Let’s Study Horror Games, ep 5

Episode 5 is up! It’s going to be tight, but I think I’m going to make my self-imposed goal of releasing four episodes in December.

Mostly new material this time, although there’s elements pulled from this post. Script below the jump.

Hello, and welcome to the fifth episode of “Let’s Study Horror Games.” This one is a direct sequel to the previous episode, so I’d definitely recommend watching that first, if you haven’t already.

At the conclusion of the previous video, I noted that death is a problem for horror games, because it lacks the horrific finality of the death of a character we identify with in, say, a horror movie. When our player-character dies, we just reload, and respawn. And, what’s more, we’re likely to do better this time around, because we have a familiarity with the lurking dangers that we previously lacked. We’re gradually mastering these spaces, and so each time through the fear of the unknown is diminished.

How can game developers deal with this problem?

One way forward was pioneered by Frictional Games in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Frictional’s creative director Thomas Grip gave a talk at the 2011 GDC Europe Independent Games Summit laying out the tricks his team used while putting together Amnesia. It’s a really good talk, and I’d recommend watching the entire thing. (I’ll put a link down below.) But there are three design tricks from the longer talk I want to home in on.

First, players must always see and hear a monster in a scripted sequence, where they’re safe, as a way of alerting them to the danger of a space before they have a chance to stumble into it and be killed.

Secondly, you shouldn’t kill players repeatedly during the same section. Grip reveals some tricks that were going on under the hood during the game’s chase sequences. Players would be allowed to die during them, once. This would establish a sense of real, consequential danger. But after they died, the game would be tweaked, so that their second time through would be different. Either they’d be completely invulnerable for the entire sequence, or at the very least things would be re-jiggered so that they would be guaranteed to not die in the same exact spot, in the same exact circumstances. This means they wouldn’t have to re-play the same set pieces over and over again, to the point of familiarity.

Thirdly, some elements should be randomized after a player dies. This can include the position of puzzle items, the position of monsters patrolling the area, or even the position at which the player is re-spawned. Again, the idea here is to prevent the player from having the same experience over and over again. Grip describes this as a way of “keeping the machinery opaque,” as a way of draping everything in the fear of the unknown once more, even when you’re re-playing a section after death. The most radical way to accomplish this would be to go full-on-Rougelike, and procedurally generate a new level from scratch upon every death. And some recent horror games have experimented with this. Personally, though, I like Frictional’s approach the best, as it mixes things up while still retaining the strengths of having hand-crafted levels.

So, those are some practical things you can do to alleviate traditional problems with player-character death in horror games. There’s also a more radical solution: you can make character death permanent.

Obviously, there are a load of quandaries that open up here. But there’s also a spectrum of possible solutions, with their own risks and rewards.

One thing you could do is include a set stock of characters, with each having just enough individual personality to differentiate themselves. If you get these characters killed, that’s it—they’re gone forever. You just depleted your stock of characters by one. You have to trudge on without that character, and perhaps with a dwindling roster of available characters. This type of mechanic is a frequent feature in tactical RPGs, such as Fire Emblem or Valkyria Chronicles. Because of the detached military advisor role you typically have in these games, the emotional response these deaths engender isn’t really one of horror. It’s more one of pathos, as the game confronts you with the human cost of your your poor tactical decisions. I love these games, and I do find character death really effective in them. But the type of emergent stories they offer aren’t quite what we’re looking for, in terms of emotional palette.

There have been some attempts to import this sort of mechanic into games that inch closer into the “horror” spectrum of things. In each save room of Aliens: Infestation, players get access to four different player-characters, each with some minimal amount of personal characterization and individual lines. If you die on your way to the next checkpoint, that’s it for that particular character. You return to the save room with one fewer character to go forward with. The more characters you lose, the more empty and lonely these save rooms get, and the more stressful and dicey the road ahead becomes. Through exploring, you can stock up on “extra lives”—which, in this case, means stocking up on additional playable characters: fresh recruits for the meat grinder. The game has some of that “solemn responsibility of command” vibes of Valkyria Chronicles. But it also attempts a more intimate sense of danger. You spend longer stretches of time playing as a single character, barely squeaking your way past hordes of Aliens. You never go to the sort of tactical map view that Valkyria offers up. By denying us that wide strategic view, or battlefield interactions between party members, and instead locking us in to the tight perspective of individual marines, striking out on their own, Infestation injects more of a self-preservation instinct into the proceedings, which shifts the tone toward horror.

