With Halloween at the end of this week, it seemed appropriate to visit the topic of fear in games. If TV and movies are to be believed, fear is one of humanity’s most powerful emotions. But boardgames have a hard time creating that experience. That leaves a large segment of emotional response that boardgames aren’t taking advantage of. I’d like to see what designers can do to change this.
Where can fear come from in a game? We can look at other media for some ideas. Stephen King wrote about three primary forms of fear, Terror, Horror, and Revulsion. Revulsion is the cheap “gross-out”, the feeling after you see something awful. Game art can produce this effect, but people are squeamish about a diverse range of things, and the same ideas will create a number of different reactions.
Horror can be classified as the moment that scares you. Horror movies frequently rely on “jump scares” that create fear through surprise. But that only really works in media that controls its own pace, making it difficult to create in a book or a board game. With a board game, in particular, once you play through a game once or twice, there can’t be any surprise if players are expecting it. Random elements can create surprise, but typically the player know the potential outcome, even if you don’t know when it will occur. A true real time game that involves yelling out unexpectedly can create fear, but will usually involve a lot more noise, making the surprise less distinct from the background.
Terror is the fear proceeding the moment of horror. It replaces speed needed for horror with suspense. Movies, books, and video games have gotten very good at this, slowly building tension over a longer period of time. This doesn’t explain how suspense and fear arise. Games are still at a disadvantage, because they are forced to give the player so much control. You can have suspense leading up to that important dice roll, but that doesn’t automatically create fear. There is an element missing, that I will try to identify.
I want to start the process of identification with video games, specifically games that have scared me in the past. I’ll admit it: I played the Resident Evil (RE) remake for Gamecube, and stopped maybe a third to half of the way through because I was too scared to keep going. Metroid Prime (MP) (and its sequels) had several parts that scared me. I remember frantically running through rooms with Chozo ghosts, yelling at the door to open, and running from light source to light source in the poisoned world of Metroid Prime 2. But as I played through MP multiple times, that fear gradually disappeared. And there are games like Deus Ex that play similarly, but never make me feel scared.
So what is it about RE, and those early plays of MP that scared me? There are two levels that are linked. The first level is the fear of the unknown. Dark hallways and blind corners might be holding something. You enter a new area and don’t know what is waiting for you. Once you establish that, you can use it to your advantage in the future. But that’s very difficult in a boardgame. As I said before with surprise, you typically know the potential outcomes, especially after a few plays. That is partly what happened in MP. Once I knew what I was going to face, it lost some of its power. But even the unknown doesn’t explain everything without context.
The context comes from a deeper level, a fear of loss. What made RE and MP truly scary was the fact that I could die in the game. When you can save at any time, death isn’t a real consequence, because you can always go back to the last save. But if you have to go back to the start of an area and play through again, you’ve effectively lost all the time from the first attempt. If that area is also tense and difficult, so that you don’t know for sure if you’ll make it through, you’ve lost the emotional strength you used to get through it the first time. You’re also losing progress in a more abstract sense.
Players need to have tangible, permanent loss, in order to be afraid of it. Dr. Lewis Pulsipher made this very point several months ago about making players feel fear in games. One of the most basic things a player can lose is their time investment. Longer games raise the stakes, but a long game isn’t a necessity (especially if you only have a limited time to play games, making the time more valuable). Video games can present this in 10 or 15 minutes between save points, though they have the advantage of creating a more immersive environment. What RE does to send that point home is to limit your saves, to encourage you to make larger leaps of progress between them.
But while time investment is a potential loss, games you lose aren’t usually considered a loss of time. You’ve simply spent the time to have fun. Cooperative and solo games, like Pandemic, come closer because they don’t guarantee a winner. If you play for an hour and everyone loses, it can feel much more like an actual loss of time.
The sense of loss can come from elements internal to the game, like progress, points, and resources. If you spend turns working on something in the game, only to have it taken away from you at the last second, that can create a powerful emotion of disappointment. Obviously, this depends on the level of engagement, which will vary from player to player, and game to game. But if the internal stakes are high, you can focus on that potential loss to induce fear in the player.
There are non-tangible elements that can be lost in a game, as well. Frequently, this is a loss of opportunity by making choices. By picking a specific path, other parts of the game are closed to you. On a large scale, you can always play the game again and take a different path, but on the smaller scale, there will always be a loss of opportunity. A player can also lose an advantage through risk or bad choices. If you don’t take the right actions, you might lose your advantage in position or numbers. Push your luck capitalizes on this from both sides to create fear. If you stop too soon, you might be overtaken. If you keep going, you might lose it, too.
There is also a loss of control. Obviously, you can’t completely take control away from a player in a boardgame, because players have to enforce the rules. But you can approach it from another angle. Forcing the players to make a choice, even if they don’t want to. In video games and movies, this is often literally opening a door that you don’t want to open, in order to advance. This works whether you know what is behind the door or not. This is a challenge to game designers because what makes a game good are good choices, and this effectively eliminates a player’s choice. Loss of any of these factors can prompt fear in a player, even though they only exist within the context of the game. And even when they don’t initiate fear, they are still potential contributors to analysis paralysis.
There are physical losses to consider, too. Arcade games and stakes poker that make the player pay to continue can introduce fear. The longer you play, the more money you’ve invested, and the greater the potential loss. A board game designer can’t do much to enforce this, though. Playing “for keeps” can be a good external force of fear. You are risking the loss of an actual object, like a Magic the Gathering card. Another way physical loss can be introduced is legacy mechanics. If the game can change in a permanent manner, it adds fear by raising the stakes. You might actually have a city wiped off of the map if you make the wrong move, and that can easily create fear.
As Dr. Pulsipher notes, tabletop RPGs have been dealing with real loss for a long time, by risking losing the characters you have created and played as for a long time. It is more than just the time investment lost, however. Characters you spend so much time with can feel completely real, so the player can more easily empathize with the character in dangerous situations. Video games have recently picked up on this with “permadeath”, in which you can’t go back and re-load the last save when you die. It is more akin to those old arcade games, in which a death starts you from the beginning. But most board games still make it easy to go back, because the player controls how the game progresses
Overall, a lot of the reasons that fear is hard to evoke from a board game is that board games naturally give a lot of control to players. That control removes surprise. And it brings attention to the fact that it is a game, lowering the stakes. Board games also have a harder time immersing the player in the experience than many other forms of media, making it harder for the loss to feel real. But there are still common elements that can be used to reach players on that level. To elicit fear in your players, you need to focus the experience around the choices that risk loss on many levels at once. If fear is one of the most powerful emotions, it is also one of the more difficult to achieve in board games. But don’t let that scare you away from trying.