Horror in Tabletop Games – Immersion

Welcome back to the third and final article in this design series. Today we are going to deepdive on a key topic in horror, and also of horror boardgames.  As we have seen a key to achieving horror is immersion, something we are focusing deeply on in our design of The Presence.

Immersion is the bond between the mind of the player and the world of the game. It is the degree to which the player agrees to suspend disbelief and accept the outcomes in the game, not as the effect of mechanisms but as events in a narrative. This makes the player accept a loss or negative outcome, attributing it to the narrative and makes them able to stay immersed without being taken out of the experience.

Shadows in the forest is a family game cleverly using light for immersive effect.

Make good use of ambiance. This is equally important for all narrative experiences, but especially important for horror. Why? Because horror stops being effective as soon as the player pulls away from the experience. Just like we have all met the person who exclaims ‘I never get scared by films’, there is the player that says ‘I just died because of that die-roll’. The truth is, it is very easy to not be scared. We just have to decide not to be. Pulling away is a psychological defense, and we do it all the time. It is way more difficult to allow yourself to be scared.

In designing a horror experience, what can we do to retain the player in the narrative while we must have them face failure and even death of their character? By the nature of the medium they will have to face perilous odds to survive, but they must accept the outcome and want to come back for more.

A lot of this effect is entering the experience with the right mindset. We cannot directly affect who will play the game and when, but we can signal to the player that this is the kind of experience they should have certain expectations of going in.

Let’s  look closer at a few things that may help us achieve this goal.

The Night Cage supports its setting with its mechanisms. You are lost in an eternally changing dark labyrinth.

Use a personal avatar. The player needs a focus within the game that they can relate to and emphatize with. The more personal the focus the easier it becomes to see an emerging narrative in the mechanisms of the game. You want the player to invest in the fate of their character.

It is important that the characters are vulnerable and exposed, both in game and in the theme. It should be clear that making it out alive is difficult or perhaps even unlikely. However, reward death and failure with narrative meaning. Respect the investment of the player by making their failure mean something for the narrative.

Use mechanisms to tell the story, not walls of text. The mechanisms must be strong enough to support the setting and narrative, and their narrative meaning must be clear to the players. Use shadows to allow the player to hide. Use lack of food to create desperation and dread. The strength of games is in giving the player agency. With agency and choice the player stays invested and immersed.

However, avoid complexity and mechanisms that take focus away from the story and forces the player to spend time understanding the board-state. Make the choices few, simple and consequential. Use dice or cards to obscure the full outcome of the players choices and avoid analysis paralysis.

In Nyctophobia players are blindfolded and must move around the board by sense of touch.

Activate the players imagination. We need to allow the player to fill in the gaps in what their character is experiencing by giving them enough emergent events to play off of in their mind. Imagination is your key to immersion, as can be learned from tabletop RPG’s. If your player is thinking about your world and their place in it they are immersed and engaged, and any event will carry more meaning.

Avoid long texts in booklets and on cards. Feel free to use snippets of story-text, but be careful to not rely too heavily on them. Using story-text is a double-edged sword as the game risks becoming a predesigned narrative rather than giving the player agency. Reading text also pulls players out of the immersed experience and their own
imagination of events.

Place more focus on anticipation than on danger. Good horror is 90% tension and 10% scares. The real horror is in imagining the horrible outcome, not in experiencing it. Focus on the sense of growing danger and use a few impactful moments to release the tension that has been built up.

If you throw too much danger at your players without building it up properly you will create an action-game, not a horror-game. Give the player a choice between immediate danger and long term consequences as this builds anticipation and dread.

A finished playtest of The Presence prototype, ambient style.

To conclude, give the players a reason to care and have their choices matter, regardless of the consequences. Make them choose between several bad options and reward them with narrative purpose, even if they don’t succeed.

I once hosted a Halloween boardgame-night where we played games like Mysterium, Letters From Whitechapel and Werewolf in candlelight and with the right music score. It was great.

You will know success when the players narrate the outcome of the game with enthusiasm, regardless of their characters success or failure. And then want to play again.