On Horror and Player Agency: Fear and Controllers

Player agency is the biggest and most important gap between horror in games and in other media.

My fondest childhood memories revolve around my father coming home every Saturday night with an armload of VHS tapes from the local video store. This was several years before Blockbuster became the new hangout for me and him, and I remember his wide grin as he sat me down in front of our boob tube with the rabbit ears and popped a VHS into the VCR for me to see. "Check this out," he'd comment before popping a Marlboro into his mouth and lighting up.

I was a child of late night creature features; monster movies, slasher flicks, extreme cinema, and I've carried that love through into my adult years as I make a point to see every horror movie that comes out in theaters. I have my favorites, of course, but I am someone who can appreciate the medium of horror as a whole for what it offers to the human experience.

Horror is a complicated medium with which to write and script, and it shares a lot of beats with comedy. What makes you laugh may not make someone else laugh, and what scares you might not make the same person feel the same reaction — both strive to elicit an emotional response from the audience, both strive to return to a point of simplicity, and both take practice to master the delivery, the pacing and the effects.

There is a medium in which horror has more of a foothold in the process of scaring the audience, and that is the world of video gaming.

Horror in video games has always been something of a niche market, even before the current AAA gaming climate where companies seem to be falling all over themselves to pump money into the safest loot box-laden thing they can quickly turn a profit on.

For me at least, the golden age of horror gaming was the PS2 era where the Japanese passion project was more pronounced, and titles were pushed not solely based on their marketability but on how unique they were. It was this era that brought some of the best horror games the PlayStation had ever seen, from the quietly foreboding Haunting Ground to the intensely unnerving Siren. 

I would go so far as to say that the best horror game ever made is Silent Hill 2, a quiet glimpse into a man's suffering and his descent into despair and madness.

When we consider the mechanics of horror as a medium, it seems fairly straightforward. A character, typically female, serves as a vehicle to guide us through a spooky scene through a formula similar to comedy. Setup, delivery, payoff. For example, this scene from the Friday the 13th remake.

It follows a lot of the same beats. The setup with Donnie in the barn. The delivery with Jason attacking him. The payoff with him discovering the iconic Jason hockey mask.

It's not the most polished scene in horror history — and to be clear, we can get into the flaws of this particular movie at a later time — but it emphasizes that horror is formulaic. There's a setup, a discovery, and a payoff.

Now take this scene from the game Resident Evil 3.

The difference between a horror game and a horror movie is that a horror game offers something key. Something that's lost in the purely visual medium: Agency. 

You're not just seeing something scary happen to a character, you're experiencing it with that character and internalizing that fear. The stakes are higher because Jill Valentine's survival rests entirely in your hands, and it ratchets up the tension phenomenally. You are the master of Jill's destiny. You're not just seeing it through a screen or a script, you're given direct agency of her in this situation.

The effect is even more palpable when experienced through the eyes of the main character, adding an even deeper layer of fear to it because in that moment, it's happening to you, not just the player-character.

Incidentally, Outlast is fantastic. If you haven't played it, I recommend it.

You can feel the main character's fear, he screams, and you probably did too as the two of you were plunged into the nightmare together.

Now, just like with comedy, there are things to look out for. I'm sure you've seen or heard of Five Nights at Freddy's.

The series does a marvelous job of creating tension, of keeping the game tense and tasking you with monitoring camera feeds to defend yourself against killer animatronics in a Chuck E. Cheese-style pizzeria. The problem is with this.

The jumpscare.

The game was doing so well. The pitch darkness. The glowing eyes. The Toriador March playing ominously to highlight the extreme danger... all undercut with a jumpscare.

Jumpscares in horror are used most effectively to break the tension in a horror scene, to let the audience know that the scary part has effectively passed. By relying on them, you not only cheapen their use but send a mixed signal with your intent as a writer.

A jumpscare is, by its very nature, a physical reaction. Horror is an emotional reaction. By relying on a physical reaction to sell how scary something should be, you've relegated your story to being little better than a carnival haunted house. It's becoming a troubling trend in horror media.

Happily, these tactics are rare enough and the truly excellent horror series stand the test of time.

Silent Hill 2 has garnered critical praise for its' atmosphere, music and story, and it stands alone as one of the best examples of a good, cinematic horror experience only bolstered by player agency. I wholeheartedly encourage you all to play it and experience it for yourself.

However, there is a larger problem to consider, and that's the sales viability of horror gaming in general. The gaming industry has moved further away from horror as a medium and that hurts new IPs with compelling new narratives to tell.

One need only look at the problems with Silent Hills and the Silent Hill pachinko machines to see what Konami thinks of its own IP. Not as a standalone work of art that deserves to be cherished, but as a cash cow to be milked.

The one thing we can and should do is vote with our wallets - if we want compelling horror gaming, we should make it known. With that, I leave you with a piece of the Silent Hill 2 soundtrack, and a reminder that good horror never ages. 


Published May. 21st 2019

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