Horror can be highly subjective. A frightening experience to one person is a minor irritant to another, and finding a perfectly scary formula for everyone is all but impossible. As the independent industry has proven on a number of occasions, horror is better suited to more subtle, creeping moments that work their way into your chest as opposed to blockbuster scenes that erupt with flashy production quality.
Because scaring gamers is often watered down to a loud noise, combined with a glimpse of something inhuman, new methods must be used in order to create true dread; that will have people looking over their shoulders for days on end afterward. Welcome to the science of fear 101.
Defined by Wikipedia as a technique which is “intended to scare the audience by surprising them with an abrupt change in image or event, usually co-occurring with a loud, frightening sound”, the jump scare is prolific for being US horror films’ bread and butter. When used sparingly, a well-placed jump scare can take the mood from relaxing Sunday afternoon to having a car crash in a tunnel.
It’s the execution and expectation that makes this technique truly effective, since the player is often baited into a more peaceful state of mind beforehand. A great jump scare doesn’t need loud noises, or a stock sound effect, it only needs to be seen by the player for them to become frightened.
Music is absolutely key in any horror game. It controls the tone, mood, atmosphere and player expectation. Whether a long corridor is spiralling into an endless series of doors, or a creature is lumbering down towards the player, matching the music with the moment adds a further layer of complexity that draws people into the immersion. The C418 tracks for Fortresses & Mines featured in Minecraft has a fantastically unique feel; which plays on themes of hopelessness, fear, and never fails to help enhance the ambience the developer is trying to convey.
Along a similar vein, a lack of music and ‘natural’ noise is just as unnerving when certain sounds have already been present. No music can be a horrible indicator of something coming, and allows the player to truly put themselves into the game. Ambient sounds can often be far worse to listen to than a track, since ambience can be more realistic and feature rather unpleasant noises that reflect reality.
Fear What We Don’t Know
Great horror writing often doesn’t stop to totally explain the monster, its abilities and motivations (see: Hellblade by Ninja Theory). This is because an explanation gives power to the player, and makes the threat seem more mundane because you have some understanding of it. An understanding then allows a smart player to negate the threat entirely, mostly by thinking around the creature’s obvious flaws.
That’s not to say that a monster should be completely without either rules or explanation, because some expositional tome allows story beats to be worked in. Because we fear the unknown, keeping an Eldritch horror unseen and nameless while it kills is a thousand times more terrifying than being armed with the knowledge of exactly what it is and how it functions.
The Train Wreck Effect
While it seems like a no-brainer, a lot of titles can get this wrong with ease. Having something horrifying or twisted is effective at scaring players for a time, but body horror and gore can only take you so far. This is because the brain becomes accustomed to seeing the image, and stops seeing it as something awful (see: The Evil Within’s obsession with barbed wire and stakes). Aiming for a creature that takes after the ‘Uncanny Valley’ theory is often a better route for forming a lasting mental image that will linger.
For those unaware, the uncanny valley effect is where something is clearly not humanoid, however seems to possess a humanoid feature or trait so the brain becomes confused. This is why mannequins are feared the world over: because they’re not us, but they’re so close to being us that it’s unpleasant. Adding in non-human movement traits like twitching, shuffling, and fixed facial features (e.g. prolonged smiling) are also goldmines for crafting a creature that’ll haunt dreams.
Take Away Their Weapons
Putting a weapon with ammunition into the hands of any player, from the start of the game, completely ruins any chances of terrifying moments being created (unless your goal is to put them up against enemies that can’t die). While giving players nothing seems harsh, all too often horror titles can give too much, too quickly and ruin themselves as a result. Having puzzles and running in place of action sequences helps to build tension, and keeping a person unarmed in the face of mounting odds means they value failure more. Granting a player a weapon also means they can fight, and fighting can often feel like winning regardless of odds.
To repeat what was said at the start: horror is highly subjective when it comes to scaring people. But these techniques, used best in smaller doses and projects, can come together to create a game that goes beyond simply scaring a player whenever the game is on. Indie games excel at horror because of their creative freedom, so they’ve got a natural advantage when it comes to making people scared. Make sure you keep checking over your shoulder this month…