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Sotha

Gameplay: Is there anything left to fear?

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So, you've been alone in a desolate base in mars filled with monsters who want to kill you, which should be a terrifying premise. You've been fighting or hiding from ordinary humans, malformed mutants, twisted monstrosities of flesh and metal, or undead horrors. You've been crawling in a bush, hiding from fellow players to avoid death and losing all your gear. You've seen SCP-173 appear in a blink of an eye to fill the whole screen with a sudden and loud horror noise.

 

 

You've seen a lot of stuff that should be designated as "scary." The more you see, the more resistant you will be against future "spooks." Is there anything left to fear? What is most effective to scare people?

 

 

Good games evoke some kind of feelings. Many titles try to achieve the feeling of dread. Very often it fails. You're just gunning down yet another instance of the "scary" monster. You're sneaking past the skeleton, because it is the easy thing to do. There is no risk. Yawn.

 

When do you fear? How does the game/FMA find the little red panic button in you?

 

For me, it is simply an atmosphere: a foreboding place, which seems safe but gives an unspoken promise of danger or horror. And just when I'm confident it is safe, there is suddenly something, perhaps a noise or something else, that doesn't belong there. But even that gets old fast. How can one sustain the horror? The dread-element has to remain unknown, and it has to change constantly. The horror must somehow be one step ahead of the player at all times. The moment the player understands how the horror works, the horror goes away.

 

The horror should be signs and portents of danger, and the danger must be real, but it cannot be an instant kill.

 

Is the fear not only an atmosphere, but also an element of danger: the risk of failure. Are roguelikes and DayZ particularily effective in producing dread because of the prospect of the game really permanently ending if you fail? In other games you save your game and you feel safe, because then you do not need to face the tedium of replaying that spooky area again.

 

How can we sustain the precious feeling of dread in a game?

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Clipper

-The mapper's best friend.

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I think Amnesia did this brilliantly early on in the game, at least in my playthrough. I don't know if it was the particular path or set of choices I made that brought it on but the entire misison was just quiet calm and because of the music the player knew something was going to happen but ...what? I was venturing in to old mines it seemed and the path that lie ahead looked particularly dark. Not darkish, particularly dark. Now, I'm not afraid of the dark but regardless my skin crawls and the hair on the back of my neck stands up and the darkness envelopes me and is now in full control of my senses. Hundreds of questions flying through my mind, my muscles tense with the possibility that they may have to snap in to action at a moments notice.

 

I wander around in the dark for a bit, thinking I hAVe to find something here, look around, and do it quickly, be prepared! I'm not greeted by anything though and eventually fumble my way to some type of table caved in the floor with a candle on it and I light it.... wheew.. I breath a sigh of relief. Now I can see if only a little bit and a vague silouette of a door on a nearby wall beckons me. I go to investigate and find it open. It creaks slowly as I carefully slide in through the doorway cautious to see what's on the other side... ahhh, just a bunch of boxes. Its a storeroom. I enter closing the door behind me and start searching through the old boxes and dusty rumage.

 

I'm in the room for a couple minutes and I think I hear something but I'm not sure what it is. I turn to look toward the door and its still closed, the sound gets closer...and closer. Closer now, its heavy footsteps and really odd creepy noises, maybe breathing. I have no weapons so I crouch down behind a large box in the back of the room.

 

WOMP! the door shudders with a dust cloud coming off of it and shakes me to my core. I peer around the corner of the box toward the door thinking, "...no no no, go away, there is nothing in here...just go" WOMP! WOMP! It is persistent and I'm not only covered in goosebumps I'm trying to quickly figure out how in the hELL I'm going to get out of here. There are no others doors. It is the only one.

 

Still... I'm relatively safe being behind the door. Whatever beast that lies behind the door clearly can't work a knob and I'm safe I tell myself. WOMP! WOMP! CRACK! The door is now splintering and I'm peeing in my pants a little. My fears and anticipation WILL be realized and much faster than I want, I'm uncomfortable and I want out, now. Peering over the box I see through the blackness and dusty air something I've never seen before, it is grotesque...what is it? what the hell is it? Listening to its labored breathing and scratchy nasal noises and seeing what looks like maybe an eye or a face turned inside out is still trying to get in but I'm only peeking and hoping that it does not see me.

