Games, how they work, and how they should work

Scary, I guess…

Well, it’s all hallows eve tomorrow, and the western world is getting worked up about, as it does every year. I’m sorry everyone, don’t stop getting into your costumes for me, but I find no enjoyment in it. It’s just an expensive excuse to make a fool of yourself at night, and needlessly scare yourself for “fun”. Still, I suppose it’s a reasonable excuse to  talk about scary games, and I do believe there’s an art to a successful horror game even though I don’t tend to play them. Yes I know, I don’t play horror games regularly so I’m in no position to judge, but I have played “scary” games and even downloaded the Amnesia demo just for this, which everyone knows is just about the scariest thing ever.

OK, so what makes a game scary? Even something as apparently simple as getting this right seems to be a little tricky for game designers. The reason is that it is actually kinda hard to get consistent. No seriously, no one is being stupid this time. The trouble is, as with many of the problems that film once faced, what works for media like books and film doesn’t apply to an interactive medium like games. There are three simple steps to making scary scenes in films and TV. Step 1, build tension, usually with slow panning shots or moving shadows the character never quite sees. Step 2, make the character and the audience jump with some sort of sudden action, often emphasised by a jump-cut. Step 3, either return to step 1 but with a clearer sense of danger, or use the cut to change scene or change to another character who hears the commotion. Lingering too long after the surprise often ruins the effect, so the cuts are fast enough to move on before the audience has recovered. Films always go at the same speed, each scene taking an exact amount of time, unless someone is messing around with the projector, so it is easier to control this progression. Games on the other hand leave the pace almost entirely in the control of the player, simply by their very nature. Amnesia actually plays with this as a method of keeping tension high. By forcing the player to slow down, by way of cut-scenes, no ability to run, and the sluggish controls when your ‘sanity’ is low. Not only does this keep the player going at roughly the right speed, but it puts them on edge because they don’t have the level of control they are used to.

The common mistake made by many games is to make everything happen too fast. Sure big freaky mutants and aliens jumping out at you from the dark is startling, but without making the player unsure as to when that’s going to happen makes them become accustomed to it. A synonym for fear is dread, and dread implies a sense of apprehension, an uneasiness in what is coming next. If you fill every moment with these kinds of sudden encounters, there’s no room for step 1, the building of tension. Of course, people still get scared by things jumping out at them (not ashamed to say myself included), but anyone with sufficient nerve can battle through the first 15-30 times can become immune to it. This effectively nullifies  the whole fear aspect of the game. All that has to be done is to mix it up a bit. Cut down number of encounters, build up to each one, show them what’s coming but not enough to know what it is, or even show them something irrelevant in the distance then spook them while they are looking.

Not sure what else I can add. Yes it’s a short one, and yes I probably got a lot of it wrong or made vast sweeping generalisations, but as I explained above, I don’t play these kinds of games. I just thought it was appropriate for the time of year and couldn’t think of anything else. Enjoy! Seriously this time, post some comments below, I want to hear what you guys think. Noticed anything in a genre of games that just doesn’t work except in a select few? Found a game that does work really well, but you have no idea why? Tell me about it and I’ll see what I can do. Until next week, bye everyone.


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