Examining the tenser moments of fear and failure
Let me preface this article with a story. I had a dream not too long ago that described a piece of technology. It was a body suit for gaming that stimulated your muscles as you played. When your character landed after a jump, the suit would make you feel the impact. If your character was hit by electricity, you would get a shock. If your character died – well, let’s not go there just yet.
In the dream, I imagined myself playing a horror survival game while wearing the suit. I got to a scripted chase sequence where I had to avoid the monster catching up to me. As I ran, the suit told me how close the monster was, tapping my shoulder with increasing frequency. The closer the monster, the more frequent the taps became, until – caught!
My point in opening with this anecdote is to capture the thrill of being caught. Sure, many times it leads to frustration and anger, but when the experience is done right, it’s downright exhilarating. We’re trained as gamers to avoid enemies and monsters when we have no chance of beating them. However, if we slip into their line of sight, we get a big rush as we shift into ‘run away’ mode.
But how do video games make getting caught so exciting?
There are a lot of things to consider when choosing the sounds that symbolize being trapped. Some games have a song that plays when an enemy sees the player, notifying them that it’s time to escape. In more modern titles, the enemy will spout a line like, “What’s that noise?” or “Who’s there?” And, of course, there’s the staple “Found you!” grunt that enemies will blurt when you get within their line of sight.
The best example is the “caught” stinger – a sharp sound effect that’s meant to jolt the player whenever they hear it. Metal Gear Solid’s SFX for this is legendary now, being both scary to newcomers and nostalgic to veterans. But other games employ this too.
I’ve been playing The Escapists recently, and nothing is more gut-wrenching than the sound of a guard catching you breaking the rules. And horror games that rely on jumpscares, like the Five Nights at Freddy’s series, use this principle as well. These sounds don’t just work because they scare the player, but because of the reaction the tone and sharpness illicit. It tells you you’ve done something wrong, and that now it’s time to pay for your mistakes.
Visuals and Animations
Visual components also play a huge part in making getting caught intense. Sounds that tell the player they’re caught are one thing. Displaying it visually is another. Going back to Metal Gear Solid, the exclamation mark that appears over an enemy’s head when they find you is another of that game’s staples. It’s simple, but effective in telling you who caught you and where they are, so you can best plan your escape. You might also see an enemy do a specific animation that tells you they’ve just spotted you – a classic case of information being shown visually.
There are also more subtle ways video games display that you’ve been caught. In Luigi’s Mansion, sometimes Luigi will do a frightened animation when a ghost pops up. Some games, especially horror games, add a visual effect on the screen to signify an enemy has you in his sights – such as blurred vision or static. And going back to the idea of jumpscares, the sudden pop-up of monsters (a la Slenderman) wakes us up to the fact that we’ve been caught. Visuals are just as important as sound in getting the player’s adrenaline pumping.
Other than a reaction to stimuli, being caught is tense because it represents additional challenge or failure. The most successful moments work because they add a layer of challenge for the player. Getting caught is usually supposed to be avoided – if the player plays well enough, they can get by unnoticed. But if you do get caught, you suddenly have the added difficulty of having to run away from your enemy. This puts the player in a terrifying position if it’s done correctly, giving them incentive to avoid capture and move on to the next part of the game.
This system is what makes getting caught in video games so thrilling. We like to say we find the most enjoyment from mastering a game inside-and-out. But I believe the best gaming experiences come from tense moments where one is in danger of falling. The notion of evading capture brings forth some of the best experiences in games. From jumpscares to stealth sections, it’s always a fun time when the developers know how to make you fear getting caught.