No Time for Horror, Doctor Jones

If you read my review of the Dead Space 3 demo, then you’ll know that I don’t consider it horror, least of all, survival horror. That leaves a big bloody, gaping question, “What is it?” To answer that question, we’re going to compare it to, surprise, surprise, the Silent Hill games. It’s not that I think that all games should be like Silent Hill. Indeed, later entries in the series attempted to copy the form of the game without understanding the subtleties. Silent Hill is just a convenient starting point, because we’re going to be taking on both series as wholes. So, without further ado, let’s get this rolling.
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As you may know, it’s getting harder and harder to address the genre of a game. Traditionally, there weren’t that many different kinds of games to choose from. However, things have complicated themselves as the gaming industry has expanded. Sure, we’ve been staying close to many of the original formulas in a lot of ways, but we’ve been reproducing and changing enough that some really unusual mutations have begun  to appear. It’s not enough to say that something is a first-person shooter, anymore. That barely tells you anything about the game. Fallout 3 is technically an FPS, but I’d hardly call it one to its face. Dark Souls is an RPG, but that’s not really the core of it. Dead Space 3 is full of gore and threat, but I’d hardly call it a horror game. If it were, then Max Payne and Painkiller would have equal claim to the title. They don’t, though. Even games that we tend to call horror games, like Alan Wake, feel a bit off. Look at the box, it bills itself as a “Psychological Action Thriller.” Here’s where the hands of the brighter gaming scholars in the class will shoot up and ask the burning question, “Doesn’t that pretty much describe a horror game?”
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You’ve got me there. Sort of. Like Fallout 3 and Painkiller, it’s all about how you approach the subject matter. Anyone familiar with sarcasm knows that you can answer a question, using exactly the same words as someone else, and mean something profoundly different. I’m going to crib off of Penny Arcade’s Extra Credits here and say that a game’s genre is defined by what you come to the game for. Using a little backwards engineering, we can look at how the game is affecting the player. After all, that’s the ultimate defining factor. I don’t know any people that watch “The Shining” because it’s a laugh-a-second thrill ride, or read Archie comics for their brilliant satirical deconstruction of white-bred suburbia. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t do that, but I just don’t know anyone like that. I’m going to guess that not many of us do. That being said, it’s going to get harder and harder to define game genres as time passes. That doesn’t mean it’s fruitless, though. Like all categories, they’re just general descriptors. There’s plenty of room to move around inside the box. There is a threshold, though, one I think that Dead Space 3 has hit.
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Of course, the game I’m talking about only released a demo, but if we look back at the other games in the series, we can see a pattern emerging. Even more telling, is part of the Dead Space 3 design philosophy. I’ll link you to my sources —> http://forums.aegis7.com/32-dead-space-3/2637-why-have-they-turned-dead-space-gears/page_4.html#post22344 via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Space_3
For those of you who didn’t feel like following the link, I’ll sum it up. They wanted to make Isaac more responsive. He’s able to take cover, combat roll, and move more organically. This was done because, and I quote, ” [they] want the horror to come from the terrible things that happen in the game; not from the horror that something is moving slowly towards you and you can’t shoot it because the game controls like a piece of crap.” Man, that’s discouraging. It seems like they’ve missed the point of the crappy controls like a champ. Then again, most people who are using cliff notes seem to. I wasn’t there in the planning room for the Resident Evil or Silent Hill games, so I can’t tell you the intent of the control scheme. It might have been a limitation thing, or even an accident, but the results were a feeling of limited efficacy and helplessness.
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If you’ve ever played through this fight in Silent Hill 2, then you’ll know what I mean. For most of the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series, the control scheme was such that you had to rotate your character, and move it forward and backwards, separately. In addition, the room for this fight was quite small.
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That’s most of the rest of the room. As you can probably tell, Pyramid head’s weapon is quite large. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but, when swung, it takes up most of the area. To fight him, you’ve got to run around him, with the clunky controls, get some space between you, and fire off a few shots in his direction. Then, you’ve got to wait until he drags that giant blade towards you, and, when he’s about to swing it, run around him. He’ll switch up the angle of his attack. He does an over-the-head swing that reaches most of the way across the room, as well as a quicker stab attack. This being a well-designed survival horror game, he will eventually leave, even if you don’t shoot at him. This takes much longer, of course. Why design an encounter this way? Because the point of this fight isn’t to shoot enough lead into a seemingly indestructible creature until it bleeds enough to fall over. No, that’s too easy. The point of this fight is to survive, and experience, the helpless claustrophobia. Between the movement restrictions, and the pace of the fight, you get just enough time to realize when he’ll be swinging his big ass sword at you, and that it’s going to kill you.

