Let’s Study Horror Games

I’ve begun a new series of “Let’s Study” videos on horror games, just in time for Halloween. This first episode explores the historical roots of the survival horror genre, which means that it’s a new manifestation of this lesson plan.

Over the summer, I was working on a peer-reviewed video essay that’s quite thematically dense. As a result, this video feels a little bit shaggy to me: loose, casual, searching for a central raison d’être. I constantly had to remind myself that this is for general audiences, and not every audiovisual argument needs to be an airtight assemblage of well-researched examples.

The unqualified good news? This video is a massive improvement on the previous blog post version of this lesson plan. The future videos in this series will be a mix of original material and “enhanced remakes” of previous lesson plans.

Transcript below the fold, as usual.

Hello, and welcome to the first episode of “Let’s Study Horror Games.” This is going to be a series, of as-yet-indeterminate length, looking at the history of horror in video games, focusing on some examples I find to be the most interesting. I have about ten of these planned out, so far, but who knows if I’ll adhere to that plan. These are going to be organized thematically, not chronologically … but every series needs an opening, so why not begin at the beginning.

There’s a quote that I’m going to invoke here, and I imagine it’s going to come up quite a bit in this series. It’s often attributed to Orson Welles, although over time it’s become a bit of folk wisdom: “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” People might think that unbridled creativity is key to making great art, but often the opposite is true. Constraints can help one focus one’s creative energy. Give an author no deadline, and they might get writer’s block. Give a filmmaker an infinite budget and no one to reign in their bad ideas, and they go and make the Star Wars prequels.

Anyway, keep this in mind as we turn to Infogrames, a French game development company who, in 1992, released Alone in the Dark, a game that is widely recognized as spawning the “survival horror” genre.

Alone in the Dark utilizes 3D polygonal graphics, at a time when 3D polygonal graphics in video games were still in their relative infancy. SEGA AM2’s Virtua Racing was released in arcades in 1992, and Looking Glass Studio’s Ultima Underworld was released on home computers, but the industry was still years away from the likes of Super Mario 64, and even a couple years away from the pseudo-3D first-person shooting of id’s first DOOM game.

This means that, in order for Alone in the Dark to run on contemporary hardware, corners needed to be cut. The game’s design team made the rather drastic decision that only the game’s character models, and a few interactive bits of furniture, would be animated in 3D. All static elements would be static backgrounds, 2D images drawn by the game’s artist. When the animated 3D character models were placed into the scene, they would integrate—more or less—into a unified visual whole.

It’s a clever trick, but it comes with a serious trade-off. Since the game isn’t re-drawing a 3D model of the room a player is in every frame, the in-game camera can’t move. It must remain static. As the player moves throughout the game’s mansion, the game’s camera bounces back and forth between different static shots as the player moves their character, each of which is completely dictated by the hand-drawn background images.

Handed this limitation, what did the Infogrames team do? They took a lot of visual inspiration from the tradition of gothic horror in the cinema. Across all of its manifestations, gothic fiction is fascinated by architecture as an extension of human personality and as a repository for dark secrets, and cinema is no exception to this rule. In the most richly stylized gothic horror films, the cinematography lovingly fetishizes the architecture its characters are trapped in. Cameras are placed at extreme low angles. Or, extreme high angles. Through the use of strange canting and wide-angle lenses, parallel lines are eschewed in favor of a web-like array of angles. And even in those shots in which the camera is set up in a relatively straightforward way, expressionistic lighting—hard, low key, and angled low to the ground—is often used to stretch shadows out, angling strips of darkness like claw marks across the screen.

Now, a reliance on a fixed camera is not a noteworthy stylistic trait of gothic horror cinema. On the contrary, the genre’s visual fascination with gothic architecture is sometimes expressed through sweeping camera movements, lovingly tracing architectural lines. And since these are horror films, they often use the camera for expressive means, to denote inner psychological turmoil—sometimes in rather extreme ways. So any emulation of the style that’s stuck with a static camera is going to be incomplete, in certain respects.

But if you’re trapped in a visual style that demands a static camera, there are definitely much worse visual inspirations than gothic horror cinema. The most interesting examples of the form might not make exclusive use of the static camera, but when they do fix their camera it tends to be for interesting compositions. In the best of these films you’ll find deep depth of field, with cobwebs and cast-off furniture cluttering the foreground, framing the human figures. Cherubs and gargoyles and other types of statues also get in on the action here. Visually, this makes the human characters seem trapped, insignificant within a malevolent architecture with the power to bend their desires and behaviors.

And these sorts of lessons are the lessons that Alone in the Dark implements in its visual design. In fact, you could go through the game shot for shot, and find analogues in horror cinema for just about every setup. I’m not going to actually do the work, but … you get the idea.

