Archive for horror movies

The Jump-Scare Microcosm

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2014 by trivialpunk

Often, I get the urge to go back and edit my old posts. Usually, there’s a typo that’s bothering me, but sometimes it’s just the post itself that needs to be changed. You grow a lot over the course of a couple years, but you always start somewhere. Thankfully, I’m not regurgitating all of Yahtzee’s analogies anymore, but that doesn’t diminish the urge to go back and change the posts where I did.

But, that’s where I was at the time I wrote the post. This is a blog, so its integrity relies on its temporality, which is a ridiculous way of saying that I’d feel weird about editing old posts. So, I’ve just got to do better next time. I wrote a pretty glowing review of Titanfall, but I haven’t really played it since. And I hated Dark Souls, but I’ve got a Letsplay of it now, and I love it.

I’m going to learn from those experiences and do a Letsplay series on Clockwork Empires as it develops. For the people listening to my opinion, I feel compelled to back up my words. Also, it’s fun.

But we’re not here to talk about FUN, are we? We’re here to talk about FEAR. Well, horror, actually, of which fear is a principle component. It doesn’t matter what medium you’re working in, the important experience is the end-user experience. And when you’re talking horror, that means that you have to take things like lighting, stress-levels, pop-culture and interface into account.

But, that also means that you’re working with a complicated apparatus. Inducing the experience of fear is like playing a complicated emotional symphony. You know how those laughs that follow tense moments are always extra poignant? Part of the reason for that is that laughter is an emotional stress valve. The process of building emotional tension is also the process of building physical tension (stress). Striking at a point in the arc creates a related reaction.

This is one of the mechanisms that makes the jump-scare work. Whether it pays off for a viewer usually depends on their individual reaction; whether it will work on anyone usually depends on the designer.

But tension is not enough, even something as brief as a jump-scare requires a lot of thought to put together and relies on a lot of things going right. Even if it all goes off properly, it’s still being fed through self-aware systems of such sublime complexity and variation that no two will remember it in exactly the same way. That being said, they’re also creatures of such immense sophistication that they could still describe it in exactly the same way if they were asked to. That’s us.

I’m talking about the jump-scare because it’s like a horror-movie microcosm. It relies on most of the same elements: physiological reactions, context and timing. So, if we break down its elements, we can see part of the system we’re working with. Because, despite the fact that each person is different, the reactions they have are in relation to their steady-state, so you can still scare most people a little bit.

For instance, sounds can build physical stress. Let’s paint a standard late-night scene in a deserted park. Our character is walking beside a row of hedges as the wind whips up a little, shaking the leaves. Now, if we were watching a movie, you could start building a deep, subtle sound in the background that would arouse the attention of your audience and begin building some physiological stress.

You can start using restrictive camera angles to let your audience’s visual system know that it’s not getting enough data by using the auditory one, because there are sounds in the background that they’re hearing: strange, out-of-sight sounds. Cut the angle out to a wide-angle of our character walking beside the hedge, edging slightly away from it but clearly feeling foolish about it.

At this point, your audience knows from the music that something’s wrong. This is where people begin yelling at the character to get away from the hedge! It’s dangerous! I think that’s a stress-release valve that opens because the danger is apparent but unknown. This is where you need to be subtle, because your audience wants to get stressed out. However, if the character’s acting foolishly, then they might opt out of buying-in entirely.

We’ve all watched scenes that we thought might have been frightening but were completely ruined because the character didn’t act in a logical manner, right? We are, after all, relying on our audience to project into the mind of our character. If our character acts in a manner that they don’t understand, then our audience can’t really connect with them in any meaningful way. At that point, our character is no longer embodying our audience, so neither will they.

So, back to the scene… Our audience knows that there’s something up, because the music has aroused their attention. They’ve understood that the character feels creeped out by walking alone, at night, beside a hedge, but that the character feels silly about it. The background noises have combined with the camera angles to give the audience the impression that they’re missing some information. But, the wide-angle has communicated that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong. Everything is benign, but it feels dangerous.

Now, what of context? We just painted a random park somewhere. Are we watching a slasher-flick? If so, then we know what’s probably waiting in the hedge. Or, at least, the worst thing that could be waiting in the hedge as far we know. That’s kinda meh, honestly. What if an unknown creature escaped from the Lab somewhere and our character doesn’t know about it?

