A player walks around a dimly lit room, ambient noises accompanying their footsteps as they check everything over. They find some absurd puzzle lying around, barring their way forward. As they mull over the solution, they hear something enter the room as the ambiance amps up into scare chords. A monster appears to harass the player, forcing them to run, as there’s no way to take the monster on.
This is a basic scenario for a horror game. You may picture some mainstream horror game like Resident Evil or Silent Hill. Point is, you’re probably thinking about some big 3D horror game with a decent budget. However, the kind of game that I’m thinking about isn’t made in a high-end engine by a formal game studio.
So, RPG Maker. RPG Maker is an accessible tool for complete rookies to make their own games, intended to be used for making RPGs. However, some people decide to ignore the RPG aspect of the whole thing and make adventure or narrative games out of it, such as To the Moon. There’s a certain genre, however, that’s popular in the RPG Maker engine, to the point that it overshadows the engine’s intended use in some communities: horror games.
Horror RPG Maker games are horror adventure games made in RPG Maker or other engines used primarily for RPGs. For the intents and purposes of this article, the categorization is meant to describe horror games, not RPGs that happen to have horror elements; I’d love to talk about Mortis Ghost’s OFF in this article, but it ain’t primarily a horror game, no matter how much people say it is.
How does horror get conveyed in such a limited engine? It’s certainly possible – it’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools. One of the most vital things for a horror game is to create a good atmosphere. Solid art direction and sound design is typically a good way to convey atmosphere. While dimmed lights and dark visuals are typical, it’s also effective to present players with the unnatural; usually it’s monsters with bizarre appearances and forms, but the setting of the game can be made to look and feel unnatural. The setting of the game also needs to complement the atmosphere, otherwise it’d be a waste. You can expect the typical haunted houses or schools to show up being archetypal horror settings. Some memorable games of this genre uses more surreal settings, like the dream world of Yume Nikki and the alternate universe based inside museum paintings from Ib.
Most horror games in general will also try to push puzzles on you. In bizarre, cryptic settings, what better way than to force cryptic barriers onto you? In solving puzzles, you’re left to wander around to look for pieces, as lost as the character you’re controlling. Of course, the puzzles are also there to give some degree of challenge. As these horror games typically don’t have combat elements, the only challenge to being confronted by a monster is to run away from it. At least with puzzles, you have a fighting chance in a world of the unknown.
These kinds of games gained small cult followings, with some games receiving official supplementary stuff and adaptations. Corpse Party was made on early RPG Maker engines and first released on Japanese-only computers in 1996; today, Corpse Party has multiple games (sequels and remakes), a few manga series and a film (which I heard was mediocre, but you know, it’s neat that it even has a film).
While most of these games were originally available as freeware, some have gone on to have more formal releases. A few known games, Mad Father and Misao, have released on Steam to modest success. Of course you’ll be paying money, but it doesn’t hurt to support the people behind these games.
Now, many other games, especially ones that are actually RPGs, don’t quite make their way into the collective consciousness. There are a bunch of successful non-horror RPG Maker games such as OFF and LISA: The Painful RPG that have had their own cult fanbases, but for the most part, it’s the horror stuff that stands out more. So, why is it that horror RPG Maker games are so prevalent and more standoutish?
Comparative Ease to Make
I feel that a big reason for why there’s so many horror games made in RPG Maker is because they’re way easier to make than actual RPGs.
If you were making an RPG, there’d be a whole lot of things you’d have to account for. You’d need to think about the general balance of the game, adjusting character’s stats alongside enemies. You have to think about dungeon design and in making dungeons, the placement of enemies or the pacing of the dungeon that’s enforced by random encounters. You have to think about how powerful the equipment you’re giving out at one point of the game and if they’re overpowered or underpowered for that point in time.
Point is, you’re going to have to worry about a lot of technical stuff and it’d be a pain.
In contrast, a horror game maker doesn’t need to think about that. A whole inventory of items that you’d get in an RPG are condensed to a few essentials, usually keys and things used for puzzles. You don’t need to think about setting up battles with monsters because in horror games, you’re just dead if the monster catches up to you. Without the battle aspects of the engine to worry about, creators are free to focus more on other areas. More modern horror games typically have a stronger art direction and story, made possible by the resources freed up from not having to make an RPG.
Now, the enthusiast RPG Maker community is clearly aware of these horror games. However, many of these games ended up getting an audience outside of the engine’s dedicated community and is thus why people usually think of these types of games when they think of RPG Maker (when they’re not dismissing them altogether, that is).
The ease of making horror games alone also can’t account for their popularity. Ordinary adventure and narrative games made in the engine are also a thing, but they’re not quite as ubiquitous in people’s eyes. So, why are horror RPG Maker games such a big thing?
An answer that I have to that is YouTube.
So much content on YouTube is dedicated to reacting to things. There is of course the Fine Brothers’ REACT channel, where old people react to new hip things, kids react to old things, people react to the Fine Brothers’ stupid crime of trying to trademark “react,” etc. But there are also videos of people showing their reactions to trailers and shows. Let’s plays, the gaming cornerstone of YouTube, is pretty much live reactions of players to stuff going in a game.
