The most important rule of the ghost train is this: keep your hands inside the car at all times.
Which is to say, the ghost train is a ride, not a game. And this is why, I think, so many horror-themed videogames go so very, very wrong.
Good horror is about helplessness. It's about the inevitability of fear. It's about opening the rattling locker even though you know there's something horrible inside. Horror is what happens when your feet keep walking forwards when your brain wants to retreat.
There are a wide variety of horror games now on the videogaming market. Probably the most successful have been the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises. And I think the reason that these titles have continued to thrive and flourish while their competitors have died off is that they've grasped the concept of the ghost train. Horror games should be an experience, not a challenge.
You can't prepare for horror
If you're a survival horror afficionado, you owe it to yourself to check out Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem on the GameCube, which is, for about 90% of its length, possibly the greatest horror game ever made, for a variety of reasons. Where it falls down is the endgame. As you progress through the game you learn a variety of magic spells. One of these is a shield. The way this works in the game mechanics is that the shield takes so long to cast that you really have to cast it when you're not fighting. Then you enter combat, and it soaks up the first couple of hits you take.
In the endgame, the difficulty of Eternal Darkness ramps up steadily. What this means is rather than progress through a series of increasingly tense and climactic encounters as a good cap to the rest of the game, you'll be inching your way through dull and repetetive combat by casting your shield, fighting one monster, and then waiting around for your magic to regenerate so you can cast shield again. By allowing your engagement with the forces of evil to become a methodical routine, the game strips almost all of the horror out of the final levels.
What is scary is not death, but the fear of death
Forbidden Siren is another example of a game where the fundamental gameplay is the antithesis of horror. Successful progression requires memorising enemy behaviour and using it to avoid detection in a Metal Gear-esque stealth fashion. And once you know that a given minion of darkness patrols a residential block in an unwavering straight-line patrol, it's really hard to actually be scared of that minion.
But that was actually the least of Forbidden Siren's many failings (which was a shame, as it had some great ideas). The real crazy, runaway, drooling-at-the-mouth disincentive to playing through the game was the difficulty. In the course of just the first three of the game's levels, you will die many, many times - and it gets worse from there onwards. Each time you die, you go back to the start of the level. They're not particularly short levels, either. That's not scary - that's just frustrating.
It's ironic that a prerequisite to fostering a fear of death in the player is making sure that they don't actually die that often. Games are more effective when they keep a player on the edge of death, constantly guzzling a diminishing supply of healing items. Always there are reminders of the player's mortality - a red tinge to the screen, a controller vibrating to simulate a sped-up heartbeat, or in the case of Eternal Darkness the very memorable hallucinations that occur when your sanity ebbs away. Always you know that the game could kill you at any second. And yet, in the best horror titles, it very rarely does, as long as you keep dancing to its tune.
In good horror, death is used not as a punishment for failing the challenge, but as a stick to keep a player acting in the spirit of the game. Death occurs when you stay too long in one spot, or when you try to explore areas that you clearly aren't meant to, or when you're too trigger-happy with your ammo instead of fighting the undead with a knife. Sometimes it may come from nowhere and without warning, just once, at the start of a segment of a game, to underscore the danger of everything else that's coming up, but it's rare that you'll die of the same thing twice, and reloading your save game will be a rare exercise.
Probably the best example is the original Silent Hill. You die once, right at the start, no matter what you do - and then, if you're reasonably competent, you'll be fine the rest of the game. But you'll never forget those zombie-things dragging you to the ground in that back alley...
Good fiction is about defeating the reader's expectations
And that's doubly true when the fiction in question is horror. It is absolutely key that what comes next is substantively different from what came before. The game state needs to keep changing. If you talk to anyone who's played a survival horror, they're unlikely to rant about how excellent the basic mechanics were - they'll tell you about the one-off occurrences, and the way that things got crazy near the end of the game.
If there's one thing that's memorable about Silent Hill 4: The Room, it's the gradual descent of the titular room from a game hub and place of safety into a nightmarish hell-area more dangerous than what lies outside it. It's a fantastic design choice that makes up a great deal for some of the less inspired levels that make up the rest of the game.
Eternal Darkness mixes defeating the player's expectations into the basic gameplay. You have a sanity meter that drops whenever you see a monster or use magic, and goes back up when you cathartically chop a monster's corpse into small pieces. When your sanity meter drops too low, you're likely to experience hallucinations. These range from seeing cockroaches crawling across the inside of your TV screen, to entering rooms and seeing your character explode into chunks (and then reappearing intact back outside the door, as if you'd never entered), to, in one memorable example, the game pretending to reset and then crash. There's a huge variety to these, and you're unlikely to see them all in a single playthrough.
The Suffering, Silent Hill 3 and Half-Life mix a number of scripted sequences into the basic level design. These vary in effectiveness. Half-Life, not a horror game per se, still manages a fairly regular catalogue of scares from suddenly bursting pipes, collapsing walkways, and ubiquitous headcrab attacks. The Suffering I recall as being very effective when I actually played it, but now, about a year later, I'm hard pressed to remember any parts of the game worth mentioning. Silent Hill 3 has a very slow start, but has some fantastic vignettes later in the game, notably the ghost house and the room with the mirror.
Sit back and be scared
I guess what I'm saying is, in designing horror games the focus needs to be on providing a consistent, coherent, and well paced experience for the player, rather than on creating a challenge. Game mechanics should be focused on causing horror-friendly behaviour in the player - keep them moving, keep them on the verge of death, and rarely let them feel safe or well-prepared. Basic game tools which make for scary or disturbing situations are probably a better investment than scripted sequences, although there's a place for both.
And make sure the player keeps their hands inside the car at all times.
This post is The Dust Forms Words' entry into the October Round Table of Bloggers.