your horror game isn’t as scary as the classics. why is that? (you are capable of writing better horror stories, part 2)

Doc Burford
30 min readApr 29, 2024
alan wake 2. all screenshots taken by me unless otherwise noted

Elaine is having a nice cup of tea on her porch when she looks up to see her brother, Arthur, dashing towards her. Something in the distance is behind him. Elaine raises a hand to her forehead, shading her eyes, trying to get a better look. No, can’t quite — wait. Is that… oh no.

How many horror stories have you seen with a sequence like this?

Now, on its own, the sequence isn’t powerful, but if we think about it long enough, we can probably come up with a few examples, both good and bad, and if this was a regular essay of mine, we’d start talking about how no individual sequence is powerful on its own — its the buildup to the sequence that matters.

If you place a sequence like this as the start of a story — perhaps the thing chasing Arthur is a man with half his face torn off, screaming — then that’s a real shocker that could lead into something interesting, if you execute it right. Pretty sure there’s a sequence with graboids in the Tremors movies that turns this into comedy.

For beginners, story building blocks like these can be a pretty handy way to get started. You take something you’ve seen before, slot it into place, and blam! You’ve got a bit of a story structure going on. That’s all well and good, though the best stories are going to come from you understanding the logic behind the building blocks and custom designing your own building blocks to construct a story.

alan wake 2

Why Horror?

Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry, right? They have a life to live, and they’re not that concerned with Allen Ginsberg’s poems or anybody’s poems! Until… Their father dies, they go to a funeral, you lose a child, somebody breaks your heart, they don’t love you anymore. And all of a sudden, you’re desperate for making sense out of this life. “Has anybody ever felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud?”

Or the inverse — something great. You meeet somebody and your heart explodes! You love them so much you can’t even see straight! You know, you’re dizzy! “Did anybody feel like this before? What is happening to me?” And that’s when art’s not a luxury, it’s a sustenance. You need it.

The actor Ethan Hawke was giving some kind of talk and said this, and I happened to catch someone posting screencaps on twitter, and it matched with what I’ve been planning to say, so I thought it’d be a great way to start this article.

Art is emotional sustenance. It is not an optional part of human existence, it is a mandatory function of human life, like living or breathing. We have been making art longer than we have recorded history. Why?

You might think that art’s purpose is to be instructional — that’s not entirely correct. While art can be used to instruct children — indeed, those classic fables about chivalric behavior were written by Marie De France, an author who is credited with popularizing the chivalric romance genre (Le Morte d’Arthur, Parzival, and so on). I recall reading at one point that the reason Marie De France wrote these stories was in part to instruct young men on how women ought to be treated. So instructional stories are certainly part of a long and storied (hah) tradition, but they aren’t what stories are.

nothing is scarier than kale. this is ring fit adventure

It is easy to think of a narrative as the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Tell a story about a tortoise winning a race against a hare, and people think “ah, yes, I see the point of stories.”

But that’s not what stories really are. Hawke, above, suggests that stories are sustenance, and perhaps they are, but I’d like to get a bit more specific: stories are emotional roughage, that component of your life’s diet of emotional experiences that helps you digest the rest of your life.

Instructional stories are base level narratives. They’re the simplest ones, used to speak to people who do not have a life experience, or who need help understanding the world around them. As you grow up, we could simply say “this scenario is like a previous scenario you have already encountered in your life,” but we don’t do that, because stories still fill a need beyond “hey, this might help you understand something.”

What is that need? Easy: emotional processing.

Ideas are the surface level of human experience. We feel something, we translate that into a thought, which is then translated into language. Language is a shared system of ideas that allow us to take those emotions-that-are-now-thoughts and turn them into something other people can understand. But it all starts at feelings.

When someone feels uneasy, they say “I feel uneasy,” right? They don’t speak independent of the feeling — the feeling drives the thought. There are no thoughts, no ideas, without feelings first. When someone dies, you feel sad, and when you try to talk about feeling sad, you put it into words. Feelings first.

In fact, you can tell humans operate feelings first, because we’ve done the brain scans. The experiments work like this: we can see when the human brain fires neurons in response to various stimuli, and we can see when the human thinks about the stimulus. We know the human thought comes after the response.

