Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Horror!

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

I’ve been playing Silent Hill: Homecoming for the past few days (as you can tell from our handy new “Now Playing” section on the sidebar!) and it has me thinking about horror in games. Like Dead Space and Resident Evil 5, the new Silent Hill provides the player with a more capable, combat-ready protagonist. This has been the trend in recent years: horror games have been blending traditional horror elements with action and shooter sensibilities. I can understand why this evolution has taken place; the horror genre in games has grown fairly stale. By introducing more action-oriented gameplay developers bring in some much needed variation and draw in a wider audience. The unfortunate side effect of these modifications is that the horror genre is moving away from horror itself, instead of realizing its potential.

For the most part, traditional survival horror games rely on the same well-worn paths to instilling fear that movies have been using for decades: establishing a frightening mood through location and music, surprises that make the audience/player jump out of their seats, terrifying creature design, and so on. In mimicking movies, horror games have failed to capitalize on the primary promise of interactivity.

One of the only games to truly evolve the horror genre is Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Looking past its horrendous title, Eternal Darkness has some incredible ideas that other horror games should look to for inspiration. Besides the traditional health bar and a bar measuring the character’s magical abilities, the game introduces the quantification of sanity: as your character encounters horrible monsters with irrational bodily structures and a hunger for flesh, their sanity meter depletes. As the sanity meter lowers, the environments in the game change, as does the game itself. To reflect the character’s developing insanity, the walls might bleed or statues might follow the character’s motion. At its extremes, the game begins to break the fourth wall, informing the player that their save files have been corrupted or that the game is over at a cliffhanger moment, and will be continued in the sequel.

What we need in horror games is more of a willingness to exploit the player’s expectations and understanding. After reaching a point in a game where you feel competent with the controls and well-equipped enough to take on any enemy, imagine a sequence where you find yourself suddenly losing all control of your character. Unbidden, your character approaches a cliff face. You struggle with the controller, perhaps slowing the walk forward and showing some signs of internal struggle in your character, but it continues. He leans over the edge, hanging onto something, and then snaps out of it. If the controller shakes every time your character is attacked, what if it shook suddenly and violently when nothing was happening? What if buttons occasionally yielded unintended results, or directions were switched at inopportune moments? A horror lurks at the end of the hallway, and moving the joystick in any direction results in you walking toward it. When you do nothing, you stand still. When you press the attack button, you call out to it.

These are just a few examples of what games can convey that scary movies never could, and we haven’t even explored thematic elements, horror tropes and plot. With so many ways for games to reach a more terrifying, unique experience, it’s a stone-cold shame that they’re either falling into step with cheesy horror movies or migrating into the herd of action-oriented games.


  1. I like how this post kind of turned into something different from how it started. It also kind of ties into the whole what's unique about games idea.

    What video games aren't doing is innovating within its own medium. The emphasis is always what developers are putting on the screen but what can also be tooled with is how we interact with what's there.

    Obviously this whole idea of messing with the control scheme was what made the Wii so exciting in the first place, but dammit you don't have to reinvent the wheel or add on peripherals to be innovative. Crazy things can be done with the controller's we have.

    One of the reason's Metal Gear Solid is such a fantastic game that sticks in people's head is that Kojima was truly innovating by screwing with the gamer's perception of the game and how it's played. If you've never played Metal Gear Solid before, there's one scene where you're forced to push a certain button REPEATELY over a long period of time to save the protagonist's life. After the sequence is over you're contacted by a doctor in the game and she tells you to put the controller against your sore arm. The controller then begins to strongly vibrate, thus massaging the area. I can't tell you how surprising and cool that was when that happened. I won't ruin this next one but suffice it to say you fight a psychic villian later in the game and the way to beat him is never what you would expect, even today. While these "gimmicks" could have taken you out of the game it was so fascinating to see someone mess with these ideas that had been programmed into my head for so many years.

    But Daniel's right, what better place then the horror genre to mess with a player's peception. Horror is all about making us uncomfortable and taking us out of our natural element. Horror is scary because we can't control it, so why not have that translate to being unabe to control our character? It's a shame that they never made a sequel to Eternal Darkness because the developers we're really on to something with that one.

    Here's a question for everyone: What other games have you played that offered really unique gameplay elements like this? What game really messed with your perception by challenging your ingrained game habits?
    I've got an example from my experience: The orginal X-Men game on Sega Genesis. The "plot" of the game is that the Danger Room has gone crazy and is teleporting you from one crazy X-themed world to another. Thus you platform, fight minor bad guys, beat level boss, repeat. On one stage though, set in the Mojoverse for those Marvelites out there, after you beat the boss the screen turns black and green computer text appears. The screen says something like the Danger Room programming has been corrupted and if you want to fix it you have to hit the Reset button. Now let me remind you, this is a difficult side scroller from the 90's and this is NOT the first level, it's like the fourth or fifth. By hitting the reset button everything you've ever learned about consoles is telling you that you will lose HOURS of hard playing. The screen will not go away no longer how long you wait or how many other buttons you press. You MUST hit the Reset button. Let me tell that you will mess you up. Well you hit the button and you see the "computer screen" you're watching "reboot" and the game continues. I can tell you I have beaten the game many times and that never ceases to unnerve me.

  2. Here is an AWESOME post about the possibilities for horror games based around an otherwise ludicrous peripheral:

    It's possible that I just like this post because it mentions the idea of an Eternal Darkness 2 which deals with your actual pulse as a measure of your sanity, affecting what happens in the game.

    I want that. I want it so bad.


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