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Fear Of The Unknown, Part 1
by Luis Guimaraes on 12/03/13 12:02:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

– H.P. Lovecraft 

The famous horror master is frequently cited in discussions surrounding the subject of horror and fear in video-games. "The biggest fear is fear of the unknown". That's correct, we do fear the unknown... But what, exactly, is the unknown? Also, how does this Fear of the Unknown work?

In this article we'll be exploring some of the different usages of the unknown in horror games, trying to have a glimpse of it's inner workings and, if successful, open a path to further analysis and discussion of the subject so we can step every time closer to having this figured out.

There will be things that are commonly known and normally called by different names, for example, imminence is dubbed "suspense", and hints of the unknown is dubbed "mystery" or "negative space". That's all true and also correct, but the usage of those terms won't help our studies of the mechanics of how fear is originated and nurtured from the point-of-view of everything being about information, which's what we're doing here. Also important to note is that all the considerations taken are based on observation rather than research, so feel free to come out and say that my assumptions are wrong about both the subject and the perceived misconceptions around it. It's an art and not a science after all.

Now, let's have some fun!



The word itself conveys the existence of a lack or limitation of information, and this information can be about any of many aspects or details about the subject of which we are dealing information from. It can be about different parallel pieces of information, and it can also be in different levels of information. You can not know (lack information of) the name of a person, or not know what field they work on, or where they come from, or you can know they are sick and not know what illness they have (limitation of information). 

The entire field of analysis in this article will revolve around the many ways information can be withheld from the receiver and how each piece of existing or missing information can affect the way our brains deal with information. When you have excess of information your brain will filter the bits deemed unnecessary or unimportant and work at conscious level only with the relevant bits to whatever you're having to deal with at the moment. Similarly, when the amount of information you're getting is limited and deemed insufficient to give the sense of security to work with, your brain will enter a state that amplifies it's extrapolation capacities, hence "fear of the unknown" is interpreted as "your imagination is scarier than anything".

Three bits of information most commonly withheld from the receiver to create the unknown in horror games - and commonly asked by players when ranting or discussing about what makes a great horror game - are informations about:

a) Image: the shape, figure, or graphic depiction of something – "it's scary until you see it", "you fear what you cannot see", "when I saw the monsters I stopped fearing them", "the sanity system is intended so you don't get a good look at the monsters otherwise you stop fearing them", "the first hours of the game is the best", etc;

b) Presence: the location or whereabouts of something, and/or the confirmation of it's existence in the game's world and/or in the player's vicinity – "that feeling that you're being watched", "when the door opened and there was nobody there", "the part when the wind blows the candles", "the foot noises in the upper floor"; and

c) Imminence: the threat and/or likelihood of an event happening – "you don't know when something will jump out at you", "the sense that the bridge was going to fall".

But is our imagination alone what we should fear most? If that's the case, I must tell you, the amount of things you don't know about the world outnumber the amount of thing you know by an nearly infinite number of times! How many unharmed units of edible fruit of any kind exist in the world right now? What was the distance between the place you are now and the south pole of Mars in 2:45 PM of April 9th, 1743? Where will the clothes you're wearing now be 2048 months in the future? What are the chemical elements made of dark matter? You don't know! MuaHaHaHaha!

This is dread man! Truly dread!

Are you scared now? You should be! It's the unknown what we fear most, right?

But why is it we're not completely losing our sanities over this infinite number of matters we have no knowledge (information) of? "They aren't of any importance!", you must be saying right now, but the truth is, we don't even know if the things we don't know are important or not. But what if they are? What if our lives depend on it and we don't know? What if we knew all that at some point and for some reason it was all forcefully forgotten? If think about those questions seriously, things start sounding scary. That's because a full binary isKnown information doesn't sound relevant enough to warrant any consideration and from there, our brains won't get to the step where it'll calculate if the information received is plenty to supply our needs under the existing constraints of time pressure (perceived urgency), considered risks (perceived potential losses) and personal safety (perceived danger).

Only once hinted in the correct direction we consider the importance of not-knowing something. And you might have already guessed by my used of the word hint that it's not only about holding information, but also about about exposing information that renders the lacking information relevant. For easier referencing of this characteristic, we'll be calling the acknowledgment that there is a lack of further important information, by sense of unknown. Without the sense of unknown, it's virtually as if there's nothing unknown to begin with.

The catch is that the unknown is only present if we know about it. That's what the sense of unknown is. So the player must be teased into the fact that he doesn't know everything that should be known to increase his/her chances of making it out of the nightmare alive. Without teasing the player on the fact there is information of utmost importance being held away, one will not have a reason to fear it.