Some humans, the backwards, un-self-aware ones who think thoughts must come before feelings, think this means humans are predetermined to react one way or the other, but there’s a simpler explanation: humans feel and react to feeling before translating these feelings to thought layer. Feelings are a layer of human function somewhere between physical response and intellectual response, and they’re a foundational component of healthy human function.

(You will notice how people who claim to be objective are the easiest to anger — it’s because they’re actually very feeling-heavy people who refuse to acknowledge their feelings, because they believe that running on pure intellect makes you smarter than someone who runs on feelings, missing the entire point of Star Trek, which is that Spock was wrong. Hot, yes, but wrong.)

alan wake 2

So, when you give someone a story that deals with the feelings every human experiences, you’re going to be able to process the things that you’re holding deep within you, things your conscious intellect doesn’t even know are there. If your feelings aren’t getting enough roughage, then you, as a human being, will be malnourished. You will not be able to function.

We’ve seen this work in a variety of ways, like exposure therapy, a type of treatment used to help people safely deprogram their fear response. It’s tapping into something that’s closer to the real you than your thoughts, right?

You ever do something and you don’t know why you do it, and you say “I guess I’m just like this?” That’s the feeling layer of human existence. There’s a reason you act the way you act, you just might not be intellectually aware of that, and that’s okay. A human doesn’t need to manually control all of their bodily functions any more than they might need to manually understand the inner workings of their feelings. It helps to understand enough of it, but not all.

Some people believe that your feelings must, then, be directly matched to the circumstances in the fiction; that is, they think a story about murder only affects people who have dealt, specifically, with murder. But that’s not really the case. The events in the story are not the feelings; you can still feel grief that someone has died, even if you haven’t experienced that specific kind of grief.

When I wrote Adios, I was writing about leaving a bad situation that was hurting me. When Farmer dies, I was not writing about dying, I was writing about what it felt like — the fear and uncertainty — to face what I was facing. What would happen if I took this leap? I steeled myself for death. It’s turned out a lot better for me than it did for Farmer.

This means that a story does not need to be realistic. You can tell a story about a person who is literally indestructible and still make the human feelings true; we know grief and pain and loss and love and happiness and joy and anger and terror and uncertainty and satisfaction and humor and all the other feelings that humans experience. The story can do whatever is necessary to get those feelings across, and arguably, by fudging reality more and making it less real, we can actually make stories that are concentrated, more potent.

The audience gets to deal with what they’re feeling, we get to be entertaining, it’s a win win!

So why horror? Easy: because horror is a genre that’s about emotion. You know when you’re telling a horror story that you’ve got to scare the audience. That’s the basic, fundamental tenet of it all. I’ve seen people write science fiction stories where they forget about the audience entirely, fantasy stories that get mired in worldbuilding. The feelings get lost.

In horror, it’s pretty easy to keep the feelings in sight, so this is a great place to get started if you want to learn how to tell a story.

alan wake 2

We write horror not because we enjoy watching bad things happen, but because we enjoy getting past the bad things in our own lives. We get a little spooked, a little scared, and we become more resilient against the things that harm us. There’s a reason why horror communities, like metal communities, are immensely resilient in ways that wholesome communities are not. The community built around learning to deal with difficulty will always be stronger than the community that tries to avoid it.

So, basically, horror is a great place for beginners to learn. It’s why I started there. Humans are, for whatever reason, attracted to negative things; look at how things like crime are actually down across the board, we’re safer than we’ve ever been, and the response from the Republican establishment is to pretend things are bad. Why? Not because their fears are true — but because things are good and they need to worry about something. If they’d fill that need another way, process their fears another way, they wouldn’t be nearly as screwed up as they are now.

Okay, I say “for whatever reason,” but the leading theory in human psychology is that humans are survival-oriented creatures, and our brains reward us for being alert to things that are bad in order to allow us to protect ourselves.

