[In this feature, usability studio Vertical Slice measures player reactions to four Xbox 360 horror games to find out which game is the "scariest," how casual and core players react to the same games, and whether or not they are scared in the same way.]
This study was undertaken by usability and user experience studio Vertical Slice as an internal investigation. As this piece was not for commercial use, and used games that have already been released, it seeks to determine which Xbox 360 game is the "scariest," and is not intended to be a criticism or full analysis of the games in question.
Using some of Vertical Slice's unique approaches to user research, the study used a number of methods including interview techniques, think-aloud, researcher/participant post-play analysis and biometric feedback in order to evaluate the player experiences with each game. A group of six players, selected from a comprehensive database of over 500 individuals, was asked to play four different games -- each for 30 minutes, or an otherwise similarly appropriate length of time, depending on the game's content.
The study was conducted in Vertical Slice's labs in Brighton, UK, which are designed to emulate natural gaming conditions. Players were invited to play exactly as they would at home, skipping cutscenes and selecting difficulties as they usually would. The sessions also took place late in the day, so that the room was darker and the play took place during a more familiar time of day for the gamers.
The order of games was counter-balanced across all players, as this helps reduce any bias that may have arisen from play order
The biometrics chosen for this study were heart rate, skin surface temperature, and GSR (Galvanic Skin Response). Respiration biometrics were also used for some of the participants. GSR is ideal for measuring arousal (excitement or frustration), skin temp is an indicator of valance (happiness or sadness) and fluctuations in the other two can highlight key moments of engagement. GSR is the top blue line in the graphs, and skin temperature is the middle green one.
Using social media tools, polls and small-scale informal investigation, a short list of the scariest Xbox 360 games was created. This list was whittled down to four candidates, which were then used for the final study. The selected games were Alan Wake, Resident Evil 5, Dead Space 2 and Condemned. Other games, such as Left 4 Dead 2, Gears of War 2, Condemned 2, FEAR 1 & 2, Dead Space 1, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Alone in the Dark and Mass Effect 2 were considered, but ultimately disregarded, for use in this research.
Six players were used, from a variety of gaming and demographic backgrounds. None of the participants have played any of the titles beforehand, and for the purposes of this study, they are broadly classified as either core or casual.
Kira - A 33 year old intermediate gamer, who spends at least five hours playing a week. She doesn't own an Xbox 360, though has a rich history of gaming experience. Claims to become very absorbed in games and scares easily. [core]
Rosalind - A 31 year old advanced player, who also spends at least five hours a week gaming. She owns all three major current consoles and insists she is not a casual gamer. [core]
Rob - A 34 year old novice gamer. Recently sold his Xbox 360 so currently does not spend any time playing gamers. [casual]
Mike - 42 year old casual player. Spends less than two hours a week gaming. Does have limited experience with games, and has for an extended period of time (since ZX81). Also owns a family Xbox 360, but rarely plays it himself. [casual]
Olivia - A 20 year old casual gamer. She plays a lot of games, but seldom for long sessions. Owns no current consoles and professes to enjoy slower-paced or party games, finding action games quite stressful. [casual]
Matt - 29 year old hardcore gamer that plays his Xbox 360 over 20 hours a week. He is a fan of titles in the Fable and Fallout franchises. [core]
Outline of Play
Alan Wake begins with a narrated nightmare experience that also serves as the game's tutorial. It starts with the player assuming control of the eponymous Alan Wake, who before long is pursued by a shadowy axe-man. Combat and light-wielding dynamics are introduced and the player must defeat a handful of enemies and navigate a horror-infused nightmare environment, before being chased by a massive black storm-like entity.
This opening sequence also features a cutscene (showing the non-explicit severing of another man's head) and includes some narrative framing and exposition. All players chose to play on the "normal" difficulty rating, except for one one (opting for "hard"). The play ended once the participants reached the lighthouse, thus ending the nightmare.
Analysis of Play
Confrontation. Players were largely unresponsive to the opening cinematic, but were generally vocally positive to the setting and introduction. The first significant beat is when Alan turns around to the deeply-voiced supernatural form of a man, who then threatens Alan vocally and then appears in front of him, before lunging at him with his axe. Five of the players died at this point, two of them multiple times, seemingly unaware that the correct course of action would have been to turn and flee.
