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I am trying to devise a short story for a 3d horror game.

Here are my requirements:

  • There must be no tangible people/creatures for the player to interact with (the player can be any sort of living entity but they can't see themselves unless they look in a mirror).
  • The player's movement must be restricted enough that they can't run from the situation.
  • The story should mainly unfold as the player moves throughout the area, although some limited object interaction (such as picking something up or flipping a switch) can trigger events.

How can I instill feelings of dread/isolation/fear under these constraints?

The setting can be fictional or realistic. I don't have much writing skill, so any general advice on this would be much appreciated.

  • 1
    As for the close votes: I think this question is on topic, because writing for a game is story stelling, and a lot of advice we give here can be useful. – FraEnrico Apr 12 '18 at 6:58
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There's also something to be said for a haunting backstory.

Exploiting small hints of horrors which may still be lurking in the darkness does wonders. Begin the story without much evidence of anything, then provide your first clue of something terrible within the second room. Slowly bring the horror elements from the past to the present with some kind of environmental stimulus... footsteps (great element, if you hear them, you have to hide somewhere), breathing, screams. Something to let the player know that things are becoming more present.

Ultimately, humans being social creatures, you just have to make a story that will be interesting until the player realizes... "what the hell? there's no one else around..." then you slowly suggest a reason why, and why they may be next.

  • Hmm yeah, I think slowly ratcheting things up will be the way to go. I do like the idea of slowly revealing something is very wrong. Thanks! – Mir Mar 28 '15 at 10:02
  • Be careful with this kind of story, though. There are many games like this, because they are cheaper and easier to make than something more action-oriented (no characters to interact with means no character models, no character animation, etc; just mostly still environments). That's not to say it can't be done, but this kind of game relies almost completely on story. So avoid cliches like a haunted house, or a laboratory. Focus on finding a great conflict, and then work around that conflict. – Aaron Shively Mar 28 '15 at 10:20
  • Your character's journey should have a goal. Presumably, the goal would be escape, but it could be more complex than that. Your character could be looking to go further into the environment, rather than trying to find a way out. Whatever it is that drives them, connecting it to the source of dread would be advisable. – Aaron Shively Mar 28 '15 at 10:24
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The greatest human fear is the fear of the unknown. What's more scary? A gremlin chasing people in the streets, or a moan that's heard every summer in the depths of a basement?

Exploit this.

I recommend you to read House of Leaves. There are no monsters, there's no blood, yet it's one of the scariest novels I've ever read. It's the story about a house that's bigger on the inside than on the outside. It has dark rooms that go on and on indefinitely. They twist, change of shape. They do weird stuff to people's mind. And now and then you hear a "growl".

(By the way, if you decide to make the game based on House of Leaves, let me know. I'll buy it immediately.)

  • Thanks very much, this is exactly the kind of answer I was looking for. I'll be sure to read house of leaves and I'll let you know. Sounds promising :) – Mir Mar 28 '15 at 9:55
  • That's funny, I have a game script in loose form based on that book that I immediately through of reading this question – Andrey Apr 10 '18 at 13:24
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Play with visual cues

Darkness is (an authors) friend when it comes to horror. Your reader/player can't see what's in front of them, which plays together with the *fear of the unknown already mentioned by @AlexandroChen. But it's more than that: the change of lighting will make your player prefer to stay in some parts of your game.

Where would you like to be? In the brightly lit room or in the dark corridor with the flickering lights?

The answer is easy. But if you stay in the room nothing will happen and the game can't progress. Your readers/players will want to know what happens next, they want to know what awaits them in the darkness - and they want to know where the next light source is.

Playing with light sources is also a great way to instill a horror feeling. Let your reader/player find a torch. It's not much, but it gives your reader/player a way to cope with the darkness, a way to feel safer - until they are in the middle of the dark corridor, suddenly hearing the wind howl (it was the wind,... right?) and their precious torch being snuffed out.

Suddenly change the stage

What is often done is to suddenly change the change. You are walking through an old, dimly lit, room with your torch illuminating what is next to you, even if you can't really see the walls of the big room. The wooden boards underneath your feet are squeaking and you decide to choose the stairs to the next floor - when the stair suddenly give way and you fall into the basement. What's even worse is that there seems to be some kind of leakage somewhere - your torch landed in a small puddle next to you and is now unusable. From above you can see a little bit of light, just enough to see your immediate surroundings. But you have no idea what lies ahead of you... or which way is ahead in any case. How do you get out of here again?

Use the light to show cues from previous/current inhabitants

When you find a light switch in the big, old classroom you suddenly realize that the windows are not simply dirty - there is blood all over them, which you couldn't see in the darkness. The chalkboard was not empty - the writing on it suggests that someone is watching you. The chairs and tables weren't simply arranged in a messy way - they have a lot of scratches from what appears to be wolf claws.

Addition

storbror commented:

Brilliant. Also, to add to the mixed feelings towards "light vs sarkness [sic!]", we could learn that 'that which we fear' may in fact find us easier in the light - making the player want to stay in the unknown at certain points.

To add to this: imagine you find a lit torch. Gods be praised, a torch that gives you some light so that you can finally see your surroudings again! This must be a present from Heaven to aid you in getting out of here!

...

But... who... or what... lit the torch...?

And more importantly: where is it...?

Why wouldn't it show itself? Should you call for help or just run away into the darkness as fast as you can?

Conclusion

Make your readers/players simultaneously yearn for and fear the light at the same time.

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    Brilliant. Also, to add to the mixed feelings towards "light vs sarkness", we could learn that 'that which we fear' may in fact find us easier in the light - making the player want to stay in the unknown at certain points. – storbror Apr 11 '18 at 18:22
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In addition to other answers: Dread comes from not knowing if you actions will have an impact.

Knowing that your actions will either help a cause or make it fail gives you responsibility. Responsibility allows you to place eventual success or failure in an ordered cause and effect framework. Humans love cause and effect.

Similarly: knowing that your actions will have no effect on the outcome absolves you of that responsibility and fosters apathy towards your own actions. It leads to adventurers that check each barrel of the dungeon they're in, rather than rush the princess that's in mortal danger. Again you're framing it in a case and effect fashion: you're not the cause of the eventual effect. Humans love cause and effect.

If your actions on day one saved the princess, your (non-)actions of day two resulted in the death of the princess in the other castle, you'll try your best on day three. If you now act perfectly and the princess is still brutally murdered, That's when Dread kicks in. You start to doubt whether you'll be able to save the day the next turn, but you can't afford not to give it your best shot, even if in the end it turns out to be for naught.

  • There will be no princesses in your game, I assume, but the principle translates easily to other situations. – DonFusili Apr 12 '18 at 10:43

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