Terror when walking in their shoes, terror when running in their stilts
What makes survival horror terrifying is a well discussed topic. From the ambient sound to the ambiguous environment, there are plenty of articles already regard to how to stir up most fear in players.
Fear, like humour, is such an individualised thing; which makes it impossible to have a one-for-all approach. Say, to set the atmosphere of vulnerability. Part of the appeal of the genre is that we are not taking up the role of invincible tanks that could steam roll through a corridor and crush everything with sheer badassery.
There are two distinctively different approaches to that.
The first approach, via plot and character, is based on story vulnerability. Make the lead ordinary, someone who’s of gentle temperament and reluctant to engage in combats; make them out of place for the horror background.
The second approach, via game play, can be difficulty based. When the player character is used as a tool and the end goal is to survive, are we over or under equipped for this goal? On the game-play level, the vulnerability the player feels is related to how easily the player can “drive” the character. With things like low health, lack of dexterity, poor aiming default, penalisations that result in temporary loss of the control of the character, survival has to be earned. Personally, vulnerability in characterisation doesn’t elevate the fear for me, while the difficulty does. It was a good deal scarier playing as Takeaki Misawa than Alan Wake, despite that Misawa’s characterisation was an elite soldier while Wake was an urban writer, solely because Forbidden Siren 2 was a far more difficult game than Alan Wake.
It’s agreed that what separates games from other media is that the player’s direct input has effects on the games’ outcomes. With survival horrors, there’s another implication. Remember the trope of moronic characters in horror that deserved to die? When I’m in control of the fate of our characters, I could be that moron. Unlike in non-interactive media, I can no longer write off a character death as someone uninvolved, as I know that in an alternative timeline they would have lived if I didn’t suck. Unsurprisingly, difficulty increases the level of intended terror.
Suddenly, I care about the characters’ survival that much more when I know that it is my, not their, personal responsibility to lead to them to safety. I fear for their well being. It is no longer the nihilistic “life sucks and we all die” passiveness.
It’s been said that true survival horrors are rare in the current generation. The handful of titles no longer satisfy the old schoolers, as it’s been said that the perfection of the technology has taken away something uniquely-needed difficulty-based vulnerability in the genre.
The genre were big in the last gen, the trend was the helpless Average Joe-Jane. So much so, that games like Haunting Ground or Project Zero (aka Fatal Frame) treated the in game difficulty as a major selling point.
So there are vocal suggestions that we need bring back the Golden Era and the old mechanisms. Get rid of easy options! Get the Resident Evil 2 era 3D movements back! The modern characters are too strong! Too much ammo! Player character too agile! Make the game hard and let the player feel vulnerable, dammit! Remember back in my days, our only weapon was a closet to hide into, and even that don’t always work! Mandatory difficulty equals vulnerability equals fear and the harder the better!
As a fan of genre of that era, I disagree. Because for me, even though the lack of difficulty in many recent titles dimished the fear for being too easy, the good-old-way’s dialled to 11 difficulty setting didn’t quite follow the harder equals more fear linear line expectation. Once the threshold has been reach, there was what I shall call side effects.
The game broke this camel’s back? Clock Tower 3. My friend and I rented it out hoping for a good scare, it didn’t take long before we noticed that something felt wrong. For a game that claimed the player character Alyssa is “just your ordinary 14 year old girl”, they way the controls functioned made her react to the newly found extreme danger with more exaggerated helplessness than any teenagers with survival instinct ought to.
She would rather die than put up any attempts of a fight outside of boss battles. When she ran, instead of the speedy dash that most sensible fourteen year olds would do, she’d go for a jog-on-the-spot routine like she’s running on fly paper. She panicked at the least bit of unpleasantness, when the panic meter reached the threshold she would stumble and stop, often running head first into doom. It was so absurdly frustrating, within an hour we were resenting Alyssa far more than any of the enemies.
Clock Tower 3 reached peak difficulty in the final boss fight. I was awakened by the creative swearing that morning, while it was a good bonding experience to see my usually reserved and even-tempered friend to lose her shit over a game, I was pretty sure that it was not the emotion the creators wished to evoke.
I tried it, and turned out my friend took it with far more grace than I ever could. My only weapons were arrows while the boss could easily spam half of the stage with paralysing bolts. The aiming was done with sudden shifts from third person to first person. Let’s not even get into the sheer size of the boss’s health bar. Long story short, there were lots of profanity involved for the eight hours it took for us to finish that particular battle. Lots of profanity and zero fear.
Clock Tower 3 was not the only survival horror that overstepped the threshold. When I played Project Zero , my controller flew across the room multiple times. With Forbidden Siren’s escort mission, I had a nosebleed from the rage. While these games managed to set up the atmosphere that whispered terror, when things got ridiculous there were no capacity left for fear as the stronger emotions took over.
Rage in survivor horror itself isn’t always bad. There are games that used anger as intentional motivator, which elevated the experience. Silent Hill 3 provided this perfectly, in which the player character – Heather – finds out that her father had been murdered, and she was out to get blood. I was seething. In real life I was pacing around the room, couldn’t get through the cut scene quickly enough so I could get my revenge. I was felt what my character felt.
It’s only unfortunate that so much of the players raging are the result of unintentional user unfriendliness, the fake difficulty that punishes and rewards disproportionally. It’s only a detrimental emotion if it is something that is not intended for the flavour of the game.There are many games that managed to find the balance between invincibility and too helpless to justify attempts. The most innovative survival horror stage I’ve ever experienced was Forbidden Siren 2’s blind Shu stage, in which the screen was reduced to a blur. Let’s just say there were lots of close-your-eyes-and-run. I was scared. Had the stage been any longer or any more difficult, I know that my primary reaction would be something completely different.
It’s a delicate balance to maintain, especially taking into account individual player differences with regards to something arbitrary like “difficulty”. So personalised, I simply don’t wish to nor capable of speak for anyone else. Nor that I have the wish to wave a flag about how “this difficulty is the perfect balance” because quite frankly, I don’t think such a perfect line exists, the closest to a solution is what’s currently done – difficulty options.What I can say though, is that I don’t wish to see the unreasonable difficulty limitations to make a comeback, yet I don’t know what could be done to recapture the feel from yesteryears. Maybe we are clinging onto something that is no longer viable; maybe we should just let the genre to evolve into something not scary but glorious nonetheless. Games like Alan Wake, Resident Evil 5 or Dead Space won’t offer what the survival horror purists would like, but they have their places too.
The writing of characters are unlikely to ever cause fear in me, but they can result in other worthy experiences, other intentional emotions. I know that I wouldn’t want to give Henry Townsend the best ending possible in Silent Hill 4 if I wasn’t in awe over how altruistic he was, or that I really really needed to solve the mystery in Deadly Premonition solely because it was so damn intriguing. Ultimately, while the impact of most games lies within the quality of writing, and that’s something that’s universally powerful, “true” survival horror or not.
After all, if I really need my fright quota to be ticked, there’s always Cooking Mama. A wrong cake and she’s going to fix it with her flaming eyes. Try going to sleep after that.