Sound Design in Video Games and Film

By Erin

Sound design is a crucial aspect of video games and movies. What would Halloween or Jaws be like without their iconic soundtracks? Michael Myers is much less menacing in awkward silence. However, the way the audio of these different types of media is created differs between each one due to differing goals and challenges.

According to Williams, “Aurally, excess is marked by recourse not to the coded articulations of language but to inarticulate cries of pleasure in porn, screams of fear in horror, sobs of anguish in melodrama” (Willams 4). When thinking of the sound design in the games we have played as a class, these stereotypes don’t exactly seem to describe them. For example, in P.T. the sound design was much more minimal. For the most part, all you could hear was your footsteps through the empty house. Occasionally, there would be another sound effect like a door slamming or something falling, perhaps a radio turning on. The sound design, rather than an excess, was marked by an absence. The silence served to accentuate every small sound to draw the player’s attention to it. Because we didn’t play games with a lot of action, the only scenes that seem to fit this stereotype are death scenes, such as in P.T. when you are caught by the ghost; a musical sting plays as she jumps in front of you, accentuating the startling feeling. Sound design in VR horror games doesn’t differ much from traditional horror games in how it is designed or its purpose. However, it does have a different effect. Sound design in VR horror is a very important aspect of immersion in the game. It is much more important to have accurate directionality in sound effects or you lose the feeling of actually being inside the game.

Sound design also differs between horror video games and horror movies. Where the objective of a video game soundtrack is to create a feeling in an environment and add to the setting’s ambiance, movie soundtracks must be much more intentional in their design. A musical sting may accompany a jump scare in order to help startle the audience, or a swell in the music can serve to add tension to a particular moment. However, video games are rarely so scripted. Instead, much of the soundtrack will play on a loop. Every environment has its own unique backing track, but it will rarely have such intentional dynamics to accentuate the story. Instead, there will be shifts to different types of music, such as battle music or a darker soundtrack for a tense moment. Where movies will play with the dynamics of the music itself, games tend to focus more on timing and direction. A sound from an enemy may warn you to turn around. Some new sound effect may hint at a new development in the story. Using P.T. as an example again, when the radio turns on, it hints to the player to go investigate it in order to advance.

These differences in movie soundtracks and video game soundtracks occur in part because a movie soundtrack can be much more scripted and intentional because there is no variability to the experience. Every moment can have its sound design mapped out because there is no possible change to account for. In a video game, every playthrough by every player will invariably unfold differently. It is impossible to map out every second of the sound design. For this reason, video game soundtracks are instead designed to invoke a general feeling and create an ambiance rather than add impact to a specific moment as movie soundtracks do. As such, movie soundtracks require much more meticulous planning. However, this isn’t to say that less effort goes into a video game soundtrack. Due to its nature of being so static, a movie soundtrack only needs to be written and mapped out once. However, video game soundtracks must account for many different variables. Footsteps must start and stop when the player does. The directionality of sounds must shift as the player moves through the environment. Rather than having specific moments planned out, video games plan out all of the possible sounds in one location and program them to play when appropriate and with the correct qualities to seem cohesive with the environment, meaning they may sound muffled, louder or quieter with distance, or come from a different direction.

In conclusion, while video game soundtracks and movie soundtracks do differ, one is not more effective than the other, and both serve their purpose in the form of media they are designed for. Video game soundtracks may even differ in style or purpose from each other, but they are designed in a way that will best accentuate and add to the type of game they are made for.

Tension Between Representation and Tropes of Disability in A Quiet Place

From Friday the 13th Part Two to Relic, we have seen many examples of disability in horror this quarter. In the former, we see a dramatic slashing of Mark, who is in a wheelchair, which features his slashed body rolling down the stairs in his chair. We also see Jason become a villain slasher as a result of severe developmental issues. In the latter, we uncomfortably witness the grandmother use a slur to describe her neighbor Jamie, who has Down’s Syndrome, as a way to portray her mental decline and loss of touch with the present day. The movies play along with what is standard in the horror genre: disabilities are exploited to create fear (as Jason’s developmental issues are what make him scary) while simultaneously used as a punchline (like Mark rolling down the stairs after being slashed and Jamie’s Down Syndrome only included to be made fun of). John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place takes a fundamentally different approach to standard disability in horror by centering the movie on a disabled protagonist. The film follows the survival journey of a family as they attempt to evade monsters which attack and kill things that produce sound. The daughter and oldest child of the family, Regan, is deaf, which greatly complicates things in a world where one must regulate their own sound to survive. Despite at times succumbing to classic problems, the movie is an overall positive step in disability representation in the horror genre and the film industry as a whole. 

