Horror in Roguelike Games

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Horror in Roguelike Games

by Kornel Kisielewicz

"I've seen the horrors. Horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murder, but you have the right to kill me. I have the right to do that, but you have no right to judge me... It's impossible through words to describe, what is necessary to those, who do not know what 'horror' means. Horror... Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends, if they are not, they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies."
-- "Apocalypse Now!", Francis Ford Copolla

Creating a horror-themed game is a challenge all in itself. Creating a horror-themed roguelike is much harder than creating a hack'n'slash game. You have to provide the player with necessary atmosphere, plot, and 'fear'. The last element is hard, let's even say almost impossible to achieve. Given the broad range of players, you have no clue on who will be playing your game. You have to play on primal fears, which are the same for every human heart. But first let's make one important distinction -- there are generally three types of horror-themed games.


The least-ambitious, but so-popular type, where you basically only use corpses, undead, werewolves, and all that crappy B-movie horror shit. The atmosphere is basically just "kill'em all". The basic idea is to overthrow the player with tons of blood, tons of entrails, brains splattered everywhere. It's absolutely the most popular way to show 'horror' in a game. And the least ambitious, and usually ineffective. The player just gets disgusted, and only feels when the atmosphere is good. But it's not horror, it's gore... There are many, many examples of this genre -- just visit your local video shop and look at the shelves for cheap horror movies.

In a roguelike this effect could be hard if you're using ASCII. The thing you can do, is use blood on the floors, and make enemies "explode", making the dungeon full of red dots. More, you would have to add the full gallery of B-movie monsters. They should be weak and plenty, so your dungeon would turn more and more red. Add descriptions in the style of: "you're knee deep in blood", "the smell of death surrounds you". Don't forget about detailed damage descriptions: "His brains blow out, and spill all over the floor", "with a ugly 'crunch' his head falls off and rolls down the corridor". You can also add bodyparts, skeletons, and other gooey stuff lying all over the dungeon... There's a lot more you can do, especially if you use tile-graphics.


Contrary to it's name it's not real fear. It's only that itching in the neck, that you get when watching 'Dracula' late at night. Fear bases on objects and their emotional ties. We all know, and recognize things like vampires, walking dead, and werewolves. Fear-themed games base more on scenery than actual fighting. The lone tower, somewhere in the middle of the marshes. A rising full moon. You have to remember about all the elements of a classical horror. The whole idea is, that some objects have an already established 'fear-factor' in our minds. Your goal is to find them, use them all, 'and in darkness bind them' :).

What about a fear-themed roguelike? Here the plot is the Key. You have to prepare detailed settings, write a lot of descriptions for them. Writing a fear-themed game is more like writing a book. Remember to attack the player with 'steps' of fear. Don't let him go happily bashing werewolves all around. No. Let him first hear a wolf-howl in the distance. Then, let him see that a full moon is rising (or in the case of a roguelike, give him a detailed description). Then let him come to a almost abandoned village, where the people closed themselves in their huts, praying, all scared by the giant wolves that hunt the woods on Silvernight... Let the player hear a lot of descriptions from the scared peasants, stories of people attacked by great wolves, mutilated, and then dragged into the woods, never to be seen again. Don't use the word 'werewolf' -- use descriptive language -- 'giant, horrible, bloodthirsty wolves' -- instead. Then let the player feel the first wave. A scratching on the door. A wolf howl from just besides the hut. And no, if he goes out, let him only find a decapitated, mutilated corpse... And the story goes on and on, until the climax, where the player discovers the truth... the whole truth? Never -- always leave something in the dark...

For references look at renaissance European horror stories. Look at books like Bram Stokers 'Dracula'. Like the Russian horror novels. Books like 'Frankenstein', or other considered as classics. Poetry and novels by Edgar Allan Poe. Movies, like 'Dracula', and a few more.

From the gaming genre there are also a few games that have that feeling. 'Diablo' and the 'Doom' series are something on the edge of Gore and Fear. 'Alone in the Dark' series is a great example, as is an old cRPG 'Elvira' (but it's also gore). More examples 'Gabriel Knight', 'BloodNet', and even 'System Shock'. Oh, and another great example : 'Legacy'. Stephen King writes this way.

True Horror

The most ambitious genre-face of them all. This type of horror, in my humble opinion, is almost unattainable in a computer game. It's not just the story, the monster, the setting. It's something BEYOND. Just as H.P.Lovecraft wrote in "Supernatural in Literature", you need something more than just a monster, an old tower, blood and fear. You need the shadow of a real horror, beyond the scene, just looming over the players feelings. Just a hint of a horror so unspeakable a human mind can't even imagine. This is a very serious play on the human psyche, and can be achieved only by hard work. It's the something that tingles at the edge of our imagination, in our worst nightmares. You have to make the player believe, that it's not only the '@' sign that he's saving. You have to make him believe that it is him, who struggles against the odds. You have to _scare_ him. Impossible. But doable.

I recommend reading the quote at the beginning again.

I don't know whether roguelike is a possible genre for true horror. To be absolutely honest, I've never played any 'true horror' game. The closest I could get, were a few moments in 'Alone in the Dark'. On the other hand, Permadeath is a really important factor that could contribute to the horror.

I can't show you a receipt for true horror in a roguelike. What I can do, is give you a few hints. First of all, forget about combat. Make the player die each time he tries to fight, what he can't understand. Let information be _very_ sparse. Never allow the play to know more than 'just a little'. Leave always a huge area for the imagination. The Players imagination, by the way, is your greatest ally. Leave it room to produce it's own horrors. Never 'show' any monsters in full light. Let the player catch only a glimpse (or two, if he'll die anyway). Make the game really deadly -- every mistake should cost the player his life. Create an atmosphere of never-ending danger. Make the player paranoid. Make him do more stupid mistakes because of his paranoia. Make him go insane. Throw simple bats at him and make him believe that those are unspeakable horrors. Put a few asylums into your world. Always when the player thinks he knows something, show him, that he doesn't know anything. Build a scenery, that feels like home, and then when the player starts to feel 'home', destroy it on his eyes. An make him incapable of any action. Present an NPC that the player will start to like, will start to care for, and then kill him ruthlessly, or even better, change him into a nightmare. And again, the player should feel that he is *almost* helpless. Or even better --> kill the NPC and show the player that he *could* have saved him...

Oh. And for safety add a DISCLAIMER note to the game, that saves you from covering damage to equipment, and mental disorder payments ;). You play at your own risk...

Examples? The ones I can think of now, are the movie 'Apocalypse Now' and the novels of H.P.Lovecraft...

That's all folks. I hope that my rambling will be of any use to anyone. In my own game (GenRogue, link below) I plan to achieve an effect somewhere between 'fear' and 'horror'. GenRogue is set in a dark-fantasy world, where life is hard, and mysteries shroud the earth.

Comments, questions? I'm open and ready for discussion. Oh, and sorry for my really ugly English...