By Nathan Grayson on November 2nd, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
It was not so long ago that our own Adam “Murder Maestro” Smith lamented the lack of imagination in horror stories. Implausibly trap-laden asylums, spoooooky forests, and hastily cobbled-together castles dominate, while more interesting locales and subject matters are few and far-between. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that horror’s stuck in a full-blown rut, it could certainly end up there if it keeps wandering down the same predictable trail. I’ve been thinking about it, though (largely while replaying Amnesia: The Dark Descent as Halloween nightmare fuel), and I’ve come to realize that there are some amazing avenues ahead for stomach-lurching scares in gaming. Problem is, there are a few major, perhaps even primeval forces that could slip a dangling noose around possibility’s all-too-exposed neck.
Back when I was in grade school, my friends and I got into the habit of pranking one another by waiting around corners – muscles clenched with anticipation, bodies coiled like awful little snakes – and then, just when the moment was right, leaping out and screaming. The sounds we made weren’t really words. That wasn’t the point. It was all about shock, surprise. At first, I was everyone’s favorite target because I went sheet-white and shrieked bloody murder. But because the tactic was so effective, my friends wouldn’t stop using it. Every day, every corner. “BOO!”
Diminishing returns set in. Eventually, you wouldn’t have been able to get a rise out of me even if you’d sprang forth from a nailed-shut coffin in a claustrophobically confined mausoleum while chanting the ending monologue from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” I wasn’t fearless (and I’ll admit that jump scares in games still occasionally get me to this day), but the gag had become painfully predictable. I’d learned the underlying system. I’d figured out where people thought I’d least expect them. That’s where I expected them most.
Haunted houses, scary movies, and things of that nature are similar. Once you see the strings dangling just behind the curtain, the illusion breaks. There’s always a formula, a method to the madness. In their own way, games may have it worse than anyone else given that they’re entirely systemic. Learn the rigid string of commands guiding the boogie man who’s always right behind youuuuuuu, and he becomes no more threatening than an especially sophisticated Roomba. When sequels congeal and series swipe still-warm ideas from each other’s cold, lifeless bodies, this can render entire swathes of games impotent. Not only do tired, implausible settings rob horror of its power, but well-worn mechanics provide a cradle of comfort, a barrier of knowledge against the supposed terrors that lie in wait. “Sure, this all seems frightening,” you might say, ” but what can these monsters really do? And why should I care? I’ll just respawn and keep going, just like I always do.”
But games also have so many more tools available. Old system failing? Put a new one on top of it or replace it outright. Rethink, rewire. It’s an incredible shame, then, that we’re still mostly playing by horror’s old rules. Sure, more recent games like Amnesia and Outlast have taken away our ability to fight back, but it’s still all about old-school horror’s puzzles and film’s settings and jump scares. Expectation is the antithesis of horror, and yet many games are still being guided by it. “Horror must be X, Y, and Z. It must be paced this way and that.” If we just abandon the generi-scare checklists, we open up a whole new range of options like…
Oh goodness, games could be so, so, so great at this. I mean, when we play games we embody characters. And yet, most first-person games don’t even bother to show our avatars’ feet when we look down. Death may not be able to hold us, but permanent loss and slow, creeping degradation could take arguably worse tolls. It’s one thing to be a big, tough hero man – or even a regular, whimpering man of extraordinary ordinary-ness – but to see such characters beaten and broken and nakedly human? And moreover, to feel it in the way they move and flee? It’s essentially the reverse of the typical game power structure, but I’m surprised by how rarely it’s used.
Sure, some games might make you limp or crawl in climactic/pivotal/scripted moments, but they rarely explore complete physical breakdown. Powerlessness. Binding of Isaac, oddly, is one of my favorite examples, if only because its randomness often made you less formidable, and many abilities grotesquely disfigured your character. Far Cry 2 also took interesting steps in the right direction with malaria, weapon malfunctions, and things of the like – essentially riddling the typical, idealized first-person shooter “body” with flaws and weaknesses – but it also had to cater to the demands of a high-octane triple-A FPS. Those constraints meant that Far Cry simply wasn’t able to take the idea far enough.
