Aesthetic and immersion are everything in a horror game. Can you imagine walking through a version of Amnesia: The Dark Descent with soft, rainbow-colored hallways following the sounds of ice cream trucks and popcorn? No, give me a blood-drenched, zombified vampire-demon chasing me down in a hellish alternate reality, take my money, and leave me to shit my pants in fear. It’s all about the sounds and sights. In short, the environment.
There’s one classic horror trope that’s sadly underutilized by AAA developers (though in my opinion, overused in Hollywood). Haunted mansions. And no, I don’t mean the sad excuse for a game that Disney’s The Haunted Mansion, developed by High Voltage Software, was.
Let’s take a look at three games that did creepy mansions right and what makes them so memorable…
1) Resident Evil 1 (HD Remaster)
It’d be disrespectful not to start with the original “haunted mansion” horror experience. Remember when you encountered your first zombie eating your squadmate (now famously dubbed Turning Around Zombie)? Or when the dogs jumped through the windows? This game hit all the major elements you’d want in a haunted mansion: jump scares, music, puzzles, a mystery, and an impending threat.
Aside from the ever-looming enemies and the brilliant puzzles, there is one psychological factor this game nails perfectly that help make it so excellently creepy. Entrapment. There’s no way to escape the already-isolated mansion (it’s surrounded by devil dogs and encroaching zombies in the middle of freaking nowhere), so your only hope is to solve the mystery within. Feeling isolated and trapped causes humans to be uncomfortable and seek an escape – in this case, the escape is via exploration of a zombie-ridden, booby-trapped, virus-infested manor. Give the player the occasional safe room, and send them on their way, only to get trapped again and eaten by Lisa Trevor. What would make it even creepier is when that safe room turns out to not be so safe, after all…
2) Luigi’s Mansion
Another classic, Luigi’s Mansion isn’t a ‘horror’ game per se, but it does hit some of the key points that all haunted mansion games need – chiefly, puzzles and expanse. The game does an awesome job at weaving a narrative through the ghosts’ personalities, but where it really shines is allowing players to feel that “ah-ha!” moment after solving a puzzle that rewards them with coins, secrets, or even better – more mansion to explore.
Humans are innately curious, and like Resident Evil, the idea of exploring a huge, seemingly-abandoned mansion is just too much fun to pass up. Couple that with the occasional locked door or hidden key that require the player to solve a puzzle, and the reward centers in our brains are practically exploding with dopamine. Plus, puzzles are a nice break from that shadow you thought you saw out of the corner of your eye, right…?
I can’t talk about horror games without mentioning PT. What makes this game so creepy is everything right about it – the ambience, the repetition, the subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes, the jump scares, and without a doubt the photorealism. Taking something so familiar and comforting as a normal hallway in a house and slowly turning it into a nightmare creates the feeling of apprehension and dread that every haunted house thrives on.
Psychologically, we’re talking humans’ agent detection mechanism. It’s the voice in your head that panics and says, “Did you hear that?” when you’re alone at home in the dark. That sense that maybe something or someone is watching you through your window at night. There is something supernatural that’s causing the air to turn cold, the curtains to rustle, and that bump in the other room, and you’re hypervigilant of it. That hypervigilance is what makes those jump scares, when they do finally happen, oh so scary.
So What’s Next?
There needs to be a new haunted mansion game that combines Resident Evil, Luigi’s Mansion, and PT. It doesn’t really matter if it’s ghosts, zombies, or a vampire-demon that’s causing the spooks, just as long as it’s a satisfyingly creepy experience. It’s 2018 and we know what works and doesn’t work in games anymore, so to the horror game developers out there – stop making huge worlds like The Evil Within and instead give us a legitimately disturbing, scary experience that’s a little more… close to home.
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