What better way to draw out reactions than to experience horror? Doesn’t even matter if they’re overreactions, people eat that stuff. People love to watch others freak out, especially if they’re moderately attractive white guys.
Horror RPG Maker games ended up getting dragged into YouTuber content in the quest for those horror views. These games end up getting tied to the people covering them and results in fans of these YouTubers being introduced to these games. The biggest example of the RPG horror/YouTuber relationship can be seen in Ao Oni and PewDiePie.
Along with his videos on Happy Wheels, PewDiePie built his empire of being the top YouTube star with his overreactions to horror games like Amnesia, so his series on Ao Oni in 2011 was a natural fit for him and that audience he cultivated. Just look up Ao Oni on YouTube. His name shows up second in the search’s suggestions, which shows the strong relationship between his brand and the game. Search the game by most views and his videos sit at the top, with his first episode holding 4.6 million views and while that pales in comparison to the views on his other videos, for a niche horror game, it’s a lot. Note that the only entry in the top 4 videos that wasn’t by him is still about him and is arguably more about him than the actual game, which further shows how horror games get tied into YouTuber brands. While it’s unlikely that the Japanese portions of Ao Oni‘s fanbase were introduced to the game by PewDiePie, a case can be made about the game’s overseas fanbase getting built off the back of his videos.
Though, much like the ease of making horror games, YouTubers aren’t the sole reason why these horror games are popular. I point to Yume Nikki as an example. While generally considered to be a horror game, it doesn’t have big time YouTuber videos. I think a reason why is that Yume Nikki‘s horror is more subdued, relying more on atmosphere than flat-out scares. In fact, the game’s actual jump scares such as Uboa are hidden off and let’s players would need to work at getting to those scares to get in those cheap screams and cheap views. The only “big” YouTuber that’s attempted to play through Yume Nikki was Cryaotic, who ended his series on it after three episodes for unknown reasons.
Really, there isn’t one concrete explanation for this niche genre’s popularity, but I see these as the biggest reasons why they’re prevalent.
While PewDiePie’s moved on to bigger things (and huge racism controversies), there are still YouTubers that regularly play and cover horror RPG Maker games, even if they’re not as big. There’s ManlyBadassHero, a guy that covers niche games like this and having more subdued reactions in contrast to creators like PewDiePie. There’s also NitroRad, a sort of critic that’s looked at some high profile stuff along with niche stuff, such as his coverage of Yume Nikki fangames.
Now, if you’re new to these horror RPG Maker games but are interested in checking them out, I prepared a following list of basic stuff you can check out, drawn out of popular suggestions I got from asking people. Horror RPG Maker games are easy to make, but that doesn’t mean that they’re easy to make well.
An important thing to mention is that many games made in an RPG Maker engine before MV runs on something called a run-time package (or, RTP) that needs to be installed beforehand. This is one of the few times you should absolutely read a “read me” file for a game, as they typically have instructions for dealing with that. Some of these don’t seem to need one beforehand because of caring people that don’t want to waste your time.
I made sure to include games that wouldn’t be wildly inconvenient to play, as some games run on an unofficial translated RTP (on account of RPG Maker 2003 not being officially localized until 2015) and you’d have to hunt that down on sites that’s probably virus infested. Screw that.
Now, Ao Oni here is a special case because I actually have played it before for this blog. I didn’t like it too much.
The thing is though, I feel that Ao Oni suffers from the problem of being an early game when the scene started to really hit off. Everything it does that seems bland today was probably the shit back then, while other, later games diverged or just kinda built off the foundations Ao Oni ran on. It lacks a proper story beyond “escape this house” and so it may be less interesting to play than contemporaries with more fleshed out settings and plots. Also, the puzzles suck, I’m sorry.
However, if you’re new to this kind of stuff, it might still be worth checking out. It’s still an effective horror game, but a bland one nowadays.
Yume Nikki‘s a different flavor of horror game, relying more on atmosphere than flat-out scares. In Yume Nikki, you explore the dreams of a girl named Madotsuki, collecting items called Effects that all may or may not be representative of her life.
Yume Nikki, much like its different mood, also sets itself apart from contemporaries by having gameplay revolve around exploration instead of puzzles. Any challenge comes from trying to seek out the Effects blindly, falling deeper into the dreamscape. Exploration is also encouraged, as some of the more out there stuff is hidden off the general path.
Yume Nikki‘s also prominent for its fangame scene embraced by eastern and western creators, with a large and somewhat comprehensive wiki. Back in July, there was a game jam dedicated to making Yume Nikki fangames that I’ve tried to cover, so if you care for my shameless self-promotions, check that out.
The Witch’s House
The Witch’s House, I feel, represents the evolution of the genre compared to Ao Oni, building off a simple premise and providing a variety of creepy things and interesting puzzles. The game’s atmosphere is built up by its smaller scares and all sorts of death traps, creating a constant sense of unease and setting up for the usual monster chases. If you’re like me and haven’t heard about the game (at least until recently), the story builds up to a nice twist.