Survival horror is one of the hardest video game genres to really get right. These games live and die by their atmosphere and anything that pulls the player out of the experience can instantly sour the entire game. There are plenty of obvious points that immediately come to mind, like an imposing design for enemies and areas. However, there is one element of horror design that I never see discussed despite being one of its most vital aspects and that is finding just the right level of difficulty.
For a horror game designer, the first instinct might be to stack on the threats, expecting the overwhelming challenges to terrify the player. In practice, this is one of the fastest ways to pull the player out of the experience with far more frustration than fear. Now matter how challenging a horror game can be, the simply fact remains that the player is never in any real danger. The player needs enough time to become invested in their ingame survival on their own. The more the player dies, the less he or she values survival in the game. In that sense, a horror game actually needs to be fairly easy so that the player doesn’t become frustrated. A proper horror game needs to know when not to kill the player. At the same time, a horror game still needs to provide something for the player to be afraid of. Striking that right balance is the grand challenge of building a proper horror game. It has to deliver a constant sensation of vulnerability while having little actual threat.
The game that got me thinking about this was the recent indie hit Five Nights at Freddy’s. For the titular five nights, the game is fairly easy with the haunted animatronics only being so aggressive, even on the final night, and giving the player a good amount of reaction time when they do reach your doorstep. Even on the secret sixth night, it will usually only take a few attempts to beat it. To offset the forgiving AI, the series has always been cryptic with its tutorials. The player is given just enough information to understand the basics of play, but is still left to figure out the underlying mechanics on their own.
The sequel increases the difficulty with more animatronics and unique ways to keep each of them at bay, but offsets potential frustration by including hidden minigames that appear after a certain number of deaths. Just when a player is at risk of rage-quitting, they are brought back in with an intriguing glimpse into the dark past surrounding the restaurant. The latest game, Five Nights at Freddy’s 3, leans more towards the first game with a new set of rules for dealing with only a single animatronic and the most cryptic set of rules yet. There are no post-death minigames, but they aren’t necessary in this title as the player isn’t as likely to be overwhelmed as in the second game. Each game in the series demonstrates a fascinating approach to presenting the player to a panic-inducing challenge that doesn’t wear out its welcome.
Well, for the most part. There is one point where the games ultimately fatigues its horror and that is with its custom night challenges. These are included to give the games more replayability, but beating the game at maximum difficulty demands nothing less than absolute perfection. While it does add more value to the title, playing either the first or second game to completion permanently takes away all sense of terror. Once you’ve played a game enough to see the lines of code at work behind the scenes, it’s hard to feel scared by it. Fortunately, the third game avoids this by forsaking custom mode and instead adding replayability via multiple endings and easter eggs. The series has been an intriguing new take on the survival horror genre with plenty of ups and downs to learn from. With everything that creator Scott Cawthon has innovated on with these games, I think his take on creating a challenge in a horror game is the one most worth examining.