SOMA, BioShock and horror: how games tap into our internal fears

Last week, we explored the roles that sounds and AI play in terrifying gamers. This week we shift our focus to the narrative, how storylines direct our experience of horror, and examine the games that are using increasingly sophisticated scare tactics.

For starters, let’s pick up on something that slipped behind the filing cabinet last week. Smart AI is great – and terrifying when used cleverly – but it isn’t the be-all and end-all of fear. In fact, monsters can often be at their most unsettling when they come across less like clever beings and more like relentless marionettes.


(Above: Silent Hill 2 – Director’s Cut)

The monstrosities in the Silent Hill series are not exactly what you’d call bright. Neither are the zombies in the first three Resident Evil games. One Reddit user, responding to last week’s article, highlighted Silent Hill 2, and how it succeeds in being frightening not because of high-level AI, but because it uses techniques that instil a sense of confusion, doubt and helplessness in the player.

In all the excitement of talking about AI trickery, it’s easy to forget the key part of the equation: it isn’t how smart the enemy seems, but how vulnerable the player feels. There are myriad gameplay techniques developers use get this done – smart AI is one way, but it can also be something simple such as reducing light levels, or something more subtle such as forcing the player to switch between a flashlight and a gun. There’s also a lot to be said about perspective – how the camera angles in games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill limit what the player is able to see at any one time.

(Above: Resident Evil by way of Spaced)

Going beyond mechanics, though, one crucial way to achieve a sense of vulnerability is through narrative. Story often gets overlooked when talking about horror, but when you’re looking to go deeper than jump scares, the writing is what really brings the gut punches.

The story tells you what to be scared of

“I think the story’s job is to contextualise the scares,” games writer and narrative designer Tom Jubert told me. “Getting jumped by a dude with a knife is a different experience to getting jumped by a thing with unknown capabilities. The gameplay tells you to be scared, but the story tells you what to be scared of.”

Jubert has worked on games including The Talos Principle, FTL, The Swapper and Driver: San Francisco. While the frequent use of philosophy and ethics in his writing has helped him to establish a unique voice in the games industry, he initially got his break working in the horror genre writing for the Penumbra series. Jubert told me that his attitude towards games writing has always been to let the gameplay do the heavy lifting.horror_games_penumbra

(Above: Penumbra: Black Plague)

“That involves establishing characters and a backstory that will naturally lead to certain kinds of conflict and threat – unknown motives and powers are great for this. The scariest thing about Red [in the Penumbra series] is that you don’t know whose side he’s on for a long time. The scariest thing about Clarence [also in the Penumbra series] is that you know he’s not on your side, but you don’t know what he’s capable of. As H.P. Lovecraft said, the ‘fear of the unknown’.”

Alien isn’t only scary because of big aliens, but because is suggests that our own bodies can be used against us.

Fear of the unknown is a powerful tool, and that fear extends beyond monsters. Horror can upset things that we take for granted; it can take known concepts and throw them into uncertainty. Dawn of the Dead isn’t only scary because of flesh-eating zombies, but because there’s the feeling that our society isn’t as stable as we might believe it is. Alien isn’t only scary because of big aliens, but because is suggests that our own bodies can be used against us. Silent Hill 2 isn’t only a great game because of its persistent claustrophobic atmosphere, but because it throws the psychology of its main character into question.

(Above: Cell scene in Silent Hill 2)

I spoke to Thomas Grip, creative director at Frictional Games. As well as the Penumbra series, Grip has worked on Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the recently released SOMA. He told me that he wants his games to disturb players on a psychological level – a process that requires an artful, steadily-evolving narrative that slowly, minute by minute, exerts its power over the player’s mind.


(Above: Soma)

“We want scares to go beyond the ‘ghost that goes boo’ variety, and do things that stick with the player,” Grip told me. “You cannot do it by simply relying on the game’s mechanics. There must be something in the totality of the experience that resonates with the player. Then you try to build up to a moment that feels like a real gut punch. Making this work is a long process and it often takes a longer playtime.”

That gut punch is the sweet spot – something that goes beyond surface level, jump-scare shocks. Without giving too much away about the story of SOMA, the game, which some have described as an existential horror, builds over the course of several hours into a deeply unsettling crescendo that throws the player’s own identity into uncertainty. There are enemies, yes, but what cuts to the core is how the game manages to toy so expertly with the protagonist, and make that protagonist’s own existence seem unknown.