This sudden change from the relative safety of the start to the panic of a supernatural conflict provoked a response from all of the players, with the casual players reacting more significantly. Players suggested this was neither a positive nor negative response, though the changes in biometric readings implied a sudden and sharp reaction. Four of the players stated that the scene came as a shock to them, with two agreeing that the moment was scary.
Rob was frightened as the axe-man approached, as a clear peak in his GSR reading confirms.
Perhaps surprisingly, the repeat appearances of the shadowy figure failed to provoke any significant response. Changes in respiration rate were attributed to tension arising from the initial combat, but relaxed into a more stable pattern. Only one player continued to react strongly until the mid-point was reached, a house within which Alan seeks safety from his pursuer.
Decapitation cinematic. It is at this stage when the cutscene depicting a non-graphic decapitation is played, which features intense horror scenes. Five of the players elicited a change in GSR at this stage, with multiple peaks each corresponding to different beats in the scene. However, post-analysis and speak-aloud connote that these peaks were the result of heightened engagement not relating to fear. Although one player (Olivia) said she did find this part scary, though another (Mike) said his response spike was the result of relief, meaning all the while the cutscene was playing (and the stranger getting mauled), he would be safe.
Here, Mike elicits a medium GSR response, but his temperature drops and breathing remains steady. He denies he was scared at this point, indicating that the response was related to something else, for example, relief or interest.
House scene. The following moment in the game sees the player trapped in a house, surrounded by dark spirits, eager to get in. This part saw a marked difference between the casual players and the core ones. The core gamers recognised this section as a period of scripted action, in which they knew through prior knowledge of gaming language that they would be safe. This was confirmed after talking with them, with Matt even offering "I knew I couldn't die at this bit, so I wasn't scared at all." When an illuminated exit appears, the three core players did not react.
In juxtaposition to this, two of the three casual players' biometrics indicated that this scene was very tense. The GSR and respiration metrics indicated stimulation, and the casual players all stated that they found this part to be scary. To reinforce this notion, a strong response was observed once the exit appeared, provoking both panic and relief in these casual players.
Despite the game's clear intention to scare during this scene, core player Matt fails to become stimulated and makes idle comments about the decor.
Final sequences. The second half of the demo features increased action, as players face larger numbers of enemies. Two players jumped when surprise attacked by enemies, both at unscripted moments. A third said, "very frightening... no ammunition, nasty axe murderer after me: that's frightening!" but registered sustained intense responses rather than sharp "surprise" peaks in biometrics.
The final minute sees players wander towards the lighthouse, but are interrupted by a black swirly mass. A chase scene ensues, in which two players died. This last minute provoked strong responses from most of the players, and was an incredibly tense, exhilarating finale. Skin temperature levels cooled as the game progressed, indicating a positive experience which was confirmed by five of the players.
Olivia, a player with generally mild GSR response compared to the other participants, demonstrates a marked increase in engagement for the climax of the level, accompanied by shrieking and admissions of fear.
There were four significant moments in the Alan Wake sessions. The initial confrontation provoked a scare response from all types of gamers, and was universally a scary moment. The horror cutscene was possibly designed to scare players, but responses were largely unrelated to fear. The following moment, which sees the players alone in the house, was interesting in that it scared only the casual players, with the core players unaffected. The final moment also managed, but perhaps to a lesser extent, to scare the casual players more than the experienced gamers.
This disparity in the player experience between core and casual gamers is illustrated by the post-session player experience diagrams. Most players, especially the casual players, enjoyed Alan Wake. It was a popular choice for the players when they were asked which title they wished to continue playing after the session had ended.
More player experience graphs displayed overleaf
Comparing the self-drawn player experiences for Alan Wake shows that casual players found the game more engaging than core players. The previously described key moments also illustrate that while core players were scared at times, the casual players found the experience generally quite scary throughout, and also enjoyed it more than the core gamers did.
RESIDENT EVIL 5
Outline of Play
Resident Evil 5 starts with a series of cutscenes, showing various acts of mild terror and providing exposition for its African backdrop. The play is very slow-paced, as the player is introduced to the controls and the setting. Before long, the protagonist Chris Redfield is confronted by a zombie, thrusting the player into the action. After this encounter, some fight/flight scenarios with further zombies are played out before a final showdown.
