Ingredients of Horror: Two-Factor and Horror Game Design

Dead Space: Not very hard.

In my last post I discussed the research that lead to the creation of the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion. tl;dr: It says that if your body feels excited and you don’t know why, your brain can be tricked into believing that excitement is caused by some external stimulus. Thus you can get people to believe that they are feeling something when really it’s just their brains trying to figure out why the body is aroused.

The implications for horror games, I think, are that games might be better at scaring you if they also involve game play elements that cause a physical reaction, like an elevated heart rate. If a game can get your blood pumping by being difficult and high-stakes, the Two-Factor Theory suggests that your brain may mistake that rush of adrenaline as a reaction to the scary images on the screen, and generate feelings of fear, even if the game content alone isn’t very scary. From here on out this post is entirely conjecture, but bear with me.

I can’t count the number of times users have told me that a not-very-scary game is better “on hard mode.” Many of the games that I’ve complained about on this site have been defended by users claiming that hard mode is where the game design really works. Dead Space, Cold Fear, Silent Hill: Homecoming, and even Resident Evil: Dead Aim have all been credited as being better games when the difficulty is increased. This seems like evidence that supports the “harder is scarier” idea. In my review of Dead Space, for example, I spend most of the words praising the game and then trying to figure out why I didn’t enjoy it very much. I ended the review with the conclusion that Dead Space doesn’t require any critical thinking, and is altogether too “straightforward.” Another way to say the same thing might be to say it was too easy; I walked through the game and never really had to put any real effort into it. Per the Two-Factor Theory, my brain never got a chance to mislabel my body’s reaction because my body never reacted.

And the more I think about it, the more it seems that the best horror games are those that raise the stakes on the player. Think about check points, for example. Traditional horror games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Fatal Frame haven’t really had any check points. You have save points, but when you die you go all the way back to wherever it was you last saved. Save points also mean that you can’t save anywhere–you have to find these specific spots before you can save your game. In classic Resident Evil design, you also had to worry about running out of save games, as they were items that were rationed to you carefully.

This is all very much against modern game design trends. Modern game design is about “respecting the player,” and allowing them to progress through the content regardless of their skill level. Halo is designed to make the player

Fatal Frame 2: Not hard, but higher stakes.

feel like a “kick-ass space ninja,” and pulls all kinds of tricks to make even novice players feel skilled, like increasing the precision of the targeting reticle when it passes over an enemy. Crash Bandicoot is famous for secretly adjusting the difficulty down behind the scenes when the game notices that the player is dying a lot. Modern game design dictates that save points are sort of arrogant; if the player gets a phone call in the middle of play, designs that do not allow him to stop playing and then pick up where he left off are regarded as too self-important. The idea is that the player wants to have fun, not be frustrated, so the game should go out of its way to remove any potential frustration points. This doesn’t always mean making the game super easy, but it often means trying to design a challenge that at least seems fair to the user.

But lots of great horror games are designed as if the intent is to knock the player down and then kick him in the shins. I mean, everybody I know who played Resident Evil had to start that game over at least one time because they didn’t understand how aggressively they had to ration ammunition at first and got to a point where they simply could not progress. Silent Hill‘s combat mechanics are much more forgiving than Resident Evil, but on the other hand, getting the good ending in that game requires that you do a number of optional, non-obvious things. If you screw it up and don’t have a save to fall back on, too bad. Time to start over. Combat in Fatal Frame comes down to precision timing and aiming. If you don’t take a picture of the ghost at the exact second that the Zero Shot light pops up, you take a hit. No aim assist in this game. And Siren, my favorite game to reference when talking about good old Two-Factor is a game basically designed to continuously increase the level of stress that the player must endure. I mean, we’re talking about a game that has an escort mission with involving a blind girl.

