Game Developers Don't Know How to Scare Us

Game Developers Don't Know How to Scare Us

Let's take a look at why game companies have so much trouble knowing what kinds of games will scare us - versus what games are actually scary.

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I have to disagree about FEAR: I think it did horror/FPS right, because it avoided the problems you noted. All of its really scary stuff was outside of FPS mechanics: except for the very end, you never shoot or otherwise interact with Alma and the phenomenon she spawns. The shooter parts are their own thing, and worked well as that. After a few replays the scares obviously wear thin, but while it works it works.

That said, I'm only taking about the original game. The expansion packs and sequels are all garbage.

While the action shooter route is probably not the correct way to go with scary games, games like Amnesia and SOMA feel like they're snapping too far into the opposite direction. Along with Alien: Isolation and Outlast, games today designated as 'scary' seem to just consist of 'run away from the all-powerful monster'. Now only having played Outlast (for a bit) I can say that this type of gameplay annoys me far more rather than actually scaring me. The first time might be tense, but after failing again and again I'll just get frustrated, and it'll be hard for any sense of fear to set in when I'm all pissed off.

The scariest games I played are the ones where there was hardly any "physical" danger at all, just sights and sounds designed to toy with my mind and tap into my anxiety.

Casual Shinji:
While the action shooter route is probably not the correct way to go with scary games, games like Amnesia and SOMA feel like they're snapping too far into the opposite direction. Along with Alien: Isolation and Outlast, games today designated as 'scary' seem to just consist of 'run away from the all-powerful monster'. Now only having played Outlast (for a bit) I can say that this type of gameplay annoys me far more rather than actually scaring me. The first time might be tense, but after failing again and again I'll just get frustrated, and it'll be hard for any sense of fear to set in when I'm all pissed off.

Alien: Isolation also had the problem that a diligent player could end up with more pipe bombs, molotovs, flamethrower fuel and parts to replace said items then they could possibly need. After a certain point in the game I stopped caring much for the alien, I explored at my own leisure and if it popped up I flung something explosive at it, giving me breathing room to move on. Not exactly the high point of scary experiences when you sigh at the sound of the Alien approaching as you ready your molotov.

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "scare"; without some sort of definition, the whole thing gets a little vague. For example, whether you find "jump scares" an effective tactic or an annoying gimmick makes a huge difference as to whether something like Five Nights at Freddy's (and sequels) are "scary". Or if fear is something that comes in fits and starts or an over-all, mounting dread.

Resident Evil 5 I ultimately found annoying and dragged-out much more than scary, but 4 had some good moments, especially early in the village. Dead Space's jump scares got over-used, but I still found the sense of dread effective- the feeling that I was one lonely person in a world that was actively hostile to my existence and that I might only have survived as long as I had because I was being toyed with.

And oddly enough, I think you could make a case that Spec Ops - The Line is effectively horror. The big sense of "I don't know where I'm going, and I don't like it, but I can't stop." The one death that leads to... Well, this- made me more uneasy that a hundred zombies.

It's difficult to make a player care about the death of a character who is always one re-load away from resurrection. But messing with the player's sense of narrative, of the game's reality- that's harder, but it can be devastatingly effective.

Casual Shinji:
While the action shooter route is probably not the correct way to go with scary games, games like Amnesia and SOMA feel like they're snapping too far into the opposite direction. Along with Alien: Isolation and Outlast, games today designated as 'scary' seem to just consist of 'run away from the all-powerful monster'. Now only having played Outlast (for a bit) I can say that this type of gameplay annoys me far more rather than actually scaring me. The first time might be tense, but after failing again and again I'll just get frustrated, and it'll be hard for any sense of fear to set in when I'm all pissed off.

The scariest games I played are the ones where there was hardly any "physical" danger at all, just sights and sounds designed to toy with my mind and tap into my anxiety.

