Archive for December, 2009

Surviving Horror: The Problem With Games That Scare

As humans we often relish the bittersweet rush of fear, that surge of adrenaline heightening our senses, making us feel all the more present and alive. Game designers have, historically, been rather slow in tapping into this most primary of human emotions; perhaps due to the limitations of technology, where for the longest time graphical capability was just too crude, too ‘plastic’ – naturally precluding it from reaching too far into the depths of horror.

The appetite for such games is certainly ever-present. Indeed, one of the first titles to penetrate these darker psychological places – Resident Evil – is widely regarded by many as a landmark in gaming and one of its perennial bestsellers. After a surge of similarly stylized titles followed suit  – dubbed ‘survival horror’ – it seemed as though a new genre had begun to emerge; a mini explosion of games which sought to capture the slower, more meticulous pace of isolation and horror, over more perennial gaming tropes of big guns and bigger action.

Resident Evil: A memorable scene

Unfortunately this horror renaissance was to be short-lived. It would be disingenuous to suggest a single reason; industries mature, gamers evolve. While, true, the quality of these titles remained steadily consistent with the material, numerous sequels (at least six in the Resident Evil universe alone) have a tendency to de-energize a particular format, emptying it of its original force and impact. Thus, Survival-Horror, with its distinctively down-tuned pace and almost obsessive attention to atmosphere and nuance, gradually gave way to ‘Action-Horror’, an altogether different beast.

Surprisingly, this change came not from outside the genre, but within it at its very core. With the release of Resident Evil 4, makers Capcom effectively drove a stake into the heart of its creation, casting aside the carefully refined gameplay that had made them an industry centrepiece, and built a new kind of title from the carefully exhumed skeleton of its predecessor. Gone were the fixed, almost expressionistic camera angles and the lush pre-rendered backgrounds. So too the ‘clunky’ controls, purposely designed so as to make one feel more sluggish and, thus, more vulnerable.

By far the most dramatic change however, was in the relative degrees of action as a proportion of the overall gameplay. While in previous incarnations combat sequences were distributed sparsely against other strings of virtual activity, such as puzzle solving and exploration, this took a much broader stage in its fourth iteration, dominating the interactive space to a far more saturated degree. This had two effects. Firstly, it answered criticism that saw the franchise cemented in ‘outdated’ gameplay, successfully pioneering a form of action hybrid that was part FPS (in all but camera angle) and part survival horror. Secondly – and this is intrinsically linked to the first – it created an aperture of sorts which, intentionally or not, served to empty out much of the title’s more subtle shades of tension, isolation and suspense – severely compromising its capacity to scare.

Resident Evil 4: More action, less atmosphere.

This second point is crucial, and not so much a criticism as it is an acknowledgement of a certain tension in game design; one that is invariably encountered when trying to balance the antagonistic qualities of both the interactive dynamics of gameplay (i.e. action) with horror that speaks directly to the experience of fear. It is one that causes us to question to what extent horror is transferrable to the unique and particular dynamics of gaming, insofar as the presence of one can be seen to directly contract and psychologically dampen that of the other.

Indeed, prolonged and inflated levels of action serve to suffocate horror by severing it from its necessary pre-conditions of atmospheric tension and suspense. It does so by sensually overloading them; by diverting the player’s attention away from a potential, and as of yet unannounced threat, with one that is solid and tangible – and what can never quite satisfy what was subjectively pre-imagined.

Horror is unique in this way among visual forms in the sense that it is explicitly governed by what I like to call its ‘action signature’. Similar to a time signature in music, it is the process that maps the relative and precise levels of action and pace which in turn dictate and control the visual and audiological space. While many games incorporate this concept into their design as a system of controlling and shaping their interactive texture, it is only in relation to horror where this comes under such critical control of the form as a whole, and where adherence to its particular patterns of activity are directly related to its capacity to startle and scare.

The image below is an attempt to represent this action signature as a graph, and should hopefully help to illustrate the idea more clearly. While it might seem logical to include an action signature from a non-horror genre in the interest of comparison, this is precisely the point; it would be impossible to represent a ‘typical’ action signature outside of horror since the respective levels of action and range – even within a genre – have such varying shape so as to render it empirically empty.

The key point to note from the graph is the extreme dynamic range in activity, between the long drawn out depression indicating a slow pace and very little action, to the sudden dramatic spikes indicating a short, sharp burst in visual and auditory activity. It is the fundamental shape that defines the pace and spheres of action in horror, and operates under the same principle whether in a Hollywood movie, or an interactive computer game.