Even games with simple mechanics seem to be scarier when they include game play related stress. Hell Night is a great example: in this game your only choice is to run away from a monster that you rarely see but often hear. If the monster gets too close you’ll take a hit. But you don’t die; your partner dies, and after that you are on your own. One more hit and it’s game over. Once a partner is dead you can never revive them–new partners show up later in the game, but most of the time, the partner character represents your one health point of life (they also have special abilities that it’s hard to live without). So losing that partner is a big deal. When the monster shows up, you run because you’re going to have to start over and redo a bunch of work if you die. Hell Night is a mechanically simple game, but it’s incredibly effective as horror. Part of

Siren: We’re talking double down on 15 here.

that might be because it’s really stressful!

Though not nearly as good of a game, Nanashi no Geemu and its sequel work the same way; failure is a one-hit-kill affair, and sends you back a significant distance. Stress comes not from mechanical difficulty as much as the desire not to have to repeat sections of game play.

Consider the differences between Dead Space and Resident Evil 4. These two are very similar games, but they differ in a couple of key respects. One of the big ones is moving and shooting; you can do it in Dead Space but not in RE4, which lead to a lot of criticism of the latter from Modern Game Designers (Dead Space is very much a product of the “respect the player” trend; just look at the automatic path-to-next-important-area power!). Not being able to move and shoot makes Resident Evil 4 a harder game–much harder, I think. I remember dying many many times in RE4 but pretty much gliding through Dead Space. And while the Resident Evil series can be sort of ridiculous, I thought RE4 was scarier than the ultra-serious Dead Space (though neither game does well in the fear department, to be honest). Resident Evil 5 is (very) ridiculous and also not very hard at all (that item management screen is all about player respect), and it left a bland taste in my mouth.

Game designers often talk about difficulty being a key ingredient to fun because of the feeling of accomplishment that it rewards. If you don’t believe me, try Super Meat Boy, and then go look at all of the awards it has (quite rightfully) won. But for horror, I’m going to propose an alternative idea: per the Two-Factor Theory, high-stakes game play is a way to cause the player physical stress, which, when combined with scary images, sound, and backstory pumping out of your TV, is more likely to cause you to feel fear. High-stakes game play doesn’t necessarily mean moment-to-moment difficulty (and it certainly doesn’t imply crappy game play mechanics), it just means that the cost of failure is high and the threat of failure is imminent. I’m suggesting that stress, that which is usually considered to be the opposite of fun, is the key to fun in horror games. Not frustration, mind you, just stress (although separating the two is a mighty challenge).

Give this one some thought next time you are playing a horror game. Is it scary? Is it hard? How is your body reacting? Fair warning: the Two-Factor Theory stipulates that it only works when you are not cognizant of why your body is excited; if you think about this during game play, it may ruin the fear factor for you. But generally, any time your heart rate is up and your blood is pumping, and you’re not really thinking about why, the Theory states that you’re in a prime state to be fed emotional cues. Maybe a Wii Fit balance board horror game makes sense after all.

13 thoughts on “Ingredients of Horror: Two-Factor and Horror Game Design

  1. What would be nice would be a hybrid game that uses the save point concept, but has the option to turn it off for the casual gamer, as per your “respect the player” concept.

    This way, gameplay and level design could be crafted around really creative ideas and intuitive spacing for save points to apply maximum intensity, but still let the people who just want their easy-mode-equivalent run through at their leisure.

    High-stakes game play…

    Yeah. I think it’s part of the reason why people like gambling too.

    They keep playing because the stakes get higher and higher the more they win OR lose. Lose = stress from getting more and more behind. Win = stress from deciding when to stop and prevent it all from evaporating.

    But in general its good to “shock” the player sometimes. Break up the flow and create a jarring situation because it’ll be more memorable.

    It’s also good to create waves and rhythms (hey pacing!) so players get “stress relief”. You want players to engage in a stressful situation again without becoming fatigued / frustrated.

  3. I do really like the concept being presented here, but sometimes I think the whole difficulty thing goes way too far. Personally, I hate Siren. I can’t stand playing it because every time I do, I die end over end (dozens and dozens of times) over the same level, and I end up almost throwing the controller out the window… I won’t rant too much about it, but it’s so frustrating that I feel like the game just does not want me to play and it constantly punishes. I’d like to finish it someday (for my own list of games) but I don’t know how I’m going to.

