I had the pleasure of playing through the excellent horror game Visage recently, developed and published by SadSquare studio, and wanted to try and express my thoughts for why it’s such a compelling horror title amongst a sea of titles that don’t hold up. Horror is a tricky genre to create, and an even harder one to master. So what does Visage do right that so many other titles mis fire on? And this isn’t to say Visage is perfect, it does fall short in a few areas but they’ll be elaborated more as we explore. And then we’ll ask the final question; is Visage scary? Spoilers: yes, but here’s why.
Key components to horror
Horror at its simplest is about creating feelings of fear or disgust as a form of entertainment. That means the movies we watch, the books we read, the games we play, we engage in them because we want to be horrified, we expect the media to make us feel these things. When we’re young, even going to sleep without a night light on can terrify us but to people who hit that fear response regularly the feelings will fade over time; we see patterns in how media tries to scare us, we see jump scares coming, certain story settings become recognizable and unoriginal rather than horrifying and unique. How many crap horror films have you seen that featured five teenagers against a insert generic ghost/demon/cryptid here and try to survive?
Horror games are also a unique beast compared to other media, in that the players agency in the story also has to be carefully curated to ensure that the gameplay complements the setting and scares. There are many games that didn’t live up to expectations because either it became an interactive movie the player had little agency in, or a polar opposite direction where there was next to no setting or atmosphere to keep you engaged past a few initial jumpscares.
Here is a list of things I believe need to be carefully curated against one another to create a unique horror experience, and we’ll talk through each one and compare them to visage, which gets pretty damn close to hitting that careful balance.
- Player Agency
- Player immersion
- Unknown factors
Player agency is probably the most core concept unique to horror games compared to the rest of the horror medium; player agency is to the extent that the player controls what happens to their character. Some games such as Until Dawn have very minimal player agency, you’re not self inserting, you’re operating a very limited choose-your-own-adventure story, essentially an interactive movie. Other games put you in direct control of all combat/escape/actions such as the classics like resident evil or silent hill.
My opinion is subject to personal taste of course, but I struggle to find games such as Until Dawn as scary as resident evil or silent hill. The fact you have to control your character and consciously decide their next moves rather than be a passenger will always create more adrenaline and fear. If you allow your players to become passengers, you effectively remove them from the experience. They stop feeling like these are their own thoughts and eyes and subconsciously go into popcorn mode.
How many times have you been playing a horror game only to feel momentary relief that a cutscene has suddenly played and removed your high stress thinking from the equation? It’s player agency; you are no longer responsible for your actions, so there is no need for heightened emotions to make decisions quickly.
Visage does player agency pretty damn well. Apart from a few dramatic cutscenes, the tension is constantly ramped by your own decisions and subsequent safety as you move through the house, and control is never wrestled away from you during intense moments. When something appears and runs at you, you are the one who has to move. There’s no emergency escape cutscene, you have to save yourself. That being said, there are a few transitionary moments in the game that do take that control away, but these are used as set pieces in the warping of the environment, rarely used as the core of the scary moments.
Player immersion is how well the piece of media you’re watching/playing keeps you inside of it’s fantasy. As a child, our immersion is heightened due to ignorance. We don’t get annoyed because of bad acting or some misplaced CGI. We don’t comment on the predictable script or how ‘This door is going to trigger something if I go over there isn’t it.’ We believe it all and it scares us. As adults, we do everything I just mentioned, but particularly if the media seems unpolished or unconvincing.
Player immersion is important for horror because it exposes us; the more we feel we’re in the situation presented to us, the more our fear responses react to that belief. Of course there about a dozen different ideas and theories as to what can make anything, let alone horror, ‘engaging’. However for the horror genre, I’d say many of the topics I’m going to discuss going forward all feed into the players immersion, but outside the next points a good amount of polish can help improve horror media greatly, as well as subverting previously defined patterns in the media.
Visage has a great amount of detail and love put into it. The only thing which can draw away from the immersion is something that doesn’t quite sync up with whats already been established, and as I mentioned in my review for Visage, the only thing which can feel outdated and lacking is the visual element of other people you see throughout the game. It’s very difficult to get faces right in a realistic artistic style, something visage falls a little short on to be truly horrifying. Other than that, the immersion is almost suffocatingly good in its execution, mostly because moments you’re convinced there will be a horror jump scare don’t happen, something that keeps you in the moment and even more tense.
You’ve all heard the lovecraft quote a dozen times so I wont put it here, but its true. The unknown will always be what strikes fear into our hearts the most, and it will be true for all time. The trick then, is to keep things in that magical area of ‘unknown’, so much media is derivative of whats come before or uses old tropes with no fresh take. The horror market needs to be constantly refreshed more than any other piece of media due to its ability to easily form a tolerance.
The unknown should always be present in the danger being faced. An unknown factor that doesn’t correspond to a threat is just a mystery, and I’d go and try to solve it instead of being fearful. Unknowns can be presented in one of two ways; ignorance of a danger or unpredictability. Unpredictability is probably the one that creates the greatest fear response, as believing you understand something will lower your mental guard, thus allowing an unexpected event to fully take over. And this doesn’t have to be in the way of a jumpscare either; it could be a seeing a creature or entity do something its never done before to make it an even greater threat, or circumventing previously defined rules to instill terror like having monsters suddenly enter a ‘safe area’.