Buried beneath all this, there’s also the notion of “fun” – the idea that taking away power and control will leave players annoyed or bored. Maybe, maybe not. It’s all in execution. Plus, it’s that sort of thinking that turned Resident Evil and Dead Space into all-out action franchises. Bleh. No thank you. Horror is a rollercoaster. Yes, you can have highs, but you can’t just skip over the lows.
Physical terror is about to gain a pretty serious secret weapon, too: virtual reality. While demos like Dreadhalls show immense promise by keeping track of where you’re looking and spawning creatures in optimally terrifying positions, I feel like that’s only the beginning. Sensation is a powerful, er, sense, and devices like the Oculus Rift are extremely capable of imitating it. I touched on this in my piece about EVE Valkyrie, but tumbling end over end in the endless vacuum of space was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. And that was when I mostly had full control. Imagine something like Gravity, but in game form. Moments where your body flips, twists, and drifts, and all you can do is look around, utterly helpless and microscopically small. Maybe there are monsters, maybe there aren’t. Regardless, your own frail form is your greatest enemy.
What do people care about? I’ll give you three options: is it a) puppies, b) the unrelenting specter of mortality, or c) people? Technically, the answer is d) all of the above, but people take top billing. Why do you think we’re all addicted to Facebook even though it’s largely just snooze-worthy ramblings and pictures of our friends’ hideous children? We’re built to empathize, form tribes, and fret over what everybody else thinks of us.
The scariest gaming experience I’ve had in years was the prospect that The Walking Dead‘s Clementine might get hurt. Or I might neglect her. Or I might misguide her in a confusing, fucked up world that I only understood marginally better than she did. She was paying attention, and the game never stopped reminding me of that. The rest, meanwhile, played out in my head. She was taking my words, tugging at every slip of tongue, learning all the wrong lessons. And that’s the thing about other humans, whether real or fictional: we don’t know what they’re thinking. We can only speculate, assume the worst, let toxic thoughts gnaw at our brains like worms squirming around in a rotten apple. People are terrifying, and our imaginations only make them more so.
I kind of regret not adding a separate category for imagination actually (though I will use this space to say GO PLAY CATACHRESIS), but I think it ties in with well-written characters especially well. More often than not, it’s less about what characters say and more about what they don’t. Lone Survivor’s main character was a triumph of minimalism. He wasn’t a silent protagonist. Rather, he piped up just often enough to be believable, but left enough dead air for my own qualities and experiences to manifest on top of his – to slough out in his brief, wearied comments and rest in the bags under his eyes as I let him go a few too many steps without food or sleep.
Initially, I kind of hated him.
But as I explained in an Advent Calendar entry last year, our experiences aligned. I started taking better care of my character, and he perked up. He regained hope. I realized I’d seen him at his lowest low, and everybody’s unbearable when they hit rock bottom. I didn’t want him to have to suffer through that again. Then we found a kitty. In Lone Survivor, it was the little things that made me care, and those same things made me terrified of running low on supplies or taking damage (and, as a result, losing morale and sanity). Creepy crawly beastie baddies are scary, but they’re far worse when you’ve got something (or someone) to lose.
Here’s an interesting one. What do you do when your AI monsters run out of tricks? Why, put them under the spell of the greatest monster of all (hint: IT IS MAN), of course. Left 4 Dead and – to an extent – Natural Selection popularized this idea, but Damned is really trying to hone in on the horror aspect of it. Sadly, I haven’t actually tried it, so I don’t know how well it works, but the idea is fantastic on paper. Four survivors try desperately to flee from one player-controlled monster, all the while fumbling about dark, randomized levels. It is, then, to the monster’s advantage to rattle the survivors or otherwise unhinge them – to make them work less efficiently as a unit and then pick them off one-by-one.
Beyond games like Damned, The Hidden, and co-op “horror” like Dead Space 3 and Resident Evil, multiplayer is sadly under-explored in this area. So is random generation, for that matter. Developers, perhaps you should get on this.
