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Comic 375 - How to make a horror game

Posted on Wednesday, the 18th of September at 12:00 AM, 2019 in 2019

Author Notes:

DanVzare Wed, 18. Sep 12:00 AM, 2019 edit delete
So I've recently become a bit of an expert in poorly made indie horror games, and I've noticed some trends among them. So I thought I would compile them here. There's actually a few more trends, but that's all I could fit into six panels. So let me go over each one in turn.

First, the whole "please play this game in a dark room with headphones" thing at the start of a game. People seem to just put that into their game under the false presumption that it instantly makes their game better.
Firstly, don't play games in a dark room. It's bad for your eyes.
Secondly, if you have to play the game in a dark room with headphones for your game to be scary, then it's not scary.
Thirdly, if people are going to play your game in a dark room with headphones, they will. There's absolutely no need to tell them. No one in the entire world has ever read that message and thought "Oh yeah! I need to turn off the light and plug in my headphones."

Next, the flashlights and battery power gimmicks.
99% of indie horror games, seem compelled to give you a flashlight (I'm saying flashlight instead of torch for clarity). The reason being, if it's dark, it's scary. This is actually quite true in video games, because if it's dark, you can't get a good look at the monster or monsters, therefore your imagination can make them scarier. But I tell you, the way most games implement flashlights, is horrible. Rather than have it function like an actual light, it instead just acts as a circular hole in a black overlay, with really bad draw distance.

Next the battery power thing. Anyone who makes their game have limited battery power for their flashlights, are FUCKING IDIOTIC MORONS!!!
Because what happens when you run out of battery power?
In real life, it would be quite scary. But that's because you have you other senses, such as your ability to feel the walls around you.
In a game though, YOU DON'T!
So when you run out of battery power, all that ends up happening, is that you get annoyed because now you literally can't see anything.
Now you might be thinking "Well then, running out of battery power is a game over then." Which I suppose it is. But almost every game that includes limited battery power, fails to include an instant game over when you run out of battery power. (And you usually can't even see the jumpscare from the monster killing you either.)
I get that it's supposed to add tension. But if you really want to add tension, just add a timer that when it runs out, you lose. Trust me, seeing a visible timer tick down, is way more stressful, than an ambiguous battery icon.

Now as for the notes strewn about the place to tell the story. It's a common game trope, and I've got no real problem with it. But please, make sure it makes sense in the context of the story!
Too many games include these notes for "immersive reasons" and then fail completely at including them in an immersive way.
Why would you find notes written by a doctor, detailing his murders, inside the drawer of a random patient, a table in the middle of a dining area, and a Bulletin board in his office?
I know you want to tell a story, but you've got to remember, that games are also a visual medium. You need to remember that you're showing, not just telling.
If you keep that in mind, you should be able to tell a much better story.
It's much more scarier to find a room full of dead bodies and a single doll in the center, than it is to find a note that says there was an experiment with a doll and everyone in the room died.

Next, the red rooms.
Apparently red is scary. And a lot of indie horror games (and horror games in general in fact) have a room that's just illuminated red.
It's odd to say the least. And it's not scary at all. Word of advice though, if you do decide to do it. don't make it bright red. Keep it faint and dark. Nothing's worse than walking around a creepy mansion, and then suddenly ending up in what looks like a brightly lit disco.

And lastly, how the monster is treated.
Indie horror games seem to fall into one of two categories in terms of gameplay. You have the Haunted House games, and the Monster Maze games.

The Haunted House games are basically game-versions of your typical funfair attractions. Generally you have to following a linear path, sometimes backtracking, while a bunch of scary stuff happens around you. Usually jumpscares.
There might be a section or two where a monster is seemingly chasing you, but these sections are usually the same as the rest of the game, but you just have to walk more briskly otherwise risk re-walking that section again. There's almost never any actual threat. Just like in their real-life counterparts.

The Monster Maze games are basically first person Pac-Man clones. You wander around a maze, usually collecting some stuff, while a monster or monsters roam around as well. You have to avoid the monster while doing everything required to reach the exit.

Now neither of these gameplay types are inherently flawed. But the way people tend to handle them, usually is.
The problem with Haunted House games, is that they usually rely on jumpscares. And jumpscares aren't scary. They're startling, but never scary. Knowing a jumpscare could be coming is scary though, which is why they work good as a punishment for failure. Especially if you throw in a random delay for the jumpscare. But you can't use them as your primary way of scaring.
As for Monster Mazes, the primary problem they face is that 9 times out of 10, the idiotic programmer will make the monster or monsters, faster than the player. So as soon as you see it, well it's basically game over. The idea obviously, is to avoid being seen in the first place, but something that people don't seem to have figured out yet, is that to have stealth in your game, you NEED a way to be able to see your enemy without them seeing you. So you can in-turn avoid them. It's this exact reason why most stealth sections in games fail entirely, and it's especially true in crappy indie horror games (I'm looking at you Hello Neighbor).

Before I end this tutorial on how to not make your indie horror game total garbage. Let me add one more thing. Most horror games, are basically just poorly-designed point and click adventure games.
Don't believe me?
People who make point and click adventure games, often talk about how all puzzles in point and click adventure games are key-door puzzles. Basically because you find a key which in turn goes into a door, so you can proceed. Naturally you don't actually use an actual key and an actual door. You have to be more creative, like a bucket of water over a fire.
But believe it or not almost all puzzles in indie horror games are "this door is locked, this other door is locked, you found a key, you unlocked a door, you found another key, you unlock the other door, you find another locked door."
That is all.