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Fear, Suspense and Horror in Video Games

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Assigned keywords: Computer, Foreign Language

The "Shalebridge Cradle" out of Thief: Deadly Shadows was a masterpiece in suspense and horror. F.E.A.R. is said to be more extreme, yet my fragile nerves aren't willing to take the test.
Computer games are predestined to deliver fine horror to the player. The player is more immersed into the medium by its very nature, most of it in an ego-perspective game. The threats are not to some sort of blonde psychopath-fodder, but to the character the player uses and often identifies with. I can still remember playing Doom with a friend, when we actually tried to look around corners in the game by looking at our screen from the side. When monsters hit us, we ducked and shifted in front of the game, as to evade the fireballs those sprite imps threw at us.
But Doom was mostly shocking, however, today it is possible to deliver much more subtle forms of horror, like Shalebridge Cradle. What follows are some ideas to produce even scarier games.


Now let me start with the classic of all horror elements: shock. This is fairly easy to produce, and is often overused. The problem with shock is that it only delivers a short experience. Yes, it will scare the crap out of me when suddenly there's some incarnation of death in front of me, yet this experience is forgotten quickly.
Doom made good use of this principle in repopulating "clear" areas with new monsters by triggering walls that opened up when the player crossed a line. So you killed all monsters in an area, and when you returned, suddenly, new monsters appeared or where there, to shock me4 once again, even more, because I was naive enough to believe that this area is cleared up.
Other games, like System Shock, constantly threw monsters at the player, at least until the computer nodes and video cameras of a level had been destroyed. Yet, this idea is not as scary as the Doom approach, as it just keeps the player occupied constantly.
The extra trick is to make the player feel safe and secure. Surely, in a movie, when the deep tones set in, and then there is some shock element, I am still shocked, yet I was also prepared, so the impact is not as massive. So don't warn them - make them feel safe, and comfortable, and then shock the crap out of them.

Light and Darkness

Next to shock, darkness is a cheap effect. It works, yes, but it can be overdone, and usually it is. Often, games are just damn dark. But the problem is, that players have ways to circumvent that - setting gamma correction higher or brightening up their screens. Doing so will make the game look crappy, ruining the experience altogether. So I'd advise to use darkness sparingly, and not as a general line. Keep darkness in a game under the threshold that makes the player tamper with his screen settings.
Now Thief somewhat turned the light and dark rules upside down, because darkness, classic enemy to man, became player's best friend and light the enemy. One effect that made Shalebridge Cradle work was that it was pitch dark in the beginning, but then had to be lightened up by the player, surrendering his best advantage.
An interesting combination is light and darkness together. Have darkness with occasional flashes of brightness, searchlights, people with flashlights...


A good thing that instills fear into the hearts of the feebleminded is desorientation. Impair the players ability to see. Those flashes when the ghost girl spoke to me in Shalebridge Cradle blinded me for a short time - I felt that this time was far too long, what could sneak up in this time, who knows...? So imagine, you're highly concentrated, sneaking around some opponents, and then the screen goes black, you don't see anything anymore, you can only hear primal growls. This will immerse the player even further, so now its the right time to shock his heart out of him.
What works well also are special environments, like lots of steam, or, very cruel, dense foliage in a forest where something ugly can hide behind every bush. I found this to be quite scary in Gothic 2, as there were some dense forests in which I could not see what undead horrors lurked behind the foliage.

Primal fears


Someone writing a review for Thief 3 was delighted about one fact: no spiders in the game. To assume that people are afraid of spiders is a sure bet. While I myself have no phobia regarding spiders, I feel somewhat uneasy. I can pick them up and set them free outside, but it always feels a little bit strange to touch one big black spider. So I shared the reviewers comfort of not having big, black, hairy spiders in the games. But why not present a crawling, bug-infested corridor to the player as in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?


I once had a very disturbing dream about trying to escape in a donut shaped object, which was of course not possible, as I was running endless. When I replayed Unreal, I recognized a certain scene from the game to have inspired my dream, when I felt a sudden chilling effect. Likewise, I somewhat panicked when I was about to leave the cradle, delighted, but then suddenly couldn't.
There are also records of dreams where people flee on a road that is collapsing behind them, leaving a void. If you're not fast enough, you're sucked in and lost forever. This could be a level: the player has to flee something he cannot fight, and doing so, he has to overcome obstacles. Now his adversary could be one especially deadly monster, or a natural force, say water entering a sinking ship. Or imagine, you flee, and behind you is that huge biological entity, covering everything with fungii. Or nanomachines converting the level to gray goo.

The Surreal

Cradle had a surreal touch. Especially when I travelled to the past, I had a slight fish-eye view, and everything was dominated by a sick green undertone. Faceless schemes representing the former wardens could only be heard whispering. Also, I remember the dream scenes of Max Payne; walking into a corridor, it began to stretch endlessly.
In the cradle, some bridges existed. I think I would have used one of those to cross an endless, deep abyss. But this deep abyss would not have been just black, but green. Maybe if it would have been possible to make that green abyss a little bit swirling, or even have soft tendrils moving up, as if to reach for the player.

The beauty and the beast

Now you have monsters behind every corner, fine. But why not use a more subtle approach? Slight variations of what is considered normal can be disturbing. Players are usually confronted with monsters in an eerie, dark setting, but why not use a normal environment, but then let the player develop a feeling of that "something is not quite right". Madness is surely among the fears of man, the idea of slowly loosing my integrity to a level were I can't trust myself, or the others, or anything. Imagine that you go into a shop or talk with your boss (in the game), and suddenly, just for a glimpse, the scenery is overlaid with "something else". You have these short flashes, at first you can't figure out, you only realize that something goes wrong, and it goes wrong badly. And then you see more and more, and apparently no one objects to having deformed people walking around or that hideous women give their breast to alien/human hybrids.


Now loneliness can be scary too - the kind of loneliness where you wake up one morning and everyone else is gone, leaving you in an empty city or spacestation to find out what happened. Now here I think of a bright, USS Enterprise-type spaceship or a daylight town; everything is bright and well, so no reason to be afraid. But then there will be sounds, and visions, and strange occurences. Imagine walking on the silent decks of the Enterprise, suddenly hearing some soft whailing noises, coming closer, moving farther away - all in plain brightness. Or having hallucinations, which are happening in your point of view, so you can't turn away from them, and hearing voices, in your head, of course.


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