the artistry and psychology of gaming


Top 10 Ways To Incite Horror In Gamers

Top 10 Ways To Incite Horror In Gamers

Have you ever wondered how horror works in video games? What tools do the developers use to scare the s*** out of you? What elements make you experience so memorable? Here are the ten great devices that horror games use in order to scare the gamers. The devices are ordered from the least subtle and sophisticated to the most.

If one day you wanted to make a horror video game, use all these ten methods, and you game will be scary as hell.

#10: Be Disgusting

Why are you afraid of the cockroaches? Really, why? They surely can’t hurt you. They can’t even bother you much, killing them is very easy: pick up something and hit them hard in the head. They won’t charge back even, they’ll run from you. You’re scared of cockroaches because they’re really, REALLY disgusting. They’re so disgusting that your brain immediately switches to “scare” mode, so you won’t just sit there and let the abomination run free.

The video games can exploit your primitive fear of the disgusting. For example, they won’t design the monsters like smurfs and cute unicorns. No, they use disfigured creatures which make you shiver when you see them. The fact that the monsters are disgusting makes them scarier, as you subconsciously don’t want to see them again, and you want to get away from them or kill them quickly, and you’re not comfortable dealing with them. This is also why horror games usually emphasize locations such as toilets, because if you’re in a place which unsettles you, you won’t have an easy ride.

That’s not the worst thing you can find in that game.

Best seen in: Clive Barker’s Jericho. If you haven’t played this game, go ahead and type that name in Google Image search. Look at how disgusting the monsters look. Disfigured, scarred, ugly. And the sounds they make doesn’t help their public image either. You can sometimes see the meat beneath their skin, you can sometimes see their intestine. They’re bloody all over. Their scars are emphasized. Basically, think that day in your science class that you opened up a poor frog, only worse. Much worse.

#9: Use blood and gore, lots of them

This seems very similar to the previous entry, but it’s so important that it requires its own specific entry. So, if you’re making a horror game, you should not shy away from blood and gore. They disturb us deeply, because we associate them with violent death, and we’re scared of them. Many people can’t stand the sight of blood in their real lives, and surely few of us can stomach a mutilated corpse. Although this has become commonplace in games and films, its clever use can still disturb even the most hardcore fans of gore. However, you must use it cleverly, because they might not result in a scary effect.

Games like Mortal Kombat and Mad World and Manhunt exploit violence to extreme, but no one thinks they’re scary. The main reason is that the gamer him/herself is the one responsible for all the violence, and all the blood and gore comes the enemies and that in a very unrealistic way. When playing Mortal Kombat, we don’t feel threatened by the violence, and we never even believe it. Therefore, we enjoy it. Those who complained about that game forgot that pulling someone’s head off with his spine attached with your bare hand is so fantastically bizarre that it’s funny.

The unsettling blood and gore of a horror game must be exaggerated, but not to an extreme that it crosses the borders of realism. Chopping, maiming, dismembering, slashing, stabbing, they all are good, but the killing methods shouldn’t be too strange. And more importantly, it’s better to fuse the blood and gore into the atmosphere and the environment of the game, making sure it’s always present in the background. Walls painted with blood are good, mutilated corpses on the ground are good, intestines hanging from the roof are good. They remind the gamer that s/he’s walking in an unfriendly place.

“Paint the walls red” has never been so literally accomplished.

Best seen in: The Suffering. This is a very great game with a very deep story. Its use of violence and blood and gore is fantastic and truly artistic. The game is really bloody, and it never gets commonplace or less disturbing. You enemies die in really disturbing fashion, and every step of the way you’re reminded that this is no Disney Land.

#8: Darkness is good

Most of us are afraid of darkness innately. If you look at the lyrics of Fear of the Dark by the legendary band Iron Maiden you will see the reason: “[…]When the light begins to change/I sometimes feel a little strange/A little anxious when it’s dark/Fear of the dark,fear of the dark/I have constant fear that something’s always near/Fear of the dark,fear of the dark/I have a phobia that someone’s always there[…]Sometimes when you’re scared to take a look/At the corner of the room/You’ve sensed that something’s watching you.”

This great songs hits the nail. Darkness brings uncertainty and loneliness, the sense of being threatened, watched from behind the shadows, and your every step is uncertain. Have you ever had to walk late in night with little or no light in an infamous neighborhood? We associate darkness with danger, evil, and death. It scares us inevitably.

So, the creators are never hesitant to dim the lights. You have to walk in the darkness, and the monsters might attack you any moment. You’re always on your feet, because the threat is hiding. If you could see everything it would turn into a fight, but when the enemy can see you and you can’t, it’s a cat and mouse game, and you’re the mouse.

That’s supposed to be really dark.

Best seen in: Alone in the Dark. This game is the first Survival Horror, and it introduced many aspects of the genre that were later perfected by Resident Evil and Silent Hill. But the game really relied on one specific element which is evident in the name: darkness. The darkness determines the course of the gameplay. You have a flashlight which is your friend, and everywhere is almost completely dark. The creatures are the creatures of the dark and some of them are afraid of the light. So the game is really about dark vs. light, and dark is the source of anxiety and fear.

