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how to make a game feel "disturbing"?

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hi there! I have a real passion for horror-adventure games, and I am fascinated by those games that actually manage to make you want to have the lights turned on. And I just ask myself: what is it that makes a game even remotely "disturbing"/"scary"/"frightening". I know this is a pretty individal question, some have never been "scared" by plaing a game, whilst others is easily "scared". In my opinion a game can either make you jump-off your seat, f ex. by a sudden and unexpected sound or voice, or have a disturbing atmosphere, f ex with the help of music, unrecognizable objects OR a cold twist in the story. What do you think is required to make a game even remotely disturbing? do you have any suggestions? thanks for your help! your opinions and critique are appreciated;-) And by the way, I suddenly realized that this post should have been under "game design", my apologies. [Edited by - crunch on June 15, 2007 10:17:55 AM]

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See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_thriller and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_horror for poorly written descriptions of a few literary devices to help you.

The biggest one omitted from the list is the careful use of foreshadowing. Letting the player know that something nasty is coming up but not revealing what permits the mind to exaggerate whatever fears they already have. The Blair Witch Project does an excellent job of that.


In the game play (not story of the game), music and audio effects play a vital role. Careful compositions can evoke powerful emotions. Audio clues that something bad is happening nearby can help with fear of the unknown, especially when you don't actually see the disturbing event.

Game play providing limited or obscure visual information also helps. Although many games use these techniques, I liked Doom3's example of having long periods of story with no conflict. They offered no escape, lights frequently going out, confined spaces with limited visibility, and smoke and steam all playing a role. You could wanter through large areas of the complex without encountering anything but psychologic events. Each of these play on natural fears such as fear of the unknown, fear of the dark, claustrophobia, helplessness and being trapped.

Along the same line, many classics like Steven King's and Hitchcock's stories use natural fears. Exploiting fears in the sewers with confined space, bad lighting, limited visibility, and creepy bugs like roaches, rats and spiders. Murders inside confined showers and bathrooms when they are filled with steam or hidden behind curtains. Overhearing disturbing stream of consciousness talks with 'mother' without ever hearing responses or observing the events. All of these play off the viewer's natural fears.

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thank you frob for many inspiring suggestions :-).

yes, I agree with you: the use of small confined spaces and darkness in doom3 is very effective because it affects our very "instinctive" fears. What I like so much about these types of horror devicesis that they frighten you with no apparent reason, they just makes you feel uncomfortable with the atmosphere in the game(or in novel or movie).

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For me, in order of importance

audio
lighting and post-effects
level layout
art for creeps
story

Note the high importance of audio. Try watching a scene from one of the Halloween movies or the Shining normally, then mute it and throw on "Mickey" (i.e. Oh Mickey, you're so fine/You're so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey). Note that the scene is no longer creepy, but rather pretty hilarious.

-me

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Mutilated and slightly retarded creatures attacking you, a delirious priest helping you, and an MIT grad running around with a shotgun [lol]

On a more serious note I think it is a combination of things. One thing that disturbs/thrills me is when there is a certain element of a game that is introduced as a surprise and then repeated. Its the anticipation that really gets me such as with the flood in Halo, the fast zombies in half life, traps in oblivion, or just the temptation of 6 people that are trying to kill you at once.

This is not all though because the environment needs to be unfarmiliar as you said and the sound is VERY important. I have found that I can watch just about any scary movie with subtitles and no sound and not be stirred. You need to have dark music and gloomy sounds.

Another thing that works well is stuff that is just plain disgusting. Again, I'll revisit half life with the barnacles, they are gross! With all of these elements and some unmentioned ones you can create the right environment.

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Thanks for your suggestions and advice!;-)
Yes, I totally agree with all of you in that music and sound effects are an invaluable "tool"/device to create a nasty atmosphere in f ex a horror adventure game.

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Be careful when your designing the graphics of your horror game. Just because everything is dark doesn't necessarily mean it's scary, and more often then not it's just makes me aggrivated that I can't see anything in the first place.

