Fear effect: scaring people with video games
It’s great to replay games that had a lasting impression on you from time to time. Just recently I have been revisiting an old favourite that showed me the pure fun a good survival horror romp can bring. It’s a little game by the name of Dead Space , which not only reinvigorated a stagnating genre, but shaped the identity of its developer, Visceral Games, and provided a solid grounding for a triple A horror series that would go on to sell in huge numbers.
Whilst blasting the limbs from nightmarish necromorphs on board the USG Ishimura, a thought occurred to me. Apart from the standard “Oh God!”, “What the hell is that!?”, “Please! OH PLEASE NO!” dialog that usually rattles about in my mind whilst playing Dead Space, I wondered what it was exactly that made the game so ball-numbingly terrifying. The obvious answer is that it pits you against a horde of space zombies whom you must single-handedly chop to pieces with a weapon not much better than a bread knife, but there is another reason. It’s down to the environment that the game places you in.
I’ve said it before, but games have a unique property that makes them an excellent medium for storytelling – they can actually make you feel as though you’re there inside the experience. This is an incredibly useful mechanic for someone wishing to tell a horror story. Where films and books set the pace in which horrific events are introduced, video games almost feel as if they’re waiting for the player to initiate the scares themselves. This makes the experience feel less passive and far more personal. In games like The Walking Dead, we grow to care about the characters and actually feel responsible for what happens to them. A ditsy protagonist drifting into a darkened hall on their own when a killer is on the loose may seem unlikely in a movie, but when you’re walking down a deserted maintenance passage on the Ishimura of your own volition it suddenly feels far less ridiculous.
However, even though Dead Space’s environment is very unsettling, it still suffers a little from repetition. Sure, a necromorph jumping out of the darkness before running screaming towards you is bound to scare you at first, but at the end of a ten hour story the effect is slightly lost. This was also a complaint I had whilst reviewing Alan Wake. Even though the enemies are far tamer in comparison, Alan Wake does actually have a suitably unsettling environment that is let down by continuous reuse of the same ideas. With a horror story, the best way to scare someone is to leave as much as possible down to anticipation. The longer the intervals between shocking events, the scarier the actual events are. This is because more tension is built that throws the player out of sync, making it impossible to read the tell-tale signs that something scary is about to happen.
A game I played recently that achieved this near impossible feat of leaving the player to their own devices is Dear Esther. Even though it wasn’t specifically intended to be a horror story, I found the time spent wandering the Hebridean island to be immensely creepy. So much time seemed to pass between dialog passages with no other sound but the roar of the sea that even a seagull landing innocently at my feet would have caused me to have a spate of heart palpitations. As it happens, the brief glimpses I got of distant figures watching on hilltops were more than enough to give me a serious case of the willies. They were suggestions of shapes rather than blatant apparitions, making me wonder whether they were ever actually there to begin with instead of bashing me over the head with their presence. It worked – much like Fatal Frame did before it – because the game has its own living, breathing world where scares at least seem to be happening dynamically.
If we’re going to talk about game environments though, we should really talk about the gameplay mechanics that accompany them. The art of a good survival horror – as everyone knows – is in the weapons you’re given to dispatch your enemies. Typically, they will seem vastly underpowered in comparison to an average action game like Uncharted 3. You won’t be bumping off hundreds of baddies in a chapter like Nathan Drake. Why do that when it’s far more fun – and scary – to use nothing but a cheese grater and an awkward over the shoulder viewpoint? Games like Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill understood this perfectly, laying the foundations for the survival horror genre with their ineffectual combat techniques. Capcom’s new direction with Resident Evil 6 is so poor at scaring gamers precisely because it makes killing zombies too easy. It tries to increase the scale of the action, but it ends up having the atmosphere and tension of a Michael Bay movie, gifting players with ample supplies of ammo and letting them face their attackers in open well lit spaces. For the horror to succeed, the action must be far more claustrophobic and the bullets in far shorter supply.
Of course, you could go in the other direction and just not give the player any weapons at all. This approach made Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s unique brand of psychological trauma seem all the more tortuous, forcing the player to latch on to light sources and avoid enemies with increased desperation. It also benefited the recent indie hit Slender, making the player feel incredibly helpless against the well-dressed stalker in the woods who popped up at inopportune moments. Both of these games are remarkably simple in their execution, and yet they evoke an almost primal sense of fear. This “less is more” approach is a lesson that developers like Capcom should take to heart, or rather remember how to do.
I’m not trying to write the rulebook for a good horror game here. There are far too many approaches that a developer could take to achieve the same goal of terrifying the gamer. What does and doesn’t scare us is a very personal thing, after all. We all have our own phobias and hang ups, but there are some methods that have been proven to work across the board. The most important of these is the environment that the game is set in. It should make us feel claustrophobic and alone, and it should always be populated with imaginative enemies straight out of our worst nightmares. In order for these monsters to appear at their best, the frequency of their appearances should be limited to fuel the player’s imagination and increase anticipation. And finally, we shouldn’t be allowed much to kill them with. Because, as we all know, the best way to scare someone is to make them feel helpless.