Games are a medium for storytelling. While historically there have been games with no storytelling purpose, like Checkers or Pong, most modern games are narrative. The majority of tabletop games these days have a significant amount of lore (or in more extreme examples they actually have full stories to play through) and modern videogames are graded by critics for their storytelling. That said, the elements of a good traditionally told story, like those told around a campfire or in a book or movie, are very different from those that make a good game. Today, I’m going to talk about that from the perspective of horror stories, contrasting traditional storytelling with horror gaming. This is largely written from the tabletop perspective, but some of the differences are relevant for videogames as well.
- Player Characters Aren’t Victims, and You Can’t Pick a Lone Survivor
The cast of horror movies usually includes one hero and a whole bunch of fodder for the monsters/killer to tear through. These other characters may be interesting and even important, but they’re ultimately going to get killed to heighten the tension and set up a climax wherein the threat could be around every corner, or just on the other side of the camera.
In any medium other than a game this is fine. In a well-written movie or book you’re going to get just invested enough in the characters to shout “No, don’t go in there!” but not invested in them enough to be too terribly upset when they die. The exception, obviously, is Shelly from Friday the 13th Part Three in 3D. That kid deserved to be a hero dammit!
In a game, though, it’s different. The players are not actually there to be picked off one-by-one, for a couple of reasons. First, they’ve invented that character and are emotionally invested, which means that killing them off just to raise the tension is a dick move; and second, when their character dies they don’t get to play for at least a while and nobody’s going to be scared while he’s asking questions about rolling up his next character. So while you can have them find the corpses of NPCs and such, when a player character dies they should always feel like they had every opportunity to make a different decision and survive as a result. This brings us to…
- Players Need to Feel Overwhelmed but Not Totally Helpless
In horror, the protagonist usually doesn’t have much of a chance. Lovecraftian horror in particular tends to be particularly hopeless for its protagonists. That’s the point, after all, the horrors of the universe are actually so far beyond the realm of mortal comprehension that we cannot hope to triumph against them. Then again, sometimes people do, and in a game that needs to always be an option.
The reason is simple: games are an active medium. With other media, even if the reader knows that what’s about to happen is hopeless or a bad idea, the character always thinks there’s a shot at success. That chance to succeed is what motivates the character to go into the scary places and risk an encounter with the scary things. Even in combat, you should be careful of putting your heroes in an encounter that they do not have even a slim chance to win, even if winning in this case just means escaping. Consider Friday the 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan when young boxing champion Julius decides to fistfight with Jason. It doesn’t go his way, which surprises exactly nobody watching the movie, but because he thought at the beginning that he might have a chance we get to watch him go from hopeful and aggressive to hopeless and desperate.
Similarly, whether your players are battling a horde of zombies, deep ones, a zombie redneck torture family, werewolves, an evil Merman, crazy cults, Godzilla, otherworldly fiends, or Brock Lesnar, they should always feel like there’s a chance that they will come out alive, or potentially even on top. This flies in the face of a lot of the horror genre, especially Lovecraft, but it’s necessary for the game to be exciting. Otherwise, you’ll have the players saying things like “Well, I know this is going to get me killed, but since it’s clearly the plot hook…” You don’t want that.
The balance is hard to strike, and it’s different for each group of players, but it’s worth finding. Remember though that what’s important here is how your players feel about the encounter, not the real risk of the encounter, which brings us to…
- Players Are Not a Normal Audience
In traditional stories, the audience has no control over what the characters are doing. You may hope the characters make it out, or you might just want to see how they die, but either way you’re just along for the ride. Sure, you may shout futilely at the screen, but that’s where your interaction with the story ends.
Games require some level of agency. In horror there’s a little extra leeway for that agency to be taken away as characters are overcome with fear or madness, but that leeway should be used responsibly. In a game, there is anxiety and fear in whether you’re making the right decision. You have a chance to make it out alive, and there is a right answer, but the wrong answers are punished brutally. You can’t hear the voices shouting at you from the other side of the screen, unless you count the other players.
This is really the core difference between traditional stories and games, from which all other differences are derived. It’s not specific to horror, although agency becomes more important when the wrong decisions are more deadly. The fact that the characters can go off-book changes the narrative entirely, meaning you may have to deal with situations like that episode of Community where Abed created very smart characters who stood back to back in the middle of a room holding knives.
So what’s really the takeaway from all this? I think it’s that while a traditional story is about its characters or its setting, a game is ultimately about the players. Even when the characters are helpless or hopeless, the players need to feel like their decisions matter and can make a difference. The things that movies or novels gloss over because they’re no fun to watch are sometimes very much fun to be a part of, and narrative tropes that are cool to watch suck to be forced into.
That about sums it up! Happy Halloween everybody!