Nightmare Fuel: a catchy phrase for the kind of horror that lingers to traumatize its consumers for years. It’s so common as a descriptor to have its own page at TV Tropes, and it’s the bread and butter of people who want to create the same kinds of lingering terror. To be the grand masters of fear, whether you’re running a game or designing one, you have to mainline some Nightmare Fuel before you start making it.
Nightmare Fuel Master (Online) Classes
There’s a mind boggling array of people blogging on the topics of what is horror, how to make it scary, and where horror can take us. But sometimes we need to read outside our media wheelhouse (like dipping into video games writing to bring back wisdom to our tabletop endeavors). Over at This Cage Is Worms is a number of posts waiting for your to read them in their archive. The Designing Horror posts cover a number of computer games and what made them the disturbing nightmare fodder that prompted recording a reaction to. Things covered by the series include
nihilism, the weaponization of the familiar, the terror of loss, the threat upon what we are most emotionally invested in, the stretching of our own existence to include the horrible, the terrible things we can see with our flashlights, the power of our senses, dreams, things that make us worry, cosmic horror, aesthetics that don’t work in horror, the terror of vulnerability, confrontation of the unknown, and how things crawl inside us and make us bloody terrified
It’s lovely and weird and I felt a bit creeped out just reading about the games second hand. That’s something we often forget: even second-hand transmission of fear can still prove infectious.
Now, if we raid game designer Ryan Macklin’s blog quite liberally, there are a trove of posts discussing horror. This thematic line on his blog includes how we need hope to make horror work, some musings on monsters as threats and the dice roles/language we use, the sense of “being watched” in horror, and a cardinal rule for GMing a horror game. Even if you can’t use all of it in your own game-related endeavors, checking out how other people approach horror helps you refine your own approach.
Frightful (Digital) Games
We don’t get time to be omnivores and consume all games of all types throughout time and space. But even a taste of games outside our norms are good for shaping our ideas about things, including horror. I’m only going off games I’ve played, and keeping the list as short as I can.
The Path, Tale of Tales
There are six lovely daughters, and all of them wear red. One by one, each goes to the forest, on their way to Grandmother’s house. The Path is full of beautiful imagery, weird surrealistic encounters, a sense of being watched, and many shocking, heart breaking endings to the many stories you witness in motion. The object of The Path is not to ‘win’ in a conventional sense, the point is to see, be invested, be curious, and to follow things to their conclusion. The Path is a very pretty game, but it has a lot of content related to our desires, and to how life can hurt us. It’s a horror game to me because of how it uses uncertainty, desire, family, and violence to deeply affect the player.
The Graveyard, Tale of Tales
This is a short, tiny game that takes less than 30 minutes to play without interruption. There is an old woman, and you are guiding her through a graveyard. She uses a cane, and her gait is slow and uneven. The clouds cast moving shadows on the ground. The Graveyard can end two ways. I didn’t know the second end, so when I got there, I was shocked. Mouth open, I stared at the screen in disbelief, as if my denial of it could change it.
But it didn’t.
Knock Knock, Ice-Pick Lodge
I play it during the day. Alone. I react to this game with chilled hands, a racing heart, and some of the most disturbing nightmares I’ve had in a long time. In Knock Knock, you live in a house in the woods. And when things begin to come inside, and shake your sanity to its core, all you can do is try to survive to dawn. You can’t act against what’s happening, only try to learn as quickly as possible what about your senses you can and cannot believe in the three hours before you see the sun rise. Sound and visuals are part of what makes Knock Knock scary, but it’s already taken you to the brink when you realize the game has been playing you.
By using a familiar place, twisting it just enough to make it somewhat alien, Knock Knock makes you doubt your senses. It has its own internal logic that doesn’t work in ways you expected. There is something terrible coming for you, but it’s up to you to discover how to prevail against it. There’s a great deal of trial and error in Knock Knock as you learn the world you’re dealing with, and the revelations of what you face are horrifying. Knock Knock scares me because it deceives the senses, mars the familiar with unfamiliar angles, and asks me to operate on the same rules as terrible entities I cannot claim to understand.
Explore Fear in New Ways
If you feel like you’ve mainlined too much mainstream Nightmare Fuel, find pieces of horror media that you’re not familiar with. Play games that don’t rely on often harmful tropes about what scares us. Read horror strangers recommend. Pick a movie at random off Netflix. Search out horror not made in your country, and examine how horror manifests outside your borders. Take out a pen and paper and ask yourself what you find scary. Revisit games that are part of the tabletop landscape to decide why they do or don’t say “horror” to you. If you want to apply any new thoughts on horror right away, you can sign up for Asylum Jam, which starts on Friday. Any platform (that means tables too, folks), 48 hours, and a single rule to follow.
You should not use asylums, psychiatric institutes, medical professionals or violent/antipathic/’insane’ patients as settings or triggers.
Exploration isn’t just brave. It can be a vital part of things that scare us.
Happy Nightmares, folks! Leave your recollections of games, movies, paintings, music videos, and bizarre encounters with things that spooked you in the comments. Think of it as a brain trust. A spooky braintrust.