Friday, July 11, 2014

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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4 comments:

ravencrowking said...

I have found that the biggest contributor to player fear in an rpg is the unknown. Not just unknown monsters, but unknown effects.

Running DCC, the players already have to guess at what the monster's capabilities are, but in some cases, magic may behave differently than they expect as well.

Having to learn the rules of the adventure as you go, not knowing what the monsters can do until you encounter them, and knowing that your PCs' lives hang in the balance - or worse, for there are many terrible things you can do to a PC that leave him alive - work together to create a potential atmosphere of fear.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Good point.

Fear of the unknown works because the players fear for the consequences to their characters. In a different kind of game, the unknown is desirable, as exploring and surprise are two emotions many players are looking for.

ravencrowking said...

In my experience, players both want to encounter the unknown, and want to manage it. The first is because encountering the unknown is where much of the interest in the game lies. The second because managing risk is the primary means of success in the game.

It is part of the job of the DM, in my opinion, to seed enough unknown that the efforts of the players will be rewarded (because some of it will be managed), and yet not completely rewarded (because surprising things will happen). That way, both of these conflicting desires are realized in play.

Really, it is those moments when an unmanageable risk suddenly becomes manageable, through good fortune or good play, that we tend to recall long after the last die has dropped.

Or, at least, that has been my experience.

(This is one of the biggest problems with the "balanced encounters" model of play, btw.)

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Yes, "balanced encounters" is ultimately part of reward-based gaming - your problems will always be fairly easy to overcome so that you can get to the rewards.

So many groups of FRPers never run away. Sometimes that's the best thing to do. And others fight everything they encounter even if there's no point (in the context of the adventure objective). If the random encounter adds nothing to success (other than XP), why bother with it? Fighting can be dangerous. Or it ought to be. . .