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An Investigation into the Effects of Horror Games
by Darren McKettrick on 09/09/13 12:30:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Introduction

“It isn’t what you see, but what you can’t see. It’s the suggestion; the subtle teasing of the subconscious; the lonely creaking of the floorboard resonating throughout an empty hallway; the slow advance around the corner; the swelling sense of dread as the ever-present evil looms near refuses to reveal itself. Fear is not an adrenaline rush. It’s that helpless feeling of be alone in the dark.” [Fahs, 2008]

This introduction to Travis Fahs’ Alone in the Dark Retrospective illustrates the direction of this project.  The horror genre has featured in games since its creation. Going back to the text based game Zork (1980) a section of the game had the player stumbling around a dark cave scared of being eaten by a Grue, a situation no one had experienced before in a game. Horror games then continued to be produced, including The Lurking Horror (1987), Alone in the Dark (1992), Resident Evil (1996), Silent Hill (1999), F.E.A.R (2005), Dead Space (2008 and Slender (2012). Horrors present a new challenge to players after years of game where the player must learn new fighting skills; horrors required the player to escape from the threat.

Horror games are interesting to analyze for several reasons. In terms of emotional content, horrors can affect almost every emotion possible – raging from disgust to happiness, suspense and fear to relief. The emotional effects of horror can be seen as suspense, fear and worry, further studies suggests that horrors relies on monsters creating a feeling of horror and disgust.

This Dissertation will examine:

  • How players are affected by horror games -  do their hearts start being faster, do they move about more, do they run from the room terrified
  • The psychology behind horror games – why are you afraid?
  • Which factors within horror game create the biggest scare – it is the atmosphere or enemies that make a player terrified or is it the relationship with the character

 Definition

The aim of this project is to investigate how players are affected by horror games, and which factors within these games create the greatest scare from the player.

The Oxford Dictionary definition of scare is: “1 cause great fear or nervousness. 2 a sudden attack of fright”.[i]

The purpose of this project is, therefore, to investigate how horror games can cause the player to be scared.

Aims and Objectives

Research

At the research stage of the project, multiple sources will be viewed which will show the creation process behind horror games, the effects of horror games on people, the psychology behind the genre and how to improve horror games.

A number of critically acclaimed horror games will be played and examined to determine why they are rated as some of the best games of all time.

After all the research has been completed, it will be split into two different sections. The two sections are: Atmosphere and Psychological. The atmosphere section will detail the aspects that create a sense of dread and terror from the environment, sounds and non playable characters. The psychological section will examine the elements that are left to the players’ imagination.

The aim of this stage is to gather information that can be used in the creation of horror games. This information can also be used by the game industry for the creation and improvement of horror games or any other game where it could be applicable.

Testing

The testing section will require a number of participants to play several horror games. This experiment will be used to find the factors within the horror games that produce the biggest ‘scares’ for the player.

Research

The research section will focus on what makes horror games scary and the psychology behind horror games. After both sections have been researched and detailed, they will be split into two further sections which are: Atmosphere and Psychological. These two sections will reveal how each element can be used.

What makes a horror game scary – This section will look into the methods that are used within a game to scare the player. This could be the music that is used, where the game takes place or how combat is dealt with in the game.

Atmosphere – This section will detail which methods are used to create an atmosphere in a game. For example how the audio track could consist of a heartbeat, beating faster as the character gets closer to an objective. 

Psychological – This section will examine the methods that will alter the player’s mental state. This could be done be the player thinking that they are being chased by an enemy when there is actually nothing chasing them.

The psychology behind horror games – This section will describe why a player feels the emotions they do when playing a horror game. For example, how the player feels empathy if a character is being chased by a monster and so will feel afraid as well.

Critically acclaimed horror games – This section will be a review of horror games which have been noted to be some of the best horrors created.

What makes horror games scary?

Ambiguity – In horrors it is the things that are left unsaid that will engage the player’s imagination. The player must be guided through key areas and key points of information, but they should have a hunch that something just isn’t right. For example, the introduction of Silent Hill 2 makes the player walk to the town. The area is covered in a thick fog so the player cannot see if there is anything in front of them until it is too late, and while walking, all the player can hear is the character’s footsteps, a minimal sound track and occasional sounds as if a dog is running near the character and growling.  However, the player encounters no enemies, but because of the audio and visuals the player is put on edge.

Don’t show; persuade the player to scare themselves.

Strong Sense of Place – Within horrors there is a wide array of places that the player will instantly understand as a dangerous and spooky, for example abandoned schools, hospitals and hotels. If there is a ‘safe place’ within the game, this should not be used by the player as a hub or base, but as a place for them to cower in a corner and to contemplate the next horror. But if there is a place that the player must return to again and again, it is more terrifying when something about it changes. In the game Silent Hill 4 the player is given a home which they leave and come back to throughout the game. As the game progresses, the room becomes vulnerable because enemies have the ability to invade it.

Within a horror game no place is safe.

Subtle changes to the environment When something becomes routine within a horror game then it is not a horror anymore because the player knows what will happen. But if minor changes are made they can both excite the player’s curiosity and increase their fear. If the game is taking place within one building then items should slowly start to disappear, the music should change while progressing through the story, and if the character can receive messages they should eventfully become warnings that make very little sense.

The player must never feel as if they have mastered the environment.

