"Horror is incredibly subjective and good jump scares aren’t easy to do well because it’s all about what leads up to the big scream."
- Red Barrels co-founder Philippe Morin explains how horror games use tension as a tool.
Horror games are infamous for the jump scares they (more often than not) contain, but what purpose do these sudden scares serve outside of delivering players a quick jolt of adrenaline?
PC Gamer sat down with a number of noted horror game developers to discover just that. The story catches up with the developers of games like Alien: Isolation, Outlast, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent to explore how a seemingly basic scare tactic can serve a number of purposes in both narrative and game design.
“Jump scares are one of the minor tools—more like a bit of spice you add to the main course—but used correctly they can help maintain pace and tension without exhausting the player,” Alien: Isolation lead writer Dion Lay told PC Gamer. “You can even use a dummy jump scare or fake out to signal to the player that they can relax a little—'you’ve had your scare for now, we'll let you take a breather.' They're good to contrast with the prolonged terror of the main threat, or the slow burn of the dread cultivated by the location and soundtrack.”
Many of the interviewees agree that jump scares work best when they complement the larger themes and moments in a horror title. The subtle way even the possibility of a jump scare can build tension is something both Frictional Games creative director Thomas Grip and Red Barrels co-founder Philippe Morin say can help devs get players in the right mindset for a solid horror experience.
“They act in a similar manner to fail states—they're something that the player is afraid of, or at least anxious about,” explains Grip. “Once you get the players to realize that jump scares will be a thing, they will start to anticipate them, adding to the fear factor in different scenes.”
The full story on PC Gamer has more insight from each dev about the purpose of jump scares, including thoughts about how jump scares worked with the rise of Let’s Play videos to bring some horror titles to a potentially huge audience and a look at the state of modern horror.