There are a few notable ways that Regan and her disability are portrayed which are inherently similar to the tropes seen in the other movies we discussed this quarter that feature disabled characters. In multiple scenes, the viewer is forced into Regan’s perspective. This is not accomplished through a traditional POV shot, but rather a POA (point of audition) where we hear what Regan hears (nothing). One scene in particular features this POA as we see Regan with her back turned to the monsters. While the other characters (and audience) would normally hear a growling of the monsters, we realize that Regan does not. We become fearful for her fate as the dramatic irony builds; we see the monster that she does not, and we are made very aware of the fact that she cannot hear it. While a case could be made that this moment is a positive one, as it forces an assumed hearing audience to truly relate to a deaf character, I take issue with the fact that the moments we relate to her in this way are exploited to make us fearful of her fate. How positive can this moment be if we are fearful every time we identify with Regan? In this way, the attempt to relate to her actually causes us to associate her deafness with fear, similar to how we associate Jason’s severe developmental issues with fear in Friday the 13th Part 2. Though we don’t see Regan as a villain with malicious intent, her very existence in this world scares us. Another issue in the portrayal of Regan’s deafness in this film is the fact that it is her cochlear implant, meant to “cure” her condition, is what saves the family. This critique has been extensively discussed in class as well as on the Canvas discussion board, and is made more powerful when we learned (likely for the first time) from the Berry reading that the cochlear implant, which allows her to overcome her struggles in this world, is very controversial within the deaf community. 

While these elements are in line with problematic portrayals of disability in horror, it would be reductive to speak of A Quiet Place as a movie that simply follows the classical tropes. When we strip away the monsters, jumpscares, and fear of sound in this movie, we are left with a narrative of a young girl struggling to come to terms with her disability, notably in her guilt about how her disability burdens the rest of her family. It is absolutely incredible to see a major film tell this story which is all too relatable to disabled children. We see Regan’s guilt as she feels blame from her parents due to her disability. We see her anger as her hopeful Dad tries to give her a new device when she has already lost all hope. We see a vulnerable moment where she tests the new device, and we realize with her that it does not work through the best use of POA in the movie. We see her realization at the end of the film that her Dad does care for her and that he does not blame her for who she is. We experience all of the emotions she feels as a disabled child. This is powerful even when clouded by some inappropriate portrayals. The use of ASL in the film, which serves as an advantage to the family, is an excellent example of disability accommodation shown as a tool rather than a burden to others. Behind the scenes, we also learned that the crew for this film learned ASL to help communicate with the actress who plays Regan, Millicent Simmons, who is deaf herself. These are incredibly powerful, incredibly important decisions made for this movie that make it one of the most thorough disability portrayals in film. 

All in all, this movie does a good job handling disability. While there are strides to be made, much of the problem comes from the fact that this is a horror movie that needs to both scare people and give them hope in order to be successful. POA to build suspense and the cochlear implant as a saving grace are both a result of those necessities. At its core, this movie tells the story of a disabled child growing up with an able bodied family, and navigates the complex emotions that come with such an experience. The director made special care to ensure accessibility on set, and took major risks in producing a film like this. While there is always room to grow, this movie made excellent strides to fix issues seen throughout the genre and the industry as a whole.

“A Quiet Place”: Defamilarizing the Unknown

When I first heard of A Quiet Place, the movie’s premise—a world in which any sound you make can cause your untimely and gory death—seemed terrifying in a new way. Instead of using haunted spaces, Ouija boards, or serial killers for shock and scare value, this film seemed like it would transform sensory perception into a terrifying thriller. But after watching the film at our screening, I realized that wasn’t really the core of what made this film feel scary.

During my presentation, I asked the class what made the film feel like a horror film. A couple responses referred to the unknown elements of the setting, like the broader world, the origins of the monsters, the apocalyptic setting, and the location of other humans. Several others pointed to the world’s premise itself and its anxieties. I asked this question to see if the unknown elements of the film drove the feeling of horror and terror. As we mentioned in class, Lovecraft claimed that the strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown. I think A Quiet Place challenges this claim by defamiliarizing what the unknown actually is. There are few specific unknown elements in the movie. The monsters and their origin are unknown, yet the film neutralizes this aspect by starting the story well into this post-apocalyptic setting and visually showing how the family is settled into their survival techniques. Perhaps the most obvious evidence that the unknown origins aren’t a source of horror, it’s Evelyn’s pregnancy. Even in this world’s setting, she and her husband felt secure enough to carry a child to term rather than choose to find alternative solutions. The rest of the world is ambiguous and only vaguely touched upon, as shown with the signal fires pointing out other humans around and the random old couple in the woods. A Quiet Place transforms the unknown from literal aspects of missing information into the case of inevitability. What is horrifying in this film is not what’s clearly unknown, but the inevitability of the known, which is creating sound.

I think A Quiet Place beautifully transforms and defamiliarizes this inevitability by presenting it through the lens of parenthood, family, and disability. There is inevitability in the family because children are uniquely prone to making noise. Except for three times (the old man’s suicide, Lee’s sacrifice, and Evelyn’s interaction with the nail), every noise that triggered the monsters was caused by children. Most of these are accidental noises as well. And because children are prone to this, this creates tremendous stress on parenthood—how are parents supposed to impose the grave danger of noise on children? How can parents teach a baby not to cry when crying is all an infant instinctively has to alert their caretaker? And if this wasn’t anxious enough, Evelyn and Lee need to teach Reagan how to be safe in a world that is more dangerous to her than the rest of them. It is the unknown aspects of the children’s behavior and actions that are the underlying thrum of the anxiety and suspense in the film. Rather than exploring the complete unknown like Lovecraft does, the film explores the unknown actions and results of known characters and problems.

