The Horror! What Makes Video Games Scary?

What scares you in video games? What makes video games scary? Is it the lighting, the atmosphere, the visuals, the sound design? In this in-depth interview we quiz Dead Space 2 Producer Shereif Fattouh on the science of scaring gamers.

Dead Space remains the defining horror title on this generation of consoles - leading the way with a believable universe and an incredible sense of place - but what makes it such a terrifying game to play? And what methods do Visceral Games employ to keep you on the edge of your seat for the entire game? We asked Dead Space 2 Producer Shereif Fattouh to help us understand...

So Shereif, in general, what makes games scary?

Well, I think the first thing is atmosphere - I know that’s kind of a general term, but when you look at it one of the key tenets that we have at Visceral Games is creating that claustrophobic atmosphere. Shapes, shadows - lighting is a huge part of it – audio plays a huge role. You know, just kinda setting up the design of the level to always keep you on your toes.

In Dead Space we always try to make the player uneasy in a lot of different ways. It’s not always just the easy scares, where you know - BOO! The monster jumps out of his monster closet. I mean we have a bit of that, like in the demo when the tripod boss jumps out, and those are fun, but you can’t rely on that because you become desensitised over time.

What we like to do is play tricks with the player, that keeps it frightening. That happens in cinema too – the subtle misdirections when things don’t happen.

The thing that I loved about the original was the fact that the things I found scary - the things that terrified me - were objects that were integrated into the design of the game. The shadows were created by machines that did something in the Ishimura. It was there for a reason. How do you pull that off? These two aspects of design must tug at each other...

Well, we have a super talented creative team back home when it comes to environment art and level designers – so those guys do a fantastic job. And we have a production designer that designs a lot of these images and shapes. At the beginning of the process we have story boards and being set 500 years in the future, they have these futuristic images they create – we get to ask what an anti-gravity chamber would look like, and we can make the machinery look menacing in a way. It’s not your antagonist, but it makes you feel uneasy.

If you look at the Ishimura, with all that ribbing – it has that gothic vibe and it gives you a sense of dread. One of my favourite machines in Dead Space 2 is what we call the ‘typewriter machine’ – it’s like this sinister contraption with lots of arms going at high speeds, making this really obnoxious sound, and you just feel uneasy when you walk through the room. At first we do a little scare when it’s all quiet and it just turns on all of a sudden! It’s a very uneasy looking thing, it doesn’t look very inviting. I think that’s part of the atmosphere thing – even a door can be scary!

There were a couple of time in the first game where I was like – here’s the horror music coming in, something scary is coming! But it was actually just ambient noise, that’s just a machine doing its business within the universe.

Yeah! Like all those low rattling hums, some of the buzzing and sirens – there are all sorts of ways we try and play tricks with the player.

It’s weird how some things are scary, but some things aren’t. What makes ‘things’ scary?

A lot of the time familiar sounds – different disciplines have different things that make them scary – but on the audio side I remember various sounds we had in the original Dead Space we borrowed from the subway. When our audio director went down to the subway to record it, it was a familiar sound, but it’s slightly different – it’s like you know what 'this' is, but it’s just a little bit 'off'. I hear sirens in Sydney here, for example, and they sound a little different from the ones back home. I’m not scared of them, but it just makes things a little uneasy. I notice the difference.

Do you guys do that a lot – take things that are familiar and just warp it? I guess that’s what makes the necromorphs so scary...

Absolutely. We take a lot of innocent sounding things... one of our new enemies uses a lot of bird calls, but when you start playing with the pitch and the hue, you twist it around and combine it with other voices, it turns into something terrifying. But there’s always this basis in reality that’s unsettling.

Part of what makes movies scary is the fact that you’re not in control. You can’t stop the stupid blonde girl from going into the room, or splitting up from the group! What are the challenges that come from making a game - which you can control - scary?

Those are unique challenges. It’s a lot easier in the older gen stuff when you had fixed cameras, and you could frame a shot the way that you wanted to. We get creative with how we do that, with the lighting and the effects and audio - just geometry within the world where we draw your attention. It’s not a guarantee, but we really want to focus players eyes towards a certain thing and we’ll build our designs around that. So the majority of players will experience the game as we want them to.

But on the other hand, from a gameplay standpoint, we don’t want to take player control away from the player. We don’t want to rely on those kind of tricks – player control is very important to us. It is a video game, the whole HUDless UI we use – we want to keep players immersed in the world. If you take camera control away from the player you lose some of that immersion.

So does the fact you can control the camera make it more scary?

SHEREIF: Well yeah, your immersion in the world is what’s scary to us. Again, we’ll give you visual markers – there are ways we can frame it, direct you down narrow corridors with confined spaces and pacing – and that’s where level design comes into play. We’ll funnel you in certain directions and there are triggers in the back end. Line of sight triggers, for example where an enemy won’t appear until you’re actually looking at a particular spot.

That’s interesting, because usually games will use a trigger point that you walk across...

Other games have it, but in a horror sense there are so many ways we can take advantage of it and use it. It gives you that control.

You mentioned story boards – but Dead Space doesn’t feel like a game that was story boarded. It was more like you built this environment, then created a story around it – because the universe seems so detailed and seamless. How much effort do you guys put into just building the universe?

Well it’s a huge effort! It’s really a symbiotic relationship. A lot of the times you’ll have an idea of what you want to do in the game space before you’ve even started making the game – we knew Isaac was going to be an engineer, we knew he was going to be on the ship. But sometimes we’ll have our concept artists draw out a room and we’ll be like, ‘wow, this is a really interesting space – let’s make a level based on this! Let’s create gameplay that takes advantage of this space’. You kind of feed off of each other and it grows into this organic thing.

