Saturday, February 28, 2009

What Horror Games Can Learn from [Rec] and The Descent

The first time a game ever made my cry out in fear was System Shock 2. It was on the fourth deck of the Von Braun, ambushed by a pair of horrid mutated spiders leaping from the darkness. Of course, the spiders alone were just the catalyst; the horrifying atmosphere of the Von Braun has set the stage extremely well.

For similar reasons, the spiders in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic made that game more memorable for me that it had any right to be. Its spiders were unsettling to the point that I actually behaved irrationally when faced by them, doing everything I could to stay at range and using up many valuable resources to dispatch them as quickly as possible. But the most horrifying game (or rather, level therein) I've ever played didn't need to play on my distaste of arachnids. I'm going to discuss it later, but I'd encourage you to post in the comments what your scariest game/level was before going any further. I'm curious if there's any kind of consensus.

(If you've arrived via Gamasutra or GameCareerGuide, welcome! This post has a bit of a prologue, so you might want to read that first.)

I love horror games, movies and books. Only rarely do they genuinely inspire fear, but when they do, it's something I really admire and enjoy. It's disappointing that so few games can succeed in creating genuinely scary experiences. I'm going to discuss how I think many horror games look to horror movies for inspiration, only to emulate their shallowest tropes. In general I'm loathe to revisit comparing games and film yet again, but this is one of those cases where there actually are some valuable lessons to learn. We've just been looking at the wrong references.

When thinking about fear in media, most think of horror movies. Of course, most horror films are quite poor at actually being scary. Most of them are simply gory/gruesome and while I enjoy that, it's not scary and it's not really trying to be. I don't think anyone expects the Friday the 13th reboot to be scary any more than House of the Dead: Overkill. At best, these films will occasionally surprise the audience, causing them to jump with sudden appearances and noises. It's the proverbial "spring-loaded cat" and was already tired in the 80s. It's the media equivalent of hiding around a corner and jumping out with a "BOO!" when someone approaches. The response to that is usually being slugged in the shoulder, which is about how much audiences appreciate the media equivalent. (By sheer coincidence, Gamasutra put up an article yesterday about practically the same topic and its author calls out this cheap trick as well.)

There are some films that set the bar much higher, relying on atmosphere and pacing to create a growing sense of anxiety of dread and terror. Two recent films that did this very well for me and everyone I've watched them with are The Descent and [Rec]. The latter was recently remade in the US as Quarantine, but the original is *vastly* better. I don't think it's available as an NTSC DVD at all, but if you don't have a PAL player, just BitTorrent it and buy two of Jaume Balagueró's other movies and give one to a friend or something. I'm rarely one to suggest BitTorrenting movies, but there isn't really an alternative and it just is that good.

Both of these films succeed in being quite scary, but they do so in different ways. The Descent is an extremely intense film; it succeeds by creating an atmosphere where the characters are isolated, vulnerable and very much threatened. Once it starts, it does not let up. The latter is a bit more paced, but is underpinned by feelings of being isolated and trapped. The story is told via a reporter and her cameraman, so all the film is first person "footage," similar to Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. [Rec] uses this to create an experience that's extremely intimate, claustrophobic and tense.

What's strange is how unsuccessfully first person games have been (with one exception) at recreating a similar experience. Doom 3 is all cheap scares. The demons are Jason and Freddy, jumping out of shadows and howling. F.E.A.R. 2 is similar. The problem is that cheap scares are impossible to maintain. Eight hours of flickering lights grows tired

Third person horror games have been more sucessful, but usually still fall short. Resident Evil 1 and 4 (the strongest entries in the series) begin with solid atmosphere for the first few hours of play, but quickly fade into being chased by a giant statue of a midget Castilian Napoleon. It doesn't help that the plot and writing in the RE series are outrageously bad. Don't get the wrong idea, I love RE1 and 4, but they're not exemplary horror games.

Far better examples would be the Silent Hill and Fatal Frame series. Both of these rely heavily on making the player feel vulnerable and isolated. They're slowly-paced, cerebral horror, where confusion and weakness create tension and anxiety. The setting subtly encourages the player's imagination to fill in terrors lurking in the fog and in the darkness.

But the scariest single level of any game I've ever played was in Thief: Deadly Shadows. And if you've played it, you know exactly what I'm talking about. The Shalebridge Cradle is a level late in the game that, quite simply, does everything about horror right. The Thief series isn't specifically horrific, but it is dark, and some of the previous games had levels that were undoubtedly a bit scary. But nothing in the previous games or any other game I've ever played can touch how absolutely chilling the Shalebridge Cradle is. The setting (an abandoned asylum that also served as an orphanage) alone is creepy, but the sound design, lighting and everything else works in perfect harmony with the level. You explore the level at your own pace, slowly discovering the dark history behind the Cradle. By the time you finish the level, you feel like you've survived, not succeeded.

