Archive for Silent Hill 2

Crafting Horror Mechanics and Mindsets

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

Last time, we were comparing the elements that create a jump-scare to the elements that create an entire horror movie. Today, we’re going to expand on that and talk about creating player mind-sets in horror games.

Finding primary sources for this is difficult, because horror experiences are so personal. I can tell you what I was thinking at a given moment of gameplay, but it might not be the norm. We can discuss what designers wanted their players to feel, but whether or not that translates to the player experience is going to depend on a lot of factors external to the design.

So, we’re going to go broad and stick with a few concrete perspectives. To do that, we’re going to start with Dead Space 3.

Now, we all know the crafting system in Dead Space 3 rocked our immersion with its micro-transaction frippery, but is that the only issue with it? I would argue that it also creates entirely the wrong mind-set in the player. When you’re crafting a weapon in DS3, what are you thinking about?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking about how much damage it’s going to do. I’m thinking about how many pieces they’ll fly into. Or, I’m considering the merits of perpetual-stasis ripper-saws against those of a glowing death-ball cannon. If you watched my Painkiller video of yore, you’ll have probably figured out my point already: in none of the scenarios I’m considering am I the prey.

I’m preparing for battle, so I’m preparing to hunt, or, at least, to take down a dangerous opponent. The dynamic I’m thinking in is that of a predator. That’s empowering; that’s the opposite of the way I should be thinking. I should be thinking, “I hope this will keep me alive, but I’m not sure if it will.” If I’m going to min-max, then it should be for all the right reasons.

But my question is, if you’re already thinking about your strength and how to combat an opponent, aren’t you already in the wrong mind-set? This is one of the things that makes horror RPGs so questionable to me: RPG elements are usually about growth towards success and away from dis-empowerment.

The way we usually employ leveling systems isn’t going to cut it; we need our level-ups to reinforce our position in the monster dynamic. There are several ways to do this. One way is simply to ensure that your growth never makes you equal to the monsters. This can be accomplished by simply making the monsters more powerful, but then it’s pretty hard to distinguish between standard monster progression and an atmosphere of oppression. Lulz.

Again, though, if we’re in that mind-set, then we’ve already lost the first battle. Let’s step back: what does our level-up system tell the player about how they’re growing? If you can grow in strength, then your ability to combat the enemy grows, as well. But, what if you grow in pivoting speed? I know it sounds silly next to Strength, but that’s why we just don’t include Strength.

Our character could grow in areas that reinforce its prey-like nature. The ability to pivot quicker or sprint longer would give the player the tools to escape enemies more easily, but it wouldn’t make the escape itself trivial. An ability that allows the player to sense their enemies seems like a good idea, but that also increases the player’s ability to combat the enemy.

Another thing to remember, here, is not to allow the level-up mechanics to interact with the puzzles or the challenges in any way that makes them easier. Doing that gives the player Avatar-strength, which is exactly what we’re avoiding in the combat. The message should be: your growth helps you survive, not succeed.

For example, let’s say we give players the ability to unlock an emergency u-turn button. That ability shouldn’t then interact with some puzzle that requires that you turn around more quickly, unless the speed with which you turn has no bearing on the challenge.

Let it be a convenience. What do I mean? Well, if you’re doing a riddle that requires that you pull on six hang-man’s nooses that are spaced around a room, then quick-turn lets you navigate to them more easily, if you’re in a third-person shooter. However, if there’s a timed-element, then quick-turn makes this portion easier by making the navigation easier.

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Now, this can be contextual, as well. If the puzzle is just a random timed puzzle for reasons, then it’s not really a big deal that your level-progression assisted you through it. However, if it’s a timed puzzle because the forces of darkness are slowly possessing your soul, then your level-progression has assisted you in fighting them, altering the dynamic once more.

Growing empowered doesn’t have to be a negative aspect of a horror game. It could always be shown to be an utter illusion, but, since it’s already an illusion, it’s difficult to experience the difference, at times. However, if progression leads you towards something awful, then we’ve altered the dynamic, again.

Think about Cthulhu. (but not too hard) As an entity, it is beyond grasping. However, in their studies of Cthulhu and the Occult, many adventurers find fantastic powers and strange, overwhelming artifacts. The deeper an adventurer quaffs, the madder it becomes. That’s another way to look at a power-progression.

Let’s say we’re in a house with a small ghost. Every day, that ghost grows slightly in power. In order to combat that ghost, we’ve got to learn about it and grow in power, as well. However, in order to grow in power, we must make sinister deals with Otherworldly creatures. These deals let a little bit of something slip through and we’re suddenly racing our madness with our intellect.