    Anyway, compare that to Hellnight, and I did manage to get through that game and I loved it. It evoked exactly what you are talking about. Stressful (but not ungodly difficult) gameplay coupled with the situation/setting and I could feel myself get all tensed up like I was really there.

    I definitely agree with Jesse that pacing is really important in getting something like this right. And controls is another thing. I love RE but the controls are difficult in such tense situations, versus Silent Hill which I found much easier to control (the pipe helped too :P), yet a lot scarier.

    I can see how “respect the player” can go too far sometimes but for some of these games a dynamic difficulty adjustment would have been great.

  4. > Jessica

    Don’t get me wrong! Siren does a lot of things quite badly as well. My initial reaction to that game was the same as yours. Siren’s central failure is that it doesn’t teach you how to play correctly, even when there’s really only one way to play. But once I figured it out, the frustration went away but the difficulty stayed. Siren’s the scariest game I’ve ever played.

  5. this makes me think of the game Demon’s Souls. it’s technically not a horror game but the level of tension that it made me feel reminded me of some of the better horror games i’ve played.

  6. I’ve had many a conversation about this – I HATE buying a game and not being able to finish it. Having harder difficulties for the hard-core gamers is great, but it’s really annoying when developers don’t include easier settings for players who aren’t so good (like me). And even though I feel “stress” from things like not knowing if I’ll make it to a save point it isn’t the kind of stress I want from a survival horror game. I want to feel scared, not annoyed and cheated (out of an experience just because I’m not as good as most gamers).

  7. Interesting Theory.

    It makes me now wonder how much perspective (1st or 3rd) aids in someone being more cognizant of what is happening.

    Surely 1st person creates a quicker and more cognizant state. With 3rd person the player controls an avatar, so there is already a disconnect through distance. And I guess frustration can only aid that disconnect.

  8. For some reason I seem to care more about the character when playing in the 3rd person.

    I agree, I think it relates to how in 3rd person mode I can see how vulnerable the character is compared to the enemies. 1st person mode only really works, in a horror setting, when the enemies are in your face, otherwise you play as a stalker/snipper type character (which creates it’s own stress, but not the same as most horror medias).

    Chris, I found these articles really interesting. I just started playing Obscure 2, and so far I like it (the characters are rather juvenile, but I haven’t gotten to the really bad parts yet) but I keep thinking of the suggestions you made about the drug and how it should have been turned into a better game play mechanic. Like if the serum and save flowers would put the characters in a bad trip, and they had to ration it or find medicine to combat the effects. It would be sort of like the ink ribbons in RE.

    I think choice is the key to creating stress over frustration. With choice the decisions you make creates how you play; do I take the serum and risk having a bad trip but have increased strength and health, or move ahead and risk the unknown. But without choice, if a player screwed themselves on ammo conservation, or whatever, then they are left with no options but dumb luck and have to move on, or start over. I agree that horror games need high stakes to achieve scares but choice will help to turn frustrations into stress.

  9. I think the key is not to make the game actually hard, but to make it SEEM or FEEL hard.

    Think of the first Resident Evil for example: the fact is there is enough ammo in the entire game to kill every single enemy with guns (if you don’t count that one glitch that make enemies respawn in one of the room). But to this day, when talking about it, most people still claim that the game doesn’t have enough ammo to kill everything.

    That’s because, even if it’s not the case, the game makes the player BELIEVE that there is not enough ammo. For example, it does this by making the player have to find the ammo by himself (inside shelves, behind a desk, etc) rather than having the ammo convienently spawn on a enemy corpse when you kill them, like in every other game.

    (on a side note: you will notice that RE4 went back to having ammo and herb spawn out of dead enemy corpses. The game even spawn ammo and herbs according to what you have left in your inventory. This is one of the many reasons why RE4 was not SURVIVAL horror anymore but action horror instead).

  10. (sorry for double post)

    So basically, what I meant is that to make a good survival horror game, you need to have the knowledge of how “regular” games are made; and play around the gameplay mechanics and game design of those “regular” games.