Switching gears slightly, I want to address Reagan and deafness within this context of what is horrific in A Quiet Place. Gabrielle Berry’s paper examined the many complicated ways Reagan’s deafness is understood and explored implicitly and explicitly throughout the film. In the above paragraph, I mentioned the anxiety of Lee and Evelyn teaching Reagan how to be safe in this world with her disability. Within the theme of parenthood, this makes sense, but within the context of Reagan and her disability, this is actually quite limiting for her. The film tries to grapple with this by showing the difficulties of Lee connecting with Reagan, but ultimately it does not do enough, in my opinion. The audience does not see what Reagan fears in this world. We see her guilt and her frustration at not being allowed to interact in the world as she wishes she could, but this is not the same as seeing her fear. We do see her afraid of the monsters like everyone else, but her underlying fears are never explored in the ways Lee and Evelyn’s are. (This may also be due to the thin characterization of the Abbott family, but this would be important to demonstrate even in very thin characters.) This reminds me of the biggest fault of Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown claim—it is a claim filtered through his own racism and fear of others different from him. Similarly, A Quiet Place almost falls into a similar pit by overly projecting an unknown fear that is hearing-centric throughout the film.

Given this major pitfall, I had a difficult time grappling why A Quiet Place offered two explicit solutions to the Sound Dilemma. The first solution is hearing and speaking-centric: simply make a louder sound. We see Lee teach this to Marcus at the waterfall and again when Marcus sets off the fireworks to save Evelyn. The second solution is deaf and hard-of-hearing centric by utilizing the cochlear implant (CI). We see this technology develop throughout the film until it gives the family an opportunity to shoot the monsters. Berry’s paper wonderfully examines the questionable representation of the CI as a miracle tool, the CI as a tool that seems more visible than the other aspects of deafness that allowed the family to survive to this point, and the CI’s complicated relationship with Deaf communities and cultures. In the film, the CI solution is clearly presented as better than the louder sound solution. It feels like the film is trying to suggest that our differences are our strengths, but that seems almost too explicit for a film that takes so many measures to be subtle and innovative. Therefore, I’m still not sure what to make of this pairing, especially in the context of defamiliarizing the unknown. Perhaps this tension is expanded upon in A Quiet Place 2, but for a film as creative and intentional as A Quiet Place, I think this connection is worth contemplating further.


Is VR the Future of Horror?

Putting on a headset and opening your eyes to the world of Half-Life: Alyx, Resident Evil 7, or any of the more recent entries into the category of virtual reality horror games, it’s not hard to make a case for the technology providing a golden opportunity for the next big advancement in the genre of horror. Horror is one of the few genres to continuously follow and benefit from the progression of gaming technology. Avid players of shooters and battle royales perhaps have less to gain from their mainstays being made into more immersive experiences. This is to say, VR seems to be the logical next step for those who desire a higher level of immersion with their horror games. Fixed camera perspectives and polygonal graphics, among other antiquated elements of early horror games, have been traded for a level of player integration that blurs the border between player and playable character. Something changes when the headset is put on; something that may be the future for the horror genre, and gaming as a whole.

Virtual reality games work in a way that every other game released, whether on computer or console, past, present, or future, cannot possibly achieve. The screen of the display on which the game is played is a concrete barrier separating the operator, the player of the game, from the playable character, whatever form that takes. Even in first-person perspective, a certain sense of distance is maintained. Perhaps peripheral vision of the edges of the screen or the distortion of depth perception leading up to the screen allows the operator to ground themselves in the real world. This intrinsic knowledge that the game can only be in front of us is excised entirely from virtual reality. The headset is the screen, and the distance between the eyes of the operator and the screen becomes negligible. The controllers become mimicries of the operator’s hands, meant more to imitate the function of a hand rather than serve as a multitool for certain commands or actions. When we turn around playing a virtual reality game, we don’t look away from the screen; we see what is behind us in the game world. Every audiovisual cue that grounds the operator in the real world is stifled; I often found myself unconsciously avoiding running into virtual walls and trying to lean on things that weren’t actually there. 

To that extent, the playable character becomes intertwined with the operator in such a way that it distorts the operator’s ability to distance themselves from the events of the game. Some may feel inclined to pause a game during situations of high intensity. In virtual reality, the ability to pause the game is obviously still present, but not being able to directly or indirectly see the button on the controller that stops the game contributes to its feeling of decreased accessibility. So, when Jeff is first revealed on the other side of the door during the distillery section of Half-Life: Alyx, the first instinct is not to pause the game with a menu, or to run using an analog stick, but to run using our legs. Even with the knowledge that physical movement, beyond that of the head to look around, is rather useless in navigating virtual reality game spaces, I still found myself incredibly tempted to turn tail. 

Part of the brilliance of the distillery section of Half-Life: Alyx, specifically pertaining to horror, was its use of Jeff’s gimmick in conjunction with the level design and the required player actions. The player is required to crouch to access certain spaces, cover their mouth to avoid coughing from spores, and throw bottles to cause distractions, all of which contribute to the nervous terror of being confined in a space with Jeff. Repeated failures and iterations of the level inevitably curtail the feeling of horror and replace it with determination or frustration, but the physical trait of Jeff is smoothly translated into an anxiety-producing virtual puzzle, one that stands out in demanding the operator to take physical action. Resident Evil 7, by comparison, offers very few instances of requiring a unique physical action in order to navigate the game world. It might not be enough simply to throw players into the screen of a horror game; virtual reality, by blurring operator and playable character, also encroaches on sensory perception but, as of yet, fails to capture all of them. In doing so, it may detract from the immersion the operator experiences.

