What makes good TV, films or games? Is it just about fantasy fulfillment, or is there more to it? Do we just look for the perfect or do we also look for the complicated, the difficult, the realistic in our fiction?
In horror, it's often the ugly that draws our attention – decay, disease, death; it's the things you see out of the corner of your eye or the nagging little voice at the back of your mind, whispering dark thoughts to you. As a whole the genre is the exploration of this, and the psychology behind it.
But how does that apply to the visual side of what we experience? Does it matter what our characters look like?
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the mechanics of horror; what actually makes a 'thing' scary is an enduring interest of mine, and consequentially I've been thinking a lot about what hasn't scared me about a lot of recent Horror films.
Often with horror it's about tempo, it's about the space between the heart-pounding moments and the tense, quiet moments in which you're not really sure where the monster or danger is exactly, that matter most. A lot of recent films seem to have missed this mark somewhat, and games too, pushing the action side of the equation more than the quiet.
But I feel too there's an almost subconscious visual element going into a horror film or game – or indeed anything horror-orientated, horror is necessarily about us, it's an especially selfish genre because it only really works properly when it fits our own psychology – we don't necessarily need a phobia of bees to be terrified watching a film about killer bees but it helps, as would having had some sort of negative experience with bees.
Horror needs that realistic element, that connection between us and the fiction on-screen to really affect us; and it relies on the subconscious relations that bind ourselves to the characters in the film or game to do that. It's not just about the obvious but also about the subtle things that we don't instantly notice on a conscious level but our mind takes in.
For example the impression we get of the sort of life the character leads from the way they behave to the clothes they wear all help to increase our sense of immersion and our connection to the horror going on on-screen. If a character wears extravagant clothes or strange hats then we're more likely to find it hard to associate with them, than say a man or a woman who just wears jeans and a t-shirt; likewise if we look at a character and our first thought is 'supermodel' you're probably going to find it harder to relate to them - not to mention possibly fairly implausible that someone that pretty could ever realistically be in a horror setting – than say a relatively ordinary-looking character.
This has been used intentionally in the past for effect. In Silent Hill 2 for example, James Sunderland has a very plain look, I wouldn't exactly describe it as a look that would've appealed to many American men at the time but it has a sort of 'ordinary' feel to it, without being characterless – James's drab green coat with a tacky little American flag on, his dull jeans and dark plain shoes. They all add up to make James appear easily relatable – he's ordinary, he could be like you or somebody you know.
Ofcourse Silent Hill 2's scariness isn't just a product of James' wardrobe, it's a collaboration of different factors that all add up to create a tense atmosphere and unnerving gameplay experience. Silent Hill 2 is usually rolled out anytime anybody needs a good horror citation (and I've used it myself a fair few times), and though it's not a perfect game it is useful as a classic example of the principles of horror being put to good effect, especially on the topic of ugly in horror. A lot of the monsters, and visual design aspects of Silent Hill 2 are a good example of this, drawn either from images of things that are generally considered negative in society (strait-jacketed figures, writhing figures on a bed, gaunt human-like figures) or just bizarre contortions of flesh and the human shape.
Horror benefits from the grotesque, the twisted - what would be in real-life disturbing or sickening is, separated by the fourth-wall of fiction, made entertainment. A clown-faced monster that eats children, a writhing pillar of flesh or scuttling head on little crab legs; in reality these things would be nightmarish abominations, likely to drive us mad, with the distance that fiction offers they become entertainment – though thoroughly terrifying entertainment.
Not so recently Jim Sterling talked about how graphics – or, to be more precise, ugly graphics, can benefit a horror game because of the way we define what's scary and what's not. Horror is in the unknown, the wrong, so our general perception of good graphics as 'better' gives the simple, often inferior appearance of some small indie horror titles a grittier edge that other genres don't benefit from. Horror is a relative relation between what we consider normal and what consciously or subconsciously we consider 'wrong': Some of this relates to inbuilt prejudices and aversions - say for blood, dead bodies, disease and illness; other aspects are a result of social conditioning and the attitudes and perspective we've been brought up with – say what the haircut a character might have says about them or how the amount of makeup a person wears affects how we see them.
Good character design for horror games relies on finding a good equilibrium between the 'right' and the 'wrong', the 'beautiful' and the 'ugly'. In order to be relatable, characters need to be ordinary looking but interesting enough that you want to play as them. Too beautiful – and this is something I've noticed in a lot of modern horror films, and the characters start to lose their relatability, they become as relatable as supermodels. We need that ordinary element for us to relate properly; but beautiful does sell.
It's not so much a problem in films because apart from makeup (and possibly surgery) you can't exactly correct a person's facial faults – atleast not without a chance of actually ruining their face, but in games it's obviously different. Characters can be made from scratch to look ridiculously attractive, or existing characters altered or 'improved', entirely dependent on the whims of the developer.
The Dead Space series are the perfect example of this, as the series went from an initial breakout IP from Visceral Games to a big action franchise, and in turn shifted from a fairly broad but still strongly horror-orientated audience to a much more open action-orientated (and quite a bit wider) audience.
With the change in audience and game direction so too came changes to the game – and the central character of Isaac to fit the new target audience. This can be seen in a lot of the concessions made between the first and second games about the ease of play – aspects like the node/point exchange system, changes to the drop and pick up supply system, aswell as the difficulty settings but also in the changes to Isaac as a character – making him a vocal, interactive part of the story, and ever so slightly altering his appearance to make him more presentable and fit as a hero.
Isaac went from a mute, sort of rough-looking character who looked pretty bland in many respects to a vocal quite attractive-looking hero; gradually shifting up in attractiveness from 1 to 2, and appears to have shifted from 2 to 3 into being ever so slightly more attractive. It's subtle things – probably not that noticeable because we only get glimpses of Isaac in 1 and only see him properly in 2, like his hair seems to have more substance to it, his eyes are brighter and his features are a little more defined but it makes him more presentable. Which on the one hand makes him more of an obvious hero, but on the other also makes him less of an every-man.
I don't think in Dead Space's case Isaac's appearance really detracted that much from the experience, because I don't think the changes to Isaac were that great that they shifted him into the inhumanly beautiful region, but it's more the tone shift in the character that matters. Generally speaking characters who conform more closely to ideals of beauty are less relatable in a real way – we may want to be them or screw them because of their looks, but we won't be able to look at them and think 'that could be', which as stupid as it sounds considering the plot/big bads of most horror games or films and how implausible it'd be for us to be in that situation, is what we do do.
Horror relies on that relatability, that connection to the real ugliness of life – whether it be the imperfection of the world around us compared to how we'd like it to be, or our own imperfect physical appearance or psychological flaws. Horror is at it's scariest when it's ugly, when it's showing us our dark side, when it's showing us what near all other fiction is often too scared to show us: that we're inherently flawed, physically and psychology, and that we can't escape those flaws. It works best when that rule applies on all levels of the game – from the sound, to the gameplay mechanics, to the visual.
Characters don't necessarily have to be hideously ugly for it to work though, It's more that in reality people are neither super models nor deformed freaks, normal people have attractive and unattractive physical and psychological characteristics and horror works best when it has that realistic edge. If anything what we need more of is imperfections, either slight or hardly obvious – one eye a fraction lower than the other, a touch of acme, a scar here or there, just enough for characters to seem normal but not enough to put us off them.
At the moment though it seems like developers are too obsessed with giving us the perfect but just like with good character creation in general, it's not just the good that matters but also the bad.