So relatively recently i watched Alien for the first time and although i didn’t find it remotely scary, years of watching comedy sci-fi appears to have completely desensitised me to the xenomorph, not that i will be giving quiche a chance any time soon, it did get me thinking about how horror stories work.
If you’ve ever watched Alien you may have noticed that the titular Alien doesn’t actually appear in full till the very end of the movie, and even then that’s after it’s ceased being a problem for Ripley and the radioactive particle clouds that were her peers and thus doesn’t need to create tension anymore. Not showing the monster benefits the movie because the unknown scares people.
This reminded me of Chuck Jones’ rules of RoadRunner, which if you haven’t heard of them are a set of 9 guidelines he used to write satisfying to watch road runner cartoons, so I thought I’d try and do the same for horror movies. First some definitions:
Protagonist(s): the main character or characters who the audience are supposed to identify with and whose plight they follow.
Fodder: characters who will die or otherwise have horrible things happen to them which render them unable to act for the rest of the work, these may or may not be protagonists.
Monster(s): the character or group of characters who are a threat to the protagonist(s).
Audience: the person or people experiencing the work.
Rule 1: The presence of the Monster(s) is worth more than the Monster(s) themselves. As with in my Alien example above you do not need to show your monster no matter how unsettling it may or may not look to raise suspense, if you have an unsettling Monster to show then feel free to but regardless if you show it or not have it do something that implies why it’s a threat to the Protagonist(s) rather than just have it jump out menacingly for shock value. Have a monster that can teleport? show your audience that it can and they may well be checking behind themselves for flayed ones as they go to bed that night. Zombies? have the protagonist carry a memento of a turned love one and give them a scene explaining it or talking to the dead person. make sure to pay off at least some of your implications too so that all your l33t spoopy writing doesn’t just fall as empty threats. TL;DR: Build up presence, Use presence.
Rule 2: The Protagonist(s) are not too dumb or too abrasive to live. If they are then they are not a Protagonist, nobody is going to watch a horror movie and think “i sure hope nothing bad happens to this asshole who doesn’t heed ‘No Trespassing, Government Property’ signs” or care if they die, this should be self-evident. Any decision made by the Protagonist(s) must make sense to the audience at the time of them making them. This doesn’t mean they have to be logical or right as long as they’re not suicidally stupid and they must be justified in universe. A good example of doing this wrong is the scene in Dreamcatcher where that guy gets off the toilet. A good example of doing this right is where Ripley, Dallas and Lambert are arguing about bringing Kane back on-board, Dallas was making the Wrong decision, but unless you’ve watched… any given episode of star trek the original series featuring a god-like being for all you know he was taking an acceptable risk given the medical facilities of the Nostromo to save the life of one of his crew, and Ripley was making the Right decision, if one that at face value seems harsh. then this is resolved by the secondary monster Ash taking a side to further his agenda, which builds his presence for when his Monster nature is actually revealed (see rule 1), not only is this a great scene but also necessary because if it didn’t happen the audience would have been wondering why nobody tried to quarantine Kane. TL;DR: Your characters shouldn’t be willingly suicidal or make decisions that shatters the audience’s empathy for them without good reason, but as long as it makes sense at the time then they can make wrong decisions.
Rule 3: Winning is Hard, Losing is Easy. Any encounter with the Monster(s) must be lopsided in the monster’s favour and carry a real chance of character death. For example with Zombies: Zombies are most of the time easy to deal with when the protagonist(s) are armed but will usually show up in vast numbers and one slip up will result in someone being bitten. there is also the very real chance of being swarmed or overrun more so with fast zombies but also with slow ones if the protagonist has no escape route. When the characters are attacked by a single zombie they are usually in a position where they cannot easily deal with them; either unarmed or restricted. This is the Losing is Easy Part. Any plan put into motion by the Protagonist(s) to defeat or escape the Monster(s) will put them at immense risk and/or require them to engage in slow, tedious tasks where the Monster(s) have a lot of opportunity to attack them. A good example would be testing for The Thing from John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Protagonists have to go through every character and test them, if they find out that someone’s The Thing and The Thing also realizes they’ve found it out then The Thing will attack them and they’ll be at close range. This is an inherently dangerous task but it has to be done if the protagonists want to find and neutralize The Thing. This is the Winning is Hard part. TL;DR: it is easy for the Protagonist(s) or Fodder to die to the Monster(s). If the Protagonists(s) try to deal with the Monster(s) then see the first sentence of this tl;dr.