Anyway, Alone in the Dark was both a commercial and aesthetic success. And so, four years later, Capcom ripped them off.

The Resident Evil franchise has a long history at this point, to the point where it’s hard to pin down its central defining features are. Some might characterize it in terms of its increasingly convoluted lore, which insists on introducing new splinter cells of bioterrorists, who somehow attract converts despite constantly turning all of their employees or members into brainless monsters through pure chaotic-evil incompetence. Others might point to its commitment to camp, a tradition with roots in the first game’s abominable line readings.

But before it became what it is today, Resident Evil was basically an Alone in the Dark clone. Again, we have a choice of playable characters, again exploring an old dark mansion filled with zombies and other horrors, again visually presented through a series of fixed camera angles with polygonal characters on pre-rendered backgrounds. And the first Resident Evil, much like Alone in the Dark, takes visual cues from gothic horror cinema. It jumps at every chance to stage a dramatic high angle, to occlude part of the frame with a dramatically-positioned bit of decor in the foreground, to drape its pre-rendered interiors with pools of darkness.

As in Alone in the Dark, the style definitely makes for some dramatic screenshots, and entertaining video. But Resident Evil is heavier on combat than Alone in the Dark, which reveals some of the gameplay limitations of this visual style. There are numerous points during combat where the game fails to give players the most useful visual angle, or otherwise sacrifices visual clarity and coherence for mood.

In cinema, there are benefits to  a shot in which a looming zombie occludes our view of a character. As our view of what’s happening to them is gradually obstructed by this shuffling figure, their safety is thrown more and more into doubt. This sort of visual technique grabs our attention specifically by hiding things from us. But when Resident Evil stages the same shot in the context of a videogame, hiding our player-character, the game becomes difficult to control. To be sure, Alone in the Dark played the same kind of tricks, but since it was lighter on combat overall, and had a generous save-anywhere system, this was less likely to annoy.

And zombies wandering in front of the camera aren’t the only problem. It’s not uncommon to be firing blind somewhere offscreen, so that one can keep a safe distance from an enemy that you know is just out-of-frame. This isn’t helped by the fact that sometimes combat encounters seem to be deliberately staged right on the dividing line between two camera angles, where minor shifts in position will result in losing a view of enemies. And on top of that, certain enemies’ attacks will actively push you from an area of the map covered by one angle, to an area of the map covered by another. And if that wasn’t enough, the kickback from some of the game’s most powerful weapons is enough to jostle you from one shot into another. Which is a weird sentence, now that I say it aloud, but accurately describes what’s happening onscreen.

There’s one school of thought about this visual style that argues: that yes, it’s awkward, but its awkwardness makes it stressful, and that stressfulness is scary. The critic Tom Bissell expresses this position as well as anyone could hope for:

“The zombie falls upon you with a groan and bites you avidly, your torso transforming into a blood fountain. You mash all seventeen of your controller’s buttons before finally breaking free. The zombie staggers back a few steps, and you manage to fire. Still no crosshair or reticule. Your shot misses, though by how much you have no idea. The zombie is upon you again. After pushing it away … you stagger back into the hallway to give yourself more room to maneuver, but the camera switches in such a way as to leave you unaware of the zombie’s exact location, though you can still hear its awful, blood-freezing moan”

I don’t particularly share this sentiment. To me, it’s the analog of the claim that action scenes with extremely fast editing, cut together haphazardly, as was the style in the late 2000s and early 2010s as everyone was imitating Paul Greengrass, are “exciting” precisely because they are “confusing.” I don’t need to be confused in order to be excited. The two emotional states don’t really have anything to do with one another. And given that there’s a long history of staging and editing action in the cinema which is not confusing in the slightest, but is still tremendously exciting, I think I have the right to be skeptical of this claim.

I have the exact same skepticism toward the claim that Resident Evil’s combat is “awkward, and therefore scary.” I’m not sure those two things actually have a complementary relationship. I suspect, though, that this may be a matter of taste.

What isn’t a matter of taste, however, is that although Resident Evil uses cinematic editing, it breaks agreed-upon rules of that editing. Whether or not the game suffers from being “visually confusing” might be a matter of opinion, but its failure to consistently meet certain standards of visual coherence is a matter of fact, born out through close visual analysis.

So it’s time for a little filmmaking 101: we’re going to talk about the 180º rule, and “crossing the line.”