I envision this as a haunting-Occult sim that grows in insanity as you make deals with more and greater numbers of spirits. I’d include a Pact system that would eventually allow you to banish the evil from your house, but only after you’ve endured some messed-up shit and if you don’t die. However, it could also be a platformer that grows in complexity as you begin seeing more and more of the spirits populating the levels. You could probably get some funky level-replay value out of that. Remember the ! blocks in Super Mario World? Like that but with demons.

My point isn’t necessarily the gameplay: my point is the player mind-set. We must never stop asking: how do the systems we’re utilizing work together to influence how the player is thinking about their gameplay experience and, thus, their choices? That experience is where we need to concentrate our unnerving efforts: a frightening back-drop is nothing without it.

Speaking of backdrops, what about those environments and our relationship to them? Well, that usually depends on the systems in the game. If you’ve got a standard physics system, then you and the floor are well-acquainted. If you can swim, then water’s your buddy, guy! How about stealth mechanics? Shadows are your friend! And barrels. I like hiding behind barrels.

Think about how your relationship to the environment and the creatures changes between Outlast and Amnesia. Both of these games are about exploring the creepy-dark and finding baddies therein, but Amnesia has a stealth mechanic and Outlast has a hiding mechanic.

If you’re cornered in Outlast, then you can make a break for the next bed or locker and hide there. There aren’t really a lot of decisions to make about that: you just sprint and hide when you’re out of LoS. That’s about as much as you need to think about the environment, and that’s about as much as I did think about the environment.

However, in Amnesia, where every box might hide you and every shadow conceal you, you’re paying attention to the environment. You’re thinking about what the monster can see. You’re engaged with your surroundings. Yes, not being able to look at the creature helps, but only because you’re concerned about what the creature can see, so you’re thinking about the creature.

If you’re just thinking about avoiding the creature, then you’re not really threatened by it, because you’re not thinking of it as a threat. You’re thinking of it as an obstacle. You don’t think of its parameters, because they never come into play. You just react. See monster, run out of sight, hide, repeat. Or, see monster, stay out of sight, use sounds to avoid it, repeat.

A monster in Amnesia is an artificial intelligence to be played around. There are unknowns in its programming and risks you can take. You can successfully stack two boxes on top of each other and cower in a corner without knowing if that will hide you. That’s a qualitatively different experience to picking a locker to crouch in for a while before being found or not. One’s a coin-flip, the other’s a die roll.

For our player, the math behind it is not as important as the experience. That experience informs their mind-set, which informs their choices, which folds back in on their experience. Yes, that is a conceptual cluster-fuck, but we’re self-aware beings, so you weren’t expecting an easy answer, now, were you?

In any event, this is just a handful of perspectives. As I said last time, horror is like a finely-tuned melody. Any one of these elements that I’ve discussed, in good light or bad, can be part of a successful horror experience. The difference lies in how well the pieces fit together. It’s a difficult puzzle to navigate; I’ll see you on the other side.

100 Posts and It’s Finally Just About SH2

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2013 by trivialpunk

Well, here we are again. It’s always such a pleasure. God, but I do love ripping off Portal 2, don’t I? Did you know there was a Portal movie in the works to be produced by J.J. Abrams? He’s working on the Half-Life movie, as well. I wonder if he realizes exactly how important those franchises are… well, he’s in charge of both Star Trek and Star Wars, so I’m guessing it doesn’t matter all that much. This guy’s got pop-culture by the balls and no one seems to notice. That’s a pretty big responsibility; I hope he takes it seriously.

Anyways, the reason I’ve gathered you all here is because it’s time for this blog’s 100th post! I know, I took forever to get it together, because I took time off for final exams and term papers without announcing it, but you read my work, so you’re nothing if not patient. I have interesting ideas for future posts, but I’ve been doing puff pieces about stuff close to me leading up to today, so I figured we’d just keep up the momentum and talk about a game I love with every quantum of my heart and soul: Silent Hill 2.

SH2

No, I’m not going to do a retro review, because there are a ton of those already. Besides, I reference and deconstruct this game so often in my other posts that it would be downright redundant to do it here. It’s the source material, the well-spring from which my understanding of horror springs. It’s The Grudge wrapped in SpecOps: The Line sprinkled with Friday the Thirteenth. And I absolutely adore it. Granted, the first time I played this game I was 13, so there’s bound to be a little nostalgia blindness mixed in there. If you think it got to me a bit early, then keep in mind that I was  11 the first time I played the original.