#7: Shock the gamer

Have you every tried to scare one of your friends? Usually you take this course: you find them when they are for some reason unaware of your presence, approach them silently and then suddenly BOO! them. They are startled. The video games do the same to you. They shock you in any way they can to make sure you’re not comfortable in your seat and you jump from to time. A sudden explosion. An enemy suddenly appearing. A girl suddenly turning to a zombie. A hand suddenly grasping you. Whatever it is, it’s sudden and it’s violent, so you will be startled when it happens.

This is not very subtle, and usually the gamer feels shocked and scared only for a moment and then will return playing as usual. So, if a game a series of shock moments it’s not as scary as it could potentially be. However, if used along other methods, it’s really efficient and can create some memorable moments.

Best seen in: The whole Resident Evil franchise. This series really relies on shock moments to scare the gamer, and it’s good at them. For example, in the first game, you enter a quiet and peaceful corridor. You walk normally down the hallway, expecting nothing (as you can see the whole corridor). Suddenly, all the glasses of the windows are broken in a loud and sudden voice, and a horde of zombie dogs jump before you from outside. Pause the game, go wash yourself and change you pants, then resume playing.

#6: Use scary sound effects and music

It’s not enough to control what the gamer sees, but also what the gamer hears. It can never be complete without the sound. The sound can be used to imply threats and danger. We are wired by the evolution to associate certain sounds with danger, and a wise creator makes use of that. Better still, many sounds unsettle us and leave us in suspense. The soundscape is therefore more important in the horror genre than other genres.

The sound effect may focus on creepy and disgusting elements. The creatures may sound as disgusting as they can, grunting, making strange noises. Some of the cliche sound effects in the environment are the cracking of doors, foot steps, water (or blood) drops, squeaking and sounds that resemble screaming, and also the sound of heavy breathing. The music can be orchestral and heavy, or might be composed of strange and ominous electrical sounds. It better not be too melodic or too fast, as it shouldn’t pump too much adrenaline. Using specific short themes is good, especially when associated with the main villains.

However, although music and sound effects are vital to the genre, overdoing them can harm the game. The music must not distract the gamer from the horror at hand, and the gamer must never notice it. It must be integrated into other elements, like salt in the food.

A little girl is not scary, unless accompanied by scary noise.

Best seen in F.E.A.R. series. The creators aim to (I’m quoting) achieve “get under [the player’s] skin”, as opposed to the “in your face ‘monsters jumping out of closets’ approach”. So the horror of the game comes mostly through your speakers: the audio imitates the Japanese Horror films style, using disturbing and threatening but familiar sounds like metals scrapping on one another, with horrifying silence at some moments. The sounds are completely unpredictable and never fail to shock you, and so is the music. The music is not melodic but hysteric. If you mute the game while playing, it’s generic FPS. Let there be sound and it’s scary as hell.

#5: Make the gamer helpless

Have you played Splatterhouse? It uses almost all the methods above- its creatures are disgusting, there are lots of blood and gore, it’s shocking at moments- but it’s not scary. Not even a little. You know why? Because you’re absolutely strong. No one can face you and not die in a gory fashion a minute later. You’re invincible, you have nothing to fear.

So if you want to make the gamer scared, really scared, make sure that the protagonist is not too strong, but vulnerable and helpless. You can make the threat bigger by making the abilities of your protagonist less efficient. That’s why teenagers are so popular in the horror franchise, because they’re more vulnerable than older adults. Usually, the choices like people with supernatural abilities or special talents are bad, as they distract the gamer from the horror at hand to themselves. Some jobs are better be avoided; jobs like cops, soldiers, criminals, firefighters, in short, tough jobs. Such choices makes classics as great as Resident Evil less scary.

Even better, the protagonist should be weak not only physically, but mentally as well. He or she should be riddled with guilt, or depressed, or be in grief, this way the horror he or she goes through is psychological as well.

If you’re controlling the girl, it’s horror. If you’re controlling the guy, it’s porn.

Best seen in: Clock Tower series (and its imitator The Haunting Ground) take this to an extreme, for you play a teenage girl who can’t defend herself from the enemy in any way and has to run from it (until she finds a way to kill it in some cases). The games are really intense and fun for this very reason. However, not all games go to this extreme.

#4: Use a scary atmosphere

This entry may seem redundant, or a sum of previous entries. The game’s atmosphere is definitely important, but is it more than the sum of visuals and audios? Yes, and no. To use different elements such as darkness, blood and gore, scary sound effects, but they won’t add up to the atmosphere of the game. The main factor is their order, how they come together. This is what distinguishes a great game from a mediocre one, all the different elements must come together to create an organic unity, and organic unity with the purpose to scare, disturb, unsettle. All the elements must serve this final purpose, so that not only one scene, sound or a screenshot of the game is there for no reason, so the game entraps the gamer and the gamer feels s/he’s truly experiencing the game. The atmosphere of a game is like a ominous melody while different elements are its notes. A real artist knows how to arrange the notes.

