• Got a Eurogamer account? Your details will work here too!

  • Need an account?

    Create an account. They're free!

  • Forgotten your login details?

    Recover your account here.

The Lost Art of the Jump Scare

When was the last time a game actually made you jolt in fear? Pete ponders this evolution of the horror genre.

By Pete Davison. Published 8 months ago

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was just dark, and I was a little drunk, as teenagers tend to be when enjoying a late-night video game session while their parents are out of the house for an extended period.

My friend Woody sat alongside me, staring with rapt attention at the TV screen. On the flickering CRT, Jill Valentine was cautiously walking down an innocuous-looking corridor, her footsteps echoing in the otherwise silent hallway. I noticed Woody almost imperceptibly tense up next to me as Jill passed by a window. I didn't have time to ask him what he was expecting to happen because--

SMASH.

In through the window burst a dog, and it was obviously out for blood. The game's chilling but sedate soundtrack had given way to chaotic string stabs, and I knew the only option was to run for my life. I steered Jill carefully around the corner of the corridor, heading for the way out, when--

SMASH.

More dogs. The controller slipped in my hands as the sweat made it hard to grip. I was genuinely panicking -- the sudden and unexpected appearance of these undead canine assailants had caused my heart to race, and the game's clunky controls really weren't helping me stay in command of the situation.

Eventually, I safely made it out through the door, hit the pause button, put the controller down and turned to Woody. His shoulders were shaking with stifled mirth, and as he felt my eyes on him, he erupted into full-on belly laughter.

"Got you," he said.

Resident Evil's "dog scene" is one of the most infamous "jump scares" in gaming history -- and it's one that its sequel in particular successfully recreated several times. Much of its power came from the fact that it was unexpected, but even if you knew it was coming, it was still all but impossible not to physically react to it, whether it was through flinching, vocalizing or some embarrassing combination of both. Resident Evil 2 subsequently took this creepy sense of foreboding anticipation and ran with it; whether or not you had encountered the dog scene of the original yourself, you quickly knew to expect the unexpected -- and loud -- as soon as you entered a corridor with conspicuous windows, or boarded up wall panels, or in which the music suddenly stopped. With every step you took, you wondered if this would be the one where something would burst through a wall and try its very best to kill you.

And then just to screw with you further, these games often toyed with your expectations, making a corridor look like it would probably play host to a jump scare, and then fail to deliver until much later when you had fallen into a false sense of security.

Jump scares are an effective -- if, arguably, cheap and clichéd -- means of evoking a reaction of genuine fear or anxiety from their unfortunate recipients. And I feel that the Resident Evil series' move away from that delicious sense of terror and panic has played a big role in why a series I once loved back in the PS1 era now holds little to no interest for me whatsoever. I didn't play Resident Evil to feel like an action movie badass. I played Resident Evil to feel like I was up against unknown horrors; to feel a sense of real fear; to jump out of my seat and make my friend laugh because he already knew what was coming.

Don't open the one on the end.

This isn't to say jump scares have gone away altogether, though they're not seen anywhere near so frequently in modern "horror" games -- particularly as franchises such as Dead Space have also gone the Resident Evil route. That is to say, heading in a more "actiony" direction as opposed to "crawling around in the dark hoping something unpleasant doesn't land on your head and/or rip your arm off."

One of my favorite examples in relatively recent memory comes from Team GrisGris' PSP visual novel/adventure Corpse Party. You wouldn't expect a top-down adventure with primitive SNES-era RPG-style visuals to have much in the way of scares, but Corpse Party manages to pull it off successfully on several occasions -- the most notable of which comes in a scene where you're in a ruined bathroom, searching through the stalls one by one, the last of which suddenly bombards you with a loud noise and a disembodied voice yelling "SHUT THE GODDAMNED DOOR!" in Japanese.

This particular instance of a jump scare in Corpse Party works so well because it's unexpected in several ways -- firstly, if you've never played it before, you might not know it's the sort of game that also has jump scares besides its wonderfully macabre atmosphere of lurking horror. Secondly, according to the way most people "explore" in games of this type, before you get to the stall that houses the scare, you will more than likely open four other doors without incident, lulling you into a false sense of calm. (Interestingly, a later secret chapter in the game actually allows you to discover the source of the disembodied voice -- he's not actually a malevolent force at all, which puts an interesting twist on the whole experience.)