You can use sudden lighting changes or exposures to create effects visually that don't require the player to walk around in a dark room and only see zombies when it's already too late.

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Also, one thing a lot of game have is a place that the player can go. Some kind of cover, a safe haven, somewhere they can take a break from the action.

Although I think it's important to let anticipation of danger build up, once they are attacked, give them nowhere to run. Nowhere to be safe, no relief.

I'm working on a side project primarily for my son; it's more-or-less a zombie shooter, with the emphasis on protecting the few survivors. My favorite level is actually a very simple outdoors setting. It's a little hilly, so that you can't see all the way to the horizon, and there's some sparse woods. It starts out as daytime, but the sun sets eventually.

You can see the silhouettes on the hills in the distance; your flashlight gives you tunnel vision. They could be anywhere, on any side of you, and there's nothing to put your back against. When you do spot one, it's sudden and their white eyes light up under the flashlight. If there's too many, you can move away, but there is absolutely nowhere that is "safe," and if you set off running, you're just as likely to stumble into another group.

It's a device you just can't leave out: no relief.

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I remember, while playing System Shock 2, having spent some half an hour looking for some device or switch or whatever. Then, down in a dark hatch, I finally saw it on a pedestal a couple of meters in front of me; I start running... and suddenly 3 spiders fall from ceiling with a screach. It's one of the unforgetable game experiences. [Actually, a special patch was released removing this from the game to protect people with arachnofobia...] In short, I find that the element of surprise, the sudden change of situation is also important.

Liosan

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THE UNCANNY by Sigmund Freud.

... among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs. This class of frightening things would then constitute the uncanny; ... for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.

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Lots of good points here. Another to consider would be the cinematic aspect, that is to say the use of camera. I know the camera in Silent Hill (at least the first one) was particularly creepy. It was like some creature perched somewhere watching from above.

As mentioned above, to make a game creepy requires evoking emotions that make people feel uncomfortable. The feeling of being watched, or being trapped, or being chased by something unseen and horrible.

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One element that I believe can add well to a sense of creepiness (and which may have been mentioned in one of the links above; I have not yet followed those at the time of writing) is the changing of some element or elements in a small but unnatural or awkward way.

The classic, I would say, is the slightly-off gait often used for undead, especially ghosts. Look, for example, at the gait used by the girl in The Ring. The standard shuffling of zombies doesn't quite fit this, I don't think; the gait in question shouldn't look quite natural for a human being, I would say. Perhaps even have the character move in a way that suggests that the joints, while appearing normal, are moving in a way that isn't quite right.

Have one shadow fall at a slightly wrong angle, or suggest a shape not defined by that which casts it, or move very slightly, perhaps just out of time with whatever casts it.

Give a character a slightly odd speech pattern - not one that sounds simply as though the speaker were unfamiliar with the language - incorrect or out-of-date use of idiom, for example - but rather something which makes little sense at all. Perhaps slight pauses in odd places (without suggestion that the speaker is thinking or otherwise distracted), or facial expressions that don't entirely match the content of what is being said.

Place some small, usually innocuous item in a place which, while itself entirely innocuous, is unusual for that item, better yet if it suggests something disturbing.

In a number of the cases that I've given, it may be noted, slightly-off timing is mentioned. Such timing can be, I think, is a useful tool. Consider the sight of moving past a mirror, only to notice that your reflection acts very slightly after you do..

One thing that I've found to get to me is the image of what seems to be a baby or small toddler running quickly and surely. Again, I think that this is an instance of something normal and unthreatening moving in a way that is not normal.

The key, I think, is to not overstate the effect. To great a change can, I suspect, lead to the element being perceived as alien, rather than unnatural. An alien thing is odd and, in the right conditions, may be slightly creepy, but I think that you will find that something that is close to but not quite normal has a stronger effect. Distort the normal, I suspect, and you remove the safety and comfort to be found in the normal - it is no longer inviolate.

