I’ve been thinking about the new Elder Scrolls game coming out, and thinking back to another couple of Bethesda’s games I’ve realized what might be a trend. While I know it’s too late for Skyrim, I can still hope for the best for that and future games. What exactly am I referring to? Why, the horror section of course! Oh don’t play coy. You know there is one in virtually every rpg ever designed. That one level or area created to evoke a sense of fear or terror. Most of them fall flat on their ass, for a multitude of reasons. My example for today is going to be the one and only Vault 22 of Fallout: New Vegas fame. It was a Vault I personally loved, for a little while at least. Needless to say, there will be spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Ambiance: This is probably the single hardest part of any little horror based section to get right. Go too far one way and the play might swing right out of fear and into amusement. Not far enough and the player won’t even notice. It has to be subtle, but noticeable. The music in Vault 22 played a large roll in what made it feel alien. There wasn’t anything truly noticeable. The sound wasn’t trying to fight for attention. Every few seconds it would be slightly over taken  by the sound of something moving, usually behind you. I’d argue that particular sound effect was used on too short a loop, but it worked good for awhile. Every single time I heard that I’d  flip around, shotgun at the ready to find… nothing. It’s unnerving at times. Likewise, the zone was really well designed. Flora that hid the monsters (and we’ll get to them soon), particles in the air, overgrowths of plants around. That’s good, it felt like truly being alone. The monsters were well paced to keep from becoming too predictable. The atmosphere was done well, and one of the high points of the area.

Sadly, they missed out on a wonderful source of terror, scripted events. To my knowledge, there was one. In the whole Vault. It took place when you came into a ruined room with the only other door blocked off by a mass of cabinets. There was a mutant preying mantis just sitting there, staring at me. The moment I made eye contact, it turned and ran into a section of wall that had been broken out to reveal a cave. That one little scene got to me. I felt like I was being watched constantly. Every little “tap tap” of the zone that sounded like something was behind me sounded just a little closer. But that was the only time it was ever used. Given the size of the zone, two or three little events like that one would have done wonders. A reminder that, for one, you are not alone, and there is something other watching you.

Monsters: This will make or break your horror segment, every time. Remember that the scariest thing is either something that’s almost human, which Vault 22 pulls of decently, or something very, very rarely seen, but very often felt. The fungal monsters of Vault 22 did a great job of keeping me on my toes and dreading going anywhere near any plants. A feat, since the entire Vault was covered in them. But about halfway through, I stopped caring. They weren’t a sudden terrifying presence anymore. I had long since learned to look for their body shapes in the flora, and could sneak attack for a 1-hit kill. This was the time they needed to change it up. Have a few stay on the ground, but give some new, unexpected spawns. Have them drop from ventilation ducts with a heavy ‘thud’ to let the player know they are no longer alone. Have them fall off the wall and shamble up after the player. Yes, these all need more animation time, but if you want true horror and not some crappy knock off, then sacrifices must be made.

Referring to what I said before too, if you want to go the subtler route, make sure the monster is rarely seen but often felt. Remember Alien? Yes you do, stop lying. If you haven’t see it, go watch it. Right now. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Right, back then? Okay. What makes the original Alien so scary is that the thing is so rarely seen. The viewer is forced to fill in the gaps, and the lack of knowledge is what drives the feeling of terror home. Try it game devs. I know it hurts to loving crafting Cthulhu’s freakish child and then NOT force the player to look at it, but trust me here. Hive Mind was scarier in Dead Space before you saw it looked like, because of the absence of a full body. Anything could have been lurking in that ship. Same thing for Alien. Make it’s presence felt, but never give the player a good view of the freak of the universe tormenting them. Really want to screw with your player? Don’t let them kill it. Let them know that no matter what, that tract of land belongs to something else. Something unknown.  Or go the other route and make more the deeper in the player goes. Remember not to go overboard, or you just ruin the effect. That’s how you make a monster stay creepy. Unless….

Weapons: Okay, this is the big one. The most important thing possible, really. It’s a universal truth. Ready for it? Okay, never give your players a weapon to trivialize the content. Let’s step back to Vault 22 again. Remember those fungal monstrosities I told you about? They like to hide in the plants. Spoiler warning. Anyways, later on in the Vault you find a Flamer and a massive load of flamer fuel. And bam, done. That zone is no longer scary. At all. Ever again. Because the moment you think there might be something in the grass, burn it. Players will adopt a slash-and-burn approach whenever possible. Don’t think, “well, it has limited ammo…” or “They’ll want to save it…” No we won’t. Short of giving out mini-nukes (Note: Don’t do that. The temptation in-doors is too great), players will always abuse the path of least resistance. If that means roleplaying a psychopathic Pyro from Team Fortress 2 to do so, they will. Use weapons themselves sparingly. Better to give ammo to the player so they can use what weapons they have and enjoy than just hand over a blank check for mayhem and in so doing ruin any atmosphere. Once I got the Flamer, stealth was out. Horror was out. Everything burned.

Simple things to keep that spirit of horror alive. There are a lot of ways to really mess with a player, but these are the basics. Once you have a good set up, remember the final lesson. Difficulty does not make it scarier! In fact, killing the player will utterly demolish immersion with a load screen or death animation. The player knows they are in a game, and not actually in danger. There is a fine line between all of these points, and it’s easy to fall off. But if you can keep on it, then a truly horrifying experiance will be waiting for the players. And that will stick with them for a long time. After all, the best ghost stories are the ones that have you looking over your shoulder long after the tale has ended.