Simul-tober: Are Jump-Scares Effective?

Here comes another chilling guest post to continue the Simul-tober festivities!  Hatm0nster has graciously contributed this spooky post, so be sure to check out his other excellent blogging at My Two Caps and United We Game!

Image from Flickr User:  brava_67

Image from Flickr User: brava_67

If you’ve played a horror game within the last several years, you may find this to be a familiar scenario:

“You’re in a dark hallway. There’s evidence all around that something terrible happened here , but now it’s just quiet. As you advance you hear some scratching sounds coming from within the walls, and you try to identify its source. You notice a large vent at the end of the hallway, it’s larger than what a normal vent would be, instantly making it suspicious. The sounds cease as you approach it, and sure enough a monster pops out of it only to be met with a blast from your weapon. You advance once again, having just dealt with the 5th monster that popped out of a vent in the last five minutes.”

This is more or less how jump-scares tend to work these days, since many developers still seem convinced that all a horror game needs in order to be scary is grotesque stuff jumping out at the player. They tend to fall flat in the moment, but the edginess they inspire in the player may in fact be good for the genre. Given the right circumstance they may even be an effective tool, but when is the right time to use them? To answer that let’s take a brief look at Dead Space, a game that manages to use jump-scares effectively, but only in a few instances.

The staple of Dead Space‘s horror element is the jump scare. While it does a decent job of crafting a creepy atmosphere at times, it never lasts very long thanks to the jump scare mechanic. This is due mostly to when the scares are triggered, namely the tend to happen at moments or in places that aren’t particularly scary. Having something burst out the wall when the player is just walking down the hallway isn’t scary, it’s obnoxious. There needs to be more build-up to such encounters, and it can’t be something so obvious as swelling music. The player has to be put in a fearful state first, and given a reason to dread one of these creatures showing up. Perhaps it could be established that the creature in question can’t be easily destroyed, or maybe after seeing evidence of a previous attack the player could be ambushed in space in which they’re not easily able to defend themselves. It’s all about making the action something to dread rather than a seemingly random occurrence.

The other piece of the puzzle is predictability. In Dead Space, the spawn locations for the monsters became obvious very quickly. They were always in the on destructible vent in the hallway, or the extra corpses in the room that inexplicably showed after the player’s first visit. Once this was established, avoiding the scares entirely became easy. All one had to do was shoot off the vent covers and stomp all the corpses in a room, and boom! No more jump scares. If the scares weren’t so easily telegraphed and avoided, they could be much more effective.

Dead Space actually got all of this right for one segment of the game, when Isaac Clarke (the player character) was being pursued by an enemy that could not be killed. It would pursue him from room to room, and it never entered from the same place twice. It was also stronger enemy so it took a significant amount of resources to disarm each time it showed up, making it uneconomical to fight and something to dread if it ever caught Isaac in a more enclosed space. This sequence demonstrated everything the real potential to be found in the jump scare. They weren’t just random occurrences but constant looming threat. Often triggering at the worst times one could think of. If the rest of the game had been more like this segment, perhaps it would be regarded as a horror classic rather than a kind-of-scary shooter.

So, are jump-scares effective? This gamer says yes, but only if they’re given purpose beyond just having something to jump out at the player and say “BOO!”.

What do you think? Have you ever found jump scare to be effective in the games you’ve played? How would you improve them?

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9 thoughts on “Simul-tober: Are Jump-Scares Effective?

  1. C. T. Murphy says:

    I don’t mind jump scares, but they lose their effectiveness when they are repeated ad nauseum. If a game is going to scare me with jump scares, I’d rather they be part of the AI and world, rather than entirely scripted events. Creepers in Minecraft, for example, are really scary when you don’t see them/don’t expect them, which can happen anytime. Mix that with a situation where your construction is at stake or you may drown in lava, and it becomes even scarier.

    • Hatm0nster says:

      Oh man those minecraft creepers! They’ve kind of defined my play style in that game: light up as much of a cave as I possibly can, block off the areas I can’t. Only mine once that is done. Repeat for the next cave. 🙂

      • C. T. Murphy says:

        Yeah, definitely. I hated the moments when I could hear them, but not see them. Especially early in a new game where I am not exactly prepared to fight or even find my way back to that sweet coal mine I stumbled into.

  2. Very good point about Dead Space – I’m no horror game guy, so at first the game scared the crap out of me, but as I progressed, I started to realise, where all the scary stuff would come from – which is a shame, since the rest of the game is quite good. I totally agree that it’s just cheap tricks to have monsters jump at you, when nothing scary has been established yet.

    I bought Gone Home a few days ago, and I must say that it proves that you don’t need jump scares in order to be scary – or at least eerie.

  3. I think one of the most effective jump scares I’ve come across recently was in the first Bioshock game – where you encounter the Plastered Splicers but I think this was most effective because of the way they are introduced in the first place. Entering a big cavernous room filled with water, you hear something moving in the water behind you. When you turn the enemies are frozen and they won’t move again until you turn around. Yes, you know that they’re going to get closer and closer but there’s something about knowing the attack is coming in this instance that’s really, really effective. They use them for jump scares right after that first encounter, running silently up behind you before they attack – I found myself turning to look for them even though there was nothing there. SUPER effective.

  4. […] minutes, just to man up and keep going. They are fun – but as I realized, reading the post “Simul-tober: Are Jump Scares Effective?” on GIMMGP, a lot of them are also […]

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