Defining Horror, with Michał Król (Layers of Fear)

Defining Horror’ is a series that explores the creative minds behind the horror games that we love. Each entry in the series will share new aspects of the creative process, shining light on a developer’s idea of what makes a quality horror experience, what elements are integral to a horror game, as well as what goes into effectively making an impact on the player. ‘Defining Horror’ is a series that aims to give gamers insight into what the horror genre means to those who have developed or are developing horror games.

Below you will find Michał Król’s definition of horror.

Name: Michał Król
Company: Bloober Team
Title: Game Designer
Games: Layers of Fear

For me horror still remains the only genre that requires the performance of certain “mystical” rituals just to get started. Waiting for the right hour, turning off all the lights, preparing the good headphones and the bad underwear. We horror fans are a peculiar bunch of masochists, making sure we get scared out of our minds, savoring our terror-induced cold sweat as if it was a good cigar. Surely it’s an acquired taste, one which comes in many horrific flavors.

After way too many years of exposing myself to all kinds of demented terrors (whether it be movies, games or my own nightmares) I think the best horror experiences are the ones that go beyond simple jump-scares or frantic chases down some spooky corridors. Not to say that those are all bad things! It’s just that recently too often we see titles that rely solely on the easiest ways to make someone shriek, as if a firecracker exploded in their lower intestine.

A truly powerful horror is one that gradually poisons your mind and takes root under your skin, growing stronger with each step you take. I simply adore it when creators go for the slow “foreplay” approach, allowing the victim… I mean the player to get familiarized with their surroundings and the way things work. Then once the false sense of security sets in, it gets torn away bit by bit, like limbs from a captured fly. There are so many wonderful ways you can mess with one’s head: changing the environment behind their backs, tormenting them with sound cues of unknown origin, switching the story from scary, to creepy, up to uncomfortably disturbing. To me if a player starts doubting most of the things the game throws at him due to an inability to predict anything, that’s a job well done, but once he reaches the point of questioning his very own mind, now that’s a completely different level of horror.

This is something we at Bloober Team strive for with the development of Layers of Fear – the horror which emerges from confusion and uncertainty. It’s amazing how the very moment players experience the sudden and sneaky changes to their surroundings, the paranoia creeps in and the real fun begins. Once they realize that even a simple act of turning around can flip the whole room upside-down, that’s when the mind starts making it even worse by fooling them into seeing shifts where there are none. Of course this wouldn’t work without the well placed jump-scares, as they are a key ingredient for the buildup and release of tension. Without them even our most psychedelic scenarios would lose their impact after a while.

That being said, a perfect horror in my opinion is one that also comes with a story so gut-wrenching that by the end of it you feel like an accomplice to a heinous crime. I’m convinced that horror is the ideal medium for twisted narratives, mainly because of how much it engages the player during the whole ride, forcing him to face his fears along the way. Add to that struggle a story which brutally yanks you out from your comfort zone, just so it can mentally break you in half at the very end – exactly like Bane handling Batman riddled with brittle bones disease. Can’t imagine a more cathartic experience.

Recent years were a true second renaissance for the entire horror genre, and seeing how developers are constantly finding new ways of strengthening our insomnia makes me more than happy. Not to mention that once the whole VR revolution settles in for good (so many goggles to choose from) then we will witness people redefining digital terror left and right! I can already feel my coward-senses tingling.

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