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.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
by Daniel Bullard-Bates