Spooky Scary: How Horror Games Tick
Late at night, JJ Muste and myself were staying up late after a Living Legend event I ran, and we were talking about horror games, and what makes them fun. We were bemoaning the lack of structure for how to write a horror game. JJ compared it to “a cake we keep making even though we don’t have a recipe. We just keep throwing eggs in and hoping it works!” While we’ve produced a number of really good horror games over the years, we’ve failed to come up with a common pattern between the games besides the fact that they’re scary, and I’ve played in one or two games that just failed to do anything for me. This article hopes to lay out a coherent structure for writing the flow of a horror game, and how to make that interesting for the players while keeping things scary. But first, before we can discuss that, we need to figure out what exactly a horror game is..
What’s a Horror Game?
A horror game is a game where players are put up against the unknown, and feel scared about it. Most adventure games have conflict against the unknown – every time people run away from a monster, they’re playing their own little horror game. What makes a horror game different is that the tools the PCs have to fight the horror just aren’t good enough. Often, the PCs don’t have weapons at all, like in Perfectly Normal Game by Thomas Gordanier, or The Secret Light by Roy Graham and Deanna Abrams. In other horror games or games with more horror elements, the weapons the PCs have do absolutely nothing against the monsters, like in Silence Blooming by Jay Dragon and Jeremy Gleick or Slow Nova by Mike Phillips.
In addition, the game is scary. There’s probably monsters, who look and act in especially uncanny or spooky ways. There’s possibly torture, strange and haunting sets, and occasionally gruesome special effects.The best horror games offer a variety of different terrors for the players’ amusement. In The Secret Light, there were monsters in the woods, torturing blood mages, a room of magical scrolls that forced you to do terrible things to yourself, and a disgusting “truth eel” made of jello, which participants had to eat. This combines textural, visual, visceral, and physical horror together to create tableaus of terror. The “horror” of a horror game is the meat and potatoes of the adventure. I encourage you to check out scary stories, watch some spooky videos, and really think about what is it that you want to be so scary. Put a lot of work and thought into your Sets & Props and Costuming lists, and be sure to communicate with those staff members carefully, in order to capture the tone of the game.
But what do you do, now that you’ve got those scary concepts? How do you string together the terror in such a way that the PCs can maintain a healthy level of fear throughout the game, without burning out or getting overwhelmed? The answer to that, I believe, can be found in the following 5 Act Structure.
The Five Act Structure
There are 5 acts to a horror game, 5 sections which guide the flow of play. All horror games have these acts, and the trick to making a successful game is balancing them and giving them all room to breathe. I’ve played good horror games where the first act was 5 minutes, and I’ve played good horror games where the 4th act got lost in the shuffle. However, knowing that these acts exist will help make the game work well.
Act 1: Setting the Stage
Horror games need a feeling of something normal, before things get crazy. Maybe the campers are sitting around a fire singing songs, or the scientists are hard at work in the lab. Giving players time to sit around and act through what their lives are like without the horror helps them appreciate the chaos and terror of the future. People during this act are uneasy, knowing that something is coming, but having no clue as to what. It’s generally a good idea to give this act time to breathe, and let people really get into the normal parts of the world.
Act 2: Building Anticipation
During this act, things start getting a little weird. The scientists bring in the alien egg from outside, or you can hear laughter and howling in the woods and people want to go investigating. This act builds anticipation for the horror to come, and gets people ready to be scared, without overloading them too quickly. The PCs don’t get to see the horror yet, they just get to know that something bad is coming. This doesn’t have to be a long act, and there’s been plenty of good horror games where this act barely exists. However, I think it’s a valuable part of the game.
Act 3: Pandemonium
The horror has arrived everyone, in full force! The campers are running around being chased by killer clowns, or the aliens have burst through the airlock and are terrorizing the scientists. Often, during this part of game people have no clue what’s going on. This is a chance to really buckle down and enjoy the horror of the game. Get chased by monsters, get tortured by wizards, wander through grisly tableaux! This is a chance for players to really revel in their fear and discomfort, and this act of the game is where the biggest and flashiest horror lies. While it’s easy to make this the vast majority of game, people will eventually get bored of running around screaming and will want some way to improve their situation in life.
Act 4: Looking for Help
The horror doesn’t ratchet down. Things keep being just as scary as they were in act 3, but circumstances have changed. One way or another, the players feel like they have a way out of this mess. Perhaps they’ve learned about an exit from the clown dimension, or they intend on detonating the spaceship’s reactor, killing all the aliens before they can reach Earth. The players have the capacity to improve their situation. This doesn’t mean defeating the horror, by any means (although it can), it just means that the PCs feel like they have some agency, some ability to influence the world around them. The solution they seek shouldn’t be easy – it should be painful and potentially unlikely.
This is a great time for some Terrible Choices. Do you stab your friend because the clown told you to, or do you try to run away and get tortured yourself? Do you abandon your friends to escape the spaceship, or do you help them onto the pod at the expense of your life? PCs don’t have a lot of agency in horror games – often the most they can do in a situation is scream and run away. The Terrible Choice gives them the chance to impact things without losing the sensation of fear. Terrible Choices are good throughout the game, but they can add a scary touch to even a traditional flow diamond.
Act 5: Trying the Solution
In the final act, the players have the chance to implement the solution they’ve been working on. This will be some of the players booking it for the woods, frantically intoning the magic ritual, or finally making contact with the outside world and radioing in a nuclear strike. This solution doesn’t have to work. Maybe the clowns catch them when they run, or the aliens rip them to shreds before they reach the detonator. Regardless, this sets the stage for game to be called. It allows the players to feel like they’ve done their best, and that all that scariness was worth it.
Other Flow Structures
Silence Blooming, an Advanced Game run this summer by myself and Jeremy Gleick, made use of an unconventional flow structure that went against the three act structure. In Silence Blooming, players were unable to talk, and there was an active pressure that made the players unable to work together to develop a solution. This meant Act 4 and Act 5 impossible to occur. Instead, we developed an event which would allow for the game to come to a satisfying conclusion, and cut the game off once we felt it had run for a sufficient amount of time. However, even though there was no organized Act 4 and 5, we built in the capacity to escape the game, which allowed for individual players to achieve their own personal Act 4 and 5. In this way, the emotional satisfaction of the 5 act structure is more important than strict structure. Players want anticipation, revelry, and the chance to escape.
Hopefully, you’ve learned a fair amount about what makes horror fun, and how to implement it. Horror games aren’t easy! But if you have plenty of faith in your staff, an active imagination for the spooky, and an understanding of how to allocate and budget out the fear, you’ll be able to put together a great horror game in no time. Now get out there and get writing!
http://www.aijcrnet.com/journals/Vol_2_No_4_April_2012/16.pdf, a great comprehensive review of what horror is, examples of horror from throughout time, and a discussion on the demographics of a horror audience.
Here’s an article about Silence Blooming, by myself and Jeremy Gleick