Another cinematic is shown, depicting in graphic detail the decapitation of one of Chris's acquaintances, followed by the ringleader's wild gestures in Chris's direction. An intense fight scene ensues, within which the player must defeat dozens of regular zombies and an axe-wielding superzombie. The play ended when players either completed this section (and thus the chapter) or when they died at a late stage in the chapter.
Analysis of Play
The slow opening of Resident Evil 5 meant that no significant events occurred until around the ten minute mark.
First contact. The primary contact with a zombie was the first major event for most players. This initial encounter made players modify their breathing and two players also showed a GSR response. The preceding cutscene was the cause of an initial peak, followed shortly after by another, when the player is left to fight the zombie.
Though it seemed that this scene may have been scary for players, particularly as it features some gory horror, none of the players agreed that they were scared at this point. The stimulation was deemed to be of a more excitatory nature, with players keen to engage in the upcoming action.
Response to this first zombie was mild, but Mike's gradually dwindling engagement was rekindled by this call to arms. His GSR rose slightly and his breathing became heavier, while his lowering temperature suggests he was enjoying playing the game: a sentiment he agreed with.
Mob encounter. The next key beat is when players face a large mob of zombies, prompting a flight-or-fight decision. GSR readings jumped for four players, and a shortness of breath/gasp was also observed. Only two players stated that this scenario was not scary at all, and no particular difference in reaction was noted between the core and casual gamers.
When players chose to shoot the zombies, a gradually decreasing level of engagement could be seen, while players that chose to flee the mob experienced a greater degree of emotion, with fear being the most common feeling. Some of the players said that this scene in general was at least mildly scary.
Kira chose to fight the oncoming horde of zombies. Her changing heart-rate and fluctuating GSR reading indicated she was engaged with the game much more than before this moment. However, she denied it was fear she was experiencing, and instead described this as anticipation of combat and the exhilaration of the combat itself.
Rally and beheading video. The main cutscene and precursor to the climax of the level is met around the 20 to 25 minute point. All of the players chose to watch this video in full, with three players demonstrating a reaction to the events unfolding, most specifically to the beheading. Players described the video as quite horrific, and perhaps a little scary, though Matt was keen to add "it's not really scary, more just alarming".
Here Rosalind's reaction to the beheading is the solitary response to the cutscene, which otherwise fails to provoke her very much. In this case, shock and gore manage to make the player feel fearful of the upcoming events, an anticipation-based fear that is independent of "scariness." We see another peak at the end of the video as play resumes.
Final shoot-out. The climax of the chapter saw players initially become very excited to be fighting against so many zombies. Most of the players stated that they were enjoying this scene, with casual players especially engaged with the action. There were no standout signature responses from the players, as each player approached the conflict with different tactics and skillsets. Even when struggling to survive, no player displayed any major biometric changes during this stage of the playthrough -- though sustained, minor stimulation could be observed.
Kira and Matt also noted that the flood of zombies actually detracted from any scariness they may have felt, and frustration at the size of the horde of undead, as well as difficulties in combating them, replaced any other emotions. Matt was alone in completing the level.
Although Matt is evidently regularly in peril and constantly attacked by the zombies, there were few moments where he was noticeably aroused, this bit being the most so. He even went so far as to say that parts of the finale were boring, due to the desensitization of the enemies.
Resident Evil 5 did not have many moments considered scary by the participants. Most players agreed that the game was enjoyable, and appreciated both the spectacle and the fun in the combat parts, yet denied they were "very scared" at any point.
- "This is weird. More weird than scary." - Matt
- "It's quite cool, but I'm not scared." - Kira
Despite limited amounts in the way of scariness through jumps or fear, Resident Evil did present a very atmospheric setting.
- "It's really quite atmospheric actually." - Rob
- "These dark tunnels are atmospheric; not really scary though." - Kira
The moments of gore also provoked a reaction in some of the players, particularly the casual gamers, which likely heightened the atmosphere and generated fear. This is a sentiment that was echoed by at least two of the players in post-play interviews. The game followed an upwardly-rising level of self-declared engagement amongst some of the players, with intensity high for the closing stages, though any scariness Resident Evil 5 managed to convey was during the middle sections, when the enemy was still an unknown.
Player Experience Graphs
When looking at the player experience graphs on the following page, it can be seen that for all players, they were stimulated by the first encounters with the zombies. This is largely an excitement response, but also moments of fear too. The casual players also responded to these moments in the same way as the core, but they continued to be engaged by the game by increasing amounts (though not necessarily scared), whereas the core players' engagement waned as the level progressed.
