I love horror games and movies. Ive been absorbing as much of it as I can for as long as I can remember, from the old 90s tv show "Are you afraid of the dark?" through stephen king tv movies and 90s Doom Clones, zombie survival games and the beginnings of what I would call "modern horror". I love trying to dissect them and figure out what makes them great. Horror is easy to quantify in non interactive media like tvshows and movies. Its easy to set the tone and bring the viewer to the edge of their seat. Games have a harder time with this though, giving the user some agency, but still denying them the ability to "run the fuck away" for want of a better phrase can make or break its whole atmosphere. You have to find a way to coerce the player into wanting to pursue the goal of the game of their own accord, not just forcing them down a path and throwing boogeymen at them.
One of my all time favorite horror games is Condemned: Criminal Origins, on Xbox 360 IIRC. The general gist of the story is that you're and FBI investigator tracking a particularly grotesque serial killer, and through misfortune and the planning of this elusive serial killer, you are framed for his crimes. So you end up on the run from the very people you work for, with no safety net. (You still have one friend within the Bearu, who as the game progresses loses confidence in your claim of innocence.) You're in a populated city, a normal city, but you're keeping off the main track, moving through shuttered train stations, decrepit and abandoned shopping malls forced into forclosure by desperate economic times, desolate business parks that echo the once thriving industry, underfunded inner city schools that shutdown overnight due to budget cuts. It perfectly captures the seedier side of an otherwise normal American city, it hilights the shadows cast by the light of the american dream.
The combat of the game is visceral, it feels almost real. Guns are sparse, but nearly always kill immediately. Melee combat is the core of the game, rebar pulled from crumbling walls, rotten 2x4 planks pried off boarded up windows, rusted pipes and plumbers wrenches, your enemies the addicts and mentally unstable homeless people that hide unseen in the shadows. (The game does have a backstory to hint at the hightened agression and psychopathy of these people, its not just criminalising the homeless) Combat is a frantic dance, you're trying to anticipate enemies swings and block or dodge them, while landing your own hits. You're unlikely to survive in a brawl with more than one opponent. It touches that primal part of us, the fight response that grabs the nearest heavy object and bashes in the brains of our agressor with fanatical agression we didnt know we had. I often found myself physically shaking after a fight in the game, the very real adrenaline surging through me after the virtual junkie suprised me in the virtual alley and tried to cave my head in.
I think what the game manages to achieve in horror is the isolation. A lot of horror games attempt this, but few put you in the position of being surrounded by people (In a regular city) yet being totally alone. You feel like the last sane person in a world thats succumbed to introversion and narciccism. Games like Penumbra and Amnesia capture the isolation well (And I love them), but in those. you're physically isolated too. True isolation is being alone while not "being alone" if that makes sense. Condemned makes your feel like the whole world has forsaken you, cast you out to live on the fringes fighting for scraps from the dinner table.
Do you remember the game F.E.A.R.? By and large it was a First Person Shooter with the occasional jumpscare, tied more to the FPS part than the Horror part, but one segment will always stand out to me; At the beginning when you're investigating the hospital, you get separated from your team as you pick your way through the abandoned building. Outside you can hear the regular sounds of traffic and people, as the paranoia and tension builds. You hear yoru teammates tempers rise and (spoiler) witness the apparent and sudden suicide of one. Did I mention the scene is set sometime in the mid afternoon too? Its not hidden in the shadow of perperual darkness (I mean really, who goes to investiage a haunted hospital at night time? Thats bad mission planning) That scene for me is fantastic, because you're trapped in this little pocket of terror and fear in an otherwise normal urban environment, you can see and hear the world around you carry on as if everything was normal, unaware of whats lurking unwatched just feet away. Thats the feeling of true horror.
Other posters have touched on things Ill briefly mention here too. I don't personally think you can make a horror game in anything but first person. (Sorry, Dead Space and Silent Hill!) theres a loss of connection with the game when you can see youre plucky character running about in front of you. In Silent Hills defence, they use some fantastic camera angles to bring an almost cinema-esuqe sense of horror to the field, but I cant ever connect properly with the theme of the game because of it. My biggest grip with that game, and resident evil is guilty of this too, is the 'human tank' control scheme, where you have to turn and face your character like youre driving a tank and the direction of movement shifts constantly scene to scene. (Holding down as you transition to a new area, where down now means you move up) I get why they've done it. It adds to the tension and induces panic in extreme situations when you can't immediately react to the situation, but I hate it. I think in horror, its faux tension, making an intentionally awkward control scheme to induce fear. If someone handed me a remade verison of the orignal silent hill, but set entirely in first person, Id love it, but by and large I can appreciate those games for what they did but I cant bring myself to play them again.
Sound is a big part of horror games, even penumbra started out as a student project in sound design if Im remembering correctly. It runs the risk of being overdone though. I dont think horror games should rely on spooky music for atmosphere, its too cliche. For me, the ideal horror game would be relatively silent, save for enviromental sounds (This touches back on my earlier point about being alone while surrounded by people). Using just regular ambient sound, and only occasionally relying on 'unnatural sounds' heightens the reaction to those sounds.
This turned into more of an essay than a comment, and got a bit rambly, but I hope it at least sheds some light on what I think is true "Horror" in videogames. I've been working on my own horror game for some time, mostly trying to dissect the idea and build concrete scenes and narrative. Im planning to use the unreal engine for it with the help of a buddy who has more experience with it than I do. I'll leave you with one of my favorite albums of all time, which is a fantastic inspiration for any aspiring horror game devs.
F#A#∞ - Godspeed you, black Emperor!