If you know about taking care of animals, you know it’s crucial that animals be provided with enrichment, or they get depressed. Well, humans are animals too, right? We’re all mammals. Turns out we need enrichment too, and horror can provide us with enrichment to our own self-preservation instincts, in the same way playing with a laser and a cat will help enrich its hunting instincts. It’s good enrichment for our brains. Horror can help us avoid becoming depressed (which is why misery porn horror doesn’t work as well as cathartic horror).

For you, whether you’re a beginner or a pro who just wants to do some warmup exercises, horror has another benefit, beyond being anchored in feeling. Horror is all about setup and payoff.

Over the years, a lot of people have said “I don’t like jump scares” (why? it’s because they’re startling, not scary) and then say something really fucking stupid, like “yeah, what I like is more… the slow, tense buildup kind of horror.” That’s not horror. That’s terror. You’re describing terror.

A while back, when I did an essay about why horror is better with guns, some YouTube drama nobody with a billion subs said my video was dumb and mocked it. In the end, of the two of us, I’m the only one with horror game credits to my name, and he isn’t.

The reason he thought it was dumb is because he held this very mistaken belief that there are different kinds of horror, rather than a specific process. If he’d read… literally anyone, from Stephen King to the academics who discuss this stuff full time, he’d learn the same basic lesson.

alan wake 2. dude, where’s your face?

So he heard “horror is setup and payoff” and he got mad, because he was one of those people from that era of “youtubers mugging for the camera and looking scared” and the popular wisdom at the time was “you should just walk around getting creeped out.”

None of those games have lasted. We’ll talk more about this later, but even the best games from that era… didn’t last. They might be popular, but look at what their developers are doing now: they’re all making horror games with a lot more mechanics than just “walk around being spooked by creepy stuff.”

A joke has setup and punchline. You can’t just shout the punchline and call it a joke, right? Likewise, all horror is both terror (the setup) and horror (the punchline). A lot of people, whether they’re attempting to rationalize a low budget (which is why they don’t show the monster) or because they sincerely (but incorrectly) believe that terror is all you need, end up making horror stories that don’t do anything meaningful.

They look at some of their favorite works, they remember the terror, and they go “yeah, that’s real horror.” Some of them try to intellectualize it, try to make it art, call it “elevated horror” because a lot of schlocky horror exists, but the actual horror creatives don’t do this shit. Only amateurs with a desire to be famous for making horror do. It’s why John Carpenter doesn’t even recognize it as a meaningful term, instead saying that it’s the director’s job to make the story scary. That’s what actually matters.

When you turn horror into an intellectual process — try to decode the themes and then give the themes an intellectual meaning — because you went to college and that’s what they wanted you to do in writing 101 classes, you are reducing the iceberg to what you can see above the water. That’s not what’s scary, and, in fact, reducing the horror to an intellectual metaphor robs it of its power — the power to help you deal with this shit. Don’t intellectualize it! You’ll miss the point!

Yes, I know, you’ve seen some YouTube videos that try to apply Western Catholic Guilt stories to one specific ending of Silent Hill 2 (the “In Water” ending), but it’s worth noting that every single Silent Hill game made by Westerners was about guilt and nobody liked them all that much. Why? Because guilt isn’t fucking interesting. Guilt isn’t even why James Sunderland went to Silent Hill in the first place! You’re missing the point.

Silent Hill 2 wasn’t trying to be intellectual like that, and as a result, it worked. All the imitators — which, as you may realize, are way less famous than Silent Hill 2, just focus on the guilt bit, and, wouldn’t you know it? Nobody fucking cares.

So that’s part one.

Horror is about our feelings, and we must keep those feelings first and foremost. The more you intellectualize it and try to turn it into a lesson, the more fake that horror will feel. If you just make it all about dread (I was looking through my logs the other day. One of the first things I set out for a horror project I worked on years ago was ‘it needs to be about dread first’) and terror with no payoff.

I’m a pretty smart guy, which is to say that I can intellectualize this stuff no problem. I’m a step beyond a lot of people in this field because I don’t just consume horror, I study human psychology and motivation. That means that yes, like all of you, I can make complex and intricate metaphors, which is all well and good, but those things don’t work nearly as well as crafting something that burrows its way into your brain and you can’t stop thinking about it, even months or years after you experienced it.

