Creating the conditions for being frightened.

One of the greatest writers and game designers of our day, Chris Avellone, has often said that even his best stories aren’t as good as the stories which players make for themselves just playing his video games. As he himself put it in an interview with Iron Tower Studio:

“[A]s a narrative designer, I can’t compete a player’s story about how their dwarf fighter with 3 hit points exploited a crack in the canyon terrain and the limited range of motion of orcish axes to lure 20 orcs to their death one by one. Simple, but that’s a legend being made right there.” 

I’m not sure that this is always true; as Avellone’s stories are, to me, some of the best I’ve ever seen in any medium. But it’s probably true for most video games.

However, as I was thinking about this post some more, it occurred to me that audience experience might be more vital to a work than people realize, even in media like books and films. Obviously, such passive forms don’t offer the same opportunities as games, but there is still room for spontaneous occurrences in the audience’s experience.

Let me give an example of something that happened to me once that illustrates what I mean. I was listening (with headphones) to an audiobook of some horror novel. I was getting to a suspenseful point in the narrative when I became conscious of an odd sound, barely discernible, in the background. I thought it might be my imagination, so I kept listening to the story.

The sound gradually built just as the story began getting really ominous, eventually becoming an outright roar, until I became certain it was not merely my imagination. A moment later, I realized it was also not a sound effect in the book. At this same moment, the narrator of the story announced the arrival of the monster.
Simultaneously, I removed my headphones and realize that this roar I’d been hearing was… merely an aircraft flying over my dwelling.

This is a minor incident, and it took only about 30 seconds to occur, but it worked with the story well enough to dramatically increase the effectiveness of the scene I was listening to. And it was something that neither the novel’s author, nor the audiobook people had any control over.

True, they could have put in some sound effect to achieve the same effect, but it’s hard to create the same effect with something deliberately planned as opposed to something spontaneous. Even if you succeeded, it would only work the first time somebody listens to it.

I’ve written before about reading books and watching films at particular times of year, and under particular weather conditions. Perhaps this is another important element in the horror genre: getting the external conditions right to allow for spontaneously scary experiences. 

What's your stake in this, cowboy?