Dead Space 2
Outline of Play
Dead Space 2 begins with a calm but interrogative cutscene, in which it becomes clear that the protagonist from the first game, Isaac Clarke, is mentally ill. During the opening, the events soon turn to semi-hallucinatory horror, and soon Isaac finds himself woken by a medical orderly.
A grotesque attack upon the orderly means Isaac is forced to run through a necromorph-infested series of corridors, bound by a straightjacket. Isaac reaches the relative safety of another part of the hospital after beating a mini-QTE, and embarks on a quieter fact-finding role. Shortly, after a number of false alarms, other necromorphs attack Isaac.
The sessions ended at various stages depending on the player's abilities, but never earlier than the part where the telekinesis gun is found, and no players succeeded in reaching too far beyond the point at which the plasma gun is sourced from the device operating upon a screaming man.
Analysis of Play
Opening terror and start of gameplay. None of the players' interest was stimulated during the cutscene that played at the start, at least not until Isaac witnesses his dead wife become a necromorph in a horrific fashion.
At least four of the participants found this moment distressing, and were frightened further still when throttled by the orderly, only to have him gruesomely slaughtered by a grotesque creature.
It was suggested that these scenes were not only scary due to the abruptness and potency of the shocks, but were also heightened because of the liberal presentation of horror and gore. This was not universally agreed upon, but three of the players strongly agreed with this hypothesis, with another player agreeing to some extent.
Mike's breathing and GSR had returned to normal following the wife-horror of the intro video, but is again interrupted as the orderly is unexpectedly impaled from behind. An exclamation of "Oh wow!" and questioning confirmed that this moment was scary for him. He was not alone in this thought, as other players also experienced similar emotions at this point.
Straightjacket flee. The chase scene provided a number of scary moments for the players, arriving at different stages for each player. All but one of the players (Matt) died at least once before reaching the relative safety of the next room, with players especially struggling on a scripted mini-QTE sequence after being pounced upon by a necromorph. The points at which players were most engaged were at three definable but partially generative beats.
The first type of scare-inducing moment was whenever players were physically attacked by an enemy. This was most profound in the first instance of attack, but remained significant on each occurrence. The response was also elevated when players had little health remaining.
However, for one player (Matt), although his biometric reactions to necromorph attacks were in line with the other players, he did state "I couldn't really care less if I lived or died". This is either a case of participant denial of fear (for any number of reasons), or an alternative emotion felt by the player to what the other participants were feeling, though he was unable to remember what he was feeling at the time.
Olivia suffers her first direct attack from a necromorph. Clearly, her irregular GSR patterns are aligned with this moment, and she was shouting, "God, Oh my God, this shit is so scary!"
The second feature of the scene that regularly prompted a fear response was when players were knowingly pursued by enemies, but said aliens were not visible on-screen, and Isaac was just out of harm's way. This "implied danger" was a key cause of scariness for the participants, with Olivia suggesting, amongst screams, that knowing they were behind her was really scary.
The final cause of scariness in this opening chase was observed whenever players had trouble navigating. Four of the players took the wrong route, often resulting in death. Three of them said that this caused them to panic, making the chase even scarier. Kira, however, said that losing her way was frustrating and made the game less scary, which another player (Rob) found himself in agreement with, though only after he repeatedly had trouble with navigation.
This panic/frustration theme recurred when the mini-QTE part was reached, with initial fear soon dissipating into frustration as players took multiple attempts to survive it.
Rosalind died consecutively four times whilst struggling to navigate the dark corridors and locked doors of the asylum. Her shrieks of fear became cries of frustration as she failed to work out where to run to.
Non-combat horror scenes. After the panic of the first five minutes, players settled into the more somber pace of the following 10. The blood-splattered rooms and scenes of implied disgusting violence didn't elicit much response from the players, but there were a handful of shock-inducing moments that managed to scare every player, although, of course, to varying degrees.
The main sources of scares were when a screen abruptly blares on; when an apparently stationary patient suddenly grabs Isaac when he approaches; when the floor of a vent falls through; and a more subtle point when strange, alarming noises can be heard.
