Ingredients of Horror: Atmosphere and Difficulty

Atmosphere? Check. Difficulty? Not so much.

My goal in running this site, as I originally wrote back in 2003, is to identify the characteristics common to all good horror games. Five years later I’m going to revise that statement a little, because for every rule that I can come up with there is at least one major exception. So I am going to omit the “all” portion of my goal statement and focus on the major characteristics that good horror games tend to employ. In this first post on this topic, I want to talk about the role of atmosphere and difficulty. Now, atmosphere is probably a characteristic worthy of its own post, but for now I’d like to discuss the atmosphere as it directly relates to difficulty in horror games.

Above-average difficulty is a common trait in popular horror games. The original Resident Evil is a hard game; on top of difficult controls the designers go out of their way to force the player to aggressively ration their resources. Other than Capcom’s Maximo, I can’t think of any games outside of the horror genre that effectively punish the player for saving their progress. Resident Evil 4, a much newer game, has been streamlined and simplified, but it’s still a pretty challenging game. And generally, I think horror games are a lot less forgiving about the degree of challenge that they apply to the player; there’s often no option to continue, save points are few and far between, and most protagonists can only withstand a few enemy attacks before they are killed.

At first I thought that difficulty was there just to increase the amount of stress that the player experiences while playing the game. Making death an all-to-easy outcome of any given encounter heightens the player’s need to move carefully and make few mistakes, which I figured helped the game feel scary. While that assessment is true, it doesn’t go deep enough. I now think that difficulty is directly tied to the feelings of fear that good horror games are able to create, and not just because the threat of death is stressful.

A couple of years ago game designer and author of a fascinating blog Dan Cook authored an article about generating artificial emotions (link probably requires registration). In it he discusses a cognitive science theory called the Two Factor Theory of Emotion. Dan says,

The theory states that in order for an emotion to be felt, two factors must be present:

  • Physiological change: The person feels elevated heart rate, sweaty skin and other elements of physiological arousal.
  • Cognitive label of the physiological change: Based off the context of the situation, the person assigns a label to the physiological change.

Simply put, when your body reacts physically to some stimuli and you mind assigns meaning to your physical state, you synthesize an emotional response.

This theory has lead to some really interesting experiments where researchers have been able to convince test subjects that they felt a specific emotion by causing physiological changes to occur for some unrelated reason. The idea is that if your body is in an elevated state and you are suddenly introduced to some unrelated context, your mind can misread the physical reaction you are experiencing and synthesize some emotion that you would have not otherwise felt.

I think that this has obvious implications for horror games. If we assume that difficult, unforgiving game play causes the player physical stress, we can assume that playing these games causes a “physiological change” to occur. Did you jump in your seat a little the first time those zombie dogs came crashing through the window? Your heart rate was probably up, the adrenaline was pumping; your body reacted physically to the game. At the same time, the game is piping horrific images, characters, and sounds into your brain at sixty frames per second. The atmosphere of a good horror game is one designed to be scary, and based on our (admittedly rudimentary) understanding of the Two Factor Theory, this may be enough for your mind to label the physical stress you are experiencing as fear. The physical effects of the difficult game play and the scary context provided by the game click and suddenly you are ready to turn all the lights in your house on.

One way we can lend some credibility to this theory is to look at the games that fail to cause this perfect juxtaposition to occur. Of those types of games we have an almost endless supply. Some games don’t get the atmosphere right and the difficulty feels unnecessary and boring. Many more games nail the atmosphere but, probably in the interests of being main stream, are not actually all that hard. A lot of games are difficult in ways that causes frustration rather than stress. I read a review of Dead Space in which the reviewer noted that the game was considerably more frightening on the Hard difficulty than it was on Normal. I also stand by my declaration that Siren is the scariest game I’ve ever played–it’s also one of the hardest.

