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Dissecting Psychological Horror


My latest blog came across as somewhat negative and, while I wrote it with as much passion as I could muster, it was an incredibly draining experience. 
So how about I get back to what I do best, that being fawning over the horror genre.
One of these days I'm going to run out of things to say on this topic and my blogs will cease to exist.

Thankfully, it is not this day.

Now I've spoken about numeorus topics, but I very rarely talk about psychological horror, which is strange considering that its my favourite sub-genre. Games like Silent Hill, Amnesia and Fatal Frame all prided themselves on atmosphere and tension, utilising tone to a fantastic degree which allowed for the exploration of various different themes and stories.  

Hopefully throughout the course of this blog I can dissect why the sub-genre works so perfectly when done right, investigate some of the various tropes used by developers and how important the genre is in the grand scheme of the videogame industry.

Many people who look at the horror genre probably think that those who create these types of games must be twisted in some way, as if their brains are hard-wired to think up the worst things humanly possible and force players to experience them too. 
I believe that those who write good psychological horror are geniuses. 

This sub-genre taps into the darker side of humanity and forces us to think on our own emotions, both good and bad.

Understanding Humanity 


The greatest form of fear is the fear of the unknown, this much we know. It encompasses many different fears, not knowing whether your loved ones are safe, not knowing how to deal with a life-or-death situation... Not even knowing if you are real in the first place. 
Psychological horror writers understand the deepest fears of humanity, playing off them and crafting an experience that chills their audience.

In theory, psychological horror game developers have an easier task at creating a twisted story, as they can use visual tools to show the reader instead of epxlaining the horror to them. This allows the player to see physical manifestations of their own fears directly in front of them, effectively having to face their fears in order to progress. 
Most games in this sub-genre will have a core theme that the entire story is centred around, which is then explored more and more as the game continues. 

Silent Hill 2 for example explores very human fears, such as loss, abuse and loneliness. Through the use of these topics, the developers manage to create a chilling experience and touch upon mature themes that are very rarely explored elsewhere by other, less ambitious developers. 
Exploring loneliness was an interesting concept as, other than two or three topics (guilt and loss spring to mind immediately), it is one of the most commonly shared negative feelings across humanity and yet it is rarely explored in horror games.

At least, it isn't explored or shown in the same way that Silent Hill 2 shows it.

Encompassing the town of Silent Hill in a thick fog that essentially cuts the player off from the rest of the world and, what is actually a coding trick to hide pop-in, ends up acting as a physical representation of the loneliness that James had felt since his wifes death. He is literally seperated from everything and everyone in his own little world. 
Other than technical limitations though, the fog in the Silent Hill series also helps with something that all good games in this genre have to have in order to be memorable: Atmosphere. 
Scary monsters are all well and good, but psycholgical horror revels in subtlety. While walking through the fog, you may catch a glimpse of an enemy far off, obscured from view and by playing off of the fear of the unknown, the monster becomes twice as frightening. 

A more specific design staple of any horror game is its sound design. Much like your environment, sound is important when wanting to create a well-rounded atmosphere. 
The clang of pipes as a faraway enemy attempts to intimidate you, the rustling of leaves to set the mood of something being off in this world, the clomping noise of footsteps as they approach you.
Psychological horror is as much about the unseen as it is about confronting physical fears and what better way to scare you, than with the unseen, creating a sound that will unnerve you. 
Music is obviously factored into this as well as ambient effects, and we, as humans, have musical notes and sounds that we are more scared of than others. Violin strings being scratched length-ways with a blade creates a horrible, nails-on-chalkboard effect that cuts through you, while high-pitched piano music can build to a crescendo, allowing tension to be built before paying off.

Both sight and sound are incredibly important in crafting a memorable psychadelic experience, without one of those things, how could you make a player feel tense? How else would you rack up the tension? If you're attemtping to scare your audience you have to understand what makes them tick... And what will make them frightened. 

For instance, many people have a deep lying fear of losing their minds whether it be through disease or trauma, so it's no surprise that changing the environment in a game as the player goes through it can really put them on edge.  
In game-design, it's difficult to achieve this level of trickery, but in order to really twist the minds of the player, developers try their best to make the player feel as helpless and weak as the player character, while also causing them to question the environment around them. 

Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent as an example. It's obvious that the creators knew how to play on our fears of insanity, the unknown and existentialism and the only way they could possibly have been able to do such a thing is if they understood humanity, both its psoitive and negative emotions. 
In many instances throughout the game, creatures attack the player but before they hurt your character, they vanish, making you ever more cautious and unsure of whether the next encounter will be real or not. 
By creating an air of uncertainty around what is real and what is not, the developers of Amnesia manage to make players question the reality the game is set in, forming a link between player and protagonist, through gameplay no less.

Amnesia practically orders the player to ask themselves the same questions that the protagonist, Daniel, asks himself all the way through the game, allowing them to explore thematic elements that are very Lovecraftian in nature. 
If you lost all of your memory (except for your name) are you still the same person before you lost your mind? Do you think you would still love your friends and partner if you started with a clean slate of emotions? If you found out that you had done something abhorrent in your past before the mind-wipe, would you still stand by your decision or condemn yourself? 

Dynamic use of the changing of environments was used in the newer Layers of Fear, expanding upon the ideas that Amnesia began to explore, where enviromental objects distort and change in appearance, or entire corridors open up when the player isn't looking. In terms of messing around with the physics of an in-game world, Layers of Fear does it incredibly well, making it one of the brighter spots of that particular horror game. 
But while the game does have some decent psychlogical horror in the changing of its world, it doesn't hold a candle to Amnesia in any other department; least of all when it comes to exploring deeper themes. Without a strong exploration of deep themes or a decent representation of what the developers want you to think on, Layers of Fear comes off as a game trying to be a psychological horror game, and failing in almost all of the areas that matter. 

Psychological horror requires creators to have a deep understanding of what makes humans tick.
Yes, every creator of art wants to make you feel something, but very few genres can tap into humanity as clearly as horror can, especially this particular sub-genre. It makes us, as people, face the very worst of our humanity and allows us to appreciate the positivity in our lives even more.
Developing a piece of art around the idea of making your audience face deep psychological fears/traumas can be risky, but if pulled off correctly, you can create something truly special. 

Most other horror connoisseurs already know all this however, and it's no good exploring this sub-genre of horror if I don't talk about, given how old psychological horror is as a genre, it isn't exactly a surprise that, it has established its own tropes that are very easy for the savvy consumer to pick up on.
It isn't a bad thing really, but in order for me to really dissect the genre, I have to dive into what makes it tick... Including some old cliches. 

If it Ain't Broke...

Let's start with arguably the most important part of any game, that being the story that the developers want to tell. All great psychological horror games have a strong plot, with almost every one of those plots starting with the protagonist arriving in a remote location, normally a place that is uninhabited and has an air of intimidation about it. 
A lot of the time, the characters memories will be influenced by the location they find themselves in and misremember key bits of information in order for a big reveal to come later in the game that clears up certain plot-holes.

This is, in all honestly, an incredibly useful trope as it allows the writers to mess with the player in a number of ways, such as distorting the environments or creating situations that shouldn't be logically possible. Writing the story with sane characters in an insane environment is what allows for the director of the game and the writers of the story to mess about with the standard gameplay of a videogame, which in turn adds to the atmosphere of the story. 
Plot twists normally occur at the end of the story (with both players and characters finding out the information at the same time), but the game Soma is sort of an anomaly in this regard, as it reveals pieces of information throughout the course of the game (with the supposed 'big twist' being revealed in the first act), while also piling on more and more philisophical questions onto the player, resulting in a climactic 'final choice' at the end of the game; which is given extra weight due to what the game, up until this point, has made you think about. 

Obviously, for every story, you require characters, and in psychological horror games a common trope is to have a protagonist who is normally an everyman, an 'Average Joe' of sorts.
I'm talking about James Sunderland, Daniel, Alan Wake... People with jobs and lives that don't revolve around being in dangerous situations. By creating characters that are more in-line with real life people the writers will allow players to connect with them far quicker than a character who is a member of the armed forces (for instance every character in the F.E.A.R franchise). 
It also creates a reason as to why these characters aren't natural fighters, which gives birth to another trope where the characters will prefer to run and hide or take preventative measures to avoid combat.
(In actuality, the programmers might not have the skill to create a dynamic fighting system or the budget on the game means that combat has to take a back-seat, so by creating the 'everyman' trope of horror games, the whole development team crafts a way to get past budgetary constraints).