State of Decay takes a similar approach to player-characters. You have a pool of them, each with their own stats and back story, and you cycle through them as needed. Rescuing people from zombie attacks and recruiting them into your band of survivors becomes a crucial activity here. Because sooner or later, when playing as any individual character, you’re going to slip up, and they’re going to pay the price, and die. So it’s essential for you to maintain a healthy pool of allied characters. This gives you extra incentive to put yourself in danger, if it’s going to help others in need, forcing you to play less safely and selfishly than you otherwise would. Personally, I found this game to be somewhat broken—and apparently the sequel didn’t fix any of its problems. Still, though, it’s an innovative and promising approach, even if it’s poorly executed.

Infestation and State of Decay give you just barely enough of a veneer of personal details about their stock figures that you can pretend that they’re characters if you stretch your imagination, and actually feel something on their behalf—whatever that feeling might be—when they wind up dead due to your carelessness. But the large number and somewhat randomized nature of these characters means that there’s not a lot of individualized writing that goes into them. For a far more ambitious approach to permanent player-character death, we can look to large-scale interactive narrative games.

Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain is not really a horror game, despite its protagonists’ unusual propensity to keep stumbling into the dens of serial killers. But it was notable, when it first came out, for its complete commitment to the consequences of player death. The game’s four player-characters aren’t constantly in mortal danger, but occasionally they are, and if they die, that’s it: they’re dead. The story branches, and moves on without them. It might be less satisfying to continue the game from that state, but the game will definitely continue. And if you commit to playing it through, living with the consequences of your actions, it does add an additional thrill to the game’s dangers.

David Cage is not a good writer, and Heavy Rain, like most of Quantic Dream’s output, was an incoherent mash-up of different generic tropes. It was only a matter of time before someone ported this basic “interactive narrative where characters can die and be written out of the story” format into a more straightforward horror framework. Supermassive did exactly this with Until Dawn, which succeeds mostly because it leans into its schlocky genre tropes, containing none of Cage’s delusions toward literary greatness. I’m planning on tackling the inner workings of Until Dawn in a later video—I want to keep this one short and sweet, and going into more detail about Until Dawn would throw off the pacing too much. So I’m not going to do much more than acknowledge its existence, here. Keep your eyes peeled for future analysis.

So far, this video has been a direct sequel to the previous video. At the end of that video, I asked what kind of steps developers could take to work around the fact that death in videogames typically lacks weight and consequence. And so far in this video, I’ve gone through some examples of games that tackle that problem with an open mind. But I haven’t gone into much detail on any one of them. I want to shift gears now, and devote the rest of this video to an appreciation of one of my favorite offbeat horror games: Tale of Tales’ The Path, which manifests some of the themes of the past two videos in really innovative ways.

The opening screen of The Path gives us a choice between six player-characters, each one of whom has their own slightly different campaign. Each time you start playing as one of these characters, the game gives you an objective, and a single rule: “Go to grandmother’s house, and stay on the path.” Well, that’s simple. So you do it, and it is simple, and the game comes to a quick ending, and then it gives you a bad grade for following its rules.

Well, okay. Guess we gotta break its rules, then.

If you start up the game again, and wander off the path, the game plays a nasty trick on you. As soon as the path disappears from your view, it ceases to exist. You’re now stuck exploring a forest that uses some devising non-Euclidean wrap-around tricks. It forces you to get lost, and to wander aimlessly around in circles. In fact, there’s no way not to wander in circles: even if you travel in an absolutely straight line, you’ll still eventually encounter the same things over again, because you’ve wrapped around the world.

There’s a bunch of stuff littering this forest, although what stuff you encounter changes a little bit depending on which girl you play as. There’s a clothes line, a comfy chair, an old abandoned bathtub, a well, a grocery cart, a broken stretch of chain link fence, a bullet-ridden stone facade, an abandoned car, a partially-plucked bird on a stump…. And there’s also another girl: a girl in a white dress, running along in erratic paths, who will occasionally come up and interact with you.