I think that it’s pretty safe to assume that horror and game play difficulty are closely related, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to believe that the Two Factory Theory is a way to describe that relationship. But, as I said in the introductory paragraph, difficulty isn’t the only way to make a game scary; some games, like Silent Hill 2 (my #2 scariest game after Siren) and Hell Night (probably #3) are able to be extremely scary without relying on difficult game play. There are other traits, other variables that horror games leverage to assert their power over us. I’ll discuss more of those in a future post.

17 thoughts on “Ingredients of Horror: Atmosphere and Difficulty

  1. Nice article, Chris, quite a logical approach)
    Perosnally, i cant remeber a Survival Horror game that was really scary AND easy. Things like being one attack away from death and having no ammo left can really freak u out, as well as make u extremely nervous and vulnerable to “jumps”.

  2. >Hastur

    Thanks. Consider games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame. Those games don’t put any emphasis on ammo conservation and they don’t generally rely on pop-out-of-the-dark scares. But they are both still quite scary, despite being fairly straightforward when it comes to game play. So difficulty isn’t the be-all end-all way to create fear, but it’s certainly one way.

  3. Siren’s frustration has completely crushed the scariness out of the game for me. I have to admit, the farther I get into it I’m surprised you don’t seem to think being forced to replay the same missions again and again with a minor change added isn’t a huge, blaring flaw.

  4. >RoyalFlush

    I didn’t get it at first either, but when it clicked for me it made the game absolutely awesome. The frustration in that game comes from not knowing how to play (the game certainly doesn’t explain it well), but once you figure it out the frustration goes away and it’s all awesomeness (though it’s still quite hard).

  5. The Two Theory Factor of emotion is an interesting idea, and one I haven’t encountered before. It makes alot of sense. I recenty finished playing through the first Condemned and the level late in the game in which you’re tracking bloodtrails through the killer’s farmhouse had my hands so sweaty I had a hard time gripping the controller. The fact that the spatters were used to motivate exploration in a more cinematic way than is standard was brilliant imo. TTF in action, it seems.

    Now cut out the brainy crap and get to playing Homecoming so we can all hear your thoughts.

  6. Hellnight may not be a hard game, but the difference to other easier games is that you only have two hit points at most. When you’re aware of that fact, it makes the game scarier throughout, because any minute could be your last one. This increases further in the game as there are less passages which also become more narrow, effectively forcing you to use a way where the monster might be lurking.
    In Silent Hill there is a bigger emphasis on melee combat which forces you to go closer to monsters, which in return increases the possibility of getting hit or worse killed.
    So what I want to say is that a scary game can have an easy or moderate difficulty, but the game has to be designed in such a way, that the player either thinks that it’s hard or feels threatened while playing. That’s the reason I stopped to start with the easy or normal difficulties altogether.

    You also gave Resident Evil 4 as an example for a challenging game. The difference here is that if you lose you start in the same room where you died – the punishment for dying is not big enough, and it also does not help that nearly every room has a typewriter.

    Anyway good topic, one I highly agree with.

    Most of time, I was so angry at Siren’s difficulty that I didn’t even remembered of being afraid. But I’m a hard one to scare.
    And yeah, I agree: difficult does help to create an atmosphere, but also it depends on what are you aiming at. Fatal Frame and Silent Hill game can be fairly easy, but their goal is to focus on the physiological horror (if your die, your very soul is in danger, for example). But Resident Evil is about you’re being physically in danger (you don’t want to die because you don’t want to become a zombie). I think it’s also closely related to your article about the characters/monster design. But maybe, it’s just me.

    very interesting article! congratulations. I’m already waiting the next part.
    At first I didn’t agree about difficult increasing the horror factor. But then a friend told me: the fights in SH homecoming are so hard that I get pretty scared when a monster approaches. I played the game and he was right. So i guess this makes a lot of sense. The scariest game I’ve ever played is Fatal frame 3. It’s thanks to those moments where you are awake and the supernatural things start to happen in the “real world” in such a subtle way. The first time i saw the curtain in the real world moving by itself I got to say: “okay, was that a ghost moving it? naahh.. it must be some crazy glitch…” so, that’s some deep reaction for a horror game.