Asylums! Castles! Secret Nazi laboratories! I have been to none of those places, though I walked around the outside of a castle once. Also, I licked an asylum. While certainly rooted in real-world-ish events, these settings verge on fantastical, and the events that occur within are all the more telegraphed as a result.
Gone Home was by no means a horror game, but incredibly strong atmosphere nearly drowned its setting in pitter-pattering droplets of dread. One Late Night, meanwhile, took that idea a step further, introducing overtly supernatural elements to an average, ordinary office. And then it became Slender, because aaaaarggggh. But I do think it was onto something.
Horror is most powerful when it sidles up right next to you, slides an arm around your shoulder, and begins to slowly, gently worm its fingers right under your skin. Good horror is intimate. It knows you even though you have no idea what to expect from it. A lived-in home or an office that seems like it’s been inhabited by actual humans, then, makes for an excellent setting because we’ve been there before – and odds are, we’ll be there again.
There’s also the option of depicting so-called “normal” life events in abstracted, horrifying ways, conveying less of the literal content and more of the feeling. I really liked how Auti-Sim approached auditory hypersensitivity disorder, puncturing eardrums with the whaling-harpoon-like grace of a thousand child shrieks. Vision blurred, colors blended. I thought I was going to be sick. It was a short, singular experience, but it got the job done.
Moreover, Auti-Sim treated mental illness not as an exaggerated object of external fear, but as something to experience, identify with, and – on some level – understand. By and large, horror’s relationship with some of the most prevalent problems of our day can be described as anything but that, so approaches like that of Auti-Sim are needed. Fear has its place, but not when the “monsters” aren’t monsters at all.
Sheer, Unrelenting Weirdness
Horror games don’t need to be out to shock us trouser-less every second of every hour of every day. Some of the games that recently left me the most unsettled were just downright… strange. The mere act of existing inside them was distinctly uncomfortable. Bizarre, almost primally affecting imagery, unnatural gurgles and yelps, creatures that exist only in these fractured realities or the mind of Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan. Semi-recently, I thought The 4th Wall leveraged this screaming alien nightmarescape style of horror quite well – even without its wild (though gimmicky) ending.
And, in fairness, there’s a lot of this type of horror emerging from various indie scenes’ oozing crevices, much of which I’ve yet to play. Some of it is complete randomness, sure, but the best games are the ones that sandwich a kernel of something familiar yet ever-so-slightly off between all the layers of howling insanity. Like a painting that won’t hang properly no matter how many times you tilt it. And also, your hand is made of eyeballs and you’re crucifying a slug monster, mucousy skin fold by skin fold, who won’t stop staring at you with come-hither eyes.
OK, But Here’s The Problem…
Expectation is, in some ways, more of a force than ever – even as the above examples show that creativity is flourishing if you know where to look. Horror is becoming an echo chamber, with otherwise wildly inventive indies stacking their trays tenuously tall with tropes so that they might attract the roving eyes of, say, Steam Greenlight‘s masses. Moreover, horror has become synonymous with immediate terror. Despite a markedly more fascinating tale, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was decried as “not scary enough” compared to The Dark Descent. And maybe it wasn’t as “ooga-booga” scary by traditional definitions, but in assessing its quality along such narrow lines, we run the risk of conflating “different” with “worse.”
More frighteningly, horror’s biggest asset for exposure, YouTube, preys on quick, hammed-up reaction videos and cheap thrills. Slow-burn psychological approaches or character-driven journeys simply aren’t as viewer-friendly as, er, screaming 14-year-olds. Some horror games, like Daylight with its fully randomized approach, are being developed with YouTube as their target audience. Admittedly, Daylight actually sounds fairly interesting, but I worry that horror’s current environment is most conducive to well-timed jump scares and Slender clones (though thankfully, The Preternaturally Boring One’s influence seems to finally be receding) over variety and experimentation.
On the upside, I doubt “YouTube sensation of the week” will prove to be a viable long-term business model. It gets your name out there, sure, but staying power demands substance. Or at least, I like to think so, but then again: Slender.
So we’ll see where all of this ends up. I have high hopes, game developers. Don’t let my high-powered spotlight, collection of self-changing bulbs, and timeshare on the sun go to waste.