What Makes A Game Truly Scary?


Every time a horror type game is released I feel a sense of dread and fear engulf me as I inevitably choose to put myself through such an experience.

But why do we gamers, despite knowing that the game before hand will be full of frights and scares choose to do such a thing?

In this article we will be looking at:

what makes a game scary and more importantly the choices and thoughts that goes through a player’s mind when they do so.

In a world where increasingly realistic experiences are becoming a common experience with both VR and AR making its way into our living rooms, should we be worried of a Charlie Brookers type future as seen through black mirrors “playtest” episode?

Well to get to the bottom of these questions we have to go back to the very basics. What makes a game scary?

Games we will be looking at in this article:

  • Slender Man
  • Dead Space
  • Silent Hill
  • Alan Wake
  • Until Dawn
  • Dead Secret

The art of jumps scares


No matter how advanced our games and understanding gets, we still (no matter what) seem to fall for the old, overdone tricks of the jump scare.

Every horror game out there will contain one, however it’s rather a case of looking at how they have implemented such a thing.

When I asked Mark J. Hadley, developer of the game Slender, he had this to say,

“Fear of the unknown is what makes a game truly scary.  That’s why gore or a jumpscare by itself is not scary, but merely startling.”

This goes to say that short startling fear is not what game developers are after, rather they look at ways to incorporate both jump scares and gore with everything else mentioned in this article.

However some developers choose to approach the classic jump scare in a completely different way:

When we look closer at Silent Hill 4, players at the very beginning of the game are introduced to a thumping noise, slowly increasing in loudness, coming from a nearby locker.

What happens next?

It turns out to just be a cat…


Fear of darkness is a diverse phobia common in children aged between 2 and 9 and can, with many cases, span into adulthood.

In fact, experts believe that fears of the dark began during a primitive age when humans had the worry of being eaten by nocturnal predators.

Even with the development of modern technologies to prevent us from danger during the night time, human’s still hold the same of fear of the dark.alanwakebanner

Therefore, it’s a perfect subject to include in games inducing fear.

It relates very much to the fear of the unknown – especially with horror games including unimaginable characters with frighteningly real details.


In dark areas, you truly can’t predict what you are going to see and it’s that in particular that scares us the most.

The game that truly utilises this: Alan Wake

A Famous writer in search of his missing wife falls into a nightmare as he crosses the small town of Bright Falls – an ironic name for such a dark town.

You learn through the game that the only way to get through the perils you face is to use the power a light; light to defeat the darkness. This can create an idea in their players to fear the dark as light is, in this case, considered the answer.

Another game that designs its game around a lack of light is Slender-Man.

Any adrenaline junky would have had a go at this game by now as it’s insanely terrifying!

You are a lone survivor exploring a dark woods at night with nothing but a low battery flashlight trying to discover notes that hold your key to escaping.

However, you feel a sense that something is following you, something knows that you’re there…

The use of darkness in this game is well incorporated as, thanks to the flashlight, gamers can only use sparingly because once it’s dead, you’re surrounded in darkness and then you’ll never know where the Slender-Man is.

Parents in forums have reported that this game has caused their older children to have to sleep with a night light for weeks after playing this game; truly some damaging content for younger people!

Story arcs, tension & atmosphere

What is the one thing that truly draws us into a horror game?

The story and the atmosphere that brings with it.

When you want to take a player from just starting up a game to walking on eggshells because they don’t want to find out what’s on the other side of that door, you need a story to tell.

Now it’s important to add here that you don’t want a story so heavy that it bogs the gameplay mechanics down. Instead the story of a horror game tends to be lightweight and just enough to keep us wanting more.

Why is this?

Just for the same reason that the velociraptors in Jurassic game seem scary to us.

Throughout the entire beginning of Jurassic park, we hear experts and scientists discuss how bad of an idea such a thing is. We hear the warnings and subtle hints that something very bad lies ahead through the art of storytelling.

It’s precisely this exact concept that relates to Horror games.

It’s the atmosphere a story creates.

Isolation and being alone

What if you woke up one day to everything and everyone you knew and loved wasn’t where it should be, in fact, they have all completely disappeared without any clues or chances of finding them.

Yeah, I don’t think that would be particularly fun for anyone.

It’s a very common thing to fear: not having your family, friends or anyone at all!deadspace1

This can be tested thoroughly in games.

Now if there’s one game that does this extremely well, that would have to be Dead Space.

What more isolation can you get from being stuck in the void of space?

Isaac’s crew was slaughtered by alien scourge and now he’s on his own to fight for his life and find a way back home.

A particular way we find to deal with tough situations is to simply ask for help from someone who might understand the situation better.

However, without anyone there to ask, there’s not much else you can do other than to figure out yourself what to do which doesn’t always prove to be an easy task.

And there’s also the problem of being faced by a number of things at once. Knowing you have a team of people to back you up and help you out immediately relieves the pressure you may be feeling.

Of course, particularly in this game, there is you and only you to fight off whatever is trying to kill you and that not only adds to the fear the game creates but also the stress and the pressure to do well; no one will be there to tell you what to do either.