When we play games on a console or a computer, we know inherently that the character that we are controlling on the screen is not us. We see through their eyes and hear through their ears, and the other senses we know we cannot experience through audiovisual media alone. On the other hand, virtual reality removes the distinction of the screen; the operator and the playable character. The eyes of the playable character are now our eyes; the same for our ears. We obviously always have awareness of the fact that we are playing a game, but at the same time, there is an element that makes us unconsciously reject not being able to experience the full extent of the senses. We play virtual reality games, particularly horror games, to be more immersed in the game world; to be integrated with the playable character to become part of the game world. In that sense, when we are unable to fully perceive every sense available to the playable character, such as a hand being sawn off or being vomited on with acid, it conflicts with the immersion we desire out of virtual reality. If true immersion and simulated reality is what we desire in our horror experiences, however, it might not be a stretch to say that the future of horror is merely having the horrific happening to us in real life, whether involuntarily or through a McKamey Manor-esque scenario.

The desire for more immersive experiences may be an involuntary product of the push for higher quality graphics. Many recent, non-virtual horror games have taken advantage of stylistic graphical decisions over trying to attain the most realistic visuals, such as Bendy and the Ink Machine or Imscared. Even the horror games of decades ago retain their ability to inspire fear, with their scares reliant on the limitations of their technology. The best of horror in virtual reality may not be a culmination of what the technology can do, but rather a creative consideration of what virtual reality can and cannot offer. Virtual reality may not necessarily need to be perfect in all regards, including visually, to be the jumping off point for the future of horror. I, for one, would prefer that a hand being sawn off stay untranslated into an immersive experience. 

By Kendrick Lee

A Quiet Place: Adapting to a Silent World – Sabrina Kimble

What would life be like if our silence meant our survival? The horror film (if you prefer to call it that), A Quiet Place, explores this question as it depicts post-apocalyptic family life. While this may seem irrelevant to the main plot of the film, that is, the looming threat of noise-sensitive, man-eating monsters, family life is more central to the horror of the film than it might seem. More specifically, the sounds of family life become the threat to fear aside from the monsters themselves. This is, obviously, quite troubling. Family is where we begin to develop our sense of community and belonging. It is where we learn to emotionally and socially connect with others. What happens, then, when that space is disrupted? What happens when our human inclination to connect, form community, to express an emotion becomes a matter of life or death? 

In our class discussion, we talked about the ways in which the family in A Quiet Place had to adapt to the silent world around them. To travel from place to place to run errands, the family must walk on sand trails without shoes to muffle the sounds of their footsteps. They communicate with each other through sign language, but we can assume that they knew sign language prior to the apocalypse because Regan, the daughter, is deaf. During family dinners, they must eat on large leafy “plates” instead of glass plates and use their hands instead of silverware. The food options themselves must be adapted as well. Presumably, the family eats mostly fish not only because it’s easy to cook quietly but also because it’s to hunt. Fishing is known to be a “silent” style of hunting (i.e. no loud guns). That and the fact that the family catches their meals near a loud waterfall that drowns out small sounds makes fish the safest food source.  Bonding with family over board games is also transformed. We briefly see the kids playing Monopoly with pieces of felt and fuzz balls instead of a metal race car or thumbtack. 

The family must also keep their emotions in check. We see Regan’s anger and frustration towards her father (and herself) must be muted by her punching and screaming into her pillow. When the mother witnesses her youngest child being killed, we see her cover her mouth so she does not audibly scream. 

This is obviously a lot to get used to. And the audience becomes aware of this when the youngest child is killed where his ability to be a child and play with a toy rocket is disrupted. Thus, we briefly see how childhood must be adapted as well. From that point on, the audience, like the family, becomes hypersensitive to sound and must adapt to complete and utter silence (save some background music). In our class discussion, we also talked about the ways in which the audience must adapt to the soundscape of the film in order to connect with the characters, especially when they are expressing emotions commonly associated with the horror genre. In a movie where there is little to no dialogue, one would think it difficult to understand what is going on. However, the film presents emotion in other forms, most notably through body language and facial expressions.

 The film also does something that we have yet to explore in this class until now: it “foreshadows” emotion. How so? The most prominent example that we discussed in the infamous raised nail. While the mother is leaving the basement of the family home with a bag full of laundry, she struggles with the heavy bag up the stairs. As she scales the stairs, the bag snags on a slightly raised nail and pulls it up from the wood with the sharp end jutting straight out. The camera lingers on the nail, a common technique used to signal the importance of the nail to the audience. Because the audience is primed from the beginning of the film to be hypersensitive to sound, the lingering image of the nail not only makes one cringe at the thought of the pain from stepping on it but also at the thought of containing that pain. How can you keep quiet when you are walking around barefoot and you step on a nail?! Here, the audience knows exactly how the mother feels (or how she will feel). Thus, the film uses lingering scenes and other imagery in addition to body language and facial expressions to demonstrate emotions. The audience hones in on these elements because the film forces its viewers to be hypersensitive to sound and hyperaware to visuals. Naturally, establishing this sensitivity is how the film creates suspense. As we discussed, small to moderate sounds become terrifyingly loud and, as demonstrated by the nail, the prospect of a loud sound is anxiety inducing. This is not because the sounds themselves are inherently scary, but because the thing follows the loud sound (i.e. THE MONSTERS) is even scarier. 

