The implications for horror games, I think, are that games might be better at scaring you if they also involve game play elements that cause a physical reaction, like an elevated heart rate. If a game can get your blood pumping by being difficult and high-stakes, the Two-Factor Theory suggests that your brain may mistake that rush of adrenaline as a reaction to the scary images on the screen, and generate feelings of fear, even if the game content alone isn’t very scary. From here on out this post is entirely conjecture, but bear with me.
I can’t count the number of times users have told me that a not-very-scary game is better “on hard mode.” Many of the games that I’ve complained about on this site have been defended by users claiming that hard mode is where the game design really works. Dead Space, Cold Fear, Silent Hill: Homecoming, and even Resident Evil: Dead Aim have all been credited as being better games when the difficulty is increased. This seems like evidence that supports the “harder is scarier” idea. In my review of Dead Space, for example, I spend most of the words praising the game and then trying to figure out why I didn’t enjoy it very much. I ended the review with the conclusion that Dead Space doesn’t require any critical thinking, and is altogether too “straightforward.” Another way to say the same thing might be to say it was too easy; I walked through the game and never really had to put any real effort into it. Per the Two-Factor Theory, my brain never got a chance to mislabel my body’s reaction because my body never reacted.
And the more I think about it, the more it seems that the best horror games are those that raise the stakes on the player. Think about check points, for example. Traditional horror games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Fatal Frame haven’t really had any check points. You have save points, but when you die you go all the way back to wherever it was you last saved. Save points also mean that you can’t save anywhere–you have to find these specific spots before you can save your game. In classic Resident Evil design, you also had to worry about running out of save games, as they were items that were rationed to you carefully.
This is all very much against modern game design trends. Modern game design is about “respecting the player,” and allowing them to progress through the content regardless of their skill level. Halo is designed to make the playerfeel like a “kick-ass space ninja,” and pulls all kinds of tricks to make even novice players feel skilled, like increasing the precision of the targeting reticle when it passes over an enemy. Crash Bandicoot is famous for secretly adjusting the difficulty down behind the scenes when the game notices that the player is dying a lot. Modern game design dictates that save points are sort of arrogant; if the player gets a phone call in the middle of play, designs that do not allow him to stop playing and then pick up where he left off are regarded as too self-important. The idea is that the player wants to have fun, not be frustrated, so the game should go out of its way to remove any potential frustration points. This doesn’t always mean making the game super easy, but it often means trying to design a challenge that at least seems fair to the user.
But lots of great horror games are designed as if the intent is to knock the player down and then kick him in the shins. I mean, everybody I know who played Resident Evil had to start that game over at least one time because they didn’t understand how aggressively they had to ration ammunition at first and got to a point where they simply could not progress. Silent Hill‘s combat mechanics are much more forgiving than Resident Evil, but on the other hand, getting the good ending in that game requires that you do a number of optional, non-obvious things. If you screw it up and don’t have a save to fall back on, too bad. Time to start over. Combat in Fatal Frame comes down to precision timing and aiming. If you don’t take a picture of the ghost at the exact second that the Zero Shot light pops up, you take a hit. No aim assist in this game. And Siren, my favorite game to reference when talking about good old Two-Factor is a game basically designed to continuously increase the level of stress that the player must endure. I mean, we’re talking about a game that has an escort mission with involving a blind girl.
Even games with simple mechanics seem to be scarier when they include game play related stress. Hell Night is a great example: in this game your only choice is to run away from a monster that you rarely see but often hear. If the monster gets too close you’ll take a hit. But you don’t die; your partner dies, and after that you are on your own. One more hit and it’s game over. Once a partner is dead you can never revive them–new partners show up later in the game, but most of the time, the partner character represents your one health point of life (they also have special abilities that it’s hard to live without). So losing that partner is a big deal. When the monster shows up, you run because you’re going to have to start over and redo a bunch of work if you die. Hell Night is a mechanically simple game, but it’s incredibly effective as horror. Part ofthat might be because it’s really stressful!
Though not nearly as good of a game, Nanashi no Geemu and its sequel work the same way; failure is a one-hit-kill affair, and sends you back a significant distance. Stress comes not from mechanical difficulty as much as the desire not to have to repeat sections of game play.
Consider the differences between Dead Space and Resident Evil 4. These two are very similar games, but they differ in a couple of key respects. One of the big ones is moving and shooting; you can do it in Dead Space but not in RE4, which lead to a lot of criticism of the latter from Modern Game Designers (Dead Space is very much a product of the “respect the player” trend; just look at the automatic path-to-next-important-area power!). Not being able to move and shoot makes Resident Evil 4 a harder game–much harder, I think. I remember dying many many times in RE4 but pretty much gliding through Dead Space. And while the Resident Evil series can be sort of ridiculous, I thought RE4 was scarier than the ultra-serious Dead Space (though neither game does well in the fear department, to be honest). Resident Evil 5 is (very) ridiculous and also not very hard at all (that item management screen is all about player respect), and it left a bland taste in my mouth.
Game designers often talk about difficulty being a key ingredient to fun because of the feeling of accomplishment that it rewards. If you don’t believe me, try Super Meat Boy, and then go look at all of the awards it has (quite rightfully) won. But for horror, I’m going to propose an alternative idea: per the Two-Factor Theory, high-stakes game play is a way to cause the player physical stress, which, when combined with scary images, sound, and backstory pumping out of your TV, is more likely to cause you to feel fear. High-stakes game play doesn’t necessarily mean moment-to-moment difficulty (and it certainly doesn’t imply crappy game play mechanics), it just means that the cost of failure is high and the threat of failure is imminent. I’m suggesting that stress, that which is usually considered to be the opposite of fun, is the key to fun in horror games. Not frustration, mind you, just stress (although separating the two is a mighty challenge).
Give this one some thought next time you are playing a horror game. Is it scary? Is it hard? How is your body reacting? Fair warning: the Two-Factor Theory stipulates that it only works when you are not cognizant of why your body is excited; if you think about this during game play, it may ruin the fear factor for you. But generally, any time your heart rate is up and your blood is pumping, and you’re not really thinking about why, the Theory states that you’re in a prime state to be fed emotional cues. Maybe a Wii Fit balance board horror game makes sense after all.