 

Relationship with the Protagonist – This is essential. Most horror games use empathy as the emotion of choice so that the player feels for the hero, and will fear for the characters’ safety. But other kinds of emotional relationships can be used to create more opportunities to unsettle the player. In the video game Haunting Grounds, the player is cast as a powerless young girl who can only run from the cultists who are chasing her. This makes the game more frightening as the player often experiences distress at the girl’s circumstances. However, in the game Spec Ops: The Line, the player takes the role of Captain Martin Walker. Walker is a soldier who can defend himself, so the player should not fear for his safety. But the game forces the player’s choices and the degree to which the mental condition of Walker’s mind deteriorates, to express horror. During one scene in the game the player is given a weapon which can cause massive destruction, and told to use it against their enemies. But after doing so, the player learns that there is an unexpected consequence to what they have done. When the scene was being focus tested, after the players had realized what they had done, they were pausing the game and leaving the room.[ii] This shows that both the player and the character are experiencing some of the same emotions about what they have done within the game, because the player who was controlling the character was oblivious to the consequences of their actions.

Fear Must Have a Purpose – Fear must be grounded within something real. All emotions are personal. Fear should be made personal by linking it to something that is mundane.

 It should bring the fear home for the player.

Human Interaction – Bringing a human drama into a horror will deepen the player’s emotional attachment to the characters. However, simulating a human being within a game is a difficult problem; this can be overcome with simple actions. For example, in the game Ico the protagonist must hold a girl’s hand and guide her through the game. Without this contact the girl would be lost or taken by the monsters that are chasing her.

Anticipation – Horror games need a sense of anticipation. This must be drawn out for as long as possible. The player needs to know, at all times, that something horrible is waiting for them just around the corner. However, when the horrible thing actually happens all of the tension is lost. When the player has finally seen what it is they must face or overcome, something becomes defined which doesn’t need to be feared as much as the being their own imagination has created.

Combat – Combat in horror games should be simple. However, the player shouldn’t have full control over the situation, whether the enemy’s behaviour is hard to predict or the character is weaker than the enemy. Actual combat is not as scary as the implied threat of combat. If the game does require the player to fight enemies, the combat should be ‘up close and personal’. Defeating an enemy by shooting them from across the level does not add any sense of fear because the character is not in any real danger. If ranged weapons are used, having limited ammo ensures that the player is constantly afraid that they will run out. 

Sound – Sound in horror games allows the game to scare the player even before they see an enemy. It also creates atmosphere and in some cases a build up of tension. The music is usually composed of long dawn out notes or repeats of harsh sounds mixed with soothing ones. Some music that is not in horror games can nevertheless instil a sense of dread in a player. For example, during the underwater levels in Sonic the Hedgehog, as Sonic started the run out of oxygen the music’s tempo would increase, which would in turn cause the player to start panicking. Within some horror games sounds are linked to certain events so that when the player hears them they will begin to get anxious because of the link they have made with the sound and the event. For example in Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, when the player hears the Nemesis theme played, they start getting nervous because they know that Nemesis is nearby. If a horror game did not include audio, then it would not be as immersive or scary. This has been proven by Raymond User who created an experiment which investigates the importance of audio in computer games[iii].  In this experiment a number of participants are required to play a number of games while being monitored for physical responses. The participants played the games with, and without, audio. After the experiment was finished, it was discovered that when playing the game Amnesia: The Dark Descent, there was a significant difference between the two groups. The group with audio had a significantly increased heart rate compared to the group with no audio.

 Enemies – An enemy in a horror must either be unsettling, threatening or a combination of both in design. An example of this is the difference between a Werewolf and the Wolfman. To begin with they are both wolf based but they focus on different designs. The Wolfman is a twisted distortion of mankind. When you look at it you are afraid because you know at one point it was human and somewhere inside it there still might be a shred of humanity left. You are terrified because you can put yourself in its shoes and see it happening to you. On the other hand, the Werewolf has a complete lack of humanity. It is a pure beast which just follows its instincts with rage and savagery. It is the unconscious thought of being haunted by something that will not show mercy and which is doing this for no peculiar reason other than its own nature. Another way to scare players in the enemy design is the use of innocence. In horrors if the enemy has a sign of innocence it will disturb the player. Innocence is scary for a number of reasons. It shows the fear of a person’s own children performing horrible acts against others, becoming something hideous, and the fact that most people’s own moral conscience would stop them from killing something like a child.

Atmosphere - In the Oxford Dictionary atmosphere is defined as: ‘the pervading tone or mood of a place, situation, or creative work’[iv]. This section will therefore detail the elements that create a tone or mood of a horror game. The elements are: - Strong sense of place, subtle changes to the environment; fear must have a purpose, combat and sound.

  • Strong Sense of Place – This factor creates a sense of atmosphere because of the player’s knowledge that most horror stories happen in an abandoned hospital, school, hotel or dark woods.
  • Subtle Changes to the Environment - As items start to disappear, the music starts to change and other characters start acting bizarrely, this will alert the player that something is not right.
  • Fear must have a Purpose – Something within the game should relate to the player, whether this is the setting, characters or story.
  • Combat – Depending on the setting of the game, a character will have to fight according to it. For example, if the game is set in the medieval ages the character will have to fight their enemies with swords or bows.
  • Sound – In the game Max Payne, during a nightmare-like sequence, the background music is a baby crying and if the player falls off the maze the baby will start screaming. This creates a very disturbing section of the game.

Psychological

This section will examine the aspects that affect the player’s mental and emotional states. It will examine the elements within a horror game that will change a player’s emotional or mental state. The elements are: - ambiguity, relationship with the protagonist, human interaction and anticipation.

  • Ambiguity – A horror game should never show what the enemy looks like at the beginning of the game. This will allow the player to create their own monster and will have the player scared at every corner while they wait for an enemy to appear.
  • Relationship with the Protagonist - By creating a relationship between the player and protagonist, the player will have an emotional connection to them and will feel fear when the hero is in danger.
  • Human Interaction – By having the player’s character interact with other characters within the game it will increase the player’s attachment to them.
  • Anticipation – Anticipation is the build up of tension. As tension builds throughout the game the player will become more and more tense until it can be released.

