Sunday, February 5, 2012

#5: Why Horror in RPGs Doesn't Work

Horror is a unique beast amongst entertainment genres like movies and especially games. Everything has to be perfected in order for it to succeed. The visuals have to be compelling while simultaneously disturbing the viewer. The audio has to be suitably creepy. Any slight disturbances in sound can throw the viewer out of the experience and remind him/her that he/she is safe in secure in their chosen venue. Without either of these properties, a horror movie cannot succeed. For horror games, there is an added element: the gameplay must convey the feeling of helplessness and danger while at the same time keep the player immersed in the experience. Two semi-recent RPGs attempted to add horror to their game in the form of downloadable content: Mass Effect 2 with Project Overlord and Fallout 3 with Point Lookout. These two experiences conveyed one thing to me: It is impossible for RPGs to be compelling horror games by their very nature.

Before explaining why, I feel compelled to explain the overall premises of the stories in these two pieces if downloadable content that I am referring to. Mass Effect 2 is a hard science space opera revolving around Commander Sheppard's struggle to save the galaxy. In the Project Overlord DLC, Sheppard lands on a planet where a rogue AI has taken over a base, after an experiment went horribly wrong, and threatens to expand even further. The commander then has to stop the AI before bad things happen. On the other hand, Fallout 3 takes place in the Capital Wasteland, a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. that exists two-hundred years after a global thermonuclear war between the United States and China. The player character has spent his formative years in an underground vault and, due to events out of his/her control, had to leave. Point Lookout takes the player character to Point Lookout, Maryland. The land is filled with radioactive swamps, mutated and inbred citizens out for blood, and loads of other spooks. Both DLCs seek to add horror elements to their respective games, but both fail for differing reasons.

The reasons that Project Overlord failed were the due to the player character and the setting of the DLC. As previously stated, the player takes control of Commander Sheppard, as he/she does throughout the main game. The problem with this is that Commander Sheppard, no matter what the player does or what paths the player chooses, is a badass who regularly murders thousands of evil, corrupt aliens or mercenaries on a semi-regular basis. This kind of character is extremely difficult to pull off horror with. A player will go through the DLC unafraid because he/she knows that Sheppard will be able to easily trounce whatever enemies that impede his/her progress. But even if the player was not playing as an awesome space marine, the setting also detracts from the feeling of horror. Throughout the DLC, the rogue AI takes control of computers and watches you as you proceed through the levels. He often yells at you through the screen with an unintelligible squeal. While this seems like it would be scary, I was never even remotely frightened by him. In fact, I grew irritated because the squeals were so much louder than any other sound in the game. All it made me do is turn down the volume so that I would stop hearing it over and over again. The minute that a big scary villain becomes annoying, scary ceases to be part of the equation.
Point Lookout has similar reasons as to why the horror did not work at all. To begin, odds are that the player will begin the DLC after they hit level 20 or so. This means that the player has accumulated tons of skill points and equipment at that point. Most enemies, at this level, will be felled quickly by a semi-competent player. By the time I played Point Lookout, I was equipped with indestructible power armor, a sword that is covered by gasoline and on fire, and several high-powered energy weapons. Even if the player came into the DLC with bad equipment, the enemies drop their own powerful weapons. The level-action rifle from the DLC might be one of the most powerful small guns in the game. It also takes cheap and plentiful 10mm ammo, so odds are the player will have thousands of rounds for the weapon. So if the player entered weak and under-leveled, they will be extremely strong by the end of it. Another way they break the horror is by making the world extremely open for exploration. The player is allowed to roam freely, giving them leave to retreat if they need to and look for items they can use. All of this ruins any feeling of powerless and inability the player might experience. Helplessness is the key to creating compelling horror. The games own systems are what prevent Point Lookout from being truly scary.

Horror requires a high degree of subtlety and skill to successfully pull it off. RPGs, by their very nature, undermine any kind of horror. The ability to develop and strengthen the player character gives the player a sense of safety, which is counter-intuitive to horror. To clarify, I would not recommend Project Overlord even as an enhancement to Mass Effect 2. While the plot behind it and the end choice are both interesting, the gameplay was sub-par and the DLC became extremely boring by the mid-point of it. On the other hand, while Point Lookout fails at being scary at all, yet it was still an excellent expansion of Fallout 3 and probably one of my favorites. It has an interesting plot, new and interesting equipment, and while the open-world does not make it scary, it is conducive to Fallout 3 gameplay and strengthens the experience. I would recommend it to any fans of the vanilla game.


anaphysik said...

Interestingly, I never viewed Overlord as Horror (was it billed as such?). Perhaps that helped my opinion of it.

I saw it more as Adventure - traipse around a lush world to several environmentally distinct locations (e.g., jungle (overworld area), ruins (Hermes/dish station), volcano (Vulcan/geothermal station), crypt (Prometheus/geth ship)) to unlock the path to the temple/'Belly of the Beast' (Atlas/final level) to make the final discovery.

(Of course, by far the best part of Overlord was the augmented reality section, and I'll admit that those scenes do seem evocative of horror tropes. To me, though, they're simply sci-fi in 'ghost' form.)

Oh, and you're definitely not alone in cranking down the volume! ;]

newdarkcloud said...

I don't really know what Overlord was billed as because I bought the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 that included all of the DLCs (sans Arrival, which was released later).

When I played through it and at the time of writing, it was invoking the horror tropes so much that I assumed that it was trying to scare me. I found this attempt to be extremely feeble and wrote this to try to figure out exactly why that was. The fact that it wasn't actually trying to scare me didn't even cross my mind until much later on. Now I can freely admit that this is easily one of the weakest articles I've written.

I really liked the big reveal using the augmented reality as well. It was very well done and really showcased the extent at which Cerberus is willing to destroy lives to further its goals. I also like it's resolution in ME2 and callback in ME3.

Lastly, seriously fuck whoever made his screaming that loud. I know why he did it, but it doesn't make it any less annoying.