So our Games and Horror event was delayed by a month but we finally met up last week to discuss the whats, whys and hows of horror. It’s especially interesting how the notion of horror and interactivity are sometimes at odds but can strengthen one another. And the players’ agency can also provide access to a feeling of horror impossible in other media. Read on to find out how.
At first we need to figure out what horror actually means.
Photo by demontroll
We came to the conclusion that horror is all about fear, uncertainty. Horror fiction, games, movies always attempt to establish a prevasive atmosphere of fear. There’s a decided lack of safety, the protagonists are almost constantly in danger, and even the short moments to catch their breath are often interrupted dramatically.
But there’s also a neccessary lack of certainty, even in these grim situations: There is always hope of turning things around, of somehow surviving, or at least reaching one’s goals, even if that means dying heroically.
If the grim outcome is completely certain instead then it turns into tragedy as there’s no fear of the unknown anymore. It’s all about coming to terms with the outcome instead.
However horror is a very difficult label as it is often used very differently: Horror can be used to describe a work of fiction that evokes the above mentioned themes, atmosphere and emotional goals. However the term is also often used for something that only makes use of the tropes and aesthetics of horror, without the deeper emotional goals.
An example are shock effects and zombies. Both are staples of horror fiction but to believe that everything that features zombies or surprising moments automatically becomes horror as defined above is a bit far fetched.
That settled, the question is, why do we submit ourselves to horror fiction in the first place? The feelings caused are certainly unpleasant: unease, digust, fear… We had a few theories:
Firstly horror movies allow us to conquer our fears. At least if the ending is positive, we can do so within the story, overcoming the monster. But the same is true outside the fiction: By mastering our own fear during the experience we can show that we are daring and strong. This of course also has social relevance, as it let’s us demonstrate these qualities to others without actually placing ourselves in danger.
Photo by Katie E. Holland
In well done horror fiction the ending is also usually a very powerful. After building up tension all throughout the movie the final release is very cathartic and can be very emotionally rewarding.
Of course there’s the rollercoaster effect: the simple biochemical reactions caused by fear are a reason to seek out similar experiences.
Lastly we can make extreme experiences and ask uneasy questions in a safe environment. This way we can learn more about ourselves, how we would react in similar situations etc.
Since games have a few specific properties that differentiate them from film it’s worth looking at these and seeing what repercussions they have for horror fiction.
The feeling of fear is a very fragile experience, easily destroyed by something unfitting intruding. This often happens in pen and paper role-playing horror games: As soon as one player laughs or makes a joke the atmosphere is usually gone and it’s very difficult to bring it back. For this reason the presentation of horror games usually has to be very well-crafted and consistent. Especially considering the fact that horror games usually have to uphold their sense of dread for a much longer time than movies.
This atmosphere also needs to be in tune in presentation and game mechanics. If they are in conflict it’s usually at the cost of the horror atmosphere. Most games are strongly empowering to the player and this power is in direct contrast to a feeling of unease and fear. This is clearly visibile in sandbox games, where the entire city is the playground of the character. There is a playful interaction with the world but no hint of existential fear manifests itself.
Most horror games instead go the other route, making the player vulnerable. This aligns the narrative threat with the gameplay threat. Usually this is done by having the player survive very little in terms of attacks. This makes every encounter with an enemy a lot more tense. Additionally resources are usually very scarce meaning that whatever power the player has is often only temporary.
Sometimes even the safe/load function is a limited resource. Since saving and loading allows you to restore a specific situation at no cost, it provides a flawless safety line and that can remove all tension. This limitation be seen in the early Resident Evil games where the player had to use an actual ingame item in a specific location to save. This is terribly uncomfortable, as one can not leave the game at any point. Another version is the often called ironman mode, where one can save unrestricted but can only load until that character has died. Modern roguelikes often use that. Another option, which I have not yet seen would be, to have a lighter limit on savegames but to also limit the number of times one can load from a game.
