Game Development Reference
Writing for Horror Games
11.1 Defining a Horror Game
Trying to figure out what exactly falls into the category of “horror game” can be, well,
scary. Is it a game that features traditional monsters like zombies ( Dead Rising , Stubbs
the Zombie ) but that otherwise has standard or comedic gameplay? Is it a game that
features no monsters whatsoever ( Condemned: Criminal Intent , Manhunt ) but that
features the standard horror trope of being stalked through a dark space by a killing
machine? Is it the subgenre referred to as “survival horror” ( Resident Evil , Silent Hill ),
which tends to mix old-fashioned adventure game puzzle solving with monsters and
action sequences? Or is it some mixture of all of the above?
Horror games are actually an odd fit in the world of video game characterizations.
Most game genres are defined by their play styles or content. Rainbow Six is a tactical
shooter because the central play mechanic is based around shooting people and the
play style is based around engaging the enemy tactically. The latest incarnation of
Madden is a sports game. The Sly Cooper series are platformers, and so on.
But then there are horror games, which are defined not by their play mechanic
but by the mood and emotional effect they intend to transmit. The point of horror,
after all, is to frighten, and a horror game is one that is created with this goal in
mind. Dead Rising may use traditional horror elements (zombies in a mall, thank you
George Romero), but the focus of the gameplay is on slaughtering your way through
masses of the undead with CD cases, sporks, and clothing racks, not the soul-freezing
terror that a real mall full of walking corpses craving human flesh would invoke.
By the same token, “horror” tends to get reduced to a descriptor in games of
other genres that utilize horrific elements. F. E . A . R . , for example, is chock-full of
creepy supernatural badness, but since its primary play mechanic is firearms-based, it
gets referred to as a “horror shooter,” as opposed to simply a horror game.