From the above, we see how this sensitivity also enables the audience to fully immerse themselves into the soundscape of the film. One major implication of this is that the film invites us to consider how we might tell stories and develop characters through emphasizing film elements other than dialogue such as sound design, music, and camera angles. While the family’s ability to connect with each other and the audience’s ability to connect with the characters is disrupted, the film presents us with ways in which these abilities can be transformed and adapted to a silent world. 

How Resident Evil 7 Startles Us

by Jacqs M.

In Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, a variety of techniques are used to create feelings of horror, but for this post I will be focusing on the startle effect. According to Robert Baird, there are three core elements needed for a film’s startle effect: 

  1. A character presence, 
  2. An implied offscreen threat,
  3. And a disturbing intrusion into the character’s immediate space.

As a video game that’s also been adapted for VR, does Resident Evil 7 follow the same rules for the startle effect as established for films?

[For all the scenes I discuss I will give a timestamp from this video, a no commentary walkthrough of the game. There will also be some graphic images.]

In class we discussed some scenes where the rules applied. Firstly, the scene where we encounter Mia in the Bakers’ house is already unsettling from the “we’re gonna be a family” lines and conflicting dialogue from Mia. When we walk down the dark stairs and Mia comes crawling up and then starts stabbing us (00:29:50), with screeching, tense music in our ears before Mia stops and knocks herself out, we get two of three elements. First, the character’s presence (Mia, coming out of nowhere in a creepy crawling position), and second, the disturbing intrusion into the character’s immediate space (stabbed through the hand). When she gets up and pushes us through a wall before we take her down with an axe (00:32:15), the missing element is introduced — the implied offscreen threat now that we know Mia defies typical logic. So when she comes back and eventually cuts our arm off with a chainsaw (another instance of the disturbing intrusion), we have all three elements (00:36:20). We know she’s out there somewhere, probably getting back up and finding a way to attack us again. However, I feel as though I can argue that even before that official implied offscreen threat is introduced, we still feel startled when we see her crawling up the stairs. Does the general looming threat stemming from just being in the ominous Baker house, as well as the dead birds on the road and the missing persons news articles, constitute enough of an implied offscreen threat? Or do we need to know that Mia is indestructible to be wary enough of her to be startled by her?

Mia cutting off Ethan’s hand.

On the other hand, there is another scene that more closely follows the traditional rules for film. There is a scene later in the game that we did not get to during the screening where we try to get help from a police officer that has somehow shown up outside the garage (00:57:00). When we let him in, we get zero cooperation from him, and after a short conversation, we see Jack loom up from behind him with a shovel and cut his head in half. Here, we know that Jack is somewhere in the house after just being chased by him, giving us character presence and implied threat. Then, the intrusion happens when the officer’s head is sliced and Jack starts targeting us again. This is somewhat similar to the example Baird gives with Alien, where a monster (in our case, Jack) moves towards the main character/camera out of nowhere and we have a “horrified, frozen reaction.” 

The officer being attacked from behind by Jack.

There’s one more scene I’d like to look at that is even later in the game, when we play as a Clancy Javis setting up a “birthday party.” His job is to light a birthday candle and put it on the cake, but there is a leaking doorway that sets out the candle when you go to the room with the cake. You must find a very round-about way to get this done, involving three startling moments. One has an ugly skeleton machine suddenly grab our arm and carve a password into it (3:03:10). A second has a balloon filled with large nails and a quill pen explode and imbed themselves in our hand and stomach (3:02:30). And lastly, when we finally put the candle into the cake, it explodes and kill us (3:05:00). These three moments don’t have the presence of some malicious evil monster or character, and I feel as though the implied offscreen threat is a bit fuzzy and non-traditional. The character knows that the birthday cake challenge is dangerous and has some hidden threat, but the threat isn’t exactly offscreen. We see the threats over and over as we walk through the rooms and see the skeleton, balloons, and cake. In this case, the requirements for the effect are less defined.

The nail-filled balloon moments before it explodes.

This complicates the straightforwardness of film’s startle effect. In VR, we get even further complications. As mentioned in class, not all requirements are needed for a startle when you are not viewing the character and rather being the character. You can be guided to look behind you and have a startle from that. With more advanced VR, you can be startled by anything that you would also be startled by in real life. Baird also mentions that “viewers can be startled by film sound and motion in part because the systems that immediately attempt to judge sound and visual motion make no distinction between real and apparent motion, or real and amplified sound.” With VR, I believe that there is even less distinction between real and fake, and startles are even easier to achieve because there is less to ground players in real life. You can’t just look away from the screen when you’re wearing a headset, and you don’t get constant reminders that the film isn’t real when you’re sitting in a comfy seat and hear someone else in the theater sniffling. (Unfortunately, I can’t talk much about the startle effect in VR for this game, since I didn’t get a chance to play it with the headset.) In all, I think that Resident Evil 7 is an interesting game to study startles in due to the variety of applicable scenes.

Why Cthulhu is Been Feared


“Why Cthulhu has been feared” is a popular question asked in Quora. It is also where I heard about Lovecraft and his novel for the first time. People joke about the frequently used words such as “inexplicable” and “nameless” in his novel. Here rises a new question – though closely related to the previous one – why are people afraid of a thing’s inexplicability?