Playing these games was like accessing some deep, forgotten Magick. It was dogmatic taboo channelled through riddles of reference and ominous symbolic meaning. I lapped it up. Nothing about this game pulled any punches. It didn’t have to be gory, because it became a part of me. It showed me my hypocrisy with hideous clarity. BUT, at the same time, it taught me. It showed me ideas and worlds I had never considered before. Growing up in a Catholic school and bathed in the mythologies of Greece and Rome, I hadn’t even considered that something other than an outside force could grant forgiveness. Silent Hill 2 changed all that.

Best of all, it didn’t talk down to me. It didn’t stop to explain to me that the town was the cite of hundreds of sacrificial rituals. There were no support characters explaining that pyramid-head was the executioner, the final punisher of prisoners in the traditions of Silent Hill’s historical fun-land. No one had to explain that the world was a foggy psychological landscape. It was all symbols, quips and half-erased memos. You know what it took to cement my understand that the world I was seeing wasn’t the “real” world? (By the way, this was my introduction to absurdist relativism) On the staircase, when you confront Angela in the hotel and her entire world is on fire, in that brief moment when their understandings intersect, I realized that the world I was seeing wasn’t the “truth.” It was my own tortured mind turning in on itself so far that it became reality, like some weird Escher nightmare. It was my truth.

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To this day, this realization informs so much of my understanding of human folk psychology. And, it keeps me from looking down on kids. If I could intuitively grasp a concept of that magnitude in an instant of interactive learning, then not only are games incredible tools for learning, but we’re kidding ourselves when we talk to thirteen year olds like they’re stupid. They may not be aflush in wisdom, but that’s kind of our job to bring across.

Anyways, we’re just going to talk about some of my favourite moments in the game and what they meant to me. The little red save squares are kind of a tradition in Silent Hill. No, not the squares themselves, but the method of saving telling you something about the protagonist. SH3 had the religious symbols from the church. SH1 had notepads, because Harry Mason was a writer. But Silent Hill 2’s save point are straight up the letter you received from Mary that brought you here. Incidentally, as you slowly learn the truth of it all, that letter fades from your inventory until it disappears, because it was never real to begin with. It was all part of your own self-flagellation. Your own necessary delusion that you’ve been using to protect yourself from reality.

Then, there’s the memorial you find on one of the streets. It’s a stone tablet  that details some of the tragedies that have taken place in the town. It’s a nice bit of background, because it highlights both why you’re here specifically and gives the neighbourhood an eerie magic. Finding the radio by following the blood-trail has always been a favourite of mine, as well as finding the notes that act as a sort of monster tutorial. All of these things let you know that the place you’ve stepped into isn’t friendly. There are no warning lights, no jump-scares, and the only other people you find are either raucously unhelpful, frustratingly uncommunicative or dead. Even the monster introduction is a figure lurching into the fog, followed by it calmly shuffling up to you in a cut-scene. The horror isn’t about freaking you out. You’ll freak out because it’s horrible and inevitable.

Because, the story of Silent Hill 2 was already written before the game started. I mean, more than just literally. You spend the greater part of the game uncovering the truth and learning how to deal with it. And, depending on your actions in the game, how you deal with it in the end changes. If you stopped to listen to the conversation in the Long Hallway, your introspection is rewarded with a healthy dose of reality. If, however, you choose to barrel on through because you don’t care about it, then you get to cry and die, my friend, because you’ve already decided that wallowing in guilt and anger is more important than engaging your inner demons.

Yes, the whole thing is kind of Jerry Spring-esque. You do come here to deal with your problems, but, more to the point, you come here because you have problems that need dealing with, a subtle but important difference. Eddie, the chunky dog-killer, ends up murdering his tormentors. Angela is once again unable to stand up to her abusive father. But, they still get to run around this mental playground in the hope that they’ll figure their way out. Instead, Eddie goes kill-crazy and you have to put him down like a rabid animal. Angela… well, she walks back into the flames, although she’s clearly been busy sewing her tormentors to the walls. Here’s a little background music.