Using this lethality to create fear in game however brings one central problem with it: The balancing becomes very delicated. High lethality obviously makes the game harder, as failure is punished harshly. Having to repeat the same section multiple times reveals the game underneath it all, shattering tension and replacing it with frustration. A player-selected difficulty level can help with this, providing the appropriate level of danger for each player.
This entire issue of disempowerment begs the question: Is this the only way to create tension in games? Our idea was to focus on the interactivity. In movies or books I can only be afraid based on the actions and presentation of the characters. In a game though the player can be horrified by his own actions, becoming the monster. We have hardly seen a game trying to do this because it creates a very uneasy feeling in the player.
The first idea is to empower the player, giving them agency in the small areas but taking away their impact on the larger scale. This works well with cosmic horror where the scale is often beyond the scope of a human life. Here the gameplay provides the player with lots of things to do, whlie the horror still builds. Often though this is only used in a twist at the end, avoiding the feeling of horror during the game.
An example that comes to mind is the excellent Spec Ops: The Line. It’s not a horror game but it is strongly influenced. Here the player is an special operations soldier who as to make decisions within the game. Some of these decisions are, after the fact, shown to be terrible ones, leading to the loss of innocent lives. Then at the end of the game all your actions are again questioned in a way that accuses the player itself in being complicit to the murder.
Our second idea was to build a sort of internal, pyschological horror. The fiction is not about an outside force but deals with an internal struggle. The player is empowered and can affect his surroundings but the question is: should he. How far would they go for their objective. There could be a tension between the ingame goals and abilities and the player’s willingness to actually execute on them. Here the player would be the protagonist and the monster at the same time, but not through retroactive revelations. So far we had no example for a game like this.
So that’s our thoughts on the matter. We are convinced that there’s other ways to create fear without stripping the player of agency. What are your ideas?
So after the look at the different ways in which the classic hardware interface dissolves, let’s peek at what makes game interfaces work.
Games and Handicaps
An often mentioned part of games is that within a game we submit ourselves to rules that make reaching the goal harder. Like we may only hit the ball with the foot for example. It’s not efficient, but it’s what makes games fun.
These rules of course also always define the interface. In this case the foot, or the club in golf for example. And one thing that can be clearly seen in these cases: The interface is a big part of this inefficiency. It doesn’t help in making things easier for the user. Quite the opposite.
Considering that the goal of many interface designers is usability this seems terribly counterintuitive, doesn’t it?
A Conflict of Interest
So assuming that a good interface makes the users job as easy as possible while a good game make the players’ job harder, then that leaves us with a conflict of interest of sorts.
If the interface is too efficient, it can destroy the gameplay. Simply carrying the golf ball into the hole would simply kill the game. If the interface is too inefficient then there is no challenge. The experience would be disappointing.
On the other hand if the interface is too inefficient, it will just make for frustrating gameplay. Imagine playing golf with a flyswatter.
And when interface design goes wrong we have something like “pixel-bitching”. In the adventure games of yore it was neccessary to find the interactive elements in complex scenes, yet these were very small.
Or think of a classic RTS game. Now imagine you had to select each unit individually to issue commands. The game would turn into a chore filled with busywork.
A bad interface creates tasks that require little to no challenge to the player yet take up lots of time. I’d imagine only very few people would consider that enjoyable. (Which is, of course, something that you can monetize if you’re into that F2P thing…)
So with game interfaces we’re caught somewhere between challenge and usability. Usually we want the interface to support and enable the actions of the player. That means, among other things: clear feedback, providing the neccesary information to the player so he can make his decisions, and understandable relationship between input and outout.
In the 12th session of the Game Culture Club we got together to discuss the topic of Games and Interfaces. Since it was a purposefully broad topic we had much to discuss and a lot of interesting points. Let’s try to break it down, shall we?
Shells, gas clouds, and flotillas of tanks - shattering, corroding, death.
Dysentery, influenza, typhus - scalding, choking, death.
Trenches, hospitals, the common grave - there are no other possibilities.
- Erich Maria Remarque: All quiet on the western front. P. 133.