“The Suspense Is Killing Me”: How Games Create Fear In Players

In Features by Taylor2 Comments

I recently got the chance to sit down with a couple of friends and replay Outlast, the famous dark horror game that uses many different factors to create a feeling of fright and fear in the people who play it, or even those who watch it. We were in a dark room, no light coming from anywhere except the screen that the game was displayed on. My friend, the most easily scared out of all of us, was controlling the game while the rest of us watched and gave instructions. Though it might’ve not been obvious at the beginning, as time went on you could tell that the same level of fear was present in all of us, whether we were controlling the game ourselves or just watching.

The idea that the people who create these games are kind of controlling our emotions and thus our responses to situations within the game is so very interesting to me. The rush of adrenaline we experience when scared creates what’s known as a fight-or-flight response in us, showing ourselves (and in cases, others) how we react in an honest manner to things that scare us. Do we jump? Try to run? Or, for some who are a bit calmer, do we get surprised?

I had planned on releasing this article around Halloween, because so many horror-related creations are heavily associated with that time of year. However, as I did more and more research for this piece, I realized that fear, suspense, and fright aren’t things that exist solely in horror games; in fact, they can even be in much more light-hearted products as well. As I talk through this piece, I want to clarify that I’m not going to be looking at what makes the horror genre, or how people are scared. I want to look at how the feelings of suspense — and through it, fear — are created within the people who play games, regardless of the genre of the game or of the methods the developers used to do this. So let’s jump in.

Before we get to less obvious games that create suspense, let’s start with the ones that are most obvious. As I mentioned earlier, Outlast uses many, many elements to stir up our emotions and make the game as horrifying as it is. Being a horror game, there are a few staples in the genre that the game uses almost too well. My favorite being a limited perspective — you can see this through first-person camera angles, or the seemingly all-encompassing darkness that the developers at Red Barrels Studio can’t get enough of. Fear is created from the unknown. When we ask ourselves “what ifs” and try to come up with any possibility as to what might be lurking in the shadows (which, more often than not, makes us scare ourselves even more). When you can only see a foot in front of you without your handy camera, there’s no telling what your mind will come up with. Though, even this darkness that Outlast wallows in so much is just one part of a big element that creates fear: atmosphere.

A champion of the use of atmosphere is the famous and now defunct demo game, P.T. The playable teaser (“P.T.”) started as a teaser for the cancelled Silent Hill game, closely named Silent Hills, but it quickly turned into a major frustration in the game industry. The idea that something so beautiful and well-designed had to be thrown out was maddening, and no one was a fan of the idea. What made the game so beautiful, though? As far I can tell, it was two things. This being, atmosphere (as I mentioned before), and the graphics. In most cases, graphics are a vanity, they don’t usually affect a player’s experience if they don’t let it. However, for a game like P.T. to use graphics as realistic as it had greatly changed the effect of the game. A horror game using graphics is one thing, but a horror game that looks just like a place you might know with realistic graphics is beyond scary.

The fact that P.T. had such an average setting — just a normal house — and twisted it into a nightmare you’re forced to walk through is fear itself. The game didn’t use weird settings to force you into a new place, but instead gave a very normal setting and gradually distorted it more and more until it twisted what you would think is a normal place into a nightmare. Added ambiance through weird noises and creepy music adds to this effect, raising the tension the player feels, and making them anticipate a scare more. Of course, to make things worse, it betrays that instinct we have, and instead scares us when we least expect it.

If you were scared without an intense atmosphere building up to it, like someone randomly popping around a corner and shouting “Boo!”, you’d still be scared of course. However, with that, there isn’t a build up towards it. There’s no suspense or anxiety that helps create fear. With a cheap jump-scare like that, there is no fear at all, just surprise. But, if you apply this same situation to walking down a long, dark hallway where you hear noises but see nothing, suddenly that jump-scare becomes much, much worse. You develop new anxiety as you question what each sound is, what each moving object could be, and suddenly anything can scare you. That’s the target that games like Outlast and P.T. hit; by immersing the player in their own world of suspense, the developers have a much greater chance at scaring them than they would without it.

With all this being said, fear, and the suspense or anxiety that create it aren’t at all limited to horror. Elements like these are still very present in non-horror games. Take Nintendo, for example, a surprising expert in using these. I won’t go into the greatest detail in my examples of these, but I’d like to bring up a couple Legend of Zelda games to support my case. The first one I’d like to talk about is Majora’s Mask. In my mind, it’s hard to talk about anxiety-inducing without mentioning this game. The whole game itself is a time challenge, my most loathed feature of any game ever. Not only do you have to deal with a giant, evil Moon that will crush you, but you also have to deal with the relatively small time frame it gives you to stop this from happening.

Yes, to be fair, this resets every time you complete a section of the game, and you do eventually acquire things that dramatically slow the process, but to have your whole experience be put on a ticking time bomb and having to experience anxiety not just in parts of the game, but throughout it as a whole is… both genius and diabolical at the same time. It inspires a sort of morbid curiosity in players to keep them going, even if they aren’t fans of how the game makes them feel (usually either very angry or very anxious, in my experience). The game is not at all bad; on the contrary, it’s pretty innovative, especially within the franchise as a whole. It’s unlike any other Legend of Zelda game, and it’s a fan favorite to many. Whether the “time challenge” aspect that I mentioned earlier is the reason for that, I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s a big part of it.

The second one I’d like to talk about is Skyward Sword. My personal favorite from the Zelda series. It set a very good precedent for Breath of the Wild to shatter in terms of freedom within the series. However, unlike Majora’s Mask, I don’t want to look at the game as a whole; instead, just a feature of the game that recurs later on in the game: the Silent Realms. These are sort of time challenges, but they are more of a scavenger hunt than anything. However, I mean “hunt” in two different ways. You’re looking for these items to refill the time you can stay alive unbothered, but as soon as that bar runs out, you are hunted down by unkillable, silent enemies who can kill you on the spot. With these enemies scattered throughout the map, there is little you can do to escape them.

Not only is it a situation where you’re helplessly hunted, but these Silent Realms also happen in places you’ve already visited multiple times before. Like P.T., it’s familiar, yet different. The areas are noticeably darker, the previously cheery music is replaced with creeping and slow xylophone music that creates an atmosphere much more eerie than what you remember. It combines the scariest aspects of all the previously mentioned games: the darkness of Outlast, the atmosphere of P.T., and the time aspect of Majora’s Mask. Not to mention the “hunted” aspect they all somewhat share. Yet, it’s not even a horror game. It created in me a feeling so intense that my palms got sweaty and my breathing got heavier, but it’s not horror. It’s a small, three-minute part of the game that only happens three times in the main storyline. But the survival aspect of it — that if you didn’t pick up these weird objects, you’d be hunted by unstoppable creatures — along with the atmosphere and tone made it incredibly memorable as the scariest part of any game I’ve ever played.

Fright, terror, suspense, anxiety — these aren’t just things you can experience in the horror genre. While these games are doing their best to scare you (and possibly succeeding), these emotions are emotions regardless. The recipe to create them can be in any kind of game, from a cartoonish one like The Legend of Zelda to an uncannily realistic game like P.T. 

I’d love to learn of your experiences with fear in games. What’s the scariest moment you’ve experienced in a game?

Taylor on Twitter

An enthusiast of Pizza Rolls and creativity. A professional at finding ways to drone on and on about what I like, but in a way that sounds informative.

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My name is Jeff
My name is Jeff

Peculiar that this article seems to read pretty closely to a video made by a youtuber like a week ago called Disarae Plays made. Seems like a topic that would exist around the time of a top horror game coming out and not during a dry spell for them like now.