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Games and the Fear of Death

By Shamus
on Wednesday Aug 20, 2008
Filed under:
Game Design


The convention is that survival horror games are very brutal and unforgiving. The combat is finicky and mistakes are devastating. Resources are scarce, and consuming too many now can mean hitting an impossible barrier down the line. Your character tends to die often. Even the ability to save is sometimes rationed. Allow me a moment of presumption and arrogance, but I think survival horror game designers have been undermining the very atmosphere they’re trying so hard to build. They’re doing it wrong.

Consider these two types of fear:

  1. Oh no! The grue is going to eat me! How horrible!
  2. Oh man. The grue is going to eat me and I haven’t saved in half an hour.

Now, if your goal is to just create a serious challenge for tenacious players to overcome (and some people really do like that sort of thing) then routine player death is a required component of that. But I think in most cases the extreme difficulty is part of a misguided attempt to make the game more frightening. You feel the first kind of fear when you’re immersed in the game. You only feel the second when you are not immersed. The first kind is the thrilling kind. The second is an immersion-breaking killjoy. Which means that – counter-intuitively – if you want to scare a player you should make every effort to avoid killing them.

You need to approach the game with an awareness of how much real threat you want vs. how much perceived threat you need to create the right atmosphere. They are not the same thing.

When it comes to movies, people like Spielberg regularly use this sort of thing to create nail-biting moments. If you take yourself out of the movie for a second, you know Spielberg isn’t going to let the dinosaur eat the little girl. You know she’s going to live until the end of the movie. Yet when the dino is snapping and missing her face by an inch it’s still edge-of-seat time, because you’re immersed in the movie. This often works even when you’ve seen the movie before and there can be no doubt in your mind about the survival of the girl. You’re fully aware that the real threat is zero, yet the perceived threat is off the charts. (Assuming you’re into dino movies. Naturally tastes differ.)

If they’re immersed, the player will fear death the same way they will fear for the life of Spielberg’s pint-sized protagonist. Actually dying is a bit of a let down, though. They end up at the menu. Suddenly they realize that the death they feared is more of an inconvenience than a source of terror. They remember that it’s all just a game, and that they just lost. They’re either annoyed that they have to replay a lot of the game or relieved that they just saved recently. Either way, they are out of the game and death is no longer the great unknown. It’s going to take them a while to settle back into character.

Worse, dying means replaying a section of the game, which is counter-productive if you’re trying to manipulate them. They will notice that cat that jumped out or the shutters that banged in the wind right when they entered the room. The sound of footsteps from the floor above they heard right when they opened the cupboard. It seemed unnerving the first time, but when it happens again your artifice behind the experience will be exposed. Like pulling back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, they will see that there was never anything to be afraid of in the first place. Making the player replay a section is like doing the same magic trick twice.

Thus the goal is to menace the player with death while doing your level best not to kill them, to cheat (on their behalf) as far as you can without getting caught. You have to walk a fine line: If you’re too harsh, the player is yanked out of the game and dumped back at the loading screen. If you’re too gentle, the illusion will be broken and the player will realize you’re all bark and no bite. The real art of scaring the player – behind the monsters and spooky sounds and blood and frightening imagery – is to strike the right balance between these two extremes, to make the perceived threat as high as possible and the real threat as low as possible.

I’ll offer a few meager suggestions of my own:

