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On Horror Games: Part the first

Pssst! Gamerfriends. This month of June, we’re going to have a weekly feature and discussion about horror games and the elements that make them great. You know, because it’s totally appropriate to do this in June. During E3 season, no less. I won’t be spoiling much; I do want the non-horror players out there to give scary games a try after reading this series. I will spoil enough about some selected horror games to pique your interest though, and I’ll be indicating any incoming spoilers at the top of each article that goes up. Sounds good? Good!

If you’ll just join me here, we’ll get started. Here. In the dark.

People have asked me before: why do I like -- nay, prefer -- games that can scare me so badly that I may end up sleeping with the lights on for the next two days? What's so good about being terrified, about developing an irrational fear of the dark, or of the light, or of that old broom in the kitchen corner that kind of looks like a face if you squint really hard and kind of catch it in just the right light?

Why horror games?

Fun fact: I have actually attempted writing this piece about horror games and the entertainment value of the scare twice in the past, and both times my writing crashed and burned like a walrus attempting to fly -- there's just too much blubber, it’s hard to maintain any kind of momentum, and I found it hard to really look at my love for horror games and peel everything back to reveal the lean meat. I'm gonna try this again, and this time, we're gonna get to the bottom of this together.

Why horror games?

Here's a simple truth about what I love in my games: I love facing great odds and I love overcoming them. I like how Diablo featured a plainly-dressed everyman who works his way up from a level one chump who misses two out of every three sword swings into an undead-bashing, demon slaying machine. The very first time I hit that transition, I started to lose interest. The fun is in the challenge, and in the simplicity, and in the gritty struggle against the darkness while armed with substandard equipment and armor that threatens to fall apart every time an imp brushes up against it. Thirty levels later, I'm clad in gleaming platinum mail (of the Whale) and I command the powers of Heaven in my glow-in-the-dark weapon. Also, I can make living skeletons dismantle themselves at thirty meters by staring hard and grunting. In ten different ways.

Some people think being all-powerful is fun. Diablo 3 even forces the idea upon the player by not allowing him to swing the sword in his hand and by instead making it mandatory to attack with SUPERPOWERZ. It's fun, but it's not so rewarding. It's satisfying, but it's not as memorable as striking down a group of zombies with a sword that’s two swipes away from falling apart. Winning is still an achievement, but the struggle that precedes it feels a bit lackluster.

Horror, on the other hand, is all about being weak and powerless in all the things that count... and maybe still winning. There’s no guarantee. Horror is about uncertainty and fatalism and the multitude of ways that life and the world can change in incredible, unbelievable ways. Horror is about the human spirit, because what it means is to be placed in an impossible situation with no other place to run, and finding a way to run anyway. Horror is a leap of questionable faith into a world where all control is taken away from you, and you are challenged to make the most of the chaos that you’re left with. Control freaks need not apply.

Sometimes, you make it out of the haunted manor with all your limbs and digits intact. Sometimes, the serial killer catches you and hangs you up to cure on a meathook. Hey, it’s all about the human spirit, but I never said anything about the human triumph.

Horror and Linearity

Warning: some spoilers for Dead Space, the Penumbra games, and Silent Hill 2.

Horror games have a huge potential for telling great stories because of the inherent linearity of the genre. A properly scary horror game will carefully and cleverly limit the player's choices at any given time because a strong aspect of horror is the lack of control that the protagonist has during a crucial moment. Terror is the byproduct of having no choice and having no way out. Sure, linearity carries a bit of a stigma when it comes to gaming, but here's the interesting bit about horror games: the gameplay is arguably not the most important part of it all. Eliciting a strong emotional response is far more crucial. It's the reason you came to play, after all.

This is why I took it all in stride in Dead Space when Isaac Clarke was conveniently left stuck behind a glass partition while a pack of necromorphs was busy murdering half of his away team on the other side, or when the intelligent, well-spoken protagonist of Penumbra somehow willed himself into deliberately travelling all the way to Greenland to walk around in a freezing, snow-filled valley, with no provisions, no equipment, no way back, and no hope other than a hole in the ground that leads to further sanity-draining events. These otherwise cheap devices that serve to drive you from a bad situation into an even worse situation are there to set your mood properly, and if done right, you won't even notice you've been forced into the situation until you really stop and think about it.

There's a part in Silent Hill 2 where you can literally stumble into the lair of Pyramid Head -- Silent Hill's popular patron saint of grim executioners -- while wandering around some confusingly laid out underground tunnels. These weren't exactly sprawling tunnels, but you did have a choice to whether to go left or right at some points. I remember losing it in that place: the red lights and the giant knife just lying around and that overly loud scraping sound that indicated that I was mere seconds away from getting painfully eviscerated sent me running in a panic through those tunnels. Exploration had given way to flight -- it wasn't even an escape now, because there was no hint of getting out of the metallic maze, but the game communicated my single new goal to me quite clearly: put as much distance between me and the clanking and scraping and don't think while doing it because I had no other choice in order to survive those next few seconds. Long story short? I let the game scare me into being herded towards where I was supposed to be on the script, and I had no idea it was even happening.

Linearity through genuine terror is an interesting thing: it's exciting, highly motivational, and it never feels like cheating. At the very least, it doesn’t the first time it happens.

Here's another example. In Penumbra: Black Plague, you are coerced into doing a cruel, appalling act willingly. The control is never taken away from you, and you probably won't hesitate springing into action when it happens. However, once the full truth is revealed and you're given time to contemplate your actions, you realize what the game has done to you, and what it made you do. It's manipulative and it's unfair and it's a totally brilliant way to illustrate the terrible, terrible truth that the game owns you even as it relinquishes full control to you. It was a numbing yet incredibly intensifying experience.

That’s something I can get from the horror genre that other kinds of games can’t seem to match up to. The only other strong emotion besides fear I can think of that can have such a profound effect on my experience is humor, and we all know that well-written humor is in short supply in the gaming world. Without the added dimension that fear provides, you can only go through so many “cool”, “badass”, and “dramatic” moments until you’re just dragging yourself along, forcing yourself to play on because you spent fifty American dollars on a title.


Thanks for reading, everyone. Join us again next Wednesday where we'll discuss horror, human consequence, and the PLOT TWEEST of Saw 2: Flesh and Blood!

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