Three Nerds in a Basement

What makes a game scary?

October 21, 2011


For those of you that listen to the podcast you know that I have been playing a lot of Dark Souls, a sadistically hard game that sometimes I wonder why I’m even playing it. I expected the game to be difficult, and for me to get frustrated at certain points, but I never expected the game to make me feel fear or tension. Which makes me wonder, what makes a game scary?

When I think of scary/horror games I think of titles like Fatal Frame, Silent Hill, Dead Space, etc. But after a while the shock scares in Dead Space tend to lose their surprise. In Silent Hill once you learn you can just run forever and the skinless monsters can never catch up to you, most of that game turns into fetch quests. And in Fatal Frame there are only so many times you can look a ghost dead in the face feel fear. Don’t get me wrong these series are great for horror and making you jump (Like the first time you meet Pyramid Head behind the bars in Silent Hill 2). But the sense of being in a hopeless situation eventually fades off and makes the game as a whole less scary.

But that type of situation hasn’t happened for me in Dark Souls. I am currently soul level 55 thanks to hours of grinding, I have tons of life, and an upgraded set of armour, but every time I step into a new area a sense of dread comes over me. Like at any moment some hideous creature can pop out and swing at me for half of my life. Somewhere a trap will spring and I’ll be cast into the bottomless depths below. Or on a run back to my last bloodstain I could die from a careless mistake a lose all of 20,000+ souls I’ve collected that day. And while Dark Souls is challenging and I feel that the difficulty adds to the overall tone of the game, something that I don’t think any other game (other than Demons Souls obviously) has pulled off.

What is interesting to me in that situation is that it’s not necessarily the enemies that are the scariest part of this game (some of the monsters look REALLY gross though) but the meta game Dark Souls is playing with your mind. Constantly having me on the edge at all time throughout the game. Running through any hallways you constantly have your shield in front of your face, preparing for the unknown threat at the end of a dark hallway. I can’t really think of any other game even in the horror genre that makes me feel that constant sense of hopelessness for the situation, and fear of every new encounter. A great example of a good scare in Dark Souls is your first encounter with a Mimic (monster disguised as a treasure chest) which the game has never hinted to being in the world before hand. Open up a tempting looking chest and *CHOMP* the chest eats you. While that itself made me jump it also had a lasting effect of not trusting any chest for the rest of the game. I will now constantly swing at every chest before opening it because I’m too afraid to take the risk of the chest being a mimic.

For me personally, the atmosphere of a game can be way more nerve racking and scary than just have monsters pop out from a hidden area. So now I bring this question to your readers, do you find that have hideous creatures to fight scarier than being in a situation where everything seems to be working against you? Or do you have any other ideas of what makes a game scary in your mind?