  1. Have monsters pause right in front of the player for a blood-chilling howl – it scares them silly, but it also gives them a chance to back off and take a free shot or run or whatever they’re doing in this context. Half-Life 2 did this with the fast zombies, and it was one of their more frightening moments, despite it making them less dangerous.
  2. Monsters should telegraph their arrival. Those moments between the point where the player realizes they’re about to be attacked and the actual onset of combat are the most suspenseful moments, and you want to hit that note as often as you can. Silent Hill does this with the static radio sounds that precede monsters. Half-Life 2 does this with the howling of the fast zombies and their clanking as they climb the drainpipes. Again, having the monsters make noise makes them more frightening and at the same time less dangerous.
  3. If you’ve got a third-person game: Have monsters grab and the players and shake them for a second or two before chowing down, giving the player time to recover or pull away. Like the zombie grabbing your ankle in Resident Evil, it’s really alarming to have something grasp your avatar like that, and it will get the player’s heart pounding. Many won’t even think about the fact that they didn’t get hurt, they’ll be too busy thinking, “Gah! It touched me!”
  4. Have monsters do less damage as the player’s health gets low. This one seems cheap and obvious, but Valve Software has been doing it for years and most people never even noticed. This works the other way as well: Healing resources heal you in proportion to how injured you are.
  5. Take a page from Spielberg’s dino, and have the monster lunge too soon or too late, so it will just barely miss them. You don’t want to do this every time, and you probably want to save it for special occasions to keep your monster from seeming incompetent. Perhaps have the monster miss once if the player is very low on health.

But in any game with combat governed by player skill, you have to allow for death and work to mitigate its negative effects on immersion.

One of your primary goals is going to be to conceal how much you’re helping the player. If the player stops fighting back – maybe they went to get the phone, or a sandwich, or the batteries died on the wireless controller – then the last thing you want is for them to come back and see they’re still alive after fifteen seconds of standing passively while the hellspawn nibble away at them. It will shatter your illusion, for good. So, standing still needs to be very deadly. The same can be said for hopeless situations: If the player gets surrounded and backed into a corner from which there is no possible escape, it’s better to kill them outright than to wait for their health bar to run out. You could make such a situation an insta-kill: The player is dragged into the mob (away from the camera) like your classic zombie-movie victim. Again, killing the player is bad, but revealing that monsters aren’t an imminent mortal threat is worse.

I’ve said before that I think survival horror is one of the purest and most challenging forms of game design. Other genres can get by with amusing gameplay and graphical pizazz, but here you live and die on the strength of your ability to create an immersive experience. As most survival horror games have proven, you can create lots of stress by making a game with tricky combat and being stingy with healing supplies, and then spacing out save points as far as possible. Throw in a few cheap “gotcha” moments and you have the formula for a really nerve-wracking game. But creating fear requires a bit more finesse. This isn’t to say existing games aren’t scary at all. Some of them are excellent. It’s just that I think they could be even better if the weren’t undermining themselves so often.

Survival horror is very much a niche genre – much more niche than its movie counterpart – and I think this is because nobody has really tapped its potential yet. It might sound like hyperbole, but I honestly think that if a game designer would approach the task as someone working to create an experience, they could create one of those landmark titles that redefines the genre and sets the standard for future games.

Barring that, if I could get them to stop yanking me out of the world with meta-game decisions about when I should save the game I’d call it a step in the right direction.

Comments (89)

1 2

  1. K says:

    Due to Yatzhee recommending Prince of Persia, I’m currently (once more) playing one of those titles. It’s all fair and dandy, until you die (and are out of sand, or don’t have the sand thingy yet). And then you do it again. And then you die again. And do it once more. Killed the atmosphere faster than I can say the word “atmosphere”.

  2. LexIcon says:

    When it comes to immersive horror, I’ve yet to play a game that did it better than Aliens vs. Predator. As a human marine, I’ve spent more ammo and nervious shrieks into empty shadows and creepy sounds then all the aliens I fought combined.

    Not to mention how bloody fast they are. You want to keep a player on his toes, make the monster quick.

  3. Noumenon says:

    Here’s an alternative to player death, from Kid Icarus: turn the player into an eggplant and make them run around like that for a while.

    I didn’t say it was a good alternative.

  4. Daemian Lucifer says:


    It was done in prey,and its not a bad alternative(well,not the eggplant,but the spiritual world).

