Shiver with Anticipation – How Horror Games Create Tension Cycles – Extra Credits


Welcome to the second week of Halloween because one’s never enough. I gotta say I am shocked We’ve never done this topic before I feel like we must have but I can’t seem to find it in the archive so alright This week we’ll be talking about the tension and release curve for a horror game You remember that video about pacing and interest curves that we did ages ago? If not you might want to go watch that one again to refresh because we’re gonna build off of a lot of the Stuff we said in there. I’ll put a link down below, and there’s probably an annotation somewhere around me all right here We go in horror games the goal is still to build the same basic interest curve you would in other types of games But how you go about that in a horror game is radically different than in other genres. Which is something That’s too often misunderstood. So let me put the question to you How do you ratchet up the interest in a horror title? this is actually a really tough question. It’s the reason that so many horror Games seem to have given up on Horror entirely instead turning to all the [tried-and-true] methods we know from action Gameplay to craft their interest curve and just Layering a horror skin on top of that It’s also why so many horror games fall flat Even when horror games don’t give up on horror many of them think that in order to build up interest they need to pile on The scares and the surprising or disgusting moments, packing the game with traditional horror genre moments at every turn But those horror moments aren’t actually how we build up interest in a horror title They are the payoff the height of an interest peak you see horror is about a cycle of tension and release. It’s about anticipation It’s about those stretches where you know something’s coming, and that something terrible is about to happen But you don’t know when. The build-up to the scare is as important as the scare itself Play One of the first few Silent Hills and compare the frequency of intense action moments with any comparable third-person action title Note how long the lulls between enemy encounters are rather than fighting a new enemy every second There’s often 10 to 15 seconds between enemy encounters. As you play through watch for the sections where they simply let you walk around with nothing happening. In most games this would be the death of engagement, but in a horror game. This is what brings it all together Why? because the best horror lets you do the work for it. So let’s talk about Pt When you look at it, the actual scares in Pt Aren’t anything exceptional the ghost wasn’t particularly horrific and many of the different types of scares it offered were things you’ve probably Seen before. But what made it masterful was its use of tension and release as you were walking down that hallway You knew something was going to happen and you were just waiting for it and every second It didn’t happen you are making yourself more tense Anticipating it trying to second-guess when it was going to come. You were building the fear for yourself with every step you took down that Hallway until just when you almost couldn’t take it anymore WHAM scary thing, and that scare? That’s the payoff It makes you jump and it frightens you, but after it hits some of that tension is relieved You’re actually less tense now less afraid of what lies ahead than you were just a few seconds before Imagine if they just threw those scares or those jump moments or those disgusting scenes at you one after another, after another in fact you’ve Probably seen some game or movie try to do that It loses its impact very quickly. Instead you have to let us build up that tension again. So we’re in the right place Psychologically to really get the most out of that next big scary moment, so how do you set this up? well, there’s a couple of parts that are integral to building tension in a horror product. First they have to set you up with the Expectation of the terrible. Say you’re playing an action game, and you clear an area of enemies But then for some reason you’ve got to reach retraverse through that area which is now completely empty and enemy free That’s not going to build attention boredom and frustration, yes, But not tension. in horror games on the other hand quiet areas make us nervous Why is this? It’s because the world sets up an expectation that something terrible is about to happen. In horror This is a pact that the game immediately makes with the player You get some of this just by knowing what you’re getting into when you pick up the title. After all we know that terrible things are going to happen in Silent hill. Terrible things always happen in Silent Hill But look at how much effort games like silent hill or fatal frame put into making sure that the setting itself is uncomfortable That there’s something not quite right there Next this tension is usually enhanced by letting us into a situation that in some way limits our perception Allowing us to psych ourselves out even more as we try to guess What sort of ghosts or horrors may lurk just out of sight. Silent hill this is done with the fog. Fatal frame does this with the invisibility of the ghosts Slender does this with darkness and many other games, heck even PT achieved this with right angles and closed doors. If you’ve ever had that moment of tension right before you turn a corner or open a Door in a horror game. This is why. Finally crafters of good horror will make sure that you can’t Actually anticipate the real threat. In horror you have to make sure you don’t overdo it But many games will use things like the sound of a door creaking or the rustle of leaves or the sound of a pebble falling Behind you to get your brain thinking there are threats where there are none. we do this with Shadows and Mirrors and Mannequins all the time. These red herring threats keep your brain from feeling safe, from being able to predict when a real terror Is coming. This in turn adds to the creeping unease you feel waiting for the real threat. So to create the interest curve we want in our horror games rather than building in action or even surprises scares or ghastly bits We need to focus on building tension during the quiet slow moments that put the player in the right frame of mind to be truly horrified when those big moments finally come. Only by thinking of this tension and release cycle can we actually create a good interest curve for This genre and this is even more important for us as an industry as we start branching into genres beyond our typical action game While the desired interest curve is similar regardless of whatever genre you’re working in, what actually builds that interest within the genres is not All right, I guess we can pack up the halloween stuff for now until next year

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