Anatomy of a Scare – Eternally Unsafe in The Third Shift
The Anatomy of a Scare series interviews horror game developers about the most chilling scares in their titles, examining how they were created, what thoughts went into their design, and the reasons they felt these moments were so terrifying.
There are often tiny moments in horror games where we feel safe. It could be the save rooms in Resident Evil. It might just be the inventory screens on any number of horror games. The few seconds where a game tells you which item you picked up. These moments, small as they can be, offer a welcome breather from the terrors around us. A moment of certainty when we know we’ll be all right.
The Third Shift’s artist and programmer, Scottie Supple, would rather use that moment to catch the player completely off-guard. In doing so, he erodes even that tiny sense of safety we might reach for in a game. It even upends those moments of calm. It makes us feel that we’re more unsafe at these times than we are at any other moment.
The Third Shift, in the developer’s own words, is “…a first/second/third person Game Boy styled horror game where you start a new job working night security for a museum on Roanoke Island! It’s inspired by retro horror classics like Clock Tower, The Uninvited, and Resident Evil, all with a dash of humor,” said Supple.
Working at night is naturally eerie, even if you’re just watching over an empty building or working as the lone person at a gas station. The darkness and the solitude load these jobs with an unsettling emptiness. The sort of emptiness an overactive imagination is happy to fill with monstrosities. Except in this case, the monsters do exist.
We’re not quite there, yet, though. Your boss asks you to look around the museum when you start The Third Shift. There’s an air of death in museums, don’t you think? The objects and treasured items of civilizations and people long passed. The bones of lost animals. The posed corpses of our ancestors. They’re kind of creepy in the daylight, but by night, they get much worse.
“When first starting the game, players are tasked with roaming the halls of the frightening museum to get familiar with it. While patrolling, an alarm goes off within the human anatomy exhibit. This exhibit is similar to ones in real life where actual corpses are ‘plasticized’ and placed in different poses,” said Supple.
It’s an eerie place, naturally. That alarm puts the player on edge, too. “This scare is important because it establishes your threat, and it also reaffirms your fears that something stranger is going on within the museum than your boss is letting on,” they continued.
We haven’t seen anything concrete yet. Just some unsettling locations throughout The Third Shift. Still, something is coming your way, soon. “Leading up to the first reveal of the enemy, there’s suggestions from your ‘boss’ that there’s actual people within the museum that you need to keep watch for. Between then and the reveal, there’s small glimpses of the enemy within the distance, always out of reach. So, it’s not known exactly what the player is up against for the first part. I always feel that the build-up to something can be even scarier than the actual reveal, so I try to ramp the tension up to the highest point beforehand. It’s like a slingshot; the more you pull back, the farther your shot (hopefully) goes,” Supple said.
The creepy museum, the solitary patrol, and the hints that something else is skulking around the place all lead up to a scare that comes at an unexpected time.
Supple could have had the enemy rush the player in an open hall. Could have made the player walk into the darkness and stumble across the thing. Instead, they chose to have it appear in a moment when the player felt completely safe: while collecting an item. It’s the sort of moment I take for granted in games. When you grab an item in many games, there’s a little animation of you picking it up. Maybe, a description of what you found. You’re usually invincible and safe in these moments as the game pauses while you collect your new treasure.
Supple took some time to make this feel safe (at first), too. “There’s a couple of things introduced to the player throughout the lead-up to the reveal. Going into certain rooms take the player from a security camera perspective and into a first-person view. There, they can move around by pointing and clicking. Within the first-person rooms, the views themselves are mostly static save for a few items here and there. A little box pops up when you pick up an item. Then, a musical jingle plays. There’s a small pause there, then afterwards, the player can resume playing.”
See? No danger involved in picking up an item in The Third Shift At least not until the collection jingle and item boxes have faded, right? Except Supple uses this moment to hit the player hard.
“During the reveal of the body, the following things happen. It’s in first person, you get an item, but while the box and jingle play, the body makes its entrance. I like to think of this as ripping the safety blanket away. Taking something where players think they’re safe and making them vulnerable can hopefully make them uneasy about relying on that safety blanket in the future,” Supple said.
This is a fantastic scare. Not only does it catch you at a time when you feel you’re safe, but you can’t move while you wait for the item collection jingle and animation to end. You can’t do anything as you watch the quivering, smirking body shamble your way.
That smirk ratchets up discomfort as well. “One aspect I’m fond of with the bodies is that they’re all jovial and happy to see the player. I think its much more effective than having them look angry or frowning coming after you. It makes it almost dream-like in a way,” said Supple.
This unexpected, smiling reveal coming when you feel you’re in a safe place comes from a point of personal fear for Supple. “For the body reveal, that stems from one of my fears. Something peeking out from behind a corner at me that I’m not expecting is something I always tend to imagine when I’m home alone. I imagine it too often, actually [laughs]. I need to seek help. Thinking back, maybe it stems from the movie Signs where Joaquin Phoenix is watching that video tape of a kid’s birthday party where the alien is revealed. Love that scene.”
Supple’s own fear of something unexpected poking its head out has lead to this single frightening moment in The Third Shift where the player is attacked at a time of vulnerability. A point where we feel safe turns into a knife in the gut – a knife held by a disturbing, smiling body.
The Third Shift doesn’t stop there, though. “After the encounter, the player is then seen outside the room where it happened, shaken and frazzled with their back against the door. Then, there’s a bit of dialogue from your boss that suggests maybe you’re seeing things. At that point, you’re given the task to go back in. You can either quit your job there and get a bad ending, or you face your fears and go back in,” said Supple.
You’d think you’d get a few moments of peace after a scare, but Supple has no interest in going easy on players. Instead, you have to make a decision where you may have to dive right into a place that terrifies you. Given that you’ve just been attacked while picking up items, are you safe while you read the instructions you’ve been given? While you sit here thinking about your decision? Your whole sense of safety fades away thanks to this single attack during an item collection screen.
The Third Shift is still in development (a demo is available, though), but already shows the developer has some great ideas on how to keep the player from ever feeling safe. With one small surprise when the player thinks they’re out of danger, it puts the player further on edge for the rest of the experience.