Let’s say you’re shooting a scene with two people in conversation. The spatial orientation they have toward each other establishes the axis of action, otherwise just known as “the line.” On one side of this line, you have a 180º arc. If you decide to put a camera on this side of the line, you can move it anywhere along those 180º and still preserve screen direction: that is, the woman will always be on the left-of-frame, and the man will always be on the right. You have a lot of potential camera setups—if you edit between any of them, you’ll still be preserving screen direction. But if you decide to put a camera here … no. Don’t do that. You’ve “crossed the line.” If you try to integrate footage from that camera as you’re editing the scene, the relative positions of the characters will have suddenly flopped. The man will be on the left, the woman on the right, and it will be momentarily confusing for the viewer.

This is one of the most basic rules of the Hollywood editing system, what’s sometimes known as the Classical style of continuity editing. It’s why you can have a dialogue scene made entirely of close-ups, in which you never see the two actors in the same shot, but you can still make visual sense as to their spatial relationship, because one’s always looking out to the left-of-frame, and the other’s always looking out to the right.

And this is used in many different situations, not just conversations. Say you’re filming a race of some sort. The direction of the race forms your axis of action, and then you chose a 180º side of that axis to shoot from, you have a whole bunch of possible camera setups on that side of the line, but you don’t want to cross to the other side. If you’re filming a chase, you want to film it in such a way that, when you cut it together, the participants are always going from screen left to screen right (or vice versa). If you’re filming an armed conflict, you want one side consistently pointing their guns to the right, and the other consistently pointing their guns to the left.

And you can mix things up a bit. For instance, if you’re filming a chase, and you’ve already established the axis of action in terms of characters moving from the right to the left, you can sprinkle in a few shots that are exactly “on the line”—that is, in which the participants in the chase are moving directly away from us, or directly toward us. And there are aesthetic reasons, too, to cross the line—for instance, if you want to make what would otherwise be an ordinary scene seem unbalanced, highlighting shifting character motivations and allegiances. But you should be careful not to just do it willy-nilly.

Anyway, all of this is a set-up to say that the on-the-fly cinematic editing that Resident Evil performs crosses the line. It’s not a frequent occurrence, but it happens occasionally, and it doesn’t do the game’s visual coherence any favors.

For a very blatant example, we can start in a really early part of the game: the room where you get the first floor map. This room is visually presented to us through a combination of three different camera angles. What I’m going to call camera 1 is a high-angle shot, looking at the blue double-doors we enter the room through. This is the first shot we see when we enter the room through those doors. Camera 2 is pretty much the reverse-angle of that shot, though at a more standard camera height. And then camera 3 is positioned near the middle of the room. It’s once again a very high angle, with the statue positioned in the lower right corner so that we can get a clear view of the rolled-up map it’s holding. And this isn’t exact—as we’re about to see—but, roughly speaking, when our player-character is positioned in this area of the room we’re seeing camera 1, this area of the room we’re seeing camera 2, and this area of the room we’re seeing camera 3.

Anyway, we need to push a step-stool to get to the map, so let’s see what happens when we do that. We start at camera 3, establishing an axis of action as we push, and that’s adhered to as we switch to camera 2. But we’re not done pushing. As we re-position, we switch to camera 1. We have a new axis of action … and when we switch back to camera 2 we cross the line. The screen direction of our pushing gets flipped.

Now, this is not something that happens constantly in Resident Evil. It helps a lot that the game mostly takes place in long hallways, where the player is either moving up the hallway or down the hallway. It’s pretty easy for the game to assume an axis of action when the player is in a narrow hallway, and it’s easy to position all the visual cameras on one side of the hallway to maintain screen direction between cuts. Problems with crossing the line tend to happen in larger rooms, where the player can move about more freely, in ways that the game’s on-the-fly visual editing system can’t predict. And, unfortunately, this describes most of the rooms that boss fights occur in—so that’s where you’re more likely to see this problem.

So for instance during the Plant 42 boss fight, you can see if we travel to screen right over here—ah, let me try that again. We travel to screen right, and trigger the angle change, and we… god damn it! Travel screen right, angle change, cross the line. Take that!

Anyway, in the end, there’s no accounting for taste. If Resident Evil’s brief moments of visual confusion actually enhance the game’s scariness for a given player, I can’t really say that that player is wrong. But I think there’s a reason that this visual style has died out, after defining the genre of survival horror at its very inception. The designers of these games were facing certain limitations, and they worked within them creatively, pulling influences from cinema and crafting a visual style that was striking and audacious. But purely technological limitations shift, and styles evolve accordingly.

As I said at the outset of this video, the theme of limitations and their impact on aesthetic decision-making is going to be a running theme of this series. As we continue forward, I’ll be looking less and less at purely graphics-technology limitations, and more and more at certain unavoidable limitations of form that video games face as an interactive medium. That’s all for now—stay tuned for more.

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