October ’12 Round Table Entry – Thinking on Horror

It’s the end of the month and that means it’s time for BoRT. Being October, this month’s topic suitably fits the season, Fear and Loathing in Game Spaces:

“Since their inception, games have explored that most primal of human emotions: fear. Whether it’s shambling zombies, ghosts, relentless killers or arachnophobia, we’ve never been short of scares. Some can’t stand horror games, while others thrive on them.

Are games uniquely suited to instil fear in the player, beyond a film or a Stephen King novel? Does your skin crawl at the mere thought of being scared, or do you relish the surge of adrenaline? Have you ever been scared or felt uncomfortable in a game that wasn’t intended to make you feel that way?”

As a nod to the month I’ve spent the last month writing about nothing but horror games in my column at PopMatters. Five essays on a variety of games on the nature of their methods and capabilities of instilling horror in their players. (The last of which has been delayed publication due to Hurricane Sandy and the resulting power outages.) Each has their own different ways of approaching dread and being scary. Some through a never ending hoard, others through existential contemplation, games that just screw with your perceptions and those that remove your ability to defend yourself. Now this may be overly generalizing, but I think horror games are more equipped to work with deeper meanings and more artistic sensibilities than their more action oriented counterparts.

Many games thrive off of a sense of danger to provide conflict for the player to be embroiled in. Combat mechanics seems to be the most common type of mechanics in video games. But the ever-present specter of the reload and checkpoints hovers always ready to defang the experience. Horror games are far more honest with themselves and the player. They understand the removal of danger as detrimental. Mostly to their specific goal of keeping tension high and scaring the player white, but it trickles down into aspects of meaning and artistic integrity.

Games by their very nature require repetition of basic performed actions from the player. Over time the player becomes familiar with not only what they can do, but also the game’s dynamics in how it responds to the inputs. The player in turn learns and practices their responses to the produced stimuli. Fear requires the unknown and video games by their nature require them to be known. Horror games have to go out of their way to remain a mystery and cause dread that the player takes out of the game and into himself or herself.

In a way a game that scares a player is proof that it is more affecting than others. Maybe I’m talking out of my ass, but I see horror games as more thought provoking than most others. To a certain extent horror games require more their audience that horror works in other mediums. To a certain extent they require the player to hook themselves up to the jumper cables than have the work do it for them. The players are complicit in their own fear. Yes one can stop a movie or put down a book if it becomes too much. But to an extent the connection between audience and protagonist in those mediums is one of voyeurism of things that happen to other people. These things happen to the characters whether the audience pushes on or not. Games have an extra level of complicit behavior on the part of its audience. A game player has to purposefully push the character, of which they are a part of, into danger. It may be a small distinction between the turning of a page to push time forward in the story and the pressing of buttons to do the same, but the difference in effect of the medium is quite different.

Players, as opposed to readers and movie watchers, project their themselves into the work at the hands of the character instead of projecting their empathy onto the plight of the characters. The act of control, however limited, gets the player to being discussing the actions of the avatar in terms of themselves having performed them. There is a palpable sense of danger for the player that doesn’t exist for audiences of other mediums. This doesn’t even get into a modern phenomenon of modern horror movie watchers rooting for the monster against the protagonists having been desensitized to formula and investing in the details and takes on said formula.

In the player’s projection, they begin thinking of the avatar and themselves as one while they play and as some strange hybrid when talking about it. Even characters that other the player from the experience like James Sunderland of Silent Hill 2 or more recently Walker from Spec Ops: The Line, still have the player talking about it a weird sort of hybrid existence where they are one being and yet not. From this player investment the horror is more affecting and better equipped to scare.

The game has the players thinking about themselves. Consequently, the player absorbs the threat of danger better. It also works the other way. The player beings putting more thought into what is going on. They spend more time looking at the screen more closely at the details. As the danger is projected into the real world, like any game the cycle continues and the player begins reading into it. In a way these video games become more readable and deeper. The nature of the games require more differing material to remain scary and that material is in turn is read deeper or at least longer.

Other game genres achieve this through other methods. Stealth games through their slow pace. Strategy games through their reasoned decision making. But there is something about Horror that makes us think differently. Maybe it just has to do with considering what we fear and why.

As per Alan Wiliamson’s suggestion here are  the horror game  pieces I wrote all month on: the zombie hoards, an existential ghost story, a cosmic Cthulu cult, an Event Horizon knock off and the Great Kahuna of all horror games.

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