Guest Writer: Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

by Origami Killer

Fear is a horrible feeling. All of us have our own deepest fears, along with those instinctual ones we share. Fear has the power to manipulate and twist our minds into believing and seeing the worst things imaginable. Applying the feeling of fear into videogames gives us vivid and compelling experiences. With fear being instinctive as part of our human nature, it connects us in a unique way to the medium we’re engaged with.

My greatest fear is not the usual convention of a specific object or supernatural being of sorts but a concept. It’s a fear I share with many others: the concept of not knowing what lies ahead. More simply put, my greatest fear is the unknown.

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[drop]However, our instinctive fears are all born from a single base terror in the risk of dying.

This combination gives developers the perfect starting blocks for a horror game, even though death may not be permanent, the connection we build with a character makes us fearsome on their behalf and it’s expected that there will be plenty of unknown quantities in a videogame. It’s a perfect storm for the ghoulish.

I’m attracted to horror games and films. I enjoy a good scare, even if the feeling lingers for some time after.

Some of my favourite gaming experiences have originated from horror games or those that scare me. Dead Space 2 is a prime example. When those necromorphs start jumping out from the dark everything becomes a little intense and I get a little rush.

However, my greatest scare in gaming actually came from Demon’s Souls. The level was gloomy and dark with distant sounds of screeches. These three things set up such a nail biting atmosphere. Added to that was the sense that I didn’t actually know what lay ahead of me; the topography or the beings. Anthropomorphised insects and perilous falls into the abyss caught me out in the dark. I really didn’t like this area of the game and as a result I did get hallucinations. The consequence of fear for me.

Different fears or our scariest gaming moments are not the only thing I wanted to discuss though. What really puzzles me, and interests me more, is how developers manage to create a game that scares people.

Fear and horror must be hard to convey in interactive media, it is certainly much easier to script in action than a tense atmosphere. For this reason I always find myself appreciating a horror game more than an action game.

[videoyoutube]Maybe even Resident Evil’s and, by the looks of it, Dead Space 3’s decision to make their games more action orientated is down to the fact it’s easier to script and present to the player.

The unknown entity that is the player doesn’t have quite so much scope to be in an unexpected place or looking in the wrong direction for the horror to really get a good payoff. I certainly hope that isn’t the case, I’d rather developers struggled to build emotions than gave up and opted for an easier method of providing thrills.

What I want to know is how do developers make a game scary? Do they add in their own separate fears in the hope we share it or instead add in a commonly shared fear or fright which most will find scary? This is something I really would love to find out.

In my opinion, to make a great horror game preset fears and frights don’t need to be added. Instead the gamer should be able to fill the game with their own fears.

This must be near impossible to achieve.

However, a certain game comes close: Slender. What works well for slender is the underlying atmosphere and the simplicity. When you play, the thought of being followed or the idea of isolation isn’t forced upon you but it develops as you play.

This, I think, is the strategy all horror games should take.

Heading off topic I hope everyone enjoys Halloween, I myself have a Scarecrow costume at the ready – “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

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28 Comments

  1. Too long didn’t read. :P

    Excellent article Origami Killer. I am immune to horror films and games but games like Dark Souls can cause me to feel a bit of horror in certain parts whereas Resident Evil has failed to do anything since 4. Dead Space is another game that is regarded by many to be the best survival horror game this generation.

    The main problem with horror games nowadays is that they focus too much on action and not on horror. Most allow you to be careless with ammo due to enemies dropping ammo when killed . I believe developers should include a pitch black part in a horror game with hidden enemies that you can only hear and limited ammo, and you only have a torch/lighter. Now that would cause many gamers to crap themselves in fear. But instead 99% of horror games tend to allow you to see perfectly.

    I remeber Skyrim giving me many jump scares due to Saber Tooth cats sneaking up on me or an enemy sneaking up on me. But if a RPG that was not developed to be a horror game can give me more jump scares then a horror game, then something is seriously wrong. I would welcome a proper survival horror game with no co-op. But it seems we may not see any more games in that genre as every publisher wants to aim their games at the mainstream and claim the market is not there. Yes, i’m looking at you Capcom!

    • Thanks, your idea for a section in a horror game would be my worst nightmare!

      • >:D *spends the next decade learning to develop games and develops origami’s worst nightmare just to wind him up* :p

  2. “However, our instinctive fears are all born from a single base terror in the risk of dying.”

    I’m not sure that’s true.

    With games at least, you can be afraid of, for example, losing all your money, trashing your car, or bumbling around in the dark. None of those relate to death, do they?

    Interesting points though.

    • Everyone fears death whether they say they do or don’t, its instinctive to. But as you say loosing money and trashing your car doesn’t really link to death as its something modern and not primitive. Bumbling around in the dark however will link to death as you don’t know what lies in the dark. That’s my idea on it though :P

      • Such as BunimoMike and can people stop giving me the chance to make bmike jokes? as it’s starting to become a bit disturbing :O.

      • First of all i would say that there are many people aren’t fearing death. There are situations in life that you don’t fear death anymore.

        The thrill itself alaways don’t has death as a possible end (except you are having heart problems).
        You can feel fear by only opening a box and it’s unclear what’s in it. Most of us know that it is a bad joke but we are thrilled.

        Those intense feelings need other things to be done and i hope developers find those screaming effects again.

      • I would back up my stating that everyone fears death but it revolves around biological systems not suited to this website so ill leave it out :)
        As for the thrill, i mean in context of caring for your in game characters life not your own.

