Forget jump scares and stealth: my perfect horror game makes you a monster, and can tell when you're faking it

It all started when I was watching the Resident Evil 7 trailer. As that fork piled with entrails came towards the camera (whilst I tried not to imagine what texture innards would have), it occurred to me how brilliant it would be if you had the option to swallow the mouthful of gory, bloody muck. An entirely new path for gameplay would be revealed: behavioural horror, where you don’t fight or sneak around or - my pet peeve - hide in cupboards, but try to appease the disturbing antagonists around you. 

See, horror films have started to get really interesting. From The Babadook to The Cabin in the Woods to the classic Turn of the Screw, they’ve begun to explore the grey area between protagonist and antagonist, the meta nature of the horror genre, and sometimes whether there is even really a menacing monster to start with. Alien in particular has progressively made the xenomorph as much of a key character as Ripley, with motivations and a drive to survive the like of which are usually restricted to human characters. Games have a long way to go before they reach this nuanced way of dealing with horror. Most games tend to make you either avoid or eliminate any fear that threatens to make your heart-rate jump. You’re rarely asked to face horror, or build any some kind of meaningful relationship with the entity which scares you. Most games depend upon the threat of discovery or defeat to shake you up, but none make you actively endure the horror and try to understand it. 

Perhaps this is because developers think that prolonged exposure to something that’s initially horrific reduces the likelihood of you being scared. But then, anything that doesn’t remain terrifying for longer than a couple of encounters is probably a cheap gimmick anyway. Alien’s xenomorph remains scary despite being in a ton of films because its deadly efficient and deeply enigmatic. I’m petrified by zombies because they’re relentless and non-negotiable. They don’t ever stop wanting to eat us. The Splicers in BioShock still make my skin crawl because I know they’re deranged, and only attacking me because they think I’m someone completely different. There’s normally always a deeper reason for why we remain scared of something. 

Morals in horror games are also always incredibly simple. It’s black and white, usually - there are bad guys who scare you because they want to hurt you, and you’re an innocent trying to escape them. Enemies in many games can lose the fear-factor after a while, as you quickly become used to - and adept in - easily getting rid of them. Take the zombies from Left 4 Dead, for example - you can kill them with a couple of shots, so if it weren’t for the shock factor of seeing a ton of them sprint towards you, they wouldn’t be much of a threat. Remaining emotionally engaged with horror so that you understand your foe and respect it in an odd kind of way - like the Big Daddy in Bioshock -  is one of the biggest challenges of modern horror games, and the most difficult to pull off. 

So what if there was a game where the monsters, twisted hospital staff, or bloodthirsty aliens prowling around maybe didn’t immediately attack? What if they maybe even thought you were the same as them? And not just for the beginning chapter, when you’re sneaking around and trying to appear inconspicuous, but for the entire game? Instead of grabbing a crowbar and doing your best imitation of Gordon Freeman, you’d have to interact with the antagonists, always keeping an eye on how you behave, what you say, and how you react to what’s going on around you. Matching behaviour would become a critical part of gameplay. You’re in a warehouse inhabited by maniacs, erratic and violently unpredictable, and an innocent bystander gets dragged in. You don’t have the option to save them - instead you’d have to mimic those around you because if you don’t, you’ll quickly get discovered as an interloper. 

Granted, this does sound quite restrictive, as I’d certainly want to play the courageous hero and save the poor victim, but that’s kind of the point. Perhaps there could be a way to save the other victims, but it would involve a lot of effort, almost the same as a boss fight. You’d need to find a way to save them that makes sense to the antagonists - professing to save them for torture later before covertly letting them go, or finding a way to slip them something which makes them appear dead and then dumping them outside, where they’ll wake up and hopefully leg it. 

To maintain some sense of a morality spectrum, every now and then you’d have to be contacted by normal people on the outside, who reinforce the fact that you’re supposed to escape, not intervene, just like Nicole in Dead Space (though we all know how well that turned out). To what extent would you have to compromise on morality to stay safe? Probably not a lot if you’re just trying to get by, remaining incognito without causing any ripples. But like with all games, the difficulty would progressively increase further into the story. In a perverse twist of fate, you might become more well-known the better you fake it, asked to carry out more onerous tasks. Perhaps you wouldn’t even realise what you were doing was wrong - carrying out a raid against an opposing faction would sound fine at first (after all, they’ve committed atrocities too) but upon entering their domain, maybe you realise that they’re just survivors, acting out of terror of those you endeavour to blend in with. 

The best games are the ones which you don’t stop thinking about when you turn off the console and put down the controller. But horror is surprisingly lacking in this area. Outlast, Amnesia, Dead Space, Silent Hill... At the time they all scared me worse than the sight of a creepy clown at twilight. But after I had walked away, what I did and saw in the game didn’t haunt me any further. A game which uses behavioural horror just might. Humanity’s thirst to survive can be just as terrifying as knowing something malevolent lurks in the shadows. 

So there’s the concept, but what about the mechanics? SCP: Containment Breach is innovative with its (manageable) blink meter, which makes you blink when it runs out, after which it fills back up again - the risk being that the monster will attack when you're not looking. I’m hoping for a similar system in upcoming horror-infiltration game We Happy Few, which could be used for breathing in dialogue, where unless you keep an eye on it, those you’re chatting to would notice your fear and start to get suspicious. A heart monitor would up the tension too. Imagine it; you’d have to take deep (real-life) breaths to slow down your heartbeat, or the creatures you’re trying to blend in with would notice when you get a little too scared. 

And how can I write this without mentioning VR? When I’m petrified I turn into an on-edge, paranoid (and very sweary) ball of nerves, and you can bet that the in-game camera is flicked around every which way as I check my surroundings for anything that might want to rip my oesophagus from my throat. In VR that paranoid head movement wouldn’t go unnoticed, with those around you rapidly realising that you’re a bit on-edge. 

The last encounter would be the most difficult. Everyone would turn to you, questioning you, with the breathing meter and heart monitor steadily challenging your control over your body. They’re beginning to debate whether you’re on their side or not, of course, leading to a spectrum of endings. You fail to convince them, you die (obviously). But if you do convince them, do you then use the carte blanche they’ve given you, as their glorious leader, to escape? Or do you stay, having decided that perhaps what you’ve been doing isn’t that bad after all, that maybe you can change them…  

 Then DLC could see you assume a new character, set on overthrowing the new leader of the psychopathic squad. 

Funny, that leader looks awfully familiar... 

Zoe Delahunty-Light

While here at GamesRadar, Zoe was a features writer and video presenter for us. She's since flown the coop and gone on to work at Eurogamer where she's a video producer, and also runs her own Twitch and YouTube channels. She specialises in huge open-world games, true crime, and lore deep-dives.