 

I look over the old crate again and the door stands shattered half way down and nothing is there. Its gone. Where did it go? Is it right there? Can I just not see it? Should I get closer? FUCK!?

 

Its something I'll always remember from all the games I've played and I think they did a masterful job by sprinkling this type of situation on to the player with the remainder of the time filled with tension, at least in many places in the game.

 

I also think DayZ does this but in a different way. Clearly there's nothing scripted going on but just the knowing, the fear of the unknown, tHAt is what its all about. Even after you've played DayZ a while, the blood races when you see another player. Initially its fear but what you figure out over time is that the other player feels the same as you, so you need to project the FACT that you're less scared then they are...even when its all lies, you may die. You may have to crawl 2 km to mend a broken leg afterward. You may die of bloodloss. You don't know.

 

Like you said, Sotha, after you've seen it and dealt with it, you can manage it. The key there is dangling the carrot just enough and then taking it away. Its the unknown.

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Some of the scariest moments I've had in gaming in recent memory came from Aliens Isolation and Slender. I think the common tie in both situations is the fact that you are being actively hunted. DayZ would fit the mold as well. Most games just have AI standing around or patrolling an area, waiting for you to stumble upon them. But the knowledge that you can't just sit still, that you must act or die, can be terrifying. That coupled with an unpredictable AI behavior can really be an incredible horror experience.

 

Tied into that is the fact that, at least in AI and Slender, that you cannot kill your pursuer. The only refuge is to hide or keep moving. That scenario can be pretty damn tense and provide the player without a lot of stressful moments.

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I personally feel that if you want to scare the player, smaller is better. Small enemies that surprise you or (when you feel like you killed them all(, another pops up in your face is the way to go. There isn't much scary about a giant monster stomping around making lots of noise, where you can clearly see him or figure out where he is way before he attacks you.

 

A good demonstration of this are headcrabs.

Edited by lost_soul

--- War does not decide who is right, war decides who is left.

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A good demonstration of this are headcrabs.

 

Yeah, and facehuggers in Alien games. Still I wouldn't call this fear, but rather surprise. For me the overall atmosphere must be one of despair or tension, like in the famous Ocean House hotel level in Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. It isn't even about dying in there, you can only die when you act stupid...

Edited by wesp5

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To date one of the scariest games I have played was System Shock 2. It took multiple playthroughs until I had become so familiar with it that I would not be spooked anymore.

 

I credit this all to how random the AI in the game is. Hybrids are spawned around the hallways at random, and they also patrol on random. Basically every door in the game is a potential jump scare, even in areas where you have previously killed all the enemies. Just like Xerxes Sotha said - it's scary because you don't understand the logic behind it.

Edited by kyyrma
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To date one of the scariest games I have played was System Shock 2.

If you can make a game scary while playing thumping techno in the background, it has to be inherently terrifying. Shame it's too dated to properly scare me anymore, same for the TDP zombies. The tree-folk things in TMA still scare me though, something about how violently and noisily they chase after you I imagine.

 

Oh, also the bear in Condemned 2. I think I just hate being chased by the manifestation of ridiculous raw strength while being unable to look back and only hear a great thrashing noise.

Edited by Airship Ballet
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@ kyyrma

I agree, for it's time it was really creepy.

I still think that the haunts in Thief were creepy. Especially the sounds they make. The backwards talking and chain rattling. Hiding behind a box in the dark with one walking close by you is enough to make you paralyzed. LOL

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Quando omni flunkus moritati" ("When all else fails, play dead")

Halloween Contest Winner 2014

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Hahaha I was playing System Shock 2 a wile ago. I was killing those little worms. Some of them were over a ledge in front of me, about 20 feet below me. I looked over the ledge to pick them off, imagining that they would not be able to do anything to stop me. Then one of them jumped up to where I was and it made *me* jump. lol


--- War does not decide who is right, war decides who is left.

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To date one of the scariest games I have played was System Shock 2. It took multiple playthroughs until I had become so familiar with it that I would not be spooked anymore.