This isn’t to toot my own horn, but to say “hey. I can do the stuff a lot of beginners talk about. That’s the first step. To make truly good horror, you need to go past that.”

okay this alan wake 2 caption was too perfect not to post here

The best horror is not intellectual. The best horror is not trying to convey a message. The best horror lets you process the horrors in your own life, so making it a specific, coded message about something robs your story of the ability to be scary.

So, yes. Let’s say you want to make a horror game. Step one: focus on the feelings, don’t intellectualize it too much, and for fuck’s sake, don’t make it about guilt. You can read more about that — and a horror game I’d like to make — in my essay “You Are Capable of Writing Better Horror Stories.”

But here are some additional tips that will help you write a better horror story.

Bad Horror Developers Love To Say…

I’m not a big fan of writing “I’ve been a gamer for a long time,” because, like, hey, most people reading these articles are people who have played video games. It is becoming part of normal life, just like reading books (which was once shunned by people as leading the youths astray), comics (which was once shunned by people as leading the youths astray), music (which was once shunned by people as leading the youths astray), radio, (which was once shunned by people as leading the youths astray), and movies (which was once shunned by people as leading the youths astray).

It’s normal. You’re normal. Whatever.

But I do remember one of the earliest conversations I ever had about horror, which went like this:

Person 1: “I don’t love that series. Hate the controls.”
Person 2: “But the controls are what make the game scary!”

You’ve probably heard this over the years, but… it’s not really true. Someone made a game, someone else thought the game was pretty scary, and the game had bad controls. Since the game was scary, the person made one of the biggest mistakes you can ever make when analyzing something: they believed every component contributed to the project’s success.

Imagine someone looking at a paper with a score of 90 and deciding to copy everything in the paper, even the parts of the paper that prevented it from getting a perfect grade. It results in a kind of decay, like saving a jpg over and over again. An unfortunate mistake becomes a cornerstone of the genre, and the genre never gets to realize its full potential.

I have recurring nightmares where I can barely move, and when I do, I tend to fall over or otherwise be extremely clumsy. These dreams are scary, and in the dream, I’m scared in part because I can’t move, but, like, that’s just night terror shit, dude. It doesn’t translate well to a game, because in a game, you’re pressing buttons and expecting the game to do certain things. If the game doesn’t do those things, what are you thinking about? Are you thinking about how scared you are?

…or are you frustrated with the experience?

To truly engross the player in an experience, I think you want to cut back on the controls, in the same way a horror game would be way less scary if it had Battleborn’s user interface.

hahaha! a friend had it because I sent it to him! there’s way too much shit on screen in battleborn!

I’m not the biggest fan in the world of fully diegetic user interfaces; I think you do need to provide the player with some level of user interface simply to deal with the abstractions between a human body and a game, but in horror, the less interface, generally speaking, the better. This is one of the reasons why Dead Space’s UI feels as good as it does; it tries to blur the line between ‘experience your brain believes you are having’ and ‘the reality that you’re safely at your desk pressing buttons on your keyboard.’

When a game reminds you that it’s a game, if it’s a very feelings-focused game, then reminding you of the fact that it isn’t real can pull you out of the experience, right? That’s why people do what they can to minimize their user interface, especially in horror games, where maximalist interfaces are great for, say, grand strategy games.

The same is true of controls: the more you have to think about button inputs, like, say, pulling off a specific string of button presses in short order while a monster is running towards you — the more acutely aware you are that this is a game and it is not really happening.

But if you can remove the mental headroom required for the player to play the game — that is, get them thinking about where they are going and what they are doing rather than fighting the game to move — you can trim away the barrier between the player and the feelings. That’s good. We want that.

So give your horror game good controls.

Okay, what are good controls? Well, let me put it like this: when I say “a game needs good AI,” I mean AI that makes the game more interesting and more fun. A lot of people think “good AI” means “AI that can kick my ass.” That’s smart AI, but it isn’t necessarily good AI, you know? An AI that just instantly beats you just feels like it’s cheating. Good AI is designed for the purpose of making the game experience worthwhile. It contributes to the quality of the time the player spends in the game. It doesn’t simply trounce the player because it’s super ultra genius smart.

