I’ve never particularly been a fan of horror games; they don’t weird me out, they don’t make me feel gross, and they don’t frighten me. Amnesia, Slenderman, FEAR, they’ve all struck me as sort of disappointing. They have occasional moments of “OH SHIT SOMETHING JUST HAPPENED!” followed by a lot of feeling in control. But I played one game recently which left me with a unique sense of both horror and dread I’ve never felt playing a game before. That game was SCP Containment Breach.
Warning: this whole post contains minor spoilers of the first 15 minutes (and the basic concept) of the game.
Here are some videos of me playing SCP: Containment Breach
SCP Containment Breach has a pretty simple concept. You are in a facility that Secures, Contains, and Protects various artifacts that range from mundane to powerful. You know the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the camera pans back to reveal a facility full of artifacts (presumably including the Ark of the Covenant)? That’s where you work, except half of the artifacts are mobile or sentient. You’re trying to escape from a number of horrible monsters, but the one in particular which is the feature monster is SCP-173*, a concrete statue which only moves when you’re not looking, at which point it moves VERY quickly. If it ever reaches to you, it snaps your neck. When it moves, it makes a horrible noise of concrete grinding against the ground.
This is the first reason the game is particularly terrifying. Most horror games are based around the “jump” moments; they have long lulls followed by a sudden moment that catches you by surprise. While the speed of these creatures does mean that this game has “jump” moments, the majority of the game is actually an exercise in psychological tension; you have to always be on the alert.
The ambient noise is brilliant at keeping this tension up. The facility you are in constantly creaks and groans, and even makes a grinding noise very similar to the noise SCP-173 makes.
But the mechanics add to this, to make the game particularly horrifying. How? By taking away control.
One way it takes away your control is very explicit. There’s just not much you can do. You have 3 actions available: walk/run, blink, and crouch. You can also interact with various objects in the environment (picking up items/opening doors). This leaves you with almost nothing to do, most of the time, but walk. If you play almost any other first person game, you’re always spamming actions, jumping everywhere, toggling weapons, or even just clicking the same action again and again (if you’re playing an RPG). Even Starcraft or LoL players spam actions in lull periods.
Psychologically, I’m sure there are a number of causes for this: the brain despises complete idleness, the repetition is focusing, and it makes the player feel like they’re always doing something. But in horror games, availability of meaningless actions creates 2 different problems.
First, it gives the player something to do to burn away their anxious energy. If you’re scared, or anxious, or worried, you can just click again and again to feel (a little) better. SCP: CB goes through a lot of work to create an ambient sense of dread “SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN” that is in many ways, almost as bad as whatever does happen. Allowing the players to burn this off through meaningless actions would be counter-intuitive.
But more interestingly, having actions gives the player some semblance of control. In this horror game, the basic premise is that the player is completely helpless; the only thing he can do is try to survive and escape, but fighting back is impossible. The fact that you can’t take actions, can’t pick up weapons, can’t interact with the environment in any way except to open doors establishes you as (basically) powerless, adding to your sense of helplessness.
As a follow-up to this, however, the game takes what control you do have and restricts it. For one, you are not free to look wherever you want. Not only does SCP 173 move whenever you look away, but other SCPs respond negatively to being looked at. So while you may have ‘control’, the game takes a lot of that away from you.
On top of that, you have a blink timer of about 4-5 seconds; when it runs out, you blink (removing all vision for a fraction of a second). So even if you manage to control your vision perfectly, some of that control is taken away from you just by virtue of how the game works.
I considered a flashlight mechanic, like Slenderman has, but I worry it would make the game too difficult (given that you HAVE to look at some things, which means restricting your vision cone even more would just be mean).
Overall, I think what each of these points gets at (as pointed out to me by a friend of mine) is complexity. That is, if a horror game gets too complicated, it becomes a puzzle game, and engaging the more rational parts of your brain for puzzle dampens the visceral horror parts of your brain. Having actions you can perform does a similar thing; it gives your brain something to do that isn’t BEING TERRIFIED. So giving the players too much to do, either as a requirement (puzzles/problem-solving) or an option (meaningless actions) allows them to get rid of the general tension built by the game.
*Incidentally, while this may resemble Dr. Who’s Weeping Angels, they were apparently both conceived of at approximately the same time, and separately.