 

I credit this all to how random the AI in the game is. Hybrids are spawned around the hallways at random, and they also patrol on random. Basically every door in the game is a potential jump scare, even in areas where you have previously killed all the enemies. Just like Xerxes Sotha said - it's scary because you don't understand the logic behind it.

 

This is one of the cases where I seem to differ from practically everyone else (Robbing the Cradle being another). SS2 gives me the impression of a game in tension with itself: it wants to be a horror game, but it also wants to have RPG and survival game elements, which mean it has to keep spawning enemies to let you grind for resources, so that Hybrids, especially, quickly turn into wrench-fodder. For me, the randomness contributes to the atmosphere about as much as random battles in a JRPG do. Turning down the spawn rate helps restore a bit of isolation, but I found the best existential dread was to be had after turning on god mode so the game would stop bothering me.


Some things I'm repeatedly thinking about...

 

- louder scream when you're dying

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I don't know how many of you are fans of Thief 3 but the Shalebridge Cradle level was also particularly hair raising and there again, they just teased you a lot initially. The later half of the level wasn't nearly as scary as the beginning though because of the reasons everyones mentioned.

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SS2 gives me the impression of a game in tension with itself: it wants to be a horror game, but it also wants to have RPG and survival game elements, which mean it has to keep spawning enemies to let you grind for resources, so that Hybrids, especially, quickly turn into wrench-fodder.

 

I fully agree to that. I "fear" endless respawning monster, but only because I feal cheated and bored :)!

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In TDM, I have already played a few scary missions, but the one I'm currently trying to finish is Briarwood Cathedral. Emphasis on "trying to finish". I always disliked going down into creepy crypts in Thief, particularly in fan missions. The crypt from that FM is not doing me any favours. :(:D

Since Amnesia has been mentioned, I'll also mention Penumbra. There is one particular section in the game where there is almost a labyrinth of corridors (and you're starting to lose your mind by that point and experience some of your first major halucinations, like the infamous disappearing-and-reappearing entrance to another part of the base). Well, in this labyrinth of corridors, there's a locked door, presumably of a storeroom. When you pass it for the first time, even when you're stealthy, someone will start beating on the door viciously, from the other side. Later, often much later, you are passing by that place again and can't entirely avoid going through that otherwise unremarkable corridor. When I played that part of the game for the first time ever, on my second passing of the door, I was actually expecting a jump scare. And I wasn't that scared of it coming. I thought: Fine, it'll happen, I won't get scared, it's predictable... But once I passed the door, and once it flew out of its hinges and broke to pieces in a flurry of beatings, I literally jumped up in place. I think it's a testament to good survival horror game design if even an otherwise seen-it-a-million-times type of jump scare can really startle you, even when you see it coming and think "Meh, I've got this..." (Mind you, that game, just like its younger sister Amnesia, is anything but jump scares most of the time.)

The first two times I encountered a Hunger (yes, that's what it's called) in Morrowind were rather nerve-wrecking. Oh, there are plenty of ugly, creepy or annoying creatures in that (and other) installments of The Elder Scrolls series, but... I think that monstrosity is as close as it gets to TES's own version of a xenomorph. It's unnerving to even look at. I was glad when I managed to kill it on the second occassion, since it had me cornered and I had no choice. Plus, it was night time in-game, I had near zero health and I was near some isolated Dwemer ruins. Sometimes, I just hate Morrowind. It laughs at my pain and fear... :blush::D

When I played the old Operation Flashpoint for the first time, I once ended up with an enemy APC prowling around the meadow near a forest I was trying to hide on. Unfortunately, I was virtually out of bullets, my puny SMG wouldn't have helped me anyway and my one shot at concealment was a group of local thick bushes. I hid there, but the armoured vehicle just kept scouting around, without me seeing it most of the time. Not a horror game at all, but those were some of the tensest moments I've had in any game. I guess that goes to show it was ahead of its time as a mil sim, in terms of atmosphere. Not bad for a now 13 year old game with graphics barely better than TDP's...


Personally, I think a thing worth experimenting with in a game would be to "condition" the player via immersiveness into a state of paranoia where he/she can get potentially unnerved by things that are, at face value, completely mundane and not meant to be scary at all. Deceiving, mind-bending fears might hide some untapped potential in terms of horror and spookiness.