The same is true of controls; good controls are controls that are built for a specific purpose. In a fighting game, you’re gonna want to memorize button combos and stuff. In a horror game, it would be better if the controls were as invisible as possible. You think about moving forward, and the game responds. You aren’t constantly going “shit, what button did I need to press?” or “ugh, why isn’t this person positioned how I want? I push left on the stick and they run in a little circle 350 degrees to the right, which gets them where I wanted, but that weird little circle makes no sense.”

(this happened to me in Red Dead Redemption because of how weird that character controller is. sure, it looks nice, but it feels like ass)

Every great horror game you’ve ever played either has great controls (Resident Evil 2 Remake, Dead Space, Alien: Isolation) or it is great despite its controls (for instance, many people prefer Resident Evil 4’s Wii control setup to its original made-for-Gamecube controls, and I quite like the remake with mouse and keyboard).

alan wake 2. this is one of the darkest scenes in the game lmao

Great controls don’t turn the player into John Wick, and if your game is only scary because players are frustrated by your controls, then… you probably didn’t focus on the actual scary parts nearly enough. The player, focusing on fighting the controls, won’t be focused on the parts of your game that are actually scary.

I was playing a game the other day that wasn’t scary at all, in part because any time you got on the radio, your character would slow down. Gears of War did that on the Xbox 360 to help stream in parts of the level. This game had loading screens and definitely wasn’t slowing the player down to disguise loading. They were doing it because other game did it, even if they didn’t know why. I was frustrated, not afraid.

Plus, I knew that they wouldn’t let a monster attack me while my character was forcibly moving slowly. It meant I was safe. Not scary at all.

alan wake 2

It’s Dark… Too Dark…

Another common mistake people make, particularly in 3D games, is that their games are way, way, way too dark.

It makes sense, if you haven’t spent any time thinking about it. People are scared of the dark, right? I mean, heck, there’s a game literally called “Alone in the Dark!” That might give you the impression that darkness is good.

What’s good is uncertainty.

In a game, particularly a 3D game where the player needs to understand their space relative to every other space in the game, a dark level with a bad flashlight is terrible horror design. Why? Because the player can’t figure out where they are in a space.

I want you to go back to every horror game you’ve ever loved. I mean the absolute best of the best. Are they pitch black with super narrow cones of light? Almost never, and when they are, players tend to agree those sections are the worst in the game.

Darkness can create mood, but that doesn’t mean it’s a requirement. Look at how the Alan Wake 2 screenshots I’ve been posting, while dark, have flashlights that illuminate the player’s surroundings, and how there are plenty of light sources in the environment. The darkness isn’t so dark that you can’t see anything.

i really did love alan wake 2, man

Rarely do you get too confused when playing the game; Alan Wake 2 has fantastic level design throughout, and it uses plenty of lighting to make that possible.

The shadows can create creepiness, but they aren’t what makes the horror good, you know? And, just like bad controls, if your game is too dark, all pitch black, with no sense of actual art direction or color, then most players are gonna feel like the game just kinda sucks.

Is fumbling around in the dark interesting? No! Of course not, and why would it be?

Think about our example at the very start of this essay: in scenes like that, we aren’t scared until we realize what is chasing Arthur, right? How can you be scared if you don’t know what’s out there? It’s only when you understand what’s out there and have a sense of what it’s doing that you’re gonna start to feel afraid.

It’s looking around at a lot of shadows (which must be cast by light, otherwise it’s just darkness) and wondering where the monster is hiding that’s scary. It’s seeing the light that you’re hoping to get to in order to feel safe that creates the desperate mad dash to the light source, right?

The darkness doesn’t make you scared, the uncertainty does. And you can’t be uncertain unless you have things to consider. With a total lack of information, there’s no way to form an opinion. But once you have bits and pieces — it takes three bullets to kill this zombie, and I have six bullets, and there are two zombies in the room, so I can’t miss a single shot — you start getting uncertain, because now you’re wondering if you can actually succeed.

