Monday, September 18, 2006

Roundy Tabley Thingy

This will be a post about
conventions as they relate to games and movies and books and genre.

The horror genre, namely.

I recently purchased two games from the broad 'survival-horror' genre: Kuon and Silent Hill 4.

These games, and games like them, are steeped in the tropes of horror films. If you happen to design one, you end up riding a cusp between evoking archetypes and dredging up cliches. If you're lucky, you maintain a balance.

Some of the copped plots can be obvious. Dead Rising is a mix of Dawn of the Dead and the whimsical delight in gory dismemberment of Dead Alive (aka Braindead).

Survival-horror videogames even go so far as to mimic the cinematic techniques of horror films. An early example of this can be found in Alone in the Dark. Angular shots, stark lighting and close-ups abound.

Steadicam shots a la Friday the 13th are also popular. The Silent Hill series often employs an old-timey scratched film filter, like that found in the opening to Se7en. Resident Evil 4 used highly-scripted sequences with one-button interactions that were straight out of action-horror. Manhunt took its entire theme from the myth of the snuff film, integrating video cameras into its design as a sadistic filmmaker guided you through his set pieces of violence.

If that's not enough, then you could always play a game explicitly based on a movie: The Thing. But I can't recommend it.


And survival-horror doesn't simply cop from movies. There is often a strong tribute to literature, especially Lovecraft - diaries, words written in blood, scraps of newspapers, notes, warnings, all hinting at a greater madness, a mystery which should not be uncovered, but which the protagonist will, nevertheless, pursue. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem extends the Cthulhu Mythos and wraps a multi-character, multi-century narrative into a coherent arc in the same way that Ray Bradbury joined stories together in The Illustrated Man. Siren also pieces together multiple narratives into a broad plot.

Much of horror reflects general social anxieties, so it's no surprise to find techno-fears cropping up in the digital realm. The Resident Evil series not only pulls out the well-tread territory of zombie movies, but posits that the zombies are the results of humans tinkering with viral engineering. Dino Crisis, Run Like Hell and Lifeline brought horror elements into science-fiction environments.

There are also more personal anxieties and taboos. Alone in the Dark explored suicide. Resident Evil: Code Veronica used incest in its narrative. Insanity. Torture. Death from all sides, harsh, sudden, brutal. The dark side of the human experience infests survival-horror.

Sound design is probably the crucial element in setting the mood for any kind of horror/terror/thriller. The familiar Jaws theme should make you anxious. Creaky stairs, rusty doors, screeches, howls, echoing laughter, children singing - disembodied noises create a sense of focus and paranoia. When we hear but can't see, we're unable to determine whether something is a threat - you hear the tap-tap of footsteps and are forced to wait, nervously, as something shambles into view.

The following assertion should make Corvus happy - survival horror games are almost entirely focused on story. The seed narrative centers around a mystery - what is causing the horror? Typically, the answer to that question provides the key to stopping the horror, assuming the game provides that option.

The unfortunate side effect of the focus on story is that survival horror games tend to be lackluster on gameplay.* This is changing as designers learn to innovate outside the lines drawn by their predecessors. Control schemes, in particular, are changing in order to answer a lot of early complaints: bad camera placement, clunky character control, aiming problems. Ghosthunter and Resident Evil 4 are two good examples of developers drawing on lessons learned from third-person shooters.


Isabel Pinedo** identified five characteristics of the postmodern horror film: (1) a violent disruption to everyday life, (2) transgresses and violates boundaries, (3) questions the validity of rationality (4) repudiates narrative closure and (5) produces a bounded experience of fear.

The first three characteristics are the hinges of survival-horror's conflicts. Reasonable expectations are entirely subverted. The very nature of expected reality is altered or shattered. In the Parasite Eve series, the mitochondria in living cells explode with chaotic energy, mutating creatures into grotesque monstrosities. It's completely absurd and completely horrifying.

Or consider Silent Hill 4, in which the main character is trapped inside his apartment by a webwork of chains. A hole in the bathroom wall provides access to twisted mirror images of familiar locations. The boundaries between his world and the twisted one begin to erode as he collects more clues about events that happened in the apartment and in Silent Hill. The apartment is at first a haven. Then it becomes periodically violated by the other reality, against all rationality.

The fourth characteristic can be seen as a cheap way to churn out endless sequels, if you're a cynic (or, sometimes, a realist). But it can also be representative of the nature of fear, its sometimes implacable encroachment. There may be small victories, closure of one person's story, but the larger mysteries endure. The T-Virus continues to spread. Silent Hill holds secrets still. Enemies once dead live again.

The fifth characteristic can be connected to ilinx, a term I first heard from Chris Bateman. A bounded experience of fear is a way of provoking a fear response to a simulation of danger. The fourth wall or the magic circle tell us that the monsters are safely in their own space and yet, if the illusion is successful, your mind and body will react as if threatened.

Sometimes even after the game is shut off.

I leave you, gentle readers, with some sound advice:

Never mix up with secret and ultimate horror, young man, if you value your immortal soul.
-H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop "Medusa's Coil"

Bonus Trivia Bite: Both Haunting Ground and Rule of Rose feature canine companions with their main characters.

*Consider this from Gamespot's review of Clock Tower 3: "Clock Tower 3's movie portions are stronger than the gameplay that underpins them, and the result is a game that you'll probably want to finish more for its storyline than for the fun you'll have actually playing it."

**Click on this link to read some excerpts from Pinedo's book.


Chris said...

That Isabel Pinedo definition is awesome - I can track it comfortably from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to any modern horror story/game/film. Neat.

I agree with much you say here; survival horror games are conduits for delivering experience - a specialised form of mimicry, blended with ilinx as you mention here.

I'd like to suggest that although the improvements we are seeing (RE4 et al) do result in an improvement to gameplay (i.e. ludus), this is actually a tangential benefit. The real plus in commercial terms is superior control schemes that are suitable for a wider audience. A goodbye to "the camera is your enemy" games.

Best wishes!

Anonymous said...

Good post, John.

I don't typically care for games which focus on story to the exclusion of gameplay. I much prefer those that craft their story from the gameplay.

Patrick Dugan said...

I'm a bit dissapointed you didn't touch on system shock 2. The only thing that really scares me is the idea of a superintelligent AI warping all of reality to horrific specifications.

Good post though, very thorough.

When I was 12 I had nightmares about the first Clock Tower for months. The reason had to do primarily with the lack of closure in the ending. I never quite believed the professer was the real scissorman.

Johnny Pi said...

Corvus - Thanks for the clarification. Wasn't my intent to imply that you weren't concerned with gameplay, only that you've emphasized narrative quite a bit in your posts.

Patrick - Thanks. I actually considered the System Shock series, but felt that might open up the limits in terms of genre (the System Shock series being as 'kind of' game, in that it's kind of an FPS, kind of an RPG, kind of a survival horror, what have you). That's why I also left out Undying. And probably some other games that could be slotted in (Doom, maybe?). Didn't want too much topic creep.

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