Let’s Study Horror Games, pt 6

I did it! I fulfilled my self-imposed goal of uploading four of these in December. (I also accidentally fulfilled my prediction that I’d post one of these on Christmas, which is when I actually uploaded the video.)

One consequence of sticking to this video-making schedule is that I’m now behind on playing games, and won’t be able to post any further run-downs of interesting games of 2018 until January. Following that, I’m going to be diving back into some peer-reviewed work. Not sure when I’ll return to this series, but rest assured: more is planned.

(This one serves as an “enhanced edition” of the lesson plan I originally posted here. Very happy to have a chance to tweak this material further, as it remains one of the favorite in-class discussions I’ve ever had with students.) And even though I don’t credit him in the video, I must give a shout-out to Adam Hart, whose writings on slasher films have been a frequent inspiration.

Script below the jump.

Hello, and welcome to the sixth episode of “Let’s Study Horror Games.” You don’t have to have viewed all previous episodes to appreciate this one, but I would recommend watching episodes 4 and 5 as lead-ins. At the very least, you should probably watch episode 4, on identification.

Richard Rouse III is a game designer and game design theorist. He wrote the book Game Design: Theory and Practice, detailing his approach toward game design—an approach he honed while designing horror games such as The Suffering franchise. He also penned an essay, entitled “The Inevitable Success of the Horror Genre in Video Games,” where he describes the success of horror games in the following terms:

“Games provoke [emotions such as tension and fear] better than other media because there’s actually something at stake for the player. In any non-interactive media, the audience is seeing unfortunate events or life-threatening occurrences happen for another person, and the audience’s own tension is only possible through empathy with that character’s plight. In an immersive game, the player actually projects himself into that experience.”

There’s something intuitive about this line of reasoning. I agree with Rousse on the basic premise that there being “something at stake for the player” gives horror games a particular, and potent, flavor. But I also want to push back on his more essentialist claims, where he categorically ranks games above other media. I hope by this point, in the wake of my identification episode, I’ve persuasively made the case that there are some things horror cinema can do that horror games struggle with. In fact, the advantages that non-interactive media have when telling horror stories precisely stem from the fact that “life-threatening occurrences [are] happen[ing] for another person,” and that we are forced to watch, knowing that the consequences of onscreen danger can’t be quickly erased by re-loading an earlier save.

In this video, I’m going to dive more deeply into the sorts of situations that cinema can offer its viewers, that are exceptionally tough to pull off in games. In fact, I’m going to look at four situations, which I’m calling Suspense, Paranoia, Apprehension, and Terror, which I’ve come up with precise definitions for and explained in little graphs. Who doesn’t love a good graph?

Anyway, to really explain these things, I first need to talk about Alfred Hitchcock, and about John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween.

When a lot of people talk about “suspense” in the context of storytelling, they just mean something like “anxiety about what’s going to happen next,” or just “tension,” in general. But in the interviews he gave with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock actually offered up a very precise definition of suspense. And, since Hitchcock was the master of suspense, I’m going to humbly propose that we cede to his authority on the matter, and adopt his conception of the term as the right and true definition.

Hitchcock defines suspense through an extended hypothetical, which seems loosely based on a scene in his 1936 film Sabotage:

“If you have a situation … there might be a bomb under this table. And we are having a very innocuous conversation. But suddenly—boom! This thing goes up. The audience are shocked! We’re all injured, or something, you know. The room is wrecked. The scene has been very dull up until the bomb goes off. And then, people are shocked.

Now we go to the other version: the bomb is under the table, and the audience are shown that it is there, at the beginning. They have been told, probably by the anarchist, that it’s timed to go off at one o’clock. There’s the clock. And it’s quarter to one. The conversation, which was so dull, now becomes exciting. Because they audience are saying, ‘Don’t talk such frivolous things! There’s a bomb under the table! And look, it’s going off at one o’clock!’ This, we play. Instead of fifteen seconds of surprise, we can have fifteen minutes of suspense! Which brings me to the point about providing the audience with information, whenever you can.”

Basically, suspense boils down to a knowledge differential. There is a gap that opens up between the between viewer’s knowledge, and the knowledge of onscreen characters. The purest and simplest form of this gap would be the “look behind you” moment, where, due to nothing more than the angle from which we’re viewing the scene, the audience is made privy to knowledge that an onscreen character lacks. This type of suspenseful moment is such a mainstay of slasher films that it has, itself, been incorporated into slasher films.

So the next task is to distinguish suspense from something I’m going to call paranoia. And to do that I’m going to turn to John Carpenter’s Halloween, and in particular Steve Neale’s insightful analysis of its formal construction.

