Boston GameLoop 2016: Horror Games/Scary Games

Boston GameLoop is an annual game development unconference. I’ve been going for years, and I’m always impressed by the sheer wealth of knowledge available. I’ve written up my notes below, but I haven’t fleshed them out this year and they’re more than a bit incoherent (apologies for that!) I hope they’ll still be useful.

GameLoop participants: I have not attached anyone’s names to these writeups (except for talk leaders), and I’ve mostly scrubbed personal anecdotes out to maintain the privacy of attendees. Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • You think I got something from the discussion wrong


Horror Games/Scary Games

Discussion leader: Arden Ripley

Mental illness horror perpetuates harmful stereotypes; this is not cool, don’t do that

Many different kinds of horror:

  • TV Tropes “fridge horror”, when things become scary after the fact
  • Environmental horror
  • Jump scares
  • Slowly dawning wrongness
  • Existential horror

SOMA – same studio as Amnesia, no combat, very different

STALKER series – Russia/Ukraine, example of scarcity narrative

Pathologic – similar vein, plague/existential horror

Horror games rarely have morality systems – very shades-of-gray. Ambiguity and agency together inspire emotion and investment.

Playing a horror game isn’t like watching a horror movie – “Don’t go through the door!” You choose to go through.

Liz England – IF horror game (Her Pound of Flesh)

One horror source: uncaring world, impersonality of horror

Immersiveness as the key – mechanics subdued, tutorials either blended or concealed

Horror games often force you to make an authentic choice/action (even when they’re not actually branching games)

The Walking Dead (Telltale) <– to make this game extra creepy, let every dialogue sequence time out

What kind of person are you?

Active choices encourage connection. Passive do not. (Note: This was a recurring theme in the relationships talk as well.)

Zero Escape <– visual novels, metaaware

If a game is too scary, it will overwhelm players and they will quit. Think about what success means: are you okay with players quitting?

What kind of challenges are people up for? Always a fail state –

  • horror games can make them feel scared/nauseous
  • puzzle games (like The Witness) can make them feel stupid
  • games like Dark Souls can make them feel bad at video games

Silent Hill 4 – repeatedly sends you back to your apartment as a safe place/save spot… and then the apartment starts morphing in subtle/awful ways

Save points help you control a player’s mindset when they return to the game

Forcing breaks in the game has pros and cons (see: the debate over Christine Love’s Hate Plus, which forces play over three real-time days, and also enough time to bake a cake)

IM/text message games on mobile <– immersive

Pacing is a key element in horror.

Mystery is a key draw in horror – why?

Mechanics: in a conserved resources game, there are two fail states:

  • bottom the player out completely, and they feel too helpless to succeed/continue
  • allow players to undo their own scarcity, and they gain too much control and the scariness ends

Non-horror games can have horror aspects – see nighttime in Starbound and Minecraft

Don’t Starve <– okay you finally have to try this (Note: you don’t, O Reader, but that’s literally what my note says)

The Long Dark

Horror stories: What are we afraid of?

Death is scary – but actually dying is jarring as heck, breaks immersion, shuts down the horror experience

Death does not have to be the source of scariness or the end of a game

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem <– lose control rather than dying

Avoid systems/story dissonance

Haunting Ground: cut scenes and situation-tailored death, AI learns where you hide

Common horror themes: being chased, hiding, powerlessness

The Forest <– Steam, impressions from first death

Demon Souls: Why go back when you’re safe? Works for some people not for others.

Make death part of the content – plot, character, situation

The Path: encourages you to break the in-game rules and seek out death, experiments with death as a win condition

Blocking death entirely can make players unhappy, removes agency (one of the Prince of Persia games did this, not the storytelling one)

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