I wanted to make a horror game.

Before I start work on something completely new, I like to do some research to try to figure out the underlying theory.  A lot of design advice urges you to get stuck in fast with scrappy prototypes and quick iteration. Instead, I prefer to understand why game mechanics and players work the way they do, and then use this knowledge to guide my iteration.  I’m not saying this approach is better, necessarily, just that it’s what I enjoy the most.  I think it worked well for Sub Terra.


So, to make a good horror game, I first needed to understand why people enjoy horror at all…



As this article suggests, the horror genre might be popular because of:

    • Stranger Things
      Horror elicits emotions that we don’t usually get from other works of fiction. People like novelty!
    • Lingering Dread
      Being scared increases your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. After you’ve left the scary stimulus behind, these responses linger for a while, intensifying any positive emotions you might then be feeling (e.g. having fun with friends).  This is called the ‘excitation transfer effect’.


  • Rush of Adrenaline
    Some people like the feeling of being in (fake) danger. These people are more likely to enjoy rollercoasters and other scary experiences where they can trick their body into the physiological response without putting themselves at risk.
  • Enduring Evil
    Some theories view horror as a modern replacement for tribal rights of passage, where adolescents would have to endure some hardship to be accepted as an adult.  The more afraid you are, the more you claim to enjoy the experience.  Additionally, there’s evidence that surviving scary situations makes you more attractive.


So there are good entertainment reasons for terrifying people.  We don’t need to put them in actual danger to terrify them either, which is good news for you (I promise we won’t put spiders in every box…)

But if not spiders, how can we go about doing this?


First of all, there are two different emotions we’re trying to evoke here:


  • Anxiety (or Terror)
    The feelings of dread over anticipated events; the expectation of future threat.
  • Fear
    The response to a real or perceived immediate threat.


(I should point out that this is just one interpretation that’s shared by Wikipedia – many horror writers define these terms differently)

These emotions both access the physiological fight-or-flight response in different ways, but for our purposes the end result is the same. It doesn’t matter that the “threats” won’t be lethal to our players, either. Plenty of non-lethal everyday situations generate these feelings, as anyone who’s given a live performance or participated in a high-stakes competition can attest to.

What these two emotions have in common is uncertainty. Anxiety is created by having a large spread in the value of potential future states – things will probably be OK, but they might be incredibly bad. Fear is created by an unexpectedly bad event suddenly occurring – you haven’t planned what you’d do in this new situation, so until you do the future is unknown but definitely worse than what you’d previously been expecting.


In a game, uncertainty is necessarily created through randomness. This can be through either the obvious kinds (dice rolls, drawing items from a bag) or the less obvious kinds (draws from a shuffled deck, simultaneous actions). Randomness does a lot of good work in games already as both a skill equaliser and to provide replayability, so this is yet another solid reason for its inclusion!

It’s worth noting that Anxiety is much easier to create than Fear in a physical board game setting. Without companion apps or hidden timers, the only events that occur in the game are those enacted by the players themselves at predictable times (so “jump scares” and the like are off the table), but there’s still a lot of potential for surprise through high-variance events. Just think about the feelings swirling around “topdeck” moments in trading card games, for instance.

OK, so now we know we need the possibility of threatening outcomes in order to generate Anxiety and Fear. But how do we make the outcomes feel threatening?


In a purely abstract sense, game players are only ‘afraid’ of one thing: losing the game. This can’t be the only threat, though, as games where you just randomly lose on a die roll are distinctly unsatisfying (“oops, you rolled a one! Game over, man! Game over!”), even if you can affect the odds of losing to some degree.


Ideally, you want the threat of an ultimate loss hanging over the players throughout the entire game, with the chance of doing so increasing and decreasing in response to player actions. This makes increasing the chances of losing the game a nice secondary threat, which is actually one you can deploy on a regular basis.

In a social setting, players are also “afraid” of not participating (typically through elimination, virtual-elimination, or by having zero meaningful decisions), but as the whole point of game design is for your players to have fun, using this particular disincentive feels drastically incorrect.

Finally, if we can trick players into identifying more with their in-game avatars and their situation (immersion), then it’s also possible to use fictional danger as a source of threat. I think there are two strands to this:


  • Firstly, “immersive theming” uses passive stimuli such as art, sound, music and narrative to draw the participants into the fictional world (e.g. in horror films or novels).
  • Secondly, “immersive acting” requires the participants to make decisions, perform actions and have conversations that mirror what their fictional counterparts would be doing.

Immersive videogames can do both of these extremely well, and this can only get better with the current trends towards virtual reality and motion control. With a board game, the most obvious way of achieving this is to use illustrations and written descriptions to create immersive theming, but I think it’s possible to go further than this. We can utilise immersive acting by making the game mechanics as close to the game’s reality as possible. For example:


  • Avatars
    Only allowing players control over a piece that represents them allows them to project into it and discuss game situations as if they were present inside the system (“I’m over here, and I can go over there and do this thing”)
  • Piggybacking
    Matching rules to known real-world concepts, such as not being able to move through solid walls, or that multiple injuries put you in danger of passing out or dying.  The more intuitive the rules are, the less often the player has to stop and think about how they’re playing a game.
  • Relatability
    The closer the character is to the player, the easier it is to think like that character would or to imagine yourself in that character’s situation. This effect is probably greatest if the character is a modern-day human, the setting is mostly realistic and internally consistent, and the protagonists are part of a friendly group or team.


So, in summary, to scare our players we need an ongoing sequence of uncertain threats that (a) each increase your chance of losing the game, and (b) are sufficiently relatable/intuitive/immersive that it’s easy to project yourself into the player avatar. Anything else we can do?

Well, yes, as it turns out.  In the second half of this post, I’ll cover some more tricks that we can use to enhance the fear, and explain how I used all of this theory to make Sub Terra as scary as I possibly could.  See you then!

Tim Pinder

Tim Pinder

Game Designer, Sub Terra

Indie gamedev robot. All opinions, fatalities and apocalypses are the responsibility of my creators, who should have worked harder on the control problem