Your idea on simulating fear in a game

Ya, the title, how do you simulate fear in a game, I have a few ideas, but they all require a game over screen. So basically how do you make a player scared other than having him on low health?

I ask this because in games like Pokemon or zelda your never really on your toes when traveling though the world, yes they have scary stories-moments-cut scenes, but your not scared walking though routes-world where the player spends 80% of his time.


Jump scares and low light don't work. You don't even need scary imagery. literally all you need is tension and vulnerability. Every good horror game, or even non horror games with scary parts play off that.

You can make the scariest game a squirrel trying to outrun a cat in a back yard in broad daylight if you wanted to. Its important to understand how people react to stress to know what good tension is though.

Things to avoid
  • constant tension with no break: IE why alien isolation feels like it over stays its welcome. It builds up for over an hour to the xenomorph, but then you spend the next 9 hours constantly dodging it and it always feels too close all the time. You are lucky to get a break with a cutscene or a very small safe room to plan or relax. Some people straight up gave up on the game from lack of reprieve.
  • predictable pattern behaviors. Once a person picks up on how tension is being delivered to them, they learn to exploit it or it stops working all together.
  • forced and fake tension, avoid too many scripted instances or automatic get out of jail free situations.
Things to do
  • make the player vulnerable, but that doesn't mean take away his options to make escapes. Again, alien isolation does this well by allowing you to use limited ammo and a flame thrower to get him off your back. Resident evil 7 is a good example of this too. The threat is never gone, but you aren't powerless to interact with it or manipulate it.
  • introduce new threats as you go along, keep building on the tension so when a player feels he is finally comfortable with an obstacle, you upset that comfort with something new.(maybe a monster learns how to open doors, maybe there are more types, maybe it got smart about how you held it at bay before and no longer falls for it)
  • avoid cliches. Pitch black with a flashlight that couldn't light up your toes is not only stupid, but over done.


Speaking of Alien...

The one part of the Alien movies that always put me on edge, even when I didn't realize it -- the motion finder. Being able to hear something without being able to see it has always been a source of tension for me. I have a copy of the Sega Saturn game Enemy Zero, in which you are alone on a spacecraft with an ultra-stealthy alien race, and I never played it very far because I couldn't get past the first enemy you encounter (yeah, I suck at the game) and every time I'd go back to try to figure out how to actually play the game, the damned motion finder would get my nerves so wound up that I'd quit the game as soon as I died. So now it sits on my shelf never being touched again.

Beep... Beep... Beep...Beep..Beep..Beep.Beep.Beep.BeepBeepBEEBEEBEEBEEBBBBBLARRRGH!

Also, changing up how you present things could be a good source of fear. Resident Evil kept me on edge because I hate zombies, but I stayed up for hours playing it whenever I spent the night at my dad's house. I quit playing the game when I got to the Hunters. With almost every enemy in the game, you might have a brief cut scene showing the enemy over a corpse or just appearing right before you fight it. But not the Hunters. No, the first one you encounter gets multiple cut scenes showing the game from its POV moving toward the house, building up tension. Then the damned thing OPENS THE DOOR before running you down and lashing at you. That right there scared the crap out of me and I quit playing. lol Dunno if I'd have stayed scared if I persevered, but the fear was definitely because all the other zombie-based scares were so played-out in the game that the change was nerve-wracking -- for me at least.

Half-Life was tense, but never what I'd call downright scary. But Half-Life 2's Ravenholm was flippin' creepy because it was so different from the rest of the game and had a completely different feel.

Sounds and music are a really big factor, but hard to use properly. Clocktower had almost no music, but when Bobby chased Jennifer, the game switched over to one of the best songs in gaming. The lack of music was when you knew you were safe. On the other end of the spectrum are games like Mega Man II, which had no music leading up to the final battle, causing a sort of mild tension. Similarly, Metroid II starts off very melodic, but the deeper into the planet you go, the less musical and more ambient the game gets, until there's practically no sound in the queen's nest. This doesn't really elicit fear, but it does create a lot of tension for the player. The remake added music in the queen's nest, taking away most of the tension. The first Metroid scared the bejeebers out of me as a kid the first time I entered Tourian with the metroids swooping in to suck my energy, mostly because the game went from a very melodic soundtrack to a creepy bio-mechanical ambience.


Doom 3 was scary because many aspects of its game design were based on actual fears that many people have...

Claustrophobia: Narrow tunnels and ducts that you must crawl through to achieve objectives.
Arachnophobia: Large spider-like enemies that crawl out from small openings in swarms. In one particular area, a spider is scripted to land on a monitor just as you're interacting with it.
Fear of the dark: The dark areas in the game where you must put away your weapon to be able to use a flash light. Being unarmed in the dark made me extremely paranoid.

It had some cheap jump scares here and there, but overall, the game was genuinely creepy because of its excellent sound and lighting.


To put it bluntly:

Scares are just like sex, it's all about building to a climax, and after that all tension is gone...

So try to keep your player in a prolonged state of expecting something scary to happen, without actually make to happen to make him feel scared and vulnerable.

Many horror games fail to really scare by thinking that throwing a lot of gore and loud noises at the player, will make for a scary experience, but instead it only desensitizes the player.


Don't underestimate audio to simulate fear. It's a BIG part of it. Adding a low dark atmosphere sound helps to set the mood.
I hate jumpscares and the art is in making people afraid without using it.
The fear for the unknown is nice.

I once made a game about anxieties, and it was about someone walking through a hallway towards some sort of jobinterview, and the way he felt while walking to it.
And in this hallway there were doors with room numbers (it was in a schoolbuilding). But gamemaker bugged the room numbers into very random long numbers that looked like "10402.00002.1" instead of "5".
Because of this, this whole sequence became incredibly creepy (and dreamlike-weird) and everyone that played it was really tense in that hallway.
(with of course atmosphere sound, and your footsteps, some lights were flickering and I let the overall light become a little little bit darker if you walked further in the room.)