 


I don't know how many of you are fans of Thief 3 but the Shalebridge Cradle level was also particularly hair raising and there again, they just teased you a lot initially. The later half of the level wasn't nearly as scary as the beginning though because of the reasons everyones mentioned.


I love and hate the Cradle. Such nail-biting atmosphere, but I am always glad to help poor Garrett exit that place. And for the peace of my soul, I don't buy into that creepy fan theory that Garrett never escaped and he's trapped there forever, merely imagining the rest of the TDS storyline. :o^_^:) Edited by Petike the Taffer
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The Cradle made me feel miserable and want to be somewhere else, but it didn't make me scared. (Unless you count the time I took the lift up from the morgue and was surprised by a puppet right in front of me - usually it lurks on the other side of a nearby door - but that kind of jump scare would work in any undead level.) Mostly I remember it as a reprisal of RttC's worst fetch-quest elements, compounded by too much time spent staring at doors in extreme close-up when doing that lockpick mini-game in the quest for the hidden nightgown.

 

The problem is, the developers clearly wanted to cultivate a sense that the entire building has a malveolent sentience, but they lacked the effective means to do any such thing. (The only reason I know the 'puppets' aren't supposed to be just a zombie variant is that I read it on The Dark Wiki.) Their first method is to have a character tell you about it, but for effective atmosphere you need to show, not tell. Their second was the sections inside the Cradle's memories: an interesting idea, but it seems the Cradle doesn't actually remember very much, so basically you get to watch some sillhouettes wander around.

 

Add to all this perhaps the least subtle soundtrack and colour scheme in the entire series, and I just found the whole thing desperately overdone. Apparently I'm in a minority, but such were my experiences.

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Some things I'm repeatedly thinking about...

 

- louder scream when you're dying

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Thats interesting VanishedOne.

 

"Their first method is to have a character tell you about it, but for effective atmosphere you need to show, not tell."

 

For me having read a lot as a kid, narration allows me to build up an image in my minds eye. It builds expectation and paints a picture and in this particular case, it made the very beginning particularly scary for me. Going in I didn't have any idea who/what/when was going to happen other than what had been built up though the verbal story. Now putting the ambience and drab scenery in to the images I'd preconceived made for a particularly creepy experience.

 

Its interesting that you have the opposite perspective and that just goes to show that as an FM author, there are many different perspectives and playstyles to consider when designing something that is suppose to frighten.

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Fair point, and maybe I should have written 'not just tell'. I just had the feeling that any expectations that were being built up ended up fizzling out, because the game simply doesn't have any real means of demonstrating that the Cradle has agency. You get told 'The Cradle remembers us', 'The Cradle remembers you now', etc. but it's all a substitute for the Cradle ever actually doing something.


Some things I'm repeatedly thinking about...

 

- louder scream when you're dying

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I have to admit, that I found the Cradle to be particularly scary. I could not play this mission alone at night (either my girlfriend was by my side or I played during the day), but I also cannot watch ghost-movies alone at night. When I do I alsways get the feeling of being follwed (which is actually quite embarrassing being 30).

 

But the scariest game I have played so far was "Project Zero", a Japanese horror-survival-game. The premise is that you are a teenage girl that is searching for her older brother in an empty mansion. The weapon you get, is a camera that can exorcise ghosts, so whenever you want to defeat a ghost you have to focus on it in 1st person (while the rest of the game is 3rd person). You discover most of the story through books and tapes, you can read / listen to. Also the number of ghosts is not too high, so that you do not get the routine of expexting on behind every corner, but still have to be careful as to not run into one unprepared. And a last point, I want to mention (which is in general a good way to increase tension) is the camera angles (of course only possible with fixed cameras). In nearly each room the camera is positioned in a way, that you would expect a ghost to appear. But mostly it doesn't. Until you get careless...

Sorry for the long post. But if you would like to play an atmospheric horror-game: Try this one.

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Fear can be generated in a number of ways. Showing a deformed humanoid (which includes zombies and monsters in general) is the cheapest form of horror, it's what children fear usually. I'm not knowledgeable on this stuff to give fancy counter examples, I've never experienced a game that made me fear more abstract things like loneliness, the unknown, doing your tax etc but it should be possible.

