All the Fun of the Fear

From issue 88 of PC Gamer, the issue after my Deus Ex review. Two of my most memorable pieces of games writing within a month of each other, which shows precisely how much I lost it. Probably my sole most useful moment in accidentally influencing games too. While researching it, I exchanged far too many e-mails with Randy Smith on the nature of Fear in Games, who was just about to start work on Thief III. Years later he reveals that it was these discussions which helped crystallise his beliefs on the phenomena, leading to him deciding to put them actively to task in a “Haunted House” level in his forthcoming game. The level in question was The Cradle, which prompted a ten page article on how it worked. Criticism influencing art influencing criticism. In terms of games journalism, it really doesn’t get any better than that.

Computer games don’t do emotions. Everyone knows it. Computer games are a juvenile form, incapable of creating an aesthetic response of any worth in a human being. Of course, all that’s changing. Sony name the heart of their new Playstation “The Emotion Engine” to empathise its high-end polygon shifting’s new ability to create images of sufficient delicacy to stir the soul. High-end console press and hard-core fans whip themselves to a saliva-flecked frenzy at the new, unexplored universe just beyond their fingertips. Finally, the inner-voyage of videogames can begin. Games will move our hearts as much as they move our pulse-rates.


Imagine, if you will, a scene. A basement flat in Bath, walls seemingly held together with damp. Six housemates, with an equal gender split, are gathered in the twilight around the TV to play a computer game. It’s Resident Evil 2. While one individual sits on the sofa, joypad in hand, the rest of the party suggest advice what he routes he could take next. Your correspondent is pacing near the kitchen, having entered the rare state when he can feel the shape of the designer’s mind. The game progresses. After much misadventure, The Point is reached.

The third person view reveals a long, empty corridor heading towards a T-junction. Corroded metal pipes line it, adding to the cheerful ambience. Then a noise. Footsteps. No — not footsteps, but rather the distinctive padding of one of the drooling hellhounds, all rabies-teeth and lean-muscle. The party freeze, then urge the gent at the controls down the corridor. Inch by inch they progress, waiting for the inevitable attack. Moments stretch out. Eventually, with a final push of will, we turn the corner. Another corridor. Which, despite the padding, is completely empty. A communal sigh of relief wracks our lungs, and our hero starts to jog forward.

Only for, with a single bound, the fearsome hound to leap over the fence lining the path and jump, teeth bared at our throat.

Cue Chaos. Two of the girls scamper up the sofa, jumping behind it. The paramilitary gent coming to visit backs off towards the door, screaming. The good man holding the controller hurls himself off the sofa, running frenetically towards the television, stabbing at the controls. I find myself bellowing at the top of voice, “Kill it. Just fucking kill it”.

Games don’t do emotion, do they? Could you imagine such an extreme reaction from any other form of entertainment? You could? You must really be a nightmare to sit next to in the cinema.

Fear is an emotion. Dangerously influential horror-writer HP Lovecraft stated “The Oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is Fear”, identifying it as the root of the family tree of human experience. Certainly, it seems its traces lie back further than such recent inventions as love or envy. Ever since a being realised it could think, the realisation that one day it may not not be able to think has filled it with dread. Would it be pretentious to say that somewhere in the protoplasm of the first microscopic life, lying exposed in the primordial soup, the first shadows of fear flickered? Actually, yes it would.

Which leaves the primary question unanswered. Why can games be so scary?

The human mind’s a strange and lovely organ. Among it’s multitude of abilities — such as always finding the wrong person to fall in love with or deciding, yes, another drink is precisely what you need — is its capacity to expand its consciousness into items which it controls directly, making them proxies of the personality proper. This is why rather than saying the correct “His car ran into my car” after crash everyone calls out “He hit me” before swearing profusely and reaching for the winch. Your psychological identity has swelled to include the ton of warped metal around your actual flesh.

The same’s true of games. Once you’ve sat down at the controls, your digital character is under your complete control. Eventually the control system becomes transparent, you becoming unconscious of remembering what button to press. The character has become a digital limb, hardwired to the cerebellum through the medium of fingers, controllers and circuitry. The more complete the inclusion of your in-game self, the greater the identification and loss of self. Which results in. well, let’s Joe Wampole, Art and Game Design at Nocturne and Blair-Witch-1 developers Terminal Reality, explain, “Being an active participant is going to increase the amount of suspense over identifying with the character every time. The player IS the character regardless of what story is written about the polygonal hero. Therefore, it becomes the player’s own life they are trying to preserve, unlike a movie where the viewer is a bystander to the action. So when something scary happens to the character, it is happening to the player”. In short, the best games produce terror in the player by directly attacking them rather than a character you’re to sympathise with. In films, you’re a voyeur. With game’s it’s personal.

