Horror is an interesting subject, and one that pops up in many games. In many ways, games are the perfect medium to portray true horror. You never get that sense of investment that you get with a book or movie that you get with a game. But what is the best way to truly freak someone out?
Most people say that the scarriest thing is not what you can see, it’s what you can imagine. That knock on the door, the scraping on the walls, the breathe on your neck. It could all be just your little sister, but it might a huge spider about to kill you! The scariest point is right before the reveal, where your mind goes crazy thinking of what it could possibly be. Inevitably, the reveal is going to be less scary than what you thought it was going to be. That’s why people look at the reveal from Cloverfield as one of the most disappointing parts of that movie.
But, purely hiding what is chasing you is not the scariest thing ever. Movies like the Jason series and Freddy Krueger show that they can be pretty scary as well. This is simply because you cannot always control the audience. When you want the audience to think the scraping is a huge monster, they assume it’s a branch. When you want the audience to be freaked out at a slight door creak, they miss it entirely. Or sometimes you just want surprise to be part of the terror.
So, how do you combine these two methods to produce pure, unfiltered terror? Simple, have a thing you can look at, but not see. Something there, but not there. Something that human eyes can see, but no brain can process. The answer is, of course, Cthulhu and friends.
The main premise of the Cthulhu Mythos is that human beings are not the biggest thing, they are insignificant in every way. The Old Gods are larger, older, smarter, stronger, bigger, and (this is important) infinitely more complex than anything we can even imagine. Our minds balk when confronted with even an image of an Old God.
This is Shub-Niggurath. But, this isn’t Shub-Niggurath. This is only what we humans can process of Shub-Niggurath’s form. If one were to be in the presence of ole Shubby, their mind would snap from trying to process what it saw.
This shows how the Cthulhu Mythos can combine both aspects or horror, the mystery and the concrete. You can see what Sub–Niggurath or Cthulhu looks like, but you can never understand what they truly are.
But the truly horrifying is not just meeting these Old Gods in a dark alley, but meeting the cultists. Cthulhu Mythos is rife with impressionable people, towns and even countries that dedicate themselves to the service of a god they only partially understand. The god’s words warp the mind, the symbols warp the being and the ideals warp the soul. After prolonged exposure, cultists are barely human. No longer do they have that glint of humanity in their eyes, but there is something else. Something terrifying in it’s unknowability, but frightening in it’s reality. There is a person here, but there not a person here, just a glorified meat puppet being controlled by some invisible, insane, extra-dimensional god.
When designing a game, don’t be married to either revealing or concealing. Use a bit of both. Sucker your player in with a human facade, but twist it subtly. Make it not human. Have the creature you fight at the end not be the highest in command. Make your player feel like an ant trying to fight a four dimensional ant eater. Make the player feel alone and scared, confused and afraid.