Obligatory (post) Halloween Column #497

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cthulhu-zombieWell, I got my dates mixed up this year and thought I had another Monday to squeeze in a column before the big event. But I was wrong. However, finding inspiration for things to write about is often difficult so having come up with the idea for a relevant article, I’ll be damned if I’m not going to write it simply because it’s a bit late. And besides, some people do have post-Halloween parties through the week and this is actually the closest article publication slot I've got to the big day itself. So here goes.

In my previous Halloween columns I've always focussed on the concept of horror games and how - if at all - they can actually manage to scare the players. The common response to this is simply that they can't because by its very nature the medium puts gamers too much in control of their own fates to result in any kind of shock factor. Last year I argued that although I believed it was possible, the likely result would be games that most people wouldn't want to play because they'd result in unpleasant social dynamics. So I figured that pretty much put the lid on that discussion one way or the other and that this year I'd better do something different.

If we're going to accept that it's difficult at best for a horror game to actually scare the players, we're forced to ask what the purpose of a horror game actually is. This isn't a straightforward question to answer and while pondering it I came across a distinction which I think is fairly useful. In video games most "proper" horror games - i.e. games which are designed primarily to scare or unsettle the player - belong to the survival horror genre. But there exist a small number of other games, mainly first-person shooters with the occasional RPG, which have strong horror elements. I can recall playing, for example, a shamefully little-known shooter called Clive Barker's Undying. The proclivities author mentioned in the game's title should give you a strong clue as to what sort of game this was: the player took on the role of an occultist investigating an ancient paranormal curse on an unfortunate family which seems to be turning them into undead. It's a very good game and the fact it was a commercial flop is semi-criminal. But while it had obvious horror elements in the plot, had an appropriately gloomy gothic ambience and did its best to scare the player by having gruesome looking beasties jump out from dark corners it had none of the psychological depth of a proper survival horror game and never challenged the player by limiting their access to ammunition and equipment or otherwise limiting their ability to kill their foes, another key element of survival horror.

To me this dichotomy mirrors quite well the sort of split I'm looking at in board games between the hard-to-impossible ideal of a scary board game to the fully realised concept of a horror themed board game. In the video game world that split is delineated by the focus of the game: in survival horror the emphasis, as the name suggests is on survival whereas in other horror games the focus is elsewhere, normally on action and excitement. And so it is with horror board games. If we can't scare the players then the best we can do is offer an exciting, immersive experience that's heavy on thematic elements drawn from the horror genre.

Inevitably it's not as simple as that (otherwise this would be a very short column) as evidenced by the rather mixed reception that certain Euro-centric horror games have received. Nor is this a case of the obvious answer that European style games don't have the mechanical framework to support enough theme or narrative to make the horror label stick. It's true that a game like Witch of Salem is only really a horror game in name only but what about Ghost Stories which fully justifies its label, or  Luna Llena which failed to live up to expectations in spite of a reasonable dose of extraneous chrome? Clearly some Eurogames can properly be considered part of the horror canon, whilst slapping on lots of appropriate theme is not a guaranteed route into the same fold. So what makes a horror game look and feel like a horror game instead of - say - an area control game with horror elements?

I tried to answer this question by looking for some commonality in my three favourite horror-themed board games which are Arkham Horror, Fury of Dracula and Last Night on Earth. And this vexed me because it truth there seems to be precious little that unites these titles. It becomes an especially difficult ask when you remember that what we're looking for here are not simply things that unite all three of those titles but which help make them into games that look and feel like horror games. All three, for example, share a fairly high degree of randomness (which can largely be mitigated in two of them through skilful play) but then again so do lots of other quality games: that particular shared trait is a red herring. But after staring at them for long enough, patterns did start to emerge.

The first is that all three of them have a co-operative element. Arkham Horror of course is full co-operative but both of the other two games share the still unusual approach of having a team play against a single player (or another team). Is this a co-incidence? I think not. For starters other popular horror titles like Betrayal at House on the Hill, A Touch of Evil and Ghost Stories use a similar mechanic. Indeed it's almost ubiquitous across all the top-rated horror games and yet it's actually quite a rare thing to find outside of the horror genre. And when you step back it's not hard to see why. The concept of people co-operating together in an (often doomed) attempt to stop a greater evil is a common one in horror fiction. Having to rely on other players helps to re-enforce the notion that what you're up against is dangerous and that defeating it will be difficult, essential components in a successfully implemented horror theme.

The second unifying element that I spotted is that these three games was that they all shared a fairly brutal approach to combat. Sometimes you'll be challenged with a foe, like a Dhole or Dracula himself that you'll find difficult to beat unless you're specifically tooled up for the job. All three games allow for character death, albeit frequently with a "start over" type of get-out clause which still inflicts important disadvantages on the player of the poor soul who was sent on to the great hereafter. The utility of having a meaningful death in the game which players will actively strive to avoid, whether it's inflicted through player elimination or by significantly downgrading the power of your avatar, hardly needs to be pointed out when it comes to maintaining an atmosphere of horror. When examined across the wider canon this is less of a shared trait - Ghost Stories, for example has no particular sense of especially dangerous foes or combat - but it's still pretty common.

The third point of commonality is that all three games have a minor element of role-playing games in the sense that the characters start out relatively weak and gradually change over the course of the game, generally becoming better able to deal with the nasties they face through accumulating equipment face while simultaneously loosing that ability by degrading mind and body stats. This is a slightly harder one to tie-in with the successful implementation of a horror theme. My guess would be that starting out weak - and facing the unlikely but possible circumstance of running into something nasty before you're able to deal with it - helps to re-enforce the initial sense of helplessness, while the gradual accumulation of abilities and equipment eventually helps to balance the game and make it into something enjoyable and replayable instead of the one-sided affair you'd see if this imbalance was permanent. I also suspect there's an element of personal identification going on here: if you've got an actual avatar on the board to identify with, it'll help you feel closer to the action and react in a slightly more emotional manner if bad things befall your character. Again looking across horror games generally this is another fairly common trait although, again, Ghost Stories is the odd one out. Perhaps that game being the exception that proves the rule shouldn't be surprising: it is, after all, the most Eurofied of all the successful horror games.

I'm not suggesting that I've discovered some hard and fast rules that lead to a perfectly successful formula for a horror game. There are exceptions and of course you still need good art, a good theme, some quality narrative and of course some interesting mechanics. But the common thread running through these is interesting to note, especially the prevalence of the team-versus-one setup which is fantastically rare outside the genre. I hope you all had a good Halloween - so please, cast your mind back to the games you played and let us know whether or not the ones you enjoyed the most fit this pattern, or whether they challenged my assumptions.



Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.


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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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