It's a cliche but it's true. The more attractive your characters are the more likely you are to catch a viewer's interest long enough to draw them in, get them interested in the rest of your 'product'.
This rules applies just as much to horror games as it does anything else.
But is there such a thing as too pretty to die? I mean the whole point of horror is that we expose ourselves to the things we like least, not the things we desire. Is there a point at which the attractiveness of a character becomes so absurd as to completely absolve a scene of any power over the viewer or player?
I was pondering this as I watched the trailer for the new Fatal Frame game the other day and the conclusion I came to was pretty much: Err... yeah.
I watched a series of ridiculously attractive girls wandering around muttering something (obviously ghost related) in little more than outdoor lingerie and I sort of realised, yeah, this seems a bit silly. These characters look way too attractive to seem real, to seem relatable. It wasn't so much just that they were abnormally pretty (which they were) but that they also looked dressed as if they belonged on a catwalk or in a doll house much more than in somebody's nightmare.
Perhaps it's just my own lack of imagination when it comes to the perils that the life of a catwalker must involve, but I really do feel as though the way the characters were presented totally disengaged me from any sense of the situation I was watching on-screen feeling scary in any 'real' way. And honestly, I'm not trying to say I don't think a game with such ridiculously attractive characters could ever invoke fear or scare me – I'm sure, even without having played it, that the game will have its moments. It's just that I feel as though there is a line there to be crossed, a point at which a character is so ridiculously attractive that it negates whatever else the game may throw at you because of how unrelatable the characters are.
Horror, at it's very basic, is about the ugly. It's about exposing ourselves to the things we really don't want in our lives in a very controlled, usually very santised way. We don't like death, disease, gore, etc, yet it's always that nagging presence in the back of our minds – we can't escape that we'll die, or that we'll catch something some day, or that we'll see somebody bleed in the near future, so we cope with that by exposing ourselves to it in a controlled manner. The best horror though is often about taking that ugliness as close to it's logical extreme as possible without turning the viewer off, you want to disgust them, scare them, horrify them, but you want them to stay in their seat the whole time. You want them to enjoy themselves while they're being horrifically scarred for life.
If you take for example a game like Silent Hill 2, it takes that ugliness to a very disturbing level, with graphic depictions of violence and bizarre sex acts (ok, one), environments dripping in decay, a grey seemingly soulless world that feels very depressing and a horrific menagerie of creatures that all invoke different reactions based off whatever vague connotations their design implies. Yet there's measure and reason to the madness, to the game's ugliness.
Resident Evil remake is another good example of that, especially when compared the original PS1 game. The environments in the remake are decayed, rotten; things are out of place, broken, or even just missing from where they should be. None of this is present in the original, where the mansion just feels like some old stately home full of monsters (you know, the usual), but in the remake this atmosphere of decay, this ugly setting where everything seems broke and 'wrong' in some way helps really build the character of the mansion that forms the backdrop of the game and increases the sense that all is not right in the world of Resident Evil Remake.
That ugliness is always present in horror on some level, it's intrinsic in the genre, because if you're making a 'scary' game your material will always have some sort of ugliness to it, it's just about the degree to which it's taken. Games like Silent Hill 2 and Resident Evil remake take it much further than a game say like the original Resident Evil or even say Doom but they're still doing the same thing essentially. The goals are different so the degree to which they really dredge the depths of the human psyche are different but they're essentially still going for the same reaction: Ew.
Viewed like that then it may seem as though there is no point to the attractive in horror, after all why remind somebody of the thing you least associate with disease or death or decay? Well, the obvious answer is for contrast. When you think about that stunningly beautiful blonde from down the street the first thing you do isn't to imagine her getting her skin melted off or writhing in agony on the floor... I mean, unless you have particularly bizarre interests :| in which case: just stop. That's super eww.
Why don't you associate the two? I guess for the same reason you don't think about maggots the second before you take a big bite out of your sandwich at lunch, or think about taking a dump just before you kiss somebody, because we don't like connecting the things we like with the things we don't really want to think about. We don't want to think about our loved ones dying, we don't want to think about that beautiful blonde lady's skin melting off, we don't want to contemplate the horrible things that may accidentally get into our food.
The two fall into very diametrically opposed areas of thought, one pleasant, one unpleasant. At their most basic. When we're really young we have trouble separating the two, reacting strongly to each, but obviously part of becoming an adult is coming to terms with the fact we can't always separate the two... I mean not that many beautiful women get their faces melted off; just that bad things happen to that which we like, regardless of our input or perspective on the matter.
The thing is though that reality is often more complicated than we'd like it to be as well, as we do grow up and learn to accommodate the two it often becomes inevitable that with accepting the two we also sort of realise the two are intrinsically linked. One part of that is because of the contrast they offer when set against each other; the other is the fact you can't really separate the two as in a sense they do feed into each other, death and disease don't directly cause the things we love in life, but they are a part of the cycle of life.
Beauty is also intrinsically linked to decay, because without something first being vibrant, full of life, and beautiful, it can't then decay; if something is decaying and it decays some more it's still just decaying generally. Most people don't get too upset about that. However if something is beautiful and then decays it has something to lose, and we have something to mourn the loss of. To some extent then the attractive, the beautiful, is necessary in horror – that contrast helps emphasise how easy it is to lose everything, how fragile life is, how easy it is to go from having everything to living a nightmare. Horror is after all about fear, and probably one of the most basic things we can be afraid of is just losing everything.
