In my research for The Presence i tried to delve as deep as i could in existing horror titles. This is a subject very dear to my heart, and as a lover of board games and horror fiction I find the challenging crossover between them an interesting subject to explore. What follows is a series of reflections and the start of a small blog series on horror in tabletop games.
The area of horror is sometimes looked down at in the movie-space as something that follows a set of rules and tropes, and then uses simple tricks to pull of terrifying scares. This is true for some horror film, but far from what makes the genre communicate the peak-experiences that it is capable of. Those experiences are created when an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty is allowed to build, and the viewer is gradually pulled in as the film touches something deep within the human experience. This can be loneliness, fear of death, mistrust, guilt or any other shameful or forbidden emotion. It becomes a way, then, to say something meaningful about the human experience.
Horror is a niche genre. The number of people who enjoy it are fewer than other genres. Not everyone is interested in being startled, scared or left with a feeling of horror or lingering dread. This can be seen in the ratings for horror films. (I always use a rule-of-thumb of adding 1 point to the IMDB score of any horror-film!)
The truth is that succeeding at horror is very hard, even in the film-space. For every successful horror film there are numerous attempts, and some successes that are revered by horror enthusiasts may not reach wide acclaim as they are often too close to comfort.
Doing proper horror (and not just a horror theme) in board-games is difficult. It is even more difficult than doing it for film, and maybe impossible. But who doesn’t like a challenge? Let’s go through some core aspects of horror and how well they transfer to board-games as medium.
Some of the films serving as inspiration for The Presence
The first is immersion. Any medium is way more impactful if it is immersive. It if can get the viewer or player to suspend disbelief and feel like they are there. This is doubly true for horror. People often distance themselves when they are uncomfortable. This makes the horror less effective. This means that to be able to enjoy good horror the viewer has to want to believe. While we can never force anyone to be immersed if they do not want to, what the medium can do is to make this as easy as possible. Movies have sound, visuals, camera angles and full control of the narrative. On top of this, video games also puts the player alone in the center of the experience.
Board games are different. Here, the players are in a safe environment around a table. There are other people there, there may be noises. The guy across the table may not be as interested and start talking about football. We cannot control these things as designers.
What we can do is pull the player in with really good art and design, put the focus on their avatar in the game and use realism to as great extent as possible. We can make it easy for them to want to be immersed. I think realism is necessary for having a chance to succeed with a horror-game. Using cartoon-y art is a surefire way to signal to the player that the experience is light-weight and not to be taken seriously.
The Arkham LCG campaign gets players invested, in more than one way.
The second aspect is investment in the narrative and the characters. You can follow the story, but if you don’t care about the characters you are distanced from the danger that they face. You need to be on ground level with the protagonists for their horror to carry over to you. In movies the director and cast allow the viewer to feel empathy with the main characters, and gives you hope that they will succeed.
Games have a multitude of ways in which to do this, but one of the most effective is to give each player a character, and focus on their survival and that of their allies. Games that allow characters to change and evolve by player choice over time will enhance this effect. Permanent loss will affect it too, and so will the possibility of being eliminated from the game. The fear of loss will be that much greater.
Not that scary.
The third aspect is uncertainty. All good horror hides the threat. The fear of the unknown is often worse than any horrible monster you can imagine in broad daylight. This is true whether it is the monster that is unknown, or the true intentions of the killer. This activates the imagination, which is what allows the feeling of dread. This aspect, it seems, should be able to be transferred to board games rather easily. After all, we use dice and decks of cards almost everywhere to create uncertainty, right?
The challenge here, however, is that ‘fear of the unknown’ relates not only to random chance that something may happen, but that there is a knowable thing that is unknown. The fear comes from the feeling that you could know. This only works if there is an actual creature on the other side of the veil. Thus, to really succeed here you need the horror to be a real opponent or a very well-designed AI-system.
The Amnesia video game never gives the character a weapon.
The fourth aspect is the most interesting. It is vulnerability. In horror, the protagonist is never powerful, and often exposed, alone and desperate. While this does not mean they have no options, it often means that their options are limited, and any small misstep may cost them dearly. Often, the sense of powerlessness is central to the experience and fills each choice with dread.
In board games this is the most controversial (and interesting) topic to me. You often see players and designers scoff at player elimination or high uncertainty. Designers also expressly try to give the player lots of powerful options, and many paths to victory. The goal is to make sure that all players feel like they are powerful and reduces the fear of mistakes. This may be good in many ways, but it has no place in horror.
I believe that to make a successful horror-game one has to fully embrace these disgraced and discarded mechanisms. To unlock the potential of horror in board games we need to touch the forbidden. This fear of loss not only serves a narrative and gameplay-purpose, it carries with it the potential for the most exhilarating feeling of all: success in the face of great adversity.
Horror is challenging but it can also be deep and emotionally complex. It allows us to tell stories that touch us closer to where we feel vulnerable. That said, these games will not be for everyone. That’s ok.
Stay tuned for the next part of this series where we will look closer at some horror board games.