Horror Game Design

What Is The Source Of Fear?

When you see an object, your brain will automatically and continuously start the object identification processing. Although the actual processing time maybe very brief, like only milliseconds, it seems your brain is using multiple passes to identify the object, also the environment around you. With such high speed processing power and heavy workload, the approach your brain to perceive the world is fairly simple: compare.

The first sight you see an object, your brain compares it with something you already know, and using second pass to confirm if necessary. So the whole process is going on and on, until the identification is success or fail. Sometimes, your judgement is in a gray area, because the object seems to be familiar in a way, but not entirely what you know. Then you feel the object is very weird. If the object you are processing is a human, you may feel that person is abnormal, then try avoid him/her as possible.

Now things are getting interesting. In such a gray zone, what happens if your final verdict failed, which means the subject is actually not human? This is the right time you should feel scared.

The Human Likeness Chart shows when something is similar with human but actually is the opposite, this creates the uncanny valley, which causes the fear. And the movement multiply the effect many times, since with the help of movement, it’s easier to bring you to the peak of human likeness then suddenly drop you to the bottom of the valley, as you can feel in the following video.

But What Is The Source Of Fear Exactly?

The fail of object identification causes uncanny valley, which causes fear. But why’s that? How does brain work? The answer is simple: Death.

Death is the ultimate source of human fear. The classic example of object identification failure is human corpse. Even by looking at a corpse in front you in the daylight, nobody can say there’s no fear at all, not to mention if we switch the scenario to the midnight, in the grave yard, and a man sitting on a coffin, and in the end you found that he’s actually dead.

Through training or over-saturation, people can overcome the fear (or be numb?), but the fear of death is embedded deep down in human nature. Everything you fear deep down in your heart is always death related.

Of course, there’s another level of fear, such as, fear of losing someone, fear of embarrassing, etc. Those are high level fears, which are not the scope of this argument. We only talk about low level fear from human nature. Besides, I believe something buried deep in the human nature is also the thing can shock you the most.

How To Use It In Horror Game Design?

cliché works!

Luckily, horror as a genre is quite old in movies and books. There are so many techniques we can learn from forerunners. Maybe some will say it’s cliché. But cliché works, for example:

  • Dark room with flickering lights. 
  • The abandoned building or an asylum. 
  • A little girl that shows up at the end of the hallway and then disappears. 
  • A phone that rings, when answered no one is on the other side, or you hear heavy breathing. 
  • Foggy environment with noises and sounds of creatures awaiting for you just around the corner. 
  • Characters that stay around in abandoned small towns.

All those tricks are not new. We see them all the time. But every time they make you recall the fear from the bottom of your heart.

what else useful, other than cliché?

The answer is still simple: To manipulate human mind.

Wait,… what? But how?

To manipulate human mind basically means attack by surprise, build up atmosphere, and be unpredictable.

The early study in 1970s already shows that the most scary part of your experience is not the moment something happens, but the moment you were expecting something to happen. I believe everyone can recall the experience when you watch horror movie. Many times, the movie let you know something will happen on purpose. They use camera focal point and audio cue to build up the atmosphere. And you know something is going on and you can not help to hold your breath. At that moment, you can feel the tension in the air. And when something finally happens, you often get scared pretty bad. So people usually say “Very good building up the atmosphere!”

Let’s imagine another scenario. I don’t tell you what’s gonna happen. There’s no audio cue, no deliberate focal point. Even if I let something terrible jump onto your face, the punctuation is way less.

But obviously you can’t do this every time. Be unpredictable. Surprise is always good. Also the pacing is important. I’ve seen many games didn’t do a very good job maintaining the pace. Maybe they have so many good ideas and can’t wait to show all of them to players. But no matter how good your gameplay is, if you keep throwing things to player, eventually, they will be over-saturated or numb. Zombies are supposed to be scary, even to look at. But now the zombie culture is all over the place. Are you still scared of seeing those zombie pictures? Gears of War did a very good job to maintain a good pacing. Between every battle, they let player rest, not only physically, but also mentally. Still sometimes they throw surprise to player, and test theirs skill. The principle is same in every genre.

At last, usually, story is a strong driven force in horror game. I guess it’s very necessary to make the whole world believable, therefore to create better immersion, also makes level environment easier to start and also maintain consistency. 

Besides, since we have story, it’s always good to build up player-npc relation ship during the process, and throw them some tough decisions to make, etc.

Although I haven’t tried The Last of Us yet, according to what I see from video and review, I guess it hits almost every highlight above. 

I always feel interesting to create a virtual environment that indirectly leads players to somewhere and give them experience through things around them. Only in this way, they believe they make their own choices. At that moment, they are actually in the virtual world.

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