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.

Article by Pete Davison, .

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--


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--


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?

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Comments 10

  • Avatar for Spazgadget #1 Spazgadget 4 years 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.
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  • Avatar for Thusian #2 Thusian 4 years ago
    I thought Nemesis was a cool take on it your fear of him was valid, he was strong durable and effed up looking, but he could jump out and get you at any time. Once he jumped out the best option was usually to run. The sense of pursuit and tension was great STAAAARS!
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #3 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    Hey, whatever happened to those mouse-maze flash games with the shouting in the end?
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  • Avatar for ProTw33ks #4 ProTw33ks 4 years 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.
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  • Avatar for Bla1ne #5 Bla1ne 4 years ago
    Along with the ominous hallways and audio cues, though, there were two other very important aspects of the jump scare--or rather, pretty much all fear in horror games!

    1. The clunky controls, and

    2. The fixed camera

    Both of which are, and generally have been, regarded as lazy or poor game development or mechanics, but I think they have their merits, and are in fact primordial in certain circumstances. Just like most people would regard turn based battles in RPGs as inferior to action-battles, they can in fact be infinitely superior when it comes to tactical gameplay. When it comes to horror games, player-controlled cameras take away a lot of the tension that a fixed camera could have provided instead. There's nothing like a fixed camera staring aslant at a gross body in the corner while you make your way past to engross you in the atmosphere of the game. And the player-controlled camera is central in the "improved" gameplay mechanics, the twin-stick control settings. Giving you increased control over your character has certainly made the game less clunky, but again it's taken away the tension you would feel were you not in complete precise control. Like those nightmares you had as a kid of trying to run away from a monster, but you'd just run on the spot--wouldn't have been quite as scary if you could have handily outrun the monster!

    Now, I don't think modern games need to go back to fixed cameras and tank controls to be tense again, but they certainly need to learn from those elements, and incorporate what made them work into their modern gameplay. I'd like to see more games hybridize fixed and player-controlled cameras. For combat sequences, obviously you'd have full control. But outside combat, as much as possible, the game should take away that control--and it should take it away as often as possible, that way it could lure you in the false sense of security fixed cameras need in order to be able to get the jump scare, and then keep you on edge. As for controls, I do prefer twin-stick over tank, and I absolutely loathe when the turning speed is too slow, but I wouldn't mind if player movement was slower. The Last of Us's default move speed is quite ponderous, and I think that played a key role in the game's greatness--more horror games need to learn from that. In fact, there's a lot that future horror games could learn from The Last of Us!Edited August 2013 by Bla1ne
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  • Avatar for Bla1ne #6 Bla1ne 4 years ago
    @FatalHybrid Good point about not being able to fight back, I forgot that one! I enjoyed Dead Space (haven't played the sequels yet, can't say), but I didn't find it scary at all. The reason for that was that I quickly figured out that the game's engine couldn't handle more than (I guessed) 5 enemies at one time, and I could easily handle fighting that many. So if I was never threatened, I could reason that I should never be scared either.

    It wouldn't surprise me that it's becoming more popular not to be able to fight back, since both stealth and pacifist games are also becoming more popular. I see this element as being a combination of both--the need to be stealthy because fighting isn't an option.

    This can also be seen as the modern take on clunky controls, too, though. Tank controls made it hard to adequately defend yourself. If you don't have tank controls, then keeping the enemies a step above your ability to fight back would restore balance in the fear's favor.
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  • Avatar for Daedalus207 #7 Daedalus207 4 years ago
    I still think that the haunted house from Vampires: The Masquerade: Bloodlines is the most genuinely scary thing I've ever played.
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  • Avatar for bigdsweetz #8 bigdsweetz 4 years ago
    I always thought the part where the licker jumps out of the window in RE 2 did it for me.

    Or F.E.A.R. the first one. That scared the crap out of me.
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  • Avatar for mrkrinkledude #9 mrkrinkledude 4 years ago
    The last jump scare I had was when playing DayZ.
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  • Avatar for llirium #10 llirium 4 years ago
    Whew. I think... the subtler jump scares got me better than the big ones. Like, I'd never played RE1 for Playstation, just the GCN remake. The dog scare place is still there in the remake, but... only *hints* at the scare to come, with the tinkling of a glass to indicate something, or someone, trying to get in the first time you go through the hallway.

    Or was it just a tree branch or the wind? Gah!

    And yeah, the remake just did that to mess up the people expecting it from the first version. But still... it was a cool experience no matter if you'd played the first RE or not.
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