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On Horror Games: Part the second

Welcome back, horror fans and fans-to-be! This is part two of my five-part series about horror games and why you should play them. This week, I bring to you more spoilers and more tantalizing glimpses at the intensity of the horror game experience. We'll be talking about story and theme in this edition: more specifically, choices and consequences. Now that interactivity can offer you the choice of what to do, would you go down alone into that dark basement? Would you suggest that it's a good idea to split up to cover more ground? Would you pick up that hitchhiker, knowing full well that it could be a member of an inbred clan of cannibal serial killers?

You might think you have a choice, but is it one that you have the power to make?

Horror and Consequence

Warning: spoilers for Phantasmagoria and Amnesia. Major spoilage imminent for Saw 2: Flesh and Blood.

Horror may be about the human spirit, but it arguably speaks more about human folly. When we make decisions about things that we don’t fully understand, unexpected things happen. We close one door and open another, all the while fully aware that we can never, ever see through both. In this way, horror is about blind compromise. It’s a leap of faith within a leap of faith!

In Phantasmagoria, it was Adrienne’s curiosity that let loose Carno’s ghost, which eventually possessed her husband and opened the floodgates to a few scares, a lot of gore, and one of the most memorable chase scenes in gaming. Amnesia’s protagonist, Daniel, willingly erased his memory in order to clear his mind of past horrors and past deeds -- things he did of his own volition. Lots of times in horror fiction, people get themselves into deep doo-doo just by being and doing. You just don’t know what innocent action will ripple out into terrible events down the road.

Whether or not a game actually gives you a real choice, horror games will leave you regretting your decisions when the Bad Things start to happen:

  • I wish I never agreed to meet up with Dr. Polito. - System Shock 2
  • I wish I never read all those journals about African tribal customs. - Scratches
  • I wish we never ever invented the computer. - I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
  • I wish I never entered this cave and lit up this lamp. - Gabriel Knight 2

Once again, the lack of control and power persists, and the challenge is laid upon the player to see a clear way through what seems like an utterly chaotic mess.

Horror games embody the power of choice and decision -- no matter how weak or trivial they may all seem, there’s always a thematic choice that will change the world in some major way. You may think I’m contradicting what I said about linearity earlier, but I don't think so. If something is inevitable, then it's inevitable. The choice is simply there to tantalize and frustrate and present all sorts of questions about what could have been and what could have been avoided. It's fatalism with a dollop of doubt, and without doubt, I say there's not much use for a horror story.

I have an example that delves a tad too much into twist-ending territory, but illustrates this mostly unfair choice-and-consequence in a gaming context. The game is Saw 2: Flesh and Blood. Its events take place during a stormy evening in a dilapidated, fenced-in area of the city where once again, Jigsaw has shown that having terminal cancer is no great barrier to rigging a dizzying amount of death traps designed to help his contemporaries strive to fill the bleak emptiness of their empty, misused lives while painfully shedding no small amount of blood.

Your character, of course, is one of these unfortunate contemporaries. Over the course of the game, you run barefoot on broken glass, shimmy through tight corridors covered with barbed wire, solve logic puzzles to rescue fellow victims hooked up to elaborate death-dealing contraptions, and oddly enough, solve a clandestine drug smuggling operation happening in the city. Seriously. Jigsaw is an especially wascally wabbit in this instalment of the series.

The human folly, however, is established hours before any of this is resolved. Saw 2’s tutorial level has you playing another Jigsaw victim who is offered his freedom after the requisite self-mutilation with a scalpel and a little bit of out-of-place puzzle solving to unlock a door. It is established that you have cancer, and that you don’t have long to live, and that you are a drug addict. You are shown an elevator leading up to freedom, which you can accept or refuse to ride in. The elevator only fits one, but it will make another stop before reaching ground level. On that other stop, another of Jigsaw’s victims -- whom you haven’t ever met -- will want to get in to escape. You are asked if you are willing to sacrifice your spot in the elevator to save a complete stranger. No matter how it plays out, the game then proceeds to the main story proper.

The twist, which you probably saw coming from miles away now, is that you (or rather, non-tutorial you) are that complete stranger. If by any chance you exercised your video game instinct of self-preservation during that tutorial, your effort of playing through the rest of the entire game is ultimately rewarded by a cutscene of some random guy zooming up past you in a sealed one-man elevator even as the ceiling slowly lowers to crush you to death. Don’t worry: the random tutorial guy also dies before the credits roll because he makes one bad decision too many after he gets offered his freedom. Conversely, if you let your tutorial-self die in the tutorial, you get to live at the end of the game.

From a gameplay standpoint, this is downright annoying. Simply put, the first choice you make in a game that is anywhere from 10 to 14 hours long determines whether you live or die at the end. However (and don’t cringe at this surprise life insight, brought to you by all your friends at OMGeek), it does illustrate a point about how choice not only carries consequences for ourselves, but for other people as well -- for good and for ill. It’s a message I can appreciate as an appropriate horror moral story, though I wish it could have been delivered in a better way through a better game.

There are other horror games out there with choices that are just as compelling, that deliver the same impact without any of the frustration. The best part is that in a horror story, choices are doubly significant because the stakes are much higher. You may either be saving the world from an eternity of living hell, or maybe just trying really hard not to get your right leg amputated at the thigh with a rusty saw blade moving at a steady clip of one centimeter a second. In both examples, it is very, very, very important to prevent such an outcome from happening. I’m sure you’ll agree.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Next Wednesday, we'll talk about horror and the innovation that it drives. Be here then!

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