Creating a scary situation

Following on from my previous blog post, I want to look into how to create a scary situation so that I can translate that information into my level designs, and finally into playable levels.

Continuing on from Mike Birkhead’s piece on Gamasutra, he states that during the presentation of the level, there are two main concepts; Something that is unsettling and something that is threatening. Something unsettling being something that is close to normality, however distorted in a fashion to throw the player off; Whereas something that is threatening is a hazard, such as enemies, dangerous environments and the like.

My thoughts on this: It seems that focusing on the unsettling would be more effective in evoking fear in a player than focusing on something threatening. My justification for this is that in a threatening situation, the player would generally have an immediate response or reaction to something: For example, say the player finds a scary enemy. The player is scared for a brief moment before realising that they either have to deal with the situation there (By either killing it, hiding or escaping) or be killed. It’s a situation that can be “solved” quickly in most cases, whereas something unsettling would remain with the player, potentially evoking other emotions that together could stress them and increase the tension in the scene.

There are many methods of creating a scary situation:

Building suspense – The perception of danger even though there may be no actual danger. This can be established by unexplained occurrences, such as a previously open door in an otherwise empty room suddenly being found closed.

Startling – The easiest way to creating a scary situation, these encompass jump-scares, things like lights going out, sudden sounds and so on.

Tension – When a player struggles with what choice to take when faced with a threat. If something is coming after the player, does the player run and hope to get away? Does the player fight, with the risk of their attack going awry? These stressful decisions cause tension and keep the player on edge.

And finally, as mentioned earlier, having an empathic connection with the character/protagonist – Having the player care for them, intensifies these feelings. This is useful to know, however developing a connection with the character will be beyond the scope of this project as I will be focusing explicitly on the level design aspects of this.

Thanks to the following articles for the valuable insight:


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