This is, of course, my opinion - I'm afraid that I don't have references offhand, although I do seem to recall reading something that suggested this (and may in fact be the source of this opinion).

Oh, and mannequins.

Well, I at least find mannequins to be effectively creepy in some games. Silent Hill 3, for instance, had some mannequins that really got to me (the mannequin-part room in the office block especially, as I recall... *gulp*)

Mirrors can also be useful, as in one case mentioned above - the reflection can, in some cases at least, be a powerful tool. Have the mirror reflect people who are not there, or not reflect the player, or distort their image. Perhaps this is because we connect reflections with reality, map what happens there to what is happening around and to us, and so to have a mirror behave differently, especially if it is suggesting something happening to oneself, could have an unsettling effect, I believe.

I know that I, at least, am prone to being creeped out by mirror effects, especially when I don't know that they're coming - I don't know how general this effect is, however.

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Between LessBread and Thaumaturge, I recalled the Uncanny Valley. Essentially a big problem for people trying to make things that are familiar, but fall just short. A robot designed to appear human is often too perfect. The eyes stare straight at you, the skin is smooth and perfect. They are completely symmetrical. At the same time, they move a little out of step. They lack grace and fluidity. They don't breathe, and their behaviors are odd. The designers want to copy humanity, but end up somewhere between too close and not close enough. Instead it triggers our subconscious cues that something is wrong - they're ill, dead, or just not made right.

I think that this can be exploited a bit. Making creatures or people close in appearance and behavior, but not quite right. Either too perfect or such that things don't quite add up. In games, it's hard to make things perfect anyways, but being able to replicate this perception in the context of a game, to have a person that stands out as not being quite right, is a very effective feat.

Edit: Must close tags!

[Edited by - erissian on June 15, 2007 11:32:31 PM]

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I think of all of the games that I have played, Half-Life 2 was the most "disturbing" (but, I haven't played F.E.A.R. or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. yet). Sure, The Flood in Halo were pretty stinkin' creepy, but it got to a point that they simply became another enemy to me. They lost their scare-factor. However, in HL2, the fast-zombies and Valve's use of sounds and scripted sequences made the game particularly creepy. Here's my favorite example:

In Half-Life 2: Episode 1, you fight through waves of zombies in a hospital. That alone wasn't all that scary, because the normal zombies in HL2 are pretty funny (especially when they are on fire or stuck through the head with a crossbow bolt). However, after finishing off the last wave, everything got insanely quiet. I walked forward slowly into an operating room, looking all around and getting ready for something to jump out. As I neared the door at the other side and became a little more relaxed, a cable swung down from the ceiling and touched the corpse on the operating table, causing it to flinch and sparks to fly. Without thinking, I spun around and literally emptied an entire SMG clip into the corpse, realizing later that it was actually dead already.

Anyway, my point is, make the player go crazy. Just small details can really make someone feel uncomfortable. A flickering light is an effect that I am most fond of. Sounds like dripping water or maybe a small creak or bang does wonders. I also suggest that you don't let the player know where the sound is coming from. If you can do 3D sound, play the sound behind the player, then to to side, the behind again, then in front of them, then to the side, etc etc etc. They will never know where or what it is.

So, there are my suggestions. Enjoy. ;)

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The scariest games I have played are Doom 3 and F.E.A.R.

For Doom 3, the thing that got me the most was when you would be walking through a semi-dark room, and you would like be walking towards a door or an elevator. Nothing creepy or scary right? But as soon as you get to the door, a zombie pops out from a hidden area right beside you. All of a sudden you can barely see him from the side of the screen, but you know its there, and it instantly starts attacking you. The ambient audio from Doom 3 added the the effect tremendously as well.

For FEAR, I think the scariest part about the game was the audio. And the hallucination's were very creepy. The cut-scenes as well. Pretty much everything in that game was creepy lol.

To me, audio and hearing things (like people talking or an argument or really anything) that isn't really there is extremely scary.