To apply this idea to a practical example: there is an infamous moment in the original Resident Evil, perhaps one of the first memorable big ‘jump’ moments in gaming, where as the player carefully makes their way around the mysterious mansion, looking for clues and items, a pack of rabid ‘zombie dogs’ pounce through a nearby window directly into the player’s path. The sequence creates a panic ‘event’ which forces the player to quickly engage or escape the creatures, while the music bursts into a high pitched screech of discordant sound so as to amplify the overall sense of alarm and distress.

Resident Evil: A classic moment in interactive horror

If we were to map this sequence of gameplay in terms of its action signature it would look much like the diagram shown above, with the slow drawn out depression in activity, leading to a short, dramatic burst in action, before quickly returning again to its previous deflated levels.

This form of action signature is essential to horror for two reasons. Firstly, it allows for the creation of a partial sensory vacuum that serves to redirect attention to the more subtle diegetic cues of atmosphere, environment, and sound – in essence, the necessary pre-conditions for horror. Secondly, these carefully maintained levels of impassivity feed into a player’s sense of apprehension and dread: the ever-potent fear of what may be lurking just around the corner.  This allows for the setup of the ‘jump’ moment, the big spikes in the action signature that give horror its characteristic texture as a medium.

From a design perspective, this particular form of inflexible action signature presents a significant challenge, since to obey its rigid structure serves to severely delimit the type and pace of gameplay that can be inserted therein. It calls for extended periods of low activity which strictly de-authorize the unrestrained action strings of intense virtual combat – unless carefully controlled, meticulously orchestrated, and always sparsely utilized.

In essence, the particular dynamics of gaming – the need for the player to be constantly engaged in activity or ‘doing something’ – is antagonistic to the demands of an action signature that requires extended periods of effectively ‘doing nothing’.

Previous titles – such as Resident Evil – have dealt with this by filling in these spaces of interactive dormancy with other, more sensually restrained activities, such as exploration and puzzle solving. Activities that work by drawing the player deeper into their environment, rather than beating it into submission with guns and bravado.

A puzzle from Resident Evil 2

Systems of combat may still be introduced, however it is essential that they are mapped carefully to the requirements of the action signature so as not to sensually overload the player, and thus breach its necessary shape. Resident Evil (1 & 2) and Silent Hill for example, have a deliberately sluggish and down-tuned pace to their combat systems so as not to undercut atmosphere and tension. They also – due to a purposely designed scarcity of weapons and ammunition – emphasise the avoidance of zombies and creatures as much as direct confrontation, which in turn works to amplify the overall sense of danger and threat they present to the player.

The issue with these solutions lies in the fact that for a majority of gamers – the core market, I would suggest – these gameplay mechanisms aren’t particularly fun or satisfying. The combat may feel awkward and ‘clunky’, while puzzles and extended periods of exploration can sometimes feel forced and demotivating to a player. Instead, these dynamics rely upon a consistently engaging story, with an atmosphere and tension that is thick and engrossing in order to compensate, and divert attention away from their rickety and ever slightly hollow nature.  In the absence of these, the game’s capacity to deliver an enjoyable experience is likely to come apart.

This is why so many titles that purport to scare ultimately fail to reach any significant or satisfying notes of horror; they find themselves unable to maintain fidelity with the precise requirements of the action signature, or conversely, able to establish a mechanism of gameplay that feels adequately gratifying within its peculiar and inflexible boundaries. It is unsurprising then that many games have instead reverted to what I would call ‘Action Horror’, a genre which deploys the visual iconography and narrative setting of horror, but opt instead to fill it with much of the unrestrained and action-orientated gameplay of an FPS.

Doom 3 is particularly illustrative of this type of approach, in that it succeeds early on in establishing a framework for horror, paying service to its necessary pre-conditions and pacing itself appropriately in accordance with the action signature. In these moments it can be said to produce some genuine scares.  However as the game progresses, the pace steadily intensifies and the number of enemies being thrown at the player grows increasingly large, it creates a rupture of sorts which serves to severely undercut and empty out these same carefully drawn shades of tension, isolation and horror – the very conditions it had gone to meticulous lengths to create – by breaching the fundamental shape of the action signature.  The ‘jump’ moments that startled early on become flattened out as the space between them become increasingly over-exposed to the suffocation of activity.