The Enemies aspect can fit within both sections. It fits into the Atmosphere because design and look of the enemy could be a reflection of the environment. For example, Splicers in Bioshock. Splicers are the citizens of Rapture, due to abusive ADAM consumption, their minds and bodies are mutated beyond repair and are dependent on ADAM. It also fits in Psychological because the enemies could show innocence which would cause the player to be hesitant when faced with them.

The Psychology behind Horror

Mirror NeuronsIn the early 1990s, a team of neuroscientists made the discovery that a certain group of neurons in a monkey’s brain fired when it performed an action and also when it watched others perform actions.

Mirror neurons are believed to be very important for a human’s ability to empathize with others. Dr Marco Iacoboni says “Mirror neurons are motor cells. That is, they send signals to our muscles to move our body, make actions, grab a cup of coffee, smile, and so on. However, they differ from other motor cells because they are also activated by the sight of somebody else’s actions.” For example, a mirror neuron is fired when you reach for a drink, but also when another person is reaching for a drink. “By being active even when we do not move at all and simply watch other people moving, they sort of create an inner imitation of actions of others inside us.” [v]

Wondering how exactly this happens, Iacoboni and several others conducted a study (Carr,Iaconboni and Dubeau 2003).[vi]  In this study they used equipment to monitor the brain activity of subjects who watched images of faces expressing different emotions. Upon seeing facial expressions mirror neurons fired, but also the neurons in the limbic system fired. The limbic system is a portion of the brain which is related to emotions.  So in a way the subjects were actually feeling the emotions themselves to some degree.

The effect of mirror neurons can be seen in the game The Walking Dead, because the game frequently shows the player, the faces of the characters and their facial expressions. Therefore when a character in the game is angry or disgusted, the mirror neurons in the player activate as if they are making the expression themselves and so feel some of the emotions to some degree.

Empathy – Empathy is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.[vii] Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s emotional condition from their perspective.

The psychologist Mark Davis suggests that there are three types of empathy. The first is ‘Perspective Taking’. This is putting yourself in another’s shoes. It is used to understand where others are coming from, but not understanding their emotions.

The second type of empathy is ‘Personal Distress’. This is feeling another’s emotions. For example, while playing a horror game, you may start to feel scared when the character in the game is being chased or threatened. This process is called ‘emotional contagion’. Emotional contagion is the process where emotions are treated like a disease and spread. [viii]

The final type is Empathic concern. This type is what the majority of people think of when they hear the term empathy. It is the ability to recognize another’s emotions and understand them.

For an example of this in a game, during one scene in The Walking Dead the player has the task of giving the last four pieces of food to a group of ten people, all of whom have not eaten for days. Some of the characters are children, and one is an old man with heart disease. Throughout the game the player has made relationships with all the characters, so the player will feel upset if the people they do not feed get upset or angry. 

Fight or Flight – The fight or flight response is a psychological reaction that happens in the presence of something that is terrifying. The body will prepare to either fight the threat or flee from it. It is also noted that this can happen even if the threat is imaginary. 

This was first discovered in 1920s by Walter Cannon[ix].Cannon discovered that animals react to a threat with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system regulates our internal organs and controls some of the muscles within the body. So if there is a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system it means the body involuntarily takes over and causes the animal to either flee or fight.

This can seen in horror games in the experiment performed with this report. When the participants were playing the game Slender, some of them when seeing the monster for the first time would panic in an attempt to escape, which in most cases would end up with the character’s death. But the participants that remained calm had a better chance of escaping.

Research Analysis

It appears from the articles read and games played that it is important that the Atmosphere must be believable and that the story, characters and enemies should be a reflection of the protagonist’s mental state. For example, in Silent Hill 2 the whole town and its inhabitants are a reflection of James’s mental condition.

The setting should be as realistic and believable as possible so that the player will be immersed into it. For example, Bioshock creates a whole city which the player can explore. It is believable because from the audio logs the player can gather they had a sense of what happened to the city before they arrived and why everyone is crazy. 

The enemies in the game should not be easy to defeat. This can be achieved if they have more amour or health than the player, have powerful weapons or they are greater in number. This should be done so that the player does feel fear for the character, however if the monster can be defeated, then make sure it does not take the player a long time to do so as they will just get irritated and quit the game.

Testing

The test will be an experiment. In this experiment a number of participants will play several horror game levels. During play the participant’s heart rate and physical reactions will be recorded and analyzed. The experiment will take place in a university lecture room. This was decided because the room had the capabilities to play the games and it had a black out feature so that the players would be playing in darkness.

The aims of the experiment are to examine horror games, see if there are any common features in them that will increase a player’s heart rate or cause a physical reaction and to find which elements in a horror could be classed as the ‘scariest’.

The design of the experiment is to identify which elements in a horror game are scary. This will be determined by the participant’s heart rate, physical reactions and the responses from a questionnaire, which will be completed after the experiment has finished.

Each participant will be asked before the experiment to fill in a form (Appendix 1)which will ask them about their previous experience with horror and if they have played any of the games beforehand. They must also sign a consent form (Appendix 2). After the experiment is finished they will again be asked to fill in a form (Appendix 3). This will ask participants which games they found the most and least scary and the reasons for this. The participants’ heart rate will be measured by a heart rate monitor which will be clipped onto the player’s ear or finger. (Appendix 4) Their physical reaction will be monitored via a video camera with audio recording capabilities.

The games that will be played for the experiment are Resident Evil 5, Dead Space 2, Silent Hill 3, Bioshock, Slender and Spec Ops: The Line. Each game has been chosen because they all have received praise from a number of game reviewers and each creates horror through different means.