Ambient audio like in Doom 3 is way scarier than any music tracks you could ever play in a game.

As a side note: I don't know why, but neither HL2 or HL scared me at all. They seemed more funny lol.

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hey, thanks for all your replies, there were lots of ideas I could never have thought of myself! ;-).

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Quote:
Original post by cemedias
As a side note: I don't know why, but neither HL2 or HL scared me at all. They seemed more funny lol.


Yes, although I love Half-Life 2, this is very true. I think the designers were more aiming for (or aimed for the the opposite but missed) a more "ewww gross!" style than monsters popping out behind your character and scaring the sh*t out of you. Also, Half-Life 2 (and the sequels (I'm totally looking forward to episode 2)) are more aimed at cinematic quality (both in music and art), which is something I think that Doom3 and is a bit shallow on. When you think about it, Half-Life 2 is a LOT more realistic than Doom3, especially on the subject of monsters and monster placement. Although Doom3 was cool, the "monster closet trick" got a bit too old by then end of the game. If there were zombies in real life, they wouldn't be able to seal themselves behind a wall and pop out when you walk by.
The cinematic stuff, however, that I really loved about Doom3 is the music stingers. There's not much in the way of ambient music, but I just love the part where you're in the infirmary and the patient zombie sits up on the bed and there's that awesome orchestra stinger. That was totally sweet. The actual music in Half-Life 2 is awesome, though, and it really gets your blood running (more than Doom 3 anyway).

Anyway, enough of Half-Life2 and Doom3, here's some fun horror tips applicable almost anywhere.

First, horror movies are NOTHING without a soundtrack. Music stingers and such really shock people and bring out the nerve-popping.
Second, sometimes you need to leave things to the player's imagination. Make sure that it is evident in the way NPC's act that something bad is going on. Things like blood trails, dents in the wall, and overturned tables make a good suggestion of what took place in a room.
Third, Silence is golden. If the player is walking around with nothing happening, he's bound to get scared wondering when the next monster will pop out.

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Personally when I try to disturb somebody I try to focus on things that are generally taboo and unacceptable in normal society.

Cannibalism
Child Abuse/killing
Odd Fetishes (dominatrix anyone?)

I also like to try bringing up things people tend to have irrational fears over:
Needles
Slimy, sticky, gooey / bugs / insects.

Off-pitch sound coming from people creeps me out as well so I like to bring that up.
Extremely high cackles/giggles from little kids.
Multiple voices from one mouth. Not too different in pitch though. Like one low pitch and the other one octave higher in pitch to get some kind of harmony so the voices blend together but you can still detect them separately if you listen hard enough.

Dirt. Make things dirty. Old and dirty. It gives the illusion that any live/sane/functional person has left the place long ago or cant because something's out there. The illusion of disrepair and utter neglect can set the mood giving a sense that something terrible had happened there.

And I agree with the previous posters. Sound.
Sound is an extremely important thing.
Have things like shuffling, moaning, growling, maybe a guy screaming as he's being munched on /ripped apart be heard from off in the distance. Resident Evil did a great job of this for me and scared the hell out of me when I could hear a zombie moan but wasnt able to see him. The first zombie you encounter where you find him munching on the old BRAVO guy was a classic example. Sudden zombie surprise and then you cant see him anymore. You hear him coming for you but you can't aim.

Crunching glass. Bubbling pots. Whistling steam. Clanking chains in a meat locker! Music is important too. Something soft, slow, eerie.

This is a fun topic. Id like to see what more people have to say on this =)

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Quote:
Original post by destron
First, horror movies are NOTHING without a soundtrack.


Surely you must have seen the Blair Witch Project? Not one lick of music, not even during the staff roll. Perfect.

I thought the first couple hours of Doom 3 were scary, the first time. After a while, imps leaping from behind closed doors ceases to be the least bit scary and simply becomes annoying. I couldn't finish the game because being victimized by the same ridiculous scare tactics time and again irritated the hell out of me.

