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Shock Treatment
Posted on Tuesday, April 8 2008 @ 14:33:21 PST

Very few games nowadays do horror effectively. There are many typical routes that writers take to induce a scary experience. To name a few of the better examples, try looking at the two major roads that games tend to travel down in order to attempt to get your adrenaline pumping: The Project Zero trail and the Quake 4 method which ends up being more of a highway to repulsion. The former I've named after the PS2 classic which was called 'Fatal Frame' in the non-PAL territories, it boasted immense shocks through clever ways of placing enemies, along with a chilling score and difficult (but innovative!) action to match. The fright spawns from Silent Hill-esque moments of apparent safety, followed only by a terrifying appearence of an obake from behind Door Number Fook-Me-Shoulda-Seen-That-Coming. My main reasoning behind why I haven't named this technique after the aforementioned game, is due to the fact that Silent Hill tends to use gore a lot, which mixes it with the next modus operandi.

I've named this tactic after Quake 4. No doubt even the most ignorant of viewers will be able to recognise the clear elements it features. The writers of Quake 4, now classed as real pioneers when it comes to being truly bloody, really pushed the proverbial boat out when it came to their legacy in horror. Personally, I don't generally find grotesque semi-aliens attempting to fire at me by using some damn awkward AI to be at all scary. What I do find terrifying, is the most infamous scene in all of Quake history; the one where you turn into a Strogg. It certainly isn't a nice little case of waking up as one of these inhuman, part-mechanical monstrosities. Oh no, the game actually forces you, unable to act, watch the entire process of being 'Stroggified' as part of an efficient production line. To summarise this extremely scripted scene; there's a lot of blood and a lot of screaming. I'm sure if you're the sadist type you can dig a copy of the sequence up on YouTube. My rather long-winded point, is that a lot of games will try to scare their audience through pure, gruesomely sickly moments like the one in Quake. This is a major pitfall that the majority of FPSes fall pray to. Its easy to spray some blood around and hope the player reacts. So what they are so used to that sort of cop-out that they don't care at all!? Just throw in a frame or two of the player character's legs been sawn off and you have a thrill ride of a title, right? Still, many people find this sort of stuff seriously terrifying (just ask my mother when she watches Pulp Fiction!), so it gets the blood (if it hasn't been squirted everywhere first) pumping, definitely go for it, writers!

Most horror games either decide between either one or the other of the techniques above. Some incorporate a mixture of two. Some, on the other hand, simply are scary unintentionally. Let me give you the reason why you started reading this to begin with:

"Wouldn't it be a good enough idea if people stopped making the association that fear = Monster/supernatural being? How about natural fears? Phobias? I often feel scared with games that don't even have that intention. Take for instance FF7. Back in the days I was scared [shitless] when Emerald was inside the ocean and I had to go explore around in the submarine, something so tiny compared to a gigantic beast that could slowly materialize as he was heading towards you. OK, so it goes back to the monster point, but I'm afraid of large depths. Even when Emerald was gone, I felt uneasy during that part."

- Divienegon, The Escapist forum

This is what we need.

Divi's example of Final Fantasy 7 is reasonable; the whole psychological torture of being small in a very large place, underwater. When designing the game, the writers probably didn't think of the sort of reaction their audience would take to the situation. They probably just imagined we would treat that segment of the experience like we did every other of our 20-plus hours of playing. Instead, because of the juxtaposition of the tiny submarine and the mere possibility that, out of the terribly-drawn blue, a gigantic monster could come and swallow you up. Surely that's simply a survival instinct; that if we encounter something enormously bigger than us and we can't fight it, then we naturally get scared: Especially if we're forced into that sort of situation in a videogame, right? Well how come no one experiences that sort of fear when playing Devil May Cry; where we get to go against impossibly huge bosses - at least ten times the size of the main character? Perhaps because that is a more rational situation, and, after all, we've encountered such an enemy a thousand times before in games: A nice, safe, land-based, giant... thing. The greatest feeling we feel against these typical bosses is awe, not fright. But make that experience aquatic and the whole scenario changes.

Another example of the whole 'horror from the depths' thing which may be somewhat unorthodox would be Super Mario 64. Anyone remember the eel, or even Nessy in that underwater cavern? Both reasonably dangerous predators (alright, not so much the latter) who swim around in their respective moist areas, awaiting our beloved Mario, ready to strike. So, both of these creatures are hardly scary in retrospective due to the poor graphical quality which makes up their texture and the crap AI they both contained, but what about more recent examples of this subtle scare? How about the massive sea-snake in Shadow of the Colossus? Fighting that thing in a poorly-lit, huge lake was not a pleasant experience. Why is it, then, do players or humans overall dislike these huge, underwater sections more than a lot of horror games overall? A lot of these so-called monsters can have a greater chance of inducing paranoia, sweat and shock than a lot of the traditional scary moments. Certainly, this does not apply across the board, but enough of these 'rare' cases have been found for it to be certainly taken into consideration for any horror videogame writers. Marine monsters - or simply the mere possibility they are going to be present - are a force to be reckoned with in any player audience. After all, there's a reason why the world is fascinated with sea monsters in real life, and not just because of hopeful biological breakthroughs.

As Divi also suggests, our shared experience of irrigated environments and having appropriate creatures to occupy them, is only a single example of the possibilities when it comes to psychologically terrorising the player. I'm not just talking about picking on the more common phobias. I mean, we've all seen the 'OMFG LUK A GIANT SPIDER!' scene a thousand times before. From the Legend of Zelda to Battle for Middle Earth; arachnids really have a strong presence on the gaming scene. What about other fears, though? How about - as mentioned - claustrophobia? Small spaces is a very common issue for people worldwide, so why do they get so little attention in games? The infamous Flash 'Crab Battle' based off Snake Eater has gained tremendous popularity. Now, we can't prove that this directly correlates with peoples' fears of small spaces, but certainly crawling through the tunnels, being hit by the occasional crab or whatever ended up being quite a memorable scene. Strange, especially considering the other great moments the title offers up. Certainly, creating new and interesting moments which tap directly into the human psyche, either through extremism or unspoken fears, is a sure fine way to get your game remembered.


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