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What Makes a Good Horror Story? Indie Games Have the Answer

By Rob Manuel | Indiewire June 26, 2014 at 12:40PM

Look at the world of both film and indie games, and you’ll find a startling similarity between the two when it comes to creating the perfect horror story.
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Screen capture from "Among the Sleep"
Screen capture from "Among the Sleep"

Look at the world of both film and indie games, and you’ll find a startling similarity between the two when it comes to creating the perfect horror story.

The tricks storytellers pull to make your blood run cold never change; a creaking floorboard, the eerie feeling of being watched, wandering into a world filled with unspeakable terror. In games, however, you cannot simply look away as the basement door slowly creeks open. Every step and every decision rest upon your sweaty fingers.

READ MORE: Why You Need to Pay Attention to the Video Game Industry (In Case You Weren't Already)

Indie games allow developers to explore new ways to send a shiver down your spine without having to worry about the bottom line. The games often focus on stories where the main character isn't a gun-toting badass, but simply an ordinary person with a dark past. Many of the same effects that keep you on the edge of your seat at the movies make the virtual world come alive. Just as film has moved from gore-fests to restrained tension, indie games changed the genre by moving the focus back to that feeling of dread. The five minutes of hiding in the darkness, waiting for the monster to show up, beats the second of death any day of the week.

For fans of horror, here are three indie games to keep you awake at night — as well as some of the ideas pushing the genre beyond the digital world.


Developing the Right Atmosphere: "Amnesia: The Dark Decent"

Fear is a subtle thing. Keep your raving maniacs at home. Hold those buckets of blood at bay. Instead of showing you the horror directly, developers dance around what might lurk in the darkness and allow the player to fill in those gaps with the terrors they keep in the back of their minds. Take, for example, one of the indie games that first brought forth the renaissance of horror, "Amnesia: The Dark Decent." 

A gothic, seemingly-abandoned castle, a sudden bout of forgetfulness, hideous monsters with a poor sense of personal boundaries: we've all been there before. "Amnesia" manages to ties these elements together though the one element that permeates every inch of this title – the darkness. As you explore the nearly abandoned palace, the inky shadows engulf nearly every room and hallway. Three feet in front of you could early turn into a passageway, a solid wall, or something far worse. The game forces the player to feel out every square inch to uncover bits of story or places to hide once you find one of the many monsters patrolling the hallways.
 
Listen closely and you'll hear the scurrying of bugs across the warn rock, the labored breath of your character as he panics, or the heavy footsteps of a monster running through a hallway before crashing through a door. And in the closet, as you hide in the complete darkness, you can listen to the beast search every inch of the room for you. Your hand trembles, breath caught in your throat. "Amnesia" manages to create a world for players to fear, through many of the visual and audio tricks you’ll find in film.


Playing the Helpless Victim: "Among The Sleep"

For a while, games began to add on the ammo to popular horror genres in hopes of revitalizing them by giving the players more bang for their buck. Much like sending Jason Voorhees into space, the body count went up as the enjoyment plummeted back down to Earth. As it turns out, the best way to ratchet up the fear quotient is to take away any sort of power they have to fight back. And nothing says helpless like a two-year old looking for his mother.

"Among The Sleep" might just be the only game where you can crap yourself and still remain in character. As a toddler, you find only an empty bed where your mother should be and an eerie intruder lurking in the shadows. Developers pack in locations you vaguely remember tumbling around as a toddler. Kitchen drawers, the playground, the back of your parent's closet; they're all there and just as terrifying as you remember them. Without any way to fight back, "Among The Sleep" forces you to crawl away from danger and think before taking those first steps. Indie developers turn a genre once focused on bullet counts to that of strategy and knowing when to run.


Slowly Twist the Knife: "Year Walk"

As we’ve seen with our previous titles, the atmosphere draws us into the world of the game, demanding we explore every inch of this often strange new world. The sense of helplessness puts the player on edge, waiting and watching from around every corner for what can be waiting for them. Our last ingredient to the horror genre might just be the most insidious of them all. Giving the player enough time to explore the world lets them wade deep within the mythos and provides a sense of hope that maybe they'll make it out alive. "Year Walk" gives players just enough rope to – well, you know the rest.

Welcome to turn of the century Sweden. You are in love with the miller's daughter. She, however, is uncertain of your future together. To prove you love, you decide to go on a year walk, a dangerous quest that will pit you against dangerous beasts for a glimpse into the future. Based on real folklore, Year Walk throws players deep into the winter forest to trudge around in near darkness to figure out puzzles and outsmart the supernatural creatures you meet along the way. You’ll spend most of your time discovering different areas, taking notes, and trying to figure out the next clue.

Unlike the other two titles, "Year Walk" wants to move you through the story as quickly as possible with only a couple of jump scares along the way to keep you on your toes. You'll work your way through graveyards and hunt down the spirits of drowned babies. But the most horrifying part of the game may just be the truth you find at the end of your walk.

Rob Manuel has spent the last ten years making videos for gaming sites like G4's X-Play and Gametrailers.com. The rest of his spare time is spent working with new developers, discovering indie games and talking on the gaming podcast, Indie MEGACAST.


This article is related to: Video Games, Video Games, Video Game, Indie Games







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