Getting the fear factor right: The secret of scary games

The ranks of video game developers lack a true master of horror, argues Phil Hartup. For people who really want to be scared by their games, what is missing?

The first properly scary computer game I ever played was Aliens on an Amstrad. It was 1987, I was nine years old, and I found it properly creepy. I didn’t realise until much later on that this was not because I am a gigantic chicken, although this may have been a factor, but because actually this game, this few dozen kilobytes of primordial first person shooter, has the earliest hints of the mechanics that nearly all successfully scary games have since adopted.

A lot of people don’t get scared by movies or books or video games, and good for them, but for those of us who like a good scare and who can get a proper fright from a work of fiction, the video game is a format that can offer untold terrors. The active nature of the medium, as opposed to the passive perspective of film or TV means that the fear is real, it has to be engaged with. You can’t hide behind the sofa and let it play out, or skip to the next chapter as you can with a book. Whatever terrors a game holds, you must deal with them or admit defeat.

It is therefore a little dispiriting to see that video games have not really mastered the horror genre as they might be expected to. The explanation for this though is not in the lack of ideas, or the lack of good monsters, rather it lies in the game mechanics themselves.

There are two very common mistakes that horror games make which make them much less scary, and no amount of creepy monsters can ever really save them.

The first mistake is having a main character who is a badass with really powerful weapons and that is the most powerful entity in the game world, with no business being afraid of anything. You play a character like that then the player is empowered and confident. We can see this problem blighting the recent Resident Evil games and it also took hold later in the Dead Space series.

Some of the scarier games instead introduce a vulnerable or weaker hero. In the first Dead Space game the hero is an older man, armed with limited weapons - he’s not the all-conquering space hero of games like Doom. Other games have taken this a step further, with the spectacularly creepy Amnesia: The Dark Descent featuring a main character who cannot fight back against the monsters he faces at all. By forcing the player to sneak, hide, and if all else fails run away, the game is ramping up not just the threat posed by the monsters but also the concentration and immersion levels for the player. By playing the prey, not the predator, you are forced to be much more focused on your surroundings. This can be heightened by darkness, limited camera angles or a suitably tense set of background sounds.

The second mistake is linearity. In a linear game you are, for all intents and purposes, playing with your back to a wall. You can’t retreat, you can only press on, and you know, outside of the game, that it is designed for you to be able to proceed from where you are now to the end of your particular level. That knowledge that you are where you are meant to be in the game world and you’re almost certainly equipped to deal with whatever will be there is very comforting, which is precisely the sort of feeling a developer should not be encouraging in a scary game.

You can see how this is overcome by looking at the STALKER series of games as opposed to their more recent yet more linear cousins the Metro series. Metro games are largely, though not completely, linear. So I know, playing through them, that I’m not likely to be thrown in against something I can’t beat, and I know where I am meant to be going. STALKER on the other hand has an open world, albeit it with a linear plot. This leaves you with questions about where you are supposed to be. Questions, uncertainties - these are the best source of fear for a games designer.

So for example, the first encounter with the Bloodsucker creatures in STALKER is a work of genius. When you enter this basement you are full of questions, what is down there? Have you got a good enough weapon to deal with it? Are you meant to be down in that basement at that early point in the game? And perhaps the most challenging question of all, do you even have to be down there? There’s a world of warm campfires and jovial Ukrainians playing guitar songs above, you can be up there, in the sunlight, not getting your head torn off. It sounds so tempting.

This was the sneakiest weapon in the STALKER arsenal of scary tricks. By offering the option to not go into the dark places, it created the doubt in the player that they even had to go into them at all. You create that sense of trespassing, of being where you are not supposed to be, and this is a source of fear or at least uncertainty.

When games developers get the fear factor right you can really see it in every aspect of the game, from the level design even down to the pacing of the play. The craftiest designers will be perfectly willing when shaping their game to have chunks of time where nothing happens. These times of calm are when the player will most feel the unease that the designers have built into the game. These are the better moments of games like FEAR and even the abominable Aliens: Colonial Marines actually managed a couple of moments of genuine tension between fights. In a first person shooter combat is the comfort zone, it is the languor that unsettles and the quiet that threatens. The best example of the contrast is Left 4 Dead. When the zombies are rushing you there’s no time to be worried, but when you’re moving through the darkness and the only sound you can hear is the sobbing of The Witch, that’s when you start to look closer into the dark corners, when you start to get more nervous.

We can see many of these simple principles at work in the free-to-play game Slender which takes the use of a vulnerable protagonist in a disorientating, non-linear environment to an extreme, if minimalist level. We can also see these principles, albeit in a lower res and grubbier form in that old Aliens game from the late 1980s. What Slender represents in many ways is a distillation of these principles, it offers nothing but fear and it does so in abundance.

Video games have many iconic developers, but they lack masters of horror or suspense of the sort that cinema and literature have. There is no Lovecraft, Poe, Carpenter or Nakata for video games (although there is a Clive Barker, actually the same Clive Barker, and Clive Barker’s Undying remains a somewhat underappreciated classic).  However if we can learn anything from movies and books it is that horror will grow best on the fringes, not in the mainstream, where innovation and risk taking thrive. Games like Slender and Amnesia: The Dark Descent have already proven that you don’t need a AAA budget to make an effective horror game.

Isaac Clarke from Dead Space 2.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State