Follow TV Tropes


Explorer Horror

Go To
"RPG Maker has long been one of the go-to tool kits for crafting cleaner, simpler stories. When it comes to horror, however, the pared-back graphics don't make the frights less frightful or the nightmares any fewer."
Patrick Armstrong, 14 Best Horror RPG Maker Games

Explorer Horror games are a subgenre of horror games that blend horror with the principles of Adventure Games and Environmental Narrative Game. It unsettles because threats are to be taken on through exploration and puzzle-solving. Often, enemies encountered cannot be defeated, only fled from, and the few games that do have combat don't make it the focus of the gameplay. Explorer Horror games are commonly made in RPG Maker, Wolf RPG Editor or similar programs, the aesthetical and mechanical limitations of which inform the genre.

The standard atmosphere of this particular horror subgenre relies on silence and isolation and the emotional oppression that flows from it. The protagonist finds themself alone in some dark, depressing world, ranging from Haunted Houses to full-on Eldritch Locations, sometimes with a few side characters tagging along. Stories are usually minimalist and balanced towards visual storytelling and symbolism. On that same note, this genre favors surrealist imagery over explicit gore and violence.

As for mechanics, while there may be some overlap with Survival Horror, such as having to avoid enemies and traps, most Explorer Horror games rarely feature direct combat in any form. The player may be able to fight back, but only in certain, pre-determined parts of the game. Collectibles are always puzzle-related, never survival-related (e.g. keys and passcodes as opposed to medkits and ammunition). In some Explorer Horror games, the player won't encounter any physical threats at all, with the horror coming not from any physical danger, but the psychological impact of the situation. The objective of an Explorer Horror game is usually to solve puzzles and/or collect a certain amount of an object that can be found scattered around the game world. These objects will then open the path to the end of the game. What the objects are, and how much relevance to the plot they actually have, varies from game to game, ranging from simple keys that open locked doors to pieces of a MacGuffin.

Visually, these games are overwhelmingly made in a pixel art style with a Three-Quarters View. This is one of the many elements born from the limitations of RPG Maker: the Three Quarters View pixel art style is really the only type of graphics that are supported, and the objective of collecting things and the lack of enemies are because RPG Maker only supports menu-based combat. The pixel art contributes to the minimalism, and the overhead view helps the oppressive atmosphere.

The earliest examples originate back to the 90s and the PC-98 with classics like Corpse Party (PC-98) and Peret em Heru: For the Prisoners, but are typically associated with the late 2000s and 2010s onwards, as it was then that the games Yume Nikki, Ao Oni, Ib, the Misao/Mad Father duology, and The Witch's House all popularized the genre.

