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The Science Behind Sound: Fear

Article by Dr. Tom Garner

Edited by Sam Hughes

For many developers, evoking player emotion is an important goal. Of all the shades on the emotional spectrum, fear stands as the easiest to do but the most difficult to do really well. If fear were in a band it would be the electric guitar. Modern video games are littered with examples of ‘cheap’ scares that require little in the way of setup or nuance to execute and often leave the player feeling somewhat cheated. Yet, at the same time, both players and critics alike struggle to properly explain precisely what ‘good horror’ is, particularly anything beyond telling us “it should be psychological horror” and directing us to Silent Hill 2 (Konami 2001). So what makes good horror? How can we as sound designers contribute to a good horror experience? What can science tell us about human psychology, that we can use to better terrify players?

This article looks back at some of the recent video games that have really gotten under our skin to the point we’d feel better sleeping with the hall light on. We look at how the sound design and music in these games has capitalised on the psychology of fear to create genuinely frightening experiences.


Bodily manipulations and priming

Dragging the player through a macabre world as protagonist Six, Little Nightmares (Bandai Namco 2017) tasks you with navigating the darkened labyrinth of the Maw and evading its malevolent inhabitants. Little Nightmares is an excellent example of ‘entrainment’ – the theory that the body adapts to temporal features of the environment.

Six, pursued by the Janitor in Little Nightmares (Bandai Namco 2017)

Research by Alves and Roque (2009) revealed that the tempo of a piece of music has the potential to manipulate our breathing, our heart rate and even our brainwaves. Research also suggests that the more a sound reflects a particular physiological state, the more likely it is to evoke entrainment. Little Nightmares does this to great effect in Six’s first encounter with the Janitor. As the Janitor checks the dormitory and Six hides under a bed, the sound of a heart beating at an elevated rate fades in and continues until the Janitor leaves. The theory behind this design is that, as their avatar, the player feels a connection to Six, and so her elevated heartbeat strongly encourages the player’s own heart to beat faster.

Repeatedly featured in research concerning horror game sound (see Garner & Grimshaw 2011; Vachiratamporn et al. 2015), ‘priming’ describes the way in which a game prepares the player for an intense emotion by steadily manipulating their feelings over time. When done correctly, priming is particularly powerful. The underlying theory is that priming demands investment by the player. A ‘cheap’ jump scare comes out of nowhere and its effect disappears just as quickly. Priming by comparison requires the player to follow the game narrative over a prolonged period, with tension steadily increasing before the monsters emerge. Little Nightmares exploits priming very effectively in the initial stages of gameplay. As Six begins to explore the Maw, the visual scene gives away little of her location. However, deep rumblings and reverberant clanks and creaks portray a vast space that emphasises how small and vulnerable Six is. This serves to make us feel alone, lost and oppressed – an ideal emotional setup before the real horrors start to appear.


Going low-fi

One particularly powerful theory of fear states that, to create a truly frightening experience, the threat must be great and the player must be adequately disarmed (i.e. their ability to cope with the threat must be limited – Breinbjerg 2005). For reducing coping ability, sound designers have a suite of techniques that really highlight the importance of sound in horror games. Research by Ekman (2008) and Grimshaw (2009) has revealed that a low-fidelity soundscape is particularly effective at disarming the player by obscuring the information we instinctively extract from sound during play. Low-fi techniques include:

  • Intentionally limiting the spatial/3D quality of the sound so the player cannot tell where a sound is coming from.
  • Distorting the sound so that it is more difficult for the player to identify the source.
  • Giving important threat sounds (e.g. monsters) similar timbres to non-threatening sources to confuse the player.

Low-fi techniques are particularly well illustrated within Slender: The Eight Pages (Parsec Productions 2012). The main menu music is very minimalist with the standard discordant melodic progression, but what stands out is the distinctly low-fi synth timbres that gently distort as the sound whips from left to right. In the game, Slender is keen to give you very little sound support. As you progress the music steadily builds towards a cacophony that completely obscures the environment, giving you no chance whatsoever of hearing the Slenderman coming (not that he makes a sound to begin with).