Kieron Gillen wrote an excellent article about the level, which I highly suggest reading if you've played Thief: Deadly Shadows. If you haven't, it's on Steam for only $20 and the experience of the Shalebridge Cradle alone is worth that.

Creating horror in games is simple- have the player interact with something they fear. The problem is, there's a lot of variability in what people fear. For some folks, like me, the tarantula in Deadly Creatures is enough to be unsettling. I've heard of others who, bothered by heights, barely play the Coruscant level of the original Dark Forces. Walking high above the city on narrow walkways without guardrails, the sound of wind roaring, under fire by enemies; even not being bothered by heights it's a little intense. It's also a testament to how important the player's imagination is, which we'll touch on later. Dark Forces was released 14 years ago on DOS with Doom era graphics. Yet I'd wager that even today that level could still provoke some real anxiety in acrophobics.

To create games with the broadest potential of evoking fear, they need to emphasize something most people fear. And until we can make "Public Speaking: The Game" fearsome, the broadest fear is death. But players die in games all the time and most of them aren't scary. Given the blasé attitude most games have toward death, is it possible to make fear of death genuinely scary in games?

Unfortunately, this post will again be ending on a cliffhanger. I was invited to participate in the IGDA Game Design SIG's new Game Design Aspect of the Month blog, so I'll be discussing the topic of player death and its implications in horror games there shortly. I'll post a link here as soon as it's up. I'm quite excited about this new project and greatly looking forward to seeing what kind of conversations the blog generates. Hope to see you all there.

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Blogger CrashTranslation said...

Though I've read Kieron's article several times I can't remember if he touches on this particular aspect or not, but a big part of why the Cradle succeeds I believe it because it makes the player almost powerless.

I think for a lot of people, especially those attracted to games, the fear of being powerless is much more emotive than the fear of in-game death.

The Cradle comes at a very late stage in the game, being in fact the penultimate individual level, and as such players who reach it will be well versed in their abilities and the skills required to succeed. Upon entering the Cradle almost all of those abilities and skills are nullified, there are few torches to dowse, few walls to climb and almost no locks to pick; the only one I can remember is at the far end of a bright and open dormitory which players will have long since learned is a dangerous place to be.

Later in the game your abilities are even further curtained to the point where nothing you’ve learn before is of any use.

It’s this stripping away of your powers, combined with the atmosphere of the Cradle itself that serves to make it such a pleasantly unpleasant experience. It’s not the fear of death that is the concern, but the fear that you might simply have no means of escaping, no power to change your fate.

Games rely on making you feel powerful and capable, Thief: Deadly Shadows allows that to occur and then at the perfect moment takes it all away.

The skill shown in the design and implementation of the Cradle is a big part of the reason I’m expecting some very interesting and potentially scary things from BioShock 2 as Jordan Thomas, who created the Cradle, is the Creative Director at 2K Marin.

March 1, 2009 at 8:22 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

You're absolutely right, sorry I didn't make that clearer. Of course, it's powerlessness while being threatened that's scary, yes? Being powerless in a safe situation isn't scary.

It seems like (although this does warrant more thought) that powerlessness does reduce to a fear of death or something death-like. Being powerless, being trapped is scary because you've lost the ability to exercise your will. Death (in general) is scary for the same reasons, but in games in takes on a different meaning. A meaning that's potentially antithetical to horror.

Hmmm ... what do you (and other readers) think?

March 2, 2009 at 9:27 AM  
Blogger n8 said...

Fantastic level! Thief doesn't get the high-marks it deserves sometimes.

And yeah, it's the disempowerment of the player hero that generates fear.

You've got 4 things from the bag-of-tricks that can be used to cause fear in games:

* Disempowerment. Limiting what the player can do.
* Fake-Outs. Messing with expectations. Establish a pattern then twist it. (like taking a safe area and unleashing hell into it).
* False Positives. Like the Fake-Out, but all indirect. Scary ambiance, stuff that's not really there.
* The Unknown. Like False Positives, but there's simply is no information on what "it" is. It's completely unknown, so no assurances or strategies can be made.

The problem I have with the game/movie industry is how they label things as Horror, when in reality it's Terror.

Terror is the immediate, confrontational fear of death. In games, this means combat. In contrast, Horror is what occurs between terror moments – typically, the "down time". Horror could be considers psychological terror. What grabs hold of your thoughts when reflex isn't guiding it?