    Tropes commonly found in Explorer Horror 
  • Advancing Boss of Doom: Due to the usual lack of traditional RPG combat, this is typically the closest these games have to boss battles, where the goal is not to defeat the boss, but to run and hide from them.
  • Apocalyptic Log: It's not uncommon for the player to find notes or letters scattered around the game world that fill them in on the backstory and the fate of unlucky predecessors. Sometimes, they'll also double as hints to solving puzzles.
  • Art-Style Dissonance: One of the defining tropes of the subgenre. The cute pixel art style and anime/visual novel-style portraits that are frequently used contrast sharply with the dark, creepy and sometimes downright horrific stories. Some games especially will play this up with bright colors, while others try to downplay it with darker color palettes and so forth.
  • Backtracking: Extremely common. Given that puzzle-solving is usually a core gameplay element, the player will often have to return to an area they've already visited to collect items or find clues. Sometimes, in order to solve a puzzle in a particular area, you first have to go to a different area to find the answer or necessary items then come back.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: If the game has Multiple Endings, expect at least one of them to end with the villain killing off the main cast or otherwise succeeding in their plan; although, with a few exceptions, this is never the canon ending.
  • Bigger on the Inside: A lot of buildings are much larger and more spacious on the inside than they appear on the outside; sometimes this is just a side effect of the medium, while in many other cases it's due to the building being an Eldritch Location.
  • Blackout Basement: A horror staple that often shows up in this subgenre, with the player having to navigate a pitch black, maze-like area with minimal light sources and something lurking in the darkness with them.
  • Booby Trap: An extremely common hazard.
  • Chase Scene: There's a good chance you're going to be chased by monsters or other enemies at some point.
  • Closed Circle: The player often gets trapped in some spooky location or is otherwise unable to leave, forcing them to travel in deeper to find a way out and/or find who/what they're looking for.
  • Curse: A common plot is that the main character and/or the location they've found themselves in is under a curse of some kind (likely resulting in ghosts, demons or other entities being unleashed) and the goal is to break this curse so they can go on their merry way. This often involves finding MacGuffins scattered throughout the location. The root of the curse is frequently some sort of tragedy that turned some poor soul into a Vengeful Ghost.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Many protagonists are revealed to have some awful or tragic backstory that is in some way connected to the game's events; confronting their past often form part of the plot. That goes for many supporting characters too. Even the antagonists are frequently revealed to have once been good people until some tragic event turned them into a Vengeful Ghost or some other villain.
  • Deadly Road Trip: Occasionally, the protagonists will be going on a road trip (sometimes to go camping) as an excuse to get them stuck in a spooky situation far from home and assistance.
  • Don't Go in the Woods: Several of these games take place in the woods or have the player visit the woods at some point. Usually nothing good happens.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Despite being horror games with dark themes, it is actually rare for them to lack a Golden Ending where the cast, in spite of all the terror they experienced, survive it all with their sanity intact.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The vast majority of titles utilize this as opposed to explicit violence, likely because more elaborate death or mutilation scenes are too difficult to portray well with RPG Maker and similar programs; lots of games also lean more towards atmospheric horror than Gorn, so it's more effective to leave grislier moments up to the player's imagination.
  • Haunted House: A disproportionate amount of these games are set primarily in some huge, spooky house with supernatural threats lurking within.
  • Lock and Key Puzzle: A near-universal type of puzzle in these games requires the player to locate keys to open locked doors. In some cases the player will have to find a different kind of item rather than a literal key, or complete a certain puzzle to unlock the door as opposed to collecting things, but the basic principle is the same.
  • The Many Deaths of You: There will usually be a variety of ways to die, and often each one will get its own little cutscene.
  • Minimalist Cast: The casts are usually quite small and it's common for the Player Character to end up alone for large portions of the game. If you do start out with a whole group of main/supporting characters, don't expect it to stay that way.
  • Moon Logic Puzzle: These games have garnered a reputation for having some very obscure and outlandish puzzles. While this isn't true of all entries, there are a few that feature puzzles that are unnecessarily obtuse or misleading, or seemingly defy conventional logic.
  • Multiple Endings: Many of them utilize this, often having at least one bad and one good ending. These are usually dependent upon the player making a choice at a certain point in the game and/or collecting a particular item.
  • Notice This: Objects that can be collected or interacted with are often indicated by a sparkling animation or something similar, though other times they're left unmarked. As a general rule, checking everything in a room is a recommended strategy with these games.
  • Old School Building: If not a house, another popular choice of setting is a secondary school that's either haunted, cursed, been transported to some hellish dimension and so forth.
  • Plot Coupon: It's extremely common that the player must find either a particular item or a certain amount of an item to progress through the game; if there multiple available endings, you may not have to do this to finish the game but it may affect what ending you get.
  • Press X to Not Die: Besides having to evade enemies, quick-time events is about as action-packed as these games get.
  • Psychological Horror: Lots of Explorer Horror games derive fear and tension from the stress the protagonists are under throughout their ordeal. It's not uncommon for protagonists to suffer from mental disorders and/or have a tenuous grip on reality, either. Some games also explore the subject of mental illness and social isolation through a horror lens.
  • Reality Warper: The Big Bad is frequently some sort of supernatural entity with the ability to warp around the Haunted House or similar building they reside in.
  • Retraux: Many of these games use pixelated and retro-looking graphical styles, either due to the limitations of the engine or as an intentional design choice to evoke horror games of old.
  • Run or Die: It's very rare for these games to feature combat in any form; when faced with enemies or other threats the player's only option is usually to run for it, either losing their pursuer by entering a different area, finding a hiding spot or completing a certain action enabling them to escape.
  • Story to Gameplay Ratio: Most entries in this subgenre tend to lean heavily into story, usually because the engines tend to limit gameplay mechanics from being too elaborate. A few entries border on being visual novels or are essentially "walking simulators", with the player just wandering around interacting with things to uncover the plot. Most of them do incorporate more challenging gameplay though, largely in the form of puzzle-solving (many of which require logical thinking from the player) and evading enemies.
  • Surreal Horror: Unexplained, creepy, ambiguous and straight-up bizarre imagery and events are often used to generate chills and thrills. It varies as to how surreal things get: some games are more grounded or at least have some explanation for what's happening, while others are extremely vague and there are few concrete answers to be had.
  • Three-Quarters View: Many of these games use this, as RPG Maker and other such programs are typically designed to utilize this perspective. On rare occasions, some games use Side View instead.
  • Vengeful Ghost: The usual Big Bad, if not a demon or human, is a spirit who has been wronged in life and seeks revenge on the living, drawing the protagonists into their domain to make them victims.
  • World of Technicolor Hair: Likely due to influence of anime and Eastern video games, it's not uncommon to have otherwise normal human characters with unnatural or highly unusual hair colors, which no one tends to comment on.