Sounds and music are very powerful.

Just a small taste but let the imagination think the worse.


šŸ§ *penguin noises*
GMC Elder
This is a huge topic and most of the game industry haven't figured out how to do it consistently yet, so let's steal some random ideas from games that got it done well and call it a day.
  • From Dead Space: have designated safe zones. This sounds kinda counterproductive, but the idea is that if you tell the player when they can be safe, you stop them from realizing which areas are safe from monsters by going there repeatedly and never getting attacked, thus making informal safe zones. That kind of thing makes the player feel like they're in control. This is the LAST thing you want as a horror game creator. Giving them breaks also helps releasing the tension, which makes things feel less uniform.
  • Once you have control over their safe zones, you can do more fun things with their feelings. You could have a lategame invasion where monsters take a safe zone they've relied on, and makes it unsafe, robbing them of their feeling of safety. Dark Souls 1 has this where Lautrec kills the checkpoint / upgrade lady when you're back from the LONG journey through Blighttown, Silent Hill 4 has this when your apartment gets haunted, even one of the Metroid games has enemies that can chase you into savepoints and force you to get rid of them before you can heal and save.
  • Expose the player to unexpected things. Silent Hill 2's Historical Society level is a perfect example of this: there's two hallways full of prison cells that are completely identical on the map, but are the complete opposite of each other. The first one has a million imprisoned enemies that make a TON of noise, and some of them break out to attack you when you're halfway through. The second one has a single enemy, who sneaks up on you halfway through the corridor, and is completely silent. There's one event where your flashlight's (previously infinite) battery breaks down, leaving you in complete darkness until you realize you can open the menu and insert a new battery (which gets added silently to your inventory when this event happens, so you think you forgot about it, which is essentially gaslighting the player, i.e. giving them false information to make them doubt their own memory, confusing and unsettling them). The entrance to the area has you ascend a stair that's so long you start worrying that it loops indefinitely, but once you have those doubts, it feels like it's too late to turn back... and its soundtrack is completely randomly paced metallic noises, so you can't even get used to the rhythm of the music. There's the dark school courtyard where you can hear something run around in 3D space, which isn't an actual threat, but since you don't actually SEE it, it gets scarier...
  • Have the player worry about resource management. There's many ways this can be done. One of my favorites is how you're always at a risk of permanently losing all money/EXP you're carrying in Dark Souls, which adds a lot of tension and paranoia unless you're super familiar with the area you're in, which also tends to scale linearly with how much progress the player has made since the last checkpoint. I actually broke a mouse on my first DS3 playthrough because I was pressing the "guard" button so hard when I carefully snuck around corners with my shield raised.
  • Get the player used to expect traps and ambushes everywhere, but also have genuine free items dotted around the map. The player won't know which items to trust or not, building paranoia. Dark Souls 3 has a wonderful example of this where there's a LONG corridor with a glowing item orb at the very end partway through the Demon Ruins. It turns out it's actually a completely innocent item that you can just pick up if you want, but its location makes it feel like there's some sort of trap or tricks involved, and on my first playthrough I just noped out and never went back for it, feeling like falling for an obvious trap like that would've just been an unnecessary risk considering how much progress I risked losing if I died.
In order to have someone feel scared in your game, you have to design your game in a way, that makes it feel to them that they are NOT playing a game.
You have to create an environment that creates the feeling that it is real, that they are living it, and nothing reminds them its just a game. In sounds, the absence of music in the game can be just that difference, to create that feeling. In some games, the minute you have a piece of music that is played in the atmosphere of where your player's character is, you remind your player they are playing a game. Then its no longer scary. It does not matter what the theme music sounds like.

In terms of visual effects, you have to, "blind" your player. In First Person Shooters, you are blind to what you dont see around you, just like in real life. You have to turn your vision to see around you. This how submarine games play as well because your limited to the view if your periscope when your submerged. If you game is a 3rd Person Point of view, for instance in the SNES Super Metroid ( a platformer ) you blind your character by limiting what they can see in their vision. Again, in Super Metroid, in some of the boss fights, the boss jumps around out of your vision as it moves back and forth in the huge room you are fighting in. You don't know where the boss is going to appear, so - you have to move around to avoid the surprise attack of the boss. You have to have something happen that is outside of your players active awareness to create that sudden scary feeling when it suddenly happens. In the game, X-Com Apocalypse, the game creates that suspense or scary feeling, by shadowing the areas of environment that you have not explored by your team, in their isometric presentation. Again these are visual blinds to the player.

There is also the factor of how the game plays, is it real time, or turn based? This affects how your game is going to be scary to the player.

Secondly, most of all - you do not want to constantly scare your player all the time, because then they will get used to it and it will no longer scare them.
A player begins to learn from the accumulated experience from every game session, which contingency plan to think on when threats ( which are similar to the them ) happen in game. Then later, they learn to not feel that threat, and that threat in the game becomes annoying as a needn't anticipation.

Please consider this problem .....

What if the person who plays your game, decides to listens to some music at the same time while playing your game, thus ignoring the scary effect of your game? They're not going to be scared. They have that music in the background to distract them. Also, a person who plays your game, who has to pause it for interruptions in their environment will also loose that scary feeling. And as said before, they learn to not feel that threat, and that threat in the game becomes annoying as a needn't anticipation.

I do not know the exact nature of your game, so I can not prescribe, " This is what you should do.. " feedback.


Amnesia the Dark Descent is a very good study case for fear. With limited budget, how to inoculate fear to the player, and how to simulate it. You should play it if not already done.