On a more obvious level though, like I said at the beginning: Sex sells. It would be stupid not to acknowledge that. We like looking at pretty things and if you put a hot lady or a hot guy in a film, game, TV show, etc then you're going to draw the audience in at least a little better than you would if the character were a few rungs down the ol' attractive ladder. And this isn't a new thing for horror to exploit: check out almost any classic horror movie and you're likely to find a rather demurely dressed ridiculously hot female lead. I know at least one luminous furry mammal that will be thoroughly disappointed in me for saying this but I've never really found Sigourney Weaver that attractive, but I'll admit she definitely has a certain sexual energy to her character as she darts around the inside of that shuttle in nothing than a top and panties in the original Alien. And I think that's intentional.
Hammer Productions were notorious back in the day for the degree to which they sexualised their female characters in their films, I mean we're not talking the sort of Dead or Alive level of retarded costume design but I think it was obligatory for every female character to have a dress that not only exposed the top of her breasts but pushed them up and together, causing a not unpleasant sight for the viewer.
And this is when they were wearing clothes; the few moments where they were wearing actual clothes and not smeared in blood or writhing orgasmically around the floor (seriously.) It was very much intentional, they were meant to be very sexual, meant to titillate and excite. Truth be told you were just as likely to recognise an actress in a Hammer film from the latest issue of Playboy as you were from another Hammer film.
Though I won't say that having such attractive female characters really defined the impact those movies had, because they do have a certain pulp horror entertainment value to them in and of themselves, it did give them an edge that they wouldn't otherwise have had. But there was a limit to how far they'd go with that, mostly governed by the unwritten (and sometimes written) rules of censorship in film at the time. And generally I do think Hammer were at the very extreme end of the sexual spectrum (so to speak) when it came to how they presented their characters, they tried to push the envelope (and the stamp too) compared to other film companies.
Hammer were British so those last few paragraphs may look like nonsense to a non-Brit but that sort of underlying sexual dynamism was just as prevalent in American film as British at the time, and is if not more so now. I've mentioned Alien, but you can look at pretty much any horror movie from the 80's onward and see the same thing, often very sexualised, very attractive (usually young) people getting into horrific situations.
The thing is though, as far as those films took it there was always a limit to the degree to which they'd sexualise their characters, the characters were usually just slightly more idealised (and better featured) exemplars of normal people at the time. This is something I really feel is missing from the Fatal Frame trailer, because as I watched it, even those brief two minutes or so of footage, I found the characters completely unrelatable.
Sexy is one thing, but your characters have to look as though they could be real people somewhere, at some point in time, and as I watched the trailer I couldn't really see any of the characters I watched as people.
I mean, look at this...
What is that?! Who wears that outside?!
And who did her hair? Seriously????
Maybe it's just me but aspects like this in horror games (or horror anything actually) really niggle me. I know at the end of the day horror is principally about the unreal (hello zombies!) but even so there has to be some underlying element of realism to whatever you're playing/watching/reading. I like a good bit of escapism as much as the next person but I feel the best horror is always grounded in realism – otherwise how do we relate to the fear of those on-screen?
To a degree I do think this is mostly a clothing issue for me, I do think there's a point at which you can take general attractiveness too far – and it's quite possible to say that the female leads in games like Haunting Ground and Resident Evil Remake (or any of the Resident Evils), seem too unrealistically attractive to ever find themselves in danger, which is a fair point, as in HG and the REmake the leads both look like supermodels (possibly the same one?)
I'm just not as bothered about that as general presentation. If a character can get bloodied, beaten, and covered in muck like anybody else then attractiveness doesn't necessarily matter too much; but when you pretty them up and dress them in almost doll-like outfits that seem totally out of place for the setting it does start to detract from whatever impact they may have had as an interesting and relatable character.
I guess that's in part what I'm reacting to with the trailer... That the characters really do just look like playthings and not people.
...I'm sorry doll-like Japanese women, I find you completely unrelatable as human beings : '(
More seriously though I feel as though the earlier Fatal Frame games had the same problem but managed to reign it in reasonably well, there was a balance between the characters looking attractive whilst also looking normal enough for it to be believable that they'd be in that situation. Miku in the first game did rock a particularly slutty 'plain girl' look, but she was definitely designed to look plain; and Mayu and Mio though admittedly almost definitely within 'creepy jailbait territory' could pass for two teenage girls dressed for a day out in the park... I mean if you imagine they're kind of odd goth girls.
I do think generally the first three games, though they did push the limit of 'Omg, would you really wear that to run away from ghosts?! Seriously?!?!', did feel like they had mostly realistic and relatable characters. Fatal Frame 4 is pretty much where the series seemed to have jumped the shark; I am admittedly not the biggest fan of Fatal Frame 4 so perhaps this is at least partly explains why, but I do feel as though there's a point at which it just becomes absurd that your main character is running around in little more than fancy lingerie. Seriously, WHO WEARS THIS TO LOOK FOR GHOSTS?!?
While I do think it's a matter of degree and intention with horror – if you're going for something a little softer or your intention is more to shock than to probe the depths of the human psyche then obviously you don't really need to be as concerned with how ugly your game world is, I do think regardless of what your angle is if your intention is to make horror that people can relate to, can be affected by, then you need characters who are relatable. Those characters need to look like real people, it's human nature that the characters we'll want to see most in our fiction and entertainment are more attractive versions of ourselves but there is a line there to be crossed, a limit to how attractive a character can be before it becomes absurd. If your characters look like they're wearing bizarre lingerie then I think you've probably crossed that line.
For me at least this is what I took from the Fatal Frame trailer, a reminder that regardless of whatever your horror game may be about, whether it be ghosts, or zombies, or creatures from the depths of the darkest ocean, if you forget that the point of horror is to connect your audience with relatable characters and stories then you kind of lose whatever impact anything else in the game could've had.
Real horror is ugly, and that's not really something you can escape, no matter how hard you try.