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How do we make players feel fear in games?

How do we make players feel fear in games?

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself” - Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR)

One of the major lessons for any aspiring game designer is that not every gamer thinks like you and likes the same things you like. Games are “fun”, or at least interesting and enjoyable, activities. On the face of it you might think that fun doesn’t involve fear, but for some people it certainly does.

For example my wife and I don’t like horror stories/movies and don’t understand why people like to be scared by them, yet many do. Fear, or more likely a release from the tension of fear, is enjoyable for many people.

So sometimes it’s desirable that the player(s) of a game feel fear. Now I'm not saying that every game should make players fearful at some point, far from it. But fear is (or used to be) a tool in the designer's toolbox, one of many emotions a game can engender in its players. How can we achieve this in a game, which is after all a play activity, fundamentally not serious?

The use of visuals and sound can more or less startle the player into being afraid (much as movies often do it), but that's very sudden and temporary. It is more a surprise reaction than a fearful reaction. I'm not interested in that here. Fear, as opposed to other forms of tension, requires that the player has something to lose, something they value. (Otherwise players are in the position FDR talked about, and aren't likely to fear anything.) This potential loss can be their character lives, loot, or prestige (fear of losing).

In an old-school tabletop RPG what you could lose was your character, and the character's capabilities and assets. The player invested time in the character, time he or she didn't want to lose. The referee's job in those games was to scare the player by threatening these valuables. It wasn't the referee's job to actually take them away but it had to be a credible threat.

In more modern tabletop RPGs there is very little credible threat that a player will actually lose much of anything, which removes fear as a motivator. In most computer RPGs and MMOs there is absolutely no fear of losing your life or your loot, so the most that players fear is the boredom of a long trip to where their body lies after a death, to retrieve their stuff.

Many have observed that players are much more afraid to lose what they already have, than to lose the prospect of gain. It's a natural human tendency. Some free-to-play games use this as a lever. For example, many Facebook games require you to log in every day, or lose some progress you've achieved, for example, you plant crops, but if you don't come back to harvest them quickly enough they wither and die. (On the other hand, many of those same games offer a daily freebie, and if you don't log in daily you miss out.)

RPGs/MMOs are persistent games, players could be afraid of losing what they've built up over a long time. Contrast this with boardgames and most other video games. What can the game designer threaten in a game that lasts only an hour or three or even five? There just isn't enough time and effort invested in what the player has, to enable you to make them afraid. Instead, the major fear is of losing, and that's not such a big deal in a 1-5 hour activity. Add to that the de-emphasis of competition in many tabletop games, and that most people only play a game a few times before moving on to another. There isn't much investment in the game by the players.

Further, there have been few video games where a player can actually lose, once we left the era of the arcade game. Persistence is usually enough to ultimately "beat the game."

Some video games can play upon a player's fears because the games last a lot longer (more investment), but only IF there is a credible threat - which is rare. In games with permanent death such as rogue-like games there is rarely a long-term investment that you lose when you die. XCOM: Enemy Unknown seems to be one of the few contemporary video games where you can lose something permanently that you've invested a lot of effort into, that is, your squadies (troops).

My takeaway is that in board and card games it's nearly impossible for the designer to make players fearful, because there's little player investment other than the fear of losing. The game designer cannot create fear of losing, though he can remove much of it by design (for example, a cooperative game).

In typical video games it's nearly impossible to make players fearful because consequence-based gaming has been largely replaced by reward-based gaming, so no player can actually lose much of anything during a game.

In other words, we're losing fear as a tool in game design, barring exceptional circumstances. If you want players to be fearful, you'll have to get them to invest in your game so that they have something to lose, but that means you'll be appealing to a relatively small minority of contemporary gamers.


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Fear, Horror, Terror and Dread

Four similar concepts with subtle distinctions.

Fear is a generally a result of increasing dread. Terror is a usually a reaction to sudden horror. Dread is a tightening of the nerves, horror is extreme revulsion. But persistent, sustained dread can result in terror and fear is a byproduct of horror.

In game terms, timing and threat are the crucial means of producing these four responses. "Hurting" the players, taking points or increasing the difficulty of the victory conditions, is the primary way of doing this. A slow but sustained "drip" will produce dread. Sudden bursts will result in horror. Dread can also be generated by threatening horror but not delivering. Terror comes about when the players forego their long term strategy and begin to rely on short term tactics.

As an example, in a dungeon crawler, the players encounter group after group of zombies and skeletons. These aren't individually dangerous, but as they get further from the surface, they begin to wear them down, producing dread. When they encounter a tougher monster that can present a legitimate threat, there is then an instance of horror when the possibility of defeat truly presents itself. If they keep expecting to face a similarly dangerous monster, or even something worse, this generates more dread. When the creature does present itself, the players may be so frightened now that they experience a moment of terror where they do not respond rationally to the threat (moving away from something they have to kill, using incorrect attacks, etc).

The other classic example is Space Hulk, which conceals the enemy numbers and presents an ever increasing pressure the Space Marine player's resources. Add in a time factor and panic is as great an enemy as the Genestealers.

I think you hit the nail on

I think you hit the nail on the head by identifying “loss” and the type and magnitude of such losses as being the base value of determining fear levels.

For me the tabletop game mechanic that plays to the fear model the most is “push your luck”. The players need to increase their holdings to win the game. These games take the basic fear model and develop it with the inclusion of constant risk to reward decisions.

Considering such games in their entirety, if the players don’t increase their holdings they could loose the game; in doing so they also loose the satisfaction that a person commonly gains from winning.

More importantly, in respect to fear, is that each round is a micro cosmic representation of the overall fear factor inherent within such games.

The players are given the choice to continue playing and the more they play (successfully) the higher their reward. However, the cumulative reward is only gained when they stop playing. And if they are unsuccessful they loose their cumulative reward.

So the situation the players are exposed to is one of rising fear, where their increasing reward heightens the magnitude of their potential loss.

In respect to the argument that games can’t induce a fear of loosing I can’t concur. I don’t think games need to set out to do this, although an increased identification of attachment with primary game values can achieve it.

While the majority of players aren’t super competitive (must win at all costs) most people have a natural competitive predisposition towards “wanting to win”. It doesn’t matter if they win, and their desire to win doesn’t overwhelm their desire to have social fun playing, but they would like to win. I’ve yet to meet another player who sat down to play a game with the active intention of loosing.

@xaeromancer A very

@xaeromancer A very interesting set of distinctions. In all of them, though, players need to be invested in the game in some way or they won't care enough to feel those emotions.

A point I perhaps didn't make strongly enough: many players care little about winning. Hobbyists don't see that as much, especially ones with the initiative to come to places like BGG and BGDF (which most gamers I know DO NOT DO). They are the exceptions.

Bubblechucks and I will have to agree to disagree, no, few people intend to lose, but a great many don't much care whether they win. Video games have tended to take "winning" out of games entirely, and a large proportion of tabletop gamers are also video gamers.

Escape: The Curse of the Temple

Escape: The Curse of the Temple instills fear and tension by adding a timed element to the game.

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blog | by Dr. Radut