NPC – Non Play Criticism: The Paradox of Horror

It is a truism in video game circles of serious thinkers that video games are a young medium and that we are forging new territory with our criticism. That is of course bullshit in both respects.

Video game critics are often cut off from other mediums. May perhaps that our medium is so new that more energy is required to get anything done as each new step is not just walking along a singular path among the fold, but having to stir and pour the concrete before a step may be taken. So much time gets spent toiling away on our own medium that we rarely look up and see the critical spheres of other mediums happening around us and the realization that so much that is considered with art is true for however an artist wishes to express themselves because it is all still human expression.

Non Play Criticism is my attempt to occasionally highlight some piece of criticism relating to another medium, educate whatever readership I may have by pointed it out and try and bring back into the fold whatever lesson it may have to offer.

If nothing else, I share an interesting piece of criticism from another medium.

Our fourth outside sphere: Philosophy.

Philosophy Bites is a podcast of short interviews with a philosophy or academic there to explain a single point from the long history and wide world of philosophical thinkers (mostly western philosophy). On this episode from August of 2008, Alex Neill is on to explain the Paradox of Tragedy. He is a professor at the University of South Hampton.

In it he first defines the paradox and then tries to explain the several different ideas come up with over the thousands of years to try and reconcile it. In short, how can we enjoy something that is meant to cause what is essentially pain or otherwise emotions we nominally would not want to experience. It starts by looking at tragedy, but at around the 11 minute mark it goes on to address the horror movie, which succumbs to the same paradox. Yet, while it succumbs to the same paradox, Neill find that the solution to reconciling one doesn’t reconcile the other.

Given the time of year, and how in the video game industry we become enraptured by the idea of horror, it seems right to think about why. Most of the podcast talks about the audience reaction to passive media such as theater and film. This includes some of the possible explanations to why we would see others under threat. So how does this work for an interactive medium like video games?

I think we need to think very hard about the ways we do in fact value these works. And one way of doing that is by looking at what critics, good critics — either literary critics or drama critics or movie critics — the ways in which they discuss these works when they’re trying to explain what makes them valuable. And I suggest if you look at a decent piece of critical writing on a new production of Lear or of Antigone, you wont find many references to delight, to pleasure, to it being enjoyable and so on. I’m not ruling them out, but I don’t think that would be the overwhelming theme of the critic’s response. I think, on the other hand, if you read a good movie critic on a horror movie you’ll find that there is, indeed, references to being thrilled, to being delighted in the same piece as they’ll be talk about the horror of it, how scary it was and so on. But I think you’ll find that as a matter of fact, that critics of one sort of art form, refer to pleasure they don’t when they’re talking about the other sort of art form.

He uses this evidence to support to his explanation to resolve the paradox. Instead of discussing whether Professor Alex Neill is right or wrong, I want to think on the point in the paragraph above.

Philosophy is the study of theoretical knowledge. It’s interested in drilling down to look at the substructures of the natural world. Over the centuries it has1 taken the previously held givens and put them under the microscope. Often thinkers have found what was once thought to be the base of knowledge, merely to be answer to an even more as of yet unrealized fundamental question. Unless you decide to go into the field full time the main take away of this is that each situation is a series of increasingly fundamental questions whose answers will supply the base of where you have just been. The idea being to see if your presumptions were correct when examining the underlying truth of the matter until you reach a result.

In this we have the questions of horror games. Often the answer is “immersion.” That video games are more immersive than horror movies and this greater than property therefore makes them valuable in themselves. I hope you dear reader, if nothing else will divest yourself of that thinking. The property of the greater than theory is a bane on video games. Instead we should think of the more fundamental question of what we want out of horror games, then what we want out of horror, then why we would want that and then why do we want.2 I guarantee given the nature on any specific type of horror game the answer and details would be different.

And further beyond that, can we divest the thought of getting what we want from the thought that doing so is itself valuable. IE. wanting to be scared and then getting scared does not make the object of fright valuable. Drilling down will produce a better answer, will produce a more interesting, more accurate answer. Or to put it another way: I’m sick to goddamn death of the same horror game platitudes.

  1. Or at least western philosophy has. []
  2. Questions are broadly phrased, because the details would obviously change given any individual’s answers. []

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