[How exactly do horror games work on the brains of players? In this new feature, neuroscientist Maral Tajerian, of Thwacke! Consulting, unpacks the mechanism behind the scares in Amnesia, Dead Space and Silent Hill, among others.]
Fear is one of the most primitive instincts in humans. Although it has been particularly useful in keeping us alive in dangerous situations, it has also helped the entertainment industry capitalize on our sheer joy of being scared. The video game industry has done a good amount of scaring by taking advantage of these emotions and employing them in gameplay narrative and design.
This practice is best exemplified by putting the player in a vulnerable situation with limited resources to confront enemies. With proper execution, the genre can make your heart race, palms sweat and make you go to sleep with nightmares. However, when executed poorly, players feel as if they're simply "going through the motions".
Over the last two decades, several games (ranging from the early Resident Evil series to the more recent Amnesia: The Dark Descent) have defined the survival horror genre by successfully engaging fear and anxiety in players.
Although successful iterations of these games offer different enemies, gameplay mechanics and plot, they all share similar ways of handling the human psyche. This article will discuss how fear as an emotion has been employed in the gaming industry and discuss how the balance between scares and gameplay can lead to success or failure.
The Science of Terror
Anxiety. Next to fear, anxiety is perhaps the most prominent feeling experienced in video games. Unlike fear, which is a response to an imminent threat, anxiety is a response to a future potential threat.
When perceptual systems are taxed, research has shown that a looming threat results in anxiety that heightens attention and increases sensitivity to potential dangers. This implies that solving a puzzle the character is presented with in the game does not take away from the experience of fear and danger. In fact, according to many gamers, solving the puzzles under dangerous circumstances only increases the feelings of fear. Consider how riddles and puzzles in Silent Hill excel in this respect.
An example of a puzzle from Silent Hill 2 that needs to be solved in a dark and dilapidated room.
While games like first person shooters are notorious for desensitizing players to violence, games that raise the player's anxiety actually sensitize them to danger. This is simply how animals behave, and it's a highly adaptive behavior, since it keeps individuals on their toes in anxiety-causing environments. Raising the levels of anxiety in a video game will therefore ensure that the player is sensitized to the danger in the game. In a game like Amnesia, the entire experience teeters on anxiety created up to confrontation with an enemy since the player has absolutely no means to defend himself.
Helplessness. As mentioned earlier, players in the survival horror genre are often faced with terrifying and inescapable circumstances, with little means of self-defense. In other words, they are truly and utterly helpless.
In Amnesia, some may remember locking themselves in a closet, or hiding in a corner staring at a blank wall for several minutes, because you're convinced that if you move, even an inch, a certain and horrible death will soon ensue. Furthermore, elements like rigid camera angles, awkward control schemes (Silent Hill, and Early Resident Evil titles), lighting (Alan Wake, Dead Space), etc. all serve to obliterate what little control the player might have thought she possessed.
Helplessness is truly a powerful feeling. Studies have shown that animals that are faced with situations where they're helpless develop strong feelings of fear and anxiety. This is also true in the case of humans. You may remember this feeling from your last visit to the dentist. Whenever you experience feelings of helpless and loss of control, you are bound to feel more anxious and fearful. The same stays true in video games.