But here comes a problem: seasoned players will be used to games being "fair" by default, therefore if something isn't known it's not important information. If a horror game doesn't feature guns, what it's trying to tell you is that you can do it without one, therefore why would you be scared of being unarmed if the game will be balanced with that in mind? If a game has guns and plenty of ammo and suddenly locks you in a room with five monsters, what the game is telling you is that five against one is a fair fight, therefore why should you be afraid of them instead of them when it's instead them that should be afraid of you?

So how to keep the player from approaching the game with a happy-go-lucky attitude of simply not caring about what's not known? The solution this article is here to propose is the observation that knowledge is not only binary. It's by riding the line between known and unknown that we can give the player a sense of unknown, give it the meaning the want it to have and raise it's importance to the necessary levels that will focus the player into the helm of his own imagination.

Similarly as to how the information being withheld can mean many things, the ways the information can be withheld or exposed also differ and have different effects. And if they differ, we can categorize and label them for more clear usage.

The constitutions of information we'll be exploring in this article will be the:

a) Unknown: the binary lack of information - you either know it or you don't;

b) Vague: the ambiguous or incomplete piece of information - you have information but it's not key information; and 

c) Uncanny: the presence of conflicting bits of information - you're not sure anymore about something you are supposed to know.

Note that information can also exist in different scales, we won't be exploring much about them as we'll leave this up to artistic interpretation and usage, specially because it's variable about what's the relevant information scale being dealt with at the moment. For understanding of what it means, you can for example see a person in the distance and not know which color this person's eyes are. That can either be a lack of information (unknown color of the eyes) or incomplete information (unknown details about the person as a whole) depending on what scale of importance is being considered. This aspect is very complex and varies a lot depending on context so it'll be a dimension we'll take for granted and leave apart while working on the other two already described. If any reader wants to complete this base-article with that, please feel free, and thank you! 

In future articles we'll study examples of each combination – which are not necessarily the only elements  of the two dimensions this article is out to explore.

Can you fill each combination with events from Video-Games, Movies and Books?


Part 2 can be read here.

This article is a repost from

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Bart Stewart
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Seems like a good, scary start. :) I like the breakdown so far -- looking forward to the next entry!

Luis Guimaraes
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Thanks, Bart! :D

In the next entry I'll just fill that chart and analyze few examples. It was supposed to be a single article which I had written like 2 months ago, but I didn't finish the examples so I split it (as a way to force me finishing it too). So it's a bit less interesting from one side (less abstract, abstract rocks!), but completes the general idea.

Btw, I was looking for a way to talk to you like 2 days ago :D I left a comment in your latest blog post. :)

Alfa Etizado
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There are so many video game conventions that everyone's used to, and they tend to find their way into horror games too. Unfortunately they inform players of things, and can steal some of the horror. For an instance you see a bright red spot on an enemy, instantly you know it not only can be killed but that it has a weak spot. You see a big tank-like monster, you know what's the deal with it.

In comparison, the invisible enemy in the first Amnesia was easily the scariest thing in any game ever for me.

I guess even the smallest things can convey information that in turn create expectations which may defuse fear, like how many slots you have on your inventory.

George Booth
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What you're describing is part of why I think a low-poly horror game would work great. I don't think I've been as scared in the higher-poly generation as I was back during certain games for the N64 or the PSX. Why? Because the characters/monsters didn't resemble things that were even remotely related to reality. Character rigs would glitch, sometimes there might be skips, or even low draw-distance that would add to that uncanny feeling.

The game I always think back to is Shadows of the Empire on N64. Ever play the sewer level? The majority of the level is spent underwater (so you have to manage breath), which means that you see cloudy dark brown with super low draw distance. To top it off, there are swimming enemies that attack you from any and all directions. The enemies themselves are just models of spheres with cylindrical tentacles, but god--did they scare the shit out of me combined with breath management and low draw distance.
The same can be said about Amnesia's monsters. When they're cast in the light without any context, they look goofy as hell. But in the shadow, with the the threat of death? Scary as hell.

Looking forward to the next article!

Maria Jayne
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The greatest fears humans can have are those of what they themselves conjure from their own personal imagination. Since this taps directly into their individual psyche and doesn't require somebody else to share those fears equally, in order to program them in accordingly.

I always think games and movies have more terrifying protagonists when you don't see them. When you're allowed to imagine whatever you believe is most scary for you. Plant the seed of a thought in the participant and then let them create the monster for you.

The moment you show the viewer what you think is scary, you immediately divide their opinion based on if they agree or disagree with you.

