It’s been repeatedly said that the videogame medium presents the ideal tools to create a horror piece. Imposing fear, stress and panic, is always a matter of inducing what characters’ feel unto the audience, in essence channeling the experience from the stage unto the spectator’s mind. In videogames, identification of the player with the main character is simply much more powerful than in any other means, most of all due to the kinesthetic bond that relates player’s thoughts to the actions which characters perform. This relationship becomes particularly useful when conveying a character’s state of mind, as the interaction bond guarantees, to a certain extent, that the player will psychologically identify with, and thus, mimic the reactions of the main character, in the same way that the character responds to player’s input. The question however, is how to effectively channel that inherent power of interactivity in order to produce an emotional effect, and here, as always in art, there are as many approaches as there are cultural expressions and philosophies.
Let’s take a look at the “Resident Evil” series (“Biohazard” in Japan). In every single one of the main titles, you play as police officer trying to survive a zombie threat. No doubt inspired by Romero’s (re)invention of the zombie genre, which eventually lead to an onslaught of B-movie followings, it is not surprising that “Resident Evil” applies (successfully I might add), the conceptual grounds on which a vast majority of western horror genre movies are based (even though it is a Japanese creation). Notice, for example, how the main character is a police officer, which obviously means a strong and trained fighter, someone capable of defending himself and of fighting for good – a true American portrayal of a “hero”. The menace he must face is overwhelming, an invasion of zombies which he must escape and/or defeat. Each “Resident Evil” game is framed in a believable context, where the laws of physics and reality apply thoroughly – zombies are zombies only because of a scientifically generated virus that turns the dead into walking bags of flesh, they are not, in any way, a product of any supernatural or unknown phenomena. The realistic framing is intended to propose a “this could happen to you” scenario, and the virus plays as a mere macguffin, intended on justifying the existence of zombies and delivering some sort of overarching plot; at best, it provides a subtext on the danger of science and private companies producing biological weapons which we’re not capable of controlling. Naturally, zombies are just the tip of the iceberg, as the virus can also mutate deadly spiders, dogs, plants and crows, as well as spawning new species of monsters with little connection to the real world, such as the Tyrant.
Monsters are slowly shown to the player, starting with the more plausible (or the more culturally accepted) and gently building up to the nigh absurd, following the frog’s parable, as to ease in the player and not break the realistic framing. As a player, you fight these creatures, always in a stance of inferiority, both in numbers (there are a lot of zombies) as in sheer scale (the monsters are big), added to the fact that resources are low (ammo and health recovery), which obviously makes you ponder carefully about wasting any, again putting you in a stance of inferiority faced with the oppressive environment. This produces stress, both because your mind tells you that these monsters will kill you (as there are many of them and they are big and menacing looking), and also because fighting the monsters leads to hectic battles, which require quick reflexes (in order to dodge attacks) and precision (in order to save up bullets), all of which trigger adrenaline, which in turn causes a sense of vertigo. Adding to that, the game constantly ponds you with unpredictable events, such as the jumping of a ravaging dog through a window, providing a needed scare factor, which, once again, enhances a sense of distress.
Now, all of these elements provide stress, but the question is how well these American-movie inspired mechanisms work as to make you feel actual dread (which should be the purpose of a horror piece), and how well are they mapped onto a videogame. Firstly, the fact that you play a fearless hero seems as a bad choice to me. A physical and mentally strong character enhances a sense of invincibility and power over a dangerous environment, which is exactly the opposite of what you want the player to feel: hopelessness face danger. “Resident Evil” characters are always strong face adversity, whether during story sequences, where harsh dialogs show off their ability to keep it cool despite the situation, exuding their masculinity and heroic features, or during gameplay, where their combat-trained body produces movements which translate a sense of security and control that you just don’t want the player to feel. The possibility of using weapons, specially heavy weapons (as the grenade launcher and the RPG), adds to that effect, and breaks any notion of fragility that might be left – and if they look and act strong, then you as well, by identifying with the character, will perceive yourself as strong and fearless, and definitely not as fearful.
The realistic framing is also a shot in the foot when it comes to a horror piece. Reality is where we live in, we take comfort in its predictable rules and trappings; by allowing the player to inhabit that conceptual space, designers are in fact giving you a lifeline, a mental state for you to go back to, that is, on a psychological level, pleasant and reassuring. You know what happens when you shoot a zombie, it bleeds and dies; you know what happens when you torch a living plant, it burns and dies; the sustaining of natural rules, which you expect to be applicable, does work well as game mechanic, but enhances the sense of comfort that breaks up fear. Aesthetic elements in “Resident Evil” also commit the same sin, by providing players known sensory stimuli, as dark alleys, haunting mansions, dark light contrasts (…), and soundtracks that privilege monster’s growling and screams, with scores that feature heavy bass lines and metallic high pitch tones. The problem with these elements is that, being archetypes, they follow tried and true formulas used to deliver suspenseful situations, having become banal and downtight clichéd in other mediums, which leads to predictability and familiarity with these references to anyone who has watched or read a horror piece before. Predictability and familiarity, which come from both “Resident Evil’s” aesthetic and its framing, remove the “unknown” factor from the picture. And we fear the unknown, for the existence of fear, biologically, comes from the very need to avoid unpredictability, because it is a synonym of danger, of something out of control, of something which you should avoid… of something you should fear.
Let me reassure you that I find “Resident Evil” a great game series (the first is still one of my personal favorites), and yet, it is hardly a game I would say can cause fear. Suspense and fright surely, and not by accident, as these are elements that date back to Hitchcock (again a western reference). But not fear. Modern American horror pieces (specially the B-movie kind) privilege a kind of experience where humor and frights go hand in hand, where cheesiness cohabits the gruesome and gory, where terror is a synonym of fun and popcorn. Games like the “Resident Evil” series, though they try to avoid some of these feelings, fail in perceiving how much they are embroiled in the concepts that they follow (just look back at the first “Resident Evil’s” initial FMV to understand where I’m going). Recently, “Resident Evil 4” came and become the “de facto” standard of the industry towards the genre, somehow representing the epitome of this formula. How on earth a flashy action-packed game, extremely entertaining to play, could be a true horror game is something that surpasses me; how most critics missed that fact by naming the game a “survival horror” also eludes me. “Resident Evil 4” is, even more than its predecessors, an action packed game with a horror scenario; just think about it, you change the setting, put in some machine guns and you get a “Gears of War”, which I don’t remember hearing anyone call it a horror title (I’m consciously exaggerating for the purpose of argument). I mean, just the fact that the game is entertaining begs the question if it’s really a horror game. These western ways of thinking about the horror genre are sound in terms of producing entertaining experiences, but, in my view (and this is only my view), they miss the core of the experience behind true horror pieces. Sadly, the wearing out of some traditional Japanese formulas (“Silent Hill”, “Project Zero”/”Fatal Frame” and even “Siren”), has led “Resident Evil 4” to the statute of reference in the genre, and that’s why games which try to mimic or reference its formula, fail in producing fear, games such as “Dead Rising” or more recently, “Dead Space” and… “Silent Hill Homecoming”.
[“The Essence of Fear” will be a two part article that will serve as a prelude to the review of “Silent Hill Homecoming”. Mainly it will allow for a setup on the reasons why “Silent Hill” was once the true capturing of fear in a videogame, and why today it is not. It also will be a nice way of comparing western and eastern notions of what a horror piece is, in a videogame context.]