I think he’s gone – Oh! He’s not gone he’s not gone no no no he’s not gone oh Jesus Christ look at his face
But you can’t look at his face. You can only run, barging past the horrific figure, not registering its features – was that its mouth? – down corridors, round blind corners, into the dark where it won’t see you.
Oh, my God do not look back just keep running do not look back.
You slam a door shut behind you and head straight to the far corner of the room where you crouch in the shadows, face so close to the wall you can see the pixels.
It’s only a game, it’s only a game, it’s only a game.
Videos of people playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent are popular on YouTube – and filled with these outbursts. Players yelp and whimper – or gibber away nonsensically as they flee from half-glimpsed nightmares. Released in 2010 by, a studio based in Helsingborg – in the dark depths of Sweden, as they put it – Amnesia has been called the scariest game ever made. In some clips, players have to pause the game until their hands stop shaking.
Last month Frictional released its new game, SOMA. It swaps Amnesia‘s dank castle dungeons for an abandoned underwater research facility. The jump scares and shuffling monsters are still there, but this time the team have made a game that draws more on psychological horror. SOMA instils a slow-building dread just by having players spend time in its creepy environment.
Games are the best medium for horror we have, says Frictional’s creative director Thomas Grip. “When done right, games can provoke a sense of fear and dread that surpasses anything possible in books and movies.”
What’s so special about games? Watching a film is a passive experience, says Grip. “The narrative moves along no matter what you do.” But in a game, moving things along is up to you – and this works particularly well for horror. “Anything bad that happens is your own fault,” he says. Standing at the bottom of a dark staircase, listening to the banging coming from behind a door at the top, it can take nerves of steel just to push your character forward.
The best horrors are often inside the player’s head. Grip sees his job not so much to scare people directly, but to put them in situations where they scare themselves. After seeing players’ reactions to Amnesia, Grip realised just how far this could go. “I remember seeing footage of one player who spent half an hour or so hiding at the slightest sound,” he says. “He created this very vivid mental image of the horrors that might lurk out there and got this very tense horror experience, despite nothing really happening.”
It’s a trick many of the best horror games have pulled off. In Thief: Deadly Shadows, for example, there is a level towards the end of the game set in a haunted psychiatric institution known as The Cradle. Up to that point, the game has taught you always to be on the lookout for enemies. It turns out the level contains no threats at all, yet you creep around it jumping at every noise anyway. The stage also uses subtle environmental effects to disturb players. For example, the lights in the building slowly dim and then brighten in an almost imperceptible loop designed to provoke the sense that the building is alive and breathing.
Teresa Lynch at Indiana University in Bloomington is studying the ways games evoke fear. She has found that the level of interactivity in a game – how much control players have over their character – determines how frightening it is. When there is a lot of interactivity, Lynch thinks the brain can trick you into feeling that what happens to your character happens to you.
Lynch has recorded how people experience scary games. Many told her they felt like they were being hunted or that they were being overwhelmed. “Your character becomes an extension of yourself,” she says. “When something scary happens to the character, it is
happening to the player.” The controller in our hands is forgotten, the screen dissolves.
It’s a phenomenon Grip relies on. “By playing a game we extend ourselves into the virtual world,” he says. “This is what makes the sensations so strong.”
Lynch is also looking at the physiological response of players – using sensors to monitor heart rate, galvanic skin response and tiny movements of facial muscles – to measure levels of fear. Some game developers already use such techniques to.
But Lynch is interested in what this reveals about the differences between players. It turns out that seasoned gamers are harder to scare. “One thing that immediately becomes apparent is that people who are higher skilled players are really not having the emotional reactions of lower skilled players,” she says. That makes sense: the better you are at dealing with the situations a game throws at you – fending off monsters or sneaking past them – the less frightening it will be. If you’re capable of handling something, it’s not so scary, says Lynch.
Games have a way around that, however. In one of Lynch’s favourite games, Eternal Requiem: Insanity’s Darkness, there is a section where the controls get flipped. When you want to move right, you press left and vice versa. “That was just so disarming,” she says. “I knew when something came at me there was no way I could protect myself.”
Similarly, so-called survival-horror games like the classic Resident Evil or Dead Space series put players in control of lumbering characters who cannot turn around very quickly. In Resident Evil games, you cannot move and shoot at the same time – a far cry from typical shooters, where nimbleness and non-stop gunplay are key. Horror games also often restrict the field of view of the player, making them look over their character’s shoulder rather than through his or her eyes.
And Amnesia removed the player’s ability to fight back entirely – your only option is to run or hide. “To me, that’s genius,” says Lynch. “Everything that you expect to take with into the game environment, they just said ‘Nah, you’re not going to have that.’” All of this hampers the player, making even the most skilled feel vulnerable.
Grip thinks we have only scratched the surface when it comes to manipulating players. “Horror is the only genre that is all about the emotions evoked,” he says. “It forces you to think deeper about what games are and how they work.”
It’s. “Fear is an important emotion,” says Lynch. “It’s kept us alive through our evolution.” But she thinks games give us a way to manage our fear. Since we’re always in control, we can walk away if it gets too much. We’ll keep coming back, though. “We shouldn’t want to experience fear, but we do.”
Picture information: first and second, Amnesia and third Soma (Image: Frictional Games)
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