In my opinion, inexplicability is instead something used frequently in horror media: for example, in Relic, the deformation happened in grandma’s body, and the radical change in her attitude is also inexplicable, and Relic, to some extent, does behave like a Cthulhu story: the unknown space of the old house serving as the dark side that waited for discovery, making audience and protagonist believes that there is something dwelling in the house that they don’t know why, cannot explain, but do KNOW that it exists. This makes fear and horror accumulate and eventually reach the peak when the young girl discovers the hidden space, and her grandmother finally turns insane. Lovecraft uses similar techniques in Color Out of Space: inexplicable deformation happens in all living things near the meteor. By using things that we can understand: such as the deviation of the normal life cycle, the corruption of the mind, and the final and abrupt death of all living things. We haven’t seen the Color until the very end of the story, but we always KNOW that it exists. That creates fear.

However, Relic is still not an official/valid Cthulhu story because discovering the truth does not cause the worse result – the old house is still a passive subject: it is not aggressive and powerful enough to directly corrupt the mind of the discoverer – it is mild relatively. On the other hand, the investigators under Lovecraft’s hand usually undergo far worse consequences: the moment when they see the Old Ones, or the Color, or something else, that thing is usually far more powerful than human beings, cannot be resisted, and cannot even be seen. Therefore, human beings (including the readers and protagonists) will realize that luck and happiness are instead to live ignorantly. The courage, discovery, and reasoning- which are supposed to be great things people are proud of – are NOTHING. This composes the most important piece of Lovecraft’s horror: the true inexplicability and the omnipotence of the dark world one will discover. 

By true inexplicability, It is not some kind of problem that <haven’t been explained>, but is instead something that can <never be explained>: it is out of the reasonability of human beings – such as the color that cannot be described but can only be simulated as some kind of “color.” It is quite classical that at the end of his novels, the investigator – for example, the protagonist in the Color Out of Space – after knowing the truth, will never think about “I should stop this” or “I should find a way to prevent this from happening again”; instead, the only thought they will have – if they haven’t gone insane luckily – will be “I’ll never return to this place, and I’ll never tell other about this.” A famous line by Socrates: “ the only thing I know is that I know nothing.”, can explain what Lovecraft trying to deliver. He lives in the age when human beings started to possess great power during the Industrial Revolution, but humans have probably become too confident and even arrogant in Lovecraft’s sense. He is probably afraid of the star sky, which always reminds him that although humans dwelling happily in the very corner of the universe and the tender hand of mother Earth make them falsely believe that they hold power over nature, we know almost NOTHING about the universe. That power is only an illusion. If the sun explodes, or more trivially, a meteor crash the Earth. There is almost nothing humans can do. The universe, the unknown, the omnipotence, is probably the prototype of all those Old Ones, Gods, or the Color he creates. 

A good image that can represent that kind of fear comes from Chainsaw Man, one of my famous Manga. It is the scene when the Dark Demon comes out:

Astronauts, the representatives of courage, exploration, science, etc., are in the posture of praying – the most unscientific posture they can ever make. Those represent the power of the Dark Demon: the inexplicable unknown. It is scorn of humanity and those virtue people value. That’s why Cthulhu is feared.

Adapting Lovecraft: Making the Incomprehensible Known

By Yammile

H.P. Lovecraft, in my opinion, is both one of the greatest writers to ever live but also one of the most controversial people to live as well. Born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, he lived there for much if not all his life. Since he rarely left home, it is reasonable to conclude that this was why Lovecraft was afraid of almost everything. He was afraid of the unknown and has been described as a racist, homophobe, and xenophobe, amongst many, many other things. The one thing it seems he wasn’t afraid of was white, middle-class, educated, well-to-do folk like those who are often the protagonists of his novels. They also almost solely take place in or around Arkham, a town in New England that is predominately white, and around the ‘famed’ Miskatonic University, which is described as being as prestigious and exclusive as Harvard. Furthermore, the actual creatures that the make can sometimes be seen as analogous for racism or xenophobia towards another race. Stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth when it comes to the most direct form of analogies. However, when it comes to other things, most of his monsters are entirely based in the unknown and the unknowing because Lovecraft was afraid of just about everything, especially things he didn’t understand, which in this case applied to the entirety of anything outside of New England.

         Lovecraft’s most infamous story is without a doubt the Call of Cthulhu, which details the story of man going through the notes of his deceased uncle which eventually leads to the discovery of an eldritch old god lying dormant beneath the remnants of a civilization. While this story is full of plenty of early 20th century racism, none of the actual monsters draw on that. The eldritch old god, Cthulhu, is depicted as this creature that is so horrifying that the people who see it are driven to insanity at the mere sight of it, if they aren’t eaten by it first. This theme of things being so horrifying that they drive you insane is very common in Lovecraft’s writings. It’s something that commonly permeates into adaptations around his mythos, especially in games. Almost every Lovecraft based game I have come across in some way incorporates an insanity system into the game. This insanity always makes the game harder and is usually equated to being the death of a character, since they are driven so insane, they can no longer function as part of normal society. It is this aspect of Lovecraft, the horrifying and the deranged, that make it so hard to adapt into fiction.