    It’s all about using what the average player is used to against himself.
    To use the same example: Regular action games have ammo spawning on dead enemy corpse when you kill them? Take that away and the player will start to feel uneasy.

    However there are two problems with that:

    1) finding the right balance to make it feel uneasy, but not furstrating. This is why I think Siren has bad game design, it’s just over the top, it’s way too much, the game throws EVERYTHING it can against you, sometimes there is only literaly one way to beat a level that you have to find out and follow step by step.

    2) Those codes of survival horror need to evolve with time as well. By definition horror stop being horror once you get used to it: if tomorrow you witness the corpse of a dead human on the street you’ll find it shocking. If you start to witness corpses of dead humans every single day, you’ll get used to it and it will stop being shocking. The same logic applies to survival gameplay elements as well. This is why I believe Homecoming was such a great game: instead of re-using the same old mechanics that we have now been used to and which therefore can not work anymore, it based its mechanics on more modern action games, and created something that made the player feel weak based on those new more modern mechanics. Homecoming is survival horror version of the action horror of RE4: for example it takes the “over the shoulder” camera with more control on your aiming, except that contrary to RE4, you can not spam (if you have to find enemies weak spots and time your attack wells), ammo and health is very limited, and monsters do not drop anything.

    This is why Homecoming had the greatest survival gameplay since the first Resident Evil.

    My most fearful experience with any horror game was when I began playing the first Fatal Frame game and I used a bad tactic that made the game much more difficult: I never broke away from looking through the camera while I was under attack by a ghost.

    When I later learned the more advantageous tactic of temporarily leaving the through-the-camera viewing-mode during battle (to get a better view of what the ghost was doing), I was able to progress further in the game, and eventually beat it, but at the cost of feeling the same degree of heart-racing fear that marked my initial experience with the game.

    The increased difficulty of my poor tactical choice(combined with the psychological ramifications of limited-vision) really cranked up the fear, and I noted with amusement that a later Fatal Frame game exploits that experience with an optional mode in which one MUST play (or perhaps just must fight, I haven’t used this yet) while staying in the through-the camera-vision mode. I think that likely means that many others have shared my increased fearfulness response when playing in that manner, and that the game-makers learned of this and decided to exploit it by formally offering that optional challenge.

  12. I agree with Bingo Zero in that, when it comes to survival horror, choices and not a difficult control interface or lack of savepoints to make a survival game scary.

    If you use choice as a basic building block, it creates interesting results. For instance if you want some extra ammo, or some new weapon, or some extra documents or extra tidbit in the game, to make the next area more expansive via (story/gameplay/ease of movement/etc) then you have to move into a room where you let something out, or alert it to your presence, or gain the attention of some particularly vindicative antagonist who works against you when you don’t do what he wants. Each choice has his drawbacks, and you don’t really know them until you make it, but it could affect the player character throughout the rest of the game.

    This sort of functionality in a game, I think, forces the player to adapt to a changing set of circumstances, and inadvertently causes them to freak out. Not only that but it’s a theory that, if done well, could be implemented over and over again just to make the player more and more paranoid, and always unsure of their next decision. I think that that sort of involvement in a game evokes much more fear than simply making the gameplay difficult, and that it really goes to some fundamental building blocks of what make people scared. Even if they are aware of it, they will probably still be freaked out, if not moreso disturbed by just mulling over how choices are affecting their character, and what they could have done different.

    So I think the sort of gameplay can lead to regret, stress, paranoia, frustration, which are some key factors to really set people on edge, that go beyond just difficult control mechanics.

    I also know, that as someone with a short attention span and who is geared toward aesthetics, that controls, and little gameplay elements like where I can or cannot save are ridiculously easy to notice, for me, and therefore I get frustrated for something I blame the game developers for, not myself.

    I also like what NESfag said about the ammo spawning on enemies, which I also think is unnecessary, and think it would be much more practical if you got ammo off of a dead security officer, or from a storage room, rather than a giant axe-wielding mass of rotting flesh.

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