So yes, sometimes, showing the player the monster makes the player way more worried — because now they have a lot to think about — than just having the monster making a lot of off screen noises and hoping the spooky factor alone will be enough to make the player uneasy.

If Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth never deviated from that opening, where you walk around with NPCs who look kinda odd eyeing you strangely, you’d feel unease, but nothing more than that.

It’s a game, which means you, the player, need to act. For you to act, you have to have things to act upon. Therefore, giving the player some information means giving them enough to wonder about things without giving them all the answers. Know nothing? There’s nothing to be afraid of except a jump scare. Foregone conclusion? You’ve gone too far. Knowing something’s going to happen and being unsure how it’s gonna go down? That’s the sweet spot.

Can’t be worried about something if you’re unaware there’s something to be worried about, you know?

So, yeah. If you’re making a horror game, and you’re going “man, those classics that I love are too bright, I should make this darker” just know that every shitty horror game you’ve ever played has done this already, and it’s part of why they suck. The ability to see the environment and navigate it is far more important than anything else; a confused and frustrated player is an unwilling player. They’re gonna get taken out of the experience.

Uncertainty is scary, and you can’t be uncertain unless you have INFORMATION WITH WHICH TO BE UNCERTAIN ABOUT. It’s not scary to not know something, it’s scary to know you don’t know where the monster is lurking.

Confusion is not uncertainty. Confusion does nothing other than get the audience to mentally check out. Uncertainty, in contrast, is getting the player to THINK. ABOUT. THE. SITUATION.

alan wake 2

An uncertain player makes decisions based on partial information. A confused player is asking what any of this means and why they should even care. So when it comes to light, you don’t want a light cone so bad that the player can get a sense of space. You want a really good light cone that lets the player position themselves well enough in space… and then you want level design that obscures where things might be.

A player creeping through a graveyard with big gravestones that monsters could hide behind is gonna be more scared by that than they are by having a dinky little flashlight that doesn’t know anything. You can create a better scare by putting a bend in a hallway and making sounds come from around the bend than you can by walking into the umpteenth room where you’re fumbling around wishing there was a light switch.

“What might happen if I…?” will lead to good scares. “I can’t see shit, cap’n,” ain’t doing anything to you.

alan wake 2

Information Control

The other thing people love doing is writing cryptic shit. Look at me, I love cryptic shit. I love people talking naturally, which means I’ll have people say things that you, the audience, may not fully understand in the moment. Maybe something will dawn on you later, right? But right here, right now, in the moment, if I want to have a character say cryptic shit, I need it to land.

I know people who go “well, the characters might not tell you this information because they don’t want to,” and that’s good, because good character writing means the characters must act as you’d expect them to act.

But beyond that, the audience is sitting there, in the room, playing your game or watching your movie or reading your book, and if your cryptic shit is just like “…he… has finally awoken!” you’re… not really saying much. And you actually should.

The point of cryptic information is not to simply foreshadow the future, nor is it to confuse the player. I cannot begin to tell you how many genuinely awful horror games I’ve played in the indie space where the player character angrily asks “just what the hell is going on?” Like… yeah, we want the player to ask that question, but not angrily, we want them to ask it in a way that makes them go “well, I want to find out, so…”

When Alan Wake 2 is cryptic, it’s often interesting. The clues you get give you a little more forward momentum. Each one develops your understanding as a player.

I guarantee you that every bad horror game you’ve ever played has a bunch of cryptic bullshit that you’ve forgotten because it was kinda lame, just foreshadowing what would come later. It didn’t actually motivate you to move on, so you didn’t really think about it.

But when that cryptic shit gets you asking questions — when it is, again, partial information delivery — just like adequate amounts of lighting in a horror game, that’s when it’s good stuff. So when you do cryptic foreshadowing, you want to have an immediate, impactful effect. The cryptic shit should influence player curiosity, working as a motivator to drive the player forward.

Don’t treat it like most bad players do, which is more in line with a commercial showing you snippets from later in a television show season. Treat it like a little nugget that spices up the exact moment the player is in right now, that gets the player interested in what you’re doing next.

