Welcome to Horror Declassified — here we’ll be examining mechanics, tropes and design philosophies that are common in the horror genre. Have something you’d like covered? Send us an email.
Written by Matthew Ritter, @matthewmritter
Lights. Camera. Darkness!
Horror video games have always been, with very few exceptions, dark. No, I’m not talking about the tone, but a literal absence of light. People are scared of the unknown, and because it’s hard to see in the dark, people are afraid of the dark. Horror games, as the genera name suggests, feed off this fear.
Horror games and darkness go back a long way. As far as I know, the earliest such example is Haunted House back on the Atari 2600, where a pair of eyes ran around a badly drawn maze. The character was portrayed by the aforementioned eyes, because they were moving around a mansion that was supposed to be “dark” and in the dark, you are just a pair of eyes, or so cartoon logic tells us. The action button lit a match which illuminated the area directly around the player. Thus, the use of darkness in games as both a mood setter and gameplay mechanic was born.
It didn’t stop there. Dark levels became a mainstay of video games, and not just horror games. It was used to increase the difficulty and for mood. Horror games like the original Clock Tower, used it mainly to increase the intensity of the given situation, but Megaman for example, often uses darkness to make platforming more challenging.
The player’s ability (or lack thereof) to control the darkness is a gameplay concept you see all over the place. Such as in The Legend of Zelda, wherein the player often has to light lanterns to solve puzzles. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, there are creepy forests where the colors dip and the lighting is spooky. Half-Life had a flashlight with a set battery life. These aren’t even considered horror games, but they still play with the light and dark dynamic.
Darkness, and by proxy light, is often used to control the player. Players are more apt to stay in brightly lit areas even when they aren’t physically stopped from going into the dark. Sometimes, however, darkness is used as a roadblock, with the player unable to continue until they find some sort of light source. That idea dates back at least as far as Zork, a text adventure game in which a monster called a Grue would eat the player if they wandered around in the dark, forcing them to complete light related puzzles.
More recently, games like Left 4 Dead extensively used lighting in level design to control player movement, with things like car headlights often being used to draw players in certain directions. They were similarly employed to make certain areas feel foreboding, or to feel welcoming. This is all an attempt to corral the players like sheep through the play area in the most efficient and enjoyable way possible.
Lighting being taken away can also be used to control the player’s senses. When all the light in an area is extinguished and you have nothing but a flashlight, a match, or sometimes nothing at all, you are left with only your hearing. An ominous monologue, the shuffling of a creature… when the visuals are taken away, the sound design comes front and center, and with full force. Some games, like Deep Sea, have even taken this idea to it’s logical extreme, where sound is the entire experience.
The flashlight has often been the most common use of ‘player as lighting’. A single island in the dark, often with limited batteries to force it to be used sparingly. Doom 3 used the idea of making the player choose between equipping a weapon or a flashlight to attempt to ratchet up the tension, even though many players weren’t too happy with that decision. Unsurprisingly, one of the first mods for the game attached a light to your gun.
There are other inventive ways light and dark are used, such as in Alan Wake and Luigi’s Mansion. Despite being radically different from one another, in almost every way they have one thing in common: they each use light as a weapon. In both games, you have to aim the flashlight at enemies to make them vulnerable. Light literally becomes the tool they use to face the terror around them. While they then dispatch their foes quite differently, at its core its the same idea.
Darkness as a gameplay element of course comes from the central human condition. Comfort in the light and fearing the dark. Darkness takes away clarity, it adds confusion and uneasiness. Through careful control of both the light and the dark, an atmosphere of horror can be created, and in some cases just an out-and-out feeling of terror.
As it’s a centerpiece of human psychology, it’s not a factor that’s going away any time soon. So the next time you’re playing a game and you’re starting to feel tense. Check the lighting, it’s probably playing a part.
Pro Tip: Horror games really are better when played with the lights out.