Well, now we have another element of mystery. Not only do we not know if something’s wrong here, but we don’t even know what it could be. That’s not AS helpful as it could be, but it does do some work for us. What if we knew it smashed a cage? Then, it’s strong. How about if it melted its way through a wall? That’s pretty visceral. What could it do to our character?

Still, that might be a little too descriptive. What if we just know that it escaped, but it shredded the corpses of the guards on the way out? The more details we restrict, the more each detail increases in importance in the mind of the audience. However, we still need to give their imaginations enough to work with.

Let’s go back to slashers for a second. If he’s skinned two people so far, then we can imagine that he’ll probably skin his next victim. That’s a gruesome thought, but it only engages the imagination so far. If, on the other hand, he has only removed certain body-parts from each victim at random, then our audience might imagine what would be next.

However, we can encourage them to imagine that by introducing a pattern into the dismemberment. Buffalo Bill, for instance, was building a body-suit. If the reader was given enough details to be encouraged to imagine which ones he’d be after next, then we have further engaged their imagination, and, thus, deepened their immersion. Human curiosity and imagination are essential tools for creating horror.

So, that’s context. For variety’s sake, let’s just say that a creature escaped from a lab. It burned its way out of its cell, then it shredded the skin from each guard, absorbing their blood through the tears in their flesh. (If we want to get really specific later, then we’ll say that a guard who died from severe acid burns wasn’t drained, suggesting that their heart-beat aids the process) That’s pretty graphic.

Now, we have a colorful potential fate for our character. We’ve told the audience that something’s up, but we didn’t overdo it. Then, let’s say their cell-phone rings. If we did it suddenly, then it might act as a mini-jump-scare, relieving some physiological tension. That can be good if we plan to build it up again or catch our audience off-guard. However, if we wanted to build towards a single big scare, then it would build slowly.

Does it build up alongside a rustling in the bushes? Does our character notice something shuffling in the leaves, ignoring their phone to pay attention to the new thing in the shadows? Does our character answer the phone and end up getting stalked by a camera? Does our character not believe their friend? The next few seconds are crucial, and they’ll define the entire tone of the jump-scare.

For our single instance, let’s say that our character pulls their phone out of their pocket, the volume increasing slightly to show why it was initially muffled. Then, they look at the call-return, still walking as they go, putting the phone up to their ear, the camera cuts to a typical walking-talking-head angle, at which point something pounces from off-camera. Our sound-cue here is essential. The scene cuts to the other end of the phone, where we receive more of the plot and a small bit of information about what’s happening to the character we just left.

We want to catch the audience off-guard, but we don’t want to contrive camera-angles or plot-devices that will let them know when we’re planning on catching them off-guard. That defeats the purpose of contriving them, unless they’re a meta-contrivance, and that’s a whole other ball of wax: horror movies for people who love horror movies. (<3)

At the same time, we want to ensure that the angles and mechanics that create the jump-scare are still present. We still want to restrict their vision and menace them with sounds, but we don’t want them to feel like those things exist solely to accomplish the task of creating a jump-scare. That line of thinking runs through everything I understand about creating horror.

You want to create horrifying situations, but you don’t want your audience to have to think about the fact that you’re doing it. You’re not just creating a situation that’s horrifying for the character: you’re using your character’s situation to horrify your audience. It’s their physiology that you need to worry about. It’s their tension that is ultimately played-upon. It’s thrilling to experience when it all works out, because it was created to be experienced.

Games have a huge leg-up when creating horror because they engage the audience directly. However, the job becomes that much more complicated as you add elements, like volition. Creating truly great horror in a game universe means understanding and manipulating someone’s decisions in the same way that jump-scares use physiological tension: they must contribute to the horror in their own way.

Each decision should be part of a string of events that bring you to a horrifying moment. It doesn’t matter if the decision is to walk forward or to choose between two doors or to apply the lotion from one vaguely-labelled bottle instead of the other. The decisions should be themed around creating the experience of horror. They should engage the imagination.

You should have to think about what moving forward might bring. You should be worried about what’s behind each door. The consequences of the choosing a lotion should be frightening. Of course, you’re not always going to be able to do that with every game, so it’s just something to think about while you tackle the realities of putting together any piece of media.

Horror is a difficult thing to produce, and its personal effects are so variable that it’s difficult or impossible to create any piece of media that will engage everyone in the same way. But, that’s the beauty of horror. Strike out into the dark and try something new. Good luck navigating the shadow; I’ll see you on the other side.

