He cajoles me down, down, down into the dank tunnels, hissing harsh, terse instructions to me. We enter a room—the nest—some place long-since abandoned by humans, and find ourselves surrounded by monsters that stand, statue-still, sleeping. Nervously, my trigger finger twitches; I have to make a conscious effort to avoid shooting anything. The terror of this moment, here in the bloodsucker lair, is driven almost entirely by my gun. I’m afraid I’ll pull the trigger, waking the bloodsuckers up, and get mauled to death by those horrific tentacled tongues.
Weapons make horror games worth playing.
But let’s be clear, here: gaming has bred two very distinct kinds of horror genre. I have an impulse to quibble, to point out that what we call ‘horror games’ should actually be ‘terror games,’ but I realize the futility of being just one guy on the internet trying to rewrite a nomenclature at least as old as himself. For the purpose of effective communication, then, I’ll use two much more common terms.
First, you’ve got Survival Horror games, those which rely less on horror and more on terror—that slow, creeping dread that something, somewhere, is about to go very, very wrong. These games are all about slow buildup and payoff, similar to the heist genre, where the entirety of the story is structured around crafting a spectacular moment of climax. If the original Alien were a video game, most people would consider it to be Survival Horror.
Of course, if the sequel, Aliens, were a horror game, it would be something a bit different. Where Alien is about the crew slowly being picked off by one monster, Aliens is about a bunch of tough men and women with loads of very large weapons killing lots of horrific monsters and dying all over the place. Aliens, as a game, would be classified as Action Horror.
One doesn’t need to defend the use of weapons in an action horror game, however; the goal here is to explain how weapons enhance the survival horror experience.
We tend to think of games like mechanisms, as if they’re tools which serve some nebulous purpose, often for their own sake. Much of the serious discussion surrounding video games seems to focus more on engineering an experience, speaking of game design from a rigid, rule-driven perspective. With game design as it stands, most of us are all about how gameplay is the most important part of the experience. I’m inclined to disagree, which I recognize is a radical position, and one that can be easily misunderstood. Instead of arguing the point here, however, let’s focus on horror and come back to it in a later column.
I’d argue that the best of games put their primary focus on make us feel something specific, whether that be the thrill of victory, a profound sense of sadness and loss, delight, curiosity, or any other of the broad range of human feelings and emotion. To do so, they use all the tools at their disposal, from art and sound design to gameplay. Every element of a game is pieced together by the developers to craft a specific emotional journey for the audience.
Because video games are art and entertainment, and art tends to be, first and foremost, an emotional experience, we can assume that the primary focus of a game’s design should be constructed around ensuring that the audience is feeling what the designer wants them to experience. That means every single element of the game should be constructed with the player’s response in mind. Everything.
Horror games are about making you feel terror, tension, fear, disgust, and a whole host of related emotions. All the audiovisual design, gameplay, and everything else is subservient to that experience.
Most horror games take place within dark spaces, for a whole host of cultural and anthropological reasons. The short explanation is that darkness, or more properly, obscured visibility… well, it unsettles us. It makes things less immediately recognizable, puts us on edge, makes us ask questions. By limiting what we can see, games put us in a specific emotional headspace. Camera perspective can affect this as well—older horror games use a frustrating fixed-camera perspective. Some have argued that the bad camera controls in later horror games were an intentional design choice. The first person perspective has seen a resurgence in popularity as devs have discovered it significantly enhances the horror experience. Players can no longer cheat to see behind them or use the camera to peer around corners; in a first-person game, every action, even simply choosing where to point the camera, is burdened with risk.
Then there’s sound, the underappreciated, rarely-explored, absolutely vital component of any good horror experience. In a film class recently, my professor explained the value of audio in entertainment, explaining, among other things, how asynchronous sound—sound that doesn’t relate to what’s shown—unsettles the audience. When we hear something but can’t see it, when we can’t readily identify what we hear, we start to ask questions.
Level design, from a purely structural standpoint, also helps enhance horror. Narrow corridors breed claustrophobia, environmental hazards such as Silent Hill’s fog or STALKER’s anomalies increase tension through uncertainty, and verticality and large spaces work to make the player feel small and alone. It’s not as if these are the only ways to do things, but they’re great starting points.
Of course, this is all environmental stuff, audiovisual presentation aspects. Horror can’t just be delivered through the environment; it has to be delivered through the game’s mechanics as well.
Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about my favorite genre of movies: the heist. While many genres, to an extent, follow the same basic story progression of gradually increasing tension until the climax, the heist is laser-focused on the core idea of drama: the characters want something, but something else stands in the way. The heist is inextricable from that concept. It’s not really possible to write a heist movie without ensuring that the protagonists are prevented from getting what they want at just about every turn until the film’s climax. It’s much easier to go astray in other genres, to forget what the characters want, to take them on a journey without purpose or meaning.
Wasn’t I supposed to be writing about game mechanics and horror? Yes, so let’s talk about jokes instead.
Recently, though I can’t remember where it was, I heard someone define jokes as a subversion of expectation. The joke sets us up to expect one thing, but then delivers something else in a humorous fashion. Good stories often do this as well; Casablanca sets the audience up to think Rick and Ilsa are going to send Victor on his way, but instead, Ilsa and Victor are sent on their way, and Rick and Louis walk off into the night, having resolved the conflict between them. Casablanca is a masterful example of subverting expectation.
So what does this have to do with horror games?
The slow, creeping terror we ascribe to survival horror games follows the same basic trajectory of a heist: tension rises slowly until the payoff, which, for horror games, is the revelation of whatever horror that’s been stalking us. Of course, most of us know what to expect; surety is the enemy of horror. In other words, to be a truly great horror experience, a game must walk the line between delivering a tense experience that culminates in some great payoff and subverting our expectations. If we know what’s going to happen, we’re not quite so scared.