  5. I sent an email to Shamus regarding the specifics of my ideas regarding this issue, since the thing ended up being so bloody huge, (and it was more directly related to his complaints regarding Silent Hill V) but I think I can address the concepts here without over loading with text…least ways no more than has already been done. :P

    I’d say the whole idea of combat in these kinds of games is flawed to begin with. They’re too connected with the action/adventure mechanics of the videogames that were done before and the majority of the suggestions here seem to be an attempt at fixing the tires on a car with a busted engine.

    These systems just don’t play for a horror game. No matter how much you change the behavior for an enemy, there’s basic issues with the core CONCEPTS that will always make complete immerssion impossible. For example, the repetitive nature of the enemies and gameplay that defeats them, the lack of connection with the rest of the elements of the game (i.e. beating the snot out of the zombies in the SH series never affected the characters, the story, the puzzles…ANYTHING).

    In my opinion, this aspect of these games needs to be either removed, or altered drastically so that they can be bypassed completely. Either by making the character weak to the point of battle being an impossibility or doing a sneaky lil number where the character is infinitely more powerful than the enemies, making it a non-issue. They’d be there as part of the design of the game, like the music and atmosphere and environments. They’d enhance the horror without directly participating in it, which would keep that immersion-breaking gameplay at bay.

  6. Kallahim says:

    I think my strongest moment of fear in a game was a rogue-like game called zangband…its permideath in that game, and I walked down into a dungeon with my veteran character…and walked into a room of bugs, i started squishing each one easily and wading into the room, I started to realize that they were multiplying faster than I could squish plus slowly ticking away 1 hp at a time…that is when the panic set in and I tried to run toward the door…hitting ever potion in my inventory even the unidentified ones…I realized I was going to die alone, swarmed like that scarab scene in the mummy. Shock set in when I was staring at a tombstone…stunned at my gruesome fate. This was from a bunch of ascii symbols…

  7. kamagurka says:

    System Shock 2 (allocated to my brainspace under the alias “best game ever”) seemed to do this relatively well. I rarely died in that game, but I was scared the whole time.
    Until near the end, that is. Then the difficulty went up. And up. And above my frustration tolerance.

  8. Susie says:

    I just ran into an old NES game ‘Doki Doki Amusement Park’. It’s a cute funky platformer. Its attitude to dying was something I’ve never run into before. When you are hit by an enemy, you actually get better at fighting. Instead of throwing one ball, you throw two, then you throw a larger ball, then a more powerful ball. Each time you are hit, your character changes colors to alert you to the fact that your weapon had changed. The fifth time you are hit, you have to go back to the last save point.

    I don’t know of any other game that does anything similar, it’s kind of sad, because it makes the game a lot more fun. If you are good at it, you can purposely die, squandering your ‘safety’ for a better weapon, if you suck, you can keep playing and not feel penalized for not being very good at jumping onto moving platforms.

    I guess I’m trying to say that not dying is a lot more fun, no matter what type of game yo are playing.

  9. felblood says:

    I second the earlier statements that procedural content, or monsters with random lines in their AI, lend themselves much more to fear. The unknown is scary, and even the best spoilers’t break through can’t get past that.

    I’m playing Dwarf Fortress right now, and even though I read the spoilers an I know what comes out of the glowing pits, if you happen to find one. I still don’t know if I have one under my fortress. I just know I can’t handle it.

    I only once ran a DnD scenario that managed to scare my players. The best elements were an accident.

    They are sent to investigate this tomb, see. –and when they get there, the tomb has been blasted open, but the thieves are long gone.

    Inside are a bunch of scorpions and stuff, that they fight in the usual manner, but at the end of the level is a boss with some special build up, and giant stone seal, covered in dire warnings.

    Throughout the mission, players who investigate certain objects and areas, and have good skill checks, will see sand moving in unusual ways, as if being blown by wind, in this underground tomb. When they get to the end, anyone who gets to close to the spooky seal will be attacked, by a giant monster that forms itself out of sand.

    Trouble is, I lost his character sheet, so I never actually had him appear.This actually made him a million times more awful.

