Useful Tips for Horror Game Designers

A few months ago I had a discussion on Twitter with Thomas Grip, the brains behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the Penumbra series, and now SOMA, about overused elements in horror games. Turns out there are a whole lot of trite, cliché, and downright dated design elements that show up again and again in horror games, and once we started talking about them they just came flooding out. What started as a joke (“Not every mansion needs an underground lab”) quickly turned into a mega-thread, to the point that some of my followers asked me to stop talking about this and write a blog post.

So this is that blog post. Thomas and I have racked our brains to produce the following USEFUL TIPS FOR HORROR GAME DESIGNERS.

This got old in 1997.


No puzzles about equalizing pressure (or any other type of dial) by adjusting switches or knobs. Do not include puzzles that involve reconnecting the power, especially to an elevator. No sliding bookshelves with scratch marks on the floor. Avoid puzzles that involve pressing keys on a piano in a specific order. Do not require the player to collect paintings to reveal a secret image, or examine paintings to decode a correct sequence of buttons. No locked doors with an engraved symbol that also appears on the key. No important documents encrypted with stupid-simple substitution ciphers.

As you design, repeat this mantra to yourself: “I will have no keycard doors in my game.” No feeding fertilizer or poison to giant plants. Check yourself before adding puzzles about inserting crystals, gems, or figurines into some ornate locking mechanism. Reconsider any puzzle involving a four-digit number sequence, found elsewhere, that opens a lock.

Do not employ sliding block puzzles. Ever. That includes sliding statues! No!

Deny the urge to take inventory items away from the player without a legitimate reason. When building puzzles that require combining more than two items, you must allow combination of arbitrary pairs of items even before the entire set has been collected.

Do not turn terrifying monsters into puzzles unless your goal is to kill all tension.

It’s important to make objectives and mechanics clear, but if you just tell the player what to do and where to go, you’ve removed the puzzle entirely. Let them think for themselves occasionally. Be especially vigilant when designing any cumbersome door opening apparatus. Remember, your players will only believe so much!


Not all stories have to be about the protagonist’s personal demons. Don’t blame everything on evil mega-corporations. You don’t need a crazy Special Forces unit with an awkward acronym name. Do not include a sequence in which a child must crawl through a small opening to unlock a door for an adult. No more helicopters escaping from mushroom-cloud explosions. Eschew underdeveloped sub-plots about drugs.

Avoid zombies. But if you must use zombies, for the love of all that is holy, do not rely on a virus to explain them. Zombie dogs: no.

Not all vengeful ghosts need to be women. And curses do not all need to spread like a virus. And the virus doesn’t have to kill its victims after exactly seven days. Also, ghosts don’t always have to be innocent people who died horrible deaths.

Took forever to find pants in my size. And now they’re torn.

It’s not very believable that a high-security military research complex would have passwords written down on scraps of paper. If your plot twist involves the surprise reveal of a secret, sinister cult, you should probably stop.

Try to think of ways to put your characters in vulnerable situations that are not limited to making all of your characters petite school girls. Men can be vulnerable too. Plus, I know some school girls that could wipe the floor with your sorry designer ass.

Levels and Characters

There are other ways to block a passage off than having the roof collapse. Make a distinction between locked doors that will eventually open and doors that can never be opened; if you have any of the former, the latter must be barred, or broken, or otherwise obviously forever inaccessible. Be warned, however, that “it’s jammed” gets old mighty quick.

No arbitrarily non-interactive objects; either you can interact with all doors or none of them. Ensure that you have more doors that can be opened than cannot. Do not block the player with short fences or other obstacles that should be trivial to bypass.

If a location is supposed to carry emotional weight, do not litter it with ammo boxes and collectibles. Do you want the player to contemplate the horrible living conditions of a young child or rummage through their things looking for loot?

Just say “No!” to items that are of great use to the player’s problems but cannot be picked up. No obstacles that could be easily dispatched using the protagonist’s arsenal but instead require some puzzle sequence to overcome. Do not provide a stock of limited supplies unless you make the remaining amount clear. Do not put hidden collectables in horror games with large levels, or in games that do not allow you to backtrack. Maybe just skip the whole hidden collectable thing completely.

We don’t need any more tentacle monsters in horror games. Especially not tentacle monsters with bright, bulbous weak spots. Avoid close-quarter combat with ghosts that can pass through walls. Never throw the player against a source of infinite damage unless you also provide a source of infinite health and ammo (e.g. infinite enemy spawner).

