As an indie game developer with a passion for horror I have been wanting to make a blog post talking about my personal game-design philosophy. In this post I will define what I believe haunts and scares a player.
So, let’s start out with a definition of both the terms that are important here:
To Scare: To frighten, to strike with sudden fear, to alarm.
To Haunt: To cause repeated discomfort or anxiety.
Looking at both of those definitions, we can say that a scare is a temporary feeling when you are made aware of something unexpected. A scary feeling can also be created when you know what something has done or could do and you feel threatened because of this. Let’s take a look into some games of the past to get a good feeling of what has been scary.
One of my favorite examples is the famous dog scene in Resident Evil. When the player reached a certain area in the hallway the dog jumps out of the window in front of the camera, something that startled most players..
Why did the player get startled when this happened? Because up until this point the player has never encountered a dog. Sure the player saw them earlier in the game through a cinematic, but the player knew they would not be interacting with the dog at that moment. However, when the dog jumps through the window, the player panics. The player had thought all they had to worry about was zombies, because the dogs were outside. No windows had been broken before , and in all likeliness this thought had never really entered the player's head. But when all of this happened, it broke all the rules that had been subconsciously established in the player's head up until this point.
If the player feels comfortable, then break what they ‘know’ about the game. This is the classic jump scare technique, as used effectively in Resident Evil. However, if you keep breaking the rules and re-use the jump scare too often, you risk losing the tension you have created thus far. As a result, players will subconsciously learn when to expect the next scare. Earn your jump scares. It's interesting to see that in the remastering of Resident Evil, the dog scene was removed as players knew when to expect it.
Let’s open the door into another game, a more recent one, Soma. This game thrives on building up the anxiety of the player. While this game does not have much use for jump scares, it uses tension and anxiety built up in the player over time to create something that haunts the player. Frictional Games uses a mixtures sounds, musical queue changes, visuals and other clever techniques to build up this anxiety within the player. It’s not until later in the game that you even encounter something that can harm you (the player). But until that point the player does not know this. The player does not know what an enemy looks like, when it’s going to show up, or what it does. They know nothing. This only amplifies the tension brought out by the sounds, visuals etc. If you give the player no knowledge of a monster in a horror game they are forced to create one by themselves. Welcome to the imagination.
Your imagination is more powerful than anything any developer can do to create fear in a player. This is what makes Soma so impactful (narrative excluded for which it excels again) and what makes it so widely talked about as one of the scariest games of all time. So the longer we don’t show an enemy, the more time it gives the player to 'create' their own enemy from the depths of their imagination, which believe me, can often be more horrifying than any creature made by developers. The idea of this technique being that the player will begin to 'see' things in the darkness and build up that ever important tension themselves.
It’s easy to scare players when they don’t know what’s around the corner or behind the door. But does that leave a lasting impression on the game? Will players remember a game strictly consisting of just jump scares? Probably not. However, if we can build up fear and tension using a range of techniques (which I will explain in later blog posts) then the scare has more of a lasting impact. If we can create lasting moments of horror and tension we can let the players imagination take over. When the imagination takes over the possibilities are limitless.