The Spencer Mansion, the hallway from P.T., the asylum from Outlast, the haunted house of Luigi’s Mansion—if you know every inch of these iconic horror games, it’s for good reasons. You see, most horror games thrive by focusing on one location and are able to create a comprehensive atmosphere by allowing all aspects of the game’s development to revolve around a central idea.
Big, open-world games are the perfect contrast to horror games. Final Fantasy XV is a mostly empty world with things to do sprinkled throughout it. Not much of it is iconic because it’s mostly eye candy meant to distract you from the fact that you spend 5 minutes in each town, find the guy to give you a quest, and then leave… every single time.
But when you play the original Resident Evil, you have to learn every inch of the Spencer Mansion. You have to search for the items you need to progress, remember enemy placements for when you backtrack, and generally familiarize yourself with the map to know where you are. The game does a lot with a little.
Horror games have to have one unified vision to effectively scare the player and be genuinely unsettling. The writing, world-building, pacing, music, and setting all have to complement each other. It’s very easy for the horror genre to be cheesy and extremely cliche, so the atmosphere is key. If one aspect of the game seems off, it jumps off the screen. The first Resident Evil game was notorious for having incredibly bad voice acting, which is why it’s much more a product of its time, and a remake was so welcomed.
Every aspect that compliments each other furthers the experience; the writing gets you more immersed into the story and makes you care about the characters, music elevates downtime and enemy encounters, and an interesting setting makes you want to explore despite the horrors around the corner.
While all these elements have to complement each other, they also have to work simultaneously and in unison, or else issues become painfully noticeable. This leads to a more memorable experience; it’s easy to memorize an environment that feels consistent throughout.
Again, if we compare this to the opposite (like open-world games), it’s easy to see why exploring horror games feels more memorable. In Skyrim, the devs had to create different atmospheres for different areas. The game goes through a wide variety of emotions, like times where the player might feel excited, sad, happy, scared, or confused. You meet all kinds of characters, hear varying types of music, and go on quest lines that lead down multiple paths. A lot of AAA games are meant to be flashy, to wow the player and show off amazing set-pieces, like the Uncharted series. You get to go all over the world and uncover mysteries while exploring multiple different locations. Is Uncharted iconic? God, yes. But you can’t deny that every jungle sequence/shootout in those games feels more or less exactly the same.
Yet, games like Resident Evil 1 & 2 feel so completely different from each other while still achieving their goals of being scary and pushing the player forward. The games have different but very creepy locales, the music is still haunting, and there are puzzles and backtracking involved in both. Regardless, Resident Evil feels unsettling and full of mystery, while Resident Evil 2 is filled with genuine dread as you fight through a police station in a city that is on the brink of death. It’s amazing that two games in the same franchise are able to create completely different atmospheres by using different locales that effectively utilize music, tone, pacing, and map design to the fullest.
I’ve played P.T. (the playable teaser for a cancelled Silent Hill game) a combined total of once. Even so, I remember every inch of that hallway, where things are in it, what is going to happen, and where I was when I played it. Every aspect of that small demo blends together so well that after 5+ years, I still remember it to this day. And let me tell you, it’s so scary that I don’t know if I ever want to play it again.
However, not all horror games have to be full of dread and real terror to be iconic. Luigi’s Mansion, for example, is not a horror game, but it’s like an old-school Nintendo version of a horror game for kids. The game focuses on one location, the titular haunted mansion, and the game wouldn’t be nearly as beloved without it. The gameplay shares aspects with typical horror games, like searching for items to progress, backtracking, and the cliche haunted house. It’s a linear game that does a lot with a little, and that makes it both memorable and fun to explore.
Does all this make one genre better than the other? Not at all. But does it mean that one type of game might give you a more consistent experience than another? Absolutely. Creating an in-game atmosphere is hard. Every aspect of development has to mesh incredibly well together, and if one thing is off, it can really change the overall feel of a game. This is why every game can’t necessarily be described as atmospheric, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t great games.
What are some of your favorite horror game locations? There are a lot of great ones like the Asylum in Outlast, Yharnam in Bloodborne, the town of Silent Hill, or the mountain house in Until Dawn. These places are so iconic to all of us because the developers worked hard to give us a great experience, one that we hold onto and cherish forever.