Little known fact: not all monsters have an irresistible urge to bare their teeth and scream at the player. Nor do they all hunch over with long, bent arms. Crazy, huh!?

Excepting certain types of zombie, it is almost never exciting to see a monster charge the protagonist. Perhaps you can modify your AI to stalk the player and approach him slowly to appear more menacing? Caveat: circling the player and occasionally revealing a weak spot is not a good alternative.

10 seconds of loading to tell us that flashlights are useful in the dark.

Ask yourself: “how many times have I been to the gym this year?” You’re a game designer, so the answer is probably “none.” Do you think your game’s cultists have it any better? They’re too busy summoning an obscure deity to think about their diety. So why did you make them look like they’re all bodybuilders and/or silicon implant models?

And while we’re on the topic of appearances, does your monster really need that awkward underwear? I mean, you just had him rip a dude’s head off in the last scene; I don’t think your audience is going to be phased by a little monster nudity. Or heck, just come up with something else. Tiny bits of torn fabric around the midsection of an otherwise naked beast is a cop-out.

Technical Stuff

When you have a body lying on the floor that is significantly more detailed than all of the other bodies on the floor, we all know that it’ll come to life and attack us sooner or later. Also, a surprise attack isn’t very surprising if the game suddenly starts loading like crazy moments before.

Do not put scary encounters in cutscenes. I know, I know, you want to control the camera and the timing and the sound so everything is “just right.” But listen, games don’t work that way. Take a gamble. Let the player discover the monster through gameplay.

Navigating save slots, confirming file overwrites, and waiting for flashy menu animations is pretty much the worst possible thing you can subject a player to. Your sense of presence must extend to the game as a whole, even your UI.

If you have item descriptions, why not make them interesting or useful? Everybody already knew it was a trashcan before they examined it.

It may sound a bit unintuitive, but horror games work surprisingly well without rocket launchers. And you’d be surprised how fun mystery games can be when they don’t have RPG mechanics shoved into them.

Fail in every other category if you must, but do not fail in this: map and menu screens must not require a loading pause to display. It is bad enough that you have to bring these up in the first place. Oh, and checking the map every two steps is not fun.

Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to making a horror game that is fresh and original! After which you can make endless sequels!

34 thoughts on “Useful Tips for Horror Game Designers

  1. Hahaha; now that you mention RE – I’ve just posted this back at (in response to some people who apparently took this a bit too seriously – not that it isn’t serious):

    What’s with everyone: this is just, as Eric said above, a nice, good and really funny rant written by Chris (who has an awesome blog, and I read it, and I’m so glad FG and Chris exchange ideas).

    If you haven’t played a lot of horror games, especially some of the old classic, you probably won’t recognize some of these cliches, but they date back probably from before the original Resident Evil.

    Actually, now that I think of it, almost every single thing mentioned here you can find in a Resident Evil game, so, to sum it up: if RE did it – don’t; just… don’t. 😀

    (Of course, RE had some great moments too, but we’re talking about the silly stuff here.)

  2. I never really stopped to consider the tropes in list format like this. And Im a little suprised there are so many. Great list!

  3. Some cliches to avoid that I would add to the list are:

    -Bloody, ominous graffiti
    -Expository audio recordings

    (Both used to record last words/warnings/passwords when pens are somehow unavailable)

    -Children and/or childish things are spooooky no matter what.(Child ghosts, echoey children laughter, babies crying, music boxes, etc)

  4. It seems Siren dodges every single cliche on this list (you could make the argument it uses ciphers on a document, but that part is optional and still done well).

  5. The advice to avoid doing what Resident Evil (or some other game) did, isn’t particularly insightful.

    Resident Evil (especially the Remake) did plenty of things right. Also, designers are helped more by positive instruction (what they SHOULD be doing and WHY it works).

    Rack them brains some more!

  6. I started to make a list of games from this site that violate one or more of these tropes.

    I stopped.

    It’s almost all of them. Maybe 95%.

    Resident Evil is certainly a repeat offender. But these cliches do not begin or end with that series. That’s why you should avoid them.