Resident Evil 5 – During this game the player must survive while waiting for a helicopter to destroy a gate blocking their path. The player will face a large number of enemies and one boss-type enemy who wields a giant axe. The player starts the game on a hill which they must descend; the player then enters a house where a cut scene begins. In this they see another character being executed. The enemy leading the execution then sees the player and orders the crowd of people to attack them. The player can then fortify the building they are in by pushing shelves in front of doors and windows, and gather ammo from the area. Eventfully the boss-type enemy destroys a wall of the building allowing other enemies to enter and the player is allowed to roam a bigger area. The player must then survive until the helicopter arrives to destroy another gate so the player can escape. If the character dies, the game is stopped. This level was chosen to see how players cope with constant attack from enemies while having nowhere to run.

Dead Space 2 – The player must complete the beginning of the game. During this the character the player is in control of is stuck in a straight jacket and must flee from enemies who are chasing him. The game begins with the character being interrogated and hallucinating. Eventually the character blacks out. When they awaken they are being released by another person who gets attacked and starts to mutate in front of them. The player must then escape. They make their way to an observation area where they are then grabbed by another character who holds a knife to their throat but releases them from the straight jacket and directs them to a locker with items inside. When the character turns around, the other person then cuts their own throat in front of the player. If the character dies they will respawn and continue. This section of the game was chosen to see how players coped with not being able to fight back against their enemies.

 Silent Hill 3 – The section of the game chosen is the introduction. During this the player has no knowledge of where they are or what is happening, so it is up to the player how they proceed. The player starts at an entrance of an amusement park where there are a number of rabbit costumes all with bloody smiles. When the player leaves this area they go to a retail section where they encounter the first enemy. The player will eventually reach a rollercoaster and start to walk down the tracks, only to be met by a cart coming from the opposite direction. Once the character dies, the game is stopped. This game has been chosen to see how players cope when there are no clear instructions on what to do and to see how players cope with the disturbing and unnatural atmosphere of the game.

Bioshock – In this game the player will play the introduction. The player must navigate the first area of Rapture during which they are given their first weapons and plasmids and introduced to the population of Rapture. The game starts with the plane which the character is aboard crashing into the sea. After finding a light house with a biosphere inside, the player descends into Rapture. When the biosphere resurfaces they see another character being killed by a splicer. The player then makes their way through the level while fighting a number of enemies. The player can respawn during the game. This game was chosen because of the atmosphere and how it creates a believable world.

Slender: The Eight Pages – In this game the player must search dark woods while looking for eight pages and being stalked by Slender. When the player encounters Slender, static will start to fill the screen until the only thing the player can see is static and Slender’s face. Slender will only start stalking the player after they have found the first page; the soundtrack will change to a beating drum. After finding the second page, short bursts of static will occur. The player will only have one life while playing. This game was chosen to see how players dealt with being chased by an entity which they cannot fight against or reason with.

Spec Ops: The Line – The player takes the role of a soldier who must use a mortar to kill a number of enemies. When all the enemies have been disabled, the player must then walk through the carnage they have caused. When they reach a trench they see they have mistakenly killed a large number of innocents. The player can respawn during play. This game is not classed as a horror game, but it was selected because it shows the player the consequences of their actions, and to see how players cope with killing a large number of innocents.

The hypothesis for this experiment is that the game Slender: The Eight Pages will cause the highest heart rates and create the greatest physical reactions because of how it builds tension and has numerous jump scares. However, the game that will be rated highest by the participants will be Silent Hill 3 because of its dark and unsettling atmosphere.

 Control Subject

This participant has played all the games previously and has a high tolerance to horror since he is a fan of the genre. He is a 22 year old male, currently a student within the games industry and plays games for 6 – 12 hours a week.

He rated Slender as the scariest game that he had played. He chose this because of the high level of tension, the jump scares and excellent audio. The least scary game in his opinion was Spec Ops: The Line. He says it was not really scary - more psychological, and if he had played it since the beginning or had more knowledge of the situation, he might have been more distressed.

In the questionnaire he was asked to identify the scariest and least scary aspect in each of the games he played. They were:

Game

Most Scary Aspect

Least Scary Aspect

Resident Evil 5

Out numbered

Strongest enemy could not reach you when you were on top of the bus

Silent Hill 3

Chaos, not understanding of what is happening

Difficult controls and the camera

Dead Space 2

No chance to fight back

Felt scripted

Bioshock

Excellent atmosphere

Instant respawn if you did die

Slender

High tension and brilliant at making people jump

Low graphics and was laggy

Spec Ops: The Line

Gore

More of an action game than horror

 

While playing these games his heart rate and physical reactions were recorded.

Game

Heart Rate Increases

Physical Reactions

Resident Evil 5

No significant increase

-

Silent Hill 3

At the end of the first cutscene and first encounter with enemy*

‘jumped’ at first encounter with enemy *

Dead Space 2

Increase when watching a patient’s interview **

-

Bioshock

Increase when character first injects the plasmid***

Looked uneasy at injection***

Slender

Major increase when caught by Slender

Swearing at the computer

Spec Ops: The Line

Increased when seeing burnt person talking to the player

-

 

*He later said he forgot about that enemy

**Not really a scary or disturbing interview and does not need to be watched to continue the game

***He later said he does not like needles

Participant 1

22 year old male, is a student in music technology spends 12-24 hours a week playing video games. He has played Resident Evil 5 and Bioshock. He has some experience with the horror genre and he is not easy to scare but also it not fearless. He rated Silent Hill 3 as the scariest game. His reasons for this are “It was the creepiest of the games played and was fairly hard to understand what was going on.” The game he rated the least scary was Spec Ops: The Line because it was more action based than horror.

