Now before I begin, if you're interested in this topic, please check out Extra Credits [link]
, as they go much more in-depth in this topic.
Anyways, to help lead into my Singularity/Bioshock review I want to talk about horror in games.
To start off with, I want to talk a little about what is commonly seen as the two types of horror these days: physical and psychological. I could go into a lot of detail about the actual differences between them, but I found a better way to say it.
The physical horror is the actual scare, the confronting of the manifestation of the horror. In this part, you're thrust into fight-or-flight. This is where the "jump scares" and horrific monsters often fall.
The psychological is the build up, and deals with tension over reaction. This is where atmosphere, soundtrack, and the strength of your character come into play. There's a bit more about this too that I'll discuss in a moment, but for now let's move on.
One thing to note about the two, is that they both work hand and hand. If the physical fails to scare (such as enemies being weak and easily dispatched), the psychological will be somewhat weakened. If you fail to set the mood right as well, the actual confrontation can be ruined (most absurd example: Play the Benny Hill song, Yakety Sax, at anything and it will be funny, even if it is a horribly dark scene). This is why zombie games aren't often that scary, as the scene is set to make things action oriented. It's also why a scene played again (where you know what to do) is suddenly less scary).
Now, I want to go back a bit to the psychological aspect here. If it was just about tension, then horror games would be no different than action games. What makes it different is a few extra things that go along with that tension, and they all come from your mind. Let's run through them.1.
Recognition. All horror games are going to use something you recognize to mess with you. Sometimes, this is done by slightly altering a familiar setting or shape (like a person). This is the reason why Lovecraft will never really be replicated in games, as his books focused too much on the unknown. But slight variations are not the only things recognition does. Let's look at a few things here.
-Weapons. There are certain weapons that will scare the crap out of you (at least initially). To name two that work really well: A machete and a tire iron. Now, before you start to object, remember that this is before the physical horror has you realize that the enemies wielding these do little damage. However, before that happens, or if you're playing a more realisitic game, these weapons are terrifying. Why? They are brutal, bloody, and still very effective. They're also much more real to people (this is why say a samurai sword or a police baton will not scare as much, despite being more effective tools), both in appearance and in familiarity. They're simple in design, have a recognizable feel, and seem like they could reasonably be used to attack you. Other weapons like this include bats, axes, hammers, and makeshift knives.
But then you have the absolute best of scary weapons, ones that you instantly fear by nature. These include needles, drills, teeth, and, of course, the king of scares: the chainsaw. Needles are understandable due to this sort of paranoia that most people have (more on that later), teeth due to both the unnaturalness of them (they're a hard part of the body, which knowingly or not, you probably consider soft) and the effectiveness of them, drills due to their shape (more later), their sound (more later), and their movement, but chainsaws have a bit more to them.
A chainsaw is fearful because it walks the line between known and unknown. Think about it, it's an inanimate object that moves, it cuts despite looking blunt, and it produces a unique sound both familiar and unknown. Now, one of the things about it is that chainsaws depend on sound to really scare you. Older games used them, but they were often less scary than circular saws. However, once that unmistakable rev and running noise were added, that noise became synonymous with fear. It started to associate itself with the physical fear of death as the weapon quickly became the insta-kill weapon. It soon became that no matter who your character was, the chainsaw was their worst enemy. Combine this with the fact that the weapon was a common tool, and it became an instantly recognizable symbol, evoking tension at the sound, and fear at the sight.
-Shape(Look, this deals a lot with the subconcious. It's sort of like how colors have different effects on people. It's going to sound weird, but try thinking it out). I mentioned above about drills, so I think I'll continue with that example. The drill has two basic shapes when broken down: a circle and a triangle. Now a circle isn't THAT scary, but it is unnatural. It has no sides, and it's a mysterious phenomena that occurs almost everywhere (take a moment to look around you, and I guarantee you'll find it in a few moments. It evokes this sense of familiarity right away, which is why when combined with a triangle, it's so fearful.
