So, yeah, horror is a difficult genre. I get that. For every title in the horror section of any media, you get a lot of duds before you find a truly scary gem. But do you want to know what helps?
Not jump scares.
Now don’t get me wrong, having something jump up and go boo can be frightening. But it helps if you build up that sense of dread first. Horror works if it bypasses the whole this is a work of fiction part of our brain and makes us think we’re actually in danger. In other words, you need to build some atmosphere.
Again, this is tough, especially for a video game. But it’s not impossible. For starters, try something new. Sure, the old you’re in a creepy castle set up works as a start, but why am I in that castle? What am I doing there? What is it that makes the castle creepy? And it can’t just be because ghosts jump out and scream in your face.
Give the place a backstory. But don’t tell it all at once. Leave clues for us to discover. Maybe the castle belonged to a depraved, sadistic hedonist who slowly began delving into deeper, darker thrills. Maybe he started with drinking and gambling and, when he lost his money to those vices, he began pimping out his servants and hosting elaborate orgies while taxing the bajeezus out of his fifedom to pay for it all. Then, when that wasn’t enough to feed his hedonism, he resorted to black magic and made a pact: no need to worry about money ever again, and all the perverted pleasures he could take… and then some.
Pretty scary, right? But now why am I in the castle? Maybe my sister was one of the servants he was pimping out and she sent me a letter. Now I’m off to rescue her only to find the castle strangely quiet. What few people I find seem to wander in a drug induced stupor, oblivious to my presence. As I walk deeper into the castle I begin finding clues of the lord’s perversions and how deep they go….
That’s a whole hell of a lot better than Okay, he went into the red room, have something jump out and scream in his face. That’s more annoying than frightening.