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TIGSource ForumsDeveloperDesignHow to scare the player - a scientific paper
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Author Topic: How to scare the player - a scientific paper  (Read 380 times)
Lance of Longinus
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« on: September 16, 2020, 09:19:20 AM »

This has been my bachelor thesis in communication design and I've written it half a year ago. Recently I've translated it into English and after some back and forth I've decided to share it. It probably would be somewhat pointless to just keep it lying around after I spent lots of time initially writing it and now translating it.

I'm not sure how useful it is, especially as some of the findings ended up being mostly common sense, but if you're trying to work on a horror game, especially if you have trouble with making it scary, it might help you make it as scary as possible.

What I've tried to do in this paper was to separate typical elements of horror media into building blocks that can be used individually or in combination and to find why they are scary (only by knowing why something works you can employ it really effectively) and also to look into possibilities of staging scary situations to maximize their effect. It also contains the concept for a (somewhat cliché and stereotypical) prototype horror game that employs most of those building blocks that might serve well as an example on how to use them.

I might attempt in the future to write some sort of manual on scary game design or something like that once I've finished two horror games I'm currently working on. Though I'm not sure about that.

English version

German version

Main points:

Staging horror scenarios
I found 4 mechanisms to increase anxiety:
Fear Conditioning; Making the player associate a specific harmless thing with a genuine threat by making them appear at the same time, for example motor sound + chainsaw man = player associates motor sound with getting attacked by a chainsaw and feels anxious whenever hearing that sound.
Model Learning; showing a sympathetic character be visibly afraid to make the player copy those character's emotions (similar to how people get infected by fear during a panic).
Sensitization; repeatedly confronting the player with hints that a threat is near without making the threat appear to make the player anxious and stressed, this makes reactions to any following jump scare much more intense.
Losing Control; Taking away control from the player in a dangerous situation by restricting or disabling game mechanics, for example by making a flashlight run out of energy or get broken, or making an enemy appear that cannot be fought by using the methods that worked on the enemies before (or one that reacts/acts differently).
Then there is also Habituation, the player becoming less afraid when getting used to a scary situation - this has to be avoided by using scary things sparingly and changing things from time to time.
Nonlinear music; Using that typical horror music that feels uncomfortable
Designing landscapes for maximizing anxiety; the ideal example would be the other world from Silent Hill - the more inhospitable a landscape looks, the more it makes the player feel uneasy (bad visibility, lack of healthy animals and plants that can be eaten, lack of drinkable water, etc.)
Designing monsters; the most important thing here is to make them look as dangerous as possible, either by looking dangerous (by being big, appearing in large numbers, possessing deadly abilities, etc.), behaving dangerously (for example serial killers) or living surrounded by things that imply danger (a nice appearing creature, but surrounded by corpses)

Building Blocks
During my search for elements that can be used to construct scary situations, I found:
the classical jump scares (often overused, but effective as it is hard not to react to them), pointed shapes (monsters with sharp teeth, sharp knifes as weapons of killers, plants with big thorns), heights, darkness (we aren't nocturnal animals), being locked-in, deep water, impurity (infested looking monsters and landscapes), unrecognizable faces, separation (losing friendly characters or getting expelled from a group), strangers (humans that seem hostile and have incompatible customs and mores, like the family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the villagers in Resident Evil 4) predators (tigers, wolves, dogs, etc.), snakes and insects/spiders.
« Last Edit: September 17, 2020, 12:55:19 PM by Lance of Longinus » Logged
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« Reply #1 on: September 16, 2020, 11:07:59 PM »

Nice writeup. It seems obvious, but only in hindsight, and I find it comforting when something "obvious" is backed by research. Nearly as interesting as when research contradicts common sayings :-)

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« Reply #2 on: November 10, 2020, 07:24:40 AM »

Scientific papers do terrify a lot of people it seems, hayooooo!

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