Once you’ve gotten lost, there are two ways to get back to your grandmother’s house and conclude the campaign. One is to interact with the girl in white, who will lead you back to the path. This is the boring way. The other way is to approach specific areas in the forest, and interact with elements of them in a specific order, so that a “wolf encounter” is initiated.

Encountering the wolf is bad, for your player-character. Although the game elides the exact specifics of the encounter, when you take control of your character again, she’s clearly injured, just barely limping along. And, what’s more, her grandmother’s house has now become an abstract house of horrors, all impossible geometry and strange symbolism. Once you complete the girls’ campaign in this way, she is removed from the opening screen.

But encountering the wolf is good, for you as a player. It means that you have collected everything the level has to offer.

“The Wolf” takes a different form for each individual girl. For Robin, it is a literal wolf. But for other girls, it diverges wildly. For Scarlet, the wolf is a strict piano instructor. For Rose, it’s a cloud of fog that she encounters after taking a boat to the center of a pond.

Ruby and Carmen are linked, in that for both of them, the wolf takes the form of men. Although it’s in no way explicit, there are some vague intimations of sexual violence in these scenes. Ruby and Carmen place their trust in these men, and although we don’t see what happens, we can infer later on that these men hurt them is some way.

Across this video, we’ve looked at a range of games with multiple player-characters who can be permanently removed from a game’s story. On the surface, The Path might resemble these other games. But it’s quite different in its underlying operations. In order to progress in the game—in order to achieve that coveted “A” rank in each campaign—we must sacrifice these young women. I’m not sure if this counts as sadism, or, because we theoretically “are” these young women as we lead them to their doom, if it counts as masochism. But, in any case, It’s quite different from your average relationship with a player-character. Rather than power fantasies, The Path offers up pure death drive, as we try to determine the sequence of interactions with things in these misty woods that will lead us to the darkest, most self-annihilating outcome.

And the gender component here can’t be ignored—especially in the Ruby and Carmen campaigns. As players, we’re encouraged to get these young women to publicly express their sexuality—knowing full well that, given the overall construction of the game, they are inevitably going to be punished for it. Since the game occasionally lets us read the character’s thoughts by presenting them as onscreen texts, we know that these girls are carefree, full of joie de vivre, eager to explore life’s pleasures. And we simultaneously know that an unhappy fate awaits them—one that we, as players, are supposed to hurtle them towards, in an effort to bring closure to these stories.

When I was running through academic film theory’s take on identification last week, I spouted a quote by Silvia Bovenschen and Beth Weckmueller, who claimed that it is an essentially masochistic act for a woman viewer to identify with a woman character in a Hollywood film, given that said film was likely written and directed by men, and has a man as its protagonist, meaning that the woman’s role is likely just to be a passive object, acted upon by male characters. To identify with such passivity is, in a sense, to accept one’s own self-annihilation.

The Path explores similar feats of self-annihilation—tweaked from their cinematic form, but thematically linked. The young women in The Path are much more active agents than your typical woman in a male-dominated film. But Ruby and Carmen, in particular, still find their agency stymied at the hands of men. And, in effect, their agency is stymied by us, as players. As I said before, there’s an ambiguous mix of masochism and sadism in our relationship to these characters. We are them, in part … but we’re also their tormentors. We’re the villains in this story. We’re goading these young women into breaking society’s rules, straying from the path, making decisions that ultimately put them in danger. In the case of Ruby and Carmen, in particular, we might spout some high-minded ideals about sex positivity, and how women shouldn’t be punished for exploring their sexuality. But all the while, we know that the game operates on a fairy-tale logic: that is to say, an oppressive and patriarchal logic where deviations from the norm are strictly punished. The game’s scoring system encourages rebellion, but its narrative reinforces conformity, punishing these girls for their curiosity and self-expression. And we, as players, are active agents in this nasty system.

Anyway, you should play The Path. It’s a bit janky, but its jankiness adds to its opacity, which I think enhances the overall feeling of being lost. The systems of the game are supposed to be adversarial: opaque to us, and downright dangerous for our player-characters.

We’re going to continue on themes of identification and the player-character relation in the next episode, again looking at some cinematic examples of things that are tricky to pull off in games. So stay tuned for that. And thanks for watching.

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