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Scary Game Findings: A Study Of Horror Games And Their Players
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Scary Game Findings: A Study Of Horror Games And Their Players

September 7, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

Dead Space 2

Outline of Play

Dead Space 2 begins with a calm but interrogative cutscene, in which it becomes clear that the protagonist from the first game, Isaac Clarke, is mentally ill. During the opening, the events soon turn to semi-hallucinatory horror, and soon Isaac finds himself woken by a medical orderly.

A grotesque attack upon the orderly means Isaac is forced to run through a necromorph-infested series of corridors, bound by a straightjacket. Isaac reaches the relative safety of another part of the hospital after beating a mini-QTE, and embarks on a quieter fact-finding role. Shortly, after a number of false alarms, other necromorphs attack Isaac.

The sessions ended at various stages depending on the player's abilities, but never earlier than the part where the telekinesis gun is found, and no players succeeded in reaching too far beyond the point at which the plasma gun is sourced from the device operating upon a screaming man.

Analysis of Play

Opening terror and start of gameplay. None of the players' interest was stimulated during the cutscene that played at the start, at least not until Isaac witnesses his dead wife become a necromorph in a horrific fashion.

At least four of the participants found this moment distressing, and were frightened further still when throttled by the orderly, only to have him gruesomely slaughtered by a grotesque creature.

It was suggested that these scenes were not only scary due to the abruptness and potency of the shocks, but were also heightened because of the liberal presentation of horror and gore. This was not universally agreed upon, but three of the players strongly agreed with this hypothesis, with another player agreeing to some extent.

Mike's breathing and GSR had returned to normal following the wife-horror of the intro video, but is again interrupted as the orderly is unexpectedly impaled from behind. An exclamation of "Oh wow!" and questioning confirmed that this moment was scary for him. He was not alone in this thought, as other players also experienced similar emotions at this point.

Straightjacket flee. The chase scene provided a number of scary moments for the players, arriving at different stages for each player. All but one of the players (Matt) died at least once before reaching the relative safety of the next room, with players especially struggling on a scripted mini-QTE sequence after being pounced upon by a necromorph. The points at which players were most engaged were at three definable but partially generative beats.

The first type of scare-inducing moment was whenever players were physically attacked by an enemy. This was most profound in the first instance of attack, but remained significant on each occurrence. The response was also elevated when players had little health remaining.

However, for one player (Matt), although his biometric reactions to necromorph attacks were in line with the other players, he did state "I couldn't really care less if I lived or died". This is either a case of participant denial of fear (for any number of reasons), or an alternative emotion felt by the player to what the other participants were feeling, though he was unable to remember what he was feeling at the time.

Olivia suffers her first direct attack from a necromorph. Clearly, her irregular GSR patterns are aligned with this moment, and she was shouting, "God, Oh my God, this shit is so scary!"

The second feature of the scene that regularly prompted a fear response was when players were knowingly pursued by enemies, but said aliens were not visible on-screen, and Isaac was just out of harm's way. This "implied danger" was a key cause of scariness for the participants, with Olivia suggesting, amongst screams, that knowing they were behind her was really scary.

The final cause of scariness in this opening chase was observed whenever players had trouble navigating. Four of the players took the wrong route, often resulting in death. Three of them said that this caused them to panic, making the chase even scarier. Kira, however, said that losing her way was frustrating and made the game less scary, which another player (Rob) found himself in agreement with, though only after he repeatedly had trouble with navigation.

This panic/frustration theme recurred when the mini-QTE part was reached, with initial fear soon dissipating into frustration as players took multiple attempts to survive it.

Rosalind died consecutively four times whilst struggling to navigate the dark corridors and locked doors of the asylum. Her shrieks of fear became cries of frustration as she failed to work out where to run to.

Non-combat horror scenes. After the panic of the first five minutes, players settled into the more somber pace of the following 10. The blood-splattered rooms and scenes of implied disgusting violence didn't elicit much response from the players, but there were a handful of shock-inducing moments that managed to scare every player, although, of course, to varying degrees.