Here's another exercise, think about things you might fear, and notice how many of them have a point. That might seem like a stretch, or that I've broken things down too far, so let's go back to the triangle itself. In games, triangles have been used to reference things you should stay the hell away from for awhile. Spikes, blades, enemies, a certain man in an oversized helmet. Sure it doesn't seem like much, but triangles soon became known more for their pointed nature. It indicates piercing.
Going back to the drill, or even a spike, the base of the shape (the cone) is a circle, a familiar shape with no points at all. This is something that is safe to be around. Add a triangle as the third dimension, and you produce something with a single point, yet has a round surface. It's rather jarring, which makes that point seem all the more dangerous. Spinning or not, the drill's tip is uncomfortable to face.
Now this is just going into a single object, but think a lot about the scariest aspects of games, and you'll find that the more complex objects tend to be a lot less scary (even if a gun is a dangerous weapon, there's almost always too much going on).
-Danger. Here's one that's actually really easy to realize what's going on. While this may seem to be more physical, this deals more with the concept of how dangerous a situation will be rather the danger itself. This part is about recognizing disadvantages in actions and weighing options. Let's look at a few examples of either parts or the entire settings where danger recognition kicks in.
:Water. No matter the game, you will probably have hydrophobia. Why? It's hard to move in water, once in you are committed to the journey, there's no telling what's in there, and it's not an environment you were made to be in. This is why I had to work up the courage to face the eel Colossus, where all of the above applied, but I was just a bit put off to play the Atlantis level of KH (movement was different and slightly hindering, but not that bad).
: Dark. This is the most simple: there could be something there I can't see. Even if a game never attacks you in the dark, you will be on edge the entire time due to a disadvantage.
: Light. This only applies for when you are hiding, and like dark is easy to explain: you are easy to see. Now, you can also point out this as a reason why you don't like turning on your flashlight, as it makes you more easy to spot.
: Fire. I'll bet no matter who you are, you've been burned at one point. Fire is dangerous, simple as that. You don't naturally want to run into the burning building.
: Blood. It's a sign that it's not safe, and is better than cracked walls and floors at conveying this.
: Mist. If it's thick, its visibility that's a problem. Thin or low hanging, it's the unnatural nature.
: Tight spaces. Once again, it's just due to the disadvantage of being trapped
: Silence. One of the most important of all, and one thing several horror games don't get. Yes a soundtrack or environmental sounds (talking about constant stuff here) can be creepy, but it gives us noise, which is something we're accustomed to having around us constantly. When suddenly the only thing we hear is our breathing and the sound of our footsteps, we know we are alone and in a strange place. Then you also have the fact that your noise feels louder as well in this situation.
-Appearance. This one's strange. To begin out, everyone here knows about Rorschach and his blobs, right (google's that-a way if you don't)? If you try to make a formless creature, people will find a form eventually, and you have no control over how scary it really is. However, give an overall appearance, but add or omit anything and you'll get what you want. Simplest example here would be a Swat team member or a robber who wears a mask, turning him into faceless gunman. What this basically boils down to is forcing an association in an incomplete way, where a basic concept is established, but leave enough unknown to feel unnatural.
-Names. Gonna wrap this up, because I feel I've gone further into this than I wanted to. Names are insanely important, and it's a reason why some things are so scary. Two examples of this from the same universe: Resident Evil and zombies. The first is the title of the game, and properly sets a rather horrific mood. Both parts of it are rather dark sounding words when placed together, and make it so that you're started out right (I almost guarantee that F.E.A.R. wouldn't be nearly as scary if it had a different name on the box).
Zombie on the other hand sounds strange. It was a word that fit its original owner (revived corpses that probably had a whole lot of markings on them, but looked normal save for white eyes. It went along with the Voodoo magic quite well), but it doesn't really fit the new owner (walking decayed corpses) who's crying out for a less "magical" term. It makes the enemies less creepy. This is also why you'll hear "Walker," "Them," "Infected," and "Undead" more often. It is not because the characters are trying to avoid the Z word on principle that "This isn't a movie!" but rather due to the fact that it isn't scary.2.
