

The advice: The secret is… that there’s no universal recipe. There are no universal tricks that always work. Creating horror relies heavily on surprising a player – with a well-paced jump scare, eerie atmosphere, sudden change of tone, or some small, seemingly inconsequential detail that just rubs the player (up) the wrong way. As a creator, you must always be one step ahead of the player, and that’s exactly why there’s no easy answer to ‘how’. Always be creative, experiment a lot, and trust your intuition, because if you start following the rules, you’re not going to scare anybody.

Jordan Thomas

Role: Writer / designer, Question
Horror credentials: The Blackout Club,
BioShock 2, Fort Frolic (BioShock), Robbing the Cradle (Thief: Deadly Shadows)

The moment: The one I remember scaring me the most was probably, by most folks’ standards, mundane. In Fatal Frame II, you have a twin sister that you’re exploring a haunted, abandoned Japanese village with. You get used to her tagging along everywhere, and they brilliantly make you scared for her as you would never be for yourself, trying to capture first-person photos of ghosts as they loom up behind her, and she doesn’t see it coming.
But the moment that worked on me was far simpler – at some point, my sister simply wasn’t there with me. I thought, “OK, bad AI,” and started looking for her. I saw her, frozen, through a door frame, looking at something I couldn’t see. It was brilliant. I don’t even remember what it was she was looking at, or if I just misinterpreted something that wasn’t even technically scripted. And honestly – I don’t care. It grabbed my brain stem hard and made a real memory, regardless.

Things that go ‘snap’ in the night: Fatal Frame II.

The advice: In The Blackout Club, we try to build a design vocabulary out of systems that behave predictably, and empower you to start speaking their language. You close your in-game eyes to perceive certain information that the arguably supernatural presences in the game have hidden from you. You play a kid, so your reality is already malleable. In closing your eyes, you shut yourself off to the presence of nearby threats in the material world, but you’re able to see a hulking figure called the Angel who moves around in ways you’d expect an old-school Shadow archetype or slasher villain to do.

Even with the sound cues, it’s often on the floor just above you, seeking you, or even right next to you. It feels like a cinematic scare, but we’re not cheating by manipulating your camera – you’ve got all the tools. Some folks are more scared of seeing their friends harmed, so along the lines of that Fatal Frame moment, they see the Angel right behind a co-op buddy and flip out.

Jon Chey

Role: Programmer / designer, Blue Manchu
Horror credentials: System Shock 2, BioShock, SWAT 4 (yes, really)

The moment: For me, real video game horror comes from losing progress. Demon’s Souls was super-scary because of its incredibly harsh save system. I was also pretty scared when I played through System Shock 2, just after we sent the game off for mastering and saw the level progressing bug that our QA team had just found. That was a traumatising experience that I still haven’t fully recovered from.

Tension through punishing difficulty in Demon’s Souls

The advice: In my opinion, horror and tension are very hard to create successfully and are often confused with gross-out shocks. Tension relies on what you don’t see or can’t know. Once the monster has been revealed, whatever it is, the horror tends to evaporate. That’s a tough problem for video games since you usually end up fighting the monster (and beating it).

I think successfully scary levels introduce the tension gradually and ramp it up over time. If you sense the monster or hear about it but don’t know what it is and can’t see it, your imagination will create something scary for you. The encounter with Steinman in the Medical level of BioShock is a good example. Or if you slowly put together a picture of something terrible based on environmental cues, the effect is stronger than if you’re directly told about it – like in the Fairfax Residence from SWAT 4.

Steve Bristow

Role: Assistant head of design, Rebellion
Horror credentials: Manhunt 2, Zombie Army series

The moment: The telephone call in the school in Silent Hill. I expect that’s a common answer but there’s a reason for that. I was playing it in the dark, on my own like you’re supposed to. The timing, the atmosphere, the jump scare of the phone ringing and then the kid’s voice saying “Daddy?”. Gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. I hadn’t played anything like it before. It felt like real, serious, grown-up horror at the time.

Twenty years on, and Silent Hill’s atmosphere still gives us chills.

The advice: You’ve got to get the player’s full attention; get them immersed in the moment or fully empathising with your character. You want them leaning in. That’s one of the reasons VR is so uniquely powerful for horror. You can literally put your player in the scene where whatever’s going to happen will happen to them, not their character. Audio is crucial and often made more potent by its absence. Then the rest of it is timing and finding a way to tap into the weird things we’ve all got dragging their nails around inside our skulls.

We were looking at a character in Zombie Army 4 and it has an element about its design that gives me the proper creeps… it genuinely makes me uncomfortable to look at because it’s got a long finger like an aye-aye (Madagascan lemur), a creature I find absolutely repellent. I’m intrigued by those odd, personal horrors beyond the common fears we all share. Though in this case, everyone should be scared of aye-ayes – they are just obviously horrible.

Kazunori Kadoi

Role: Director / designer, Capcom
Horror credentials: Resident Evil series, Resident Evil 2 remake (director)
The moment: This is from Capcom games actually, but the scariest moment in recent years that made my heart stand still was in Resident Evil 7 played with VR, the moment when Mia disappeared momentarily and then suddenly appeared near me and grabbed my arm. Since VR enables you to feel that something is really ‘close’ to you, it was a very effective method to make an enemy suddenly appear near players out of their eyesight.

VR terror in Resident Evil 7

The advice: It is a golden rule that you don’t show the feared object first – make players sense its presence only by sound, change of situation etc., and then make it appear at the most effective and unexpected moment. But we need to always question how we can evolve this method by (using) new ideas and technology.

Thomas Grip

Role: Creative director, Frictional Games
Horror credentials: Penumbra series, Amnesia series, Soma

The moment: There are many favourites, but the one that has always stuck with me is the start of Silent Hill (the first one). This is when you lose track of your daughter and enter this spooky alley. The way the tension builds up as the alley just gets creepier and creepier blew me away. The music, the camera angles, and the imagery was something I had never seen before.

Don’t go down there, Harry.

The advice: I think the mistake many make is to just focus on the basic scariness. Rather, I think the most important part is to think about the narrative. So instead of just having a spooky forest, you want to build up a story around it. You want to give the forest some mysterious background and construct a scenario where it makes sense for the player to be there. Player motivation is especially important as that grounds the player to the scene and makes it possible for them to relate to the happenings.

Then you want to have fed just enough information for the player to have their mind running wild on the horrible things they might encounter. Once that is all set up, you can focus on making a spooky forest with creepy sounds and visuals. But if you lack the narrative foundation, the whole scenario will just come off as shallow and not be nearly as frightening as it could be.

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