Horror video games are in the middle of a renaissance of sorts. Recent offerings haven't just been collectively scarier than those that have come before — they've also been the most thoughtful, experimental, and compelling crop of games we've seen since the genre as we know it sprang from the polygonal shadows of 1992's Alone in the Dark. 2015 in particular has been a standout year for horror games, with one of the most talked-about being the fall release SOMA. Developed by Swedish studio Frictional Games, SOMA casts you as a man hopelessly lost in a deep sea research lab, stalked by terrible monsters that you cannot fight (or sometimes even see) — but the game has greater ambitions than just simply making players jump with fright. SOMA is a game that reveals itself to be about things, raising questions contemplating identity theory and the thin line separating consciousness and life.
In many ways, SOMA is a great window into the horror game zeitgeist. A lot of what makes it fascinating is indicative of the current moment in horror games, which is full of titles that couldn't be more different, but are no less scary. With Halloween upon us, we reached out to Frictional Games creative director Thomas Grip to talk about what makes the current wave of horror games so good — and why they keep getting scarier.
They've figured out how to make you scare yourself
Part of the reason SOMA has been so well-received is a matter of pedigree. Leaving a player defenseless against horrific and macabre threats is old hat in horror games, but Frictional Games refined this feeling with games like Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent (widely regarded as one of the scariest PC games ever), slowly whittling away the things players carry in each game until nothing is left but them and the monsters out to kill them.
"When you remove weapons," says Grip, "you remove a lot of the thinking that the player usually does, too, and you open up a lot of power in the mind. And the player can use that power instead to scare themselves. When players don't have any weapons and they hear a sound, that's the only thing they have to go on, and they put a huge emphasis on it."
Grip cites examples of people playing his team's games on YouTube (Amnesia, in particular saw a huge spike in popularity due to videos like this) where players would sometimes simply hide in terror from spooky noises, even though there wasn't anything there to worry about.
Some of the most popular horror games of the last two years leave players similarly empty-handed, eliciting the same type of intense terror. Popular examples include Outlast, which traps you in an asylum with nothing but a video camera, the short-lived but much-loved haunted house experience P.T., and Alien: Isolation, the first video game to truly emulate the terror of Ridley Scott's classic film by stranding you on a space station with nothing but a xenomorph and a motion detector for company.
Where most games involve an element of mastery, offering you a set of skills to improve upon until you are capable of handling any challenge thrown your way, horror games work better if you never really get good at them. That turns not being comfortable with video games into an asset rather than a setback — and that's something developers are starting to wise up to.
"Horror is very interesting, because no other genre is so specific about evoking a certain emotion," says Grip. "All other genres are about mechanics, like strategy, or shooting — they're all about knowing how to do these things. You have to focus on what is the player feeling, and not just 'what is the core mechanic.'"
There are also games that go out of their way to not be very game-like at all, like this year's Until Dawn. It's styled like a slasher film, where your decisions determine the fate of eight young people who go off to a lodge together and get more than they bargain for. Maybe they make it out alright. Maybe they all die. You don't ever lose the game, but instead the story rolls with your decisions, making every play-through different from the next.
Horror gets thoughtful
For some people, abject terror — even experienced safely via simulated danger — isn't anywhere near their idea of a good time. There has to be something more. A reason to push through the terror, something worth trying to understand. This is where games like SOMA excel, probing through the terror to restate its central question over and over again: at what point is something alive?
"One thing I'm proud of is that it's not so much a twist-based game, it's an understanding-based game," says Grip. "You're basically given all the data you need very early on in the game. You can't really figure out the ending; there are some mid-game twists, but they're sort of small."
For Grip, the slow realization of all the possible answers to a central existential question is where true terror hides — tucked away in the thoughts that keep you up at night.
It's easier than ever to make games
Thanks to a lot of free or cheap tools now available on the Internet, the amount of work necessary for creating a simple game has decreased dramatically, lowering the threshold for more experimental developers to try and scare players in new ways.
"It's so much easier to distribute things online and get paid for it," says Grip. "So people are more inclined to do things. Combined with horror games being pretty easy to do on a basic level, you can focus more on having a good idea about how this game is going to be spooky, and then the implementation is not that hard."
This is how you end up with lo-fi phenomena like Five Nights at Freddy's, a game that doesn't have players doing much more than checking security cameras in a Chuck E. Cheese–esque pizza shop after hours, but is nonetheless terrifying because the animatronic characters are possessed and trying to kill you.
Well, that, and the fact that the game's super stripped-down nature implies a much creepier backstory than anything in the already-scary game — or its three sequels, all released within a year's time.
The biggest boon to modern horror games may not have even come from game creators. The advent of YouTube and broadcasting gameplay has invigorated the genre, making it one of the most popular kinds of games to watch other people play. This, Grip argues, lead to a change in perception for horror games.
"Why do the YouTubers play? They play it because they want to look scared. That teaches players, that's another way I can approach horror games. I don't have to approach them as if I'm going to beat them or complete them as well as I can, but instead say, Oh I'm gonna scare myself. I'm gonna immerse myself as much as I can. That ensures it ends up being a very scary experience."