CityCraft: how to plan horror cities

Using environments to add texture to disturbing stories, and setting to scare people, is a far from new idea. The Romantics placed castles on remote cliffs; urban terrors have been hiding in generic metropolises since the 20th century; and contemporary horror games have all paid careful attention to their setting. Crafting a suitably atmospheric space is, after all, crucial when it comes to horror, and the richness of urban settings – their sheer genre potential – cannot be ignored.

Decaying provincial towns, dead civic husks, remote mountain villages, and vampire-infested cities can all create an atmosphere of dread. So if your aim is to make your location horrify, possibly confuse or unsettle, here are some helpful tips.

ELDRITCH, SCARY CITIES

A common technique is to exploit the familiarity players have with cities, and subvert their expectations. Ignore key functions (think of a settlement without roads, for example), play with scale (impossibly large squares, and tall edifices), and strive for oddness; players are bound to notice if enough civic elements are missing or out of place. Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft masterfully introduced the oddness of the title town in The Shadow Over Innsmouth by mentioning its lack of a Chamber of Commerce and a public library. In game worlds, we have to make certain any purposeful omissions are both noticed, and not registered as something we overlooked.

Restricting visibility, and then revealing arrestingly majestic urban views – a technique city builders employed heavily during the Middle Ages – can enhance your city’s atmosphere, and even set up jump-scares. Furthermore, a well-timed showcasing of the true scale of a city’s weirdness can be profoundly unsettling. A panoramic view finally showing the city’s pentagram structure, or presenting players with a burned-out wasteland surrounding the district they are in can be sublime.

In Batman’s Arkham City, players are the scariest thing in the city, using its geography to lurk, swoop, hide, sneak attack and sow fear among criminals.

Few things are as scary as an abandoned or partially destroyed city; it hits too close to our sensibilities – think of the deserted Pripyat or war-torn Homs. We instinctively empathise with the plight of their former residents. We are reminded that death can be violent and undeserved, that desolation can remove all traces of our existence. Rusted doors, weed-infested parks, crumbling roads, rotting bridges and decrepit husks of buildings can be employed to that effect.

Constructing the identity of a place shouldn’t exclusively rest on its built environment. The dark rumours, ominous legends and whispered hearsay surrounding it can conjure sinister images before players see anything. Venice, you see, is not just the town, but the myth and legend surrounding it. The songs, films, stories and texts capturing it. The Cradle level from Thief: Deadly Shadows is a fine example of this technique.

Other scary touches can include roads that disappear after an initial visit, or alleys that never appear on any map. Street art and graffiti can suggest supernatural threats, street names can change or simply sound evil, vehicles resembling hearses can set a solemn mood, and background screams or areas of absolute, unnatural silence can keep tensions high.

Frogwares’ forthcoming The Sinking City is a unique example of urban focused cosmic horror. (Full disclosure: I worked on the game’s pre-production for a few months.)

INVERTING CITY DESIGN IDEAS

Inverting the rules and goals of good city design is another great way of achieving unease. Go for the opposite of what city planners aim for, and stress agoraphobia, claustrophobia, confusion or even acrophobia. Force players into tiny confined spaces, ridiculously crowded squares, and make them walk narrow paths along deep chasms. Extremely large plazas, uncomfortably narrow sidewalks and confusing road networks are more subtle but also effective.

Constricted footpaths and alleys that barely allow a single person through (see Figure 1) can feel even worse with the help of urban fauna such as cockroaches, mice and wild dogs that can be shown or heard. Traditional proportions of road width to building height (often a cosy 1:2) can easily be broken with buildings too high or roads too wide. The intense verticality of a city, and the creation of urban canyons with leaning, unpainted houses will suggest danger. Add in winding routes, dead ends, steep ramps and stairs, dense vegetation and impractical landscaping, and you’ll have a thoroughly uncomfortable environment.

And what about the land uses planners usually try to hide? Sanatoriums, jails, asylums, graveyards, junkyards and factories can all paint an area as – at the very least – unpleasant.

Figure 1: Claustrophobic, canyon-like roads (less than a metre in width, lined with disproportionately tall walls) rarely soothe.

CREEPY ARCHITECTURE

A glimpse at Bloodborne’s Yharnam is proof enough that architecture can convey horror. Gothic and Gothic Revival buildings of black stone are packed with disturbing details, and their ill-lit interiors are perfectly eerie. Many cultures employed architectural elements and decorations to ward off evil (crosses, gargoyles, and the like), but inverting such principles can provide your town with imposing buildings that act as huge conductors of ancient energies.

To return to Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, the hanging of decorative arrangements of seashells created both the sense of cohesive space, and of discomfiting unfamiliarity.
Playing with building scale, or the scale of openings aside, another trick involving architecture is the use of totally foreign elements. The black church in John Carpenter’s 1994 film, In the Mouth of Madness, was instantly off-putting because it was a distinctly un-American building in the midst of a traditional all-American town. It was as unsettling as discovering a huddle of Neolithic huts hiding beneath modern-day Hyde Park.

The Gothic altars and spindly towers of Yharnam show just how effectively architecture can evoke horror.

Confusing Geometries

Remember how director Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror movie The Shining made you feel? Just how unsettling the Overlook Hotel was? Well, it wasn’t all down to the sharp shadows, foreboding soundtrack and masterful cinematography. The hotel itself was wrong: its layout, architecture and geometry could never exist in reality, and this is a trick we can use to make our own cities subtly disturbing. An excellent video on The Shining’s spatial trickery can be found on YouTube.

Geomancy explained

The Mayans, the ancient Egyptians, and all kinds of strange, mythical civilisations have used geomancy in their city planning. This means that civic space is organised not only according to human needs, but according to their beliefs. Such cities are defined by celestial alignments, flows of energy, solstices, divine geometries and elaborate astronomic charts. Their roads are more likely to follow the path of the sun, and their geometric centres are bound to have cosmological significance.

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