My issue with the "run away and hide" genre is that it's as easily mastered as the shooters, and once you've had the initial thrill of your first monster encounter, it just becomes..well, eh. Now instead of turning and shooting as a reflex, I'm now sprinting down the corridor and into a hiding place. The threat level is roughly the same, but I can't make the monster permanently go away. I can just force him to return to his set patrol route so I can carry on with the mission.

Outlast was terrifying until the first encounter. Then it was pretty dull. Especially since the wrench-wielding maniacs hit like little girls.

FEAR definitely had its scary moments, because the whole tone was in that kind of 'realistic' macabre. The sequels went too far into the paranormal aspect of it and it became fantasy rather than horror (Fascinating how close the genres actually are) and became about killing new and interesting enemy models.
I think the best route to a decent, scary horror game is to not make a horror game. Instead, make a different game and then make it scary. You could scare your players by having them run out of ammunition and get trapped in some terrorist-filled villa in South Ameristan, which is fairly typical as shooters go, but then knock out most of the lights and have the terrorists search for them, calling out to them and maybe randomly firing a shot or two into the air to unnerve them.
It's not about scary monsters or having a disempowered player for the whole game, because familiarity will breed confidence. Once you master the controls you're pretty sure you can outrun the bad guys and outwit them, so the threat's as minimal as if you had a rocket launcher with you. It's about making the player familiar with a situation and then dragging them out of that comfort zone and leaving them in the dark.

Just like how you can't tell a real tragic story without a few laughs. The brighter lights make the shadows darker and all that.

SOMA is a bad example. It is a "Hand-holding: The Game", where you do one thing you're allowed to do, then proceed to the next room, and after you repeat this several times, the game ends.
Also Outlast. Drop the camera you hipster, take a wood plank and do something! Nah, we'll stick to the instagramming and doing vines throughout the game for no reason at all.

Horror games are about vulnerability. It is all about the fine balance when you feel weak. Not dumb, as in not fighting for no reason at all, but weak. You can fight but you can't win. This was done brilliantly in Alien Isolation (you did play it on hard, didn't you?), and before that it was done really well in System Shock 2. You can win one fight, but overall you're lower on the resources and health after that, and thus farther away from victory.

The second thing about horror games is subverting expectations. And the expectations have to be created first. Through repetition. Then subverted.

Overall, there's nothing wrong with shooting and/or fighting mechanic in horror games. The original Alone In The Dark had it, Silent Hill had it, and System Shock had it, and they are brilliant horror games.

I strongly disagree. The problem is not the fact that the player is armed to the teeth, far from it, NOT at least being able to kill every enemy you come across even if you have to conserve every single bullet to do it is annoying, not scary. I SHOULD be armed to the teeth and still dreading going around that next corner, and that requires SUBTLETY, something the video game industry is very rarely good at anymore across the board. The problem is that "horror" games are lazily made pieces of crap that don't even make an ATTEMPT at subtlety anymore, just throwing in a bunch of BOO! scares all the time with some low lighting and calling it horror.

Whatever happened to unnerving music that made you feel on edge all the time even when nothing has happened for an extended period? Whatever happened to freaky whispers and other noises when you walk down a deserted hallway? Whatever happened to seeing creatures skittering around and freaky things just out of the corner of the eye? Why are enemies pretty much everywhere instead of used conservatively? I could go on forever, but the fact is that it's not actually all that difficult to create an effective horror game compared to other genres, it's just that most "horror" games (and pretty much everything under the label "horror" these days I might add) aren't even really trying to scare the player anymore.

One thing I love about SOMA is that, even when there isn't a monster, it's a veritable minefield of scary moments that you may or may not come across. Your experience changes depending on the choices or mistakes you make. Several places at the beginning have scary moments that only happen if you do something specific that it wouldn't occur to all players to do. Taking a closer look at that vent, approaching that mass sticking out of the wall, passing through an area that somehow looks different than it did before but you can't...quite...place it. Things like that trigger terrifying little moments as a direct result of you, the player, making your own choices and not being railroaded by the developers into experiencing everything they put in the game.