But fear’s more than a single entity of terror. The techniques used to disgust are entirely separate to those applied to create a brooding unease, and those also noticeably different to those to shock. Drew Haworth, one of Terminal Reality’s founders, is very aware of their separation, and their utility to a game creator, “There are basically three paths for instilling fear in a player: Surprise, Mood/Threat, and the Extreme Situtation. The latter is the least effective, as typical players are immune to horrifying images and situations – at least those permissible to include in a game. It works in movies, haunted houses, or real life, when you can force extended exposure on the participant. In games, players just get bored.”

Surprise — from the face-huggers of Aliens vs. Predator to the (well) face-hugger tributes of Half-life — is far more effective. “Surprise is pretty easy – anything can “jump out” at any time,” notes Drew, “but there’s a catch: the more surprises you spring, the more difficult it is to catch a player off-guard. So in this case, creating fear isn’t the challenge so much as sustaining it rhythmically. Any entertainer will tell you that you have to run the audience through a gamut of reactions to maintain interest.” This rhythm is generally best seen in the virtuoso scripting of the finest survival-horror games, such as the Resident Evil series. We’re teased up to a climax with a series of minor shocks, a pattern of tension and release ending with an orgasm of fright before falling to a refractory period of calm, preparing to repeat the process.

Ex-Looking Glass hero Randy Smith, currently moving to Ion Storm Austin to take the role of Lead Designer and Project Director on Thief III returns to the primal fear of annihilation when starting to approach the topic, “One common fear is the fear of death or other unwanted consequence. When the giant killer robot fixes its gaze down upon you, that’s the fear of death. The threat is real because you are vulnerable and the means by which harm can come to you is present”.

However, the rather ephemeral nature of death in videogames effects the depth that a fear of being stomped by a destructive, towering monster can provoke. Clearly, your soul being cast into the unknown afterlife is a rather more serious threat than just having to re-load the level from a saved position. As Randy notes, “The constant danger sensation is more of a thrill or adrenaline rush, and less of a fear”. It’s interesting to note that one of the finest shock-and-tension fear games of recent years, Aliens vs. Predator, initially disregarded quicksaves games, only being introduced in a limited form in its Gold Edition. Games which choose this option have to walk a delicate tightrope between the positive intensity created by knowing that death equals a real loss and the alienating frustration of replaying too large a section. Perhaps a middle route in adding emotional weight to reloading exists? While it’s clearly a technical rather than a design one — unless Looking Glass were being particularly perverse – but would Thief have been quite as scary without the ever-present threat of its long loading pauses? Possibly, but Randy is dismissive, “For most people, the experience [of death] is so rattling, you need a little bit of downtime. I think even if you could re-load instantly, most people would take a rest. There’s a chance [quicker loading] would have demystified the experience — but I don’t think it’s really significant”.

But it’s not all about death, death, death: Sometimes implied obliteration’s just as good. Lovecraft noted that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear, is fear of the unknown”. Randy seems to agree, “The fear of the unknown and the fear of death are closely related, since it’s important that the unknown contain the implicit possibility of unwanted consequence, such as death. If the only thing you know about the unknown is that it isn’t going to hurt you in any way, exploring the unknown is a lot more fun and a lot less scary.”

So, naturally enough, to terrify us, designers push it to the opposite degree. “A great way to boost the fear of the unknown is to assure the frightened person that the unknown is extremely dangerous but
volunteer no additional information,” explains Randy, “This is because the fear of the unknown is driven by the imagination of the frightened. The more boundless your imagination, the larger the set of possible things lurking in the shadows, the larger the set of nasty consequences that can befall you”.

Clearly vulnerability, or at least the impression of vulnerability, is central to helping to provoke fear. Despite sharing a certain amount of game mechanics with System Shock 2, Deus Ex is only ever tense, never genuinely fearful — no matter how desperate straits you find yourself, you’re the superhuman angel-of-deliverance in the world rather than a insect running through Shodan’s corridors. At heart Deus Ex is about the freedom of choice, thus emancipation and power. In Shock 2, despite all the firepower available to you, the visual cues and the isolation of the situation conspires to make you feel helpless and very, very small.

