Art of the Jumpscare

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This is for game designers and movie directors/writers. How to do great jumpscares.

Okay, if you don’t know what the term jumpscare means, it is when a loud sound plays, or something pops on screen that makes you jerk back, or jump as it is commonly known as. Jumping is an instinctual response to a perceived surprise threat. Which is why a lot of people hate them, even when you know what is coming it is hard to stop yourself from jumping. A lot of people also think they are cheap and don’t add anything to movies or games, which is stupid. Sure it’s easier to get a jump response than to really scare people, but that is why they are very important.

Not everyone is scared by the same things. A scene with spiders will freak out some people, and others will not be fazed at all. Jumpscares tend to be more universal when they are done right. They get the heart pumping and create an instinctual fear response. Combined with psychological stuff they are very effective. If nothing else they create paranoia, which can be used to set up other types of scares later.

So what is the key to a great jump scare? Timing. Just like in comedy, in horror timing is everything. Which is why some of the best horror movies (Evil Dead 2) are also great comedies. And why comedians/comedic writers/actors can often do horror very well. Consider Ghostbusters and especially the game that is pretty much the third Ghostbusters movie. Very funny, but also scary as hell at times. Why? Great timing.

Unfortunately I can’t just tell you that there is a perfect timing to hitting people with a jumpscare. It depends on the situation. Independence Day has a great jump scare in the lab after the alien wakes up and kills everyone. The POTUS and his staff go into the observation room and see the carnage, then Data is slammed up against the glass. A great jumpscare.

However, I can tell you the trick to getting the best jump out of people. It’s making them expect the jumpscare, but waiting till after they expect it to happen. That’s where things get trickier.

You have to set it up and creep them out, but then let things drag out. Then, just when they are starting to think nothing is going to happen and settle down… WHAM!

Having something happen out of the blue also works, but usually only with long stretches of little else happening. Of course making them think something is going to happen constantly creates a lot of tension, which is good for other things, but it blunts jumpscares. That’s why it’s best to use them sparingly.

Knowing when to just let things ride out without anything happening is just as important as knowing when you need to put in a scare.

For example, if you are making a horror game with someone wandering around needing to open doors all the time, you only need one or two good door opening jump scares early on to make the players paranoid about opening doors for the rest of the time they are playing. Toss in another roughly every hour or so worth of progress in the game. IE, figure out where players should be able to get to in about an hour of playing if they knew where everything was. Obviously they wont get through that fast until they have played the game a few times.

Better yet, if you can program it into the game, make it so one of the first few doors they open after starting to play has a jumpscare. So if you were making a game like Deadspace, the game would spawn a necromorph right in front of a door somewhere close by every time you load the game up. This would be a secret feature of course, designed to make the player paranoid about opening doors no matter where they were in the game.

Okay, now that you know timing is the key to great jumpscares, what makes for a great jump scare? What are the ingredients that cause that reaction.

Surprise is the only one you need to really worry about.

Consider this game:

The only thing they have in common is suckering you in and hitting you with something(s) unexpected. Of course expecting them doesn’t really help in the case of the game because until you play it, you have no idea when something will happen.

Both types work, but jumpscares out of no where like in that ad tend to piss people off, while well built up jump scares like in the game make people like them more.

So, how do you make the best jumpscares?

First you make people expect them, but make sure they can’t predict them. Knowing something is coming is what creates tension, and great scares are the release of that tension. Just like with a good joke. The set up is used to get people ready for the punchline.

Let me give you an example. A basic outline of a haunted house game.

Let’s say it uses the run and hide, no combat style. The ghosts aren’t all deadly, but being around them too long can scare the main character to death. Looking at them freaks the main out. He/She is Phasmophobic (has a serious phobia of ghosts). Plot is that the character was pressured to go with some friends to a supposedly haunted mansion down the road. They go inside and get trapped. The main starts off alone somewhere in the house.

We will put a heart and adrenal output meter in the game so players can see (and hear) when the character is getting scared. Which will help scare them.

Music is atmospheric and does not signal anything. Players may think it does, but it is just there to help creep them out.

Backstory wise we will use something simple. The mansion is a weird place built by a very eccentric family. As the player goes through they uncover a variety of nasty things. Incest is always good for messing with people, ritualistic cannibalism, and necrophilia with murdered locals can round out the mix of nastiness. Toss in some aborted incest babies, murdered runaway family members, and a family cult to add some depth and “flavor” to the pot.

We want to focus on freaking them out with all these gross and evil taboo topics, but there also needs to be some jump scares scattered in. We will start them out easy, nothing much happens for the first 15-30 minutes of game play. We will work on the psychological stuff during this period.

Then they will open a door and there will be a ghost right on the other side. The first one they run into. So they run away and hide, the ghost loses interest and fades away. Now we have created a degree of paranoia about opening doors. Sure, they were expecting something like that to happen, but it didn’t for quite a while so they would have let their guard down. Then we confirm their expectations which will make them even more reluctant to open doors. But they have to in order to escape. It’s one of the simplest, and still best, ways to create fear in a game. Make them reluctant to do something, then force them to do it anyway.

We also stick in another door jumpscare every couple of hours worth of game play. Just often enough to remind them that opening doors can get them killed, not so often that they get used to it. We use the jump scares here to create paranoia and tension, not to bombard them. If possible we make them random. The game randomly spawns a ghost in front of a nearby door every 1 1/2 – 2 hours.

There will also be a handful of trap jumpscares. Puzzles they need to find clues about to do right, otherwise a ghost pops up to attack them.

Add in a few noise and object scares, like a phone ringing and books flying off shelves, and our game has an effective number of deliberate jumpscares.

Combine with roaming ghosts that must be evaded, eventually having all their friends die and finding their corpses (sometimes moved), rapid alterations to rooms (looking at a wall in a room, turning around, a sound triggers, they look back and something is written on the wall), etc and you have plenty of scares. Pile on the crazy back story stuff and you have the makings of a great horror game.

As with anything, balance is important. Too many jumpscares and real horror fans are going to heap abuse on your creation. Why? Because jumpscares aren’t actually scary, not in any lasting sense. Not on their own. On their own all they do is startle you. Without a creepy story and some elements that cause genuine unease and fear, all you are doing is making people jump, which will piss fans of proper horror off.

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