Once, I accidentally left an important item behind and went back to get it, resulting in a scary moment that would not have occurred if I had remembered it in the first place. Nothing forced me to go back, and I had no reason to assume the game would expect me to. But, because it slipped my mind my experience changed. SOMA is awesome.

Watching someone else play the game after I beat it was interesting, because he played differently than I did. Took a closer look at things I ignored. Experienced scares I had no idea about. His experience was just as natural and unique as mine was.

Silent Hill 2 remains the scariest game I've ever played. And I say that because it scared me so bad that I had nightmares about it and could not continue playing it. To this day, it sits unfinished. 3 did a good job too, but I was able to beat that one at least.

Those games got in my head. It wasn't just the controls, but the whole experience. The music, the horrible noise that some of the monsters made (that spinning thing in 3...dear God, make it stop!!), and even the static on the radio. The sense just being a normal person who can't fire a gun all that well and swings a piece of wood in desperation instead of like a trained killer. All of that added up to a feeling of, "Crap, I do NOT want to be here!" Those games got under my skin and made me turn lights on, even after the game was off for a while. Japan seems to understand terror much better than the U.S.

I think the idea behind Dead Space is terrifying. A disease/melody that there is no defense against, slowly driving you mad until you do the unspeakable, and what's worse is that you KNOW it's happening to you and you still can't stop it. That idea of slowly losing your mind, and your very self, freaks me out and could be used to great effect. The first hour or so of Dead Space did that very well I think.
Sadly, the game itself slowly turns you into a killing machine that puts even trained soldiers to shame, and thus the tension fades as Shamus said.

There's the fear you have for the monsters under your bed. Then there's the real horror of knowing that the life you had, or could've had, is gone. The people you love are moving on while you're stuck in a Sisyphean effort to escape your own nightmare. What's even worse is that you're starting to accept your fate.

I agree that FEAR, Dead Space and STALKER aren't scary in the same way as Amnesia and the others, but they all had moments where I was wandering through dark corridors alone, thinking that I NEED TO GET OUT! NOW! And they made me jumpy.

Silent Hill makes you feel vulnerable but not completely powerless. I prefer it that way. I find those peek-a-boo games frustrating.

I thought the fact that permanent death for all characters was something that existed in Until Dawn was a big part of why I found the game to be so scary. Because I knew failure wouldn't just mean reloading the game, it could mean characters that I genuinely cared about would die, and characters did die when I played the game.

Permadeath isn't something every horror game can (or should) do, but it is a really interesting alternative to the Resident Evil save points and Amnesia where death is little more than a slap on the wrist.

I happened to have just played Alan Wake. The first episode was genuine unsettling. By the second one I couldn't help but feel that I shouldn't be able to defeat these things. They were too easy and all the tension built up was dissipated.

I remember the regeneration creature in Dead Space. That was intense. Probably the most scary moments in the game. But not what I'd actually call scary.

FEAR was probably the game that sustained that unsettling feeling the longest. It did have the 'Elder Scrolls macabre' but I did find much of it still unsettling.

I don't think horror movies can be long, as the longer you're doing being scared the more used to it you are.

micuu:
I have to disagree about FEAR: I think it did horror/FPS right, because it avoided the problems you noted. All of its really scary stuff was outside of FPS mechanics: except for the very end, you never shoot or otherwise interact with Alma and the phenomenon she spawns. The shooter parts are their own thing, and worked well as that. After a few replays the scares obviously wear thin, but while it works it works.

That said, I'm only taking about the original game. The expansion packs and sequels are all garbage.

So in other words you agree with him about FEAR.

Sniper Team 4:
Silent Hill 2 remains the scariest game I've ever played. And I say that because it scared me so bad that I had nightmares about it and could not continue playing it. To this day, it sits unfinished. 3 did a good job too, but I was able to beat that one at least.