  7. I’m sorry, but I’m surprised to find such shallow article on the matter at your site (which I like very much).
    I think, right direction is to explain WHY horror game designers should avoid stuff mentioned above. I agree with some things, but right now article seems patronizing, subjective and not giving enough motivation to follow those advises.
    Some of the things are silly: yes, monsters in certain games are not going around with huge exposed genitals probably because in our mentality sex is so much worse than mass slaughter and publisher is afraid that his game will be scandalous because of that (see hot coffee mod, main char. nudity from Beyond, etc.) Cultists are muscular and female special agentsvillains are wearing sexy latex extremely exposed outfits, because it sells well. From my experience with game development – it’s only half of the work to design the game – make it profitable is the other half. I’d go farther and say that horror genre is something suited for smaller indie developers and not corporations that want to make zillions on their games. And by all means, if setting absolutely require a keycard, piano puzzle, tentacle monster or collapsing floorceiling, I’d put it in the game. IMO, the key is to ask if there is no more creative approach here, but not to forbid using certain elements just because they are overused.

  8. These tropes have been used 100s of times. If you can make them fresh, more power to you. Rather than trying to object life into a played-out cliche, why not just think of something else.

    Cliche and more generally predictability is the enemy of fear. So many games ruin themselves by simply not doing enough to surprise us. You can do better than that.

    Also, it’s OK if you read this as tongue-in-cheek.

  9. I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you with any of your points.

    I liked the RE series from 0-4. Those games gave me more than one option to deal with the monsters, others than in modern “survival horror” games.

    If survival means to run away, then this is not what I call survival; using every option to stay alive, which is more than running away and hide in the wardrobe.

  10. Cliches weren’t played out when they were invented. I also enjoyed all of the Resident Evil games (well, I’m having some trouble playing 6, but that’s beside the point).

    But the Resident Evil games, and the vast swaths of titles that followed in their footsteps, drove that particular model into the ground. They were good games. There’s a lot to learn from them. But they have been copied so many times that the patterns are boring. Played out. Time to move on.

    First person, non-combat, run-and-hide mechanics are a cliche too, or will be soon. A more recent invention, it hasn’t been iterated into oblivion quite yet. But it will be.

    Predictability is the antithesis of horror. Games must continue to strive for originality if they want to remain good. Thus they must avoid bits that used to be fine but have become too long in the tooth.

  11. I generally have to agree with everything you listed here. when I read each off I stopped to think “Would this add much of anything to a game in terms of atmosphere? Would this scare me? Have I seen this numerous times before? Does it feel like something I’d expect to see in a video game (vs in a movie or read in a book?). And over and over they “feel” like game mechanics. I don’t want to sound stupid but I was reading your other post about the commemoration of this site (starting in 2003) and you mention working on games, shipping a bunch, starting a company etc etc but.. I’ve never caught what games those were, what company you founded, or well.. anything of your work. Considering how intensive and thoughtful you have been on horror and game design, I’m dying to see what a game would be like built under your careful eye. Can I get a hint?

  12. Pretty much the only thing I agree with is “no sliding puzzle”. I’ve always HATED sliding puzzles so much, not only they, like you said, like originality, but they are also incredibly boring and tedious to solve, as well as succeeding in being unrealistic on several levels at once.

    For the rest, I say you’re off point. Sure, the horror genre (and not just in games) HAS to constantly evolve, because by definition if you get used to something it won’t horrify you anymore.
    However, getting rid of literaly everything (including some great stuff) shouldn’t be the solution. Actually, it’s the easy way out.
    I think what should be done is take those clichés, and work around them to surprise the players. Play on expectations. To make myself clearer let me take an example : that body on the floor that’s more detailed than the others that you know will get up and attack you. Well, don’t make it attack the player the first time he goes near it. Maybe not even the second time, but rather the 3rd or 4th time. Or even better, have 2 of those bodies not getting up but the 3rd one will, later on in the game.
    Or, you could have the VERY FIRST get up and the player will think “pffft- so predictable, this game brings nothing new”, and then fuck with the player by having all the others never get up. The problem with this last solution though is that most players will only remember how predictable the first was and forget about the others, and they go on the game was not scary… It’s happened with some “recent” horror games that I consider great but that nobody else liked.

    This is just an example but you get my point. I love those concepts, those “clichés” like you say, I wouldn’t want a lot of them to diseapper especially beacuse I think they are far from being done. They just need more work and more thinking to be effective nowadays rather than be used “as such”.

    Also, some of your points, like the “cultist looking like a body builder” apply to all visual entertainement, not just horror games.

  13. NESfag, I think you’ve misunderstood the point of this article.

    If a developer did what you suggest, he would have followed the advice of this article to the letter. The point is that all of these elements (yes, even the body building monks) are exceedingly trite. When used bluntly, they are cliche and boring. And definitely not scary.

