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  • Writer's pictureWeston McNamara

Designing Better Jump Scares

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

Throughout all the horror games I have played, I have seen enough bad ones that were completely ruined by poor jumpscares to warrant writing this article. Unfortunately, it is incredibly common to see bad jumpscares.


This article outlines a few methods you can use to design better jumpscares, and avoid bad jumpscares.



What Is A Jump Scare?


A jumpscare is a semi unexpected, startling event that happens in the game. It is called a jumpscare because it is usually accompanied by frightening imagery and music that makes the player jump, and sometimes scream.


They're very easy to screw up, and this article will teach some general laws you can follow about jumpscares and how not to screw them up.


Getting Jump Scares Correct


I don't make it much of a secret that I think that Five Nights at Freddy's is an example of bad horror.



Don't get me wrong, there is lots of lore surrounding FNAF that gives it some real horror, and the game has great tension, but the actual scares rely strictly on cheap, repetitive jumpscares, that you should avoid. As a designer, jumpscares are another tool in your toolbox. They can be incredibly effective, and make the experience memorable and scary, but can also easily ruin your game, and destroy the experience.


Jumpscares are so common in FNAF that eventually the player becomes completely zoned out of the game, and just focuses on finishing the night, instead of becoming immersed in the horror. When a player reaches this state where they lack any immersion, and just want to "get it over with", you have failed as a designer. FNAF jumpscares are a great example of cheap, easy and boring horror. Avoid this.


General Jumpscare Laws:


Use jumpscares sparingly. Use them to finish your game, or at the end of a long game sequence, or to break tension after a long section of building it.

  • Jumpscares kill immersion instantly, and completely. (This is why they're effective to end long game sequences, or the game itself)

  • Jumpscares kill any tension you may have built up. Building good tension is actually a bit of a hard thing to do, and jumpscaring the player throws it out the window.

  • They're really hard to do correctly.

  • If you do them wrong, they can actually be angering, and annoying.

Qualities of Good Jumpscares:

  • Not excessive. This means no ridiculously loud sound queue, and no scary face popping up on your screen in a single frame. This is excessive, and frustrates players.

  • Rarely occur.

  • Make sense. If the jumpscare happens in a place that feels random and uncalled for, odds are its a bad jumpscare. (and its probably also excessive if it doesn't make sense)


An example of a good jumpscare:

This is good because:

  • It makes sense. You opened a door into a room, and a dead body was hanging from the top. It's not a random scare. It feels plausible.

  • Not excessive. Nothing jumps up right in front of the camera, and while the music is definitely stressful and scary, its not ridiculously loud, and it makes sense.

You hear the person playing become startled, and then right after begin to laugh, and catch his breath. This should be the purpose of a jumpscare. A quick startling sequence that catches you somewhat off guard.


An example of a bad jumpscare:

This is bad because:

  • Excessive, ridiculous screaming is played while a character jumps right in front of the screen.

  • Does not make sense. He turns around, sees nothing for a few frames and then is instantly jumpscared. There is no way to anticipate this. Its just cheap, easy horror.

Yes, he got scared. But just because he was scared doesn't mean its good horror. It's easy to scare a player. Just throw a creepy face on the screen and blare loud music. This is lazy and borderline annoying.


Jump Scares Aren't The Only Way To Scare The Player


The world is filled to the brim with things much scarier than whatever monster you can draft up. Take advantage of this.


I recently watched the movie Requiem For A Dream. Its a perfect example of this concept. The movie is horrifying, scary, depressing and powerful. There are also no jumpscares in the movie. The horror is designed strictly on showcasing the truth on how drugs and addiction ruins people, and it does it incredibly well.


Its horror, but without any scares.


Things like isolation, addiction and depression are just as effective, if not better at scaring the player than a jumpscare. Understanding this will make your games substantially better.


Despite all its flaws, Cyberpunk 2077 is another great example of this, and it is not even a horror game. While you walk the streets, you see homeless people begging for money, and people discussing how much they hate the life they're living.



You see people so driven by vanity, and a desire for beauty that they're willing to completely augment and reform their body to the point where it becomes uncanny, and scary. There is no jumpscare, but its still horrifying, and depressing.


Take notes from these. This is real horror, and adopting techniques used in these will improve the horror in your games substantially.


Ending


Does this mean stop using them completely? No. However, the amount of horror games I have played that are chock filled with lame, annoying jumpscares is nauseating, and makes me, and other people not want to play your game.


If you play a lot of horror games, and see bad jumpscares in a game you play, say something. If you're a player, mention it when you review the game. Something as simple as "Game was great, but there were a few cheap jumpscares littered throughout" is perfect feedback.


If you're designing a horror game, try to get creative. Scare the player with the location, the lore, the backstory and the ambience. Avoid cheap and repetitive jumpscares.


Thank you for reading!

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1 Comment


Samanwaya Datta
Samanwaya Datta
Aug 06, 2021

This is actually a good tutorial. I do agree that jumpscares are better when anticipated and feels un-nervy. Another great example would be Outlast's that guy on the wheelchair. We know he will do something, coz wheelchair, horror games, and people don't go well. But it doesn't happen the first time, but when it does happen, it's actually awesome.

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