The flashlight also annoyed me. There was absolutely nothing scary about having to constantly switch between the flashlight and whatever weapon I wanted to use. Accountants are NOT scary, and neither is micro-managing!

Timing I think is the most crucial approach to making something scary. You want to throw the audience for a loop when they're not expecting it. Make everything seem perfectly okay, and then introduce the obscene. You should build this up with an effectively creepy atmosphere, of course. Get the nerves rattling a bit, ease them down, and then hit the shock button.

There's one very minor scene in F.E.A.R. where you're climbing down a ladder in some type of refinery, you reach the bottom and turn to face the walkway, and Paxton Fettel is just standing there. He doesn't say or do anything; he just appears there. I swear, the first three times I played through the game, this part scared the bejeezus out of me. I reflexively unloaded my shotgun into him, and he exploded into a cloud of ash. The last two times I laughed because I should have remembered, but it was so subtle, and the rest of the game takes your mind off things like that.

The use of lighting and shadows in F.E.A.R. was also amazing. And the ending! The entire final hour of the game just blew me away. I've never seen a more effective cinematic approach then when you finally catch up to Fettel after chasing him through the entire game. And the second-to-last scene where you discover your origins . . . I literally had to stop a minute and breathe, clutching my mouse, because the only thing I wanted to do was put a bullet in Harlan Wade's head. No other game has affected me on an emotional level like that.

Half-life 2 never really creeped me out. I mean, there were creepy moments, but in all the game was about resisting an alien occupation, not killing spooky zombies.

Now, Undying is a great game to play if you want to be scared. It was authored and overseen by Clive Barker, who's renowned as a master horror novelist/screenwright. Hallways with drifting curtains to conceal what lies beyond are particularly effective, and the game did involve a mirror at one point near the very beginning. Anyway, you should check it out.

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Quote:
Original post by destron
When you think about it, Half-Life 2 is a LOT more realistic than Doom3, especially on the subject of monsters and monster placement.


Haha, It's sorta a paradox when you think of monsters being realistic, considering they aren't real?

Quote:
Original post by destron
There's not much in the way of ambient music


According to some interviews, id was actually going for the ambient music.

Quote:
Original post by Tom
After a while, imps leaping from behind closed doors ceases to be the least bit scary and simply becomes annoying.


Yes, this is true, but short lived. Once you get passed this part in the game, It gets very exciting. The best part in the entire game is at the end when your in Hell.

Quote:
Original post by Tom
The flashlight also annoyed me. There was absolutely nothing scary about having to constantly switch between the flashlight and whatever weapon I wanted to use.


I actually enjoyed beating zombies over the head with the flashlight. I thought it was funny haha. Either way, they did away with the flashlight in the Doom 3 expansion pack Resurrection of Evil. They made a pistol/light combo.

All of this is probably off topic, and the thread is probably nearing the end of its lifetime; but I couldn't resist to respond. Doom 3 is my favorite game lol. The only disappointing part of the game for me was how short it was and the very beginning drags on without action for a while.

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Okay, before I tell you what I think will make a game "disturbing" I want you to know, I havn't read any other of the replys, so sorry if I have seemed to have copied someone, I will read through after thou =]

Anyways, what I believe is that most games are "jumpy" not actually creepy. I am not certain but I don't think that there is a horror genre game that doesn't actually make you scared enough that you don't even want to turn on the "in-game" torch or turn on the "in-game" light, you just want to stay in the dark like nothing exists. All horror genre games seems to be are quick shocks that make you stop playing for a maximum of 5 minutes to get your breath back.

What I would say is yes, do have scenes that are made to make people jump out of their skin but also have long periods of time that are made to make people think they are a b o u t to jump out of their skin.

After writing and actually thinking, I beleive you will need "jumpy" bits in the game as when people realise there isn't going to be any jumps, they will run through the game without breaking a sweat and this will just ruin the experience all together.

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The best way to make something disturbing to others is think of what disturbs you and then translate it. Odds are you'll hit a relatively universal chord.