In the questionnaire he was asked to identify the scariest and least scary aspect in each of the games he played. They were:

Game

Most Scary Aspect

Least Scary Aspect

Resident Evil 5

Getting overrun

More action based than other games

Silent Hill 3

The theme

Enemy movements

Dead Space 2

The mutants

Just had to follow a path and you would be fine

Bioshock

The setting

More fun than scary

Slender

Not knowing where it is

Graphics

Spec Ops: The Line

Trying to make you feel for your actions

More of a action game

 

While playing these games his heart rate and physical reactions were recorded.

Game

Heart Rate Increases

Physical Reactions

Resident Evil 5

When grabbed by an enemy from behind and when hit by the axe boss

‘jumped’ when grabbed

Silent Hill 3

At the end of the first cut scene and first encounter with the enemy

-

Dead Space 2

Ally being mutated, when being chased and the throat cut scene

-

Bioshock

First look at the Big Daddy and Little Sister

-

Slender

Increase over time after finding the first page and when caught by Slender

-

Spec Ops: The Line

-

-

 

It should also be noted that the participant talked his way through each game.

 Participant 2

Participant 2 is a 23 year old male who works in the engineering sector. He plays games for 5 to 12 hours a week, has played Resident Evil 5. He says he has some experience with horror and is not easily scared but is not fearless. He rated Slender as the scariest game; his reason for this was “Fear of the unknown” and “Things sneaking up behind you”. The game rated as the least scary was Spec Ops: The Line, saying that there was nothing sudden.

In the questionnaire he was asked to identify the scariest and least scary aspect in each of the games he played. They were:

Game

Most Scary Aspect

Least Scary Aspect

Resident Evil 5

Turning around to find someone behind you.

Stand and shoot.

Sheva*

Silent Hill 3

Odd creatures

Falling in holes**

Dead Space 2

Dark and things jumping at you

The beginning credits

Bioshock

Dark and things jumping at you

The Irish man***

Slender

Sudden noise and dark

-

Spec Ops: The Line

Burnt People

Non-burnt people

 

While playing these games his heart rate and physical reactions were recorded.

Game

Heart Rate Increases

Physical Reactions

Resident Evil 5

-

-

Silent Hill 3

At the end of the first cut scene, first encounter with enemy and death on the rollercoaster

-

Dead Space 2

First death*

-

Bioshock

None

-

Slender

First encounter, sudden sounds** and death

-

Spec Ops: The Line

None

-

 

*Participant died multiple times on the Dead Space 2 playthrough

**After finding the second page random bursts of static occur

 

 Participant 3

A 20 year old student male, who has moderate experience with horror and is not easily scared. He has played Bioshock and Resident Evil 5. The game that was rated the highest was Slender. His reasons for this are the concept of the game, the simple mechanics made it hard to survive, the fact that you couldn’t kill the threat and the suspense of wandering around the map. The game he rated the lowest was Spec Ops: The Line. He chose this as the lowest because it lacked driven suspense, it lacked an overall ‘creepy’ style and dark settings, there were no threatening or scary enemies, and difficult/mediocre game-play controls.

In the questionnaire he was asked to identify the scariest and least scary aspect in each of the games he played. They were:

Game

Most Scary Aspect

Least Scary Aspect

Resident Evil 5

Relentless threat

Game maps

Silent Hill 3

Creepy setting

Realism of enemies and weapons

Dead Space 2

Gore and brutality aspect

Simple game-play, introduction

Bioshock

Creepy enemies

Soundtrack

Slender

Suspense Building

Graphics

Spec Ops: The Line

Graphic cut-scene

The games light setting and art*

 

*Participant means how the game is set in the day

While playing these games his heart rate and physical reactions were recorded.

Game

Heart Rate Increases

Physical Reactions

Resident Evil 5

When hit by the axe enemy, on the run with low health and grabbed by an enemy to then be hit by the axe enemy

-

Silent Hill 3

At the end of the first cut scene and first encounter with enemy and death

-

Dead Space 2

-*

-*

Bioshock

-*

-*

Slender

When a page was collected, the first encounter and death

-

Spec Ops: The Line

When seeing the burnt bodies of the innocents

-

 

*Video and audio data was corrupt

 

Participant 4

20 year old male works in computing. He has little experience with horror and is easily scared and he has not played any of the games before. This participant rated Bioshock as the scariest game because “it built up tension and you never know when the next enemy would show up.” Spec Ops: The Line was the least scary game because “it was not scary”.

In the questionnaire he was asked to identify the scariest and least scary aspect in each of the games he played. They were:

Game

Most Scary Aspect

Least Scary Aspect

Resident Evil 5

Big zombie

The zombies did not look like zombie

Silent Hill 3

Very haunted, troubling place

Creatures did not look scary

Dead Space 2

Very dark. Second part was scary because it went dark

Was not expecting much to happen since I’m in a straight jacket

Bioshock

Dark didn’t know what was going to appear

Was scared the whole time

Slender

When Slender appeared

Running around the woods

Spec Ops: The Line

Was not scary

Was not scary

 

While playing these games his heart rate and physical reactions were recorded.

Game

Heart Rate Increases

Physical Reactions

Resident Evil 5

When surrounded by enemies and seeing axe enemy approaching, first fight and death

-

Silent Hill 3

At the end of the first cut scene and death

-

Dead Space 2

Hallucination* and death at the door quick time event

-

Bioshock

First fight, the flooding tunnel, watching the Big Daddy fight a Splicer, death and when trapped at the end of the level

-

Slender

First encounter, when collecting the first page and death

‘Jumped’

Spec Ops: The Line

Erratic beat when finding the innocents

-

 

*During the introduction cut-scene the character is being interrogated. During this he starts to hallucinate about the previous game. 