Those games got in my head. It wasn't just the controls, but the whole experience. The music, the horrible noise that some of the monsters made (that spinning thing in 3...dear God, make it stop!!), and even the static on the radio. The sense just being a normal person who can't fire a gun all that well and swings a piece of wood in desperation instead of like a trained killer. All of that added up to a feeling of, "Crap, I do NOT want to be here!" Those games got under my skin and made me turn lights on, even after the game was off for a while. Japan seems to understand terror much better than the U.S.

The irony being that, while a Japanese franchise, Silent Hill takes a lot of inspiration from an American movie called Jacob's Ladder.

But yeah, the Silent Hill trilogy does horror probably the best, though I guess you could say that's subjective. There's hardly if ever a moment in the games where you fear your character might die, since you can just run away from enemies most of the time. But it's just the idea that they're out there, skulking and snarling about and being fucking weird that makes them scary.

The games also had a great eb and flow with the shifting world states, going from foggy to nightmare, back to foggy and eventually into the nightmare world again. It made it so you really felt a weight lifted off your shoulders once the nightmare was over and the world was white and foggy again, but this feeling was accompanied with the troubling realization that the nightmare would return.

I think a big problem with why AAA can't seem to do horror anymore is because the big games are too bombastic and prone to show off, when good horror is typically very nuanced.

I think a good horror game should include physical (in the virtual sense) and psychological horror, but again it's really hard to pull off.

I feel like a big problem with horror games stems from the fact that they're games; not because they aren't real, but because they can be MASTERED. Once someone essentially masters a game and/or its mechanics, its not scary anymore.
A game with all psychological horror and no physical will be very scary on its first run, but on a second playthrough the player knows that it's all air and no substance.
A game with specifically programmed physical horror can also be scary, but loses that horror when the player figures out how to deal with the threat in a non-risky way. Imagine a pack of lumbering shadowy forms vaguely similar to wolves; you have weapons but none seem to do much at all. They swarm and chase and the entire experience can be pretty frightening given the right atmosphere and effects. Now say you later tell the player "The weakpoint is the front foot". Next time you see them you put a bullet in one of the wolf's front paws and it dies instantly. Sure they can still attack but it becomes less scary and more of an action scene.
These wolves can also become less scary when instead of giving the player an easy way to dispatch of them, the developer uses them too much. At this point, the player becomes familiar with the enemy, its attack patterns, how to avoid it, etc. The threat is no longer "scary and mysterious" but "Known and some-what redundant". The solution to this also isn't just "Use the enemy much less" either, as it goes back to games losing their horror on multiple playthroughs. You know what is coming, you know what it does, go through the movements.

For a truly unique horror to stand out, aside from the obvious such as proper settings, atmosphere, characters and story, etc. It needs to have an element of uncertainty at several points in the game. For example, lets discuss Amnesia: Dark Descent when it was released. There were a few areas in Amnesia where monsters had a chance to spawn or not spawn in a certain area and even if the player died, they would see that the area the monster came from is open now. Monsters also traveled seemingly at random, meaning that players never knew which room and hallway were safe, especially when noises they made would change the monster's location.
But the most IMPORTANT thing horror games need to stand out is simpler than one would think: It's unique gameplay. As i said earlier, players will master games, but that also extends to those games controls and mechanics. Amnesia: Dark Descent was praised so highly because it's use of no-weapons, running, hiding, opening/closing mechanics, and don't look at the monster in a First-Person environment was pretty unique. If Outlast came out before Amnesia, it probably would have gotten the same amount of praise Amnesia did at its release. While I don't want to use it as a point, FNAF 1 still terrified people even without the jumpscares (the problem with FNAF is that it's easy to master).

