Making Horror and Inspiring Emotion – Ian Thomas’s Nine Worlds Panel

Learning from disciplines and genres other than your own is one of the best ways to expand your writing. It helps you look at the craft from different angles and come up with ideas you would never normally encounter. This is especially true when there’s someone smart and insightful talking on the subject. So while I don’t often write horror or games, Ian Thomas’s talk at Nine Worlds on making horror in games gave me some great food for thought.

Looking through my notes, there was plenty of stuff I’ll save for if I ever run live roleplay again. Things like using all your senses, knocking players off balance emotionally so that they stop and watch, or providing a pile of in character documents instead of a character description so that players would fill the gaps and imagine themselves into the character’s life. It’s thinking outside the default approach to games, which is how you make something that stands out.

But there were some lessons that clearly apply to writing as well.

Scare the player/reader, not the character. After all, it’s the reader’s emotions that will keep them engaged. And to a large extent, this applies to other emotions. Whether it’s leading readers into a crush on a romantic lead or making them really angry at the villain, those feelings are the real power in a story. So consider the readers’ emotions.

Put yourself in the player/reader’s shoes. What will they be thinking about at any given point, given the gap between what they know and what you know?

Leave gaps. Our human survival instinct means that we are constantly looking for patterns and jumping at shadows. So create a few bright, clear points where everything is specified, and then leave players/readers to find their way between them. Let their imaginations make it real.

Be careful not to break the player/reader’s mental model of what’s going on. That can wreck their immersion, and so the emotional momentum you’ve built. If you’re going to pull the rug out from under their feet, make sure it’s in a way that adjusts that mental model, not shatters it.

And if you want to read more on how Ian applies this stuff, check out the write up on the game God Rest Ye Merry, which friends of mine have been raving about ever since.