Finding Nirvana – A Trip to The Lobby

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello again, dear readers. I know it’s been a week longer than I’d like it to have been, and I’d like to blame that on the birthday weekend I just had, but truthfully, I’ve been struggling a bit with the proper words to use. That, and a crippling addiction to Sonic Screwdrivers (Blue Curacao, Vanilla vodka and Lemon-lime soda, because I’ll always be a Tennant man). I know, I know, I should really be using my summer hours more efficiently, but we all need time off, right? Right. Let’s ignore the number of hours I spend playing games for this blog and the spin-off YouTube series I’m writing. That’s… that’s work ( >.>). Since I couldn’t think of a way to properly boil all this down to something pithy and worthy of a forgotten 200-word column in a newspaper bin somewhere, we’re going to try something new but stay within the boundaries of my trademark undisciplined style.

Last week, I stepped a little out of my comfort zone. I decided that, if I wanted to provide you guys with interesting content, I was going to have to try out some new things. From there, I got it in my head that it would be a good idea to try some interviews. Let’s keep in mind that I have no background in journalism whatsoever, besides a bout of my childhood that I spent training for the job should it be a requirement to become Spider-man, and dive right in to how this started.

As you may know, this was a blog I started to explore, criticise and deconstruct horror video games on narrative and mechanical levels. However, after a while, I realized that I was becoming a bit of a broken record. There were issues with the games that I was reviewing that couldn’t be explained by bad design alone. No, these were systemic. These issues were going to stem from convention. “But what conventions?” I would fret, “They were already in place in the earliest games I’ve played.” I thought on this and came to a conclusion. Unless there was a long-forgotten ColecoVision game from the Clocktower series, many of the conventions of horror games were going to come from horror movies (and books). A poor choice? Probably, games require their own style of thinking to craft. They’re primarily interactive experiences, after all.

However! You’ve got to start somewhere, right? Besides, there have been some decent games that use well-established television tropes. The Clocktower series is as close as you can get to Scooby-doo, while still having an 8 year old boy murdering people with 4-foot-long scissors involved. There was a Playstation 2 spin-off from John Carpenter’s The Thing that was pretty decent. There’s that Walking Dead game that only excludes itself from counting here because it involves zombies, and the day that zombies become scary again is the day they’re pounding on my door, demanding my tastier bits be highlighted in permanent marker. Oh, yeah, and that other Walking Dead game we’re just not going to talk about, because it sparks all kinds of silly debates. Why yes, I am going to skip over the terrible movie/show games and game-based movies, because we’d be here all day otherwise. The real point here was that I decided it was time to dive back to my roots and re-discover the horror movie.

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Luckily, there was a cult-horror-movie shop right down from where I was living when I made the decision. Unfortunately, there was also a giant library of movies in my home that manifested from the collector instincts of a group of middle-class pop-culture scholars (Read: gamers). So, I coasted along on Silence of the Lambs and Silent Hill. Little did I know what awaited me down the block.

Now, I can be a bit jaded at times. Between my Steam library, physical console copies and retro games, I own hundreds of different game titles and I’ve rented far more than that. I’ve also had the pleasure of playing and finishing 90% of them, so cracking a new game is often an exercise in comparison. Since the industry tends to focus on certain practices, and because the limitless void space that gaming’s potential hints towards is kind of scary, I can usually figure out what’s going to go down before the first Bargle-wargle monster shows up to try to catch me unawares. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree from Free Time University to figure that out. Only so many games get put out each year, and they’re all exercises in massive risk-taking on the part of the company that puts them out, so we get a bit jacked on the variation end of the art-form. Movies, though… they’ve got a long, varied history, especially indie-cult classics. That brings us to the moment I decided to hit The Lobby.

I want you to imagine this with me. You’re walking down the street. On your left is a shoe store, then a daycare… and, attached to the daycare, recessed in the wall, is a little push door with a hand-made paper sign. There’s a small standee outside and a window wall-papered with print-outs of movie covers. Pushing open the door leads you to a staircase going down to another standee and a door going off to the left. Hesitantly, you trudge down the stairs. The door at the bottom gives off a subtle red ambience, almost as if its contents are eager to bleed into the outside world. Stepping across the threshold brings you to a concrete-floored room full of wonder. Pinhead stands to your right, shelves full-to-bursting with movies struggle to support their payload to your left. Another step in reveals the rest of the shop, bathed in the same red ambience, which you now realize is the light reflected off the shiny shelves, walls and couch. To your right is an alcove with a couch and a television playing a piece of horror movie history. A coffin shelf holds memorabilia, as do the walls, ceiling and floors. You are inundated. Saturated.  Every one of these movies is a new-favourite waiting to be played. “They’re all horror,” you realize with a grin.