  9. I wonder if you can’t turn this on its side in terms of analyzing it.

    I think Silent Hill 3 is the creepiest game I’ve ever played, but not the scariest. There are points in the game that absolutely creep me out…the wheelchair wheel in the basement of the hospital that spins until you approach it, the first half of the haunted house in the amusement park (before you get attacked by the evil red beam of light). No matter how creepy things feel though, I am tempted to continue exploring because curiosity outweighs fear of danger.

    In Hellnight, exploring (especially for key items) sometimes gets put on the backburner because of your need to run from the abomination. During these runs, there’s definitely a sense of urgency (maybe panic?) and a need to find a place that’s safe, but only so you can continue exploring in a fairly safe manner. Eventually, you learn (due to game limitations) that there are only certain places where the monster will appear and certain distances he will follow you. Once this is learned, the stressful moments he brings are few and fleeting, at best.

    Siren ups the ante by placing you in the same situation, but your need to explore is compounded by the fact that danger is nearly ever-present and that alerting a shibito to your presence means that you either have to step up your speed of exploring to get what you need, or create an escape route to lure the enemy away so you can get back into the area you were trying to check out, or simply die from being more or less helpless. In instances where you can’t fight back, this is the one thing I find frustrating about Siren and why I never completed it. Controls aren’t the best in the world and I can live with that, but if I feel like I’m relying more on fortune than skill to get through an area (the return to the mines area with the female…journalist? It’s been awhile), it will drop me out of the immersion that was keeping me interested up to that point.

    Difficulty is necessary for fun, I believe…but if you’re having to continue constantly, it gets frustrating to the point that all potential fear just gets removed and replaced with anger. That’s why I can’t get behind Siren. It may be the most frustrating good game I’ve ever played.

    All this makes me wonder though…if you make a game with neutral safe points where there are creepy things going on (like the two aforementioned scenarios in SH3) but you are safe from harm…but also create a nearly ever-present danger that functions beyond basic limitations (basically amping up the horror AI, positions of exposure, and limitation of travel), and also incorporate a need (emphasized) to explore, could this not potentially be a terrifying game? It makes me think of a mansion run of the remake of RE1 for the Gamecube, but with all zombies as Crimson Heads. And more creepy stuff. 😛

    Just my twenty-five cents.

  10. The way I see it, the fear that a video game can generate is based upon two main factors: aesthetics and effect. I for one have been scared countless times by video games but movies don’t really have the same effect. I have to believe that it’s because movies can contain as much aesthetic fear as possible but they will never be able to create any real effects on me.

    The aesthetic fear can basically be divided into sights and sounds (okay, and the occasional rumble of the controller). This in itself might be enough to scare some people, but then there’s also the fear of the effects of the things being seen and heard in the game. But really what that all boils down to is that the protagonist could potentially die, causing us gamers to replay progress, which most people don’t like to do. So in essence, the only real variable of the effect of the fear is difficulty.

    Therefore, you could pretty easily sum all this jargon up as atmosphere and difficulty, which is exactly what Chris said.

  11. The big thing you have to account for though is always going to be the variable of person-to-person reactions. Everyone reacts differently to different games.

    Some people see a game like Silent Hill 2 as a piece of art, a brilliant work steeped in creepiness and horror, and one of the best survival horror games ever. Some think that it’s fairly boring and can’t really get into it, but at the same time, find a game like Dead Space to be quite enthralling.

    After reading Chris’s article and throwing my thoughts up on here, I went and IMed a friend who has played a few survival horror games to get his thoughts on what makes a good survival horror game, and what makes/breaks immersion.

    He believes a good atmosphere is important and likes consistency in his horror games. He also likes to keep the action rolling if possible, so slower games like the Silent Hill series don’t really appeal to him. He (and myself) is not fond of any games that feature a need to play or protect a helpless character.

