Anatomy of Horror (Part 3)

This week’s post concludes my series on the horror genre across multiple mediums. Last week I discussed horror in film, and the week before, horror in prose. Today I’m going to examine the horror genre in one of the newest storytelling mediums, video and computer games.

Video games are still very much in their infancy as a storytelling medium. Depending on what you define as the first “video game,” video games themselves are somewhere between forty-one and sixty-eight years old (depending on what you consider to be the first video game, a topic that is hotly debated), and storytelling games are an even more recent invention than that.

The earliest examples of games that with narrative stories that were advanced through player interaction began to appear in the 1980’s (though again, the precise date that this happened depends on your point of view).

But that’s really a debate for another time; right now, my interest is in horror games and what makes them tick. I think horror games are unquestionably at their strongest when they take advantage of the most unique quality of video games as a medium: interactivity.

The mere fact that video games, by definition, require players to interact and make choices inherently draws players in and involves them to a degree that film cannot. In some ways, horror games find a happy medium between the gripping power of prose and the visceral visuals of film.

The interactivity allows the game to get inside the player’s head in much the same way that good horror prose can, and at the same time, exposes the player to visuals and sounds that are inherently disturbing in the same way that film can be.

By thrusting the player into the experience, a game can get away with things that are difficult to pull off in other mediums. A game can present a protagonist who is somewhat unlikeable or provide a protagonist who is given little characterization and functions as a “shell” for the player’s personality (the protagonists in Silent Hill 2 and Dead Space are prime examples of these approaches, respectively).

Likewise, devices like jump scares, that are tired and annoying in horror film, can work to great effect in horror games because they not only startle the player, they force the player to react quickly to an immediate threat.

Games are a wonderful medium for horror, and on the whole, I find this medium the scariest. However, there are definite pitfalls that are unique to the medium and can ruin the storyteller’s attempt to weave an engrossing narrative of horror. It is at this point in the post where I have to make an admission that will cause any game fans reading to either embrace me with open arms or dismiss me entirely:

I hate the Resident Evil series. I think that every entry in the series is incompetently done and overrated, and I hate it with the fiery, burning passion of a thousand suns.

Unfortunately, Resident Evil, for many fans of horror video games, was the gold standard horror game series for many years (though it’s fallen out of favor with most fans with Resident Evil 5 and 6). However, this makes the series a perfect example of what doesn’t work in a horror game, and provides a perfect counter-point to games that do make the same things work in their favor:

1. Controls: It’s no secret that the Resident Evil series has long been home to some of the clunkiest control schemes ever to blight a game console. But the nature of that scheme is difficult to explain to anybody who’s never tried to play one of these games, so please forgive the following long-winded exposition on the subject.

The series pioneered what has become known as the “tank” control scheme–when 3D polygonal games were new and most players were accustomed to 2D games where they could only move along an X and a Y axis. Many developers attempted to figure out a good way to allow the player to navigate a space where they could move along an X, Y and Z axis in an environment that didn’t conform to a side or top-down view.

For most developers, the solution was to set the character movement to a direction pad and camera movement to another set of buttons (later, when having a second analog stick became standard for controllers, this second stick was assigned to camera-control duty in most games).

However, the original Resident Evil game (as well as Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3) utilized pre-rendered backgrounds; rather than being constructed of polygons with low-resolution textures that could be viewed from any angle, RE used digitally-drawn backgrounds that were then laid over a static polygonal plane that the player character could move around in.

This approach had the effect of creating environments that looked much better than anything that could be rendered using polygons at the time, but had the drawback of creating an environment that could only be viewed from a single angle. Drawing these environments from multiple angles would have been both costly and impossible to fit onto the limited storage space of the CD-ROMs that games were printed on at the time.

To get around this, and to mimic “realistically” moving in a 3D space, the developers implemented a control scheme where the character was controlled by the d-pad, but where pressing “up” meant that the character walked in the direction they were currently facing, and pressing “down” meant that the character backed away, regardless of their relative position on the screen.

Further, pressing “left” or “right,” rather than making the character run in that direction, instead made the character rotate in that direction, so that pressing “up” or “down” would make them move back or forward relative to their new bearing (hence the term “tank” controls; the player character would rotate like a tank turret).

This control scheme is one of the most awkward, unnatural and frustrating things I have ever encountered in a video game. Worse, because the series was incredibly popular (the first three games each sold about four million copies, back when selling one million copies was something to celebrate), many imitators cropped up as other developers tried to jump on the gravy train. One of the key things they imitated was this god-awful control scheme. The “tank” scheme even went on to infect established horror series; I have never been more disappointed with a game sequel than I was with Parasite Eve II, which completely scrapped the controls and combat of the original in favor of becoming a bad RE knock-off.

Defenders of Resident Evil have long claimed that the controls are part of what make the game scary for them. For me, the controls for these games are so clunky and unnatural that it immediately breaks my immersion in the game. I don’t feel like I’m playing the survivor of a zombie apocalypse but rather the unfortunate victim of a severe nervous disorder.

No trained special-forces police officer is that uncoordinated; if bad controls are what the designers are relying on to scare the players, then they’ve made a piss-poor horror game.

By contrast, take a look at all the horror games that have successfully conveyed a creepy, disturbing experience without relying on bad control: Silent Hill 2 and 3, Siren, Shadows of the Damned, Dead Space, Undying…the list goes on and on. Much like horror in film is not synonymous with jump scares, horror in games is not synonymous with bad controls.

