Chilling stories have accompanied our civilization since its dawn. Initially passed down orally, in the 18th century, they made their way onto the pages of books with Horace Walpole’s pioneering “The Castle of Otranto” published in 1764.

In cinema, the first horror film was presented in 1896, titled “The Devil’s Castle” (dir. George Méliès). The roots of horror games date back to 1972, nearly the beginning of gaming. What does this mean? As humans, we LOVE TO BE SCARED!

Although today we encounter horrors in every medium (books, comics, films, series), games have something special about them. The ability to step into the shoes of a character thrust into the heart of a terrifying story and control the fate of such a protagonist gives us a profound sense of immersion and experience, as if those stories were real.

But what truly makes a good horror video game? Story, atmosphere, or setting? Let’s delve into what makes good horror video games today!

The Best Horror Games of all time
GameReleaseDeveloper
Dead Space 2008-10-20 EA Redwood Shores
Alien Isolation 2014-10-06 Creative Assembly
Outlast 2013-09-04 Red Barrels
Left 4 Dead 2 2009-11-16 Valve
Amnesia Rebirth 2020-10-20 Frictional Games
Carrion 2020-07-23 Phobia Game Studio
Maid Of Sker 2020-07-28 Wales Interactive
Phasmophobia 2020-09-18 Kinetic Games
Resident Evil 3 2020-04-03 CAPCOM CO., LTD.
System Shock 2 1999-08-11 Irrational Games
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope 2020-10-30 Supermassive Games
The Last Of Us Part II (PS4) 2020-06-19 Naughty Dog
The Medium 2021-01-28 Bloober Team SA
Resident Evil 8: Village 2021-05-07 CAPCOM CO., LTD.
Dying Light 2 2022-02-04 Techland

Narrative and Setting

At the top of the list, there is undoubtedly an engaging, intriguing story and narrative. Unfortunately, without a well-written script that tells a captivating and emotion-filled story, it’s impossible to create a good horror game.

However, it’s essential for both the plot and narration to go hand in hand with the setting. These factors create an inseparable trio that, even if there are some shortcomings in terms of graphics or technical aspects, can defend itself in the eyes of even the most demanding players.

An excellent example of an excellent story, intriguing narration, and a great setting is Konami’s “Silent Hill” released in 1999. Immersed in fog and darkness, the atmospheric town and unsettling story kept players on edge to the very end.

Game Mechanics and Gameplay

Another crucial criterion for creating a good horror game is its mechanics and gameplay, affecting the game’s difficulty and the building of player engagement and specific emotions. What does this entail? Imagine a game with a great atmosphere and a well-written story, but no challenges.

Initially terrifying enemies and locations will become boring and predictable, leading to a loss of the fear that is crucial in good horror video games.

Horror games are meant to scare, keep players in suspense, and create an atmosphere of dread. How do the best ones achieve this? Limited resources (including ammunition) force players to plan their actions more carefully and be more cautious.

Another excellent way to enhance gameplay is to create AI-controlled enemies. This way, they are less predictable, behaving differently with each encounter, adding an element of surprise.

Another way to intensify emotions in gameplay is to create an almost defenseless protagonist whose only way to survive is to escape and hide. These mechanics worked perfectly in games like “Outlast” (2013) by Red Barrels and Frictional Games’ “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” (2010), where players must rely on stealth and evasion, intensifying the feeling of vulnerability.

Audio and Sound Design

It cannot be denied that the musical backdrop is of immense importance in creating good horror video games. Scientifically proven, sounds and music have a direct impact on our emotions. This means they are exceptional tools for creating an atmosphere of horror, darkness, and tension.

Silence is also a potent tool. How many times have you been alone at home at night when suddenly you heard a knocking sound that sent shivers down your spine? Unexpected sounds breaking the silence can increase tension and induce fear.

A great example of this is the game “Dead Space” (2008) created by Visceral Games, which uses isolated, haunting sounds in the vastness of space, punctuated by sudden shrieks to keep players anxious.

Visual Design and Graphics

Although games managed without perfect graphics in the past, it’s undeniable that the closer they get to realism, the more they increase immersion. However, it’s not about photorealism here; it’s about skilful design.

For example, the influence of light and shadows that create perfectly an atmosphere, adding suspense to the game. The aesthetics of locations and enemies also matter significantly. Games with terrifying creatures lurking in dimly lit locations are much scarier.

The first-person perspective has a significant impact on the game’s reception. Seeing the game world “through the eyes” increases immersion and allows players to identify even more with the protagonist. The added thrill is that we can’t see if something is lurking behind us.

A perfect example of clever use of visual design is “Resident Evil 7” (Capcom) released in 2017, which employs a first-person perspective for immersion, featuring meticulously detailed environments that play with light and shadow, heightening suspense.

Psychological Horror vs. Jump Scares

What can scare anyone? Jump scares! They are effective tools for inducing sudden fear and an adrenaline rush, but in many productions, both in games and movies, they are overused.

Psychological horror is much more important here because it builds tension and fear by combining all the elements mentioned in the above paragraphs. Ideally, when the game combines both psychological horror and well-placed jump scares.

A perfect example of such a title is “Layers of Fear” (2016), which uses a mix of psychological elements with an ever-changing environment, coupled with the occasional jump scare for added shock value.

Player Agency and Choice

Is there a greater nightmare than making the wrong decision and dealing with the consequences for a long time? The impact of moral choices and player decisions on gameplay development is another criterion that allows the creation of a genuinely good horror game.

Often, these choices not only affect current actions but also the story’s ending, allowing players to unlock one of many different endings. Additionally, this approach makes the game change into a real experience.

A great example of a game using this mechanism is “Until Dawn” from 2015, created by Supermassive Games, which lets players’ decisions determine who survives the night, adding weight to every action and increasing the stakes.

Conclusion

As you can see, creating the perfect horror game is not one of the easiest tasks. Good horror video games must combine a terrifying setting, an engaging and eerie plot, a frightening music and sound design, unsettling visuals, and elements of psychological horror with occasional jump scares. When all of this is seasoned with significant player decision-making, it’s possible to create an unforgettable horror gaming experience.

However, among all available media, games are the ultimate horror medium due to their interactive nature, allowing full immersion in a terrifying story and participation in it, rather than just observing it from the side.