Fear and Horror in MMOs

, 4 min read

Being a huge fan of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Minecraft, I wanted to talk about a very specific topic in my first sketchbook article: The feeling of fear and horror in games and how this could work in Guild Wars 2. Please turn off your lights, put on your headphones and plug-in some dark ambient music before you are starting to read this article.

I like scary games. What I like most about them are those moments of shock. I think Amnesia and Minecraft achieved this quite well. Let's see if we can achieve those moments in an MMO like Guild Wars 2.

Part 1: Darkness

The point of darkness in games is to produce disorientation. The player doesn’t see the enemies coming, the player probably just hears them.

Let’s have a quick look at the torch mechanic in Amnesia. This is how it basically works:

Have torches placed on walls where players have to light them. Distribute a resource (let’s call it tinder) throughout the dungeon that allows the player to light up the torches. Tinder should be relatively rare and far apart. As players should get rewards for exploring the dungeon, have the tinder placed in hidden places, like behind a huge rock. Essentially, in Guild Wars 2 players should be encouraged to explore the dungeon to find more tinder, to light up the dungeon, to learn about the story or to get some other form of benefit.

What would players get from lighting the torches? Well, as a start they gain more vision around them. While the main benefit is an increased brightness, there could be further benefits from an increased light intensity. Monsters could get some form of combat advantage in dark places. Monsters could also actively approach lightning, like in Minecraft. So setting a torch on fire could actually have bad consequences.

Part 2: Defenselessnes

With the combat system of Guild Wars 2 consisting of skills, weapons and dodging, it's hard to generate a feeling of defenselessness. Players will always have a way to fight back, making dark and eerie areas not necessarily scary. So, we have to get rid of that system if we don't want the players to be able to fight back. How could this work?

Well, all player skills and weapons could be disabled as long as the players are in dark areas. That would require players to run away from monsters in the darkness and/or hide from them until the monsters give up chasing them (assuming they aren’t stationary). Player HP (or all stats in general) would have to be reduced in darkness, as a “tank” could probably walk past the monsters and just leave them behind, breaking the feeling of defenselessness.

But won't players know that a scary part starts once their skills and weapons disappear? Yes. But as long as it's their first time playing that part they still won't know what's going to happen. It was the same when I first played Amnesia. My friends told me that game is scary as hell. But that didn't spoil anything. I would even go as far to saying that knowing this beforehand made more immersed while playing the game.

Part 3: Replayability

Of course replayability is a problem in a scripted environment like the dungeons in Guild Wars 2. Therefore, those scary parts shouldn't be part of the main dungeon path. This is something for the explorable modes or for a dynamic event inside a dungeon.

Part 4: POV and Brightness

Another important aspect of creating a scary atmosphere is the point of view. If there's a way to see what's going on behind your character, without turning around, then surprise attacks won't happen. As we all know, Guild Wars 2 only comes with a third person view.

Lastly, it all depends on how dark the dungeon would actually be. Obviously you can’t present the player with a pitch black screen just displaying the UI. You have to have at least some kind of ambient lightning and give players the tools to light up an area. Oh, and from a technical point of view players could easily turn up the screen brightness to circumvent the in-game darkness.

With that being said, I don't think it's possible to create a fully immersive horror part inside a dungeon in Guild Wars 2. But I do think it's possible to create some challenging encounters that include dark and eerie areas in a dungeon.

Note: This is an extension of a post I made on GW2Guru a while ago. You can find the topic here (note: forum does not exist anymore). Also I'm neither a psychologist nor a torturer in any way. I just enjoy thinking about the design choices behind great games like Amnesia, Minecraft and, of course, Guild Wars 2.


Philipp Hansch

Full Stack Developer

Philipp is a full stack developer currently heavily involved with Rust. Most notably he's a member of the Clippy team where he helps with bugfixing and documentation. You can follow him on Mastodon and find him on GitHub as well as Patreon.