    Despite his interest in action in horror games, he felt that Resident Evil 4 was not fun after a certain point. Which is interesting because he LOVED the village at the beginning. I didn’t inquire further, but I can say that I lost interest in RE4 myself after awhile.

    Dead Space appears to be his favorite survival horror game thus far, and not having had the chance to play it, I do want to see how that stands up to my general feelings towards survival horror games.

    Another thought on difficulty, at least for me…I don’t mind a game that isn’t hard by any means. And I don’t need a fantastic story to keep me wrapped up. I beat Carrier AND HAD FUN PLAYING IT. It gave no real challenge and played like an RE clone, but it still just had something to it that kept me playing it all the way through…something I rarely do these days.

  12. I looked back at your frustration/difficulty article and I think that your “Explain the rules to the player” theory explains a lot of my frustration with various games when they suddenly change the rules on me. For example:

    Devil May Cry 4 – I was really enjoying the game until it switched characters on me. Suddenly, most of the skills I had developed over the course of the game were worthless and I had to relearn how to play the game but with a much steeper difficulty curve than the actual beginning of the game.

    The World Ends with You – Again, I was really enjoying this game. Then it switched partners on me. The combat system was hard enough to get used to (controlling two characters at once), and having my partner change really messed me up and made the game a lot more frustrating than it was.

    On another note, since several people have mentioned Fatal Frame, I don’t know what the deal is with that series. I’ve tried to play both the first and the second game and neither has really capture my imagination. They’re just not very scary IMO.

  13. Siren can be scary, but is so frustrating that it’s really hard to get immersed.

    Having broken combat, broken puzzles, and repeating missions for no point are not features of a good survival horror game.

  14. It’s important to note the difference between ‘challenging’ and ‘frustrating’. Many of the most successful survival horror games aren’t really hard so much as challenging. They don’t bombard or crush the player so much as force them to think critically about the best way to get out of or around a situation.

    If a player is saying to themselves “Ugh, not this shit again!” then the activity is or has become tedious and frustrating rather than tense and scary.

  15. Great article chris! I thought I’d weigh in as well.

    I have been hooked on horror-themed games for quite a while (my first love of the genre came from RE2). When I was younger, I used to really get into games that had the sort of cheap “jump” scares (ex. for RE2, licker in the interrogation room). I always appreciated a good story, and some solid gameplay, but I adored the cheap thrills.

    When Silent hill first came out, I remember renting it with a friend and both of us being glued to the tv until we had finished it. However, this wasn’t because of the cheap thrills, but because of tension.

    Since then, I would have to say that my attraction to horror games comes from “tension”. In using chris’ article as a jump point, I feel that tension is created with the right level of difficulty and the right level of atmosphere.

    A more recent example would be deadspace. First off, I will say that I greatly enjoyed the game. When I first played it, I found that it provided a great amount of tension due to the strategic combat and atmosphere. However, the first time I died in the game, and realized that you simply reload in the previous room, the tension was completely lost. While the combat was fun, and the atmosphere was still great, I realized that there was no penalty for my actions. The difficulty dropped tremendously for me. Even going through the game on impossible mode didn’t seem too frightening.

    My final point, for tension, comes from one of my fav horror games, echo night for psone. For those of you who have not played this game, in some of the first sections of the game, you can only be attacked if a room is dark. I remember being absolutely chilled when i entered a room and the lights were off, and I scrambled quickly to find a way to turn them on before the antagonist showed up.

  16. They still make ‘good’ horror games. They just don’t make good ‘scary’ horror games. They are few and far between now, really.

    The Resident Evil series has took a complete ninety degree turn into the realm of James Bond meets Bubba Sawyer.

  17. Chris, does this mean you will add a difficulty rating to the reviews?

    I would love to see that since we hardly ever see a mainstream site/magazine/blog/telegram that considers low difficulty a con.

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