TLDR:
If you want to make a good horror game, make something new and unique. Amnesia: Dark Descent style horror games aren't as scary as they normally would be when it's the 4th game you've played with the same mechanics.
Also give your game randomness and uncertainty if you want it to stay scary through multiple encounters and playthroughs.

Aaaaaand once again we find out that horror is subjective.

I found FNaF to be infinitely more terrifying than, say, Silent Hill, because jump scares work well on me.

Silent Hill 2 is the least frightening/interesting of the first four, because I don't relate to the main character at all. 3 was the most effective, because a young adult suddenly losing her Dad is something I can greatly sympathize with, and even 4 and 1 worked because I can easily slip into the protagonist's shoes (searching for lost child, literally trapped in apartment) much easier than in 2 (idiot searching for dead person).

Slender works because it does paranoia better than anything else.

I disagree heartily with Shamus on... most of his points.

And, most importantly: There are many of you twitching and ready to spring on the quote button because I'm wrong. Somehow.

WhiteTigerShiro:

micuu:
I have to disagree about FEAR: I think it did horror/FPS right, because it avoided the problems you noted. All of its really scary stuff was outside of FPS mechanics: except for the very end, you never shoot or otherwise interact with Alma and the phenomenon she spawns. The shooter parts are their own thing, and worked well as that. After a few replays the scares obviously wear thin, but while it works it works.

That said, I'm only taking about the original game. The expansion packs and sequels are all garbage.

So in other words you agree with him about FEAR.

The analysis is right, but I don't agree with the conclusion so much. Strip away the horror, it's still a very solid shooter. Shamus is right that FPS mechanics don't mesh with horror very well, which is I think FEAR is smart to interweave the two but still keep them essentially separate. The scary stuff isn't part of the gameplay as it should be in a true horror game, but it is still effective at being scary.

In other words, I think FEAR doesn't disprove his main point but is still better than the article suggests.

edit: the sequels and add-ons are still trash though.

Well... with F.E.A.R. your bullets didn't work on Alma.

That was the primary motivating factor in my intense desire to get the fuck away from her whenever she'd pop up and do her creepy ass little girl thing. But, then, I was like 15 when the game came out. Now I'm a lot less 'shakable' when it comes to scary games.

Usually because I just go full 'tard and charge things as a means of breaking immersion. I go, "Oh, right. It's a game. LULULULULULULUL, LOOK AT THE TEXTURES POP IN, LULULULULULULULUL." and carry on my merry way.

With that said, the games that can really nail atmosphere? Those take a lot more to effectively purge that sense of immersive interaction.

...Oculus and stuff will likely make it a lot more difficult to disengage. >_>

I think horror and fear come across better whenthey aren't trying to be the main selling point of a game. Case in point is another new game that came out recently called Undertale. Its currently tied for best PC game of all time and I believe its an example of what you can do with a game to freak out your player. I'm afraid that if I elaborate too much on why I choose this as an example of fear, I'll spoil alot of what makes the game special. Give it a look, its only 10$ on steam and one of the best games to come around in years.

Horror comes in many forms. This game is masterful at making the player feel uneasy and delivering genuine scares at times, despite being such a light hearted experience on the surface.

I still think, that you can make a game, that is scary, but where the protagonist isn't helpless. It really annoyed me in Outlast to the point, that I stopped playing (together with the bullshit story). If you give the protagonist some power, you have more leverage, since you can take that away from him.
Amnesia had a really great atmosphere, but I stopped being scared by the monsters *because* I was defenseless. You had to run and hide from the monsters, but you could anticipate them after a while. An open corridor had to be without monsters, since you had nowhere to hide. There could not be any monsters in this part, or the game would be unfair. Outlast had another problem (besides the protagonist being a whimp). Your only defense mechanism was hiding. Which was super boring.
Two other games, that had me really on the edge of my seat:
#1 the Thief games. You encounter several supernatural and deadly beings that you can not defeat, or at least only at a very high cost of resources. But you can sneak past them, which is the main difference to Outlast: you are active, therefore it is not boring.
#2 Dead Space 1. The part with the regenerator necromorph. You have a variety of weapons, which you can use to obliterate your enemies, but this fucker will just keep coming back. You *Spoiler Alert* get rid of him by freezing him and shipping him to another part of the Ishimura, only to get him delivered back to you later in the game. I almost lost hope in that scene. Even after I finally defeated him, I was not sure if he would not come back at some point. Or if there was a second one. It was a real trauma for me.
Oh and vents.