      • Well apparently, we don’t all fear death. We’re born with only 2 fears, heights and loud noises, the rest are picked up through our lifetime experiences. Many cultures actually embrace the concept of death as they genuinely believe you move on to better things.
        I heard once that babies come out into the world crying as they’ve just experienced death in their previous life and that’s why they’re upset.

      • Why are you afraid of heights though, or loud noises, even the ability to spell Sulfur so potently, all signs of danger which links to harm which finally ends up at potential death. Without knowing it your body will react in a way to stop you from dying or suffering harm. Why do we have adrenaline rush through our body after a scare or flinch or dodge to incoming objects, its part of our autonomic nervous system, it all a natural response to prepare for surviving in a way. People may not fear the concept of death, I don’t as my faith tells me not to, but as for the actual action of death the body natural fears it and will do everything to stop it occurring (which we can’t control). That’s the point I’m trying to get at, and it is that instinctive fear of death and will to live.

      • Babies don’t fear death.

        It’s something we learn to fear. It’s not a natural fear.

      • very true, maybe I shouldn’t of used the word fear to describe it

  3. I recall the first Silent Hill doing something interesting in this respect in its ‘heartbeat’ vibrations on the controller – Basically, as you got close to something that was a threat, as well as having the radio screech/crackle, you could also feel the heartbeat in your hands getting faster, which in turn increased your own.

    I am not sure if this made an appearance in the rest of the series (as I only ever played the first), but it was a great way to increase the tension without going for cheap scares or jumps.

    • Really freaked me out playing 1st Silent Hill, right from the very beginning where u r walking in the fog and can hear something following, so u stop and the noise stops, then start walking and it comes back again. Nearly shat meself. Happy memories:p

  4. Condemned is worthy of a mention along with Amnesia, which I couldn’t bring myself to play in the end!

  5. Lovely article although we can drill far deeper into the philosophy of dying. Life ends but that, in itself, is handled in the way our peers and cultures handles it. If we had absolute proof that there was an afterlife; a better afterlife where we didn’t lose contact with loved ones then it would be an exciting transition from this life to the next.

    Anyway, I digress.

    Fear, in games, is handled with cheap immaturity in my honest opinion. We’re still a fledgling industry and have many things to learn. Thankfully, we’re seeing horror games start to embrace truly unsettling environments but even then, we’re not fearful for our lives that much. We’re just scared of being scared! The real fear you speak of really does need that emotional connection (as mentioned). To care, empathise and worry about what happens to us. Not because we’re down to our last “life” but because we really care. When we learn to care about characters (almost) as well as people in real life then we’ll be truly heartbroken. That risk of heartbreak will keep us on our toes more than any cheap tactic a developer can throw in there.

    Top stuff, fella.

    • Would like to see the result if we ever get a form of interactive media that embraces your last sentence.
      Also happy birthday :)

  6. The Walking Dead has come closest to making me feel genuine fear and concern in a game. In other games (like Amnesia), I’m just scared of being scared. I’m wary of the cheap scare tricks because I know I’ll be spooked haha. That’s not real fear though, that’s more like being on the lookout for a surprise all the time, albeit a nasty one. In the Walking Dead you take care of a sweet little girl, and there’s this one moment where you don’t know where she is. First you’re just a little concerned, but that concern soon changes to panic when a little time goes by with the girl still missing and the character you’re playing voices his worry as well. The worst thing that can happen in that game is not you dying, you fear for the child. This game is so well written that it makes you feel true concern for someone else, and that’s part of what makes it so wonderful. I’m hoping to see more games like this in the future, where there’s no need for the typical cheap horror moments but your emotional involvement to the events in de game make you feel fear.

    • Couldn’t agree more and I wanted to add this into the reply. I’ve watched you play four superb episodes of Walking Dead and it’s been such a great game. How you and I react to Clementine missing is spot-on. Telltale Games has done a cracking job.

      Slight aside: Halloween sale on Steam. Walking Dead is now 40% off. Go get it, folks!

    • And yet, half of TSA is scared of you. ;)

      I will get TWD when it’s out on disc as i’m surprisinly low on space. :O Also, you are alive!? :O I thought Mike had disposed of you for not making him a sandwhich. :p

      • Do go get it! It’s awesome. As for me, I’m very much alive and kicking. Just a bit snowed under with course work at the moment. Not for long though, graduation is getting nearer!

      • *sees the oppurtunity for a joke* Too easy.

        Will pick it up some point next year. :) Provided Mike doesn’t force everyone onto his love train to his love cave. :O

  7. Good read.

    Another vote for Amnesia as the scariest game experience from me. I can’t bring myself to finish it, the atmosphere it generates whilst managing to mix fear of the unknown with partially scripted events is unparalleled and my nerves simply can’t handle it!

  8. Fears a really hard thing to get right. I’d say computer games do a much better job than films these days because of just the thing you were talking about, they get the atmosphere right. The atmosphere creates the foundation for a dam good scare. Without that building tension the big BOO! at the end doesn’t have the same resonance.
    On the halloween note I was going as scarecrow then at the last minute decided to go as a Splicer from Bioshock instead.

  9. Great article, it’d be great if they could integrate Blair Witch fear into a video game with the same intensity that the film had. Mind you, that could cause real problems for kids that play age restricted games.

  10. Phantom Slayer for the Tandy back in 1980 odd scared the f**king life outta me. The Jaws like “der der….der der….der der der der” as they get close and you are running like hell to get away from them then turn the corner and BOOM! Dead.

    I remember my sister crying when we met this great big crustacean on Flimbos Quest, no idea how to fight it and having us backed in a corner she broke down in tears from the ugliness and impending doom.

    Games bring some serious emotion sometimes.

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