Why Setting is Critical in the Horror Genre
Published: October 12, 2020
Dread Nautical draws inspiration from a large assortment of games and our favorite stories from books and film. This Lovecraftian rogue-lite roots itself in a setting that is relatively unique as far as RPGs go–a mostly modern cruise ship at sea–but it also leverages classic ideas that have made the horror and psychological thriller genre a success for decades.
Nearly all horror settings have this in common: the characters are trapped in a confined area or region.
If you think about your favorite horror films, you will surely find a few exceptions, but for the most part, you will find characters in remote cabins where they are trapped by the sprawling wilderness around them. Or all of the characters are in a mansion cut off by a storm, left to try and deduce who among them is the murderer. Or the protagonists are in a cinderblock room with a strange clown creature explaining the devious traps surrounding them. Or unlikely heroes are on a boat fending off a supernatural horde of enemies, ruining a perfect cruise ship getaway.
This is a simple idea as far as narrative design is concerned, but it’s powerful. That feeling of being trapped is deeply emotional and something that we all can relate to. It’s a primal reaction hardwired into our psyches, so even if the actual threat is new or unusual–most of us have never been chased by a killer in a hockey mask or trapped in a kitchen with zombies clamoring over piles of plates–we can connect with a fear of being trapped. Then, the rest of the experience unfolds with ease.
Beyond the emotional payoff, the nature of the setting also forces conflict in more organic ways. If the road away from the mansion wasn’t blocked because of the storm, the danger is much less gripping because the characters could simply leave. But they can’t, so the characters have to talk to each other. They have to problem-solve within the narrow confines of their environment, and they can’t ever get far enough from the danger to actually feel safe.
When this is really well done, the setting of the story becomes a character in a strange sort of way. It’s not actually alive, of course, but it’s such an integral part of the narrative experience that it feels just as alive as the characters. Camp Crystal Lake, the Clue Mansion, the town of Hopkins–these places are just as much a part of the story as the characters that visit them.
If we zoom out away from horror, video games have been bringing settings to life this way for decades, whether we’ve noticed or not. Silent Hill feels alive. Hyrule feels alive. Azeroth feels alive. These fictional places are major parts of the experience, and players fall in love with them the way that they become attached to memorable characters.
For us at Zen Studios, we knew early on that Dread Nautical needed to build on this classic foundation, and we felt that a cruise ship both met the requirements while also giving us a great deal of creative freedom to do something new. Hope, the cruise liner in the game, is large enough that we can give the player a wide variety of level types and encounter variations, but it’s also out at sea with no rescue in sight.
Players don’t have a choice but to fight, and since it’s a tactical RPG, the environment is a constant strategic consideration on top of being a part of the story.
What are some of your favorite uses of horror settings in games? What experience was most memorable to you? We’d love to hear your perspective as well.