Rule 4: There has to be a reason why you can’t just shoot The Monster(s). If your Monster(s) could be easily dispatched by the tools available to your Protagonist(s) and the audience figures that out they will be unsatisfied when the Protagonist(s) don’t. You can make a deliberate easy solution to the Monster(s) but it either has to come to the Protagonist(s) to a “Eureka” moment in a similar manner to a murder mystery, and drawing from that try to obscure the easy solution and reveal the pieces of it as the story goes along. Alternatively you could throw in an easy solution and then make it inaccessible to the Protagonist(s) either as a result of their decisions or because the Monster(s) recognised it as a threat and removed it from the equation. If you want to make a truly satisfying to experience horror story, or most other types of story, then acknowledge and eliminate as many “easy solutions” as you can but you’ll never get them all as long as humans have imaginations. for example i’m really disappointed that Mark Watney didn’t construct a Radio ThermalIsotope Mars-Cooled Steam Generator (RTM-CSG) for his rover using one of the leftover Motors/Dynamos from the trailer and the air cooler used by the Hab, not that that would have probably worked but i was waiting from the page the storm is first mentioned to the page he got to the Ares 4 MAV and i was really disappointed that everyone’s favourite Martian pirate didn’t even pay lip service to how awesome yet presumably impractical a Martian Steam Train would be. TL;DR: Playtest your plot points so people don’t yell at the screen. Also “Damn you Andy Weir!”-Grover Cleveland, 1893.
Rule 5: While Protagonist(s) are not unfazed by the Monster(s), The Audience will not be driven mad by the revelation, not if you don’t want a lawsuit on your hands. The Monster(s) should elicit an emotional response from the Protagonist(s) but as the audience identification character(s) they should never be reduced to melodramatics or irrational behaviour in the eyes of the audience. This is one of my biggest problems with the works of H.P. Lovecraft because he can say that looking at something will drive people insane as they try to fit it into their world-view and/or realise how fucked they are but at the same time he then gives the description of
A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind
which is a perfectly comprehensible and, thanks to the internet, sexualised. Similarly in visual mediums anything shown however disturbing is immediately recognised and categorized by the viewer, even white noise. Essentially i don’t think i can buy into people being shown something they don’t fully understand and immediately being driven insane as a result, because they are a modern human and will most likely poke at it to try and understand it better, or identify it as a threat and run away. Now there are situations where you can have someone driven insane by a monster, Commodore Matt Decker in Star Trek: The Doomsday Machine is a great example of this, The titular monster attacks him, he tries to sacrifice himself to save his crew by beaming them down to the planet and the Doomsday Machine disables his transporter, eats the planet they are on and he can’t beam them up as he hears them dying and begging for help as the planet breaks up. He understandably goes Captain Ahab on the thing. Just seeing the thing isn’t enough, it has to commit emotional trauma on him to elicit an extreme response. TL;DR: Humans are not Driven Insane By The Revelation but most of them are still more emotionally responsive than a plank of wood.
Rule 6: Control how much is known about the Monster(s). If the Monster(s)’s abilities are too vague then you run the risk of the Audience not understanding why they should be concerned for it, conversely if the Monster(s) are fully quantified in detail not only are you risking bogging the story down with exposition, and taking the danger away while you do so, you also take away a lot of the potential potential of the Monster(s), which is to say if you’re not sure what a monster can do it has the potential to have a lot more potential… or something like that? TL;DR: show why people should be vewy afwaid, don’t tell them everything in the production bible.
OK That’s All Well and Good, I have 6 universal/generic rules for writing horror, I’ve probably missed something out, or put something too specific in but hopefully this should be enough to avoid failing to make things scary or shackling myself to a formula. But unless mine eyes deceive isn’t this a post about “Game Design”? But of course, this is the part where i explore this in relation to designing a game using examples from games.