The bosses you face are, for the most part, the demons of the town’s other inhabitants or your own angry self-reflections. There are the cage-monkeys, which are really bodies in bed-sheets and you know why that’s important. The Abstract Daddies of Angela’s nightmares. Eddie himself, because he’s pretty much a demon by this point. Your own demonic wife, the grand-mummy of the cage monkeys. And Pyramid Head. Yes, I know he shows up in other games because he’s the executioner of Silent Hill, but, here, he’s the straight-up shadow of James Sunderland (Why else would you get his knife?). He is the part of himself that James won’t admit to. Masculine, destructive and cruelly torturous. He is guilt incarnate and violence made manifest. Which makes sense, because James is the executioner, after all.

The one line related to Pyramid Head that has stuck with me all these years related back to the absolution of self-guilt: “I was weak…  That’s why I needed you… Needed someone to punish me for my sins… But that’s all over now. I know the truth. Now it’s time to end this.” I get chills just thinking about it. After playing the entire game living in fear of this invincible Hell-monster, this unstoppable ghoul whose only loss comes from getting bored and wandering off, James Sunderland takes back control of his own life and serves, once more, as the arbiter of his own destiny. Though all may judge a man, only a man may truly judge himself. That works pan-sexually, too, but it loses some of its pithy zing when you take out the shortest words available to refer to people. Honestly, that’s why writers use “man.” It’s all about simplicity of word-length. But, if we’re going to topple years of Patriarchy in literature, then we really should use, “Thought all may judge an individual, only an individual may truly judge itself.” There, ideology over style, because some things are more important.

Moving right along, after pinging away at the Pyramid Heads (yes, there are two now, reflections and all) for a while with a hunting rifle, they just up and kill themselves, because that’s the ultimate result of self-loathing untempered by self-understanding, leaving James to ascend the stairs to confront his own sins: the smothering of his sickly, deformed wife. Now, depending on your level of involvement in James’ nightmare world, you can either take this as a kindness or a sickness. Either James did it because he was sick of taking care of her, then, racked with guilt, he self-terminates. Sanitary phrase, that. Or, if you look around and listen to the conversation in the hallway, you discover that his wife asked him to do it. Still morally questionable, but much more understandable.

That’s got to be my favourite part of Silent Hill 2. It doesn’t end by freeing you from your own actions: you still killed your wife. It takes your responsibilities and shoves them in your face to make you deal with them. However, it raises important questions about what those responsibilities are. It deals with difficult issues like euthanasia by presenting them and letting the player decide. Yes, you get to leave Silent Hill after you discover the truth and face it, but the redemption is personal, not moral. You still had to visit this nightmarish town. You still had to face punishment. You still had to accept the mantle of responsibility for taking those actions. After all, you held the pillow. Or, rather, James did.

You are still guilty, but, perhaps, you can still redeem yourself, if you acted well. No one can let you off the hook but yourself. But, you also have to be your own Judge. Self and social responsibility… you know the systems that play with these notions, but rarely are they presented so frankly. The whole thing is complex and tragic. There is no true moral lesson, only interesting questions. Best of all, no one shows up to explain it all to you, because it expects that you can use your own mind. And, look at that, you definitely are. This was one of the first times I remember being treated like this by any form of media, and I truly appreciated it… Like a mother-fucking adult.

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Oh, Pyramid Head… How I am thee. The game is also full of strange WTF moments. Like the inexplicable game show in the elevator where you answer trivia questions about the town. I’m not at all ashamed to admit I knew them all by heart. There are the interesting cross-over clues you find that refer to murders or murderers in the town that tie-in to Silent Hill 4. Then, there’s the whole resurrecting your wife ending where you uncover pieces of the town’s ancient mythos and become proficient enough in ancient ceremonies to banish the demon from her body and resurrect her from the dead. Of course, you can only do that on the second play-through, once you have the chainsaw and have experienced the full force of the actual story, because that really only makes sense. The second play-through is your own revisionist history, how meta. It would sort of take away from it if you could just pop her back to life afterwards.

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Oh, did you know that if you  hold the chainsaw long enough, James’ idling animation is a scream? No? Well, feel free to test it out. My favourite ending has to be the alien one, though. Alien endings were kind of a staple in Silent Hill, which shows you that the series takes itself exactly as seriously as it needs to. Like Castle, when you’re frank about yourself, you don’t have to worry about being a little silly. Or weird.

Speaking of weird… Sticking your hand in the wall with the weird Ba-dooung sounds still sort of freaks me out, especially when the controller vibrates. See? that’s how you do jump-scares. You build up to them and then pay them off. Give me something to dread… like sticking my hand into a wall-hole for no good reason. But James is no stranger to sticking his hand in weird places. Remember in Silent Hill 3 when Heather refuses to root around in a disgusting toilet?