Essentially, the more pace and action are overindulged, the more the action signature is denied its necessary shape to scare.

Doom 3

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ju On: The Grudge is an example of a horror game which maintains extreme fidelity to the action signature by effectively emptying itself of any semblance of traditional gameplay. There is no real combat to speak of (the player is effectively defenceless) while the game consists almost entirely of the player – from first person perspective – shining a torch around a series of dark, creepy environments. While due to its strict adherence to the action signature it is initially able to deliver some genuinely powerful scares, the complete absence of gameplay dynamics renders it thoroughly unsatisfying and empty as a game experience. It illustrates precisely the challenge of horror in a gaming environment, in that even by immaculately preserving its unique patterns of action, this doesn’t guarantee success in gaming terms, and that ‘pure’ horror alone is insufficient a vehicle for which to carry a title to market.

Indeed, gameplay is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, grafting its antagonistic requirements to horror remains considerably problematic.

Ju On: Horror at the expense of gameplay

Left 4 Dead is perhaps the closest a modern game has come to reconciling both these demands. By deploying an interactive system structured entirely around the concept of  ‘panic events’, and  paying service to the necessary depressions of diegetic activity in between, it preserves the shape of the action signature while maintaining a satisfying combat experience that compliments, rather than detracts, from the full texture of horror. Unfortunately Left 4 Dead 2 – as entertaining as it is to play – seems to take a slightly lighter, more humorous tone than its predecessor, and so undercuts the action signature by not supplying it with the necessary pre-conditions, rather than breaching its shape directly.

However, as an example of how structure and patterns of gameplay can be mapped to horror without hollowing out the interactive experience, it is certainly one to be followed and admired.

Left 4 Dead: Horror gameplay that fits the action signature

Left 4 Dead is certainly something I want to look more at more closely in a future update, in light of discussion here and also previous discussions on pseudo-nonlinearity, as I think it presents interesting questions as to the future of both interactive horror and the FPS.

Stay tuned.



Freedom Is Dead, And Why It Doesn’t Matter

Freedom in the FPS is an archaic and false concept. A relic of that childlike sense of wonder in the possibilities of three dimensional gameplay. It speaks more to the obsession of technology than it does in delivering a satisfying experience.

This is perfectly ok. Let’s just let it go.

As the FPS genre has matured, it is no coincidence that this has coincided with an ongoing contraction of ‘virtual’ freedom and an acceleration of linearity. This is due to an overall shift in philosophy which sees game designers become increasingly like film directors, meticulously orchestrating the player’s field of vision; structuring, pacing and lighting their virtual sprawl with increasingly elaborate cadence.

One of the interesting design features to emerge in response to this shift is something I like to call ‘pseudo non-linearity’. In many ways it is the invisible art of level design; when it’s done properly, it is imperceptible. Where it’s perceptible, then it’s something else entirely. (To the more theoretically inclined, it is also a fascinating case study in how to simulate a sense of free-will when, in fact, there isn’t any at all – but that’s something for another update)

Half-Life 2: A dichotomy of freedom and linearity

Pseudo-non-linearity is the process in level-design which seeks to preserve the visual actuality of vast, open-ended environments, while simultaneously concealing a largely rigid A to B progression structure in its place. It is inherently an extremely difficult concept to empiricize, precisely because it deals with such a slippery and abstract value as free-will. However, there are certain rules or identifiers which can be followed in helping to locate its presence in any given instance.

One of these is that the virtual environment must never be ‘artificially’ restricted from the player. This includes such common design flaws as invisible walls, or entire towns where every door is mysteriously locked (except for the one the player was meant to go through).

Of course, the environment still has to be restricted in some way so that the player may progress appropriately through the story. Elaborately scripted events have little use if they can be skipped entirely by some form of creative navigation. Likewise, such plot ‘leakage’ is unlikely to make for an immersive or cohesive experience.

With this in mind, it becomes clear from a design perspective that the player must be constricted in some way owing to the demands of storytelling, while also recognizing the aesthetic and immersive appeal of a sprawling open-ended environment as something worthy of being preserved. Pseudo-non-linearity achieves this by only closing off parts of the virtual world in a way which preserves fidelity with, and remains faithful to, its inherited scenario, while minimizing unnecessary artifice.

An example is required.