At least, that was my reaction. It’s a veritable playground of new experiences waiting to be had. Sitting right at the back, past the shelves and wonder, is Kevin Martin. Believe me, if the store is open, he’s there. Kevin is the owner-operator of The Lobby. At first, I’d wondered how many of the movies in the store he’d watched, but, after a brief conversation, it became clear that the answer was all of them. He’s friendly as all hell, too, so I walked out of that first visit with an armful of recommendations. I couldn’t have enjoyed the visit more, unless I’d also been offered a job designing the new Silent Hill game, but that’s hardly Kevin’s fault. Several months and plenty more movies later, brings us to last week.

I knew that, if I was going to try interviews, then The Lobby was where I wanted to start. So, on the way to return the key to my old house (I’d just moved), I dropped off my latest cache of films. While I was there, I decided to ambush Kevin with the idea of doing an interview. I was trying to sound casual, but I was nervous. Then, he said yes and time slowed down. My brain screamed, “What the HELL are you doing?! You aren’t the least bit prepared! You’ve got a recording device, some paper and a prayer, what are you going to do if you screw this up? You’ll never get to come back here again. What if there are SPIDERS in your BAG, NOW? Wouldn’t THAT be fitting punishment?!” Still, I also knew there was another voice quietly whispering, “You know enough about how this works. You’ve got questions you’ve always wanted to ask. You guys have shot the shit before, just think of it like that.” Thus, we sat down on the couch, and I did my first interview.

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Kevin, on the other hand, is an interview veteran. Besides owning one of the last video rental shops in the city, he also helps to organize and promote DEDfest, a cult-movie horror film-festival. It’s a time, let me tell you. His store is also being featured in a series of movies. You can check that out under The Last Video Store on CineCoup, or, if you just want to keep up on the news in general, you can join The Lobby’s Facebook group. So, he’s been asked a question or two.

Because I’m hopelessly predictable, I asked him about the fate of the movie rental industry. If you haven’t been suspended in cryogenics for the past couple years, you probably already know that many of the bigger movie rental businesses have shut their doors or switched to being whatever Rogers is now… some kind of amorphous mass of wires and connection issues. However, businesses like The Lobby have survived. When I asked Kevin about it, he said that it was thanks to his loyal customer base and serving a niche market. It makes good sense, after all, to not try and compete with the larger stores or Netflix. But, it also helps that he’s a devoted fan of the genre. I told you earlier that Kevin has -probably- watched all of the films in his shop and I meant it. This means that, if you’re looking for a particular type of scare, then he should be able to help you find it. There’s something to be said for coming in, looking at the titles on the shelf and having a conversation with someone who loves the movies you’re looking at. He doesn’t do late fees; his primary concern is that you get to watch the film. In short, ladies and gentles, this is someone who deserves our ear; he bleeds horror.

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We covered a lot in the hour and some long interview, which you can find recorded here, but a lot of it came back to originality. Originality is at a premium in the AAA industry today. As Kevin put it, despite his love for big-name movies, this summer’s line-up… “Sequel, sequel, based on a book, based on a book, remake, reboot, re-imagining…” He’s pretty right. There’s nothing wrong with that, really. However, when he went to see The Hills Have Eyes and Evil Dead remakes, he admits to feeling like he’s been there before. The friends he went with loved them and he enjoyed them, which speaks to their quality, but I feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong there. The very foundation of horror lies in the imagination. Reboots are nice, because we shouldn’t be afraid to update old properties with the benefit of our future hyper-tech and they’re new experiences for some people, but what about people like Kevin? He’s a die-hard supporter of the genre, so he’s seen these stories before. Doesn’t the industry owe him the opportunity to experience that feeling of omen, that sticks with you for days afterwards, that comes from being truly affected by something new? Yes, I understand that they’re interested in up-dating and snagging new fans, and that it’s hard to do something truly original in an industry that pumps out ideas faster than a fire-hose spews kittens, but, if a large portion of horror is socially contextual, then old properties aren’t going to cut it, even for newcomers. It seems silly to think that copying something, instead of producing something, is a preferable risk in a genre that runs on sparking dreadful wonder.

