Ten Player Motives #6
Why do we love horror? It's a question that has provoked a great deal of debate, but the two most important things to understand about the horror motive are that it is about indulging in unpleasant feelings, and that precisely because it's about nasty things, it's not for everyone. Indeed, the absolutely vital point about the horror motive is that if you choose to include it, you're excluding some proportion of your possible audience. Super Mario Chainsaw is not a sensible videogame project to pursue.
The key emotions are fear and disgust, and of the two it is fear that is most important. For the thrill-seeking motive, games trick an ancient part of our brains into responding to the illusion of danger and risk. Fear comes from the same neurobiological roots - the only difference is that we feel the thrill of excitement when we think we are in control while we experience fear when we feel out of control. This is why a great deal of the bag of tricks used by the horror genre involve ambiguity, uncertainty, and surprise (which also play into another motive, curiosity, we'll get to later).
Disgust is an intriguing emotion, because by definition it is unpleasant. However, there is a pleasure to be taken from the end of this experience, and this makes it cathartic. Perhaps more importantly for videogames, disgust is the ketchup to the horror burger: it enhances fear. The boss - by far the most conspicuous attempt to evoke fear in players - becomes even more fearful when it is married with disgust, something that From Software have made excellent use of in the design of their bosses for titles like Dark Souls and Elden Ring.
The vast majority of the play book for the horror motive is taken from film. Although horror stories are as old as humanity, the classic tale of horror plays on a reveal that combines fear and disgust as a payoff. That doesn't work in videogames, which are longer and more repetitive experiences. Film, on the other hand, already developed a set of tools for reliably evoking fear - most notably in the use of the soundtrack. Plucked strings evoke tension, the soundtrack goes silent before a jump scare - there's a wealth that game developers can learn from the movie play book that will work just as well in games.
At the heart of what makes a Silent Hill or Last of Us game work is the application of tricks from Hollywood horror to the videogame format, and audio is a huge part of it. The radio static that tells you monsters are near, or the sirens when worlds collide in Silent Hill - or the ominous insectoid clatter of the Clickers in The Last of Us allow sound design to do most of the heavy lifting. What's more, because audio is cheap, games playing on the horror motive are perfectly suited to low budget development, as Outlast and Five Nights at Freddy's demonstrate. Also, since darkness is ideal for evoking fear, games riffing on the horror motive can get by with less graphical detail - Amnesia made excellent use of darkness, and even made it into a gameplay feature.
Despite the dependence upon film techniques, game designers do have one brilliant trick that they can use to enhance horror: limited supply. This is the true secret to the Resident Evil franchise's genius, and why it was able to found the genre name 'survival horror' (the tagline for the first game was 'Enter the Survival Horror'), despite there being many earlier horror games all the way back to the old 8-bit computers. If the player feels powerful, they will not feel fear. By restricting access to ammunition and healing items - and even more so, their saves - Resident Evil created a design pattern that was unique to games, making limited supply into the raw material of players' darkest nightmares.
Next week: Social