How 2023’s Scariest Games Redefined a Classic Horror Trope

From Alan Wake 2 to The Outlast Trials, the jump scare may never be the same again.

Alan Wake 2

The moments leading to a video game jump scare can feel like a bow gradually getting tense. A long, obscure corridor with a door waiting at the end is enough to set the scene. The sudden rattle knocking on a window triggers an internal alert. Looking down at your pistol’s chamber to count the few bullets left inside is the first drop of sweat running down your face. By the time your hand is on the handle, you expect the bow to strike at any moment.

But this is speaking in the traditional sense. Scenes like these are aplenty in horror video games. For Amnesia: The Bunker, creative lead Fredrik Olsson wanted that bow to be tensed by the player’s actions. Accidentally stepping on a trap, using a grenade to blow up a door and open a path, or even moving heavy objects can irritate the monster hunting for you.

“Jump scares shouldn’t just be something that’s pushed on you, but something that’s almost a consequence of your actions,” Olsson tells Inverse. “After a jump scare, you’ll go, ‘OK, what am I doing? I should be careful in what I do in this game space because that might lead to the next one.’ When things are out of your control, they become less scary.”

“When things are out of your control, they become less scary.”

Frictional Games

The Bunker is part of a group of horror games where dynamic or randomized elements haunt the player. Mr. X chasing you around the Raccoon Police Station in Resident Evil 2 Remake or stepping on broken glass and inadvertently alerting a clicker in The Last of Us are a few examples. As the genre continues to evolve and grow in popularity, developers are finding new ways to subvert players’ expectations around horror’s foundational staples. But others remain adamant on the ever-present potential of staying closer to tradition.

To find out more about the future of jump scares, Inverse spoke to the studios behind some of 2023’s biggest horror games — Alan Wake 2, Amnesia: The Bunker, Paranormasight, and The Outlast Trials — to discuss the differences between scripted moments versus dynamic forces at play, how they can support the narrative at large, and how being defenseless or not can make an impact.

Hand-Crafted Tension

Alan Wake 2 features two different types of jump scares.


Remedy Games came up with two different types of jump scares for Alan Wake 2. The first, leaning on the traditional sense of the horror element, is used sparingly — such as the deer crashing through the general store before the game’s first enemy encounter. The second, called “Horror Flashes” internally, was primarily aimed at representing how the main threats of the story become intruders in the heroes’ minds.

“The key for us was to look behind a simple jump scare and find a meaning behind it,” says lead narrative designer Simon Wasselin. “These full-screen flashes, shown when the threats are impacting the world or ‘talking’ to the hero, are less important as a surprise and more as a pattern.”

These rapid-fire flashes often show live-action footage of the virtual antagonists blended with filters and abstract imagery. The pace was mostly dictated by the presence of an enemy and how much the studio wanted them to appear. Nightingale, the first boss, has fewer appearances than Cynthia, an old lady who becomes a prominent foe in the nursing home section later on in the story. As Remedy’s first true survival horror game, principal writer Clay Murphy says the team looked at films and games where the mood sets the tension.

“It’s very choreographed,” Alan Wake 2’s lead narrative designer says.


But Remedy also knew that jump scares are a horror staple, so the studio explored how to make it work in the “Remedy style,” loosely defined as both narrative and being dictated by context.

“In some instances, having a few impactful ones is better, while in others, the succession and repetition convey a different emotion,” Wasselin says. These moments are deliberate, with flashes almost always tied to an event. Before or after a dialogue is played, the player interacts with something, an enemy disappears, and so on. “In all of these cases, we know where the player will be, what they did before, what they would do after. It’s very choreographed.”

While Paranormasight is labeled as horror, director Takanari Ishiyama considers it a “supernatural mystery” layered with elements of the genre. The goal wasn’t to include startling elements in the story from beginning to end, but instead concentrated them toward the first few hours.

“We knew that Paranormasight may end up being streamed online by players,” Ishiyama says, “so we wanted to include a few gimmicks that would startle people earlier in the game, jump scares being one of them, to grab their attention through their reactions and keep them hooked.”

Paranormasight’s early levels are filled with classic scares to draw in players.


In the process, he learned that if you surprise players once toward the beginning, it will keep them on edge and heighten their senses, even when nothing is happening.

The main mechanic of Paranormasight, which has you rotating the camera 360 degrees inside “static” scenarios, naturally serves as a tool to showcase unexpected faces and characters suddenly appearing on screen. Even if jump scares begin to dissipate toward the second half of the story, there’s a precedent in place that leaves a lingering feeling of unease.

“We were conscious about placing them right around when we felt people might have forgotten about them,” Ishiyama says.

A Threat in Motion

There are no scripted jump scares at all in The Outlast Trials.

Red Barrels

In narrative-driven games like Alan Wake 2 and Paranormasight, it’s pretty much pre-determined where, when, and how the player is going to get spooked. But other horror games are instead focused on laying down a foundation that can lead to jump scares caused by the player’s actions, or by conditions set by the developer like a randomized Haunted House.

Canadian developer Red Barrels built The Outlast Trials from the ground as a multiplayer horror game in which players are scattered around different places and conduct different tasks or actions. There are no scripted jump scares at all. Instead, the game’s designers place dozens of “jack-in-the-box” surprises. A series of conditions pinpoint which ones to trigger and when (like if the player walks by or opens a locker, for example) in hopes of catching players off guard.

“We use different conditions and parameters,” Red Barrels co-founder Philippe Morin tells Inverse. “We’ll check the range between the player and a burst of steam placed in a level, if they’re being chased, or if things are quiet, or if they have a line of sight on the jump scare. It doesn’t give the same level of control we had in the previous games, but it keeps the experience fresh and organic.”

The Outlast Trials is full of jump-scare moments like this that can be randomly triggered.

Red Barrels

Iteration plays an important factor in balancing the effect behind these possible scenarios. Olsson says tension in The Bunker reached a new height around mid-development when the team tested what would happen if the monster could roam inside the walls as well, creating an Alien-esque effect.

Regardless of each developer’s approach when it comes to scaring the player, being able to defend yourself (or not) is a key factor that can affect the entire experience. Having a weapon doesn’t shelter you from the initial surprise of a jump scare, but it’s important to adapt to the moments leading up to it, especially if the player is already feeling confident. This matters even more during the second half of a horror game when the player has access to powerful weaponry.

“It’s a matter of balancing the threats versus their tools.”

Frictional Games

A good example is, once again, Alan Wake 2’s nursing home level. Despite protagonist Saga carrying a shotgun and crossbow by this point in the story, you’re constantly entrapped in claustrophobic corridors and basements. Even worse, the electricity is unexpectedly shut down as the enemies’ presence increases. This completely shatters that confidence built up over the course of the game. So when a jump scare takes place, you’re caught completely off guard, despite having firepower to spare.

“It’s a matter of balancing the threats versus their tools,” Wasselin says. “In Alan Wake 2, despite some heavy weapons or flares, the threats remain very dangerous. It’s survival horror, after all.”

Paranormasight director Ishiyama thinks that when you’re playing as a character who has no means of defending themselves against the fear-inducing stimulus, the sense of dread and anxiousness increases throughout the experience, even outside of jump scares. Outlast’s Morin argues that the presence of a weapon isn’t related to the effectiveness of jump scares and that every game gives some form of limitations so players can feel defenseless.

Outlast has no guns, but you can run fast and perform athletic moves,” he says. “In other games, you have one, but your character has the speed and agility of an 80-year-old grandpa.

“Like jump scares, it’s not about what’s best, but rather what flavor you want.”

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