 

I've felt a low level of anxiety that could be classified as mild fear in games about exploring dark dungeons. You can't see much, can't hear anything but have to press forward.

 

Actually, I just remember getting exactly that feeling from a very cartoony and cute game! Outer Wilds (still in development), it's a space exploration game and there's a planet that is basically just dense fog populated by gigantic scary fish. So you're slowly moving through the fog when something that fills the entire screen starts to break through the fog in your direction. It's pretty awesome.

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The T2 FM Equilibrium can be frightening in the "fear of the unknown" way. There are 5 assassins in the mission that are invisible in darkness and visible in light. You can often hear them approaching, but you can't see them ... and running into the shadows to stay hidden is risky because if they're invisible they're walking in the shadows too. It builds up a lot of tension. Great premise.


What do you see when you turn out the light? I can't tell you but I know that it's mine.

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It's not really a "horror" game per se, but one game I think does "sense of dread" very well is Pathologic by Ice Pick Lodge.

Sure the game has a lot of technical and translation issues (which is why it's actually being re-made), but it does definitely give you a feeling "dread".

 

After playing Pathologic through a couple times, one thing I really noticed was how the game was seemingly unafraid to inflict pain and misery on it's players. Pathologic is an "enjoyable" and an "entertaining" game, but it is not a "fun" game in the conventional sense even in the context of horror or survival games.

 

A big component of that is how slow and drawn out accumulating failure and eventual death is in the game. Pathologic seemed to acknowledg that "death" in a game is a form of relief because it means you start over and undo your mistakes, and in that sense "death" in most games acts as a sort of "player safety net". One of the more insidious aspects of Pathologic is how it seems designed to delay your "death".

After you get over the initial difficulty curve of the first couple days staying alive short-term is not that difficult, it's keeping it up and doing well enough to complete your objectives that's difficult. The game seems set up to give you as much room as possible to slowly sink yourself with little mistakes, then let you sink as far as possible before causing "death".

 

Even the storyline doesn't often offer the usual "fail-and-retry". As far as I know, very few of the major story tasks in the game actually stop the story if you fail them, I think the only one might be during the first day. The majority of tasks the player must perform for the plot are such that the story continues even if you fail them, the town's situation just gets worse and your ending gets worse.

 

"Failing" and "dying" in Pathologic is often a slow process of succumbing to numerous preventable mistakes over the course of hours.

You might slip up and get yourself infected and have to try to buy medicine, and then because you had to buy medicine you end up having to side-track for food because you couldn't afford to buy it right away, then because you had to side-track for food you couldn't complete an important story mission in time so a significant character ends up dying and on top of that you end up poorer for your mistake so the next day will likely be even harder.

 

As a result you get anxious about what would otherwise seem like minor mishaps, and you're constantly trying to offset the mistakes you've already made.

Since you're under stress the little things start to become scary, you fear otherwise common threats because they could potentially ruin your day.

Edited by Professor Paul1290
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This reminds me a bit of "Heavy Rain". Don't know, if you know the game. Actually it is more like a playable film. But this game also goes on, no matter if you accidentally kill one of the main characters. It just changes the ending (of course, since some characters are not there to do, what they would do).

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To date one of the scariest games I have played was System Shock 2. It took multiple playthroughs until I had become so familiar with it that I would not be spooked anymore.

 

I credit this all to how random the AI in the game is. Hybrids are spawned around the hallways at random, and they also patrol on random. Basically every door in the game is a potential jump scare, even in areas where you have previously killed all the enemies. Just like Xerxes Sotha said - it's scary because you don't understand the logic behind it.

 

Love this game, many late nights spent standing in front of doors procrastinating opening them because I didn't want to experience the dread that awaited behind them after clearing out the room / area I was in.

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That's actually on thing i strongly disliked about SS 2, and what made me stop halfway through, i just hate enemies respawning. It makes me wonder why i killed them in the first place if they just respawn. I understand that the dev's opted for the respawn though in SS 2, as it features large areas you have to walk through again to progress. Nonetheless it's not for me. Same in Bioshock. If then, they should respawn when another chapter, or another part in the game begins, like in the Gothic series.

Edited by chakkman

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