Jump Scares in Video Games: A Trick or a Treat?

Outlast Jump scares

It’s all in the name. In gaming, the Horror genre is designed solely to scare the sweet, innocent mana out of you, and it has access to a whole arsenal of techniques for creeping you the hell out. One of the oldest, easiest and most divisive of those techniques is the humble, friendly old jump scare.

We all know them, some of us love them and some of us wish they were a thing of the past. A short sequence of tension building, followed by a sudden event such as a flock of birds barrelling at you, or a door slamming loudly, designed to make you jump like a cat with a cucumber. That’s the jump scare we have all become accustomed to. So, do they have a place in modern horror games? Or are they just a tired and uninspired cliché?

Sometimes, jump scares feel like they have been designed out of obligation. To deliver an easy scare, the game designers install a jump scare and effectively play 18-rated peek-a-boo with the player as a certainty of getting a reaction. This feels much like ‘playing it safe’ in terms of what a horror game has to offer. Much like the one guy we all know who still says “that’s what she said”, every five minutes, it gets a little annoying after a while. What’s more, jump scares aren’t even an exclusive horror feature. If you’ve ever watched an older relative play a game that requires a quick and unexpected reaction, then you’ll know (hilariously) what I mean. It appeals to the primal and basic fight-or-flight response within us all, which just seems to be a way of guaranteeing that something in the game scared you at some point. I’ve been more afraid of snails or wet towels than I have of these kinds of games.

True fear however, is a haunting sensation. It’s something that a good game leaves you with after you switch of the console or shut down the PC. It’s something that makes you feel exhausted after completing each sequence. It something that makes you doubt your decisions and hesitate – just long enough for whatever’s chasing you to catch up. Persistent fear is very difficult to achieve in terms of gameplay, as death is an ever-present threat in nearly every video game ever made. It’s a sickly mixture between the anxiety of disbelief, and the creeping urgency of finding yourself alone in complete darkness. It’s such a delicate and complex state to achieve, that throwing in a jump scare is just snapping the player out of it. Such a waste!

Alien Isolation

In Dead Space, for example, one of the most prominent horror series’ of the last generation, jump scares come thick and fast. The horribly mutilated Necromorphs can easily appear to be just another corpse, until you get too close. At which point, you’ve probably hit the ceiling, and lost most of your health bar. The alien tentacles suddenly snatching Isaac and dragging him to his death should he fail to fight them off are serious jump scares in the first play-through, but never really scare you the second time around. You just see them coming, and a second playthrough is never the same. The jump scares in the subsequent Dead Space games didn’t even work, in my experience (save the sudden death at the beginning of Dead Space 2).

Drop us in an environment that’s unfamiliar and difficult to navigate. Give us relentless foes against whom we are powerless. Give us situations for which we are completely unprepared and force us to watch every shadow, every tree or every corner in order to survive. Then, the jump scares will come naturally and spontaneously.
For example, Alien: Isolation. Thanks to the Alien’s unpredictable and intelligent AI, death could spring at you from every ventilation shaft. The player is never safe, and as a result, the anxiety never ends, as the jump scares are dynamic and always unexpected.

Unless you have the memory of a supermarket-brand marigold glove, then a scripted jump scare is unlikely to work more than once. If you’re going to use them, Mr or Mrs developer; then make them as significant and as memorable as possible, because they are your Master Balls. They are Heavy Ordinance. They are one-shot kills that can never be used again, so if you’re going to use them, then you’d damn well better make them count.

Jump scares are fun, and especially with new technology such as Playstation VR, are pretty powerful tools in the Horror box. But I jump when I accidently walk into an enemy, or nearly step off a cliff. Am I truly afraid? Not really. Is the player going to remember that time when a window smashed and made them jump? Or the time spent cowering in a locker because danger was everywhere? The panicked attempts to escape from a horrible fate, or the looming dread of having nothing to help you survive an impossible situation but your wits? Fear comes in all shapes and sizes, so why jeopardise a perfect balance of them all by settling for the simple, and the predictable? Scripted jump scares only ever work once, but those the player creates for themselves will rear up again, and again. Surely, that’s what a true scare feels like.

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