Games featuring high-action heroes with an arsenal at their fingertips find it difficult to be truly horrific. Games typically create a different psychological envelope where the player is asked to quickly confront fear and overcome it.

Beyond these jack-in-the-box moments, Horror has a slow, unsettling fear that saturates the whole experience. To maintain these gnawing emotions, the hero needs to feel un-empowered – retreating before overcoming. Unfortunately, games naturally make the player feel empowered, with their larger-than-life persona.

Or, as I like to call it:

* Terror is the intense, reflex response during action – "fear of death"

* Horror is the subtle, reflective response during non-action – "fear of the unknown"

If you want a great game dev site on horror, check out:

March 4, 2009 at 8:21 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@n8 Thanks for the link, I'll check it out. And I definitely agree with the observation re: sudden, confrontational fear and pervasive, consistent feelings of weakness and vulnerability. It's a shame that even games intending to be "survival horror" fail to make this distinction.

March 4, 2009 at 10:24 AM  
Blogger Graham said...

Haha, that's definite; at the beginning of the article when you asked for us to come up with our own scary moments, I immediately thought of the Cradle. And also both System Shock games.. those damn monkeys!!

My personal feelings on this are that, while death is a powerful mechanism, death itself isn't actually frightening. It's an event, a punctuation. To me, what is really scary is the fear of death. The first half of a horror movie is almost always scarier than the second half -- once someone dies, the outcome is understood and you get to just watch it play out.

This is why I think Thief did such a good job: Because the player was so in control of the pacing in those games, whenever they felt the presence of death, they (at least I and my friend) would freeze in our tracks and breathe deeply of our impending doom. Movies try to emphasize this with the slow-reach-towards-the-doorknob scene (but then usually expend this 'horror energy' by putting a jack-in-the-box behind the door). In Thief you would just sit there, staring at the doorway that you knew you had to pass through, drowning in your own anxiety for as long as you dared. These moments are physically exhausting to me, and walking away from a game/movie/book with that stiff ache in my spine is what tells me that I was truly frightened by it.

Another game that you mention that I was also extremely frightened by was Fatal Frame. In that all the ghosts offer suggestions to their demise: This one fell in a well, this one was hung, this one was chopped in half. It acts as a powerful memento mori, and the player starts becoming suspicious of everything around them; the whole world starts feeling lethal. Again, the player becomes a pool of anxiety as they decide what step to take next.

Interestingly, the only time I ever died (as I recall) in that game was during boss fights, and boss fights were by far the least scary part of the game.

This isn't to say that things that cause anxiety are necessarily frightening, but I think that being truly horrified causes anxiety, both during and after.

March 7, 2009 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Graham I didn't enunciate it well, but you're definitely right in that it's the anxiety and tension that come with the threat of death. The actual death bit is just dénouement.

The largely player-derived pacing in Thief definitely is one of its strongest qualities. God, the tension when a guard nearly notices you and starts walking your way. Backing into the shadows as much as possible, you're literally holding your breath praying they won't notice.

If more games could replicate that kind of tension, I'd be quite elated.

March 7, 2009 at 7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fear of the unknown factors in here as well. It's a variation on the "powerless" fear. If we don't know what will come because we've been trained that anything could happen (nothing is safe or there are no patterns), we fear going forward and making choices.

Thing is, that's usually bad game design. In a medium that really banks on player control and interactivity (not movies, in other words), taking that control away needs to be done *very* carefully.

April 20, 2009 at 4:05 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Tesh You're absolutely right in that it's a delicate balance to strike. You don't want the players to feel completely powerless, and thus that continuing to play would be pointless.

One way to address this is to make the player feel more vulnerable than they really are. To creation situations where the player feels like they barely survived by fudging some rolls to their benefit.

I'm not sure if this is the right thing to do, because when that genie is out of the bottle it definitely does not go back in. But lots of really solid games (e.g. anything by Valve) do this and nobody really cries foul, so it might be viable.

It's definitely a hard problem though, perhaps one of the hardest in creating genuinely frightening games.

April 20, 2009 at 4:28 PM  
Blogger Alan Jack said...

Interestingly, I played this the very evening after I read this article.

Its not the best game in terms of gameplay, but what it tries to do in terms of horror gaming is a good example of the possibilities we have. Perhaps it might seem a tad "gimmicky" but creating a more pervasive sense of creeping horror by blending comforting and jarring surroundings works for games, especially now we have established standards of gaming environments.

April 24, 2009 at 3:42 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alan Thanks for the link. I got it a shot, but a twitchy platformer on a keyboard isn't exactly my idea of a good time. I was curious it started with a Lovecraft quote, but it didn't have me hooked by world 2. Should I have kept going?

April 28, 2009 at 8:40 AM  

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