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Horror Games 101 Part 3: How Games Rob us of our Senses to Scare us Witless - NSFC!

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2

Welcome back, everyone.

In the last article, we investigated how resource scarcity can increase feelings of vulnerability and fear. In this, we will investigate how a scarcity of light and sound can be equally terrifying. Let's dive in.

Fear of the Dark

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 dark.

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.

Lack of light

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

A Matter of Perspective

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.

Visual Range

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 ganonscrub

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.

Restricted Vision

Another way of subtly reducing the player’s vision, even in broad daylight, is to force the player to ware vision restricting headgear. 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

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

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. See you all there.

But these are only my thoughts, what are yours? Are there other games you can think of that deliberately limit your senses to make them scarier? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at, and contacted via email at

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