    Your character is standing in a room with a seal engraved with images of seven eyed gods and cryptic warnings, with a boss monster that refuses to come out and fight fair.

    Player theories as to what that thing was and how it was related to the seal (it was there to prevent people from opening it) abound. Until the campaign inevitably died out, they were sure, that someday, I was going to make them learn what was behind that seal, and they weren’t going to like it.

    There were two important things I learned from that. In DnD, everyone assumes all the challenges are level appropriate, so they never fear a thing they can attack, even if it would obviously kill them; they just blame you if it doesn’t work.

    What they do fear is their character growing in a direction they didn’t specifically dictate, and or having his movement or actions become more restricted. Being forced to join a wizards guild or being responsible for the release of an evil in a can, are fates worse than death.

    If you die, you just roll up a new character, but if something bad happens to him, but doesn’t hurt his combat ability, you’re expected to play it out.

    Heroic fantasy and fear just don’t mix.

  10. MRC says:

    CATION!! LONG POST!! no really, VERY long.

    I googled Eternal Darkness, and I came up with some interesting things.
    I’ve never played the game itself, so I don’t know how this really works out, but it sounds awesome:

    Sanity effects

    The game’s standout concept, patented by Nintendo,[2] is the “sanity meter”, a green bar on screen which is depleted under various conditions, generally when the character is seen by an enemy. It can be restored under various conditions, such as performing a “finishing move” on an enemy. As the bar becomes low, various effects occur, reflecting the character’s slackening grip on reality. If the bar remains empty, further damage to sanity decreases the player character’s health.

    One effect which is consistently used is a skewed camera angle accompanied by whispers, cries, and other noises. The lower the sanity meter, the more skewed the camera angle and the louder the sound effects. Fourth wall breaking effects include simulated displays with messages apparently produced by the TV or the GameCube; this does not affect gameplay unless the player misconstrues them as actual technical malfunctions and turns off or resets his or her system, thereby losing all progress made since his or her last save.

    There are many different sanity effects, the amount they last depends on each effect, and not all effects will necessarily be encountered during a given run through the game. A few more commonplace examples include:

    Sounds, such as footsteps, women and children screaming, doors slamming, the rattling of chains and the sound of a blade being sharpened.

    Walls and ceilings bleeding. Attacking them causes more effusion.

    When casting a spell, the player character’s body above the waist violently explodes.

    Appearance of large numbers of monsters that are not really there, and disappear when attacked.

    The player character’s head falling off. When picked up, the head begins to recite Shakespeare (specifically, Act III, Scene I of Hamlet).

    Character or monsters shrinking or growing.

    A version of the blue screen of death informing the player
    that all saved game data on the memory card has been deleted.

    Statues and busts turning to look at the character.

    Character whimpering and babbling to him or herself.

    A “to-be-continued” message and promising continuation in a sequel game: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Redemption.

    Character walking into a room from a previous or future chapter that uses the same location.

    When trying to save, instead of the usual “Do you wish to overwrite saved data” screen, there is a “Do you wish to delete all save files” with the options “Yes” and “Continue without saving.” No matter what you do, all files appear to be deleted.

    The word “VIDEO” appearing in the top-right corner in green text on an otherwise black screen, mimicking the “video” channel setting on most televisions when the game system is turned off, and sometimes the look of the television being turned off.

    Game suddenly stops responding to player’s commands just as the player-character enters a room full of zombies. The screen displays an error message claiming that the controller has been disconnected. Meanwhile, the zombies attack and kill the helpless character.

    Character sinking through the floor as if standing/walking in quicksand.

    Some sanity effects are character-specific and reflect the individual’s personal fears or experiences. When the sanity effect is finished, everything goes back to normal and the character often utters a panicked statement, usually something along the lines of “This can’t be happening!”

    About the magic thing: It’s a strange game, because you have magic powers.
    Anyway, most of these sanity effects are directed to the player itself, and I think that would work well. For example they could at one point when the character uses the lightswitch brighten the room up until it’s completely white and then let a message appear in blood, something relevant, or maybe something random. And the next time you play the same level, it doesn’t happen. Or it says something else.