It's also quite interesting to note that some of the most fondly remembered psychological horror games feature a whole slew of horrific creatures and creepy goings-on.
When looking back at these set-pieces and monstrous creations, they almost all feature one common trait: They are almost always related to the main charcater someway, either physically or psychologically.
By linking the setting and enemies to the main cast of heroes, the developers add a layer of richness to the plot and, in turn, this creates a greater sense of depth to the characters you meet along the course of the game, but when it is revelaed that the creatures are simply manifestations of the player-character's fractured psyche, it isn't really a surprise anymore. 

Those are just a few of the most prominent tropes, with others such as the fact that most protagonists have had some sort of tragedy, familial or otherwise, befall them; or that something or someone has been lost and a lot of the plot is devoted to the main character attempting to find them while fighting off horrific apparitions (or, as more recent survival horror games have been showing, attempting to hide from them). 

These tropes are to psychological horror what controllers are to console. They are necessary in order to tell a story, create an exploration of mature themes and making a cast of characters and enemies that are easily indentifiable.

Not all tropes are bad, in fact when it comes to this particular genre, I find them most of them to be necessary. 
These type of games wouldn't have made the impact they have without them to be honest. 

The Importance of Being Afraid


Psychological horror will never die. 
The stories that the genre can tell are too varied, the themes it tackles too mature, the creatures it creates too iconic to just be forgotten. 

There is now, however, a real lapse in quality psychological horror games.
The previously mentioned Layers of Fear tried to explore themes of insanity and pride, but couldn't craft a proper atmosphere given the amount of cheap jumpscares the developers smothered inside of it, while The Evil Within had the core concept of a great psychological horror game (exploring many people's worst nightmares Inception-style? Yes please), but couldn't shrug off the Resident Evil skin that clung to it, effectively sacrificing tension for flashy action set-pieces. 

It appears as if developers have forgotten the power of being afraid. 
Being afraid is what helps us to learn, not just about the world but about ourselves. 
Fear helps us grow because it is another obstacle to overcome.

Psychological horror offers us a look at ourselves, it offers up the parts of our psyche that we are told not to dwell on. Yes, this genre can shock and appall us, but when it manages to pull off its messages flawlessly, very few pieces of art can match it. 
Everyone has felt the sting of loss, the emptiness of being alone, the gnawing of guilt; so showing your playerbase characters who suffer as they do makes them feel more human, more relatable.
Then when your game is finished and the player has set it down and started to digest your story, that is when your themes will become more prominent than ever, because in our memory the game will stir up emotions inside of us, whether it be positive or negative.
Regardless of what it is, a well-written psychological horror game will leave an impact on its players because those types of stories, no matter how terrifying, are the most human. 

Horror games are, by their very nature, intended to be for a mature audience, meaning they should be aiming to explore ideas that aren't touched upon elsewhere in the medium. The genre is not kept to the same boundaries that others are, it can tell you its messages through sight and sound as opposed to oe or the other.
Visual storytelling, in any game, will provide players with more depth than simply spouting the information to you, and very few genres offer as much freedom to physically show your metahors than the psychological-horror genre.

Now more than before, psychological horror has a market and can really make an impact.
There was a reason why Silent Hills was as anticipated as it was, why new and interesting horror games are getting more and more press, its because there's nothing quite like an excellent psychological horror game.

The industry has the power to bring out games that take risks, deal with important and mature subject matter and thrill audiences with a dark tone and well-paced scares. 
Yet out of fear of investing in a niche title, the games industry might very well be denying us the possibility of having the next Silent Hill 2.

Personally, I think that's the scariest thing of all. 

- Make Tea. Eat Crumpets. Play Games.

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About TheLimoMakerone of us since 6:59 AM on 03.25.2015

'Sup fools, it's me, ya basic British boy.

Been on Destructoid for five years and counting now, but have been reading for this wholesome site since November 2010.

The community has welcomed me despite being as cynical as one can get, and for that I will always be grateful.
Despite my seemingly hard front, I'm a softie at heart and will always give you the time of day, whether it be on Destructoid, Discord or if I'm fortunate enough to be carried by you in an online game.

Story-driven games are my forte, along with horror games, RPG's and FPS games.
To be honest, I'm someone who will play absolutely anything I can get my hands on; I believe you can find excellent games in the strangest of places.

Also decided to add my Games of the Year from years past, just because I can't really place my thoughts elsewhere:

2010 - Nier

2011 - Portal 2

2012 - Spec-Ops: The Line

2013 - The Last of Us

2014 - Valiant Hearts

2015 - Undertale

2016 - Oxenfree

2017 - Persona 5: The Royal

2018 - Return of the Obra Dinn

2019 - Disco Elysium