The Problem with Horror Games

scary-jackolantern-300pxHalloween is just around the corner, and with it the ghosts and goblins that come out on the day. Since Halloween falls on a Friday this year, it’s a great time to get together with some of your friends, and play some of your spookiest games.

Except, I think that most horror games fail pretty badly at capturing the essence of the genre.

What Makes Genre Games

Every genre has specific themes that help define the genre. Science-fiction is about more than ray guns and space ships, fantasy is about more than magic rings and ancient prophecies, and horror is about more than werewolves and vampires. In fact, I think you can pretty easily pick out books with the trappings of a genre that doesn’t actually fit into the genre more generally. For example the glut of modern supernatural books led off by Laurell K. Hamilton and others certainly have werewolves and vampires aplenty, but they have very little to do with genuine horror.

In order to truly define genres, I think you need to look closer, and go beyond these trappings.

Fantasy novels, for example, are about epic conflicts and about quests. They’re about magic and destiny. They’re about imagining realms of imagination beyond our own.

Science-fiction novels are also about imagination, but they’re about thinking about what could be rather than what couldn’t be, but would be wondrous. They’re also about exploration, and much more frequently than fantasy they’re about introspection, about trying to figure out where we fit in these brave new worlds.

And that brings us to horror. Fundamentally, leaving aside trappings of Cthulhu, serial killers, and other monsters, horror novels are about being scared.

I’m not going to cover today whether fantasy games or science-fiction board games really pay off their genres. I think there are some that do and some that don’t. But horror games, in my opinion, fail at the base theming of being scary, and as a result I think that horror games are the red-headed step child of the gaming world. Someone needs to really figure out how to make them work for them to truly become successful in our medium.

(Though, as you’ll see, I do have one game that I think fits the criteria of being scary, and thus one game that points designers toward a successful answer.)

The Problem with Horror

I should state clearly here that I don’t blame the designers of horror games for their not being that scary. The simple fact is that games don’t have the advantages of horror novels. In a written work, an author can create characters, who are effectively your personas in an alternate world, and he can put them in mortal danger … scaring you. Conversely in a board game there’s much less of a line between you and your “character” in the game, and even if there is one, you’re less likely to have true emotional feelings about your alter ego.

That, I think, is why so many horror games have been campy. Cthulhu Mythos horror games seem the most likely to fall into this trap, with examples including Creatures & Cultists, Cthulhu 500, Cults Across America, and Unspeakable Words. But even horror games of other types seem to edge toward campiness, with Gloom, Mall of Horrors, and Zombie Fluxx being among those which are furthest over the line.

And I should state that campiness isn’t necessarily a problem; I think it’s a very valid response to the problems of modeling true horror in the gaming medium.

Even when they’re not campy, I just don’t find horror games that scary. I think many horror games are great designs if you ignore their genre. But I can list many that just aren’t scary, including: Anathema (where the horror is purely theme), Monster Mayhem (which edges over into camp almost as much as some of the ones I already noted), Mr. Jack (which is much too deductive to be scary), Murder City (which is also deductive), Mystery Rummy (which is just themed Rummy, though very well done), and Wicked Witches Way (which is marginally horror, at best).

Cooperative Games: A Possible Path to Success

Though I’ve said that horror games generally fail to capture the essence of the genre, I think there is one category of games that comes close — and one game in that category which I do find generally scary.

The category is the “cooperative” game, which may or may not include a hidden enemy. Games like Betrayal at House on the Hill and Werewolf work decently well1, thanks I think both to a good theme and a lot of uncertainty about how things are going to go. No, they’re not actually scary, but they do touch upon the space.

I think Arkham Horror works even better. That’s because there’s a high possibility that the game will end in utter failure. There’s also a continually increasing feeling of oppression that you succumb to as monsters stack up and the Doom Track winds down. Again, I feel like there isn’t quite enough personal connection for the game to be truly scary (perhaps due to the ultimate complexity of the rules), but it at least can be nerve-wracking. A Thriller, as it were, rather than Horror.

With all that said, I do think there’s one game that does a fine job of offering the opportunity for the players to be scared. That’s Fantasy Flight’s Fury of Dracula. It’s got numerous design elements going for it that I think work together to create something pretty unique. You can see some of them in other games, but not all together. There’s fun theming for a start and the possibility of utter loss. There’s a possibility for a personal connection with your character that I think is stronger than any of the other cooperative games I mentioned, perhaps because the characters come from a literary source that you might already be familiar with. Beyond that, there’s uncertainty at two different levels: first, on where Dracula is (meaning that he can jump you at any time), and second, on whether you can actually defeat him if you do get into a fight (especially if it’s at night). Finally, I think having an intelligent, thinking evil really amps up the tension3.

Add all that together and I believe you can have a game that graduates beyond tense to being scary and thus a game that actually points the way how other horror games could actually be scary too.

Now that I’ve offered my opinion, what game do you actually find scary?5

Around the Corner

I just finished my latest major piece of writing, which is one of the things that’s kept me entirely busy for the last several months. It has nothing to do with gaming, but for you technophiles, take a look at iPhone in Action, a book all about programming the iPhone. It’s available as an early release PDF right now, with a print book to follow in just a few months.

That book is one of the reasons why this section of my articles has been so scant lately, but this time around you can find two gaming reviews, both expansions for earlier releases: Ticket to Ride: The Dice Expansion and Cash ‘n Guns: Yakuza.

In the meantime, until I see you back here in 14 days, remember to vote7.

1. I should clarify that. I think that Betrayal at House on the Hill is not just a trainwreck, but the sort of trainwreck that trains aspire to if they want to get into The Guinness Book of World Trainwrecks: Special Trainwreck Edition. The rules are so bad, the game is so random, and the outcome is so unbalanced, that it’s practically a guide as to how not to design a game. But, it starts to edge into the scary zone thanks to its biggest strengths — which are the theming and traitor mechanism. I actually don’t like Werewolf much either, but there I’ll accept that as a matter of personal preference

3. Though they’re not horror games, I think that Shadows over Camelot and the Sauron expansion for Lord of the Rings can end up a little scary for the same reason

5. No, don’t say Monopoly6.

6. Or Time Control. Smart Alec.

7.In the United States. If you’re a felon or have recently registered in a swing state, some restriction may apply. The American government makes no guarantees that electronic voting machines necessarily represent the will of the voters. Do not drive heavy machinery while voting. Talk to your doctor if your experience shortness of breath or nausea prior to the announcement of the voting results.

Author’s Note: This article has silly footnotes because of my friend Aaron Lawn. He wrote briefly at BGN — where this article originally appeared — and had lots of silly footnotes of his own. I offered them up in this article as a show of solidarity (but have gotten rid of the truly dumb ones in this reprint). And I stand by my conclusions, because four years later, I have yet to see a scary game. So I’m going to be reading this Halloween instead of gameplaying. —SA, 10/30/12

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One thought on “The Problem with Horror Games

  1. Given my love of genre emulation as a designer, I’ve often considered publishing a horror board game, with the intent to actually be scary on some level. I definitely think it’s possible, though it would be a huge uphill battle. I think the secret would lie in creating actual mechanics that create tension into themselves. This is what I did with the “kill scene” mechanic in the Slasher Flick RPG. I wanted it so that even if the GM had no idea how to run a tense, edge-of-your-seat game, the rules would handle it for him/her.

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