The introduction to Half-Life 2 is a particularly useful archetype. The player (as Gordon Freeman), finds themselves trapped in the dystopian City 17, a living and breathing hell house of fascistic undertones (and a not so subtle reference to the dissolution of the Jewish ghettos in Nazi Germany). After a brief encounter with an old friend (Barney, undercover as one of the faceless Combines) it soon becomes clear that the mission is one of escape. As Gordon Freeman makes his way around the spatially imposing City 17, navigating its various alleys, back roads, and crumbling apartments, the sense of a genuine, living and breathing world is certainly palpable. Other ‘evacuees’ offer small talk, ‘Combine’ guardsman patrol the streets, while sinister public service announcements play on giant, dominating screens. The world conveys a sense of it pre-existing the player’s arrival there, which is really, for all titles that strive for immersion, one of the apogees of virtual design.

Hello and welcome to your new prison

What one may not be consciously aware of however as they navigate through this dystopian sprawl is that Gordon’s escape route is quite immaculately linear; an effective straight line in the figurative sense. And yet one could be entirely forgiven for thinking this virtual City as fully, spatially unfastened, naked to the whims of electronic exploration.

This is due to the creative design principle of pseudo-nonlinearity.

City 17 employs several techniques to psychologically re-orientate the player in this way, all operating generally around this one principle. Perhaps most psychologically effective, are the Combine guardsman who ‘dynamically’ operate to cordon off certain parts of City 17’s various stairwells and pathways as Gordon attempts his escape. They are dynamic in the sense that they allow for a passing glimpse of the virtual world outside the player’s immediate field of view, before finally forcing them back en-route (often by way of a hard whack from an electro-truncheon) to be left with only the tantalizing suggestion planted into their own imagination; that of a fluid world that only marginally pre-empts subjectivity. Simultaneously, a colossal barrier to immersion is shattered as the familiar constrictive sense of the ‘developer behind the curtain’ ruthlessly chopping and cutting parts of the world from view is countered by effectively showing the world behind that curtain – if only briefly. This is sufficient however, as in the process an illusion of freedom, or rather of non-linearity, is actively cultivated in the player’s mind; the world becomes actualized, feels more three dimensional, as the artificial barriers to exploration are, in turn, naturalized, effectively reshaped into actors of the story operating against the player. In the process, they are absolved of their essential artifice as agents of linearity.

A brief glimpse of freedom

Freedom not found

Pseudo-nonlinearity may also be achieved without the aid of such dynamic tools (which, it is worth stating, cannot always be relied upon – owing to the context of plot or narrative) and this is certainly a more common approach to environmental design that one finds. In practice, the fundamentals remain largely unchanged as the principle barrier to exploration must still undergo the same process of naturalization; that is, it must be configured so as to maintain consonance to the inherited semiotic array of both narrative and environment. For instance, in introducing an obstruction into a particular environment, the environment must also be able to passively disclose the ‘story’ of why that obstruction is present there. The closer fidelity is able to be maintained between the obstruction to individual progression and the dynamic motivation to progress (i.e. the narrative) the greater the linearity ‘deficit’ is reduced. To use a common example from modern FPS design: a wrecked car or coach laying across a road or landscape forces the player onto a different path, effectively manipulating them into the appropriate, pre-determined direction. While this form of static obstruction may appear a rather brash imposition and unconscionable artifice, this hinges upon how effectively it is naturalized in respect to its narrative and environmental arrays. By ensuring that it conforms to the animus of these two factors, its symbolic charge as both artifice and bearer of linearity can be effectively neutralized.

To put it simply, the narrative should, either directly or indirectly, be able account for why the obstruction is there, while the environment (by means of inference) discloses how it got there.

Left 4 Dead: A good example of 'naturalized' obstruction

These two environmental operators (static and dynamic) form the basis of environmental design from the principle of pseudo non-linearity. By deploying them, developers are able to mitigate the lingering problems associated with this shift toward a narrowing of exploration in favour of greater control. Of course, the ever-critical gamer will often be able to penetrate the façade, and readily deduce the reality of linearity on display. However, awareness, or pre-awareness should not detract from the overall effect, which like a magic trick, is able to retain much of its prestige despite knowledge of this basic deception.

Having looked at pseudo non-linearity in some detail in both its static and dynamic forms, in the next update I hope to move onto how FPS games are beginning to evolve beyond this paradigm, by reviewing a few overlooked examples from the annals of gaming history, and some emerging titles that look to disrupt these established models.

Stay tuned.


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