Guest Post: Narrative in Horror Games

Screenshot by Flickr User: psygeist
Screenshot by Flickr User: psygeist

To celebrate October, the contributors of “United We Game” are trading posts all written on the topic of what is scary in video games, a most perfect topic for Halloween, no?  And today, the Duck is sharing with you all a post written by Sam Leung, blogger of “Cheeese Toastie and Video Games”, and her take on the importance of a good story in horror games.  And so I now present “Narrative in Horror Games”.

What? Narrative in horror games? Who needs it? All we really need is a scary atmosphere, some creepy looking monsters and sounds that seem to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once and you’ve got yourself a good horror game right? Well, if you read my guest post on GIMMGP last week, you’ll know that I don’t think it’s that simple. There are many factors that go into making a game scary and of course, it also depends on the personal preferences of the person playing it. The horror genre is perhaps more subjective than most, because the nature of fear and horror is difficult to pin down in many ways. However, although we might not agree on exactly what makes us afraid, I think it’s much easier to explain what generally makes a good horror experience, whether it makes you wish you’d brought a spare pair of pants or not. Narrative is one element in that experience that I think is often overlooked, even though in can sometimes be the most important part of a horror game.

It’s obvious why scary monsters, dim lighting and haunting music makes for a spooky game, but as I mentioned last week many games like Dead Space 3 have shown that’s not enough. It’s not enough to really build terror and dread in a person, which is obviously what most horror games set out to do. That’s where the story comes in. For instance, much as Slender: Eight Pages made me jump at times, it didn’t really give the same lasting sense of fear that the two Amnesia games did and I put this down to Slender’s lack of a story.

Although walking through the woods at night with nothing but a flashlight while hunting for cryptic notes while some mysterious entity tails you is a pretty creepy scenario, it’s also not the kind of thing that’s going to keep me up night thinking ‘but what if I ended up in the woods at night without nothing but a flashlight while hunting’… Anyway, you get my point. Although certain parts of the game made my skin crawl as I wondered whether something was going to pop out at me, I also wouldn’t describe that feeling as lasting terror. It’s not really even that scary after you’ve seen Slendy up close even once. In fact, I’d say the bit that creeped me out the most were those strange notes you find littered around the map and wondering exactly what it is that pale gangly looking man in a suit wants from you. Thin though they might be and even without filling them in completely, those are hints at a background and a motive and are parts of a rather enigmatic story. Filling in those gaps can often be scarier than being told everything in advance. The mystery of the unknown is, after all, a large part of what makes us fearful. However, even though Slender: Eight Pages had some elements of a story, there wasn’t really enough there to really even make us want to guess and that’s a large part of the reason I think it didn’t really Scare me with a capital S.

The Amnesia games on the other hand were on a completely different level for me and I put this down to the fact that they have much deeper stories that really try to engage your brain rather than just throwing scary monsters and scenarios at you. They follow a character who appears to have some sort of amnesia (surprise, surprise), but it’s immediately obvious that they’ve been involved in some pretty dark shit. That mystery and wanting to know propels you forward, through the games’ many corridors, tunnels and stairways and its story is woven into the very fabric of the game – through the many journal entries littered here and there and all the vague hints at what you’ve done. We want to find out more, but at the same time we’re afraid to. Part of the fear comes from what you don’t know about the story, but in both of these games there’s also a growing fear the more you find out about the character and the world as well. Without those stories to drive them on, both games would just have been a series of puzzles and the same enemies over and over.

Not all games need a story of course. There are plenty of platformers that don’t have any semblance of story and they’re still great games. I believe that games are meant to be fun first and foremost and that means that sometimes the enjoyment comes purely from gameplay. In fact, many of my favourite games when I was a kid had no story whatsoever, like Roller Coaster Tycoon or Mario Kart 64. A story wasn’t necessary to my enjoyment of those games. Horror, I would argue, is different. We can see the same thing in horror movies. The most universally frightening movies are often the ones with the darkest and most twisted story lines. Hitchcock’s movies for instance, manage to instil terror with very little gore or obvious violence. Psycho is one of the few movies that have managed to truly traumatise me. The other side of the coin is that there are millions of crappy horror movies with terrible storylines that even a four year old could poke holes in. Of course, many of these movies are probably fun to watch because they’re so bad, but it does go to show that horror can’t be achieved by throwing buckets of blood on something. Real terror has to be built up and the flames lovingly stoked through motives, backstories and scenarios.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that literally every single horror game ever made absolutely has to have a story to be scary. Maybe there’s some game studio out there that can plonk a player down in the middle of nowhere with no backstory or story progression or even hints of the outside world and create a truly terrifying experience. For the vast majority of horror games out there though, it’s the slow unravelling of a story or the mystery of a character’s background that will create the kind of fear that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the game and the ability of good narrative in creating real fear should not for a moment be underestimated.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Narrative in Horror Games

  1. Good article. I don’t play many horror games, but would have to agree that Amnesia holds the trophy in terms of popular opinion as the way to make a frightening experience. I played about half of it with a friend, and stopped when he was physically too frightened by it to continue, and he could not be persuaded to pick it up again. I was more curious about the story, so would have kept playing, and may buy it and do just that.

    Thinking of it that way, perhaps you’re right. Whatever you do for the atmosphere, you need those hooks of narrative to drag you through the darkness.


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