In a similar way, consider both Thief games. Upon first starting play, you realise that to survive almost complete silence is required. A misplaced step on a marble floor or an alcove slightly too shallow to truly conceal is enough to transform safety into a sudden and bloody death at the hands of vengeful guards. However, as you progress through the game, a player’s skill at judging the relative security of a position increases, thus you felt more in control. and less vulnerable. As you got better, you become less terror-wracked.

Randy prefers to describe this phenomena in terms of boundaries. “When presented with a frightening stimulus, people try to find security,” he explains, “They put their back to a corner, they save the game. The more stable the boundary, the more under their control it is, and the more it limits the threat, the more the fear is lessened. In Thief the safe boundary is often between light and shadow – the darkness is safe and the light is not. However, these boundaries are tenuous and subject to many exceptions,
therefore they are not stable or secure. When the player is behind the shadow boundary the threat is partially limited, but the player is not perfectly safe, and the player knows it.”

Even in the insecure security of a safe zone, the player realises they cannot stay there forever. They are in the game for a reason and eventually they must move on. “The player will eventually have to emerge from the safe zone, into the dangerous zone, and embrace risk until another safe boundary can be found. Nothing augments the fear associated with boundaries like forcing the player to violate them of their own free will,” adds Randy, chuckling evilly.

It’s the judging of the boundaries that leads to the complacency of a skilled cut-purse. “As you become more competent at the game, you learn to recognise and negotiate the ever-shifting boundaries between safety and danger.” Your experience in judging this is paramount. Randy has a perfect example: “Guards can’t do everything in Thief, but they can do enough that, at first, you can’t safely assume that they won’t do something unexpected. Once you learn the limits of the guards’ behaviour, you’re better at knowing when you are safe and when you are not.”

So, does this mean that after all the hype, Thief isn’t eventually actually scary at all? Unlikely — it just turns to other methods to provoke the desired response. For example, the delicious “Return to the Cathedral” level which uses a mechanism highly reminiscent of System Shock’s evil-deity approach. This is creates fear in the same way Father Christmas does in children and God does in fully grown Roman Catholics. Whatever you do, a omniscient, vengeful being can see you and act. Shodan of Shock is the unqualified mistress of this approach, with her first utterance of “If you go in that room, I will kill you” a prime contender for the most terrifying moment in gaming history. Randy agrees: “Shodan is the ultimate evil goddess, an insane omnipotent antagonist who is always watching you and wants you dead or worse.”

But a prime-quality adversary isn’t the only thing the System Shock games have going for them. Like all the best fear-games, they use sound consummately as a signifier of horror. Kyle Richards, Terminal Reality’s Sound and Music Director explains this aspect’s importance, “We’ve all been conditioned to expect something visually frightening when we hear a suspenseful or horrific music cue. It builds a sense of unease in the player that he expects an unsettling act to occur — just not exactly when.”

Randy notes that in sound, we have the ultimate expression of the unknown — thus, arguably, the ultimate signifier in games, “Sound off-screen works well for creating fear, sound associated with an on-screen visual doesn’t have quite the same impact. A sound off-screen is fear of the unknown: either you don’t know what it is, and therefore its limited only by your imagination, or you can identify the sound but you still don’t know exactly where the source is. An on-screen threat is usually only as scary as the fear of death, an off-screen threat can be much scarier.”

Which makes the manipulation of the seen and unseen of paramount importance — while some gamers bemoan the awkward positioning camera’s in Resident Evil and friends, it’s precisely their incomplete view which leads to the creation of the uncertain unknown — thus fear.

Questions still remain. While Fear is clearly what emotion games are most masterful in controlling, the practice has yet to sublimate into hard theory. Hopefully we’ll soon see real debate. For example, are game-designers just attempting to re-create the wheel other primarily visual medium have – the amount of film-theory visible in Survival Horror games is really quite notable — or is there a genuine unique alchemy in the fledgling craft? We honestly don’t know. Waitasec. we don’t know. That means it could be anything. Maybe, fear in games is just the subconscious realisation that slightly out of our field of vision lurks a multi-limbed blasphemous monster with claws for eyelashes and tentacles with screaming lips. Oh no! Fear of the unknown mixed with fear of death. No, don’t go. Please. It could get me. Just leave the light on. Go on. Please.