All of these managed to scare almost every player, with only Kira and Matt resisting, though even they were scared by at least one of these moments. Again, at all of these points, a dramatic change in GSR could be seen, and a modified respiration pattern could also be observed. Participants were particularly vocal during the scary parts of Dead Space 2, which helped with pinpointing specific emotions (fear) and they also remembered some of these individual scares in the post-session evaluation as being especially scary.
"I'm feeling very vulnerab -- woah!" Rob had already been scared by previous shocks in Dead Space 2, but the relative calmness of the game had heightened his expectations of fright. His suspicions that the game was about to throw another scare his way were confirmed when, mid-sentence, the floor fell through beneath him.
It is interesting that many of these scares were preceded by a period of unstable biometrics responses, such as an increased heart-rate and heavy or stunted breathing. This "anticipation" fear served as a key factor in building up the tension leading to the actual scares themselves, which was commented on by both Mike and Rosalind; an idea that other players also agreed with.
Telekinesis gun and combat. The final part that every player reached was when Isaac first receives the telekinesis gun. Some players couldn't work out how to progress, which made them frustrated, observed by both a peak in GSR and a gradual rising of skin temperature. Regardless, once they were confronted by a necromorph, those that worked out how to fight it using melee combat found it very scary.
Only Matt and Rosalind managed to use the telekinesis to impale the enemy, and were less scared as a result. Kira and Olivia were unable to figure out the combat controls, and claimed they were again more frustrated than scared after repeatedly dying.
Matt barely responds to the imminent threat of a sudden appearance of the necropmorph. He wanders around the room searching for an exit, and makes his way to the lift. Despite his relative nonchalance, his respiration is still irregular and it is possible that he is somewhat scared -- or at least engaged with the game -- at this point.
We can see from this that players that could comfortably dispatch enemies were barely frightened by the confrontation, and those that were entirely unable to fight back were too frustrated to be scared. The players that depended on melee combat to kill the necromorph(s) were the most scared by this part, perhaps as the chances of survival were low, but not impossible.
Speaking to players suggested that they felt a great deal of panic, but only the melee-using players (Rob and Olivia) said they felt scared. Once more, Matt remained nonplussed by the scenario, and actually decided to simply walk past the necromorph instead of engaging with it, not responding to the threat in any significant amount.
Dead Space 2 not only had numerous occasions in which players were universally frightened, but also revealed multiple types of fear response. The anticipation of a confrontation heightened the scariness in the game, and increased the potency of the scares when they followed periods of tension.
The use of sound and false-scares (whereby the shocks represented no threat to the player) generated short bursts of fear in the players. Despite this, for some of the times when genuine conflict occurred, players were actually less scared than they were for when they thought they were going to be engaging in combat.
- "Pretty spooky in here... Oooh... That was horrible!" - Mike upon seeing NPC slit throat
- "I can't take this, this is so scary!" - Olivia
Furthermore, the fast pacing of the game was coupled with scenes of graphic violence. These depictions of the grotesque were far scarier to players when they were presented at moments that were also scary in another respect (fight/flight, surprises), than when presented during a sequence in which the player is safe (cutscenes, NPC suicide). Gore is apparently only scary when it is featured alongside another scary element. Overall, Dead Space 2 managed to scare every player at least once, and also had moments of immediate fright (surprises), sustained anticipatory tension and fight/flight conflict-based fear.
Player Experience Graphs
The player-drawn graphs for Dead Space 2 were more animated than for any other game, with even the usually-disinterested Matt drawing a fairly wavy line showing his engagement with the game, including a number of peaks. Participants also easily managed to remember isolated incidents during which they were scared.
Outline of Play
Condemned is the oldest of the games in the study, but it was agreed that it was renowned as a scary game, and is certainly still appropriate to examine. It opens with a criminal investigation, within which the player is given increasing degrees of control. The player finds out more about the context of the murder at hand, using various pieces of gadgetry and by listening to the other characters.
After 10 minutes of play, the player is left alone to investigate the dark, abandoned building to find the fleeing suspect. The player is attacked by a hooded man, under an implication of otherworldly influence. Long periods of navigation through the building follow, before further encounters with enemies occur.
Players generally stopped playing around the point at which they are handed an axe by another detective, but never before they have experienced the weapon-based melee combat.
Analysis of Play
Criminal investigation. The pacing of Condemned is the slowest of the games studied, and th