You are walking down a dark corridor. The floorboards creak beneath your feet as you inch forward in the gloom. The only source of light is the flickering torch you hold in your trembling hand, and the ominous red glow that’s coming from underneath the door ahead of you. As you approach the door, you hear a muffled scream coming from behind it, although you’re not quite sure if it’s real or just in your head. You swallow hard and slowly turn the handle, ready to face whatever horror is waiting beyond the threshold.
“Would you hurry up!” a voice suddenly screams in your ear. “There’s a mountain of sweet loot behind that door and I want it!” The voice belongs to BeastSmasher37, one of your party members who happens to be a Dwarf warrior armed with a very large axe. All of a sudden, the corridor doesn’t seem so scary, and any sense of doom you might have experienced is gone.
Creating real horror in a video game is tough. I’m not talking about jump-scares or gore, but true, unrelenting horror that makes you scared to even continue playing, though you can’t really stop. It’s even more difficult to maintain the genre’s trademark sense of dread and helplessness when the player is not alone. Isolation makes everything appear scarier, since you know there’s no one around to help, and whoever is around is usually there to do you harm.
In MMOs, you are never alone. Even if you decide not to join a party and go adventuring on your own, there are still other players about, slaying monsters, chatting endlessly, and often dancing (for some reason). How can you be scared when a vicious-looking Orc suddenly busts moves that would make MC Hammer jealous? However, there are a few ways MMOs can still be scary, despite (or sometimes because) of all the people around.
First, a horror MMORPG must establish the right atmosphere. Apart from the classic combination of gothic architecture, monsters and darkness, there are plenty of other great settings that can make for a truly scary MMO. For example, basing a game in the Cthulhu mythos would be a great choice, as it offers a completely different type of horror than that of vampires, werewolves or zombies. There’s also the option of avoiding the supernatural altogether and sticking to the boundaries of the real world, which is scary enough as it is. The rural countryside is an appropriate setting, and places like abandoned towns, deep forests, and creepy theme parks can all be good stages for various quests. Of course, going the easy way with excessive gore also works, though I don’t consider being grossed to be the same as being afraid. Once the atmosphere is set, it’s time to think about what mechanics that will make a massive multiplayer game terrifying.
One of our most basic and universal fears is the fear of death. In most MMORPGs, death doesn’t have big repercussions, which makes sense since these games want you to enjoy taking risks and have a grand adventure. But what if we attach some major consequences to dying, like losing all your loot or even permadeath (permanent death). Losing your character at the moment of death might not sit well with all MMO players, but just imagine the tension it can create in the right conditions. However, if you want true horror, you still need to go one step further.
This leads us to the best resource MMOs have to induce horror - other people. People are capable of amazing acts of compassion, but also of great evil, and that’s exactly what a horror MMO needs to remind its players every single second. Combine always-on PvP with permadeath, and paranoia will quickly set in, forcing players to constantly be on their toes. Every encounter between two players (or even groups) is an exercise in diplomacy, tactics and reflex. Players will need to make split second decisions: should they immediately attack? Can the others be trusted? Are they willing to risk their lives to establish a fragile alliance? Maybe it’s best to just avoid other players altogether?
To prevent a situation where players will indeed avoid each other at all costs, the game can “force” players to work together. It can be by creating challenges no players can overcome on their own, establishing an economic system that largely depends on trade, or even by permitting PvP in big hub areas, where players have no choice but to gather. By making other players its most dangerous aspect, the game kills two birds with one stone - the player constantly feels isolated, even when among other people, and they never quite feel safe.
So to recap, horror MMORPGs need a good creepy settings to start with, but the best way to really make the players fear for their lives is to adhere to that notorious Jean Paul Sartre philosophy: Hell is other people.