Creating Dread in Horror Games

Can you hear it? The slight creak in your office chair, the pop inside the walls of your room, the bones in the house stretching. Are your lights off? Do you still see flickers of shadows out of the corners of your eyes then? Who was that knocking on your door - or, was that just the wind?

These are questions leading to uncertainty within Eight Hours. Not a moment goes by where there isn’t some trick of light or slight of sound that leads to a question. Are all the sounds normal, or has something introduced itself? Are you really seeing what you are seeing, or have you been staring at the screen too long?

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What is dread? Dread is to be in great fear. How does one create great fear within a game? Is it the atmosphere - sounds, textures, visuals? Or is it in the thoughts put into the heads of the player? Is it all about how the game is played, the tension it creates? Well - it really is all of it put together.

Setting the Mood

Audio (or lack there of), visuals, and texture are all really great starts to set the tone for a horror game. You can see examples of this in almost all horror themed games. Take a look at some of the recent releases of horror themed games to get a sense of the horror tone. The FNAF (Five Nights at Freddys) series of games all use dark environments and a lack of lighting, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard has a lot of gross imagery - from bugs to guts (just look at how wet those models look), and just listen to the Silent Hill soundtracks. From each of those examples, one who has not even played video games before can say that they are trying to be scary. They all give off a sense of dread in some form.

Beyond the Senses

What about how a player thinks when playing a game? As you walk through the halls in PT or Madison, do you think of puppies and unicorns? No, there are clues and mystery created that drive your mind to somewhere darker. In Outlast, do you pass by the residents with an air of confidence, or do you sit and think to yourself, “Will this one attack me or is he too addled to care about my presence?”. Amnesia - one of the great indie darlings of horror - makes you think the boogie man is in the closet, but when you open it, nothing happens. Then, when you turn around - BOO!. All of the actions done by these games makes the player uncertain of what is about to happen. Uncertainty leads to nervousness, coupled with the environment - the player is lead on the path of dread.

Perpetuating the Dread

Of course, none of this would continue to bother the player if nothing ever happens. This is why a lot of games finish off with a pop of jump scares - similar in fashion to Slender: The Eight Pages or FNAF. In both scenarios this is also used as a form of punishment for failure - creating a tension to avoid failure at all costs.

Death and punishment for failures is a common pattern to keep the fear going in the player’s mind. It instills a basic cause and effect pattern in the mind.

To go a step further, audio and visual cues can attach to the effects of failure. An example of this would be in the origin FNAF game. When the player runs out of power, the player knows they have failed. However the scare doesn’t come immediately. It is preceded by an indeterminately timed music loop and light flicker before punishing the player.

Finally, another way to create dread throughout the game is via limited resources to manage. Why is that most hobby or independent horror games have flashlights with batteries? Because it is an easy to relate to form of resource management. Outlast does this well with the use of the video camera and night vision.

Dread in Eight Hours

Eight Hours is a paranormal investigative horror themed game. With that description, we had to match up with what creates a good horror game. So, Eight Hours employs several methods of using the environment, audio, and game play to bring out the scares.


The environment in Eight Hours matches that of most horror themed games. That is, the entire house is dark and the setting is a night time scene. There is also an eerie sense of loneliness due to the vacancy of objects within the home. This is further compounded by the fact that the player is not allowed to leave this enclosure and is alone the entire night.


There is no music within the game of Eight Hours. This was done intentionally as some of the game play does rely on audio cues. It also lets all of those seemingly harmless sounds to sink in. The environment helps add dread by introducing sounds effects too closely related to those associated with failure punishment within the game. So, is that creak really a creak or the foot steps of a malicious entity?

Game Play

Eight Hours increases the feeling of dread in the game play. The player is offered combat resources in the form of light switches and detection objects to help avoid the spirits. However, these are offered in small quantities. This allows for known exposure to failure in the mind of the player. Finally, the game play does not let the player only respond in fight or only respond in fight. This adds another layer of panic as the player has to decide what to do - and the wrong choice or indecision can cost the player dearly.

Finally, Eight Hours is unique in that it uses real world dread to the game. All of the EVPs within Eight Hours are sourced from real world ghost hunts and investigations. Some believe that this can invite said spirits (or something more sinister) into your life. Play with caution - if you dare.

Written on February 14, 2018
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