Unbalanced Relatability

When the protagonist of a horror game can relate to us in some shape or form, then we’re instantly hooked through empathy and emotion.

Suddenly everything becomes that much more real.

Again taking a deeper look into Silent Hill 2, we see our protagonist James Sunderland thrown into the deep end of a situation that he or us cannot control. Emphatic connection is built when we realize that James is just a normal, everyday guy like you or I.silent-hill-2-was-the-game-that-made-me-hate-myself-826-body-image-1426667824

It hit’s home in a way that makes you subconsciously think, “What if this was me?”.

Sometimes horror games don’t even reveal the identity of the character. This is a draw for some players as it suddenly takes them away from their god like position and directly places them into the game.

It’s no longer a sense of “What if this was me” but rather a, “Oh no this is me”.

In situations like this what are we supposed to do? Give up and turn around? Well sorry that’s no longer an option, it’s your life on the line here.

Mythical creatures and the unknown

In what seems more of a counter intuitive point against relatability and realism is the introduction of Mythical and imaginary creatures / characters.

Have you ever been scared of the soul seeking, blood thirsty monster that lies deep beneath your bed. Or maybe that deformed shadow that lurks in the corner of your room.outlast

Well that’s perfectly expected; that’s your mind recognising a disturbance that might result in a fight or flight situation.

The unknown has always been a big issue for society. We have torches to light up the dark so that we no longer have to expect the unexpected; we have Google so we can search our symptoms when we’re ill to see if we’re dying or not (though I wouldn’t recommend doing that).

Many horror games follow this idea: you are exploring a desolate, untouched area not knowing what’s round the corner: it’s the fear of the unknown that makes us not want to go anywhere we can’t see yet we have to in order to proceed in the game!

In the game Dead Secret, you are investigating the murder of a reclusive professor which means you start the game with a lot of questions and, therefore, a lot more unknowns: “Who is this professor?”, “How did he die?”, “Why did he live on his own?” etc.

“A creepy, suspenseful atmosphere creates anticipation of what might happen, which also enhances any startling moments that follow.” – Mark J Hadley

Using Music and sound to their advantage

That bump in the night can sometimes be the difference between a good night’s sleep or a distraught one at that.

The sounds of footsteps or the snapping of a branch are infamous for making us turn round in panic or even run for our lives within a video game.

That’s why music and sound is one of the final and most crucial elements of what makes a horror game scary.

You will be able to differentiate in movies which scenes are calm and happy by the scenes which are high pace chases from a murder wielding a blood-soaked machete just by the music.

Therefore, games utilise the music to almost exacerbate the situation; to remind the player that they definitely don’t want this monster pursuing them.

The music will usually be composed with sharp, dissonant chords, angular melodies and general disturbing sounds.

And what about the way new technology has been impacting on this?

In an interview released on playstation.com Jason Graves composer of Until Dawn talked about how they used reactive music within the game:

“During suspenseful scenes; maybe if there’s a door that you’re going to either go in or not, you can have the music get louder or softer depending on how close you get to it.”

Using a technology that is relatively open to most game developers, it’s a revolutionary way of creating a new sense of fear within horror games.

Today even the smallests of sounds within a game could mean something.

We asked Jamie Cross, writer of the music for Monstrum on what makes a game that little bit more scary in those tense scenes and of course his answer was related deeply to the music and sound effects:

“As a sound designer I’m slightly biased but going with the obvious: how sound is used in horror games can make or break them. Not just in terms of what a sound’s characteristics maybe, but how they’re implemented and build up the tension.

With horror, the scariest part is often “not knowing” or right before the reveal, and here is where good sound design (along with good game design taking advantage of it!) can massively improve and add to a horror experience.”

While music can be used as a very useful tool in creating suspense in many horror games, silence can also have a very similar effect.

Look at it this way: a lot of the time when someone is trying to park their car, they turn the radio down. Why is this? So they can concentrate on parking their car and not crashing into another one.

This being due to your human nature to not ‘overload’ your senses so that you can concentrate on something important.

Silence in a game is telling you that there is something you need to be giving your attention to, something you may wish wasn’t with you…

It also gives sound designers the chance to highlight some disturbing sound effects: heavy breathing, heart beating, foot steps etc.

The Conclusion?


In our bloodthirsty quench to devour more horror games and scare ourselves to the edge, we are always pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

Some horror experiences have become so life-like, people have invented interactive simulations such as Derren Brown’s Ghost Train at Thorpe Park (UK) involving the HTC Vive that can really make you believe that it’s truly happening.

It breaks the 4th wall, you are now truly the main character.

As these simulated situations become increasingly realistic, we are drawing our society into more believable fears. Having such immersive experiences, players won’t be able to tell the difference between the game and real life.

We will be scaring ourselves to the point, the games will be truly disturbing but will this really stop us?

Of course not.

While making players utterly creeped out of their seats so that they can’t go to bed at night, it has created some brilliant memories we share with fellow gamers. Especially when we force our friends into them.

YouTubers and Twitch streamers have managed to keep us entertained for hours with the fear they have endured.

The trend of horror games will never die out and in our opinion, they’re only going to get bigger and better (and scarier)

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