Scare Tactics

Scared witless by your latest PC game? You're not alone...

The horror, the horror, etc! From the paintsplattered zombies in Half-Life 2 to the haunted wheelchairs of Silent Hill 3, research conducted for this report left your
reporter quivering like a shitting dog. Why do we do this to ourselves time after time? Why spend your evenings convincing yourself that an as-yet unseen assailant is about to pounce?

"How often, after childhood, are you really scared?" asks California State University media psychologist Stuart Fischoff. "It's a chance to test your personal mettle. You know it's not real but you can pretend it is. It's the closest thing to a nightmare, yet you're in control." PC games can now be a runaway train of terror, and developers have more psychological tricks up their sleeves than TV witch Derren Brown, scaring us with weird lighting, claustrophobic environments, hideous beasts and nasty stories. "By keeping our biggest scares in-game, we emphasise a type of horror that no other entertainment medium can touch," chuckles Richard Rouse III, creative director and writer on The Suffering: Ties That Bind.


Two main neurotransmitters engage our emotions when playing videogames, continues Fahrenheit's developer David Cage. "Adrenalin is created when you face danger: your body prepares to fight or to flee. There's an increase in blood pressure, heartbeat, the level of sugar in the blood. You start to sweat, digestion stops, muscles and skin are stretched. Dopamine is generated each time there's an effort and a reward, creating a pleasant feeling."

Developers not only push our emotional buttons by creating beasties that scream "boo!" at improper moments, they also insert psychological elements into the gameplay. The inhuman bastards. Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth - a ditty based on the demented writings of HP Lovecraft - is set to employ "a sanity system that triggers a mix of audio and visual effects during gameplay," according to producer Chris Gray. "The only indication you get that your sanity is running low is through your heartbeat and breathing."

Audio is another prime way in which developers torture PC punters. Remember Max Payne's creepy maze sequence with the baby crying in the background? Or the random wails in Silent Hill? "A clanging sound from a dark cellar or inhuman screams from behind a closed door is as effective in stimulating fear as a room full of zombies," continues Gray. "Another technique is to associate a specifi c sound, musical piece or even voice with something horrifi c. If you do this early you can use the sound at any stage later in the game to create fear."

Feverish imagination won over ugliness in the old days - 3D Monster Maze and text adventures such as 1986's Moonmist perhaps benefi ting from the novelty of immersive gaming and the youth of those playing. The advent of modern shocks was to come in 1993, with a game that single-handedly kickstarted the entire survival horror genre: Alone In The Dark.

Frederick Raynal, French creator of this haunted-house adventure, was inspired by scary fl icks from the '70s and '80s (his dad owned a video store). "I noticed that the structure of some - the hero being trapped and having to survive in a hostile environment - would be perfect for a game. When I created Alone In The Dark, 3D graphical techniques were quite poor. So I had to find other ways to create something visually frightening and used text to reach new levels of scary description."

From Silent Hill to Resident Evil, Alone In The Dark's presence is felt to this day, but static cameras and lengthy key-hunts are no longer the extent of our ghoulish pleasure. Jordan Thomas, designer of Thief: Deadly Shadow's infamous Cradle level, is spooked by "the perversion of something that was once human and the unsettling blend of pity and shock one feels as a result. Nothing beats the doomed menagerie of System Shock 2."

  1 2