The Problem of Modern Horror Game Design

For Halloween, I’ve been going back through my collection of PS2 horror games, which in a way became the golden age of survival horror. Looking back while trying to play modern horror titles, I’ve come to realize why the modern horror market doesn’t work for me, and how it betrays horror design.


The State of Modern Horror

The horror genre as it’s famously known fell out of favor among AAA developers by the end of the last decade. Financial duds such as Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 were among some of the major causes for it, despite the overwhelming popularity of these franchises.

Part of the problem was a greater focus on “action-horror” as opposed to survival horror. Action-horror titles typically are more about combat instead of adventure and puzzle-solving, and oftentimes wore out their welcome before the game was done.

The one major case of going against action-horror from the AAA space was the great Alien Isolation in 2014. When the AAA industry moved away from horror, just like with 2D games, the indie space kept things going.

One of the first major examples was Amnesia the Dark Descent in 2010 by Frictional Games. Frictional’s design team have spoken in the past about removing combat from their games and focusing on the story. They felt that combat removed the terror and dread of playing and got away from the spirit of horror. I’ve spoken and written at length about horror design (and working on a book talking about it) and I disagree with that statement, but we’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

Despite my opinion, action-less horror games became a popular genre for indie developers. Besides Amnesia, notable examples included the slew of Slenderman-inspired games, the Outlast series, and of course: Five Night’s at Freddy’s.

All these horror games had several things in common with each other. Beyond the as-for-mentioned removal of combat, they all had a heavy focus on story and lore. Most noticeably Five Night’s at Freddy’s story has evolved thanks to fan theories and the numerous connections between the various games.

With that said, there is something else that has come from horror games, and it’s the first problem I find with modern horror.

Audience Friendly Horror

Horror is a very hard genre to do properly, and the very best examples — videogame or otherwise — understand psychology. And part of that understanding is about pulling the player into the world and situation of the game.

There’s a lot to unpack with that last statement. This involves creating a detailed world, putting the player in a specific situation, and designing mechanics and gameplay loops that keep the player invested without pulling them out of the horror.


Horror became more bombastic and focused on watching the game as opposed to playing

The difficulty of this kind of design is why modern horror titles just outright ignore it and instead focus on the audience watching as opposed to the people playing it. The indie horror craze exploded thanks to Youtuber and Streamer personalities reacting to these titles — big examples included Pewdiepie and Markplier.

When watching these people play horror games, it’s not about the game itself, but the reaction of the person playing. This has led to a focus on jump scares and aesthetics as opposed to gameplay. Modern horrors titles look pretty, but their gameplay is always lacking. As the person playing, the core gameplay becomes very repetitive and uninteresting in a few minutes, but the game continues to deliver for the audience who gets to see disturbing images and get jump scared.

There’s a sense that the game itself is more interesting to watch than it is to play, and that can be seen with how the game’s progression plays out.

The Set Piece Struggle

One of the biggest problems for me with modern horror — not just in games — has been this focus on set-piece pacing. Both games and movies these days tend to focus only on the big moments; leading to a fragmented kind of pacing.

You can essentially split any horror game into “nonscary” and “scary” sections that are divorced from one another. This has also led to many forced and fixed jump scares that quickly lose their impact. What’s worse is that it makes the entire game feel mechanical: like I’m in a haunted house instead of a horror game.

Recently I played Moons of Madness which IGN remarked as “one of the scariest games we’ve seen,” and the whole game was just an exercise in railroaded design and pacing. At one point being chased by a monster, the monster stopped following me in order to move to the next event trigger.

Watching the first chapter of “It,” there’s a basic structure to the horror, due to it focusing on these set pieces as the focal point. There’s something that’s just “sanitized” about modern horror and games in this regard and how everything becomes an elaborate, choreographed experience feels soulless.

Good horror design is about hiding the “smoke and mirrors” from the player, and we almost had a game do just that in 2017.

Down on the Farm

No one originally expected much out of Resident Evil 7; especially after the failure of RE 6. When teasers started to appear of a slower-paced game, with a new first-person viewpoint, people started to get excited.

While it wasn’t perfect, Resident Evil 7 was the first time since Alien Isolation of a AAA developer returning to the horror genre. The new first-person view, VHS flashbacks, and focus on the Baker family, helped differentiate the game from previous entries.

Most importantly, the focus was on the player’s experience instead of the audience. Playing through on Madhouse difficulty required an understanding of resource management and dealing with enhanced enemies; something missing from horror games for some time.

Even though Resident Evil 2 remake did review better, I felt that it returned to the series’ switch to action-horror design. Lately, I had a chance to play Silent Hill 2 again, which both made me sad about Silent Hills and thinking about what it did right for the horror genre.

King of the (Silent) Hill

When we talk about the survival horror franchise, Silent Hill was considered one of the top examples with the second game. The universe of Silent Hill has always given us a rich background of stories to tell, despite the developer’s tendency to not focus on it in later entries. A town that shifts and transforms based on the perception and personality of the person there.

Silent Hill 2 may not have had an alpha protagonist (pyramid head did not actively chase the player), but the structure was one of the best of the genre. The player never was fully out of danger, as wandering the town presented enemies, and then you had the claustrophobic nature of the major buildings.

There was a different sense of pacing in Silent Hill 2 compared to other horror games. Instead of trying to escape or save the day, you were there to solve a mystery that continued to get deeper the further the player went. We would see a similar style (but not as strong of a mystery) with Alan Wake.

Reviving Horror

There is a lot to talk about in terms of what makes horror work, and why I’m basing my third book on the topic. At the heart (no pun intended) of the situation, it’s about once again bringing a focus to the person playing the game as opposed to the people watching.

That means having gameplay that is interesting, while keeping the player on their toes with the situation at hand. Games that introduce random encounters or have an active presence on the field are important elements to consider.


Resident Evil 7 brought the series closer to survival horror than it has been in a long time

I also want to talk a little about combat and going back to Frictional Game’s stance. Over the week before Halloween, I went back and played classic, and not so classic horror games. A big part about how they held up came down to how they handled the combat side of things.

There is a lot to unpack that I’m going to turn into another piece, but I do feel that Frictional was wrong in saying that combat in of itself removes horror.

There must be controllable conflict between the player and the enemies, without it, the game loses its bite (no pun intended).

What’s Next

With both Resident Evil 2 and 7, we have begun to see a small revival in horror among the AAA market, and most noticeably, moving away from the design seen in the indie space. What that means for horror remains to be seen.  There have been rumors about seeing a remake of Resident Evil 3, but Capcom is currently focusing on a multiplayer take on the franchise.

Whatever the case may be, if developers want to see horror continue as a genre, then there must be more to it than just hiding from overly choreographed enemies.