Fear Assessment Starts Sowing Terror Before You Begin the Game
Fear Assessment is a brief, but unsettling experience. It takes the form of a government test to collect data on psychological torture. It just bombards you with some creepy images to do so. While its array of strange faces managed to scare me quite effectively, the game was already doing its best to frighten me before I even started playing. It was already getting my imagination running right from its itch.io store page. It was an excellent reminder that good atmosphere can start before you even boot up the game.
The game’s store page description sounded fairly ordinary for a horror experience. At least, the first few lines did. It’s a test to gather information about manipulating people with fear. It’s creepy, but there are plenty of horror games out there that talk about spooky government tests and cover-ups. The final sentence of the initial paragraph was where I actually started to get nervous, though. “This test uses your webcam and information on your hard drive.” Not only was the game about to scare you, but it was going to personalize it in some way. It was going to mess with you directly.
Fear Assessment was weaving an eerie atmosphere before I even decided I wanted to play it. I wasn’t entirely sure what shape the test was going to take. I figured I’d be seeing some creepy stuff, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure what a psychological torture test would look like. What I DID know was that the game was going to do something with my own data. Was it going to do something weird with my files? My pictures? I was a bit unnerved at the idea of those files being used against me. More importantly, I wasn’t sure HOW it was going to do that. Which started to make me nervous.
It scared me even more that it was planning to use the webcam. This time, it wasn’t because I was unsure of what it was going to do. The only reason you make use of a webcam in a horror game is to scare the hell out of the person playing it with some weird effect. I’d probably see some creepy picture surge toward me at some point. However, I still wasn’t sure what shape that image or creature would take. After years of playing horror games I was positive I knew what the developer was going to do. But what would it look like? And, in all honesty, how well could I prepare for it even if I knew it was coming?
Fear Assessment continues to build on your fears with the rest of its description. The next thing it mentions is that you need to follow a handful of rules to complete the test. The first rule requires you to leave all of your doors open. Now, that’s a strange rule for a video game, right? What can a game even do with open doors? That said, there is a certain comfort in keeping the doors closed while you’re playing a horror game. At least, that’s how I feel. Something about playing the game in a closed room makes me feel a little safer. It’s a bit easier to dismiss your fears as ridiculous when you’re in your enclosed bubble.
It’s not something I ever really consciously noticed until this game told me to keep the doors open. I KNOW it’s just a game. I know it’s not going to do a damn thing with my doors during my playthrough. I’m also positive there’s no way for the game to tell the door’s open. Even so, this request made me start to feel really nervous. For one, I was more exposed with the door open. Secondly, the game’s own fiction hints at things lurking just outside your space. It plays really well with the story the game sets up while simultaneously playing with a small thing you might use to comfort yourself. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable and nervous at the idea of even starting the game.
Fear Assessment has several more instructions, but they’re fairly standard horror fare. Turn the lights off. Play the game alone. Follow the instructions and focus on the test. The final rule in the more recent release of the game tells you to ignore hallucinations. That final line felt a bit cheesy, but a line in one of the past versions was more unsettling. “Have a light on your face.” I know, deep down, that this was so the webcam trick would work well. In practice, something about that request felt weird. I knew, logically, that there was a very good reason to have that light on. Emotionally, it didn’t sit right. I was worried about how it would mess with my sight. How I wouldn’t be able to adjust my eyes to the dark around me.
The game proceeds to do an excellent job of putting you through some creepy tests and experiences. It starts with you having to hit buttons as bizarre images flash on-screen. You have to click on increasingly bizarre faces in one segment. You answer a few creepy questions, and then you get to experience some more unsettling faces as the game warns you that something is just outside. It tells you to stay still. Pay attention. Overwhelms you with shrill sounds. It hits hard and continually changes shape, but always seems ready to show you just how creepy a face can be with just the right lighting.
Fear Assessment is a scary experience. The surreal, ever-shifting nature and its supply of disturbed faces made for some horrible thoughts at bedtime after I played it. It was only as effective as it was because of the store page description that set the stage, though. The developer was already toying with my nerves before I even considered buying the game. The possibilities behind file usage and the webcam (which I refuse to divulge) create so much frightening promise.
It reminded me how the way you present a horror game to a potential player can be a vital tool in creating atmosphere. By playing with their expectations and taking away some of their comforts, you can set someone up to be truly terrified before they even consider grabbing your game.