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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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