Distilling “Fear” in Video Games

What’s considered scary varies from person to person.  What terrifies one person may bring another person laughter.  This is also true with media.  One person can think a movie is the scariest thing ever, while the other person falls asleep.  In an example in my own life, my mom made me watch The Howling with her, which she claims is the movie that terrified her the most (even to the point that she slammed the door in the face of a woman who looked like one of the characters), but I just found it hilarious — seriously, the woman had a shotgun loaded with silver bullets & all she could do was scream?  She deserved to become a werewolf.

This is a big part of why it’s so difficult to make horror games.  Fear.  Horror.  Unease.  They’re difficult things to distill down into specific components.  Not that it’s stopped people from trying.  Trends are common in all genres, but they seem especially true in horror games.  When a game does horror right, you can bet they’ll be a slew of clones trying to emulate it.  Remember when Slender (now Slender: The Eight Pages) first came out?  How many clones did it spawn, trying to follow in its footsteps?  Every time I turned around, there was some new video showing a scary indie game with “collect the page” mechanics & a monster that would randomly pop up to scream at players.

That’s not to say I have a problem with drawing off things that have worked in the past.  But developers have to understand what about a specific mechanic made it work.  What made Slender so scary the first time you played?

Earlier this week, I came across an article on the Escapist website talking about a study done to examine how gamers react to scary moments in games in an attempt to ascertain what about them made them scary.  Conducted in 2011, Vertical Slice, a company in the UK, took five gamers who varied across the spectrum of experience.  Two considered themselves casual gamers, two were more intermediate, and one was hardcore. Vertical Slice then had these gamers play through the opening sequences of four games on the 360 touted as being good horror games by a website poll.  The games used in the study were Alan Wake, Dead Space 2, Resident Evil 5 & Condemned: Criminal Origins.  While you may question just how scary some of these games are, there’s no denying that they’re advertised as horror games.  The participants’ fear levels were measured through respiration rates, skin temperature, & galvanic skin response, all of which respond to stimulation, arousal & (especially in the case of GSR) fear.

Now, with the study only having five participants, this isn’t a true experimental study.  I would’ve liked to have seen these horror games compared to straight action games (which can be equally stimulating) as well as perhaps some mellow puzzles games to truly compare if horror provokes different responses.  Because these are more correlations, at best we can point out patterns & makes hypotheses.  Still, some of the suggested conclusions are very interesting, & could greatly benefit game developers interested in making truly terrifying games.

  • Core gamers show more fear response when they are in control of the action.  In comparison to the casual gamers in the study, the core gamers showed more fear activation when the scary moments weren’t scripted.  The casual gamers showed preference to more cinematic, uncontrollable sections.  This makes logical sense, because as gamers, we unconsciously respond to different cues.  We’ve learned that during cutscenes, we’re fairly safe.  At the very least, whatever happens isn’t dependent on our input.  Just as with watching movies, watching cutscenes are more passive.  Gamers need active engagement to really become immersed & invested in a scene.
  • Anticipated threat can be scarier than an actual threat.  Across all the participants, they showed less tension and fear during combat scenarios.  Although engaged, when they were capable of defending themselves, they showed less activation.  In contrast, all participants showed higher levels of fear activation when they were forced to flee from a threat, some even to the point of panic.
  • Gamers become anesthetized to fear after the initial shock.  The more often a specific enemy or tactic appeared, the less scared the participants became afraid of it.  Peak fear comes upon the initial encounter, and nothing matches it afterwards.  Variety keeps players on their guard.  But it’s possible to completely numb a player to a scare if overused.
  • Frustration decreases fear responses.  Across all the participants, the more they failed & grew frustrated, the less fear response they showed.  This was true both in combat situations, & when players couldn’t figure out what to do next.  Balance is important.  Anger can override nearly every other response.
  • Certain scare tactics are more effective than others.  Jump scares can work if built up properly & not overused.  Gore can be disturbing, but not necessarily scary.  Gamers scare themselves more than the actual game does.

These conclusions & trends suggest very clear ways to build a proper horror game.  Make combat scarce.  Make players vulnerable.  If you have to include combat, don’t throw huge amounts of enemies at them.  Pour on the atmosphere.  Vary the scares.  Don’t just throw the same type of scare at them continually.  Don’t have all the scares in uncontrollable cutscenes.

If you examine successful horror games, you’ll find all of these elements in play.  Alien: Isolation, Outlast, just about any game from Frictional Games… they’ve caught on.  And I think a big part of why big budget horror games have fallen flat is because they’ve forgotten these ideas.  Look at games like Resident Evil 6 or Dead Space 3, both from franchises that were once on their A-game in the horror department, now leaning more toward action.  They do every one of these to some respect.  That’s not to say that makes them bad games, but it does make them bad horror games.

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