Have a character be like “how’s your friend?” and you go “what friend?” and the guy goes “you know, the guy who’s been following you this entire journey.” That’s the kinda shit that’s gonna weird you out when you know nobody’s been following you, right? Now it’s like… wait… something’s following me? Oh no!

don’t just sit there and wait

Cryptic is fine, but it must have an effect, or you’re just saying random nonsense and expecting the player to get it. We have tons of foreshadowing in our current game, but all of it fits into the conversations naturally; our readers enjoy the conversations, then they realize in hindsight what we were doing, and it blows their fucking minds.

So, maybe you have a guy die, but in his final moments, he flips a switch and a countdown starts. You don’t know what the countdown does. That’s okay, because this guy was your enemy and he’s absolutely here to fuck up your day. Time to run, even if you don’t know why you’re running.

In something immediate like that, you would want to start layering on complications — maybe a symbol you’ve seen throughout the game lights up on some monitor, tying the countdown to that symbol, and since you’ve seen that symbol before, and it’s always in bad places, you know something fucked up is gonna happen.

Obviously this is a very simple example, but it’s 8:21 PM on a Sunday and I’m tired and I don’t want to give away the shit that I’m actively working on right now, so I’m coming up with silly examples. You get the point, right?

You, the author, are trying to get someone who is not you, the audience, someone on the other end of the story, to have an emotional reaction. You do that by providing them with information to chew on, but not so much that they know everything. “A mysterious guy has a package and we need to pick it up — damn, that’s a lot of dead guys around” isn’t interesting on its own accord. Something has to happen to make things interesting.

So, “hey, you were hanging out in your car waiting for your friend to get off work when you heard screaming. You got spooked, you hid, and something walked past your car…” well, now you got something to be spooked about, because you heard it. When it was gone, you got out of your car and went to find your friend, and everyone was dead, ripped apart by inhuman force… well, now we got something.

“What was that?” is what you’re feeling now.

The player needs clues. A mystery without clues is boring. A horror story without clues isn’t scary. The audience has to have something to wonder about… to worry about.

btw i didn’t talk about it in this essay but honestly there’s an entire sequence where we could talk about how important it is to have a variety of emotions in a horror game and you can’t just have Terror and Horror. You need humor and shit too for it to work. Alan Wake 2 has everything.

Psychological Horror Isn’t What You Think

Jacob’s Ladder is cool and all, and its influence on Silent Hill is keenly felt, but a lot of people have made the mistake of thinking that “psychological horror” is “when a person hallucinates bad things happening.” This is not true. Psychological horror is when the character’s mind is in danger. It is their sanity that is at risk.

People do not generally hallucinate so vividly that they find themselves experiencing a perfect, metaphorical version of their actual traumas, right? That’s just not a thing that happens. When you do that, you’re getting too idea heavy, and we already told you why that wouldn’t work earlier on in this essay.

Psychological horror is when a character starts getting paranoid, doubting themselves or their reality, when something is fucking with their mind. Hallucinations are not well-constructed literary Ambien journeys. They’re incoherent and weird. No one encounters hallucinations that represent their innermost fears; it’s why stories where the bad guy tries to make people confront, I dunno, the trauma of letting their sibling drown when they were kids, and instead of breaking them, they defeat the villain and get over their hangups always feel like bad paint-by-numbers stories.

Again, look at the best horror out there; Alien isn’t about that. That’s a real monster fucking with people, impregnating them and breaking their bodies in the process. The Terminator is about a time traveling metal robot; it’s not a metaphor. Zulawski’s Possession is about a relationship breaking down in slow motion — the horror is watching the people freak the fuck out (and then give birth to Satan). Even in Silent Hill, it’s a town made when a cult tried to bring a fucked up god into the world.

Silent Hill’s monsters might be born from the mind of a powerful psychic, but they’re not Harry Mason’s personal demons. Silent Hill 2 is very different depending on who’s around — Eddie’s version of Silent Hill is very different from James’, right? Silent Hill 3’s monsters have more to do with the cult and Heather’s past life than anything else, and of course Silent Hill 4, the last true Silent Hill game, is in Walter’s Silent Hill, and Walter wants to control it.