Still, if you’re going to do a remake, then how do you do it right? I asked Kevin that very same thing. He seems to think that it rides the line between being respectful to the original idea and making it your own. I don’t want to spoil the plots, but Kevin provided a few examples of good remakes: “John Carpenter’s The Thing” (1982) and” The Thing from Another World” (1951), “The Fly” (1958) and “The Fly” (1986), as well as, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978). In these movies, especially “The Fly,” what you already know going into the movie may work against you. If part of horror is about subverting expectations in the spine-tingling-est way possible, then a remake should use what you think you know to scare the crap out of you. It’s like what SpecOps: The Line did by making you think you were stepping into another brown-desert-shooter and taking you on a psychological-thrill-ride. Maybe what we’re really crying out for is a Sims-style Silent Hill game where you play a white, middle-class office worker that grows old and dies in obscurity. That would be true horror in a world cello-taped together by social media. Still, up-dating new franchises is only one of the ways to extend the life of intellectual property. What about sequels?

Kevin says he has a soft-spot for sequels, “but only if the sequel continues the story-arc of the first one…” and isn’t just a sequel in name only. That’s something I can kind of get behind for movies, but many of my favourite games were evolutions of the original formula and mechanics in sequel form (Silent Hill 2, Far Cry 3). I guess a gaming-equivalent would be expansion packs tarted up to look like sequels (Crysis 3). We’ll hit up that particular topic another time, though. Movies are singular narrative experiences, after all. The story is our core engagement. That’s what you’re supposed to be getting. Unfortunately, as Kevin mentioned, a lot of the time, what you’re buying with bigger-name  franchises is the brand. That doesn’t mean that all sequels are like that, but when you consider things like Freddy’s Nightmares, House 2 (not about the cynical, fun-loving doctor) or Friday the 13th: The Series, that’s all you were getting of the original IPs. They traded off the names of the original series’ to attract an audience (See BioShock 2 for that particular sin in a gaming context). You can make a good movie that way, but it’s a bit misleading. This is where sequels and remakes diverge. Yes, they’re both using the same idea, but a sequel is a continuation. It shouldn’t just use the original as a spring-board to do something totally different. That’s what reboots are for.  Good sequels? Kevin gave props to the Saw guys for their winding, unified story.

Then again, he says, the big franchise he watched growing up was the Friday the 13th series (not to be confused with the Friday the 13th television show mentioned above), “the more, the merrier.” He equates his love of horror to a drug. I can definitely relate. Even though you know going into a theatre that you’re not going to totally enjoy something, you still go. You have to. It’s the same driving force that got me through Cthulhu and made me instantly want to rent Dagon, even though it was unrelated to it, simply to see what they had done.

As a horror movie junkie, it can be hard to elucidate why you love a movie, or even the genre itself. After years of watching horror movies, you can get a bit desensitized to the same old business. It’s a problem that I’ve run into, even as I’m sucking back B horror movies and indie games like a voracious frat-boy with a tray jager-bombs. I could only imagine what it was like for Kevin. So, I asked him what he wanted to get out of a horror movie now, years after he fell in love, “When it comes to horror movies, I want to be entertained, or [watch] a movie that resonates with me. If it scares me, [that’s] even better…” That was something I really needed to hear someone else say. One of the scariest things for me has been losing my ability to be fully immersed in a horror experience, because I’m too busy studying the movie (fear of losing fear, how meta is that? >.< ). Kevin himself says that the edge started to dull a bit when he got into Fangoria magazines and the how-tos of special effects. Still, he finds the odd flick that still gets him. That, if nothing else, gives me hope that I’ll find movies that will once again rake my nerves over a smattering of red-hot razors and Lego bricks.

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I’d recommend listening to the original interview, which I’ll link again for convenience, because I didn’t cover everything or do Kevin’s quotes justice. You really have to hear this guy talk about his genre; it’s awesome. So, track down your local cult movie shops, if you can. It’s not because it’s cool to buy indie or, even, local, although you’ll find arguments for both. No, for me, it’s because if you’re still running a business like that now, you love what you do. You love your subject-matter and you show it in your business practices. Kevin, and people like him, are more concerned with giving you a great experience than making a buck, so you can trust their word on the things they enjoyed. That’s where you’re going to find your next truly fantastic experience… It’s like Reddit in real life. Except that it costs money. Money that will go to fueling the industry making the things you also love. See? One big, happy, terrifying community.