I think this trend of the helpless protagonist keeps the genre from evolving.

Amnesia felt more like a bad puzzle game to me than a scary game. I tried something, died, started over and tried something different, until I was able to move on to the next section. That isn't scary. That's Monkey Island and like every third NES game ever made.

I think their definition of scare is more along the lines of "jump scare". While I think that they are capable of a psychological thriller, I don't think the publishers will let them make it because they believe it won't sell.

Games I found genuinely scary. Each one is scary in a slightly different way. 1) Alien Isolation - If it finds you it will kill you. Most of your weapons are useless and at best will only chase it off for a little while. 2) Last Of Us - not all of it, but the parts where you're creeping through the dark avoiding clickers is still really freaky. You don't feel as helpless as in Alien Isolation though. 3) Metro Last Light - Dark tunnels plus a very ineffective torch = scary. 3) Resident Evil 1 - Jump scares (dogs through the window) and good camera angles (walk into a room and the zombie shows in the mirror). 4) Dead Island - Mostly zombie fun but when you're in the quarantined part of the city and you can hear the infected coming but you're not sure where from. That bit was scary. 5) Space Hulk for the 3DO - Used the Alien motion tracker trick of beeping before it showed where the enemies were coming from. A little similar to Dead Island and the infected.

I'll go a step further: Many of the developers currently doing horror, even those who are 'shining examples of the genre', still can't get it entirely right. And, among the myriad of reasons as to why, one reason in particular stands out: Audio design.

We assume creepy noises like growls, screams, groans, etc, make for frightening atmosphere. To a degree they do, but the one thing almost all horror writers (whether it be video games or film) have forgotten is how utterly terrifying silence is.

There's nothing more 'tension building' then walking into a dark and strange place, a place you're unfamiliar with, and hearing nothing. No groans. No growls. Just you, your breathing, and your foot falls. The lack of constant sounds sets your imagination into overdrive and you begin to imagine all sorts of horrible, terrible things awaiting you just around the next bend, all because you just don't know if there actually is a thing around that bend.

When you hear a growl, you know something's there. You can muster a vaguely familiar imagine in your head based on the sound you're hearing. Even if the image is scary, it's still something. You have a picture of what might be there, giving you some semblance of preparation for dealing with it. With silence though? You've nothing to go on. You don't know what, if anything, is waiting for you. Nor where it might be. As a result, the only way to prepare for the unseen and unheard is to remain on 'alert' at all times.

Done for excessive periods of time this can grow tiresome, but done with proper pacing it's one of the most effective forms of crafting a horror experience.

It's this sort of design philosophy that has me so excited for Routine. What little is known of the game thus far leads me to believe that the team behind the game appreciates the effect silence can have in building tension.

FEAR and its descendants were mostly boring to me. A failed promise from the very beginning. Dead Space used jump scare tactics, a little too much but it was effective personally. I still jumped and I played the silly thing three times.

I suspect where you, Shamus, are noticing is the publication of games. When games were what the entire business was about, specifically id Software and Doom, the games has cohesion. Now the AAA crowed needs several hundred artists just to draw the world. Having a solid voice to drive a game is muted when all the money is tied up with suits. A more soulless group that has infected our beloved gaming world.

Modern developers are more frightening of the suits than anything else. I doubt they have the energy to truly deliver a horror games in today's market. How does horror effect the ROI (Return On Investment) anyway?

 

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