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Sonntagskind avatar 10:22 AM on 01.30.2011  (server time)
Beyond the scares or why horror games frighten us

Let me start by saying, I don't like survival horror games at all. Why write about a topic you don't like, you might ask. To that I say, even though I don't appreciate the impact a good designed horror game can have on a human mind (especially when it is my own mind), you have to wonder how it is possible that a piece of software played in the safety of you own home in front of a screen can cause sensations of discomfort and fear.

Since the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, an indie title that is widely considered one of the scariest games ever made, marks kind of a revival of the genre, I thought it fitting to satisfy my interest by looking up some of the psychological basics of fear and how game design instrumentalizes them...also there's a Hello Kitty Cthulhu in it.

What's fear?:
As you know, fear is an emotion triggered by the perception of danger. Fear is essential from an evolutionary point of view. It's a survival mechanism. Our body releases stress-hormones, like adrenaline, to prepare our body for one of two possible reactions: fight or escape.

How do games like Amnesia implement it?: (Minor Spoilers!)

The Protagonist/Self:

"Don't forget...some things mustn't be forgotten." That are the first words the main character recounts in a conversation with himself at the beginning of the game Amnesia. But besides his name and that a "Shadow" is hunting him he doesn't seem to recollect many things. Hence, we have a standard loss of memory opening...also known as "where am I and why do I only wear panties"-opening...hurray, not really innovative but in case of horror games an ideal starting point. The emptier the vessel the easier it is for the gamer to project himself into the main character's perspective.

It's called immersion and can be divided in four levels (by Richard Bartle, Ph.D. in artificial intelligence):
1. player: The game character is a means of interaction with the game world
2. avatar: The game character represents the player; Player talks in 3rd person about his character.
3. character: The player identifies with his game charater; talks in 1st person about his character
4. persona: The game character becomes part of the players identity; he becomes his game character

A high level of immersion is essential for horror games, otherwise the player wouldn't care what happened to his game character.
The first-person perspective also proves advantageous in that regard. The player isn't allowed to dissociate himself from the game through a character model that may not resemble him at all.

The Shadow:

The facts that our game character is haunted by a "Shadow" and that the subtitle of the game is The Dark Descent don't seem to be chosen arbitrary. Both terms are part of Jung's "Personality Theory".
This theory states that the understanding of ourselves can be categorized in three parts:
1. What we think we are
2. What we really are
3. What we pretend to be

The gap between "what we think we are" and "what we really are" is called "The Shadow", a dark place in our mind that we are unconscious of. It bears everything that we refuses to acknowledge about ourselves, such as repressed weaknesses, shortcomings and instincts. Encountering the own shadow is a central part of individuation, the acknowledgement and acceptance of personal shortcomings, that also brings the danger of falling victim to ones primitive animal instincts. He calls that inner struggle...the descent.

The shadow is basically the dark side of the force

The best example of this in games is "Pyramid Head" from Silent Hill 2, a manifestation of the main character's violent and sexually repressed subconsciousness.

Wear protection helmet when handling huge knives (Pyramid Head, Silent Hill 2)

Is our protagonist haunted by his past, stuggeling with his inner demons? You'll have to see for yourself.

The Antagonist/Other:

I'm not going to spoil the story, so I'll keep it general. The more foreign the oponent in a game looks and behaves, the scarier he is. It's our fear of the unknown causing that. We have the urge to divide our world in "us" and "them". "Us" being a group of people similar to ourselves, may that be in nationality, religion, interests or appearance. "Them" being those who don't fit into our image of "social identity". There are various examples for that, game related and not. Let's take Starcraft for example...I know, it's not a horror game. What race would you consider scariest?...most likely you'd say "Zerg", because their bug-like appearance and hive-minded culture doesn't fit into our understanding of the world.

Zergling be scary

The "Protoss" may look foreign and be the stronger opponent (in a 1on1 situation) but at least they are bipedal and their worldview similar to our own.

Protoss be...kinda sexy

In other words, we know what to expect and therefore can prepare. Fear is strongest, when we don't expect a conflict situation and don't know how to react.

The Uncanny:

"The Uncanny" is a concept by the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, that's also based on your expectations. It takes familiar things and alters them slightly. It deceives the audience with the pretence of normality and throws them off with something unexpected.

1.: annoyingly cute; 2.: OMG, kill it with fire!

You can find this principle in many movies and games and it seldom fails to unsettle. It can be the disfigured face of an otherwise human-like creature or just an unnatural movement pattern. In case of Amnesia, there are several human-like creatures you'll encounter. Even the castle itself seems to shift into another reality ocasionally, marked by tumor-like growth on the walls.

The Setting/Gameplay:

The player wakes up in the shoes of the main character David on the floor of a castle in Germany unable to remember what happened. During the game he collects notes and has flashbacks that piece by piece complete the recollection of events prior to his loss of memory.
The whole game is driven by the curiosity of the player, pushing him to advance further into the castle, despite the constant feeling of danger. The limited oil supply for his lantern and his "Sanity"-meter additionally mediate a feeling of urgency to do so. Becoming insane makes the game even harder. It distortes your vision, makes you hear noises, prevents you to run, etc.. The only way to restore sanity is by completing obstacles.

The further the player advances within the storyline, the darker and more confined the level structure gets. Starting above ground in well-lit rooms with large windows the game soon takes you underground into claustrophobic cellar-vaults which make it even more difficult to escape dangerous situations.

The best way to induce horror is to imply it and let the players mind do the rest. Games like Gears of War throw wave after wave of monsters at you and are drenched in blood but despite the in-your-face depiction of violence and disturbing imagery it fails to frighten. In Amnesia you barely encounter any enemies, but it is designed in a way that you constantly expect them to be behind the next corner. OMG, LOOK BEHIND YOU...wait, false alarm.

In many games you are supposed to fight your you are not. The game strips you of your choice between "fight or escape" from the start but presents an even more terrifying choice: run or hide. You could hide in a dark corner and hope not to be seen or run back the way you came. Both choices are rather unpleasant and leave you with a feeling of constant vulnerability.

The Atmosphere:

In my opinion, no other genre stands or falls like horror, when it comes to atmophere. The two main instruments for creating an atmospheric game are art style and soundscape. Amnesia relies on a very realistic art style. Every part of the environment looks and behaves as physics dictate. It tries to be as lifelike as possible so the unnatural elements stand out even more (see above, "The Uncanny").
The soundscape, to me, seems far more important, though. The background music consists of heavy and dark sounding tunes which increase in loudness during dangerous situations but most the time keep where they belong, in the background. In comparison the ambient sounds are rather loud and outstanding. The fact that you are constantly surrounded by ambient sounds, like the singing of wind, dripping water, falling gravel, your own footsteps, just to name a few, completes the illusion of realism. Now and then, you hear sounds that imply the unnatural character of the setting, like distant grunting, moaning, foreign footsteps, a piano playing, etc. just to remind you to better feel uneasy. Without proper sound horror games fail to grasp the player.

The Conclusion:

Reason doesn't surpass instinct.

What do you think about horror games? What scares you most in those games? Do you agree/disagree with this article?

Next up: Won't somebody please think of the children or a German's guide to censorship

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