This goes right to the pacing of the entire game. Silent Hill leaves you room to consider the situation you’re in, and actually makes you dread it. If James Sunderland, the hero of Silent Hill 2, moved as freely as Isaac does in Dead Space 3, then the Pyramid Head fight would be laughable. Or, more likely, the entire fight would have to be re-tooled. Pyramid Head would probably move faster, and the arena would be larger. His attacks would be more varied, and you might actually have to whittle down a health bar. That being said, it would still be a tense fight. If you didn’t have a health bar to whittle down, and he still eventually left, it could actually be quite frightening. After all, there’s no indication that you’re actually hurting him. It actually makes a “Ting!” sound when you shoot him, like one of those inexhaustibly annoying kids on the playground that played Cops and Robbers with Superman-like invincibility. Of course, that kind of movement would mean a re-tooling of the whole game. As it stands, you can get good at moving with the clunky controls if, like me, you played it obsessively as a child. However, every movement still requires a certain level of planning. You’ve got to set up your angle and make a break for it when the time is right. This creates the perfect level of hesitation, because you’re well aware of the threat being posed, and your tenuous ability to meet it.
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In an earlier post, I mentioned that well-designed games tend to follow a similar arousal curve in all aspects of their game play. Fast-paced games usually throw you right into the action after brief moments of respite that give you just enough time to reload before the next wave . It’s up and down and up and down. Slower games do much the same thing, but the length of each portion of the pattern is different. How do Dead Space and Silent Hill differ in this regard? As my break down of the Pyramid Head fight illustrates, it holds true for combat. So, let’s look at Dead Space. Every Dead Space game has a token attempt to build atmosphere, but it never lasts. Before long, you’re slogging through Necromorph after Necromorph. Even the tension-building phases have walls covered in blood and bodies. The parts without it usually involve breaking open item crates, solving puzzles or doing quick-time events. It’s trying to keep you engaged and tense. However, as anyone who has watched a horror movie knows, the horrific moments are all the more salient for the snatches of respite around them. That’s why you’re thrown back to Regular Silent Hill after the climactic portion of every Dark Silent Hill section.

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Dead Space is all tension. As a result, you really don’t experience any of it. Sure, you might feel it, but that’s not really the same thing. Eventually, you habituate to it, like the clothes on your body. Even the gore gets tired. Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee pointed out that the scene from Heavy Rain where the guy cuts his finger off is far more effective than, well, any of the dismemberment that goes on in Dead Space, and I can’t help but agree. It happens so often, and so quickly, that there’s barely any time to consider the ramifications of it. Part of what makes horror so poignant is the degree to which we can imagine ourselves in the same situation. For a more clear example of what I mean, think about that one scene in the Lord of the Rings when Gandalf hits his head in Bilbo’s house. Whether you’ve smacked your head on a low-hanging arch or not, you’ll have a vague idea of what it feels like. Any thoughts about having your face torn off? Arm severed by a killer space scythe? No? Well, shit.
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The result of this is that Dead Space never really gives you the feeling of being horrified. It can jump-scare you, and leave you feeling tense, but real horror comes from the mind of the player. It comes from putting yourself in the place of the protagonist, and thinking about the ramifications of your actions. It comes from thinking about the world and the horror around you. From feeling the difference between the horrific, the sublime, and the banal. There’s no time for that in Dead Space. You’ve got to be shooting shit, now! Well, there are a few moments of considered terror. A fight in zero-g, from an earlier game, with a giant monstrosity was paced just well enough to leave me shaken. It was overwhelmingly, brain-defying huge. I actually got to think about the situation. Go Dead Space! There’s not much to the series like that, though. It’s mostly blood, and run-shoot-run-shoot-AUGH! As for the portion of the design philosophy that referred to “the terrible things that happen in the game,” all I have to say is that disturbing images aren’t scary if they carry no weight or consideration. I can’t stress this enough, you have to give us time to imagine, because imagination is the seat of horror. That being said, it’s not a straight-up action game, either.
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There may be a lot of shit going on all the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s in the same boat as a Call of Duty game. The type and tone of the encounters means that it’s not strictly a first-person shooter, but it sure wants you to fight like it’s one. You see, the pacing penetrates as far as the most basic layers. Isaac’s enhanced movement means that monsters need to be faster to keep up with him. As a result, you can’t really afford to run away from them. Hell, most of the time, the game won’t let you continue until you’ve filled everything around you with enough hot plasma to power a warp-core. This is a huge shift in tone. Survival horror, if Pyramid Head, and the controls, didn’t make it abundantly clear, is a game-type that relies quite heavily on the ability to run away. This makes the times you can’t all the more effective. Monsters in tight hallways have to be dodged, because there isn’t a lot of ammo lying around and your weapons are slow and unwieldy. This is aided by the speed of the main character, which the monsters are programmed in relation to. They’re slow enough that you can run, but fast enough that they’re a bitch to fight. Dead Space encourages you, through its movement and ordinance-heavy design, to fight. You Are The Reaper. In a way, you’re the Pyramid Head of the Dead Space franchise. If Necromorphs feel, then you can’t imagine they’re ever elated by Isaac’s appearance in their midst.

Now, let’s bring it all together. Dead Space, and games like it (Resident Evil 4-6, Silent Hill Homecoming, etc.), aren’t really paced for horror. Their engagement, mechanics, and story-line are geared towards more constant provocation. It’s all about jump-scares and a constant feeling of low-level preparedness. That’s the problem: preparedness. It’s great for keeping people tense, but if you’re feeling ready, then you’re not expecting to be caught off-guard. That makes the moments you are all the sweeter, but much less likely to occur. Silent Hill lets you relax to make you think and to make the moments of terror stand out. The series’ more recent releases have kind of lost sight of that subtlety, but either they’ll find it again, or they won’t. In my opinion, they could have made Silent Hill 3 and knocked off for the rest of time and I’d still be a fan. Yes, I’m also a Dead Space fan, but now I’m just going to go to their games for something other than being truly terrified. Instead, I’ll enjoy it for its bombastic gore and constant tension. There are no secrets in Dead Space, only outright disturbing splatter. In recognition of the shift of tone that the series has taken, and for the convenience of talking about games like it in the future, I’ve chosen to call this type of game a Splatter Thriller (Optionally: Gore Thriller). A toast, to this new(ish) and, literally, exciting genre!

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