Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Most of us were afraid of the dark as children. And who could blame us, since we couldn’t see what was around us, and we feared what might be lurking in the darkness.
As we grew up and learned that the boogie man was a myth, that fear ebbed away. For most of us there is nothing to fear from the dark, other than bumping into things or tripping over the cat.
However, if we were to find ourselves in the dark somewhere where there was something to fear, such as a war zone or the African savanna in lion country, that fear would justifiably return. We know instinctively that the danger you can’t see coming is the most dangerous.
Video game devs know this of course. By limiting our in-game senses, they can artfully ramp up the stress and fear factor to unbearable levels.
We humans are primarily visual creatures, thus by far the most debilitating sense to lose is our sight.
It just so happens that robbing us of our in-game vision is something that video games excel at.
A simple way to do this is to make everything too dark to see. This can be done easily by setting the scene underground or at the dead of night. This trope goes back a long way, at least as far back as 1992’s aptly titled ‘Alone in the dark.’
This early survival horror featured a maze which was lit only by the feeble light of your candle. This was a nerve-wracking experience. Firstly, it was easy to get disorientated and lost. Secondly, you became paranoid about what might be lurking just out of sight.
Alone in the Dark PC
Video by silenig Candle light maze is at 1:36:32
Early survival horror games, such as Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, were limited by the hardware of the systems they ran on. This necessitated a fixed 3rd person viewing angle for each screen. Devs used this limitation to their advantage however, by taking cues from the cinematography of early horror films. The viewing angles the devs employed allowed enemies to hide ‘off screen.’ They could see your avatar, but you - the player - could not see them.
By 1999 console technology had improved greatly. Games could now be fully rendered in 3D, but with a distinctly limited rendering distance. To disguise the ugly and immersion breaking 'object and texture pop in', Team Silent wisely bathed the titular town of Silent Hill in a thick fog. This limited your vision to a few tens of meters. This created a distinctive atmosphere, and allowed its twisted horrors to get very close before you could see them. The fact you could hear them before you could see them increased the tension yet further.
Silent Hill 2 PC
Video by John Kimble
All three franchises made heavy use of other horror mechanics, such as resource scarcity, limited inventory space and avatar vulnerability, to create some particularly harrowing experiences.
Limiting the player’s vision can also be used in non-horror games to make specific sections particularly tense.
Once again, the Half Life series provides us with a very good example. Half Life 2: Episode 1, features an underground section which is bathed in complete darkness. All you can see is the narrow cone illuminated by your flashlight, the battery for which runs down very quickly. It recharges over time, but whilst it is doing so, you will not be able to see a thing. The need to carefully conserve your battery only adds to the tension.
Half Life 2: Episode 1
Video by gannonscrub
You are trapped in this area, with the only way out being the service elevator, which has to be called down to your level. This takes an agonisingly long time. During this time, you will be relentlessly attacked by a horde of Headcrabs and Zombies, which I suspect are infinitely respawning in this section, ‘a la’ Ravenholm.
Although you cannot see without your flashlight, they have no problem finding you in the total darkness. Headcrabs and Zombies appear to lack eyes, so presumably they hunt via other means. Due to this you cannot hide from them. Therefore, you will burn through your ammo supply fending them off, whilst willing that damn elevator to hurry up and arrive before your ammo runs out.
The feeling of relief when you are finally safe inside the now ascending elevator cannot be overstated.
Another way of subtly reducing the player’s vision, even in broad daylight, is to force the player to ware vision restricting head gear. Examples include space suits, diving helmets, gas mask and medieval helmets. This can reduce your peripheral vision, and leaves you vulnerable to being blind-sided. They often induce an uncomfortable feeling of claustrophobia as well, ramping up the sense of unease even further.
The Metro 2033 series and various mods of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise put this to good use. Due to their radioactive and sometimes toxic environments, wearing a gas mask is essential much of the time.
Metro 2033 Redux
Video by mo Mo
As you can see, your mask can become fogged up, streaked with rain and smeared with blood, all of which will obscure your vision. Metro’s now iconic 'mask wipe' solves this problem, temporarily. However, wiping leaves you momentarily vulnerable, since you cannot shoot and wipe at the same time, plus your hand blocks your vision.
Worse yet, your mask can become damaged, which further obscures your vision. This cannot be fixed with a mere wipe.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Alpha Eclipse Dynamic HUD
Video by Анастасия Никонова
Gas masks muffle external sounds and allow you to hear your own breath. As such you cannot hear as well whilst wearing one. Being deprived of your two main senses, when in such irradiated and mutant infested environments as Post-WWIII Moscow or the Zone, is an unsettling experience to say the least.
That’s it for now. Next time we will investigate a title that features three very different styles of play, which creates three very different fear factors.