    As I wrote above, lots of them used to be acceptable. It’s pretty ok to have a sliding block puzzle in a 15 year old game. But if you were thinking of doing that today, you should probably think again. The mechanic is overused and played out, and so many better mechanics have been invented since sliding blocks were popular.

    Whether or not these apply to other media isn’t really relevant. These are tips for making a good horror game. They’re not to be taken very seriously–the goal was to poke fun at the most played out aspects of the genre–but seriously, if you are a designer in 2013 and you make a game with these things in it, without any modification or (as you suggest) twist to keep the player interested, you are not doing your job.

  14. Here’s one: No jumpscares. The first time it’s startling but gets old fast. By instinct, I always avoid windows because I know something is going to leap out and fuck up my progress.

    Annoying =/= Challenging. Want to starve the player of decent weapons? Fine, fair game but the same cannot be said of save points. Ever.

  15. i think your list here is 95 percent bunk here.
    you dont explain why outside the fact that these tropes have been done before.

    any of these tropes can still be used by any aspiring horror game designer. execution my dear chris, is everything. there is a thing called “pattern recognition” and it is pure human psychology. using that to it’s fullest can be very effective in survival horror development and getting alot of mileage out of established tropes.

  16. Do you think there is any such thing as a played out cliche?

    Do you think it might be a good idea to avoid played out cliches?

    If you can execute a cliche in a way that is new and unique, you’ve avoided the cliche.

    If you can recognize the patterns in the story or puzzles or game play you have just removed almost all tension from the drama. This is especially problematic in horror (and mystery).

    I didn’t think I needed to make it any more clear, but just to be on the safe side: these elements are all so amazingly overused that they pull you out of the game. They show themselves to be a trite pattern rather than something worthy of your critical thought. They might have been good 10 years ago, before 1000 other games copied them and drove them into cliche-land. But if you use them today you’re damaging your ability to maintain tension with the player.

  17. “Do you think there is any such thing as a played out cliche? ”


    “Do you think it might be a good idea to avoid played out cliches? ”

    no. embracing a cliche may be an excellent means to give a player a sense of familiarity. pattern recognition as they say.

    “If you can execute a cliche in a way that is new and unique, you’ve avoided the cliche. ”

    this is contradictory. executing a cliche is not avoiding it. it is embracing it.

    “If you can recognize the patterns in the story or puzzles or game play you have just removed almost all tension from the drama. This is especially problematic in horror (and mystery). ”

    execution is everything. like telling a joke, its not what it is, it’s how it is. for a movie example the motion picture “Alien”, used every trope in the book established in sci fi horror established in the 40’s and 50’s and 60’s. its basically the 10 little indians scenario of each character getting bumped off one by one. anyone who is aware of the setting “monster kills crew one by one”, already can predict the film even if they havent seen it. yet it remains as gripping and intense as ever.

  18. Telling to not do any of the old tactics is a little cheap. Cliches become cliche for a reason. If used right they are almost always good. That’s the reason they are always used in different forms.

    You can always have push the box puzzle, that’s how the world we live in works. Sometimes you have to push boxes. Nobody can say for sure it won’t be fun. If you do it right and fit it into the game it’ll work like a charm. Condemning these kinda cliches is as absurd as claiming having a monster in a horror game is weak since it’s been done a lot.

    Innovation is a curse if you don’t take it for what it is. New things need to be proved and most of the time won’t work as people imagine. Finding a new way of doing things is not easy and saying “find another way to do it” is something I expect to hear only from an amateur.

  19. I am really surprised how many people read this blog and think it is just Chris condemning each and every practice, saying they should NEVER be used and outlawed like some kind of contraband.

    The gyst I am getting is to say that when using these mechanics in the same way they have always been used, for the same reasons, at the same times, with the same intentions, doesn’t do anything but to perpetuate the cliche and so adds little to nothing new to the gaming experience.

    He doesn’t say the old games that STARTED the cliche are wrong for it, because at the time of their release they were the innovators and the ideas were not yet played out.

    And when you think about it, finding a new way to do it is just using your critical thinking and creative muscles, something that is already being flexed with game creation.

    I also want to point out that “finding a new way” doesn’t equate to just innovation. When altering a known cliche, as has been described by Chris and some others on these comments, it is possible to change it and create something “new” by changing the context and layering other concepts alongside them to make it feel fresh and not the same dry old stuff. We’ve seen game design do this, where the base gameplay is actually fairly straightforward and almost bland but because of added aspects from other games outside of the genre, it becomes something almost entirely new. RPG elements are bleeding into FPS’s and adventure game concepts moving into platformer games.

