Why Horror Is the Hardest Game Genre

Scaring the design out of you

Why Horror Is the Hardest Game Genre
Source: Author.

This year I was all set to play the latest crop of indie (and AAA) horror games for Halloween, except this time I didn’t find a lot of games as compared to last year. Horror is a genre that has come a long way, with a lot of thanks to the indie space for it, but it’s also one that is deceptively difficult to do right…no matter how many quick cuts and jump scares you put into it.

The Tone of Terror

Horror is a genre built on aesthetics and theme but not so much on mechanics. You can make any kind of gameplay and concept into a horror game, and we’ve seen that from the indie space. However, there is a difference between saying your game is horror and making an experience that truly is a horror game. Just because your game features monsters, the dark, and even the fear of dying, does not immediately make it an example of horror.

Horror is about understanding the pacing and structure that goes with keeping someone uneasy, and knowing when to release that tension. Too many indie horror games have all the build-up, and none of the release, or it’s just jumpscare after jumpscare to the point that the game feels like a haunted house.

The player needs to feel like they are both in control and completely out of control of the situation. For example, if you have a game where things are spooky and the player doesn’t have a weapon or any means of fighting back, then that means either nothing dangerous is going to happen, or the game is just going to hit you with jump scares. This is why having a weapon in a horror game does the opposite of having one in an action game — the player knows that they are expected to fight back, but can they?

This also provides an easy way of releasing tension, when the player turns a corner and spots some giant thing who makes their gun look like a peashooter. There must be an ebb and flow to the gameplay if you want your horror to work, and that means knowing when to push things further and when to dial back. Another trend of lesser horror games is that there is no pushback — it’s just a constant build and escalation of horror; a popular tactic in short-form horror that I’ll talk about further along. But with that, I want to talk about the three trends of which I’m not a fan.

Darkest Difficulty

Horror and darkness go together like a very evil peanut butter and jelly sandwich ; the fear of the unknown and knowing that this dark room you are in could be hiding literally anything is a powerful scare tactic. But the problem that I have is when darkness is not used as a form of horror, but to make a game more frustrating and difficult to play.

Source: Author.

Stop me if you’ve seen this in an indie horror game — you must use a light source that barely shows more than 3 feet in front of you, it can only be refilled by using consumable items, and despite its necessity, takes up one of your precious and limited inventory slots.

The dynamic is a simple one — do you brave the dark with more inventory or use up your space so that you can see? My problem with that binary is it gets in the way of scaring the player if they can’t see what’s going on. Games like Outlast, which featured a night vision mode, were still very hard to see what was going on at times. Having a limited resource also punishes players for taking their time and exploring, as every second ticks away their ability to see.

When I can’t even make out where I am or see what’s going on, all the tension turns into frustration at the game. To make things worse, I get bad headaches and migraines and one of the triggers for them is playing a game with poor or low lighting;  I cannot play any videogames in a dark room and will always raise the brightness a bit more than other people.

If you want the player to fight in the dark, at least provide them with adequate lighting. If I must choose between not having a migraine or playing your game, I’m going to go with the former.

Very Hard Horror

The likes of Five Nights at Freddy's (FNAF), Outlast, and Puppet Combo also became part of a trend of making horror games hard, and I mean, really hard. There have been many horror games that put the player into a position with an enemy who can one-shot the player, see and hear them from a mile away, and the player can’t do a thing about it. From a gameplay point of view, the player must stumble around to try and figure out any items or solutions with zero guidance or onboarding on the game’s part.

Some people will comment and say that hard is good because it makes the game challenging, but this is the wrong kind of difficulty. The games that I mentioned above are in actuality very easy to play — people have done speed runs, and highest-difficulty challenges, and have utterly crushed them in one way or another. The reason is that the difficulty is not in the gameplay but in the obscuring of the mechanics and rules.

Horror games are only played two ways. Source: Author.

As I said in my review of Amnesia: The Bunker, it’s a hard game until you figure out what the game wants you to do, and what the game wants is for you to handle the different threats and explore them in a specific manner. Once you understand that, and the behavior of the beast, then it just becomes a matter of applying that understanding.

Truth be told, every horror game in existence has two forms of playing it: 

  1. The player is constantly paranoid and saving every bullet and resource while never knowing what’s going to happen.
  2. The player runs through the game going for the best possible rating and laughing in the face of any danger.

This gets at a greater problem that horror games have with providing replayable scares, but I don’t have the space here to ramble on about that.

With the difficulty of these games, the issue is that the harder a game is to play, the more restrictive it becomes to win. The people who have broken these games that I mentioned above did it by figuring out the most optimal and mechanical way of playing to the point that it trivialized the game. I’ve watched Markiplier do his max difficulty attempts at the various FNAF titles, and each one becomes an exercise in repeating the same tasks the same way in the same order until time runs out.

To me, part of good horror is having to make lemons out of lemonade — yes, you’re gun is powerful and great, but what do you do when you only have 2 rounds left? This was, in a surprising twist, one of the aspects I liked about Amnesia: The Bunker, in that the player not only had different options open to them but there was an actual fight or flight element involved.

Microscopic Horror

One trend in horror that, while I’m not a huge fan, I still respect is the use of “micro horror.” Thanks to RPGmaker and the power of many public engines, it has given horror designers the ability to make short-form horror games. These titles can last 30 minutes, or they could last about 5. The idea is that you are playing a short story — something that is often very linear, or very unique in its gameplay, and once it’s over then it is completely finished and shelved.

FNAF has been the blueprint for a lot of indie horror games over the year. Source: Author.

Part of the popularity of the Dread X collections was about giving designers the ability to make short-form horror that literally could have been anything. Sometimes this turns out bad, sometimes good, and sometimes there could be a bigger idea waiting to be explored. The advantage of short-form games is that they provide a testbed for a concept to see if it’s worth expanding upon.

The issue I have with micro horror is that in a way it has become an assembly line process — the player walks around somewhere spooky, there are maybe one or two jumpscares in between, the player is attacked or sees the big bad, the game is over. This has also led to the negative view of episodic horror games that feel like they’re mass-produced to try and be the next FNAF or Bendy and the Ink Machine.

Just as you can ruin horror by making something too long, you can do the same if your concept isn’t given enough room to breathe.

With the episodic structure, the risk is that it can lead to inconsistency between the chapters, and you do not want to go into an episodic game under the assumption that each episode will provide funding for the subsequent one.

Game Dev Scares

Making a horror game that works is very difficult to do, and it’s also a genre that has become flooded with all manner of games trying to be the next FNAF, Outlast, and so on. Despite so many examples of games in space, I’m having a hard time spotting new games that don’t fall prey to one of the three issues I’ve talked about in this article.

Can you think of good horror games that managed to avoid these traps? Let me know in the comments below.

For more on horror design, check out my Deep Dive on Horror Games. If you enjoy my work and would like to support me, you can check out my Patreon. I’m also available to do consulting work. And if you enjoyed this story, consider joining the Game-Wisdom Discord channel. It’s open to everyone.


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