 

 Participant 5

22 year old female, is a student studying the performing arts. Plays video games for less than 30 minutes a week, has not played any of the games and has little experience of horror and is very easily scared. She rated Slender and Spec Ops: The Line as the scariest games, her reasons for these are: in Slender – “The atmosphere, and the unknown aspect it played on”. In Spec Ops: The Line – “the scary part was seeing what your actions have caused”. She rated Resident Evil 5 as the least scary game because “The atmosphere didn’t create any horror.”

In the questionnaire she was asked to identify the scariest and least scary aspect in each of the games she played. They were:

Game

Most Scary Aspect

Least Scary Aspect

Resident Evil 5

Nothing

The game as a whole

Silent Hill 3

The music and darkness

The monsters

Dead Space 2

Nothing

The game as a whole

Bioshock

The darkness

Everything else

Slender

Everything, the atmosphere; the music, the darkness, the sense of the unknown

There wasn’t, everything scared me

Spec Ops: The Line

Seeing what your actions had done

The actual game play

 

While playing these games her heart rate and physical reactions were recorded.

Game

Heart Rate Increases

Physical Reactions

Resident Evil 5

Death of the butcher*, first encounter, grabbed by zombie and death

‘Jumped’ at every time the character was grabbed

Silent Hill 3

-**

-

Dead Space 2

Hallucination and first encounter

Looked uneasy at the mutation

Bioshock

Seeing Rapture for the first time and Splicer attacking the biosphere

-

Slender

-**

‘Jumped’

Spec Ops: The Line

When seeing the burnt mother holding her child

Covered face with hands and looked physically disgusted

 

*In the actual game the characters meet with a butcher beforehand who gives them weapons.

**She said that she had difficulties in other situations when her pulse could not be found.

 

Online Questionnaire

A questionnaire (Appendix 5) was posted online on a number of horror related or gaming websites asking for people to watch a number of videos and rate each one for how scary it. The videos the participants watched were playthroughs of the games and levels that have been discussed in previous sections.  

The hypothesis for this questionnaire is that Silent Hill 3 will be rated as the scariest game. This is due to its dark, unsettling atmosphere, the vulnerability of the female character and the reputation that the game has. Because this questionnaire was conducted on online, a number of people might have already completed some of the games and might consequently be influenced by remembering sections of the game that are not in the videos and therefore rate it higher or lower according to their experience.

Each participant was asked their age, gender, if they were employed, and if so which sector they are employed in, how much time they spent playing video games and which horror games they have played. They were then asked to watch a playthrough of the games discussed in previous sections of this report (page 12 -13) and rate them on a scale of 1 – 10, 1 being not scary and 10 being terrifying. After watching and rating all the videos they were also asked what did they found scary about the game/s that they had rated the highest and what was lacking in the games they rated the lowest.

Summary of Responses –  

 A number of comments were received about the games that were rated highest by the participants. Here is a select few:

“Bioshock succeeds in being scary because the player has no idea what's attacking the pod/elevator, has obscured vision and because the sight of Rapture has already set up an element of mystery and danger. By putting the player in the pod and giving them no weapon, they also provoke a feeling of helplessness. Dead Space has a moderately successful jump scare and makes the player helpless due to the bound wrists/lack of weaponry, which is great to induce a short term panic. The subsequent section exploring abandoned, dark rooms is good for inducing paranoia”

“Being alone and the general sense of paranoia emitted from the games. You never really knew what was going to happen next most of the time, and it made you worry. Even when you completed the game, you never knew what to expect. You could take a breath after the last page in Slender, but that didn't mean it was over.”

“The intent about both horryfying and scarying to death the player.Immersion -Great atmosphere. - Player encouraged to use their imagination. - In the Silent Hill the use of darkness removes the player's ability to keep tabs on what's going on. Anything can be out there in the darkness. For example at 5:50 in the SH3 video a sound effect denotes something is out there. We don't know what is could be or how dangerous it is, creating a tense atmosphere. "I hope Mr Satan isn't waiting out there for me.", "Oh shit, what was that. *I don't know*" - I liked the survival element in the ResE5 video in which the player had to barricade the room. Gives a great sense of being trapped.”

“Slender is a scarier game in my opinion. Darker atmosphere and a sense of being alone. The others feel that way, to some extent, but they add a lot of color, making it feel unrealistic. Slender seems like it actually could be me really lost in the woods, sounds of natural things(crickets) add to the immersion. “

“Slender and Silent Hill are masters of atmosphere. Spec Ops is not like most horror games, but it's a chilling experience and one of my favorite games. Bioshock is nice, but doesn't quite measure up to the others.Being pitted against the unknown, with your mind creating various horrifying scenarios that *could* happen at any second. The feeling of helplessness, in which you have little to no way of protecting yourself against whatever is lurking in the dark.”

“A scene like that in a war game carries a lot of impact when you think about the popularity of other war games of a similar nature. Although we use it as escapism, Spec Ops manages to make an impact on the player through his actions, which highlights the reality behind the game. Although, I'll also mention that I rated this the highest partially due to the fact that I've played most the other options multiple times already.”

 “Silent Hill games are known for being truly horrifying. The demonic creatures, tense atmospheres, disconcerting sound effects, and pounding music all combine into a nightmare of a game. I had only ever played Silent Hill 1 and 2 and those started off more slowly than this one. The abruptness of the enemies appearing threw me off and made the video terrifying.”

