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Fear vs loathing – the importance of power in horror games

March 5, 2012 13 comments

I recently watched Thomas Grip’s presentation at the 2011 GDC (cheers to tylersnell for the link) which, alongside playing through Amnesia: The Dark Descent, has me doing a lot of thinking about horror games and the way so much of what styles itself as horror these days should be looking long and hard at Frictional’s approach.

I strongly advise watching his talk in full – its a fascinating look at the thinking behind one of the more engaging and atmospheric games in recent memory. On the off chance you don’t have forty-odd minutes spare, I’ll amateurishly paraphrase one of his key points as I go, as its relevant to what I’m trying to say here.

I think a lot of the ‘big’ horror games of the recent generations (Resident Evil 5, the F.E.A.R. series, Condemned, Dead Space) have suffered to varying degrees from abuse of power – specifically, the amount of power given to the player character. Thomas makes an interesting point about how the tools you give to the player will define the way they look at and interact with your world – if you give them a gun, they will approach every situation looking for something to shoot. Taking this further, if you give them anything that could be a weapon, they presume it should be, and that wielding it makes them powerful. He relates an anecdote on the studio’s experiences developing the Penumbra games, where in testing they discovered that if the player was given any kind of weapon their first approach when faced with a threat was to attempt to kill it, no matter how ineffective the weapon, or how dangerous the foe.

Dead Space

Watch me take this guy down with a waffle iron.

This is telling, because it illustrates that people in a game scenario will attempt to make themselves a powerful force using whatever means they have at their disposal, and then exercise that power against any perceived threats. This is how games have been training us to play them since the first generation – you play, you remove threats and become powerful so you can you face bigger threats, and become more powerful. I would suggest that achieving power, even by slow degrees, erodes fear.

This point articulates something I’ve been trying to put my finger on for a while with horror games, which is that by and large, (and whatever their other qualities might be) they aren’t very good at being genuinely scary.

Before you leap ahead to the comments section to put the boot in, let me expand a little. The games I mentioned above are variously tense, atmospheric or unsettling, and some of them have the odd scary moment. I’m not suggesting they are a pleasant walk in the park to play – I myself am not the kind of person who enjoys being repeatedly startled – its that when playing them I’m nervous about the next monster closet moment, not scared as the character┬áin the world I’m supposed to be inhabiting.

The kind of scares you see in a lot of the above games actually take you out of the game world, rather than drawing you in. For me, this is at the heart of the issue – games are more often about using cheap tricks (like monsters jumping from vents into your face with no warning) to startle the player, in place of creating an experience that is truly scary, around and between these moments. By truly scary, what I mean is an experience which is focused on being immersive and engagingly frightening and happens to be delivered in a game, rather than a game which is focused on fun gameplay and happens to have some scares mixed in.

After watching Thomas’s speech, I’m now convinced that this is because the experience and the ‘horror’ that these games are supposed to create in the player eventually play second fiddle to implementing mechanics that are ‘fun’ to play. Key to things being fun to play, as a general rule, are the ideas of gradual mastery and escalating challenge.

Dead Space actually encapsulates these points perfectly within its first level. The opening sequence is genuinely scary, and correspondingly isn’t very fun. As the game progresses, the story gets more and more interesting, the encounters get bigger and crazier and the game is more enjoyable, but in correlation, the fear decreases. The atmosphere, the environment and the story are still there, all that changes is Isaac’s power – in the opening level, he has no idea what is happening around him, no objectives beyond surviving, and no tools or weapons to combat the threat with. The first time an alien is encountered, it results in a pants-soiling flight through a darkened corridor, where the desire to move as fast as you can is tempered only by the desire to turn around and see how fast the nightmare is gaining behind you – fighting and winning isn’t an option here, you are totally powerless.

After arming himself shortly afterwards, the encounters are slightly different – rather than turning and fleeing, you’re attacking head on, and the original fear is diluted by the familiarity of impending combat – you have a weapon, therefore you expect you have the power. The fear returns in force after four or five shots to the head or torso when you realise your weapon is having little effect, and the beast is bearing down on you with alarming speed. This is still scary – you go from feeling powerful (comparatively) to powerless so quickly that flight starts to once again seem like the preferable option.

Around this time the game introduces you to the ‘strategic dismemberment’ mechanic – the only effective way to defeat the Necromorphs is by shooting off their legs, and then removing any remaining limbs from the now slower-moving and much, much less scary remains.

Dead Space

'This seems easy enough' - famous last words from the Dead Space universe.

From this point Dead Space is a continual game of brinkmanship – Isaac acquires more and more powerful weapons, and is matched against more and more powerful monsters. By and large, what made the first encounters frightening is now abandoned for the more familiar (and easier) method of periodically having a monster leap out of a vent without warning, or making sure one enemy always spawns behind you in a room, so that your confidence in despatching the one in front of you leads to a moment of panic when you’re hit from behind. The interesting thing about this is that somewhere along the way, the creation of genuine fear became less important than the mechanics of being able to shoot the limbs off undead space insects. We know this is the case due to the sheer number of weapons Isaac collects that have been specifically designed for exactly this function. (Honestly, if you aren’t expecting to get boarded by multi-limbed alien horrors, why can I buy gravity-defying circular-saw guns from the vending machines?).