    Also something could be to make every monster you fight different. There would be a total of maybe 4/6 monsters, so that wouldn’t be too hard to accomplish. Or do the whole game in 1st person, you can’t see the character, and if you’re hit from behind, you can’t see who’s doing it. Or let the main character have some sort of incapability, or illness, maybe even schizophrenia! That would make for some interesting twists!

    I’m sorry that was such a long post, but that Sanity Effect thing couldn’t be leftout, since I think it adds something to the discussion here. Or I could’ve posted a link..Ahh screw it!

  11. wallie79r says:

    What if death does something other than killing you? Say, for example, the player character is an immortal of some description. The zombies draw you in and start feasting on your brains, your health hits zero, and the screen goes black. You wake up in the same room, most of the zombies have left once they determined that you were sufficiently feasted upon. Until you get healed somehow, you have a massive gaping wound in your head, little chunks of brain are visible if the camera gets close enough, etc. It would be difficult to have this mechanic and still have death be frightening, but I’m sure it could be done.

  12. LexIcon says:

    Something to throw out there, assuming you’re still reading these older comments. Look into the demo/proof of concept that Quantic Dream just put out for Heavy Rain.

    While it’s a standalone plot not related to the main game, it has a very interesting concept. You can, as the main character, die, and the game will take that into account and continue. Later sections will be seen through the eyes of a different “main” character, and the previous death will make a difference in the story.

    Word is this will non-binary style will be part of the final product.

    If this is true, it will be the first game in which I’ll actually care about surviving, because I know it will be a different story if I don’t.

    Thought you’d be interested in this, seeing as how you also hate binary pass/fail options.

  13. Wil K says:

    @Susie: the mechanic (getting stronger as you take damage) reminds me of the obviously non-horror Galaga arcade game, where you could let yourself get captured, then in the second life, kill the capturing ship to get a double ship, which was much more effective than a single ship (since it shot two bolts at a time).

    Anyway, Shamus, your posts on survival horror are very frustrating – they really REALLY make me want to design a survival horror game along your suggestions, but I personally cannot stand to play one myself. (I hate scary stuff!) It’s the kind of irony illustrated by a car designer saying “Drive one? Heaven’s no!” Grrr!
    I’ll have to just stick to loving the posts then…

  14. kmc says:

    Not that anybody is necessarily going to read this post except Shamus when he skims through it looking for moderate-able offenses, but from my experiences, Dead Space seems to hit a lot of the nails mentioned here right on the head. What do other people think? I played for a very short time–I’m not really used to console controls, so in the first few seconds after you have control of your character and you have to walk out a door behind where you are currently seated, I promptly walked into the back of the captain’s chair, looked at the ceiling, looked at my shoes, and walked into a nearby wall. So I’ve gotten to experience the game in a more objective fashion (vis, watching my boyfriend play through it). Lots of save points, the ambience is terrific, and the whole thing is pretty immersive. It creeped me out, and I was just watching. I could go on, but I’m curious about others’s reactions. (And Shamus, I’d love to see your take!)

  15. Brickman says:

    edit: Gah, that’s long. Well, on the assumption that noone’s likely to read this page at this point, and even if they do this is way at the bottom anyways, I don’t feel like changing that.

    I think Half Life Two (and one, though it’s been much longer since I played it) did a good job of proving they knew what you’re talking about. Aside from anything and everything related to the fast-zombies, there’s the first part of the game. It’s completely impossible to die, and honestly it takes a bit of an implicit agreement on the part of the player that they aren’t gonna test that in order to work, but it’s a cool chase sequence if you take it at face value. Unless, like me, you assume you are taking damage, try to go too fast and fall off the roof due to the fact that hugging a wall in first person while going fast is not as easy as it should be. There’s also plenty of suspense parts later on, though they’re usually followed immediately by action, with the main exception being Ravenholm, where the game does go for horror and doles out suspense and action indiscriminately. And I was tense in the citadel, until the action started, even though there’s a grand total of one headcrab enemy, and I think he’s hidden.

