Over at twentysided, Shamus Young has an interesting post about creating fear in survival horror games (although as some pointed out in the comments, what he is discussing is more properly termed “dread”).

His suggestions are aimed at keeping the player engrossed in the game, primarily by providing near-death experiences instead of actual death. Once the player dies, the spell is broken by the need to restore.

Keep in mind he’s talking about sustaining a particular emotion here. Survival horror games are expected to evoke feelings of uncertainty, fear, dread, and tension. Much of that is lost if the player dies frequently.

Of course, the possibility of death must be present; otherwise, there is nothing to be afraid of. The trick is to present situations that appear to be scary, maintaining the player’s anxieties, but without suspicion that the designers are actually trying to keep him alive as much as possible.

Would this approach work in other genres? To some extent, yes. I recall a few unsettling experiences when I played the adventure game Scratches.

I held my breath every time I opened a door. Who knew what might be lurking there, ready to jump out at me? Part of that feeling was conditioned by years of horror movies: I knew that I wasn’t alone, that something was there, somewhere, too. It’s always that way in the “old dark house”.

There was also a segment where I was crawling slowly through a furnace pipe (at night, of course). At the far end, as I approached, a shadow suddenly flitted past the grate. Whooo! That gave me a shock. What was it? I had no idea, but it sure was a scary moment.

The downside is that these feelings can only happen once. On my second run through the game, I didn’t worry about opening doors; I knew that nothing was going to leap for my throat. Similarly, I knew the shadow wasn’t a threat, at least not in that situation.

I think the basic problem with trying to maintain fear (or dread) is that it only works for fear of the unknown. Suppose you’re in that “old dark house” and hear a strange, slithery noise behind a door.

Right away, you’re keyed up. What is it? You don’t know, but given the circumstances, it’s probably dangerous. What to do? Open the door? Ready a weapon if available? Wait and see what happens? Run like hell? You’re not sure what to do, and that uncertainty of the unknown creates the feeling of dread.

However, once you know the slithery sound is caused by a cat playing with a piece of rope, the tension is broken, permanently. If you replay the game (or reload because of an unfortunate demise), the sound has no effect.

That is also true to an extent if the sound happens to be made by a giant snake instead of a cat. You may be able to kill it; you may have to run from it. Either way, the sound has become a known item, and its effectiveness as a scare tactic is gone.

We should also ponder whether the save/reload feature causes a decrease in the “fear factor”. Most players faced with a strange noise would save the game immediately. But would that lessen the feeling of dread?

Not necessarily. I didn’t save every time I opened a door in Scratches, though I felt it prudent to do so every few doors, just in case. That didn’t make it any less scary when one opened.

It seems to me that how often you save doesn’t matter; what matters is how many times you have to reload. Which brings us back to Shamus’s premise: that keeping the player alive is better, because the dread/fear/tension is more easily maintained. At least the first time.

Games and the Fear of Death on twentysided