Monday, February 15, 2010

We Will Never Save the World

I talked about Palahniuk's Haunted last week, but I wanted to make a more general observation about horror themes now. This occurred to me thinking about Haunted and Palahniuk's comments during book tours promoting the book. The book consists primarily of poems and short stories with a meta-narrative situated on top. Palahniuk says that all the stories in the book are inspired by anecdotes told to him. Reading how gruesome and bizarre the stories are, this seems outlandish. Reading it, I was a bit incredulous about this. Except when a reached a story late in the book and realized I am personally familiar with one of these anecdotes.

The story told about the character Baroness Frostbite involves a man perishing after falling into a natural hot spring. I grew up in Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone National Park. In Yellowstone, several people have died after accidentally falling into a hot spring or jumping in to save a pet. Over 250 people have lost their lives in Yellowstone, with author Lee Whittlesey documenting many in his book Death in Yellowstone.

It was unsettling reading that story in Haunted. Unsettling because it was so familiar and so real. And doubly so thinking about the implications of all the stories being based on similarly true anecdotes. It made me think about horror in general and why a good horror story is so intriguing.

When done right, horror is personal.
We all feel afraid sometimes. We all feel vulnerable. Loss will be a part of all of our lives. These are universal emotions and part of the human experience.

So this is where it comes back to games. A great many games have epic stories about saving the princess/country/world/galaxy. The scope is grandiose; the stakes could not be higher. It's interesting, but it's also fundamentally unreal. These actions, these decisions will never reflect decisions we make in our lives in anything but the most distant, abstract way.

I've been playing Mass Effect with Mass Effect 2 on deck (well, right now I'm technically taking a Bioshock 2 interlude) and while I'm definitely enjoying the game quite a lot, it's not ultimately relatable. The decisions Shepard makes will literally affect billions. The consequences are usually clear and the decisions are made in a moment.

Again, it's interesting and I enjoy it, but it really is escapist. It asks us to consider what it would be like if someone could make decisions of that magnitude and act on such a grand scale. And it's interesting because it's something none of us will ever experience. But it's a "What if?" of massive proportions.

The film Paranormal Activity violated the safe, comfortable space where we are most vulnerable. It did so extremely slowly and with great restraint, something games rarely do.
The worst thing horror can do is put a concrete image to what disturbs us and expect that to be sufficient. Dead Space is gruesome, but the flesh chimeras can only remain unsettling for so long. Doom 3 can startle you, but it's really just closets full of spring-loaded cats on loan from every 80s B horror movie.

A game like Penumbra that all but insists on you hiding out of sight in extreme darkness makes you feel extremely vulnerable. The ultimate reveal is not that unsettling. But the anticipation, the moment where you crouch hiding, hearing whatever is it breathing and slowly padding by is merciless. Similarly, The Many in System Shock 2 terrify as they beg you to kill them. Losing who you are, either literally to mental sickness or more figuratively, is universally horrifying. Being unable to save the person you care about most is the terrible heart of Silent Hill 2 and nothing I could imagine in my life is more unsettling.

So many games that try at horror imitate the trappings, but neglect the essence. Horror is about being personal. It's about being real. While fictitious, horror is more honest and more relatable than any save the world epic. Palahniuk's Haunted works because it holds up a lens and asks us to stare at what we don't want to see. I'd give anything for more games to hand us a controller or a keyboard and ask us to do to what we don't want to do.

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Blogger Jason T said...

I have thought about this kind of thing often, and it's a big reason why I'm looking forward to Heavy Rain so much.

I think that the people at Bioware must be thinking about it too, to some extent, given the direction that they went with in Mass Effect 2. Without giving anything away, really, the whole "save the galaxy" story takes a back seat in the sequel. It's there, but really only the focal point for a few missions, kind of like how saving the world from the apocalypse is only the focus for a few episodes in any given season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: They mention the threat, it's in the back of our minds, but the real focus of any given episode is dealing with major personal issues. This is what Mass Effect 2 is, with the pretext that everyone on your squad needs to trust you and feel at peace with their lives if you're going to be in top form to save the galaxy in the end.

The end result is a game in which the most tense moments involve talking your friends out of doing something they might regret, or dealing with people who don't trust you. I actually kind of appreciate the shift in scope. There was some of that in Mass Effect 1, but it was much more on the periphery, in side missions that felt strangely irrelevant. Some players are angry that this is now the front-and-center focus, which I suppose I can understand. How should you feel when your favorite action series starts looking more like a drama? I guess it works out better if you like drama to begin with.

February 15, 2010 at 6:50 AM  
Blogger chakannaggats said...

To echo what Jason T wrote, Mass Effect 2 takes a different direction with the decision-making. Most of the game's conflicts are extremely personal.

February 15, 2010 at 7:36 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Jason T, Jared Very interesting to hear. As mentioned, I haven't made my way to Mass Effect 2 yet, but I've been enjoying the first one a lot. It's the interactions with other characters that I've always found the most engaging in RPGs, so it's very good to hear ME2 put that front and centre even though it's supposedly more shoot-y as well. Definitely looking forward to checking that out.

February 15, 2010 at 8:58 PM  

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