VFX in Horror Games: Crafting Fear Through Visual Effects

Horror games have a unique power to keep players on the (literal) edge of their seats, fully immersing them in fantasy worlds of spine-chilling experiences. VFX is the crucial ingredient in making horror games, horrifying. This Halloween, we had a chat with Room 8 Studio’s VFX pros—Iontxu (Ion) Ocasar (Realtime VFX Team Lead) & Vicente Marjalizo (Project Lead Realtime VFX Artist), to explore the mysterious world of visual effects in games that make your skin crawl.

The Glue That Holds Everything Together

When it comes to the technical aspects, horror games are quite similar to other genres. Whether you are creating fog or blood, the techniques used are fairly similar. What sets horror games apart is the precise fusion of elements that creates an unnerving atmosphere—imagine a wild scientist or a witch in front of a cauldron mixing bat wings with spider webs together! 
Take Alien Isolation, for instance—a title praised by both of our interviewees—which relies on environmental details and a sense of relentless pursuit much more than on snazzy VFX. Still, with the subtle usage of visual effects here and there, a well-timed light flash or mist coming from a certain direction, the whole thing clicks, culminating in an effective symphony of terror.

Most great horror games, Vicente states, succeed because VFX blends seamlessly with their rhythm, atmosphere, and gameplay—acting as a supporting tool rather than a central component. VFX in horror games acts as the glue that holds everything together. It can enhance an already well-crafted experience, but can’t compensate for poor design or sound. Visual effects need to be applied on the “cracks” of the horror game, combining design, sounds, mechanics into an effective unified mixture—providing a final touch of spookiness.

Technical & Graphical Advancement: A Double-Edged Sword

It’s impossible to imagine a modern title discussion without mentioning graphical technologies like ray tracing or real-time rendering. Ion emphasizes how these tools’ effectiveness depends heavily on their creative implementation and alignment with the design. It’s all about whether they serve the intended purpose. An interesting thing about VFX in horrors is that graphical techniques are often used to limit, test, or surprise the players.

Vicente concurs, highlighting another unexpected aspect: even a portioned usage of VFX can do the job in a horror game. While Ultra settings in a game may be desirable by default, they are not as critically important for immersion as one might think. It’s not always about realism; it’s about serving the game’s unique requirements.


Realism vs. Imagination: The Fear Factor

If you are a gamer, it’s obvious that most horror games lean toward realism. A lot of devs tend to strengthen the realistic feel of their already realistic games by employing cinematic effects that mimic horror movies. We are talking about the whole package here: shaky camera movement, sound design, blood drops on screen, etc. Both of our artists confirm that introducing a realistic-looking setting is one of the easiest ways to immerse players into a horror scenario and make them believe what they see.
However, Vicente makes an interesting point that realism isn’t the only path to fear. Games like Silent Hill—having come out two decades ago—manage to create terror and anxiety even today, despite their two-decade-old visual capabilities. After all, fear is a psychological construct that can be elicited in various ways: by obscuring the players’ field of view, building up a sense of claustrophobia by obscuring surroundings, and adding to the overall tension through light and shadows.

This cements the point that using VFX to limit the visual appeal rather than enhance it is what truly sets horror games apart from other genres. Vicente is adamant in his faith that graphics in horrors aren’t too paramount to the overall experience: you will be terrified by titles like Outlast on Low settings just as much as on High.

In the future, both artists agree, VFX specialists will stand at the crossroads. Some will keep using the latest cutting-edge tools to achieve even more realism and immersion. The others will stick to a limited arsenal of techniques but much more unexpected and creative usage of them to spook players.

Trick or Treat?

Ultimately, Ion shrugs, VFX artists are tricksters. They aim to create a believable scene that the player’s brain will recognize as something that’s really happening right here and right now. If the audience realizes that something is wrong and spots the trick, everything falls apart, and the magic is lost. So it’s up to the artists to hide the horror elements behind the curtains, feeding those to the player in small portions—maintaining the magic in the process.
There are no rules without exceptions, so just remember this: no matter how many VFX frames the title features, you’ll know it works when the player forgets that they are playing a horror game. So, next time your game journey brings you to a dimly-lit hallway with flickering lights or leaves you alone on the streets covered with fog, be ready and keep your eyes peeled! Who knows what’s hiding in the darkness, waiting for you to look away… 👻

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    Elena Natsvlishvili
    Head of production
    Vadim Krayevoy