         Capturing the abject fear and horror that is intertwined into Lovecraft’s narrative is something that adaptations have struggled with for decades. Games seem to be the only medium able to properly convey this horror through a mix of game mechanics and unconventional storytelling that is not suited to cinema. When we watched clips from the Color Out of Space adaptation, it was startlingly clear that these directors were struggling for a proper solution to how to represent something that is so horrifying and capable of driving people to insanity. Apparently, in 2 out of the 3, it was to turn the color into this blinding shade of hot pink which is somehow an improvement on the option the 3rd adaptation took which was to just equate it to nuclear radiation and boil the color down to being a more-complicated version of uranium. Neither of these options quite encapsulate the actual horror of Color Out of Space: the horror of the unknowing. Because the audience can see the color, we can thus rationalize it and then explain it. Even more so, looking at it doesn’t drive them to insanity or shock as it often does with characters in Lovecraft’s story. In doing so, it takes away the most horrifying element of Lovecraft: the unexplainability of the unknown.

         I think that this inability of cinema to properly capture the horror of Lovecraft is why certain stories like the Call of Cthulhu and the Shadows Over Innsmouth haven’t been adapted as much. Stories like Color Out of Space only need the color to be adapted while other stories require the actual monster be adapted well and if it’s not, it won’t have that same horrifying effect as it did in the book. It is the horror of Lovecraft and his ability to craft his many many fears into horrifying monsters and stories that make him such a great writer. If an adaptation isn’t able to properly capture that, then it’s doomed to fail. This is why games have such an edge over cinema in terms of adaptation, especially tabletop games that don’t require you to physically see the monster in question. It leaves the horrifying nature up to your imagination. In my opinion, the best way to sell the horror of Lovecraft is to keep the horror out of sight until the very last moment. And then, when their guard is down, strike in one single horrifying instant that the viewer will never forget.

Thoughts on Medium-Specific Idiosyncrasies

by Nathan

In “Medium-Specific Noise,” Arild Fetveit explores the titular subject in detail, as well as how medium-specific noise contributes to nostalgia and authenticity for that specific medium. Something I have noticed over the past few years is a desire to appear “retro.” I specifically remember an Instagram filter that would make the picture appear older than it actually was, and it would provide a date on the bottom corner. The date would be the month and day on which the user applied the filter to the picture, and it would also add a “‘98”, which was a whole 20 years before the filter was introduced. In addition to that, Polaroids have become pretty popular in the past decade, something that logically would be rendered useless by digital cameras, but has managed to stay relevant. Similarly, there has been a great increase in the popularity of vinyl, and I know a lot of people my age in Generation Z who have built small vinyl collections for themselves.

All of these trends are clear signs that people have some sort of connection to and desire for older mediums, and these mediums can be brought back to life through digital replication of their idiosyncrasies. What I mean by that is how certain newer objects and forms of media will try to replicate, for example, graininess in film or audio. I would posit that these forms of replication derive from nostalgia for past mediums. There are certainly plenty of adults now who reminisce about the days of vinyl, as well as the graininess of the audio that comes with it. It allows for the medium to appear authentic and human, as these small idiosyncrasies are likely to bring back fond memories.

In the context of video games, medium-specific noise, or rather medium-specific idiosyncrasies, is not as direct. The medium of audio is simple to make sound older: simply apply graininess and it should sound like vinyl. Similarly, the medium of film can be made to appear older by replicating the retro celluloid aesthetic, as well as graininess in audio if need be. But in the context of video games, there is more that can be altered. For example, are worse game mechanics an effective way at replicating medium-specific idiosyncrasies? On one hand, this method might be able to replicate the feeling players had back in the day when they would play their favorite video games that had worse controls, but on the other hand, this might make the gaming experience equally as frustrating and less accessible. Moreover, while graininess in film and audio might not be the most distracting thing to a modern day listener who never experienced those mediums in the past, I would argue that worse game mechanics and movement would certainly inhibit the player’s experience and most likely make the playing session an aggravating one. As someone who never played Super Mario 64 back in the 90s, I was definitely burdened by the game’s poor mechanics, slippery movement, and terrible camera controls when I played the game in the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection in 2020. And this can be applied to modern horror games that try to replicate the idiosyncrasies of past horror games; it may end up just yielding a worse-off experience for the players who never played older games.

Another way to replicate the older aesthetic of video games is of course to bring back the wobbly graphics of the PS1 era of video games. After watching the Modern Vintage Gamer video “Why PlayStation 1 Graphics Warped and Wobbled So Much”, it is evidently clear that those graphics were not intended, but rather a byproduct of farther back technology and production constraints. However, these wobbly graphics can obviously be nostalgic for gamers who experienced them in the 90s, but I would posit they make the experience more frustrating for new gamers revisiting them today. Most likely, these graphics would likely come off as hard on the eyes and honestly not very inviting.

As for how effective the horror of these wobbly graphics is, it is more than likely subjective to each person’s experience. On one hand, these graphics might be able to make the game seem even creepier, and the backgrounds and textures being less rendered might contribute to a sense of emptiness and eeriness within the game. On the other hand, the wobbly graphics might end up being off putting for many players, thus taking them out of the experience. Ultimately, this may make the game less scary and possibly too uninteresting or inaccessible. However, I would argue that wobbly graphics have a higher chance at being effective at horror than worse game mechanics because the latter would most likely inhibit the player and make the experience more frustrating than immersive or scary, while the former still may have the potential to be scary to the player.

