Cultivating Fear

  • Post last modified:Saturday, March 27th, 2021
  • Reading time:12 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation, under the title “How to Make Fear“.

With Halloween at hand, surely there must be some way to warp the festive energy to our own analytical ends. Just see what happens when you invite us to a party! Don’t fret, though – though full of long words, our museum of terror takes the well-oiled form of a top ten list. We know how you like your information, and it’s in bite-sized individually wrapped treats. Please… be our guest.

Whether or not videogames can make us cry, at least they can make us nervous – which, as emotions go, isn’t a bad place to begin. (If you’re going to climb the brain stem, you might as well start with the bottom rung.) Seriously, from the time horror games went mainstream about a decade ago their progress has been pretty encouraging. For all the schlock and “boo”s, we’ve also seen plenty of sensitive exploration of some pretty mature themes – resulting in some of the most emotionally progressive games out there.

Granted, this isn’t the most intuitive math around: the way we’re used to thinking about it, horror tends to cater to the lowest common denominator. Fear is the rawest emotion we’ve got – meaning it’s cheap to come by and cheap to exploit. That also puts horror next to comedy as one of the hardest genres to actually get right, as it’s so fundamental that when you mess up there’s nowhere to hide. Both these factors in turn make horror one of the all-time best starting places to hone your craft. Fear is such a fundamental force that, should you master its quirks, you will have developed an earthquake-proof foundation for any other genre, any “higher” emotional chemistry you wish to explore. It’s like learning your Latin stems; take Spanish in high school, and any other Romance language will be a cinch.

You need only glance one medium to the left for some interesting examples. High-profile directors from the Coen Brothers to Sam Raimi to Peter Jackson began their crafts in gore and darkness. Alfred Hitchcock’s entire career was based on suspense (which is practically the same thing) – and when he invented the slasher genre, in doing so he also just happened to forever fundamentally change the way that movies were made and perceived. Likewise, go all the way back and you’ll notice that most of the truly significant films of the silent era (expressively speaking) are horror flicks: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera.

To that end, and in light of the current season, here are ten pointers toward making your videogame scary as hell. Once you achieve that, you’re already halfway to heaven.

“Fear” is actually a blanket term for a whole litany of related, though subtly different, forms of discomfiture. Decide right off what particular kind of fear (or mix of fears) you mean to explore. Focus is everything; do you want to evoke worry? Anxiety? Terror? Horror? Paranoia? Panic? Dread? They all cause different physiological responses, and are all triggered somewhat differently. My tip: if you want to truly affect the player, go after the deepest and most lingering, yet most abstract fears – anxiety, dread. Subtle things that nevertheless build up under a person’s skin until he’s too stiff to go on. It’s hard to just brush off a generalized sense of malaise, as there’s no specific target to defuse it.

Decide how you’re going to evoke your fear of choice – through what associations. I’ll tell you right here: don’t rely on learned fears: personal phobias or established iconography. Once you start quoting verses from the Bible or throwing around Lovecraft references, or sticking in bats or snakes just because you’re creeped out by them, you’re losing yourself in abstraction. Consider this: not everyone cares about Christian mythology; a lot of people think Lovecraft is dull and overwrought. (Personally, I love his prose.) Unless you start thinking about them pretty deeply, Zombies aren’t innately scary at all. Actually they’re kind of funny, with the groaning and the stumbling. What you want to do is draft a scenario based on a specific universal fear – something deeply personal – and then thematically derive all further emotion from some aspect of that scenario.

A big reason why Silent Hill works so well is that nearly the entire game is based on a widower’s loss of his young daughter. Notice the balance here: someone who feels weak and helpless (men don’t have the social network that women do, so he will be essentially alone in the world), charged with protecting someone legitimately weak and helpless. More than an obligation, though, that awkward charge would be one of the few things keeping a single father going. If then the daughter vanishes… well, hell. There’s a whole box of panic, waiting to blow up. You’ve just taken away the only thing holding an emotionally needy man together; you’ve already made his worst nightmare come true.

Which brings us to the next point: fear must have a purpose. It must be grounded in something real, something comprehensible, something mundane. As far as scale is concerned, it doesn’t pay to be grand Nobody really cares if a whole town is razed, especially if they don’t know anyone in it; that’s just a statistic. As all emotional is personal and private, for fear to be strong its basis must be deeply personal. Explore normal people’s most private weaknesses – those parts of their minds held up by bailing wire and twine, which they try so hard to hide – and snip the supports; then watch their worlds start caving in. If you want to load in some secondary emotions – guilt or sadness, say – this method is the key. It all depends on what cords you choose to snip. Who are your characters? What are their flaws? Once you’ve determined that, you can easily keep twisting the knife, triggering further associated emotions through the initial pain.

Create a sense of isolation. Again, emotions are a personal thing; they’re the foundation for our personality. It’s when that foundation is challenged – when someone kicks out our crutches and leaves us crawling, mentally – that fear takes us over. The best way to emphasize the personal nature of fear – to allow a person to dwell in his own weaknesses – is to make him feel all alone in his feelings. The player must feel helpless, both physically and emotionally; alone in a void, with only their scant wits to guide them. In this situation, the only purpose to the empathy or security of another character is to provide contrast; to give the player another temporary and partial crutch – such that when that empathy or security is removed, the loneliness becomes all the starker.