    Bioshock also understood this, though they mostly forgot it later on, and they had more opportunities to demonstrate it with their less actiony feel. The biggie is the splicers themselves; they wander around throughout the levels muttering to themselves and making their presence known long before yours is, and while there are prescripted fights most of the time you won’t encounter them the same places twice. They respawn if you kill them all, not enough to more than slightly inconvenience you but enough that you can’t assume they’re gone, and they are unpredictable with plenty of emergent AI. The sneakier ones, spider splicers who’ve spotted you and are crawling around on the ceiling to reach you quietly, make just enough noise that you’ll probably either realize they’re there a few seconds before they jump down or right after they smack you. If you’re a sneaky type player like me you’ll spend far more time watching them mull about, indulging in their insanity and waiting for the right moment than you will fighting. Items are so plentiful they may as well just be infinite, except near the beginning, and because of that enemies don’t really pose a threat even on hard even if you turn off the free respawns, but they look like they do. There’s also plenty of specific scary moments, more than I’ll care to list, with a disproportionate number in and before medical pavillion. Some have bite, like two doctor-type thuggish splicers who sneak up on you in previously empty rooms in medical pavillion–one fills the room with steam after you grab an item and sneaks up right behind you without making a sound, just standing over you until you turn around, and the other you see his shadow at the opposite end of a corridor, before most of the lights cut out, get there to find it devoid of life, head back, and all of a sudden he pops out behind you with a scream (actually if you watch carefully when you know what’s going on he crawled into a locker on his side and popped out a locker on your side, though locker’s the wrong word). Some have no bite, like the part where the tunnels start flooding near the beginning (especially funny if you stop running since there’s some fish suspended in place right outside a window you’re intended to rush past, the only place in the game with any fish at all) or the part where Ryan locks you in a room, taunts you and an army of splicers starts trying to break some bulletproof glass to get to you, which they’ll crack but never break. The first enemy you see, Rose, scares you but won’t attack you until Neptune’s Bounty, and in fact won’t even attack you there the first time she makes her presence known. One of the scariest moments according to others I’ve talked to is when you get a specific subset of spider splicers who DON’T mutter to themselves but aggressively explore the level, which makes you paranoid because the game’s taking away tipoffs that you already had (though you can still hear them if you listen carefully).

    The first enemy you fight hurls a flaming couch down the stairs and rushes at you, and other new enemies are generally introduced by seeing them kill a thuggish splicer or two in one hit. The houdini splicer deserves mention because for me he SHOULD’VE been scary but wasn’t–he had the misfortune of coming right after a long stretch of neither enemies nor the promise of enemies, but with plenty of items, some well-hidden, so I was in meta-game mode when I found him; far worse, though, I couldn’t tell where his cries for help were coming from and ended up searching the area I was in tooth and nail, along with the room beside the one he’s in which just housed items (I initially assumed he was above me, and spent far too long trying to find a way to climb up there when I couldn’t), before noticing the other door and finding him. Worse, I’d made the mistake of reading enough of the walkthrough that I not only knew about the teleporting fireballing splicers but in fact knew what this encounter was (since it considered him a miniboss and gave him special mention in that section), and to top it off, metagame mode was reinforced by the camera, since I knew that I would be rewarded if I got multiple photos of him before killing him so instead of just going with the flow I gamed the section to get all the pictures possible (as a side note, getting camoflage a bit earlier was probably the only point in the game where paying any attention at all to metagame paid off). This in fact involved quickloading, I’m ashamed to say. If it’d just been a matter of killing him without losing health, I’d have probably gone along with it, or at least could’ve. Anyways, I think we can consider that a comprehensive list of things that’ll break the scary parts aside from death.