In other words, a horror game has to give us what we want, but not in the way we expect, and that’s where combat comes in.
Betrayer is an unusual horror game; it’s almost entirely viewed in stark black and white visuals, set (at least in part; I’m not very far into the game) during the day. It’s also bucking the recent trend of being weaponless, as seen in games like Slender, Outlast, and, of course, Amnesia. It’s also one of the most frightening, tense experiences I’ve had the pleasure of playing.
Gamers have this really bad habit of seeing things in black and white; the automatic assumption is that the inclusion of weapons in a game means it goes from being a terror-driven experience to an action-driven one, and in a game like Dead Space or its sequels, this is absolutely true: the player always has plenty of ammunition at the ready, and the enemies, of which there are plenty, are generally easy to kill. Though the player is tense because of the series’ masterful art and sound design (seriously, I could write an entire essay on how Dead Space has some of the best sound in video games, and how Dead Space 3 kinda ruins that), not to mention the monster closets, the game ultimately conveys that the player can still fight back, even if the odds are stacked against them.
It’s actually one of the elements that made late-90s PC shooters like Half-Life or Unreal so much more interesting than the console shooters that followed them. Those games relied heavily upon stacking the odds against the players, then having the player overcome them, creating a wonderful climactic thrill for the players. Efforts to recapture the feel of old-school shooters often fail because they’re so focused on the mechanics and design that they miss out on the way those old games put their players through an emotional arc.
Of course, in a survival horror game, we don’t want players to feel thrilled, we want to take them through several episodes of tension and horror, tension and horror, tension and horror. The thrill is replaced by the rush from the horrific payoff.
Betrayer gives you a bow and arrow. It also gives you gunpowdery guns, or so I would assume, based on the fact that you can pick up charges for gunpowder weapons. You don’t have a lot of arrows, and against enemy conquistador monster men with metal armor that can shoot back, firing an arrow doesn’t guarantee a kill.
Earlier, I said surety was the enemy of horror. When you’re certain of an outcome, you’ve got no tension. All those elements mentioned above, the art, the sound, and the level design… they all work to promote uncertainty. For horror to work well, designers have to craft tension by keeping the players on their toes, constantly removing the player’s confidence in a possible outcome, and yeah, subverting their expectations.
For me, there is no real fear in Amnesia.
The game’s opening is just a bunch of jump scares, coupled with a pale imitation of the sanity meter seen in other, better games like Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (to be honest, Amnesia feels like someone had so much fun with DCOE that they simply decided to remake it without guns). Walk around, hear panicky sounds, and all that. The art/sound/level mix is all pretty basic horror stuff.
Then you face enemies. If you hear one, get away. It’s a very binary experience. You are either seen or you are not seen. If you are seen, you have to get away. The same is true for Betrayer, or System Shock 2, or Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, or any one of a huge number of great horror games. Except, well… they have weapons.
And, in my experience, they’re much more frightening.
Because horror games are such emotional experiences, so reliant on a player’s internal feelings, it’s hard to say that they’re inherently better or worse. You may experience fear differently than I; perhaps you don’t find them frightening at all.
But when I’m sitting in a windy field in Betrayer, confronted with some sort of demonic conquistador who charges me, I find myself panicked and confused. There’s no surety in this situation, no reasonable certainty of escape. With a weapon in my hands, instead of knowing I need to run, I pause, unsure whether I should fly or fight. Will my arrow hit? Will my arrow bounce off his armor? If I fire a gun, will his friends come running?
Penumbra is the only horror game I’ve given up out of fear. I personally believe Frictional did a better job with Penumbra than Amnesia, in part because, when I encountered those horrible, monstrous dogs, I had a way to fight back. I had some rocks. As it was, I perched, like a lunatic, on top of a boulder, tossing stones at the dogs. My panic increased as my supply of rocks dwindled, and when I ran out, I sat, paralyzed, knowing I had no more weapon. It wasn’t until later that the thought to flee occurred to me, and even then, my immediate response was “what if I couldn’t? What if I needed those rocks?”
Weapons rob me of expectation.
Uncertainty is what drives terror, and adding a weapon into the mix, as long as it’s done properly, can only manage to make the experience even more uncertain. Balance the experience differently—not poorly, but differently—and you’ll end up with players feeling too powerful for a survival horror experience, with the tension feeling more muted, the outcomes feeling less uncertain and surprising.
Our expectation of weapons in games is that they give us power, allowing us to overcome whatever we face, and yeah, due to conventional game design, which is built around a sort of anti-drama where we’re constantly faced with situations we resolve quickly, that’s generally what guns do. But… they don’t have to be like that. Guns, ultimately, are a mechanic, and take the expectation of what guns are and subvert it, just like the true greats of horror gaming have done.
Developers can create moments, like STALKER or Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where the gun seems to be burning through the players’ hands, where having a weapon leads to an internal player struggle of whether or not to use it. As in System Shock 2, developers can put players in situations where ammo can be too precious a resource to spend readily, ensuring that players worry about engaging in combat. Or, as with Betrayer, they can put players in a situation where things just might not work out.
Weapons are tools of terror, not for the monsters, but for those who wield them. Weapons bring that all-important “what if?” question to the table. Without weapons, all you’ve got is an experience where you’re supposed to flee. With them… things are so much more uncertain, and that’s the central element of any great horror experience. Weapons make you second-guess yourself, make you worry about managing your resources, make you a desperate gambler, unsure of the outcome.
Without weapons, horror’s just toothless creep, and, to me at least, that’s pretty boring.
originally posted over on my tumblr yesterday