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Fight or Flight: The Neuroscience of Survival Horror
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Fight or Flight: The Neuroscience of Survival Horror

June 12, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[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.

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Ian Powell
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Now edit and reissue the above to include the game changing DayZ mod.

Luis Guimaraes
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It's so nice when there's a new article on horror games, makes me not feel so alone, in the dark, losing my sleep to prototype an upcoming horror game.

The only problem is because most of the articles mostly look back and never forward, so the discussion that follows mostly in where the interesting things are found.

No mention of the aspect of immersion? It's the very first thing to consider in a horror game. I'm seriously going to say Amnesia didn't work for me as horror, just because of that, and yes I know it's weird, as much that I extensively searched for a similar opinion to see if I was alone on it
s/review-143018 Because it's exactly like the non-combat parts of F.E.A.R: a virtual scare-house with lots, and lots, and lots of scripts trying to scary the player. Boo!!

Don't pretend to be scary, be scary.

As for Dead Space, I feel sad for the necromorphs, that schizophrenic psycho comes from outer space into their nest cutting their limbs off one by one and stomp their inane bodies for some cash, while all their attempts, attacks and ambushes to impede him fail miserably. That sure is a terrifying game for them.


My thoughts here mostly reflect the design philosophy behind my current project. Dead Space has success in being what it's trying to be, and Amnesia is an experimental child of Penumbra which not exactly follows all guidelines from Frictional itself:
horror-games.html , which brings another question to the table: Where is the line of "too scary" for a game to be?

Christian Nutt
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Well, the answer to both of your questions is that this article is written from the perspective of a neuroscientist, not a game designer. Ergo, she's concentrating on already-released games because they're available to the general public, and can thus be researched. And the reason that "immersion" is not being concentrated on (and it is, to some extent, in the bit entitled "context and environment") is because it's not something neuroscience touches on (possibilities for this include the fact that the definition seems to change from person to person and the fact that multiple phenomena contribute to it.)

That said, I could see there being some usefulness in an article that, in itself, explores the concept of immersion.

Luis Guimaraes
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Thank you, Christian for this excellent follow-up. You're right, even with the disclaimer, that detail was missing in my comment.

Using the opportunity to add mention of one of the creepiest things I've seen in a game lately:

Luis Guimaraes
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We'd also benefit from more precise terms to define genres and, therefore, the goals and intentions of the design of each title.

By a more detailed definition Amnesia would fit as Suspense, and Dead Space as either Slaughter Horror or Sci-Fi Thriller, which would easily soften some critics and help the problems of immersion.

Though nothing can do much about the locked arena rooms in Dead Space 2, which I can't help but instantly remember Final Fight and Metal Slug, blinking "Go" so the player can keep going... forward.

Timo Tolonen
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Great write-up. Very interesting.

Interactivity is a big part of the experience for me. Amnesia would not be nearly as scary if I didn't have to manually drag open every door and cupboard with my mouse. At first it seems like a clunky mechanic but it becomes so integral to the overall experience as the game goes on.

I've mentioned this before, but I'm a complete wimp about horror games and I though I have played the majority of them, I have not yet finished Amnesia, Dead Space 2 or Lone Survivor. I'm still compelled to try most horror games as they come out but all my knowledge about game mechanics and design as well as the psychology behind it all goes out the window when the game frightens me!

Kevin Patterson
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Great article:)

I love Horror games and many are creepy, but none have been actually scary, at least to me. Amnesia has an amazing atmosphere, probably the best "scary game" out currently. The dead space series is a fav of mine, but as its so heavy on the action, I can be startled at times but still wouldn't say that the game is scary really.

I haven't yet felt dread when playing a game, though I might feel anxiety that I might die yes.

The atmosphere is Condemned was absolutely wonderful, the sequel lost touch with what made the original great, it relied too much on the melee gameplay. The slow build up to action was great in the first title, and to be truly scary, you need that.

