This post is part of the Designing Horror series.
Nyctophobia is a game where you play the saddest British man on the planet. You are a security guard, working your working day, and goddamn if the power doesn’t go out.
Oh, and there are freaky monsters.
1. How Does It Work?
There are a couple mechanics at work here, and all of these synchronously acting together make the heart of the game.
At the top, we have actual voicework–most horror games, and indie games especially, eschew voice in favor of scary sounds, jump cuts, etc. The additional layer is helpful with pulling the player into the game–you aren’t a voiceless protagonist. You aren’t really the character at all–instead, you become a steward. I don’t want the reedy little Brit to be murdered by nameless things, and that makes me strangely emotive. And this is something that is vastly underutilized in horror games–care. Not “I care about X,” but the desire to preserve a life that is demonstrably weaker than that of the player. I have control of the security guard. If he dies, I am responsible. And that’s horrifying (I feel bad for parents.)
The control scheme is part of this, of course. You move your mouse around to direct a flashlight. As you walk, you come upon scary monsters. They leap at you. The flashlight goes out. Your heart races. The screen get shaky. This, surprisingly, is incredibly effective. There were moments when the character was at the edge of the map, his flashlight scared into the off position, and the screen was vibrating so hard that he was clipping out of my vision. I was gripped; I can’t do anything to save him. He’s gone.
Of course, he wasn’t; I pulled him back from that edge, and honestly, I’m not sure if the character can be killed by the monsters. But damn if I didn’t panic, didn’t feel like I was going to lost something important to me. I’m really, really impressed with that. I feel like I was incepted with an emotional response.
2. Why Is It Horror?
A lot of what I have written about here in the Designing Horror series has been, I think, about loss. The prime ways of making something horror: replace the aesthetic with one that is alien, evil, etc.; remove sight; replace diegetic sound with scrunchy noises. All of these are predicated on an expectation of the real and then a supplement to that expectation. “You want a normal town? YOU GET SILENT HILL!” “You want to see clearly? TOO BAD, YOU CAN’T SEE SHIT!”
Nyctophobia does those things, of course. It takes away sight, sound, and control. But it also does something unique in that it gives you one last thing, the scared British man, and then threatens you mercilessly. The game constantly asserts that it is going to take him away and do terrible things, even if it never happens.
3. What Did It Do To Me?
Jump scares. A nagging worry. A worm in my heart that raced every time a monster came near.