That’s because James did it in this game. You pull a disgusting chunk of something out of a crap-filled toilet and, surprisingly, it’s not just a big piece of poo. It’s a wallet with a safe combination in it. Which you use to get a cache of ammo someone was clearly saving up just in case something like all of this bullshit actually happened. Too bad they died on the toilet without getting a chance to utilize it.

Then there’s sticking his hand through the metal grate in an attempt to reach a key on the other side… only to have his hand stomped on by a little girl he’s trying to help. She actually marks the first time I’ve hated a character, especially a small child, in anything, but then, subsequently, came to understand, even empathize with, them. I’m sure there were plenty of opportunities to really think about empathizing in other media, but Silent Hill 2 got me invested in the world and characters by giving me something to think about while not being too obvious.

That sums it all up, really. Silent Hill 2 was engaging because every part of it was morally ambiguous and mentally challenging. To this day, there’s one thing that still bothers me…

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WTF!?

Thanks for reading through 100 posts! Some of the other bloggers in the sphere have a List-mas thing planned that I’ll be participating in, but, other than that, we’re back in black. Or, I guess, on the blog it’s grey on black sprinkled with orange, but now I’m just being pedantic. See you on the other side! … of 100!

Repetition, Survival-Horror, Horror and Repetition

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2013 by trivialpunk

Oh man, two posts in a row about Silent Hill? I must be tonguing the bottom of the barrel here. Not particularly. There are a host of new horror IPs coming out this year, and I want to get a little theory down before I get to the straight-up reviewing. One of the most enjoyable things about it is that the new generation of games may prove me dead wrong. It becomes an incredible learning opportunity, because now my deviant thoughts are in cold, hard pixels. It’s much easier to think about what the newer games are teaching me if I know where I started.

Let’s get down and grungy, then, and slip back into the bound-to-be-occupied waters of Silent Hill 2. Actually, despite being the second post, I thought about this topic first. Last post was kind of a tangent that got away from me. Oh well, there’s no harm in following a thought to see where it gets you. This post came about because I was watching Cronenberg’s “The Fly” the other night. It got me thinking about the type of horror he was creating. The arc. The engagement. There are maybe six shocking moments in the entire movie, and the rest of it is build-up and pay-off. The first half an hour is all foreshadowing. In fact, the creature’s final form doesn’t come until late in the flick and the primary horror up to that point is existential and transformative in nature.

Naturally, this brought me back to horror games. It made me think about what I spend the majority of my game doing, because it sure as hell isn’t empathy building. I’ll be primarily talking about Silent Hill 2, but the points here are pretty applicable all over. Although, SH2 doesn’t cover it all, so I’ll be reaching out a bit to other games. This is far from comprehensive, but it’s something to think on.

Most of my game time is spent running around, picking up items and killing things. Hundreds of things. How does that stay engaging? Horrific? Movies, like “The Fly,” have a distinct advantage over games in that they are much shorter. If there’s anything that kills a creature’s frightening nature, then it’s repetition. Unless, that is, it’s approached correctly.

Keeping your audience engaged is the biggest challenge. It’s one you have to approach subtly in a survival horror game, because you can’t just go around changing how the rules work. Continuity of experience is a key factor in getting absorbed into a game. Once you intuitively understand how the game universe operates, you’ll undergo kinaesthetic projection. You’ll cease thinking about the controller and start thinking about the character on the screen. Yet, you can’t let your players check out completely. CoD: MW tackles this problem by maintaining the same aesthetics of play within a framework of different types of engagement. SH2 uses the same method.

The rules of play never change, but the circumstances and enemies do. They’ve also got enough flexibility to present different challenges in different situations. Think of the standard bread-and-butter enemy

This lovely little guy

This lovely little guy

He may not look like much, but he’s hella engaging. He can hide under cars, necessitating care around the vehicles out-doors. He both stands and crawls, allowing for different forms of attack and different levels of threat. He can spit acid/tar at you, meaning he’s still a threat at range, allowing him to act in a support capacity, if necessary. He’s bizarre looking, but recognizable enough that you may feel a bit off-put by his plight. You have to kick him when he’s down, but he can squirm away and stand up or crawl around and hurt you, creating a really weird version of DDR in the process.

Like all enemies (save most boss monsters), you have the choice of running away. You can undergo combat at range or in melee. You can try to sneak by or just slog through. All of these choices represent limited resources that you’ve got to manage. Ranged combat costs bullets, but usually prevents health damage. Melee is effective and free, but you’ll probably take damage. Running away presents the option to get away without spending anything, but there’s the risk of being taken down while you run or just being cornered. You might end up having to fight any ways, but you would have lost some health in the process.