What about the tension in the game – how do you manage that?

Well pacing is a huge part of it. We can’t have people on the edge of their seat all the time! There’s an underlying sense of danger throughout the entire game, for sure. You’ll give people fewer enemies, narrow the corridors, more pick-ups – or you can be in a safe zone, with a store or a bench. The player can relax a bit, you know. Then we mess around with it a bit...

Yeah I was going to say!

[laughs]Yeah, well that’s the perfect opportunity to, once in a while, just freak them out a little! Sometimes we’ll spawn an enemy when you go into the store room, or leave a couple behind when you think you’ve cleared everything out! Those are tricks that we sometimes use.

You talk about the pacing – is that the reason why you wanted to integrate new mechanics and more open combat spaces?

Well the evolution of the combat – pacing is always in mind – but we really wanted to innovate on our existing mechanics and introduce new things to keep it fresh. We had the ideas of using the necromorphs as weapons, interactive environments, decompression windows and those sorts of things. In the end everything influences the pacing, but on the mechanics side, that can be driving the environment design as well. We’ll want to do something mechanically, so we’ll create spaces that let us do that.

What influences you guys? I almost see Dead Space 2 as the ‘Aliens’ to Dead Space’s ‘Alien’. Both Alien and Dead Space are these claustrophobic, smaller stories that are ramped up and more action based in the sequel. Is that deliberate – was Aliens a big influence?

Absolutely – we all love that movie. All of the dev team are fans of horror. We love Silent Hill, Resident Evil, all those types of games. We take inspiration from all over the place. A quality title in any medium – you have to appreciate what’s being done and borrow elements - yet we still have a very defined vision of what we want to do. We definitely get influence and inspired by a whole section of things.

Personally – what scares you the most?

Well, I get kind of freaked out by psychological thrillers. The scariest movies for me are like Jacob’s Ladder - and the original Ring was kinda trippy! Gore doesn’t really do it for me. I guess working on Dead Space makes me immune to it. It’s when you get into the scary mind trip movies – those kinda freak me out a little bit. Throw a little satanic worship, or any kind of supernatural element in there – those are hard to create, but they’re as scary as hell!

Could you ever make a game that works on that level?

I think you could. The original Silent Hill, for example, wasn’t really combat based, but was more about exploration. Fatal Frame 2 – that was super scary. It’s a different type of game – how much it appeals to the mass market is up for debate, but it definitely can be done. There’s a place for everything, but it might be a little too scary for me!


    "In Dead Space we always try to make the player uneasy in a lot of different ways. It’s not always just the easy scares, where you know – BOO! The monster jumps out of his monster closet. I mean we have a bit of that, like in the demo when the tripod boss jumps out, and those are fun, but you can’t rely on that because you become desensitised over time."

    Oh, coming from them, that comment is so rich I had to see a dentist.
    The most bizarre thing about this is that they bring up Project Zero 2 and call it "super scary" yet they make a game which takes an almost completely opposite approach to design and horror. I really don't get these guys.

      I don't agree. I found the first dead space scary because I worked myself up into a frenzy rather than enemies jumping out at me. I think, to an extent, they did have the "BOO! Closet-monster!" factor, but I felt the atmosphere was much more frightening.

      As to the desensititsation, I completely agree. I found it infinitely more frightening when I hadn't seen a monster for an age and one jumped out than when I had 15 encounters in a row.

      OT: The machines in Dead Space are fracking ominous. Most of my ammo was spent on shooting at a machine's shadow... :(

      Haha couldn't agree with you more!

    I'd love to see a horror game where moster encounters are more random, not set pieces with filler.

    Imagine if you could enter an area, get killed by an unlucky encounter half way through, but then on your way back through run into half a dozen cannon fodder before a heavy monster screams at you down the hallway with half a clip left.

    Not only would it increase the replayability, it would remove a great deal of the certainty which makes gamers feel safer.

      I agree. To some extent, L4d and L4d2 cater for that. But they aren't that scary, and the maps are linear anyway, so I guess it's not really that same... xD

    Good to see that Silent Hill was the game to really be a huge influence on the design for this and future horror games.

    Yahtzee's view on horror games states that Dead Space belongs in category 3, while Silent Hill 2 is in category 2. If you don't know, look it up...

    I personally found almost no respite in Dead Space. Everything had me on edge, even when I was in a "safe" room. EVERYTHING seems to be designed to make you uneasy, from Isaac's suit to the RIG menu. SH2 did a good job of allowing you breathing space, presenting the player with a safer looking world, mellow music, and enemies you could easily see and run away from.

    Sorry, I can't help being an SH2 fanboy.

    Seriously Kotaku, I love you, but you're obsessed with telling me craaaZzzy scary dead space is this week!

    I'm so glad to read so many comments from discerning people who expect a little bit more from a game to be considered 'horror'.

    This article is all very well, but when you compare what he is saying with the actual hollywoodised outcome that we all just put in our consoles they could be talking about a different game

    I met Shereif at the BBB event in Sydney last week what a top bloke ;D.

    Anyway its the atmosphere that makes a game scary - a creepy soundtrack playing in the background and footsteps/clunks as something is creeping up behind you that sends chills down your spine.

    I love dead space, just bought it today and cant wait to get into it. It was pricey though, $90 at EB. Loved the first one, hope this is even better =D!

    1. Sounds. Sounds all the damn way. I hate both absolute silence and "glitching" sound, like when the normal ambiance starts getting choppy.
    2. Fourth wall breaking just creeps me the heck out.
    3. To some degree, endless loops.

    In short, P.T. gave me a heart attack.

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