The main sources of scares were when a screen abruptly blares on; when an apparently stationary patient suddenly grabs Isaac when he approaches; when the floor of a vent falls through; and a more subtle point when strange, alarming noises can be heard.

All of these managed to scare almost every player, with only Kira and Matt resisting, though even they were scared by at least one of these moments. Again, at all of these points, a dramatic change in GSR could be seen, and a modified respiration pattern could also be observed. Participants were particularly vocal during the scary parts of Dead Space 2, which helped with pinpointing specific emotions (fear) and they also remembered some of these individual scares in the post-session evaluation as being especially scary.

"I'm feeling very vulnerab -- woah!" Rob had already been scared by previous shocks in Dead Space 2, but the relative calmness of the game had heightened his expectations of fright. His suspicions that the game was about to throw another scare his way were confirmed when, mid-sentence, the floor fell through beneath him.

It is interesting that many of these scares were preceded by a period of unstable biometrics responses, such as an increased heart-rate and heavy or stunted breathing. This "anticipation" fear served as a key factor in building up the tension leading to the actual scares themselves, which was commented on by both Mike and Rosalind; an idea that other players also agreed with.

Telekinesis gun and combat. The final part that every player reached was when Isaac first receives the telekinesis gun. Some players couldn't work out how to progress, which made them frustrated, observed by both a peak in GSR and a gradual rising of skin temperature. Regardless, once they were confronted by a necromorph, those that worked out how to fight it using melee combat found it very scary.

Only Matt and Rosalind managed to use the telekinesis to impale the enemy, and were less scared as a result. Kira and Olivia were unable to figure out the combat controls, and claimed they were again more frustrated than scared after repeatedly dying.

Matt barely responds to the imminent threat of a sudden appearance of the necropmorph. He wanders around the room searching for an exit, and makes his way to the lift. Despite his relative nonchalance, his respiration is still irregular and it is possible that he is somewhat scared -- or at least engaged with the game -- at this point.

We can see from this that players that could comfortably dispatch enemies were barely frightened by the confrontation, and those that were entirely unable to fight back were too frustrated to be scared. The players that depended on melee combat to kill the necromorph(s) were the most scared by this part, perhaps as the chances of survival were low, but not impossible.

Speaking to players suggested that they felt a great deal of panic, but only the melee-using players (Rob and Olivia) said they felt scared. Once more, Matt remained nonplussed by the scenario, and actually decided to simply walk past the necromorph instead of engaging with it, not responding to the threat in any significant amount.


Dead Space 2 not only had numerous occasions in which players were universally frightened, but also revealed multiple types of fear response. The anticipation of a confrontation heightened the scariness in the game, and increased the potency of the scares when they followed periods of tension.

The use of sound and false-scares (whereby the shocks represented no threat to the player) generated short bursts of fear in the players. Despite this, for some of the times when genuine conflict occurred, players were actually less scared than they were for when they thought they were going to be engaging in combat.

  • "Pretty spooky in here... Oooh... That was horrible!" - Mike upon seeing NPC slit throat
  • "I can't take this, this is so scary!" - Olivia

Furthermore, the fast pacing of the game was coupled with scenes of graphic violence. These depictions of the grotesque were far scarier to players when they were presented at moments that were also scary in another respect (fight/flight, surprises), than when presented during a sequence in which the player is safe (cutscenes, NPC suicide). Gore is apparently only scary when it is featured alongside another scary element. Overall, Dead Space 2 managed to scare every player at least once, and also had moments of immediate fright (surprises), sustained anticipatory tension and fight/flight conflict-based fear.

Player Experience Graphs

The player-drawn graphs for Dead Space 2 were more animated than for any other game, with even the usually-disinterested Matt drawing a fairly wavy line showing his engagement with the game, including a number of peaks. Participants also easily managed to remember isolated incidents during which they were scared.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

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