In order to make a great atmosphere, we need both restraint and exaggeration. The artist must know when to downplay the scary elements and when to emphasize them. In comparison with what comes before and next, which one is more effective? This is the question. A series of hyperbolic scary events and climaxes will bore the gamer and makes things flat and trivialized, slow and low moments must be there. Even you may manage to inject some humor- all in its place.


Best see in: Many great games, but let’s go with Dead Space. Superb atmosphere, a great combination of dark environment, threatening indoor architecture, scary monsters, disturbing images. The game uses many elements that are put together artistically that add up to a really scary experience as a whole. For example, before you face a Necromorph the atmosphere is calm but very suspenseful and threatening, while there’s no music and subtle but scary sound effects are heard, and when they attack the game becomes fast and a threatening music is played.

#3: Make the gamer doubt his/her own sanity

Until now, we have a successful scary game. From now on we’re going further down the rabbit hole and in order to really make our game the worst (best) experience of the gamer’s life. I think the last three entries, if observed, make the horror game a true work of art.

First off, remember that bit about making the protagonist helpless? Yes? Good. Now what about making him/her an unreliable narrator? This will make the game a lot scarier. You can’t trust anything, even your own eyes and ears. Everything is uncertain, and not only all the external creatures threaten you, but so the internal demons. No one can escape oneself. Make the gamer’s character him/herself the source of terror, and there will be no escape.

It would be best to blur the line between reality and fantasy. If the gamer knows these events are real, or knows they’re not, s/he won’t feel the same terror as when s/he doubts it. This technique also makes the game deeper as it ponders upon the nature of reality and fantasy.

That guy might be a figment of your imagination.

Best seen in: Condemned: Criminal Origins. I’m not really happy about this choice, but since I’ve decided not to use one franchise twice in the list, here we go. The truth remains that while you play this game you seriously doubt the sanity of the protagonist, thinking maybe he’s the serial killer, maybe not, and maybe all this is made up in his mind, and all of his mental attacks are a sign of madness.

#2: Use suspense

We need to listen to the words of a master here. Alfred Hitchcock distinguishes between surprise and suspense in his historic interview with François Truffaut. This might seem like a long quote but bear with it: “We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!” [Quoted from]

This is completely true about the games as well. the scariest, most disturbing experience can be achieved with one thing: suspense. Suspense is achieved through the feeling of danger, uncertainty, and expecting a disaster. The tension really speaks to the heart of the gamer. For example, which one is scarier; a monster suddenly appears before you and boos you, or the monster makes you aware of its existence but takes time to show itself? You can hear it making ugly noises, you know it’s approaching, but you don’t know from where? The second one is definitely scarier. One is a momentary fear, the other is continuous and intensifying. So, in order to REALLY scare the gamer, use suspense, not surprise.

That guy is the most badass director of all time.

Best seen in: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. One of the best horror games ever made based on the novels of the legendary H. P. Lovecraft, the gameplay is very innovative and very suspenseful. The absence of HUD, the insanity element, the scary atmosphere and the linear path all make you feel trapped in an uncertain situation where you have no escape, and should only fear of what may appear next.

#1: Turn familiar objects into threats.

Finally, we’re down to the most effective, the deepest, and most artistic way that the games can scare you. The horror is usually associated with the extraordinary, super natural, weird. But what if the game creators blur the line between ordinary and extraordinary, and turn the familiar objects into threats? What if we don’t associate fear with the unknown- for the unknown is inherently scary- but with the known? What if known and unknown have become one? What if we merge natural and super natural?

This is achieved when two condition are met: Firstly, the natural and familiar are manipulated subtle to indicate there’s something wrong and scary about them. It might be some blood, a weird movement, or a general sense of suspense about them. Secondly, by making the supernatural (e.g. monsters) symbols of the familiar. Therefore the game is really about a commonplace subject we all can relate to, but hides that subject behind a veil of horror.

This is scarier, because the game becomes the nightmare of the gamer, and a personal nightmare at that. It’s more disturbing because the gamer can connect to it on a personal level and it scars the gamer deep into his/her subconscious. The gamer cannot take refuge in the reality because reality has become the horror. And this is more artistic because the game is now a great commentary on the psychological and philosophical aspects of our lives.

A stuff rabbit normally shouldn’t be scary.

Best see in: Silent Hill series. What makes this series so great is this very fact, that they pierce to the heart of the gamer and find what disturbs them the most. The game are psychological, philosophical and personal. All the monster are symbols of things related to the main protagonists, for example in Silent Hill 2 some monsters are the symbols of Jame’s sexual repressed desires, or Angela’s molestation, and Silent Hill 3 is full of rape, pregnancy and abortion symbolism. So while the game is pretty scary, it’s a commonplace story as well. Plus, the commonplace changes to scary as well. The manipulation of rabbit dolls, or the use of locations like school and hospital in a way that resembles their real counterparts, or associating family and home with horror are some examples of that.


Well, here you are: the top 10 ways to make games scary. Now, when you’re enjoying the scary games, you know what’s the mechanism behind them which makes them so scary! Have fun, enjoy the horror!

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