Today’s Response: Suspense in horror games

8 December, 2009

This morning I asked the question: “What makes a suspenseful horror game?” Well, I’ve had time to reflect and now will state my beliefs.

There are obviously many variables that aid in making a suspenseful horror game. First are  “physical” elements, such as the visuals to sounds. Second are “psychological” elements, such as fear or relief. Third are those little gremlins that work inside your body, tirelessly cranking wheels and cogs that operate your sense of being. I would like to focus mainly on the first two elements, and leave the third one to scientists.

1) Visuals. Some people are only frightened by visuals, and why not? Visually a creature can be quite daunting, especially if it pops up unexpectedly in a video (thanks youtube). A monster in a horror game needs to be memorable, which is usually accomplished with huge spikes and drool. If I turn a corner and there is an old gnome wearing overalls with a century old beard I’m not going to be scared. If I turn a corner and there is a gnome with spikes all over his body and his eyes are on fire, well I might just yelp. Size matters too in this department. If I turn the corner and see a foot I would probably pan up in horror. Tall people freak me out, I think it has something to do with a dominating presence. Maybe its just the thought that they can fix lightbulbs easier. Tall people are fine, don’t worry. Horror games and movies have really advanced in the visual department. Just look at the difference of the 1931 Frankenstein and this man’s description of a regenerator (may contain some strong language) from Resident Evil 4. As you can see horror has become more graphic, more obscene, and darker. Its not just what a person can see either. Absence of a visual can lead to the imagination creating its own creature (which is often fitted to personal fears). This leads to a bold point, and a transition to sound…

Suspense isn’t always what is seen, it is what is unseen as well.

2) Sound. Sound effects and music adds a substantial weight to suspense in games. When a game goes silent you know something is amiss. Then there are those chords that make the hairs on your neck stand up straight.  The worst are those, “BAM SHRIEK!!!!” hahaha, we made you jump because of a loud noise. Sound affects the mood of a game more often than we think. The best use of sound in a horror game is a recurring sound effect. Shuffling feet, or a groan, so that you know something is always just out of eyesight. The best sound effect is in Doom: the footsteps of the Cyberdemon (its hard to hear in the video but if you played the game you will agree). When fighting the Cyberdemon there are a lot of things on your mind, such as, “why is there a 12 foot demon with a machine gun for an arm?” While you try to run away and find ammo the footsteps are clearly reminding you there is a Cyberdemon on your tail. Its a death march, its constant, and it represents a horrifying creature only a few steps away. Ca-chunk, ca-chunk, ca-chunk…

Sound effects are most effective when they clearly represent an object of horror. Just hearing the sound effect somewhere else can spark the memory of a demon chasing you.

3) Fear. Many people fear many things. I fear writing about such an ominous and also vague emotion.

4)Relief. When you know you have conquered over an almost impossible task you feel a rush of relief. This often works for horror games. After a boss fight, or some chase scene, there needs to be a sense of relief. A kind of down-time where the player can relax. If there is constantly a flow of scary images and events then the player will feel overwhelmed and will not keep playing. What would be the point? Bombardment can work in small doses, like a chase scene where the creature appears to be gone, but actually pops out ten seconds later from a shortcut. That will certainly be scary, but if such a scenario happens all the time the player will suspect that such events occur all the time in the game and will not let their guard down.

Suspense is all about letting a player know that x proceeds y and whenever x happens they should expect y. Scaring people is about altering that time from when x has occurred and y is about to happen.

If I tell you that when I sit in a chair it will hold me, then you will believe its true, especially if I sit in the chair. Suppose however that the second time I sit in the chair it is crushed and I fall to the ground. I’m sure you would be startled, because generally if I sit in a chair once and it holds me then it will do so repeatedly. Now, suppose I buy a rickety old chair to replace the first one. Every time I go to sit in the chair you will suspect that the chair will be crushed. It never is crushed, but you know the possibility of the chair being crushed exists. Over time you might overcome the fear that lurches your stomach every time I prepare to sit. This is what suspense is, knowing that something unexpected can happen with startling results, but also not knowing when the event will happen again.

There are a lot more details that go into creating suspense in a horror game, this obviously just scraped the surface. I’m sure I’ll think of more latter, so watch out!

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