Masterful horror isn’t about constantly jump-scaring the player, or about ear-destroying audio clips that make you wince, despite what the current state of the genre might suggest. Horror is at its best when it’s subtle. When the audio is built to make you think there’s something coming for you, and when the mood of the area/level you’re in is so thick it could be cut with a butcher’s knife.
Many games that aim to be outright “scary”, end up being farcical journeys through boring places, armed to the teeth with cheap clichés. Sometimes, truly great horror doesn’t need to shock the player constantly, but instead set them on edge, so that they’re cautious about taking another step.
Some titles are better suited to this task than others, that’s just a fact, but some are so close to being scary at times that maybe the jump could be made. This article will be looking at five titles that aren’t exclusively horror, and don’t sell themselves as that, but with tweaks in places, maybe could, and indeed should be.
Perhaps the most strange addition to this list, considering the fact that BioShock almost is horror already. The atmosphere is there, as exploration between areas and shops in the underwater heart of Rapture is heart-poundingly freaky.
But it’s more than that; the original was designed to be a spiritual successor to the critically-acclaimed System Shock 2. And boy does this spirit thrive. Despite the blood-pumping gunplay elements interlaced with plasmid action, that adds another layer of spice to already flavorful mixture, the game is so close to being survival horror.
Every element of BioShock is coated in this thick veneer of sadness, alongside the world truly feeling like a fallen utopia taken from its prime. If the player (and mostly voiceless protagonist Jack) was to be made more powerless at the start, or perhaps given the revolver later, it would be a horror title.
Another key switch that would make this truly scary, would be upping the amount of wandering splicers; giving them new voice lines, and new interactions with not only each other, but also reacting to what the player has done – like seeing an unlocked door et cetra.
4) Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
While we all know that Geralt of Rivia is a monster-slaying, no nonsense badass, it would be amazing to see the character truly tested. Many enemy encounters in Wild Hunt are difficult, with the Chort, and the Ice Giant being some of the hardest fights in the game… but they’re not scary.
Perhaps in a future title CD Projekt Red would like to have Geralt facing off against something that tests every part of his vast beast knowledge, or something that wants him dead personally. Not every part of the game should be like this obviously, but having one or two sections/quests dedicated to something truly evil, that’s smart, and wants blood, would be thrilling.
More so than that, the game could easily have a more horror-oriented likeness without too much difficulty due to the visceral nature of the ongoing wars in the region.
Arkane Studios have already proven they can make thrilling horror with their recent exploration into space in PREY, but what about their flagship series having a fresh twist in Dunwall; a city that has been proven time, and time again to be nothing short of evil.
Rather than focusing on the supernatural powers of one murderous bodyguard, the team could look to the streets of the city itself. There’s plenty of already fleshed-out lore about the underbelly, so setting another Dishonoured in the eyes of a street urchin prowling a city gone bad wouldn’t be too unreasonable.
It’s not too far flung an idea to imagine the continent in fifty years, where some name rich aristocrat has taken over, and devolved Dunwall into a cesspool of horrors stalking the streets. At the very least, the mechanics, and visuals would find this style of play agreeable. They’re gritty, with a certain grime about them that gives it a unique look, and applying this feature to survival horror would only work in its favor.
2) Fallout: New Vegas
Most players love Fallout: New Vegas for its sass, and for its vast open-ended style of play, that allows for exploration at any point without restriction. And while this sass gives it charm, a little more fear would go a long way. Given the historical setting of the Fallout universe, it’s not exactly a radical idea to imagine pushing the series towards being like Metro (2033 & Last Light), with minimal lighting, little ammunition to use against enemies, and an oppressively dark atmosphere in places.
The writing wouldn’t even need to change that much compared to older scripts, simply establish that most people in the wasteland are slightly insane from radiation poisoning, or continued exposure. As for the enemy design, keep everything the same.
The majority of Fallout: New Vegas creatures are already horrifying, and with the correct atmosphere, mood, and aggressiveness, everything would be poised to provide a truly terrifying experience for the player (there’s probably a mod somewhere that already does this perfectly well, knowing Fallout fans).
1) Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
3D Castlevania, when done right, is absolutely stunning to look at, and play. It manages to blend the fantastic, frantic hack and slash elements that made the originals so great, while introducing the player to the terror of seeing some of the biggest (and best) bosses in gaming.
Lords of Shadow, released in 2010, is one of the best reasons why 3D Castlevania can be brilliant… but, it could be terrifying. With some fairly minor alterations, Lords of Shadows suddenly goes from hack and slash, to a dark fantasy exploration RPG where the player is pitted against the hordes of darkness.
Since the Castlevania series bases itself in old school horror, and European legend anyway, the jump wouldn’t exactly be demanding. Changing how the player interacts with areas, and how enemies reveal themselves, would drastically change the mood. The best examples of this change would be the vampire castle, and the village that precedes it.
Having the player battle against nigh-immortal vampires without the tools to fight them is bound to create horror, and if treated right, the action-adventure giant could easily be given a new twist on its formula.