Monday, October 16, 2006

Don't Fear the Round Table

This month's Round Table
concerns the topic of fear.

I associate fear with Leary's first consciousness circuit, bio-survival. This circuit controls fight or flight response and territorial concerns, what could be termed avoidance behaviors.

A large percentage of videogames utilize fear, though many people may not recognize it as such. When a player must keep Mario away from the Hammer Brothers' terrible hammers, fear drives the reactions. Platformers, first-person-shooters, racing games - what are typically known as "twitch" games rely primarily upon activation of the fear response.

Working in tandem with fear is another emotion: dread.

Where fear is predicated on acknowledgment of an antagonistic situation, dread is predicated on anticipation. Dread is about hidden knowledge; Fear is the recognition of a threat.

Dread is more often used in horror games, where the use of visual and aural cues can alert the player to unseen danger and build tension. An RTS with a fog-of-war component also sparks low-level dread - will you run into a fleet of carriers or a weak gatherer?

One game that struck a great balance between fear and dread was Resident Evil 3.

RE3 carried over most of the tropes of the previous games - shuffling zombie creatures, sparse ammo, dreary ruined environments. Avoiding the denizens of an undead city provided constant doses of fear.

Then we come to Nemesis. Most game bosses appear every few levels to taunt the player, have a quick battle and retreat to grow even more powerful. Not Nemesis. He follows you through the entire game. The very idea of him appearing starts to gnaw at you. His points of entry onto the screen are semi-randomized. He screams "STARS!" constantly and is unstoppable.

The only places safe from Nemesis are the save rooms, a lone typewriter the only adornment. I would spend a lot of time in a save room, building up my courage to tackle the next few sections of Nemesis' relentless hounding.

All of that tension naturally builds to a stirring boss battle, but that's not all. The endgame becomes a race against time as you try to escape before a nuclear strike annihilates the city. Fear and dread merge as you struggle against time itself.

Constant invocation of the fear response can grow tedious, which is why using dread to ratchet anxiety works so well to alleviate some of that tedium. A lesson that would be interesting applied to many different genres.


Chris said...

Ironically, of all the Resident Evil games, it is Nemesis I have enjoyed the least. In principle it should have worked - I recognise the idea behind the Nemesis as a valid way to evoke fear - but for some reason (bad luck, perhaps?) it didn't work for me.

More than once the Nemesis trapped me and killed me in situations where I did not feel I had the option to retreat. In one particularly memorable instance, I emerged from the door and was trapped by the Nemesis who stood directly in front of me. I couldn't do anything but die. :(

This lead to increased frustration, which undercut and essentially eliminated my capacity to experience any fear in the game.

It's a shame, as many people single this game out as being most effective at evoking fear. It's just a shame that I missed out. :(

Patrick Dugan said...

Hmmm, it sounds like parts of the randomized state space were more difficult than others, and that ruined the game. If the aleatory elements had been balanced that might've been smoother for you.

Personally Nemesis scared me a bit, but not nearly as much as the Scissorman from Clocktower.