For me, the things I find most disturbing are taking familiar objects/people and then altering that image to make it more perverse. A great recent example is in the movie 1408 when the alarm clock (a familiar object) constantly switches a song on and then begins a countdown to the protagonist's death. A familiar object, but with a twist.

But, my favorite example of this has to be the chestburster in Alien. O'Bannon takes a very familiar and intimate thing (birth, human sexuality) and makes it grotesque by having a man be essentially raped by an alien and then give birth to its offspring through his chest.

That's just me personally, though. So some general advice is simply to take universal fears (unknown, heights, claustrophobia, etc.) and work them into the atmosphere, either obviously or subliminally.

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The Uncanny Valley reference is good. Another idea comes from Stephen King's "On Writing," I think: his description of three levels of fear.

The first is the gross-out: you're in the dark when a severed eyeball lands on you. Gross!
The second is fear: you're in the dark when a huge fangorious monster leaps out at you. Eek!
The third is terror: you're in the dark when you hear heavy breathing behind you, and you turn around and see nothing, but you sense something big and nasty somewhere nearby, waiting...

The moral is that understatement and lack of information can be good for creating a frightening mood. One drop of blood in an unexpected place, say, or a lifeguard discovering that at the end of the day, there's one abandoned pair of shoes by the pool. Not only do you sense that something bad is going on, you're helpless at the moment because you lack the information to do anything about it. And you know that when you do investigate, you're probably not going to like what you discover.

One other idea would be to challenge people's basic knowledge about how the world works. Suddenly you can't trust the floor beneath your feet, the air, the food, your clothes, your friends, etc..

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F.E.A.R and Slient Hill (I only played the first one) are good examples of how to do that.

Silent Hill was scary and disturbing because of:
Audio - You hear the PC's breath, heart beat, echoes, and everything else tends to be fairly quiet until your getting attacked by something

Imagery - The world around you gradually got darker as the game progressed, lighting was very important, there was plenty of blood, sharp objects laying around, and butchered bodies. This stuff was every where. The PC would tremble constantly. You had to watch bad things happen that you could not stop.

Gameplay - You were a clumbsy, shaking, unauthentic, ordinary joe clutching a little crow bar, trying to save his daughter, in a world full of athletic demonic creatures that what to kill you. Even worse, everything you did only made that world more harsh.

F.E.A.R was scary and disturbing because of:
Imagery - The PC would have random "delusions" where your vision becomes blurry and figures in the dark try to attack you or they do bad things that you want to stop. Things would randomly fall from the ceiling when you walk up on them, cinematic events were triggered often and in places you may not expect. You could never stop the bad things from happening, you had to sit through them.

Audio - You hear whispers in the dark and are constantly taunted by voices that you cannot reach.

Gameplay - During "halucinations" your character still had the ability to move but and shoot but you were much slower and shooting didn't always have an effect. Also, it wasn't clear whether the things you saw existed in the real world or not. Then the episodes would end abruptly and leave you where you were before you started making it seem as though you must have been hallucinating.

I think the key to making a game "disturbing" is the ways in which you take control out of the player's hand but still include them in the action. Silent Hill did this by making your character physically weak and shakey (this did annoy some, but I appreciated the change from the Resident Evil way), and F.E.A.R did this with well timed scenes of hallucinations that were beyond the PC's control, and both subjected the player to cinematic scenes of things they would want to stop but could not.

I also think the second biggest element is timing. By timing event's to occur when they are least expected, or at least when they are least desirable, you keep the player on their toes. After that there is pacing; by allowing the player to slow down and think things are ok you prepare them to be surprised again when things are not ok. Of course that is partly related to timing, but it is important to slow things down or the effect of surprise wears off and turns into fatigue and grinding.

So if you effectively leverage the players freedom to engage in the action against their handicaps, employ good timing, and keep up a well varied pace you can create a "scary" atmosphere. You should also use sound effects (I believe this is the more important factor) and imagery to heighten the suspension of disbelief.

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