Designing Horror Games for the (Teenage) Masses

I’m pretty interested in Five Nights at Freddy’s and Slender.  Both are low-budget indie horror games that have, in the last few years, reached incredible levels of viral success.  The two titles are very different: Freddy’s is about a security guard who must survive the night in a department store full of killer animatronic animals, and Slender is a game about finding notes in a forest while avoiding the infamous Slenderman.

Despite the obvious differences both of these titles have enjoyed significant success, particularly with teenagers. The extent of the impact these games have had on American teens wasn’t clear to me until Mike, the Art Director at Robot Invader, told me about his daughter.  Apparently she and her friends like to get together and play a game called “Slenderman.”  The setup, as described to Mike by his daughter, is very similar to the design of Slender, only this game isn’t played with a computer: one kid gets to be Slenderman and she chases the others around outside.  In fact, most of these kids have never played Slender.  The game has wormed its way out of the computer monitor into their consciousness without direct contact.  Freddy’s is even a bigger sensation, apparently.  Here’s a family counselor explaining Five Nights at Freddy’s to worried parents.  Both of these games are simple to play and pretty scary, and have managed to capture a large audience of kids.

Though Slender and Freddy’s are very different games, they share a number of similar traits.  Perhaps it is these traits that make both titles so accessible to younger audiences.

Obfuscated Rules

Both Slender and Freddy’s go out of their way to obscure key parts of their game design.  In Slender, the speed and movement pattern of the Slenderman is unpredictable.  You never see him move, but when you turn your back on him he gets closer.  In Freddy’s, the movement of the monster animals is also unclear, as is the amount of power consumed by each of the actions you can perform.  By making key rules unclear, the authors of these games make it harder for you to treat the experience as a logic puzzle.  There’s no comfort to be found in understanding the rule set and exploiting its weaknesses because the rule set itself is hard to pin down.

Forced Unawareness

Both Slender and Freddy’s force you to look away from the thing that is trying to kill you.  This is a pretty powerful mechanic.  In the case of Freddy’s, you can’t spend all of your time on the monitors or you won’t have enough power for the doors.  In Slender, looking at Slenderman actually hurts you, and you have no choice but to turn away from him and run.  This mechanic induces tension quickly because you must actively deprive yourself of incisive information to win.

Pop-Out Scare Failure Event

Neither Freddy’s nor Slender rely on a series of pop-out scares, but both use them to make failing a level dramatic.  Rather than pop some hideous creature out of a dark corner every few minutes, these titles build tension with the threat of a pop-out scare, which doesn’t actually occur until the player fails and reaches the game over state.  These games are designed for replay, and once you’ve failed once the weight of the impending pop-out scare serves to dramatically increase your level of stress.  This is a very smart way to use pop-outs, I think, because it gives the player no release; rather than employ the common pattern of building tension to a pop-out, then easing off, the pop-out-at-the-end approach only relinquishes its grip when the game is over (or the level completed).  The actual pop-out effect is almost inconsequential.  Tension is built by the impending scare that you know is coming if you fail.

Mettle Tests

The design of Freddy’s and Slender is good, but I think their virality amongst kids has to do with them being tests of mettle.  These games are a safe way to prove your courage, both to yourself and your classmates.  Like CandymanBloody Mary, or Hanako-in-the-Toilet, Slender and Freddy’s provide easy-to-reproduce fear challenges that kids can perform without involving adults.  The challenges are equitable and accessible: anybody who has a mirror can try to summon Bloody Mary, and Five Nights at Freddy’s can be played on just about every PC, smartphone, or tablet platform under the sun.  Children use these challenges to test their mettle and then boast about the results to their peers.  This social, competitive aspect of these games is probably what drives them to be as widespread and popular as they are.  But of course, they would have never become tests of teenage fortitude if they had not been well-designed and extremely accessible to begin with.

Slender and Five Nights at Freddy’s are good games, and are worth playing if you want to study interactive horror.  But more interesting is the way that these titles have gripped a segment of the audience not usually considered by horror game designers.  The appeal of these games to teenagers is, to me, the most fascinating part of their success.

6 thoughts on “Designing Horror Games for the (Teenage) Masses

  1. I agree, except for the function of the pop-out scare at the end. Since the scare is always the same, my experience has been that it stops being effective as a scare: the more you see it, the more you start to really look at what it actually shows, and most scares don’t hold up under that kind of scrutiny.

    However, it continues to serve the same purpose as a failure state. The more you replay, the more frustrating it becomes to lose, and that builds tension in itself. As a result, while I think it would be a nice touch for the pop-out scare at the end to be different each time, it doesn’t have to change to serve its primary purpose.

    • Yes, I agree that pop-out scares in general do not survive repetition. And trying to avoid frustration by not failing is also an effective (if much more common) way to build tension. But the failure state only loses its power after you’ve played quite a bit, and at that point the total effectiveness of these games is dramatically reduced because you’ve just switched to thinking about them as a system you need to min/max. Once the power of the narrative context is lost you’ve pretty much exhausted the available horror.

  2. I think the important part missed out here is Let’s Plays, as most of the young audience of these games were introduced by watching the likes of Pewdiepie and Markiplier play them before doing so themselves (if ever, in fact). Without this factor they never could have achieved the success and infiltration into teenage culture that they have done.

    • Agreed! The rise of Let’s Play and Twitch has made these games more accessible to teens than ever before.

      But I would argue that, in this era of dramatically increased visibility amongst teens thanks to YouTube, Freddy’s and Slender are breakout successes because of the way that they are designed. Pewdiepie plays a lot of games, but most of them do not become middle school phenomenons. These titles are structured in a way that allows them much larger success.

  3. Well, seeing as most survival horror games tend to be at least R16 – are these games for teens [and probably preteens] sort of a horror-lite market? Sort of like Goosebumps for the millenial gang?

  4. Well the success of these games can’t be denied however I feel they aren’t really that scary. The pop outs are fun but die off quickly in my opinion. It’s the same with Amnesia I guess, it’s scary for the first half hour, after that it fails to scare me. Btw I am making a difference between being scared and startled, jump scares startle, atmosphere scares or harsh punishment is what makes you scared. Amnesia sacrificed a save mechanic by a very forgiving checkpoint system, once you realise you only have to replay 2-4 minutes of gameplay if you die, hell you realise you are stronger than the monster that is chasing you hence you aren’t scared by it anymore. At least that’s how I see these games. (Amnesia is still a good game but it’s overhyped in terms of being a scary experience)

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