Silent Hill 2 is scary, but it doesn't use jump scares to provide its thrills.

It's a fine line devs have to straddle with scary games. Since jump scares are something of a cliché today, if a new game is going to include them, devs need to make sure they're reallyunexpected, otherwise they're just laughable. They also suffer somewhat from the assumption that they're a cheap and dumb means of making people "feel" something from a game, when more psychological, intelligent horror titles such as Silent Hill and The Walking Dead focus instead on the "skin crawling" side of horror: the gradual realization that something that you can't quite put your finger on is very, very wrong. At the other end of the spectrum, titles like Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising focus on the "surviving against overwhelming odds" side of things -- this can induce panic and anxiety in its own way, but not in the same way as the simple art of a sudden loud noise closely followed by something unpleasant with too many teeth jumping at you.

It's been quite some time since I've been genuinely freaked out in this way by a video game -- particularly one I can play on my TV, since Corpse Party is a portable game -- and this is somewhat surprising considering the improvements in technology we've had since the PS1 era; games should be really good at scaring the crap out of people by now. There's a primal thrill from a simple loud noise or unexpected event triggering our innate "fight or flight" reflex, and I'd love to see some -- though not all -- horror games make a return to tapping into those instinctive emotional responses.

I've said my piece, so let's open it up to the floor, now. What have been your favorite "scary games" over the years? And are you more of a fan of jump scares, psychological horror or a combination of the two?

The best community comments so far 11 comments

  • Spazgadget 8 months ago

    "Jump Scares" in horror movies have always come across (to me) as a way to keep audience tension high before, y'know, anything actually scary happens in the final act of the film. While I've always found them a bit of a lazy device, I find I enjoy them significantly more in video games, probably due to player agency. When you're actually making the choice to walk down the hallway, or past a window, or around the corner, I find your engagement in the medium is heightened, and as you are a more active participant in the "action", the reaction of the environment is significantly more affecting.

  • FatalHybrid 8 months ago

    I remember the dog scene in 'Resident Evil' fondly as it was probably the first time a game had set out to scare me and succeeded as scripted scenes like that were still relatively new. I'd put that scene up with the opening to 'Silent Hill' which wasn't so much a jump scare, but those Grey Children in the alleyway also left a big impression in my thoughts while scaring me half to death in the process.

    As games have gone on I think it has become a lot harder to scare people with the old school tactics as jump scares unless they are extremely well done just don't work anymore, so now that the easiest way to scare is no longer 100% effective developers are having to experiment with differing levels of success.

    To me recent examples of great horror are games like 'Condemned' and 'Amnesia' which are less about the jump scares though 'Condemned' has its fair share but more about atmosphere, you hear what you can't see and see glimpses of what you can't hear and that works up to a point. For example 'Condemned' the opening level of that walking through a drug den with a flashlight and 5 bullets was scary and that feeling remained quite a way through the game. 'Amnesia' was similar but as it got less scary the devs added new enemy types like the infamous Kaernk an invisible water demon.

    Though both games due in part to a very straight forward atmospheric approach didn't work on everyone, for every gamer like me that vouches for 'Amnesia' as the scariest game ever there is someone else that got bored because it wasn't scary and that's a problem for devs. I think the horror genre is on somewhat of a resurgence thanks to players embracing the idea of not being able to fight back but eventually even that will stop being scary meaning yet another strategy will need to be found.

    So while the genre is getting some of the fear back I can understand why some developers have all but given up on the genre opting for action above all else as it's hard to make a horror game these days, I do hope that one day we get a game that delivers a 'Resident Evil' dog moment again but it's just getting harder to achieve as gamers are getting desensitized to what works.

  • nimzy 8 months ago

    People mocked the original Dead Space for its jump scares but one of the best I've ever seen happens early in that game. After fleeing from monsters, you think you're safe--and then you turn the corner to walk down a hallway and a shadow of one of the monsters darts across the floor in front of you. Nothing is there when you turn around of course.

View 11 comments

More from USgamer

Comments

Close