    Near the end of the game, they basically ruin it though. Focus gets shifted from atmosphere to action, atmosphere suffers, but more importantly enemies get massive ammounts of health–while initially you could down anyone with a good headshot or two from the shotgun, near the end it’d take entire clips of anything to take down the weaker ones, even though they did less damage if you factor in your increased health bar, and because of that and the resource overflow the few remaining cases which should’ve been scary (and note that mostly there weren’t any more) weren’t.

  16. Sydney says:

    I find it easier to fear for my avatar when I’m already in a nervous state, outside of game (but not meta-game; just me the person, not my the player). I’ve played thoroughly non-threatening games like Fable and Ocarina of Time, and been in a state of near-hysterics because my real-life tension and worry coincided with in-game fear stimuli. The “escape” in Fable [if you don’t know instantly, it’s a spoiler] and “that house full of creepies” in OoT [same deal] had me physically shaking because I was worried about something-or-other.

    I don’t see that this is much good in a PC game, but in a tabletopper, try making your players tense/sad/angry/scared/happy before you actually start the session, if that’s the emotion you want.

    One time, I was hoping the players would be scared enough not to abuse the game – for convoluted reasons, I needed a crypt of infinitely-spawning zombies, and I needed the players not to grind them for exp. So before we “started up the session” – before I was the DM – I manipulated them into being jittery I-forget-exactly-how.

    It works across the board. I find that even as a PC, I can set the scene with my out-of-character actions far better than the DM would have been able to by himself.

  17. The best part about having healing resources heal you proportional to your damage is that IT MAKES SENSE. Why are all these medkits you find spinning and floating by magic just as good at repairing a boo-boo as intestines falling out of your gut? You’d imagine that there’s only so much they can do for minor burns and abrasions, thus a lower HP return at high HP thresholds, but that a medkit would be a lifesaver when you’re seriously injured and need stitches, cauterization, etc.

    I’ll note that one of the scariest games I’ve ever played was Vampire: the Masquerade, Bloodlines. I was a pretty maxed-out Tremere with nasty abilities, but in that hotel sequence, the invincibility of my character did not change the fact that I as a human was watching the spectral destruction of a hotel. Now, the fear factor goes down a lot the second time, meaning that horror games need to not only make immersive fear but do it through enough procedurally-generated ways or with enough scripts and threats that the average player won’t see your five best tricks. Think about most horror game fans: They mention the two scary characters, or the eight scary concepts, by rote. There’s almost never any variation, anyone who saw something scary that no one else did. That might be okay in a movie, which has one “path” through it. But in an immersive video game, one like Silent Hill in particular with many endings and lots of routes through the game? That’s inexcusable.

    In any respect, Bloodlines managed to make a gritty horror world with lots of great surprises and startling, and honest fear, while giving me a character I was perfectly aware was very hard to kill, super-powered even! Similarly, Undying had many terrifying moments despite the fact that the end of the game Patrick Galloway has an FPS roster of destructive weapons and deadly ancient spells. Imagine what survival horror games could do with outright POWERLESS characters…

    In particular, Undying scared me the most with one of my OWN WEAPONS: The frost dragon gun. In the dark, worrying about a zombie attack or something hissing “SEE” at me, the moment when you hear some growling and see steam rising is utterly terrifying. The fact that it’s your own weapon may seem a little silly, but nothing immersed me more than that fact: The idea that everything in the game was at some level deeply horrifying, even the things I relied on to protect me; and the fear that I experienced in that moment made other moments of fear more real as I played through the game, since the game had shown me I could be scared by it. I bought that it wasn’t just saying “BOO!” anymore.

  18. Sydney says:

    Just wanted to show up late to the party with a pair of paradigms.

    The first ten minutes of I Wanna Be The Guy will kill you, mercilessly. It is probably the most death-dense portions of any game outside the first ten minutes of your first experience with a bullet-hell shooter. You will fail constantly, and you will fail for a long, long time.

    The first ten minutes of the Shalebridge Cradle are all but harmless. You could order a pizza, eat it, and come back to find yourself still alive. There is no way to fail. At all.