Rule 1: When it comes to games establishing a Monster’s presence probably best falls under Level Design. Leaving a trail of destruction behind the monster is a pretty easy sell. If your game world is populated have the npcs act in a way to sell the threat of the monster. have them make gestures or talismans to ward it off, paranoid npcs could be found hiding in “safe places” threatening anyone who comes near them. a good idea would also be to introduce the player to the monster before they have a chance to interact with it. i remember hearing an example from a call-of-cthulu-esque trpg game, which i think was from one of TTheWriter’s D&DStories videos, where the players first experience the monster by seeing it through bulletproof glass as it dissolves a scientist, or maybe it was through CCTV footage. i think dead space did it too at some point. the point is that the players had a chance to see the monster in action before they fought it, meaning they felt apprehension towards encountering the monster rather than feeling frustrated that they were thrown against an enemy they were completely unprepared for. Playing off presence is pretty easy, you have them fight it, or have it chase them, or whatever your main game mechanic is.
Rule 2: Don’t force the player to do stuff they wouldn’t normally do to advance the plot, especially if you’re main character is an ego shell for the player to insert themselves in to. if the main character actually has a character then make it someone who doesn’t piss the player off.
Rule 3: Resident Evil, tank controls, No shooting while moving. The mechanics by which the player interacts with the world and interacts with the monster effect the feel of the game. another good example is duskers, the game is controlled mainly through a command line interface so a lot of the tension build-up naturally derives from the players frantically remembering typing out the commands that will save their drones from threats when things all go to shit. at least i assume, i’ve yet to play duskers due to socio-economic disparity. this covers the “Winning is Hard” part, to best cover the “Losing is Easy” part we have to look to platformers like Mario and the original Ratchet and Clank or classic projectile based FPS games like Doom, where health is something to be conserved through skilful play rather than strategically ablated as it would in games with heavy reliance on Hitscan ranged attacks or regenerating health.
Rule 4: The players will try to just shoot the monster. if you haven’t programmed in it being nonplussed at the bullets then you will break immersion. The players will also try many ingenious combinations of mechanics and/or exploits to defeat the monster. be mindful of this. Obviously if there’s an exploit that allows the player to unceremoniously kill the monster in the first five minutes you probably want come up with a reason it doesn’t work or the player will leave unsatisfied.
Rule 5: Avoid Ludonarritive Dissonance. if the PC is supposed to be scared shitless of the monster and yet the player can and is required to drive them through hell and back on a whim then it breaks immersion. And don’t fix it by mechanically shackling the player to what you think the character should do, one of the more frustrating aspects of The Legend of Zelda games for me is the ReDead and the fact they freeze link in place. I can understand how the OOT ReDead look pretty disturbing, not so much for the WW and TP versions. either way being frozen on the spot while a spoopy enemy slowly shambles towards you might seem like a good way to go about Rule 3, but in doing so it breaks Rule 2, as a lot of your potential players wouldn’t just freeze in fear at this thing, they’d run away, or get over their fear, or like me just stay outside of their 5ft trigger range till they get the opportunity to laser them. Lego Indiana Jones does a much better job at this. certain character have a phobia of certain things (<ᴍᴏɴᴏᴛᴏɴᴇ>: sɴᴀᴋᴇs, ᴡʜʏ ᴅɪᴅ ɪᴛ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴛᴏ ʙᴇ sɴᴀᴋᴇs?) and moving near said things will reduce their movement speed and prevent them attacking, which means they can still shuffle away or switch to another character and set the sɴᴀᴋᴇs on fire. While yes, taking away your feeling of control can be quite scary personally i find the feeling of completely suspending player agency to be mind-bogglingly frustrating be it the ReDead freeze state, BrutalDoom glory kills or Adam Jensen jumping in front of the camera and doing the neck-breaker jig. I’m not saying don’t ever do it, only that you’ll have to do something amazing with it to not piss me off.
Rule 6: As many a GM has said over the years “If you stat it they will kill it”. Do everything you can to obscure the exact mechanics of the monster from the player or they will see it simply as a number they have to reduce to 0. For example if your game focuses heavily on combat don’t put numbers to anything and randomize damage to a degree that even through counting hits players can’t adequately judge how hard it is to bring a monster down breeding uncertainty and thus fear. Games seem to have a habit of audio-logs so if you want to establish a few of the monster’s abilities before the player encounters it then you could throw in a couple of these describing it but obviously don’t go overboard and i’d say use purple prose to obfuscate meaning.
Anyway yeah this was a thing i decided to write about. if you want to use any of this use what you think you want to use and maybe drop a link back to this.