Getting to know you

In a 2005 interview with PC Gamer about the excellent Thief: Deadly Shadows, veteran developer Jordan Thomas was asked where he thought horror in games goes wrong. His response lamented the dearth of games that draw players in deep enough to make lasting memories – he said he wanted his “scares to leave scars”. Ten years have passed since that interview, and Thomas has since been involved in games such as BioShock, BioShock 2, BioShock Infinite and the recently released The Magic Circle. I asked Thomas how his attitude has changed in the interim.

“Hey, you’re a participant here too. Let’s sing a duet.”

“I’m more interested in getting to know the player than I was back then. I’ve tried to add a little more dynamism to my work – a chance for the players to express themselves. Like in BioShock’s Sander Cohen level [Fort Frolic] – you’re invited to participate in this awful work of snuff art. That was a baby step, but it was me trying to say, ‘Hey, you’re a participant here too. Let’s sing a duet.’”


(Above: BioShock)

“As you get deeper into that level, there’s a sequence where you’re asked to dance in the spotlight while hundreds of Splicers descend on you. Players did pick up the joke and, despite being creeped out by the level, would time their wrench strikes to go with each crescendo, recognising that they were being asked to dance.”

On the one hand, nothing could be less scary than running around in a musical frenzy. On the other hand, “dancing” in this way makes the player feel somewhat complicit in Cohen’s actions. There is an element of psychological horror here, in exaggerating the players’ actions so that their own slaughter becomes as gleefully psychopathic as the antagonist.

“I think my mental model of fear was maturing at the time,” Thomas said. “I was getting older and the idea of your own guilt – the transgressions inside yourself that you wish you could unsee – were becoming more interesting to me. You didn’t go to the Sander Cohen level to play psycho, but once you get going there’s a certain thrill to violent play and transgression. You could watch players start with a smirk and then by the end their brows would furrow and they’d say [laughing] ‘maybe I need to reevaluate my life’.”

The horror, the horror

Holding up a mirror to the player and forcing them to examine the moral and ethical impact of their actions is an entirely different sense of horror –  the dawning, complex awfulness of one’s own self versus simple hordes of scary-looking monsters. Instead of jump-off-your-seat-because-a-zombie-dog-just-jumped-through-the-window, it’s stay-awake-at-night-because-the-human-race-is-capable-of-terrifying-acts. Much less Dracula in his castle and more Marlon Brando slowly unravelling in the jungle.

Less Dracula in his castle and more Marlon Brando slowly unravelling in the jungle

From speaking to Thomas, it seems that part of the reason for this is down to a broadening out of “Things That Are Scary”: “As popular as jump scare games have become, they’re getting a little samey. You can see the zeitgeist tiring of them again because they keep using the same tricks. A game like Papo & Yo, where the monster has a very strong metaphorical and personal artistic component to it – and deals with a problem that affects thousands of families every day – that is much scarier to me. It leaves the boundaries of the game and becomes something you need to actually think about afterwards.”papo_y_yo

(Above: Papo & Yo)

Papo & Yo – a puzzle-platformer largely set in broad daylight – is not a horror game, and yet it tackles unsettling themes including alcoholism and domestic abuse. These issues are scary. They might not be scary in a supernatural way, but they are terrifying. This isn’t to say that we should start thinking of games that touch on social problems as horror titles, but rather that  games are slowly broadening their interpretation of fear beyond the supernatural and taking inspiration from the darker corners of real life.

“I want to see more daylight horror, more horror of context or horror of personal investment,” Thomas told me. “We played a little with that in BioShock 2, where we tried a proxy daughter figure that would be shaped by your own good or ill choices. Maybe there would be a certain amount of dread of having done it wrong, which I can echo now that I’m an actual parent. That stuff gets under my skin in a way that ‘will a monster eat me’ does not any more.”the_walking_dead

(Above: The Walking Dead)

A lot has been written about the “dadification” of gaming – how aging (generally male) game developers are bringing with them a different set of imperatives. There are plenty of issues with this in terms of representation, not least in the predilection towards father characters and the sidelining of mother characters, but it, nevertheless, shows that games are deepening their emotional scope. You could imagine that, 20 years ago, the focus of a game like The Walking Dead or The Last of Us would be very different. Both of those games are based around surviving in a zombie-ridden apocalypse, and yet it is the fear of responsibility, rather than the fear of the undead, that truly fuels the experience.

It’s great to see core horror games still being made, but it’s also exciting to see developers taking risks and injecting elements of social horror and psychological dread into non-horror titles. Silent Hill is very different from Alien: Isolation, and both are very different from The Walking Dead. While it’s arguable whether all of these are “horror games”, their variety is testament to a medium that is learning new ways to make us afraid.

If you enjoyed this, read part one of this series on fear in gaming, or read the full interview with veteran game developer Jordan Thomas.

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