Silent Hill is not some kind of crucible to make people better, nor is it a place where merely people with guilty consciences go. It is a monster, a tear in reality born from an extreme amount of pain, but one that preys on everyone differently. It preys on your weaknesses, whatever they may be. Guilt might have been one of James’ drivers (though how could it be? James doesn’t even remember killing his wife, so what is there for him to feel guilty about? he can’t act on or feel about information he doesn’t have), but that’s hardly the only one in Silent Hill.

Someone who makes Silent Hill solely about guilt is like someone who really, really liked the peas in a stew, and decided to cut out all the extra stuff by boiling some peas in water and calling it good, and then getting confused as to why no one likes cooked peas as much as the stew that had potatoes, carrots, and everything else.

alan wake 2

Psychological horror isn’t about making people see weird shit. Silent Hill isn’t even psychological horror (and if you link me to the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit to tell me “but it says Psychological horror right there” like some Anyone didn’t just go in and edit cause they were wrong about psychological horror and thought Silent Hill fit… so help you…).

Psychological horror is horror rooted in paranoia and suspense, not metaphorical manifestation’s of a person’s guilt. Go read up on the genre; you’ll never find that as part of the requirement. Instead, you’ll be encouraged to watch Italian giallo films, which are often stories about a person witnessing something they shouldn’t have, and then being pursued for it. Psychological horror overlaps heavily with psychological thrillers, and even in Perfect Blue, where the character’s mind is breaking, it’s not just “her guilt manifested as a creature.”

If you do want to see what happens when someone’s guilt manifests as a monster, watch Paranoia Agent, by Satoshi Kon, who also created Perfect Blue. That handles things very well, as I recall.

So You Wanna Succeed At Horror

If I know one thing, it’s this: horror works by being unexpected, so if you give players something they’ve seen before, they won’t be particularly scared, because they know how it’s going to play out. Seen it once, seen it a thousand times. No point.

To help myself with this, I come up with exercises; I look at the most common tropes in horror, for instance, and I go “well, this always happens in a story about this kind of thing, so let’s forbid ourselves from doing that.” This forces me to have to invent a new way to do something scary, which is why every project I’ve done so far — including some comments from readers on my next game — is “I can’t stop thinking about it.”

You’ll stop thinking about something if it repeats what someone else already said. That’s just the way of things. If someone tries to copy Silent Hill 2, and you love Silent Hill 2, you might kinda like the new thing, but Silent Hill 2 already did it better, so why would you care?

Players need a certain level of information in order to think about it; to put the pieces together, get the gears in the mind turning, the player has to have some information to be able to act upon. A scene where a character is in an empty room and a monster is at the other end and it walks up to them and eats them isn’t that interesting.

A scene where a character is hiding in the shadows, hoping the monster doesn’t see them, seeing an axe hanging in a firebox across the way, realizing the monster can smell their approximate location, and figuring out if they can get to the axe so they can try to defend themselves in order to escape… now that has enough ingredients to actually pop off. The player knows there’s an axe, the player knows the monster can smell them but doesn’t have their precise location. The player knows they have to take a risk, and that risk is what’s scary to them.

Balancing that information with the lack of certainty is how you tell a story that actually hits people. Doing things the audience doesn’t expect — things that are natural and make sense given the situation, but aren’t the usual go-tos that the audience has seen before — is extremely powerful.

Just make sure the player is focused on that and not bad controls or getting lost in pitch blackness, okay?

Hey, I could use some help with medical bills and groceries. If you want to support the work I do, like this article about the biggest pitfall young writers face and how to get around it, then hey, hit up my tip jar.

I figure this kind of writing helps inexperienced writers the most — which means people who might not have the finances to afford my work if I kept it behind a paywall. A paywall would help me, obviously — I could guarantee a certain minimum that would ensure my ability to continue writing these articles — but the people who need my help the most cannot afford it. So I gotta rattle the tip jar. I know it’s not pleasant, but like… think of me like a busker. I’d rather play a song on the street and get a few coins in a hat than just run a gofundme or something.

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Doc Burford

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.