The Repairer of Reputations’ Unreliable Narrator

by Clarissa

In The Repairer of Reputations, Hildred is an unreliable narrator. I felt that his role could be compared to the governess’ narration in The Turn of The Screw and our discussion of the “fantastic.” 

The story heavily implies that Hildred is insane. First, we hear that years ago, he suffered a fall from his horse, hit his head, and was committed to an asylum for a period of time afterwards. Hildred, of course, tells us that this was a mistake and that his mind has always been sound, but that’s hardly a convincing claim in itself. We also learn that Hildred has read The King In Yellow, a script that is known to drive its readers insane. His behavior and his attempted political conspiracy certainly sounds like the delusions of someone experiencing some sort of paranoid psychosis, and his only confidante in this scheme is Mr. Wilde, a man who is regarded by others as a lunatic. Eventually, his schemes fail entirely, and he dies in an asylum for the criminally insane.

We do not, however, know for certain that Hildred is delusional. If his conspiratorial claims were true, they would still sound mad to people who didn’t know the truth; and it’s plausible that his enemies would thwart his plans by having him arrested and declared insane. There is nothing in the story that directly, conclusively disproves Hildred’s theories about the world, or Wilde’s network of information & profession as Repairer of Reputations. 

As is the case with Turn of The Screw’s governess, it doesn’t seem like Hildred is simply knowingly lying to us – after all, he leaves in many incriminating details that point to his insanity and seem to weaken his story. This includes his descriptions of the reaction of various people around him, who clearly seem to think he’s insane. Also similarly to the governess, much of the ‘evidence’ we see for Hildred’s claims is provided by his internal interpretation of other people’s emotions and reactions, which, for all we know, he could be imagining. For example, when Hildred accuses Hawberk of secretly being the Marquis of Avonshire, this is seemingly confirmed by Hawberk’s and Constance’s reactions, which, from Hildred’s descriptions, seem guilty and defensive. However, they verbally deny these accusations, and all Hildred really tells us is that they look a bit taken aback/disturbed – which seems like a reasonable way to react if a friend is saying such strange and outlandish things to you.  

However, unlike in Turn of the Screw, there are many events within The Repairer of Reputations which seem like they should be impossible if Hildred and Wilde are both completely mad. For example, someone claiming to be “Mr Steylette” visits Wilde’s apartment; Wilde claims this is the newspaper owner Arnold Steylette, seemingly confirming his profession as Repairer of Reputation and his role as orchestrator of this political conspiracy. At the very least, this event is hard to explain if we believe Hildred and Wilde are both entirely delusional. But there’s also plausible deniablity here: we don’t know for sure why this man came to visit; whether he’s really employed by Wilde to influence reputations, as Wilde claims; we also only hear his last name, so we don’t know for sure whether this is even Arnold; and, of course, this could all be a hallucination within Hildred’s mind. 

Another similar event: Hildred tells Hawberk that Wilde knows where some missing pieces of important armor are; Hawberk is shocked that Hildred could even know they were missing, and he later says the armor was indeed found where Wilde said it would be. There’s no explanation for this if we accept that Hildred’s and Wilde’s grand claims are purely born of madness. 

On the other hand, the story also depicts events directly suggesting that Hildred is mad. For example, Hildred describes the crown kept in a safe in his room; Louis sees both as unremarkable, describing the crown as made of “brass and paste” and the safe as a “biscuit-box.” 

At the story’s climax, Wilde and Hildred attempt to blackmail a man – supposedly “Vance” – into killing Hawberk and Constance, while Hildred claims that he’s already killed Dr. Archer (despite the fact that we never directly see that happen). Wilde seems to have been commissioned to repair Vance’s reputation, which led him to discover Vance’s embezzlement. However, “Vance” doesn’t actually follow through on his execution. Also, we don’t know for sure that this man is really Vance – only Hildred’s observations of the man’s reactions seem to suggest this. We also know that “Vance” has read The King in Yellow, so it’s possible this is just another madman. 

In this way, the unreliable narrator of The Repairer of Reputations is quite different from that of The Turn of The Screw. While there’s nothing stopping us from questioning any given detail in the governess’ account, we don’t need to do so in order to believe that she is mad. Only the appearance of the ghosts themselves needs to be a hallucination; the only other ‘evidence’ of the supernatural comes from the governess’ subjective interpretations of other people’s behavior. By contrast, in The Repairer of Reputations, we either have to believe that some amount of Hildred & Wilde’s information network/conspiracy is true and real, or we have to dismiss many directly depicted events as hallucinations totally fabricated by Hildred’s mind. By the end, it seems like anything could have been untrue. Mayne Wilde wasn’t even real, or at least, didn’t say the things Hildred thought that he did. “Vance” could have been anyone, or not existed. The events surrounding the missing armor may not have occurred at all. 

The inclusion of the script of The King in Yellow in the world at large (and its presence in the other stories within the book) seems to indicate that there is definitely something supernatural afoot here, even if The King himself is not literally real, and even if Hildred’s particular conspiracy is imaginary. The text of The King In Yellow itself, at least, has some sort of supernatural effect. But we are not sure just what sort of threat it poses. Does the script cause people to become servants of The King, a real, evil, supernatural entity with an agenda? Or does it merely cause them to go mad and do dangerous things in the name of a fictitious king? The Repairer of Reputations leaves these questions up to the reader.