The plausibility and place illusions

Though it never became a completed project, Silent Hill P.T. (Konami 2014) created a seismic stir amongst the gaming community. Shifting the camera to the first person, P.T. had ambitions to deeply immerse the player in a world that blurred the boundaries of what was real.

In contemporary games research, presence (the sensation of being physically, emotionally and/or cognitively present somewhere other than your actual location) is something of an industry buzzword, but one that relates to sound in horror games. The ‘place illusion’ is synonymous with the above definition of presence. It describes moments in which the player temporarily believes that they are somewhere else (Bohil et al. 2009). The ‘plausibility illusion’ refers to moments in which the player is convinced that the events in the game could actually happen (Slater 2009).

In P.T., sound plays a crucial role in evoking both the place and plausibility illusions. As the player moves through the first corridor, the sound of their footsteps changes depending upon the type of surface on which they are walking. As the player turns a corner, a radio is now in their direct line of sight and its output becomes both louder and distinctly clearer. This kind of physically modelled audio (3D/position and occlusion) processing supports both the place and plausibility illusions. Place is evoked as the sound encircles the player and responds to their position and movements to make them feel that they are the centre of the sonic world. At the same time, the physical accuracy of the sound helps create greater realism, which enhances the plausibility illusion. As P.T. continues, the environment begins to loop and it is primarily the soundscape that subtly changes on each repetition, creating a deep sense of uncanniness and unease as the ultra-realistic virtual world begins to reveal its dark underside.

A brief disturbing glimpse of Lisa in Silent Hill P.T. (Konami 2014)

Closing notes

The above techniques do not constitute an exhaustive list. Hopefully they give an indication of the strong ties that exist between game sound design and research into human psychology. Ultimately, the more we understand about the nature of fear, the better we can design for it. With horror games showing no significant let up in popularity, the appetite for scaring ourselves silly means that horror games (on the whole of course) should only get scarier.



Alves, V. and Roque, L. (2009). A Proposal of Soundscape Design Guidelines for User Experience Enrichment. In: Audio Mostly 2009, September 2nd-3rd, Glasgow.

Bohil, C, Owen, C. B., Jeong, E. J., Alicea, B., & Biocca, F. (2009). Virtual reality and presence. 21st century communication: A reference handbook, 534-544.

Breinbjerg, M. (2005). The Aesthetic Experience of Sound – staging of Auditory Spaces in 3D computer games, In: Aesthetics of Play, Bergen, Norway, October 14th -15th.

Chion, M. (1994). Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, ed. and trans. Claudia Gorbman, foreword Walter Murch. New York: Columbia University Press, c177, 12.

Ekman, I. (2008). Psychologically Motivated Techniques for Emotional Sound in Computer Games. In: Audio Mostly 2008, Pitea, Sweden.

Garner, T., & Grimshaw, M. (2011). A climate of fear: considerations for designing a virtual acoustic ecology of fear. In Proceedings of the 6th Audio Mostly Conference: A Conference on Interaction with Sound (pp. 31-38). ACM.

Grimshaw, M. (2009). The Audio Uncanny Valley: Sound, Fear and the Horror Game. In: Audio Mostly 4th Conference on Interaction with Sound, Glasgow, 2nd-3rd September.

Slater, M. (2009). Place illusion and plausibility can lead to realistic behaviour in immersive virtual environments. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences364(1535), 3549-3557.

Vachiratamporn, V., Legaspi, R., Moriyama, K., Fukui, K. I., & Numao, M. (2015). An analysis of player affect transitions in survival horror games. Journal on Multimodal User Interfaces9(1), 43-54.


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Tom Garner
By day, a Research Fellow in Virtual/Augmented Reality at the University of Portsmouth. By night, a lone games developer and composer for a few up and coming indie titles.

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