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What Makes a Good Scare?

You’ve been there: looking down a staircase into a spooky basement, feeling the anticipation, jumping at every slight sound as you descend into a nightmare. Before long, it grows quiet, save for the sound of your footsteps. Except you didn’t notice because you’re too busy seeing things in the dark that aren’t there.

Then, as you slowly round a corner, oozing out of black sludge, a hellish creature struggles and writhes in unnatural poses, creeping toward you, talons out, reaching to claw your virtual face in half.

All of a sudden, it’s pee-pee time.

Your hands are clammy as you clutch the controller tighter than your girlfriend’s white-knuckle grip on the armrest when you’re driving her new car. You go white in the face as the droning music swells. You’re running, but there’s nowhere to go. So you turn around and fumble with the gun and miss every shot. Everything you’ve learned about playing games goes out the window as you lose control. And as the creature disembowels you, you fall to the ground and question whether you have the wherewithal to keep playing. This isn’t the first time this game has scared you, nor will it be the last. The best horror games sit in your collection, staring you in the face until you work up the nerve to play them.

I’ve experienced these feelings so often that I consider myself a horror game veteran. I’ve been through hell and back virtually countless times. Jump scares? More like chump scares. My favorite part is the build-up to the big scare, the calm before the storm.

Stories are all about emotions. Novelists, filmmakers, and game writers are all chasing the same thing: making the reader/viewer/player feel something. Horror stories tap into something primal in us. We’re hard-wired to fear. The fight or flight response is crucial to our survival. The horror genre allows us to explore the darkness in our minds. With the interactive element of gaming, it becomes more than words on a page or pictures on a screen. It’s a waking nightmare, a living world behind a screen, waiting to be explored. It becomes a fight for survival, a battle against your own fears. You can’t turn away or look at the screen through your fingers. You’re in charge of your own survival. It’s one of the most visceral emotional experiences that gaming has to offer.

True scares come from pacing and toying with the player’s expectations. In order for the scare to work, we must first be immersed in the world. This is why most horror games begin with acclimating us to the environment. Outlast, for example, opens with the protagonist getting out of his car and seeing the insane asylum from the outside. This opening establishes a “normal” world and gives us a purpose for being there, while setting up the expectation that something foreboding awaits us inside. While it’s true that many scares come when they are not expected, it is equally powerful to fill the player with dread before the scares start happening.

In my opinion, the scariest games take their time getting to enemy encounters. Silent Hill 2, for example, begins with a great deal of exploration, leaving you to roam the fog-covered town for quite a while before the enemies appear. By doing this, Team Silent gets you immersed in the atmosphere, filling you with dread and anticipation. By the time you reach combat, it’s more of an event than it would be if you fought a monster in the first five minutes. What happens before combat is what makes the combat so exciting. Outside of context, the action loses meaning. Similarly, in Resident Evil 7, the first few hours of the game have you facing enemies that are impossible to defeat. There are hours of gameplay before you get to actually kill an enemy. The game doesn’t give you the satisfaction of success in combat because it doesn’t want you to feel in control.

Speaking of combat, balancing the difficulty is key to scaring the player. Success in combat gives the player a feeling of accomplishment. However, if they are too successful, the horror takes a hit, as players are no longer dreading the encounter. Every enemy you see should put you on edge, so ramping up the difficulty is important. The player should always feel underpowered. If it’s too difficult, players will get frustrated and repeat the same segments over and over, each time feeling less scared. If it’s too easy, the scares were never there to begin with. Many of the best horror games give you the option to escape encounters without bloodshed, putting the fight or flight instinct to the test, and forcing the player to make a quick calculation, taking into account scarce resources. Some games don’t let you fight back at all, emphasizing stealth and chase sequences. Regardless, the scarcity of resources throughout these games increases the sense of tension. Too few resources, and the game is too difficult. But if there’s too many, the “survival” aspect of horror games is lost, and it becomes an action game reskinned with shadowy atmosphere.

Some of the most memorable moments in horror games are the surprises and the aforementioned “jump scares”. When the licker jumps through the one-way mirror in the Resident Evil 2 remake, it works because the player is not expecting it.

In order for this to startle the player, the game must carefully craft players’ expectations. Typically, when we enter a room in the game, we have some awareness of the enemies. We hear their groans and footsteps. It is rare that an enemy jumps out at us without any warning. This gives us the expectation that when we walk into that interrogation room and don’t see or hear any enemies that we won’t be attacked, and we let our guard down while we search the room for items. If a licker jumped out at us in every room, it wouldn’t surprise us, and we would begin to expect it. These games have to give us moments where we let our guard down, in order to pull the carpet out under our feet. Similarly, Mr. X, a mutant that cannot be defeated through normal combat, surprises us because our expectation is that enemies can be killed. In Dead Space, a memorable jump scare happens when you go to use a workbench to upgrade your weapons. This only works because the workbench in every other instance was a safe place.

However, not every scare is unexpected. Sometimes, great scares come from the anticipation of something that we know is coming. In BioShock, there’s a moment in a funeral home where you’re wading through waist-high ocean water, and up ahead, you see the shadow of a splicer on the wall.

A light flickers off, and when you round the corner, he’s gone, and a morgue drawer is hanging open. The expectation of finding the splicer when you round the corner sent chills up my spine, and I was on pins and needles while exiting the area. This is a formula that works well. You know that something is waiting for you, you just don’t know when. Anytime you need to backtrack in a horror game, you can surely expect that something terrible is waiting for you upon your return. Interspersing these expected scares with surprising moments is a recipe for a great horror game. Too much of the same eventually becomes predictable and loses its punch.

Crafting horror experiences is a balancing act for developers. Environments, combat, and item placement must be tweaked just right in order to inspire fear in the player. Horror is one of the most difficult genres to make for this reason. It’s very much like comedy in that timing is everything, and unpredictability is what makes it great. Exploring the dark underbelly of the human consciousness can be a daunting task, and if done right, it can be meaningful and unforgettable. Overcoming our own fears in a virtual setting and succeeding is incredibly rewarding. Whether or not it translates into real life is a matter of debate. But one thing’s for sure: next time I have to go into a dark and creepy basement and shoot some monsters, I won’t miss.

Brian Schuchert is a writer and filmmaking professional. He’s been playing games since before he could read and will continue to play them until he’s a big-shot director in Hollywood with no time on his hands. You can follow him on YouTube and Twitter.