Later encounters with ever-bigger aliens don’t have the impact of the first ones, because the dynamic is well and truly set – you (through your weapons) have the power here.

All this is a long winded way of saying that true fear gets harder to create as you make the player character more and more powerful – (in the case of the F.E.A.R. series, giving the player time-slowing abilities and a Doom-like arsenal at the outset totally precluded it) – its difficult to be scared of something when you’ve dismantled and then curb-stomped several dozen others just like it.

This is where Amnesia shines – without any kind of combat mechanics, the player’s influence on the world is restricted to playing with light and manipulating everyday objects, neither of which can be used to inflict harm on the prowling monsters that serve as your enemies. Reduced to running and hiding, where the light you wield helps your hunters as much as you creates an atmosphere of dread that needs no sudden, nerve-jangling noises or stacked mob spawns to sustain it.

To be fair to Dead Space, I think its in a middle ground here – it does do a great job of creating atmosphere and a very lonely sense of foreboding as you wander the slaughter filled halls of the Ishimura – it even uses a few opportunities to strip Isaac of his death dealing power and setup some frightening encounters, but its nowhere near Amnesia’s league.

Amnesia

Here's a scenario I'm not looking forward to finding out more about.

Of course, at the opposite end of the spectrum there are a litany of things that get in the way of genuine scares in Resident Evil 5. Once again a notable example can be made of one that shows how desirable mechanics were prioritised over genre experience during development. Not content with making the player character the kind of superhero to whom the enemies of the game are a tasty breakfast treat, RE5 adds a partner character – convenient for multiplayer, (and possibly made extremely capable in response to the community trashing of Ashley, the semi comatose wet blanket from RE4) but having an ass-kicking, wise-cracking comrade along for the ride is as much an enemy of fear-building as setting the majority of your levels in brightly lit, open areas (especially when this is one of her uniforms). In this case the desire for the game to be a fun two player experience, and for players to be in awe of how badass this duo are was stronger than the desire for it to be a truly scary experience – game mechanics overrode the ‘message’.

From nothing more than the way the characters are defined, RE5 leaves the player no choice about how the way in which to approach the game – as the kind of badass hero who only pauses in their orgy of zombie ‘majini’ slaughtering to reload, or mutter a witty quip to their equally unstoppable backup. For the most part, FEAR and its sequels suffered from the same issue – the various player characters were powerful enough to gun down groups of enemies without raising a sweat, so there isn’t a lot of inherent risk about being ‘alone in the dark’ here – the game repeatedly teaches you that the monsters should be more afraid of you than you are of them.

Resident Evil 5

The look of terror on his face is infectious.

Given that paradigm, players are more engaged by the power of their own player character than that of their enemies. Every threat is instinctively approached as something which can, and must, be destroyed. The closest you come to fear in these circumstances is the mild panic when reloading at an inopportune moment, or the tense apprehension waiting for yet another ‘dog and window’ moment. Neither is truly representative of the horror genre, or the kind of atmosphere it should be capable of creating.

I mentioned Condemned above because although its guilty of the same issue, it takes a while to really manifest it. In addition to a superbly crafted atmosphere and environment, by largely restricting the player to melee combat with everyday items (rather than a Frost Sword of Doom, or similar), you feel as if every encounter could go either way. Each new enemy is a frantic battle for survival, rather than a fresh set of targets in the shooting gallery.

Of course, by the closing stages of the sequel, the dynamic is exactly that – armed with an M16 and an interest-withering ‘magic shout power’ (which is nowhere near as cool as it was in Skyrim, despite being exactly the same), you parade confidently through the environment, hoping desperately to see a monster leaping from its closet so you have an excuse to use your many toys. Again, this is not what horror could be. Fear was left by the wayside on the road to power, and the game suffers greatly for it.

The most important point that Grip presents is encapsulated in his final thought – “if we want to advance our medium, we must allow it to be expressive – we must not think about how games are supposed to be, but we must think about the kind of meaning we want them to carry”. This sums up what, in my eyes, is the issue with a lot of whats currently called horror – first thinking about what kind of gameplay mechanics will sell, and then coating them in a thin veneer of atmosphere, sprinkling the result with scripted ‘startle’ moments, and calling the result horror.

The gauntlet’s been thrown down by Frictional with Amnesia, and smart money is on their recently announced A Machine for Pigs having a similar intent behind it. Are there any contenders out there likely to answer this challenge? Or alternatively, have I totally missed the point?

If you’ve got any great examples of genuinely scary games that had powerful protagonists, let me know in the comments.

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