All of these things – resource management, avoidance, combat types – fit within the framework of the game-play. Even the number of monsters changes things dramatically. At a given time, one creature may be squirming on the ground, another firing at you from range and still another flailing at you within melee range. And that’s just the basic straight-jacket creature.

Going into each encounter, you’re asking yourself questions about how best to engage and, even, whether or not to do it. Each offers a different time of engagement, and, aside from influence from the level design, the experience maintains an organic sort of nature. It’s like they dropped  a bunch of behavioural routines in some corridors and said, “Okay, how are you going to get past this? Think.” Well, actually, that’s exactly what they did. Only, the routines were slavering monstrosities and all they did was laugh maniacally.

Combat is a bit fluid, which allows for different types of engagement within the sphere of combat. However, they flesh out the strange, strange universe in other ways, as well, through puzzles. Remember how we learned waaaay too much about Umbrella just by figuring out how to open their doors? It’s kind of like that. The puzzles operate in two capacities: they flesh out the world, and they provide another form of engagement. In Cut-The-Rope, you cut a rope to deliver some food to an entitled little lizard dude. That tells you everything you need to know about that world. In SH2, you do stuff like melt a wax doll into an empty hand-hold groove so that it’ll hold a horseshoe in place, thus allowing you to open the trap door. And that should provide you an equal amount of information about THAT world.

Almost more important than this is breaking up the combat sections. One type of game-play will always get boring after a while; it will completely fail to engage you. No matter how condensed it is, every game needs to present you with multiple ways of thinking about its game-play. Otherwise, you’ll just check out. If you do that, then no horror game can touch you.

There are other ways of dealing with this, as well. You can even skip right past the combat and avoid the risk of repetition altogether. Games like Amy and Silent Hill Shattered Memories had interesting approaches to this. Think:  Stealth vs. Action games. These games are pretty much all about avoidance. However, there is a happy medium that I’m always glad to talk about: Clocktower.

Clocktower 1 and 2 let you kill things at specific points and, even with the limitations of the time, provided you with different types of engagement (If I’m losing anyone by saying engagement a hundred times, I’ll do a post specifically about that). Clocktower 3 was a little more direct. It took the Resident Evil 3 approach and provided you with an unkillable monster. You spent the lion’s share of the game avoiding combat as vehemently as possible, while still looking around, exposing yourself to danger. At some point, I may go into the specifics of the game, but you’ve been reading a while, so I’ll skip ahead a bit. At the end of each section, you undergo a bizarrely-out-of-place Magical Princess transformation and switch over to combat mode. Suddenly, all the attacks you had to avoid during the running sections change their meaning, because you have to avoid and retaliate in the same breath. Then, once the fight is finished, you’re helpless again and back in exploration mode, switching over to run-like-a-frightened-jawa mode when the psychos come calling.

It would be remiss of me to talk about Silent Hill without mentioning Pyramid Head. He’s practically the face of the franchise now. I can’t say I’m too stoked about that, because exposure significantly impacts his presence, but whatever. In his first appearance, he was a looming shadow. You see, you can’t just litter your game world with engaging fodder monsters; you need to have something else to fear. Much like RE3’s Nemesis, Pyramid Head is an overwhelming, omnipresent threat. You can’t even physically damage him. Yeah, you might be able to claw your way through a slough of lesser monsters, but there looms a larger threat. Everything about his character screams unknowable violence. Even your boss fights with him aren’t won by strictly killing him. Cat. Mouse. This is a huge change from how the rest of the game works, and it’s yet another example of how a small change in mechanics can alter your experience of a creature entirely.

As you can see, large portions of these games are dedicated to switching up your game-play so that you don’t get bored. Yet, they maintain the same basic controls and aesthetics, except perhaps Clocktower 3, but there are arguments for both sides there. This is because horror games face a unique challenge. They’ve got to stay scary in the face of repetition. Yet, repetition and over-exposure of the beast is the usually the death of horror. So, they use different methods to engage and get players to think about different types of horror. Like “The Fly,” they can flit around, picking up bits of existential terror, shock-value gross-outs, the macabre, anything. As long as it creates a continuous world, devs should never shy away from using all the tools available to them to create a feeling of tension: of carefully crafted horror.

No Time for Horror, Doctor Jones

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by trivialpunk

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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