Realization. Oh man, that first one went on way too long. Anyways, Realization is about Fridge Horror, as TvTropes calls it. Here is where thinking about the horror starts to work on you. Now, for it to work, you've got to start thinking about the topic.
Does this really work? Well, Marble Hornets got a second season (this is the horror it uses most often), so yeah. Though let's go into a few example of it in action.
A nonhorror example here will be from Metal Gear Solid 4. Towards the end, you are tasked with going through a chamber full of microwaves. For those who think microwaves are just like a heat lamp, this isn't THAT bad. For those who know what that would actually do to a human body, especially one that's only moving due to a muscle suit, it's extremely hard to watch.
For a horror example, let's go to Left 4 Dead. To understand what I'm about to say, it's crucial that you understand the reason the enemies are called "Infected." You see they've got something called "Green Flu." What is this? It's a form of rabies mistaken as a flu.
Some of you may already know what this means, but for the rest of you, allow me to show you to Wikipedia [link]
Yes, that slavering horde of monsters is actually a group of people that are delirious, BUT STILL CONSCIOUS
. It's unknown if they know what they're doing or if they can't even tell what you are. To drive all this home, given what rabies is like now, it's more than likely you will be Infected. You'll slowly lose your mind and suffer from all those symptoms, which will just make you more aggravated. Maybe you'll know who it is you're attacking, or maybe you'll just be too angry to care. And unlike zombies, you'll still be there, but only barely.
Suddenly the world seems a lot different than just 4 survivors wise cracking through hordes of mindless monsters, doesn't it?
So you see, this is the terrifying stuff that you go out of your way to find, only to scare you.3.
Paranoia. The last part of all this is taking everything else, the environment, the stuff you recognize, and the stuff you found out, and using it to keep you completely on edge. This is where you start imagining scares, and wind yourself up in an attempt to make the physical scares, the closest thing you have to a manifestation to all this, less scary, which often backfires.
The last thing I want to talk about here is the unknown, and it's effects on horror. A lot of people seem to think that the only way something is scary is if it's mysterious and unexplained. I feel this is more of an added part of psychological horror that focuses on eliminating the often weaker physical. In other words, this is only one way to go about scaring. I also feel it's a rather bad idea to try to neglect the physical scare in favor of the psychological just because it works more often. After all you can have points using physical scares to create psychological. For example:
1. Invincible, stalking enemies. These are enemies that you know are chasing you, and that you cannot fight. While Pyramid Head will probably forever be the posterboy here, take the Dhaka, the most interesting part of PoP Warrior Within, or the SA-X, who is easily the most frightening enemy in the Metroid series. One thing that made them different than all other enemies that sought me out in games (and invincible enemies in general) is that they all moved with a purpose that I could only guess at, and that they all had this air of confidence that shattered yours instantly. They made their own atmosphere, and when you encountered them, flight was always the choice you went for.
2. The Pre-scare. When the enemy either starts noticeably following you, shows off how tough it is on one of your friends, or just looks tough enough to start working your nerves
3. Creepy as hell. Maybe it's how they move, or their choice of words, or the fact that you are sure you just saw spider legs, but the enemy creeps you out
4. Trap you. This has been done a lot in the wrong way. Don't just drop me in a hole with enemies. Get creative. Take the Limbo Spider as an example.
Anyways, the point is that horror is about both elements, and you shouldn't neglect either of them. Lastly, just because you weren't startled, doesn't mean you weren't scared. Quit pretending to be tough and realize that it's a natural response to be afraid and tense up, but enjoy it as there's no danger in this medium (this message brought to you by a roommate who believes there is no horror in games, and is wrong about it).
Next up to review:
Pokemon Soul Silver
Night Angel Trilogy
Rogue Galaxy (Delayed)
Kingdom Hearts series
Death Gate Cycle
Dragon Age: Origins
Ace Attorney series
Avatar Last Airbender (TV)