Visage is a master of the first aspect, ignorance. It constantly shuffles around the threats you’ll be facing and placing you in new environments, which means you never get comfortable and know what to expect. Unfortunately it falls short on the unpredictability aspect, as many of the entities once introduced wont deviate from a set menacing behaviour. You don’t need both to keep a constant unknown factor however, something that Visage does throughout its gameplay, especially with different entities having different behaviours.
Familiarity is the ying to Unknown factors yang. To be put in an entirely unknown or strange environment can detract from feelings of horror, as it can lower player immersion. This disconnects you from your fear of not knowing whats about to happen, because who cares it’s not happening to you. Familiarity is the canvas you build the unknown upon.
‘Lights out’ is a popular horror film released in 2016, and if you’ve seen it you may not be aware it started life as a short film as a proof of concept. spoilers for lights out, skip to the next paragraph. The opening of the film shows a woman in a warehouse being pursued by the creature, and is almost beat for beat the same as the short film its based on, but with a different setting. The short film, takes place in this woman’s bedroom instead. The short is ten times scarier than the opening sequence of the film, because you’re in deeply familiar setting, a bedroom. Your bedroom. This is a safe place, that has been perverted by this sudden threat. It’s far more real to imagine. How many of us have closed a warehouse after a shift at night? I haven’t, so why would I feel like I could be in that situation?
There can be no fear without a sense of connection to the character or self insert, and Visage does this incredibly well in some places, not so much in others. The house which the game takes place in is claustrophobic, winding, and deeply terrifying to walk around expecting something to happen. You feel like you’re in this house, being hunted, and we’ve all been in houses. But as chapters progress, things take a turn and become more twisted, reality warps, and I found myself often in big void like areas with a few props to end chapters.
I knew this was supposed to be scary and unsettling still, but I always felt relieved. The unknown had moved from the threat to the setting, and as such the threat seemed balanced and normal against it. It was impossible to relax and feel welcome in these environments, so I couldn’t get anymore scared. It was a shame but nonetheless the core of the game holds to the premise of familiar setting, unknown threat which is the winning combination.
Atmosphere I’d say is about how you blend your familiar and unknown together; silent hill is great at this. It can create an oppressive and creepy atmosphere with its initial journey into the world with monsters in fog ridden streets and creepy corridors, then the siren will start to wail. The atmosphere shifts; you no longer feel like you’re wondering through limbo trying to survive, you feel suddenly assailed by this threatening aura caused by the warping of the world around you and the increased threats it brings, and now you feel hunted, trapped. It creates too separate atmospheres which work better against each other than they ever would separately, and this is done by shifting the balance of familiar and unknown.
You can have a familiar setting and an unknown threat, and still completely botch the overall feel. Take any cheap horror film; cliche derivative familiar setting, some unknown presence lingering around that eventually reveals itself and is genuinely threatening, should be scary right? No, because it has no feeling, no atmosphere. Same for horror games. You need to feel threatened yet submerged, and any number of factors can cause this, and honestly there are too many winning combinations to say what can be scary and what can’t. With the correct camera work and audio, you could make a summers days feel terrifying. With incorrect atmosphere, you get 90% of netflix’s exclusive horror films.
Visage absolutely 100% nails its atmosphere. Silence is used predominantly to build tension, lighting is both generous but never in the places you want it, and the architecture of the house feels like there are a dozen creatures hiding in any room you enter. It’ll keep you nervous throughout your entire time with it, and even the less scary reality warped set pieces are still great at world building and become more fascinating gameplay set pieces than I would hazard a guess were intended to fill you with despair rather than genuine fear.
Variety is how you keep your horror well and truly alive in a gameplay medium. Enemies can never be made to be truly alive or unpredictable, so to keep players scared and engaged new scenarios must be created to keep players scared. The important part here is ‘scenarios’, not just a threat. You can’t slap a fresh lick of paint on a previous creature to make a new horror experience, you have to create an entirely new scenario that requires different behaviour to counter and keep the horror fresh. The unknown becomes familiar pretty quickly in games, so you need to keep up with that pace in how your game is played.
Visage probably has its strongest point besides atmosphere here. The variety of scares on display in visage are brilliant in each chapter, all of them keep within the themes and atmosphere of the overall game but some require you to run away, some require you to complete an objective quickly, some require you to be brave and actually move toward the enemy. Not knowing what to do when presented with a sudden threat can be absolutely horrifying, and Visage keeps this happening regularly.
Is Visage Scary? – Conclusion
Hell yeah it is, but Visage proves something about horror that is seemingly being lost in other horror games. Visage is evidently a labour of love, it’s something terrifying and intricate, with a deep story and nothing is added haphazardly. The developers understood everything I’ve laid out and probably far more to create the experience that they have, and other horror developers should take notes that good, lasting horror gameplay is a combination of everything I’ve outlined, not just one or two done perfectly. They all feed into each other, and need to be balanced delicately to achieve that magic touch.
It can’t be stressed enough that horror isn’t about innovation per say; it’s about putting all of these interesting concepts together in a way that works and doesn’t rely on pure visceral horror or a set piece that has no relevance to a wider theme. That’s what makes a horror game terrifying, and Visage is pretty damn close to finding that perfect formula over its entire play time.
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