Similarly, you need to create a sense of anticipation – of dread. The longer you can stretch out the tension before releasing it, the better. The player needs at all times to just know that something awful is about to happen, that something terrible is just around the corner – and that he really, really doesn’t want to continue. The moment something horrible or frightening actually occurs, that tension goes away – as fear itself is never nearly as strong as the fear of fear. Therefore once you reveal that the things the player is meant to be afraid of aren’t really so bad – that they’re something physical, that can be examined or fended off or destroyed – then however horrible they are, their power becomes defined. The player need no longer fear their potential – which removes the player’s fear from the subjective, and shifts it to something objective. Something that can be dealt with. At that point, you’ve lost your grip on the player.

One way to create a sense of dread toward continuing is to provide occasional safe areas – preferably as confining and claustrophobic as possible. Give the player the occasional option to simply sit in a prison, rather than venture forth and confront uncertainty. That temptation alone will be tempting for many players. Traditionally, safe havens like these are also good places to save the game and go do something else. Having the save point right there as a point of security makes cells like these tempting as a base of operations – a place to return to and gather strength. Unless you tend to later remove that security (as in Silent Hill 4: The Room), it’s probably best not to give the player any opportunity to feel confident. Don’t allow them to make the safe area a hub or base; it should be a corner to cower in, a place for the player to wallow in his own helplessness.

Remember that videogames don’t need to depict things literally. If you put a boogieman in front of the player, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a metaphor for a “real” boogieman. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of the medium – if one only slightly explored to date – is its ability to represent deeply abstract concepts in an apparently tangible form. To get what I mean, think of William Gibson’s concept of cyberspace – an apparently physical realm, wherein all the objects represent data files, where all the actions represent commands over a computer network. Although it’s no good getting too artsy, the way videogames work as an expressive medium is by using a gameworld – its structure, and the objects that populate it – to illustrate a particular perspective; a certain view of how a world might work. Therefore, all the laws that guide the player’s actions – all the characters and objects and obstacles placed before the player – they all are elements of someone’s mind. Videogames are all about psychology.

For an example of how this might affect game design, check out Silent Hill 2. Basically the entire game is one big Freudian metaphor for the guilt of the main character. The monsters that face the player; what they look like, the threat (or absence thereof) that they pose, the way the player reacts to them, the tools that are given to aid in that reaction – they’re all manifestations of his own weakness, made to seem real to him and the player by some combination of his own misery and the powers of the town. Many of the barriers and incidental objects faced by the player can also be explained in terms of the protagonist’s mental state. Ultimately, the game’s conclusion depends on the subtleties of how the player reacts to all of the implicit emotional cues doled out throughout the game.

While we’re working with universal themes, and how they might be represented metaphorically within the gameworld, one of the most powerful is the concept of corruption. The idea of good things going wrong – of decay, of the loss of purity – is powerful, even in its simplest forms. It’s something we all pick up on, and make subconscious judgments upon, over such dumb issues as how long the yogurt has been in the fridge or how many people that person we’re attracted to has slept with before us. It ties into nearly all of our basic fears – disease, pain, death, loss, uncertainty. If we can’t trust that what’s good will be forever good, then what can we trust? On some level, most of our insecurities can be linked to a fear of corruption – heck, even the idea of our having weak points at all, which can corrupt us if we don’t watch out. Thematically, therefore, a sense of decay – especially of something apparently comforting and normal, or something we imagine to be pure, such as childhood or the tenderness between two people – can be profoundly disturbing, on a level for which people often have no words.

As alluded to in a few of the above points, a sense of decay and of unspoken “wrongness” is nothing if it isn’t provided in contrast with something recognizable – or at least established – as normal. A profoundly average, mundane, believable small town is a great place to start ruining things. Still, even if you’re working on, say, a space ship, you can spend some time setting up what’s relatively “normal” and “correct” and “pure”. Get people to identify and with it, such that when things do start to go wrong, when the rot does set in, it’s recognizable. If you want the player to enter a freaky devil dimension, make it parallel with the most unassuming, everyday location you can dream up. The impression you want to give is that nothing, noplace is safe from the rot that comes from within all of us – from the fear and weakness that distorts our very reality.

The oldest and most clichéd, yet also the most important advice you’ll ever get: hint, don’t show. Your mission is not to scare your audience; it is to persuade the audience to scare itself. I said earlier that it’s not fear you’re looking for; it’s fear of fear. The way you get that is to be implicit, not explicit. Play on the player’s subconscious. Guide him. Give him pieces that seem to hint at something far more horrible than you could ever depict, and let him stew on that. Vague shapes in the fog, shadows and glints in the darkness, are infinitely better than the most detailed, twisted, gory monstrosity you could render. If fear is a mind game, then the moment you’ve laid your mind open, that’s the moment you’ve lost and the player has achieved control. And once the player is in control, all that leaves is a bunch of random game mechanics to entertain him – and other to the nerdiest of the nerds, straightforward mechanics are boring. Never mind that most of your mechanics are probably just band aids that you’ve stuck in there to get your emotional point across, and they aren’t really meant to be assessed objectively. So keep the fog machine going and the Vaseline on the lens, and if you do give the player a straight look at anything horrible, make it brief enough to feed the imagination, rather than replacing it.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, from all the ghouls of Future present at Next Generation.