Michael Joseph
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"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." – H.P. Lovecraft

Assuming he wasn't just being dramatic for effect, this quote probably says more about H.P Lovecraft than it does anyone else. I think that if fear were as powerful as made out by him, mankind would never have made it this far. Fear is overcome all the time and I think that's good evidence that it's not the strongest human emotion. As human beings we celebrate our ability to overcome and conquer our fears all the time. Games glorify this as well.

I do think that games which explore fear beyond cliche horror scare tactics could be interesting. Perhaps in the future parts to your series you can talk about crafting fear and the game mechanics of fear and talk about things like planting true/false suggestions ("Adama is a cylon!"), construction and controlled unveiling of a terrifying enemy and/or villain in such a way the viewer understands the precise nature of the threat ("The Terminator cannot be reasoned with! It will never stop! Run Sarah!"), the incomprehensible challenges and fears of inadequacy/incompetence/failure ("cut one of the wires to stop the bomb, you have 10 seconds!"), threat or possibility of abandonment, physical manifestations of fear and it's impact on players/squad members (fright checks, uncontrolled trembling during aiming, disobeying orders, battle fatigue\mental breakdown), fear of rejection, fear of bad luck... that the universe or gods or devils are plotting against you, and fear of hearing the truth. ("Nanananananana i can't hear you!")

Fear is powerful but I'd hate to think that it's some fundamental, driving constant in our lives, the emotional equivalence of the universe's background radiation. But despite it's power, fear is an emotion that games downplay or ignore. And maybe they have a good reason for doing so? We don't like fear and we don't like what fear does to people. In film and literature, fear tends to produce a lot of characters who we detest. Javert, Vader, Commodus, Joker, Loki, etc... It's good for the bad guy, but fear doesn't go very well with protagonists in our heroic fantasies.

Luis Guimaraes
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Thanks for the comments guys!

The next part with the examples will answer/complement/reinforce/explain many of these observations.

Shannon Rowe
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I guess the difficult part to balance is that at some point you do have to show the monster or threat, otherwise there won't be enough to flesh out a full game. While it makes sense to hold off the big reveal as long as possible to build suspense, you wouldn't be able to have *just* suspense and no actual danger.

A good example is the legendary Shalebridge Cradle level from Thief 3. Many people, including me, still relish the escalating terror of playing that level for the first time - emotions that were entirely achieved through atmosphere alone. But as great as that level was, it wouldn't be sustainable for a whole game.

Luis Guimaraes
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This is exactly the problem this method deals with Shannon.

By treating that information as non-binary data, the designer doesn't have to disclosure everything at once and lose all the mystery when it's done.

What you describe as "to show the monster or threat" and "just suspense and no actual danger" is an usage of the Unknown Image method, the most common solution employed in the Adventure Horror subgenre. It's such an obvious tool to use that I think you said it without a second thought. It's really the first thing to come to our minds.

The problem you're pointing is one of the weaknesses of this very obvious go-to solution. The point of the article is to show the other mthods and how they can be used to avoid these weaknesses to some extend.

Well I'll stop talking and leave it to the continuation :)

Shannon Rowe
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Exactly, and I'm very looking forward to read the next part of your article to see your ideas on how to mitigate these tropes.

Also, to kind of contradict what I said above, I just remembered that Gone Home was a quite decent example where "just suspense" actually did succeed in making for a full game. Granted, that experience was short and featured non-FPS gameplay and wasn't really horror as such, so not all of the things that worked in Gone Home would be replicable to action horror games. But perhaps one lesson we can take from its success is that maybe gamers are ready for something that doesn't follow the usual tropes.

This process has already started to show up, with the resurgence in non-combat horror games in the last few years adding to suspense through vulnerability arising from player limitations. In that regard, I would say that as well as presenting the unknown/vague/uncanny in terms of what the user sees and hears, additionally good horror can also come from the user's *capabilities* or lack thereof, since they are also actors in the world of the game. For example, if the player can't fight at all, or needs to acquire some object or weapon first, this makes them feel fear as well, because they are not yet prepared. As you said in the article, when gamers know the game is fair, they become complacent. But if that fairness must first be earned by taking risks and being vulnerable, then the player has more to lose. Dark Souls is a good example of getting that heart-pounding fear of loss going. Imagine blending that adrenaline-stoked terror into a pure horror experience..

Anyway I'm off rambling again, so best to wait for the continuation as you say. :)

Luis Guimaraes
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Well, if the game is balanced around total lack of combat, and if showing your back to the "threats" never runs out of ammunition, is the player really vulnerable? :)