(Not) Scared to Death

Posted by Alex Jordan on

Since Halloween is once again right around the corner, I've been thinking about scary games. Thinking about them is all I can really do at this point... I can't play them, because (a) I'm a pussy, and (b) my backlog precludes buying any more games until I finish at least a couple of the ones on my plate. I also can't develop them, because (a) I'm busy, and (b) I'd need to throw tons of money at art, sound, and music design to bring an adequate level of atmosphere to the table if I actually hope to frighten anyone.

So: I'm thinking about scary games. Specifically, the myriad of ways in which you can scare a player and certain pitfalls to avoid.

One thing to avoid is a high-risk/high-reward scenario during which the player can die. My perennial example is the hotel chase sequence from Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. it's high-reward insofar that frantically running through hotel rooms and slamming doors to stall your murderous pursuers is scary as all hell. It's also high-risk because it's a prolonged sequence that relies on some buggy gameplay mechanics (locking the doors behind you is a hit or miss affair), and you die often.

And once you die, the feeling is gone. Your first escape attempt might give you a cold sweat and get your heart pumping, but each subsequent do-over engenders frustration more than fear.

Usually, threatening a player with death only works once. Immersion can go a long way toward making you afraid of that first lethal encounter, as handling wave after wave of angry villagers in the first 10 minutes of Resident Evil 4 proves. But once you die, that's it: you've been reminded that you're playing a game, and "death" has been the tried-and-true threat in everything since the days of the Atari. Traditionally, it's punishment, a mere gameplay setback. And so if a developer is trying to scare you with the idea of your character dying, odds are he or she can pull it off only the one time before you realize that you're trying to get through yet one more video game sequence.

Oh, and replaying that sequence means you already know what's meant to scare you.

Thus, death in and of itself isn't overly reliable in scaring the player. So, how should a developer scare the player?

By making them scared of being scared.

After all, it's how so many horror movies work: the movie takes the meta approach of using the right music, the right camera angles, the right whatever to give the viewer the cues that he or she is about to be scared. It's a Pavlovian effect: the viewer knows what those cues mean, and they cringe. Good game developers can pull off the same effect with the right kinds of environments, lighting, and audio design.

And building the suspense is only half the fun. Bursting that balloon is the rest. Assuming we're not resolving that suspense with the player's death (and the likelihood that they'll have to replay it a few more times), the next best options are to either give them something... or give them nothing.

The "something" can be anything from an abrupt jump scare (like the bathroom hallucination from Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem) to a very creepy reveal, like the long-awaited appearance of horrible enemies in a previously-empty level. In the latter case, the suspense sequence is ended with a creepy reveal and then started anew, as the player wonders what kind of terrible things those enemies will do? (If the answer is merely "kill you", then you're not gonna milk many further scares.)

However, my personal favorite resolution to suspense is the "nothing" option. You hear eerie footstep noises in a room, and when you check... nothing! In Bioshock, you pass by a whole series of humanoid plaster statues, and when you look back... they're not there! My personal favorite occurs in the Shalebridge Cradle level of Thief: Deadly Shadows, where your intrusion in an abandoned orphanage is interrupted by quiet knocking on a door. You reach the foot of a long winding staircase, and the knocking grows louder. And there's only one place to go... You climb the stairs as the knocking gets louder and louder, until you reach a closed wooden doorway at the top, and the knocking is now the loudest, most angry pounding you've ever heard in your life. Your heart pounding, you open the door, and... nothing!

It's a horrible deflating feeling, the best possible you can elicit. It's like some sinister form of catharsis... the gut-wrenching expulsion of suspense, realizing that although the game hasn't deigned to scare you now, whatever was frightening you is bound to return and scare you later. Not only does it successfully scare the player the first time, it enthusiastically communicates to them that they're going to be scared again, thereby restarting the cycle and building suspense anew.

And the player doesn't even have to die to pull it off!

That's how the pros do it.