“Confined Spaces. I Have a slight claustrophobia, so i'm generally not a fan of those. Secondly, There's this feel of danger, generated mostly by good mixture of music, ambient noise and use of shadows, (but not overuse)” 

A number of comments were received about the games that were rated lowest and deemed not scary by the participants. Here is a select few:

“Spec Ops isn't scary because during this segment of the game, the player has the power. Nothing in the section is threatening. This ties in with the intention of the game as a commentary on modern military shooters, which give the player all the power but ignore the consequences of their actions. Spec Ops is a great game, and could definitely be described as depressing or emotionally draining, but scary it is not. On the other hand, RE5 IS trying to be scary, but fails, because everything is predictable in terms of how the enemy attacks and appears, and because nothing is left up to psychology - everything is in plain sight, so there is no 'fear of the unknown' element.”

“They gave you a lot of power. For example, its hard to be scared of jack in Dead Space 2 when you have a pistol that can set people on fire when you shoot them. I mean seriously? A game is only as terrifying as the player is powerful. If my ammo is limited, and my gun is only good for headshots, then my first option is going to be to run if I am offered it, and save the ammo for an enemy more ferocious. RE5 and DS2 did not do that, and really killed themselves by doing that.”

“Slender kinda sucks. Mostly because of it's over hype. Penumbra series (which for me are the most scary games ever made, especially the second one) used symialar mechanics( huge, easy to get lost enviroment hubs, monster the will chase you and you don;t really have any way of opposing them other then hiding and fleeing) but there it works, because monster are SOMEWHERE in the world looking for you rather then teleporting right in front of your face.”

“Walking about with a small armoury on your back isn't scary. Bioshock - Scary enemies that aren't much of a threat. Clunky movement - I've not played any of the Resident Evil games, but from an onlooker's perspective it looks horribly clunky to control. The super slow moving zombies seem like a result of this. - I'd much rather my character have limited abilities (such as ammo, running), than a limited and clunky interface. It breaks immersion. Jump scares, whilst effective, are super boring and often very predictable. - Doom 3 is especially bad at those, whenever entering a room I always cleared it out, walked past the conveniently place vent, turned around, shot the thing.”

“Personally, I find it hard to get in to a horror mind set when you're running around in the middle of the day, in an open environment. Furthermore, being thrown in to an area in which you just have to survive for a certain amount of time isn't at all scary when you're a walking steroid with a gun.”

“To me, scares only land if they're jump scares, because I'm a jumpy person. Horror doesn't really affect me because jump scares are cheap and psychological scares only have weight when you've become attached to the character they afflict.”

 

“The games with the lowest scores usually just rely on jump scares to scare you. That's not scaring me; that's startling me.Atmosphere and vulnerability. Seriously, just look at 2:48 of the Resident Evil clip. That's something that should be in a comedy. Chris Redfield is an ass kicker-extraordinaire and I feel sorry for anything that thinks it can take his tree sized arms on in a fight and come out of it with all of their body parts attached. Spec Ops is a great game but it isn't aiming for the kind of horror that these others try (and mostly fail) to achieve. Walker is the real monster here, so the only fear that the players feel is what they are helping him to unwittingly achieve. Something that both these clips have in common is that the protagonist is the one with all the power. The enemies should be scared of them, and thus the player, and not the other way around. Of the games mentioned in this survey, only Slenderman, Amnesia, and Silent Hill are what I would call legitimate horror games. Out of all the monsters in the other games, it's the playable characters who would be the most frightening to get into a fight with.”

“Slender is all about building tension but in that video the bloody slenderman took too long to turn up. I was too bored to be frightened when he bothered to make an appearance. Spec Ops the line looks fantastic and I will play it. But I didn't find it scary. If I was playing it I would feel really guilty about causing that suffering, but not frightened.”

“Spec Ops: The Line and Resident Evil 5 are both pretty tame. While both games have truly visceral scenes, they are not very scary. The scenes may shock people, but the impact is not horror, it is the violent deaths of the soldiers/villagers that might scare people. Also, I do not find the Slender games to be too scary. The model of slender to me looks dumb and I see no reason to be afraid if you're only adversity is a motionless model. Also, I believe that the Slender games have bastardized one of the coolest entities to come out of SomethingAwful/Creepypasta and that may be the source of my contempt for Slender games.”

(All comments and statistics can be seen here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1JsglxtvaS-9LBq7_64P4LNQBcCIUWIt8g7wVmN-NiJk/viewanalytics#start=publishanalytics)

Analysis

Experiment Results – The results bore out of the hypothesis in that Slender: The Eight Pages produced the greatest physical response out of the participants but it was also rated as the scariest game. The game that was rated as the least scary was Spec Ops: The Line.

Participant

Scariest Game

Least Scary Game

Control

Slender

Spec Ops

1

Silent Hill 3

Spec Ops

2

Slender

Spec Ops

3

Slender

Spec Ops

4

Bioshock

Spec Ops

5

Slender/Spec Ops

Resident Evil 5/Dead Space 2

 

Spec Ops: The Line received the lowest rating; it gained this rating because it is an action game. Some parts of Spec Ops could be classed as horror or disturbing but the game as a whole is classed as action. Other reasons for the rating are that it lacked dark setting and there was nothing sudden. However, one participant did rate it has the scariest game her reason for this are “The realisation of what you had done, playing games you just get use to killing things. This game gave you consequences to your actions.”

Slender: The Eight Pages was rated as the scariest game and gave the greatest physical reactions. The reason for the physical reactions is because Slender is a jump scare game, the game relies on making the player jump to get its scares. This is achieved by the combination of the atmosphere and simple mechanics. The game takes places in dark woods shrouded in fog which will make the player uneasy. The audio in the game is just a repeating slow drum beat, the players footsteps and breathing, and the static which appears when Slender is near or randomly after finding the second page. The reasons for it having the highest rating were “The suspense of wondering around the map”, “shot quick burst of static creates a random element which will make people jump” and “the fear of the unknown”.

