Wednesday, October 10, 2012

#42: What is Needed to Evoke the Feeling of Horror?

Out of all the genres of video games, few a more fascinating than the survival horror genre. It is one of the few existing genres that has the express purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. Because of this, the genre has tougher standards and is more of an evolved and practiced science than others. There are tricks and tactics developers can ascribe to that are tested and true. With the release of Resident Evil 6, which was very poorly received by the gaming press and public, the subject of horror has once again become relevant. This week, I want to talk more about the genre. I will discuss what is, in my humble opinion, the best way to invoke horror and why you will rarely see new horror games outside of the indie scene.

One of the first factors that horror developers must keep in mind is the concept of atmosphere. The tone and layout of the environment is a very key factor in this. Horror relies on the player feeling like the environment is out to get them. They need to feel weak and oppressed and the world needs to reflect that. To invoke this feeling of helplessness, a developer can do many things. One of the easiest things they can do is limit the resources a player has access to. By giving players limited resources, developers force them to use those resources as efficiently as possible. When confronted by a group of monsters, the player would need to decide whether it would be more beneficial to engage them, take the risk and try to run past them, or retreat hoping to find more resources and/or find an alternate path. Making a player decide this on the spot creates suspense and tension, creating an oppressive atmosphere conducive to the feeling of horror. Another strategy for building a scary atmosphere is to use unsettling set pieces to creep out the player. Now, when I say set pieces, I am NOT referring to the explosion-filled, Micheal Bay- like linear levels in a Call of Duty game. Instead, I am referring to the self-contained stories told via the environment similar to those common in Bethesda games. Using the environment to tell small stories regarding the people in an area is a powerful narrative tool, especially in a horror game. When it comes to scaring the player, their own mind is the most effective tool a developer can use against them. Knowing this crucial piece of information, a designer can implant details into a room and maybe include a note or audio file or two to draw a scene in the player's head. While the designer will be able to create the general idea, the actual image will be generated by the player's mind, which means that it will be custom tailored to frighten them. This further creates an unsettling and frightening atmosphere for the game.

Keeping with the idea of using making the player draft up details in their head, horror is often best achieved by showing as little as possible. Obfuscation is a very valid method for supporting the idea of horror in a video game. Many of the most successful horror games have worked well because they embraced their technical limitations and kept many details obscure. The most well-known example of this would be Silent Hill 2. Due to the limitations of the original Playstation system, Silent Hill 2 was not able to draw all the details of an area on screen at one time. In order to compensate, they blanketed the area just outside their draw limit with a dense fog that kept it out of view. This, combined with the unsettling atmosphere, had the beneficial side-effect of letting the players use their imaginations when traveling through the titular Silent Hill and added to the tension of what was going on in the game. The other way a designer can force the player to use their imagination is through keeping a minimalist mindset when designing the game. We humans are used to living in densely populated areas for the most part. Thus, we feel naturally freaked out when we see areas devoid of life. When a designer deliberately places few, spaced out lifeforms (friend OR foe) in an area, it invokes the Uncanny Valley effect. Seeing a familiar urban setting without the familiar urban population is close to what we are used to, but not quite close enough that we feel comfortable. This also calls forth a feeling of isolation. One man/woman, alone against overwhelming odds with barely any ability to fight back is inherently terrifying. A good example of this is in the free indie title, Slender. Though like any horror game, its effectiveness depends on the person playing, the developer of Slender was highly proficient at using few details in order to terrify the player. Trapped in a small, enclosed, wooded area with exactly one for, the Slenderman, players have no way to fight back and no one to support them. This is about as bare-bones as a horror game can be and, when it works, it works to great effect. When my friends and I played the game, one of them had to leave the room and go take a walk outside after playing in order to calm himself down. Another jumped the moment I moved the chair a few inches. This limited, but precise use of details and obfuscation was highly effective, yet it is also the reason AAA developers have such a hard time capturing the essence of horror. Games like Dead Space and the newer Resident Evil games are funded with multimillion dollar budgets and top of the line technology. Because there are few limits, they make highly detailed models for all of their monsters. With foes that well-rendered, it is far more tempting to throw them all into the limelight and force players to look at them than it is to keep them in the dark and let the players keep their imaginations and sense of tension active. This makes it hard for them to truly frighten the player beyond mere jump scares.

However, despite all of this, it is important to do one last thing when building horror games, and it is something that is critical to the art of fear. For prolonged, enduring play sessions, which many gamers can be prone to at times, being tense and on edge the entire time can be incredible taxing in a mental sense. In order to avoid depleting the player's mental stamina, it is important to give them well planned and spaced-out areas of safety where they can take a breath and relax. This gives them time to rejuvenate themselves, manage their inventory, and plan out their next move without the overbearing weight of an oppressive atmosphere. Generally speaking, these are also places where the designer would offer the player the option to save their game. While allowing players a chance to relax is a good thing, rooms like these, where the player does not have to worry about confrontation, serve a duel purpose: They serve as a contrast from the oppressive atmosphere. If a player experiences nothing but horrors and nightmares, they will slowly build up a tolerance to them. When developers have these periods of rest, they expose the player to a different stimuli and vary the atmosphere a little bit. It serves to remind the player that there is an opposite to being under constant threat, which in turn makes the threat that much more terrifying. Done well, these areas can serve to make the player scared to leave them. The player will know that they are in a safe haven, but leaving will place them in a hostile environment again. This leads to some players procrastinating and waiting as long as possible to exit. While some designers may see this reluctance to move on as a sign of failure, the opposite is true for a horror game. If a player is too scared to leave a safe haven, then the developer knows he/she did their job properly. This contrast between the safety of an area of respite and the danger of the rest of the game is a strong asset that ought not be taken lightly.

Horror is a very fickle beast. It requires immense effort to uphold and maintain throughout an entire experience. Even when it is done well, it is all up to the individual players and their mindsets to be truly effective experiences and will rarely yield similar returns to that of a shooter with an equivalent budget and attention to detail. All of the factors that determine the likelihood of AAA doing it and getting it right work against it. When designing games that are designed to invoke fear, developers need to be extremely careful and use deliberate, well-thought out strategies for keeping players engrossed in the atmosphere of their game. This is easier said than done and is the main reason why many of the well-known titans of the genre, like Dead Space and Resident Evil, have begun to shift from horror to action. Even thought this is the case, fans of the genre should not lament it too much. Humanity will always have a place for horror in its heart and people will always be there to try to satisfy that demand. Given that many old genres like isometric RPGs have been seeing a resurgence of late, it is not implausible that even should the horror genre fade (which is highly unlikely), it too will return in due time.

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