    I think the big point Chris is making is not to just take a cliche and use it the way it was always used. Bend it, twist it, make it both appropriate in your game, but also seamless within that game’s world. If the world has the equivalent of a block puzzle or keys or something, that’s ok, so long as it’s not 100% cheese. Like running through a modern house and suddenly you need to find a red key, a blue key and a green key in what look like traditional wooden chests.
    Or walking into the garage to see a stack of wooden crates. Cause.. who keeps stacks of wooden crates in their garage nowadays, ya know” Who color codes keys like that?

    Cliche ideas can be refreshed with a little consideration. In horror movies you always see that no car wants to start when you are trying to get away from the monster, you always have to scream and try 5x to get it to turn over. At this point, doing that in a film doesn’t HELP as the audience already expects it to happen, and so there is little to no building of suspense. Have the car start, then stall as it goes into gear. have the person trying to get away realize it doesn’t start because she’s in someone’s else’s car, one that looks like theirs and is nearby. I’d be a lot more riveted to the screen if they start with the cliche and bend it on it’s ear by saying ” there’s a good reason it won’t start, and now you need to run like hell to get to the RIGHT car”.

  20. “I think the big point Chris is making is not to just take a cliche and use it the way it was always used. Bend it, twist it, make it both appropriate in your game, but also seamless within that game’s world.”

    he said to never use cliches.

    i used to respect chris and his assertions, but now his credibility has taken a hit with me.

  21. he said to never use cliches.

    I did? Care to pull the exact quote you’re referring to? It doesn’t sound like you’ve actually read the comments here, or the article in question.

    Also, you dudes are taking this article about 10,00x more seriously than intended. I figured that lines like “They’re too busy summoning an obscure deity to think about their diety” would make it clear that this isn’t a very serious piece, but I guess that was overly optimistic.

  22. Yeah I can admit to fault on that as usually when I read this blog and your posts they’re of a ‘serious’ tone and so I habitually always assume that tone. I guess throwing a gag out there was generally over my head. 🙂 I’ll try and weigh the tone better in the future.

    I thought that this was a great article. Too many so called horror games diffuse the tension with tedious puzzles. I’m quite unobservant so I don’t like adventure games that much in general, so when the game makes me look for the nth key I will eventually give up from boredom. Well written Chris! Look forward to more articles!

  24. So has the quest been abandoned? It’s been forever and day since I’ve seen a post. I hope the mix up in this article didn’t totally destroy Chris’s enjoyment for this project/blog. I think most folk love the effort and work put into it and I’d hate to see it all abandoned. Or has it migrated to a different social networking page I missed notation of?

    Hey Chris, one of these days when you have a free moment again, would you mind taking a look at our horror game? It would be great to get your feedback on how to make it more effective.

    We’re big fans of horror games (esp the early RE series) so the game is action horror, but we’ve tried to maintain the resource management tension of RE. I definitely agree with a lot of the points you and Thomas came up with – hopefully we’ve followed most of it! Anyway we’re gearing up for a Kickstarter in late July so fingers crossed! 🙂

  26. When first time i read this post i was thinking it’s maybe a useful tips like how to make your own horror game and when i arrived at first paragraphs in puzzles section, i got an new impression about how not to make another RE centric game for the new developers.

    Also it gets to me that when we still playing RE we get required to get key pieces to unlock a door (searching bishop plug and it’s friends is one of many examples ). But not when we playing Siren series. Meet a locked door or fence ? Just bang out the lock !.

    But it’s justified since most doors in RE is more advanced in technical way than normal doors. Still when i compared it to Siren more traditional doors, i can’t help but chuckle.

    Anyway good post as always and happy Ten Years for your blog !.

  27. I remember reading this a long time ago before all these crazy comments were posted. I find it impossible to agree with someone who calls themselves the “God of Horror” sotty but from the comments and the attitude you just sound like an angry teenage elietst who talks down upon everone and tries to sound like an intellectual. Aside from that most of the comments here waere entertaining and had many good points. Also chris, great wok I enjoyed reading this again as it was amusing and if not taken too seriously will help improve the storyline/design of future games.

    Just wanted to thank you for writing this article. It really helped me to improve the game I’m currently working on. It’s an adventure point and click horror game inspired from my father’s life…yeah…he had quite a unique experience when he was a child in an communist country.

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