A small warning: This writeup contains mention of games which contain scenes of explicit violence and gore! It may also contain moderate references to parts of the storyline of such games although I’ve tried not to spoil anything!

The video game industry has over recent years attempted more and more to bring emotion into their games. One of the key emotions that many games try to evoke is fear. Generally games which include an aspect of fear are aimed at a more mature gamer (By this I mean 15+), although primitive aspects of it can be found in some games aimed at a lower age group (But I will mention this later). Fear transcends genre as it can be used to sell many different games to the same target audience. I for one enjoy the idea of being scared by a video game, although genuinely scary games are hard to come by. There are several methods by which developers will try and induce a state of panic or fear in the gamer. They are as follows:

Shock fear

I think my first experience of being afraid when playing a computer game occurred some years ago whilst playing Doom 2 (id Software) for the first time. I was wondering around, merrily dispatching of legions of the demonic army, when I opened a door to find myself face to face with a ravenous pink demon. My heart jumped! and after I had finished jabbing the control key (and the demon suitably full of lead) I had to sit back and catch my breath.
This kind of event is used regularly in games; it is the sudden event with no warning or build up. It helps to raise your heart rate for the rest of the game because you are unsure if a similar event might occur at any moment and is present in hundreds of games. I’m sure we all remember the dogs jumping through the windows in Resident Evil (Capcom), or the fiend jumping at us from out the dark on the second level of Quake(id software). This effect can be magnified (to a degree) by having a slow build up (e.g. the slow mechanism for releasing the fiend (Quake)), you know something is about to happen, but you don't know what!1
Although this 'shock factor' is used to great effect it can only be a part of the fear induced by a game because if it is used too much the player gets used to it and the whole element of surprise is lost.

Repeating Sound

Ack!… running low on air! Large countdown number has appeared above my head, I must find an air bubble… I’m a hedgehog dammit! I shouldn’t be underwater!
Yes, I’m talking about Sonic the Hedgehog (SEGA) and that damn drowning music that just got faster and faster. Whenever my sister played she would always mute the TV whenever she was on an underwater level because the music panicked her so much. Ok, so I know its not heart stoppingly scary, but you never felt quite comfortable whilst that music was playing. Now think to Silent Hill (Konami), those mechanical noises that just get louder and louder, are they scary? Or what about Max Payne (Rockstar) in the trippy maze sequence with the baby screaming in the background (I’ll refer to this again)? Did they not scare you even in the slightest? It is used in many games, from Doom to Super Monkey Ball! (SEGA)

Event linked music or sound

In psychology I believe this type of thing is called conditioned response. Basically a scary event occurs accompanied with a certain sound or music. The next time this is heard you begin to get anxious because of the link you have made with that sound and the scary event. It is used commonly in games with a running theme or enemy, with Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (CAPCOM) being a good example. The nemesis theme plays you start getting tense and looking out for him. It is also used in the Silent Hill series and I’m sure many others. Of course a similar thing occurs when the player hears the noise of a particular enemy but can’t yet see it. My favourite example of this is the 'arch vile' from Doom. Who can forget that haunting laughter?
Interestingly this way of linking music or sound to an emotion is not just used to create tension. Resident Evil have a long tradition of using the ‘safe’ music in their games to tell the player that there is no threat in the area (I am always relieved to ear the Resident Evil 2 safe music). I’m sure this is somehow a ploy to play with your emotions whilst you are playing.

Rumble feature

Generally only applies to console games and doesn’t really fit in any other section. The rumble or dual shock feature which is present in most console controllers can add to a gaming experience. Some games use this to create a tension about the physical condition of your character. The rumble use has to be subtle and I think it is best when giving you a low heartbeat vibration (to indicate to you the health of the character). I find that as the heartbeat gets quicker I myself become more tense playing the game. This is used in great effect in Silent Hill 2 and Grabbed by the Ghoulies 2.

Limited visibility

This ranges from darkness to fog to interesting camera effects (The old film effect used at the beginning of Project Zero (Fatal Frame)(Tecmo)). Anything which visually limits the player will create tension simply because you can’t see what is about to confront you until it is within a close proximity. The obvious examples of this is Project Zero, Silent Hill and AvP (FOX Interactive) when playing as the marine (Where in many places all you had as comfort was the slow bleep of the movement sensor!).

Children and Innocence

Anything included which is a normal sign of innocence will disturb you. Little girls keep turning up in Silent Hill, the ghostly children of Project Zero (Fatal Frame). Again going back to Max Payne there was children’s lullaby music playing over a baby and woman’s screaming. It has been proven that a child crying is one of the most uncomfortable sounds there is. Couple this with a spooky or scary situation and maybe some off key children’s music and the whole thing becomes quite disturbing. Even if it does not scare you it should make you uneasy.

The Twisted and disturbing nature

It seems king of obvious that a game designed to frighten you would be disturbing in some way, yet it is one of the most powerful ways in which a game is scary.

I live … again!

Those immortal words from the beginning of Blood (Monolith productions), a B-game using the, ever popular at the time, build engine (most notably used in Duke Nukem 3D). However cheesy the game is, it was probably the first game which I found to be disturbing. It was full of darkly funny comments by the protagonist, monks with shotguns and a high level of gore. It’s difficult to describe to anybody who hasn’t played it why exactly it disturbed me, but it did… yet I was unable to stop playing.
Zombies (for example) are not disturbing; they are such a cliché it is impossible to be disturbed by them as an entity. Start to consider the idea that the dead are walking and that all these brainless monsters used to be a real people with loved ones and you are happily dispensing shotgun rounds into their rotting skulls… then it becomes disturbing! If a game developer can get the player to see the twisted aspect of a game, then half their work is done for them.

Methods which don’t induce a state of fear!

For as many ways as there are to scare you in a game, I’m sure there are just as many to ruin it completely! I don’t want to go into detail because they are all fairly obvious so here is the key ones:

  • Cut-scenes which try and shock you – These generally just destroy the flow of the game.
  • Bad control system – Who can appreciate a scary game when you have to dislocate three of your fingers to shoot.
  • Bad voice acting/Dodgy lines – If the gamer can’t associate well with the character then they are detached and not emotionally involved.
  • Too many things jumping out at you – I mentioned this above
  • Playing with a group of people – I have never been scared whilst playing a game with other people in the room with me.

The next time you are playing a scary game and you find your heart beating a little quicker or your palms a little sweatier, try and think about why. I’m pretty sure you’ll find that it is one of the things listed above.

1 - Thanks to lj for reminding me of how effective this was!
2 - I havn't played this game, but I have been told that the effect of the vibration is very good thanks to lj

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