One argument that some RE fans make is that the stiff controls contribute to a feeling of helplessness, which adds to the experience of the game. And while I’ll be the first to admit that a feeling of helplessness is one of the key aspects of any good horror game, there are better ways to achieve that feeling than by deliberately handicapping the player. Which leads to my next point:

2. Combat: Many video games are built around fighting, simply because it’s much easier to design a game where players’ primary means of interaction with non-player characters is by fighting and killing them.

In Resident Evil, the bulk of your enemies are zombies; slow-moving, shambling, Romero-esque zombies. Now, anybody who’s seen Night of the Living Dead knows how to deal with such a threat; you shoot them in the head and destroy the brain. Any fan of zombie films knows that, unless you’re dealing with post-28 Days Later fast zombies, the undead are no real threat one-on-one, only in hordes. You’d think this would be true in Resident Evil, as well.

You would be wrong.

Because, you see, Resident Evil’s combat controls are every bit as broken as its movement controls. This is because there is no way to precisely aim your character’s gun. So, even though you, as the player, know that shooting a zombie in the head will permanently lay it to rest, and this is, in fact, true in RE, headshots are almost impossible to achieve except through blind luck, and you could expend an entire magazine of handgun bullets trying to kill just one zombie.

This, in turn, is a problem because Resident Evil is what’s commonly referred to as a “survival horror” game. This means that, in addition to dealing with whatever monsters the game throws at you, one of the big challenges of the game is resource management. There is a finite number of bullets, healing items, and even game-save items throughout the game’s map; there simply aren’t enough bullets to realistically kill every enemy in the game.

That wouldn’t be a problem, were it not for the aforementioned crippled controls. The tank-turret controls make it nearly impossible to maneuver around a zombie without getting attacked and damaged at least a little, especially in some of the smaller rooms.

Because of the fact that every Resident Evil game requires at least a little backtracking through areas the player has explored already to solve puzzles, that means the player will be steadily accumulating damage, even if he or she is actively trying to avoid fighting unnecessary battles. And damage can only be healed by the aforementioned healing items, which come in very limited quantities.

Either way, the game is forcing you to waste items that are already in very short supply. This is beyond frustrating; it makes the game difficult for all the wrong reasons. And within the world of the game, it doesn’t make any sense.

You see, every playable character in Resident Evil is combat-trained; they’re either SWAT officers, military or paramilitary personnel, or trained by people with those qualifications. These are, to borrow a line from Aliens, some very tough hombres. And yet, they’re incapable of shooting a slow-moving, humanoid target in the head from ten paces.

And this situation isn’t fixed later on in the series; if anything, it’s made more perplexing by the fact that, thanks to improved aim controls, you can put multiple bullets into a zombie’s eye socket and it still won’t die. So the games reward competence in neither scenario.

I do understand the logic here; the designers didn’t want the player to feel like Rambo, able to mow down wave after wave of enemies without sustaining so much as a scratch in return. They wanted the player to feel outclassed, to be cautious.

But the game systems don’t reward caution or skill; the player is punished for fighting and punished for fleeing, and there’s no real reason given for this. The game doesn’t make you feel like an outnumbered cop with limited resources; it makes you feel like an incompetent ninny.

Many games have managed to strike this balance of making the player feel combat-capable without making them overpowered. In Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, players are very combat-capable. They are able to move freely, target portions of an enemy’s anatomy, and strike strategically so they aren’t wasting resources. Of course, if a player takes too much damage, their character starts limping and loses much of their maneuverability, which makes combat that much harder.

Additionally, the game encourages combat, because every time an enemy lays eyes on the player, the player loses a bit of their sanity, which will cause them to start hallucinating and eventually take physical injury from fright. One of the only ways to replenish sanity is by defeating enemies and performing a finishing move on them. If a player runs from too many fights, the sanity loss will start to take its toll.

This threat infuses an element of strategy to the combat that makes each encounter a nail-biting choice; can you defeat the enemies with minimal injury? If you choose to run, can you afford the sanity loss? Either way, the consequences are a direct result of the player’s actions.

In Alan Wake, the title character is rather capable with a gun, and players are given the ability to dodge enemy attacks with careful timing. The trade-off is that enemies can’t even be harmed without stripping away their protective shield of darkness with Alan’s flashlight. This action takes time, and can potentially drain the flashlight, leaving the player momentarily defenseless. While it’s possible to deal with small groups of enemies effectively, larger numbers leave the player with no choice but to run and hope he reaches the safe haven of bright lights before the monsters pummel him to death.

There are many games that implement similar systems to prevent players from calmly walking through encounters with enemies. But some of the most interesting horror titles are those that don’t allow the player a chance to fight at all.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent does not have any combat mechanics at all. There are no weapons, no way to strike monsters, nothing. In fact, much like Eternal Darkness, Amnesia has a sanity mechanic where even looking at a monster causes sanity damage, and being near the monsters for an extended period of time will frighten the character so much that they die of fear…assuming the monsters don’t kill them first.

Haunting Ground is similar. It lacks sanity effects, and there are actually ways to retaliate against enemies, but there are no ways to permanently kill an enemy, except during a handful of boss battles. The player’s only recourse is to find a place to hide from the enemy and wait for them to break off pursuit. There are few experiences I’ve had playing a video game more harrowing than diving under a bed in Haunting Ground and praying that the enemy chasing after me wasn’t smart enough to look down.

Being forced to run and hide from monsters is a more satisfying experience than being given the option to fight and knowing the game doesn’t realistically allow me to do so. There’s a difference between instilling a feeling of helplessness and a feeling of being handicapped by poor game design. A broken game is a broken game, regardless of the reason for it being broken.

This post concludes my review of horror across the mediums of prose, film and video games. Maybe you’ll enjoy a classic, or find something new to make your Halloween a little spookier; after all, everybody’s entitled to one good scare…


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