Online Results - When the results were all gathered and examined, the results were that Silent Hill 3 was deemed the scariest game with 26% rating it 8 out of ten. The least scary game was Spec Ops: The Line with 53% of the vote with a rating of 1 out of 10.

Silent Hill 3 was deemed the scarcest game this was mainly because of its unsettling atmosphere and the player having no sense of what to do or what was happening. As one participant says “The enemies and the environment are deeply foreboding you get the real feeling that the protagonist is at what little mercy they have to offer.”

Again as in the experiment Spec Ops was rated as the least scary game. The majority of participants in both questionnaires noted that it is an action game not a horror. As one participant commented,  “It was action, what was supposed to be scary. Spec Ops seems like an action game here. The victims at the end, that was graphic not scary.”

 

Conclusion

At the beginning of the project, the stated intention was investigate how players are affected by horror games, and to examine which factors within these games create the greatest scare from the player.

During the research it was found that a number of factors are used to create scares but to create the greatest scare these factors should be used in conjunction with each other. For example in Silent Hill 2, the town itself is grounded in reality so gives the fear a purpose; it creates a strong sense of place and has excellent ambiguity, just what is out there in the fog?

The other characters within the game bring in human interaction; the protagonist must defend a woman during one section of the game and talks to a number of characters throughout. The relationship with the protagonist starts with James entering Silent Hill, at this point we know nothing about him and he is used as a blank slate for the player to project themselves onto, but as you start exploring the town you meet other characters who are seeing their own version of the town and in turn you start to question what James sees.

 The enemies within the game all take after a characters mental aspects, for example the mannequins represent his sexual urges and one of the boss fights is another characters representation of her abusive father. These enemies both reflect the environment and the mental aspects of the characters and so make them the more terrifying.  During one section of the game in a block of apartments you see what appears to be a man behind some bars as you get closer, you cannot see exactly because it is dark and the figure is just out of sight. You cannot reach it nor can it reach you, and this builds up the sense of anticipation and ambiguity. After going into the adjacent room and leaving again the monster is gone, the sense of fear deepens due to the change to the environment. By using all of these factors together, a terrifying game has been created that has been rated by countless people as the scariest horror game of all time.

The experiment and online questionnaire were both successful. The hypotheses on both were only partially correct. The hypothesis for the experiment was that Slender would produce the greatest physical reactions, which it did but Silent Hill 3 was to receive the highest rating from the participants. Instead Slender was rated as the scariest. This was because Silent Hill 3’s introduction is scary but it becomes scarier only as the player progresses through the game. Slender puts the player on edge instantly located in a dark forest while being stalked by a monster and not knowing why they are there or what is happening. In the online questionnaire Silent Hill 3 was rated as the scariest game. This occurred with 26% rating 8 out of 10 for being scary compared to other games which scored lower.

Some problems occurred during the project namely the corruption of recording data, location issues, sickness and game selection. During one of the experiments the video and audio data did not save correctly and so was corrupted, rendering the data unusable. Two of the participants could not travel as one had a broken leg so the experiment had to take place in their flat which would have affected the results, personal illness lasted for several days but time was allocated for this event.

The selection of Spec Ops: The Line was seen as an odd choice by a number of people due to it being an action game and not a horror. However, some of the events in the game are horrifying. Additionally, the way the game forces the player’s choices and how you see the character’s mental condition deteriorates throughout the game does make it into an action game that could be classed as a horror.



Bibiograohy

 

[i] Oxford Dictionary. www.oxforddictionaries.com. [Online] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/scare?q=scare (Accessed:21/04/2013)

 

[ii] Polygon, Don’t Be A Hero – The Full Story Behind Spec Ops: The Line. [Online] http://www.polygon.com/2012/11/14/3590430/dont-be-a-hero-the-full-story-behind-spec-ops-the-line (Accessed:25/04/2013)

 

[iii] Gamasutra, How Does In-Game Audio Affect Players? [Online] http://gamasutra.com/view/feature/168731/how_does_ingame_audio_affect_.php (Accessed:12/05/2013)

 

 

[iv] Oxford Dictionary. www.oxforddictionaries.com. [Online] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/atmosphere (Accessed: 12/05/2013)

 

 

[v] The Psychology of Video Games, The Walking Dead, Mirror Neurons, and Empathy. [Online] http://www.psychologyofgames.com/2012/11/the-walking-dead-mirror-neurons-and-empathy/ (Accessed: 26/04/2013)

 

[vi]Carr, L., Iacoboni, M., & Debeau, M. et al. (2003). Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 100, 5497-5502.

 

[vii] Oxford Dictionary. www.oxforddictionaries.com. [Online] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/empathy (Accessed: 28/04/2013)

 

[viii] Psychology Today, Guadagno, R What makes videos go viral?. [Online] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-people-click/201304/what-makes-videos-go-viral

(Accessed:28/04/2013)

 

[ix]  Walter Bradford Cannon (1929). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear, and rage. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

 

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Comments


Karlo Eldic
profile image
Thank you for this article. Research that has been done is great, very informative and valuable resource for horror game developers, as well as those who want to incorporate some elements of horror in their non-horror related projects.

I am kind of dissapointed that Amnesia was only mentioned, and wasn't really one of the games picked for this research. I believe that it's a great example of the genre. Also, it would be interesting to conduct research on some non-gamers or casual gamers too.

But all in all, this is one of the best articles on the horror theme I have read. It has some very good points, and it's very well written. What I was delighted about it is that it has a reference list with many good articles and resources to learn from.


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