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Fight or Flight: The Neuroscience of Survival Horror
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Fight or Flight: The Neuroscience of Survival Horror

June 12, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Integrating Terror into Gameplay

Achieving scares and interactivity in the horror genre is no easy feat. Whereas other games challenge the player's ability to solve a puzzle or take down an array of enemies, the survival horror genre challenges a hardwired and highly adaptive response to threats. To establish one good startle, you need to take into account the ability for your design to establish a baseline of expectations with your environment and the purpose of your character in that environment, build anxiety, connect with the character, and remove any control the player may have (consider the importance of the first 10-15 minutes of Dead Space and the player's first encounter with an enemy).

This design often leads to the scripted scare (i.e. Pyramid Head's non-confrontational spooky/disturbing appearances scattered throughout Silent Hill 2), which can remind us of the linearity of gameplay and a lack of a personalized experience/choice and replay value.

Top: Dead Space's first/scripted encounter with a necromorph does not give the player a chance to fight back, but removes control and increases anxiety. Bottom: Scripted moment with Pyramid Head omniously staring at James Sunderland through impenetrable bars.

This raises the additional challenge of creating unpredictable moments while playing. For example, in a game like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, certain events can cue an "ice-world transition", prepping the player to run in order to avoid danger.

The first time, such an event can create anxiety but not as much after the third or fourth. This does not mean that these events fail to create anxiety in the player, but they do not achieve it to the same degree due to our own learning of what a player must do in order to play/win.

Similarly in Dead Space, some players can plan their confrontations by prepping themselves to orient their attack to nearby vents or gratings. In fact, once they do, their experience with the game is not one of fear, but of confrontation and seizing power.

Top: Necromorph whack-a-mole in Dead Space. Bottom: Ice transitions in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories = run.

It seems that with the growing tendency of video games to move towards more visceral action/gore (Dead Space 2 vs Dead Space, or Resident Evil 4 and 5 vs Resident Evil 1 to 3) signals that it is easier to design an action game based off of a terror franchise instead of a true horror game that can succeed in the aforementioned principles of animal behavior.


As a neuroscientist, it is very rewarding for me to see science being used so elegantly in video games, and I can easily see this trend continue to appeal to an increasingly smart gaming audience. So, what can we learn from games like Amnesia, Silent Hill, F.E.A.R., etc.? And in more general terms, how can we implement basic principles of neuroscience into video games?

Clearly, the first step is to stay informed. Research in the sciences is extremely fast-paced, and most of the findings don't reach the general audience until at least a decade later when they're published in textbooks. The recent revolution in information exchange does not completely solve the problem and is a double-edged sword. It helps spread knowledge faster, but is often unreliable.

The second step is to be bold enough to experiment with new genres. Every now and then, a game comes along that creates a completely new way of thinking about video games. Although this is a risky approach, it is much needed in an industry that boasts literally hundreds of games that follow the exact same recipe.

Finally, it is important to form a solid emotional bond between the game (or the main character) and the player. RPGs do this beautifully by blurring the line between the gamer and his avatar. For non-RPGs, the task is less straightforward.

One of the ways to establish/strengthen the bond is to elicit very strong emotions in the gamer. Games in the survival horror do this using fear, which can be very effective. However, it is not the only way. We have recently seen an onslaught of different games that capitalize on a range of different emotions such as grief (Graveyard, Tale of Tales), love and loss (Dear Esther, Thechineseroom), etc. It is clearly evident that the era of "one size fits all" video games is long gone.

At the end of the day, it's important to know your audience before you can sell them a product. With the abundance of game studios, whether it's the triple-A industry or the budding indie games, no developer can risk making a game that will flop. Understanding what humans find engaging/stimulating/addictive is necessary in making a given video game a success.


Cornwell BR, Alvarez RP, Lissek S, Kaplan R, Ernst M, Grillon C (2011) Anxiety overrides the blocking effects of high perceptual load on amygdala reactivity to threat-related distractors. Neuropsychologia 49:1363-1368.

Fikretoglu D, Brunet A, Best SR, Metzler TJ, Delucchi K, Weiss DS, Fagan J, Liberman A, Marmar CR (2007) Peritraumatic fear, helplessness and horror and peritraumatic dissociation: do physical and cognitive symptoms of panic mediate the relationship between the two? Behaviour research and therapy 45:39-47.

Harris JC (1989) Experimental animal modeling of depression and anxiety. The Psychiatric clinics of North America 12:815-836.

Gewirtz JC, McNish KA, Davis M (1998) Lesions of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis block sensitization of the acoustic startle reflex produced by repeated stress, but not fear-potentiated startle. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry 22:625-648.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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