    Is it the prospect of frequent death that creates fear?

  19. Benny says:

    I’m reminded immediately of the first Resident Evil (stress rather than fear, in many cases… but also lots of fear). As far as I can recall, that was the only game I ever bought that I did not muster up the desire (courage?) to play through to the end.

    Oh, and Sonic 2 for Genesis. If I couldn’t beat the final bosses starting out with 96 rings, why the heck would I be able to do it with no rings at all? Oh, well. At least it had a robust save system.

    Now, Super Mario Bros. 2. There’s a game that knows scary. Scary, scary masks.

  20. Talby says:

    System Shock 2 did this so well. Hearing a muttering hybrid or the mechanical footsteps of a cyborg midwife slowly getting closer is many times scarier than even the biggest monster Resident Evil can throw at you. The cargo bay on the Engineering deck was one of the scariest parts of the game for me, because it forced to walk past those rows of protocol bots in storage that you just KNOW could burst out and attack at any moment.

  21. Chairmaster Frog says:

    There was one spot in Dead Space that, in retrospect, really showed how the game could do it right: it was in a part of the ship that had no atmosphere and almost halfway through your oxygen (on the far side of the “room”) was something you needed. As soon as you grab said object, you’re ambushed by necromorphs.
    The scary part was when you realize you’re almost out of oxygen and you start running towards the airlock, necromorphs flashing in and out of your field-of-vision behind you, hoping one of them doesn’t grab you, thinking you won’t make it in time.
    I watched my brother play this for the first time, after I’d already played it, and it scared the crap out of both of us.

    It didn’t help that, as soon as he was in the airlock, his wife comes barreling up the porch steps and bursts through the front door. Needless to say, we both screamed like little girls.

  22. Epoetker says:

    You guys all talk about how to scare people and you don’t address one reason the Combine might choose to shoot headcrab rockets at people?


    The rockets land, people in the immediate area are knocked out, and a bunch of headcrabs immediately pop out and attack the first (likely incapacitated) character they see. If not killed immediately, the headcrabs instead seek shelter in air vents, or they burrow into the ground. One launch in a reasonably well-stocked town might be workable. But a heavy headcrab shelling of the type Ravenholm got (especially if it took place at night) means that behind every corner and air vent could be a cat-sized creature that could end your life wand turn you into a mindless zombie with one moment of inattention. Would turn most people into psychological wrecks.

    It’s like planting land mines, except land mines can be cordoned off and don’t turn the friends and resistance fighters you know into screaming monstrosities. Zombies(aside from the POISON zombies and the headcrabs required for them) are much less dangerous than armed and trained resistance fighters, and a well-trained attack force can kill them easily.

    Imagine that Father Grigori wasn’t insane, per se, so much as joyous at hearing the sweetest sound one could hear in that town…the sound of blessed, sustained, gunfire coming from someone who wasn’t him. Small wonder he shouted encouragement over his PA system…he was a priest, after all, and encouraging the afflicted with Scripture was part of his duty.

  23. xXDarkWolfXx says:

    I think Amnesia: The Dark Descent gets this right, even when playing it and dying having to replay an area didnt make it any less terrifying when you hear a monster strolling into the room forcing you to hide in the corner in the dark.

  24. natureguy85 says:

    My go-to example for good and bad is Metro 2033’s library. The Librarians look stupid and not scary at all, but hearing them shuffling around on the other side of a wall or on the floor above me still creeps me out.

    For the bad. at one point, one will reach through a hole in the wall that is obvious on subsequent playthroughs, if not the first. I remember getting scared when it first grabbed me, but that all went away when it held me so long that I realized it was a scripted thing and it wasn’t going to kill me. I just had to look at its stupid face for awhile.

    Another good example is the Big ‘Un from State of Decay. They will pick you up and either bite you or rip you in half, killing you instantly. I was scared of the latter every time it picked up a character.

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