Building a proper fear inducing atmosphere takes time, too many games try to scare, shock, or startle you too fast. Audio in my opinion is the biggest part of a horror game. The right soundtrack, the proper audio queues, and the slow buildup in gameplay is what generates dread.

Many of the old movies used that technique and they are still scarier than any modern horror movie I can think of.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Having tried to do related research over twenty years ago on animals, I can appreciate how great it is to have advanced radiographic technologies to measure these effects on humans. Doing this type of research on animals runs into the confound created by the stress related to "helplessness" when you cage them. This made me come to the conclusion that those early research attempts were a waste of both time and animal life.

From a gamer perspective, one of the most frightening games I ever played was the original X-COM. I remember literally leaping out of my chair during that first Terror Wave, which was appropriately named. I think the success or failure of the new remake will hinge largely on whether they can recreate this feeling.

Possibly an even more frightening (and engaging) play experience was the game Everquest. In EQ you could not only unlevel if you died, but you could even lose all of your gear if you did not recover your corpse in a certain time frame. The "save/restore" feature in almost all modern games really reduces the potential terror/horror involved in taking risks in games. As the top cleric on my server in EQ I would sometimes get calls that woke me out of bed to recover a group that wiped on a planes raid. Considering that I charged $300 for this, and they knew this, you can see that people took the game pretty seriously back then. Of course this also made me the "recovery option of last resort" so when I would get boosted up to the plane I would see all the other dead clerics that they asked first for help.

Removing that risk/threat is one of the worst things that WoW did for gaming. It was a necessity due to the weak and buggy state of their PvP model (it has improved a bit over time), but it really made the game much less thrilling. I think that lack of a save is one of the things that makes EVE so enduring, but again there the weaknesses in their PvP model, and the severity of the death penalty, go too far and make the game too harsh for new players.

Josh Bycer
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Interesting article. One of my favorite points was this one :

In addition to this priming, certain events characterized by unexpected novelty can, very efficiently, startle a player. For example, events that can lead a player through a relatively safe part of a level may lower our guard to new threats when revisiting the same environment (i.e.: consider the first 30 minutes of Doom 3 or the hubs in the Silent Hill and Dead Space series)."

Messing with the player's exceptions of the design is one of those points that has always made me jump. One of the problems with a lot of action horror titles these days is that the script never gets flipped in a matter of speaking. New enemies may be harder or scarier, but if they are used the same exact way as everything else then the horror is lost.

One of my favorite parts in the original Dead Space was you first encounter with the uber-necro-morph who can't be killed. The section forces the player to run and use objects to block its path or make one for you.

Luis Guimaraes
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Just finished reading through A Trip Down Horror Lane. I agree with your point about subverting expectations, it's one of the strong points about the ill-called "backtracking", which is in fact a tool for establishing a relationship with the environment, and leverage the road through unknown ground. For the unknown to exist, there must the known.

Marck Ernest Thornton
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Josh, great follow-up. I completely agree with you. Capitalizing on a player's memory of an environment, doing it well and consistently, is a great technique for any horror game developer to spook their audience.

I think a lesson can be learned from this article and the technique of changing a previous environment. And sadly, so many other genres fail to capitalize on this. Imagine the sense of thrill or delightful surprise a player can feel if used properly in RTS or "casual' games.

This technique is probably one of the biggest reasons I'm attracted to Survival-Horror titles.

Sid Tsai
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As a school counselor/therapist, avid gamer and former social psychology researcher, I just wanted to express my appreciation for the author, Maral Tajerian, for writing this article.

I am very excited to read more about the neuroscience of other emotions in non-conventional gaming such as Journey, Heavy Rain, even some of the triple-A titles like Asssassin's Creed and Red Dead Redemption which both brought me to tears with themes of love, loss, and family legacy. I gravitate toward games that have an emotional narrative and consider gaming to be an interactive medium for great storytelling and enrichment of the human experience.