Fear and Spookiness

There is a certain puzzle on The Stone that I hate because it scares me.  It has a creepy sound element, and it scared the bejeezus out of me the first time I accidentally moused-over and heard it.  The topic of the puzzle was spooky as well, and the solving process was tortuous for me.  I couldn’t finish it fast enough (and we all know the Stone solving process isn’t exactly quick to begin with).  Though a lot of Stone puzzles gave me the creeps over the years, this is the only one I have actively avoided after solving.  I haven’t listened to that mouse-over sound since I solved the puzzle over five years ago, but I still remember the exact tones of that sing-songy ghost voice.

Last night, that puzzle came back to haunt me in dream form, possibly my first puzzle-related nightmare.  I dreamt that I had to re-solve it for some reason, in open field in the middle of the night (the Scarecrow’s Field perhaps?).  Reluctantly, I let the sound play again and started researching.  This time, the answer was different and had something to do with making up lyrics to the notes of the sound (so now I have some lyrics to help me unwillingly remember it by, great).  I managed to get to the answer page, but there is even something spooky about the answer pages in The Stone.  I felt really anxious and woke up kind of terrified, heart racing, unable to go back to sleep.  (In the end, the only thought that could console me was “At least I have something to write about tomorrow.”)

I have a bad combination of traits–I love scary stuff, but I scare easy.  Something about creepy stuff just draws me in, but then I watch a scary movie and can’t sleep for a week.  Once I’m past the fear, though, I’m usually back to loving it again.  In high school, I learned that I also love scaring other people.  Halloween is absolutely my favorite holiday, and this year I’m going to be running a Ravenchase Halloween event which I could not possibly be more excited about.

So now I’m asking myself:  how can I scare people senseless during a puzzle hunt, and what role does fear play in puzzles and mysteries?

I think maybe the thing I value so much about the element of fear (or maybe just “spooky stuff” in general) is that it’s an extremely powerful aesthetic tool.  I really experienced this walking around Busch Gardens during Howl-o-Scream last year.  There was this feeling that something was happening, that something strange might be waiting around the corner.  The atmosphere was mysterious and wonderful.  (Though, is this just “mystery” and has nothing to do with fear?)  And then getting spooked is fun, gets your heart racing, and adds a rare sort of dramatic element to whatever you’re doing.  But if things go too far and you’re really, genuinely fearful, you end up like me with that Stone puzzle — not enjoying yourself and just wishing it would be over.  The guest in tears by the time they exit the haunted house.

I think, then, when designing with fear and spooky elements, it’s important I keep these goals in mind:

  • To focus on creepiness as an aesthetic tool to enhance the atmosphere.
  • To scare people in a way that leaves them smiling or laughing once they’re out of their perceived danger.
  • To avoid impeding the overall user experience.  If the player isn’t having enough fun to continue, or if their fear outweighs their fun, I’ve failed.

Of course, fear is a pretty subjective thing.  What sends one person into hysterics might be totally lame to someone else.  And there is a certain understanding when one signs up for a Halloween event that they might get scared beyond their comfort level.  It seems like a fine line that might be impossible to walk, but I think it’s worth keeping those goals in mind along the way, especially for someone like me who gets totally swept up when it comes to spooky design.

I think the idea of puzzle-solving while experiencing fear-induced adrenaline is also worth exploring.  Does fear make some people solve more quickly?  Does it make other people make mistakes?  Does it enhance or detract from the experience?  If I have players try to solve a code while a vengeful spirit (costumed actor) slowly creeps toward them, will they cuss me out afterwards?

Have any of you ever solved a puzzle in a spooky atmosphere?  How about under a fear-induced adrenaline rush?  (I suppose a similar experience might to that might be a puzzle on a strict, short time limit.)  Do you think a haunted house that replaced all the jump scares with puzzles would be enjoyable?  Tell me your best Halloween stories!  Happy October!! (Oh wait, we’re only 12 days into September??)

3 comments on Fear and Spookiness

  • Steve

    I heard that the legendary Shelby Logan’s Run Game had a puzzle set in an abandoned prison. That sounds pretty scary.

  • Irwin

    I recall getting pretty spooked while playing King’s Quest VI as a little kid. It was probably due to the stark contrast between amusing fantasy elements (e.g., Wonderland, magic, literal idioms, etc.) and the fact that *everything* can kill you instantly. In terms of how that affected puzzle-solving, it definitely had a negative effect on me because I would hesitate to play a game so intent on lulling me into a false sense of security only to repeatedly kill my character.

    In general, I think putting a bit of a “fear” pressure on puzzle players can be motivating and thrilling, but people have different tolerances, and too much will discourage and frustrate those with lower fear thresholds.

  • Jason

    If you’re designing a spooky hunt and you can put in two or more different ‘fear settings’, you’ll probably come closer to pleasing everyone. Some people like a little scare from time to time, while others (like me) can hardly be scared at all in a controlled environment like a haunted house.
    As for solving puzzles in a spooky environment, with costumed monsters and really tight time pressure, True Dungeon does an excellent job. It’s kind of like a haunted house with puzzles, and the fact that your character can easily get killed when you screw up adds a lot of pressure. I’ve never really found that environment unpleasant, because you know that in real life, you’re totally safe.
    Really intense scares come from real danger, or at least from blurring the line between perceived danger and real danger. But blurring the line too much in a staged event can be irresponsible and even dangerous. That reminds me of the Michael Douglas/David Fincher movie The Game. Seems like it would be really neat to find yourself in a game like that, not knowing if it was real or not. Although, if the fear were real, it might be pretty unpleasant.

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