It should come as no real surprise that as soon as the earliest computer games became associated with narrative and story instead of simply reflexes, consumers saw the emergence of horror themes in games. This has continued into the modern gaming era because, as always, horror remains popular. Alas, as in literature and the movie industry, what looks so easy when flowing from the pen of a Lovecraft or Poe can hide shades of subtlety easily overlooked by the imitator.
Part of the problem is that it is difficult to measure what it is about dark stories that gives them such appeal. They are atmospheric and the true brilliance of the masters of the form lie in the shading, the implication, careful setting and not, often, purely in the direct plot. There is a world of difference, one must agree, between a poor B-grade splatterfest movie that attempts to shock and titillate with overdone gruesomeness and a careful work of dark fiction that, though potentially bloodless, slips disturbing implications into the mind and remains to chill the blood long after the story is put aside.
This then is the problem that the gaming industry has faced in creating horror titles, this misunderstanding of the fundamentals of what makes a great horror story. With this in mind, we turn to a quick look at problems specific to this more modern form of storytelling.
Interactivity itself provides challenges for anyone wishing to tell a horror story. We have seen a number of occasions in the last few years of attempts to match horror with the ever-popular first-person shooter and action genres of gaming. These attempts have produced titles that were popular in many cases but in terms of what we would call horror, most fall far short in the terms we have discussed so far. Indeed, the majority of “horror” shooters tend far closer to the aforementioned B-grade splatterfest movies than to anything else.
The fundamental issue is the separation of narrative and gameplay. The gaming industry has come a long way in the past few decades of integrating narrative into games themselves, in some parts of the industry with great success, but by and large there remains a gap between the two. Story is often told in non-interactive cut scenes, episodic pieces of story separated by the game itself. The merits of this approach is really a question for another day, however. In the case of action-horror games this approach, regardless of how blurred the edges, has a special problem.
The problem is quite simple; first person shooters, as a genre, are fundamentally about a larger-than-life ultra-capable hero. There is no reason why this must be so, however, historically it has been so since the earliest shooters and despite changes in setting and attempts to modify this—so that the player is, for instance, a single soldier among many in the trenches of World War II rather than a gung-ho space marine single-handedly destroying an entire alien/demonic/Nazi invasion force, the fact remains that the player is, in the game, uniquely capable and easily outshines the computer generated allies.
In a game like this, this must be so. Very few players would enjoy playing a game where computer generated fellow soldiers take care of all the opposition easily and reduce the player to a walking tour of the trenches. It is a difficult balance for game designers to strike to have both the verisimilitude of the setting combined with the feeling of power and achievement necessary to make such a game entertaining.
This works well in less-serious games where an all-powerful protagonist is accepted as a matter of course and it works reasonably well in more realistic games such as the ever-popular call of duty series. Where it falls over most noticeably is when these games are teamed with the horror genre, in games such as F.E.A.R. and the later games in the Silent Hill horror games, a series that early on was rightly lauded for successfully producing games that were genuinely scary, but which has received a far more lukewarm reception for it’s more recent incarnations.
To use F.E.A.R. as an example, it does check most of the modern horror trope boxes. We have an evil conspiracy, paranormal powers, an overwhelming threat and a creepy little girl of the sort made popular by Japanese horror franchises. These are all used to good effect in the little “story” episodes where the player sees visions of the little girl in quite disturbing ways.
The effect is ruined however by the sheer capability of the player character. There are creepy sections of the game certainly, however these short vignettes are interspersed among the greater gameplay sections, which consist of the player murdering wave after wave of supposedly “elite” soldiers who seem themselves content to be grist for the mill. The stakes cannot really be raised and the sense of uneasiness is a mere phantom feeling that fades quickly secure in the knowledge that with gun in hand, the player will eventually win the day.
That then is what is missing from most of these modern games. It is taken for granted that the player will win out against all odds. One aspect of horror fiction that is more prevalent in horror than in than any other type of fiction (save perhaps classical tragedy) is that of the losing protagonist. There is never a guarantee that the hero will win the day in horror, in fact for those familiar with Lovecraft’s fiction the idea that one of his protagonists could “win the day” in any meaningful way is nearly laughable. If the player is shot down by one of these soldiers the game ends immediately and sharply. There is no way to continue the story, there is no ‘meaningful loss’, but rather a failure on the player’s part. In fact, it is not really a game ending at all but rather an interruption at which point the player is expected to reload and continue. The protagonist, you see, cannot fail. He is destined to kill all the enemies and proceed to the story’s ending; only the player can fail and in that case it is only a temporary setback, not a true failure.
Compare this with the game Silent Hill 2, considered by many critics and aficionados (as well as myself) to be one of the most well-executed horror games ever made. The issues of saving and loading still apply but the focus of the game is much different. It is still possible to die in combat (a player failure) which requires an interruption whilst the player loads so the protagonist can continue his story; however the protagonist in Silent Hill 2 is a true “losing protagonist.” The game is a journey of discovery for the player where the truth about what the main character has done, the guilt that drives him, and the meaning of the terrors Silent Hill inflicts on him are all discovered during the game. He is a true incapable protagonist in every sense of the word, not larger than life or a super-human killing machine—in fact, he is so incapable at combat that the player is encouraged to avoid it where possible. This feeling of isolation, fear and incapability is heightened by the fact that there are some combats that it is not possible to win and where fleeing is the only possible answer. A truly scary atmosphere is created by the combination of both story and gameplay elements (considering incapability as a gameplay element, which it surely was) working in tandem.
Silent Hill 2 has several endings, based on choices the player makes during the game, and although one might be considered the “good” ending, none could be considered heroic in the traditional sense. Instead with growing horror we are led to realise who we are, what we’ve done and to look at the experiences in Silent Hill in a new light. Even now, years later, I remember the story with a shudder, whilst many other games have faded into complete obscurity in my memory along with countless forgettable movie plots and stories.
Many games have attempted to copy this formula in the years following including later games in the same series but most have failed to achieve this delicate balance that made the game a true horror experience. They have focused on the imagery the game produced, which admittedly was frightening and disturbing, but missed the more subtle character of what made the whole what it was. They have improved the controls for the combat engine, which counter-intuitively made combat a more viable problem solution and lessened the feeling of incapability that made the previous game so tense. They added more characters, and even companions, in an attempt to increase the complexity and interest of the story, and in doing so eliminated the feeling of isolation that made the town and its secrets so oppressive.
Narrative games have an additional problem to surmount over the more traditional forms of storytelling; that of the integration of story and gameplay; and it is a problem that is most jarring of all in games that attempt to chill the blood and haunt the mind long after the game is finished. Though the standard triple-a industry brings us titles like F.E.A.R., it has too much money and risk tied up to truly innovate and as we have discussed, the current accepted methods of attaching story and gameplay, particularly in action games, is not up to the greater challenge provided by the subtleties dark fiction genre. That said, it can be done and well; we simply have to look further afield—to the edges of the games industry, the dark corners and disused cellars where once-popular game genres lie and independent developers work feverishly. What better place for horror’s true place in the gaming industry?