The scariest game is one that constantly tries to kill us but also gives us a clearly unfair advantage.
Death is rarely scary in games, mainly because it’s so common. As with anything else that we experience multiple times, death loses its impact. This is an obvious dilemma for horror games. Death is only scary when we don’t die. But when a horror game embraces this contradiction and helps the player stay alive for as long as possible, it becomes truly terrifying in a way that few games can manage.
In Demon’s Souls, death is common until it’s not, at which point death suddenly becomes horrifying.
The game is built around the idea of repetition (I can't speak to Dark Souls, since it's structured differently and I haven't played it): Every time that you die you’re sent back to the beginning of the level, and when exploring a new area, you will die and you will restart the level many times. However, each level is a self contained area with defined borders, so with time and patience you can explore every nook and learn the land. Such familiarity breeds confidence, and after a few tries, you’ll be able to run through the level with little trouble. Unconsciously, the longer that you stay alive the more that you become attached to this particular life. Not just because of the souls you’ve collected, but because this life comes to represent your personal skill. I beat that level without dying; therefore, I’m awesome.
But then, inevitably, you arrive at a new level that you aren’t familiar with, and by now, you understand the inherent risks with every step forward into unknown territory. This is where the game becomes scary because this time you’re not just risking a meaningless life, you’re risking a symbol of your strength, confidence, and skill (and all the souls that you’ve collected). Unlike before, you now have something to lose, and you only have something to lose because you remained alive long enough to collect that something.
The longer that we stay alive, the more we have to lose, both within the context of the game with its souls and experience and on a psychological level with our confidence in ourselves. So it’s in the best interest of any horror game to keep the player alive for as long as possible. And Demon’s Souls does help the player survive. Nothing ever changes in a level, making the required memorization easier. The frequency of death isn’t scary at first, but it builds a necessary foundation of fear because it instills in the player a sense of vulnerability that stays with us even when we’re doing well. Everyone who has played the game knows of a moment when they just stood on the precipice of some unknown area, building up the courage to go on.
The slow burn of Demon’s Souls is unique. Other games find ways to speed up this process of gaining something to lose.
Dead Space 2 is the polar opposite of Demon’s Souls in almost every way, and as such, it fails as a horror game in almost every way. Whereas the first game was paced slowly with more emphasis on horror, the sequel went for “bigger and badder” enemies that made it more intense but less scary. That is, save for Chapter 10 in which when you return to the doomed ship from the first game.
In this chapter, Dead Space 2 uses a similar approach to horror that Demon’s Souls does. Previous sections of the game are difficult because the action demands skill, which in turn conveys a sense of danger -- these necromorphs don’t mess around -- but over time we become accustomed to this pacing and it ceases to be intimidating, at which point the game forces us into new territory designed to exploit our knowledge of that danger. But since Dead Space 2 isn’t as soul crushingly difficult as Demon’s Souls, it has to be more clever in how it designs this new territory. There’s almost no combat in Chapter 10, which throws off a player’s expectations. We know that the monsters are out there and we know they’re dangerous, so when we can’t see them, we get anxious, and the longer this goes on the bigger we assume the inevitable fight will be, which makes us more anxious.
This would all be meaningless if we didn’t have something to lose, and in Chapter 10, the save points are spaced out further than usual. Our progress is what we fear we might lose, and the longer we go without saving, the more we come to value our current life. What makes this such a clever trick is that the developers know that there aren’t actually any enemies between the save points. They help us stay alive by not actually trying to kill us, and since they know we’re completely safe, this allows them to play all sorts of terrifying mind games. You’ll hear sounds of monsters nearby, lights will flicker, etc. Best of all, since you’re retreading territory from the first game, you’ll pass through familiar ambush rooms, but this time nothing will happen, building suspense. It’s a trick that works only once, since the player will inevitably rush through this chapter when they realize that they’re not in any real danger, but it’s very effective for that one time.
Moving even further away from Demon’s Souls is Dead Island, which helps the player survive for long periods of time by featuring very easy enemies as opposition. Zombies are slow, stupid, and can always be kicked away if things get too dangerous. The resort is perhaps the easiest area in the game, which makes it, paradoxically, the scariest. While it may be easy to kill a zombie, it’s also easy for a zombie to kill you. This balance allows the player to feel like a badass one second, while he’s decapitating the undead, and a quivering coward the next second, after he gets hit once, nearly dies, and flees.
Dead Island has its horror both ways. It evokes the survivalist fear of old school horror with the sense of personal strength indicative of modern action-horror. Since the zombies level up with you, this balance always stays intact, at least until the developers step in to throw it off. The city is filled with so many zombies that the balance is tipped too far to their side, so death becomes common and loses its impact. Later areas hold back the undead, and so the game gets scarier again, but for an uncomfortably long stretch of time in the middle, death makes Dead Island frustrating and boring.
A good horror game should be merciless in its attempts to kill you but should also give you a significant advantage that can keep you alive for a very long time if exploited correctly. I have distinct memories of sighing with relief when I died in Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Death was a reprieve in those games, a break from the real horror. Life was scary. As it should be.
You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.