Halloween opens with an extended first-person point-of-view shot. It’s an unusually literal point-of-view shot by cinematic standards, with multiple cues indicating that what we’re seeing is supposed to be an exact representation of what’s being seen through a character’s eyes. The handheld camera bobs, weaves, and swivels in ways that resemble head motions. On two separate occasions, the character’s hand reaches down, coming out of just about the portion of the frame we’d expect it to if the camera was strapped to his face. The second time this happens, the hand grabs a mask, which the character subsequently puts on. As a result, our view of the rest of the sequence is itself masked. And this is how we, as an audience, witness the first act of graphic violence in the film, perpetrated by the very person whose POV we are privy to. This person is, in fact, the very young Michael Meyers, who, as an adult, will terrorize the town of Haddonfield, IL during the remainder of the film.

This opening shot sets the stage for a visual system within the film. From here on in, viewers won’t see more of this sort of extraordinarily literal depictions of point-of-view. But there are many times in the film that we are greeted with less literal, and therefore less obvious, point-of-view shots.

In several moments across the film, spectators find themselves seeing a seemingly-innocuous view of one of the film’s protagonists. Then, suddenly, Michael Myers slides into the frame, and we discover that we have been roughly sharing his point-of-view of them. This happens about four times over the course of the film, and it turns out that’s enough to sustain a sense of lurking menace. Even if we don’t see Michael stalking the characters, we begin to be more and more concerned that he might be looming just out of frame … as he has repeatedly been before.

We can characterize the moments where we explicitly see Michael watching the film’s characters as moments of suspense. We have knowledge about a threat to their well-being that they lack. But these moments of explicit suspense fuel a vaguer sense of paranoia, where we begin to be suspicious of any framing that looks like it might potentially be a point-of-view shot. The film enacts a visual system, wherein we become conditioned to read certain kinds of shots as menacing, and feel involuntarily anxious whenever we’re seeing them. This shot, for instance, never turns out to be Michael’s POV. He never slides into the frame. But since it looks like so many other shots where he has, we’re primed to assume that he might.

This system works best if the actual outbreak of violence can be prolonged as long as possible. As Steve Neale characterizes it, “The system threatens, so to speak, but never attacks.”

Neal characterizes Halloween’s stylistic system as one of paranoia, which is why I’m adopting that term to describe these types of moments. It’s important to note that it’s not the film’s characters who are paranoid in this situation. Much like in the case of suspense, they remain blissfully, frustratingly ignorant. Instead, it’s us, as viewers, that are encouraged to be paranoid. “What is at issue,” Neale writes, “is control of the frame.” Our very act of looking at characters is fraught, because we don’t know if Michael is right there, sharing his view with us, if we have momentarily become his involuntary accomplice. As we view Halloween, we’re constantly “investing the film itself and the figure of Michael with an omnipotence and aggressiveness which cannot be fully controlled.”

This traversal from suspense to paranoia reaches its apex at the very end of the film. After surviving several attacks from Laurie, Michael is shot by his psychologist Dr. Loomis, and falls off a balcony, seemingly finally meeting his end. But when Loomis moves to the window to check the body, there isn’t one: even after being stabbed, shot, and falling from a second story, Michael has still evaded both death and capture. This leaves plenty of room for a sequel, of course. But the film doesn’t end right at that moment. Instead, we get a series of shots, all uninhabited—simple views of the interior of Laurie’s house, then gradually pulling back to the empty streets of Haddonfield, ending on a shot of the old Myers residence. Throughout all of this, we hear Michael’s breathing. The overall impression is that Michael didn’t so much escape as lose his body. And, in doing so, he has become even more powerful. His body was just a vulnerability. Now he has evaporated, and been absorbed into the cinematic system itself. There is no more distinction to be made between the film’s shots and his point of view, because he has infiltrated the very mechanisms of filmmaking.

We’re now in a position to map both suspense and paranoia, and to chart out terror and apprehension in relation to them. All of these have to do with gaps in knowledge. But, since I’m working in a visual medium, and commenting upon visual media, I’m going to illustrate them in terms of looks. I’m also going to talk about “monsters,” and not bombs or anything, because that’s generally more useful when one is talking about horror.

The typical suspense situation looks like this. The monster sees its victim. And we see the monster, seeing its victim. But the victim remains oblivious. This opens up a knowledge gap between the viewer, and the victim. We want to cry out to them, but all we can do is wait, in suspense, seeing if they’ll catch on.

The typical paranoia situation looks like this. The victim doesn’t see the monster, and neither do we, the viewers. But unlike the victim, we have some inkling that the monster may be lurking around, just out of frame. We can’t visually confirm any danger at the moment, but we’re not blissfully ignorant in the way that they are. We feel a threat of potential violence that they do not.

I’ve borrowed from Hitchcock and from Neale in laying out those two terms, and now I’m going to strike out on my own to describe two more situations. In terror, the dam breaks, and the suspense is released. The victim finally sees the monster. Everybody finally sees everybody! (Well, the monster and the victim don’t see the viewer, because that’s not how cinema works.) We, as viewers, can finally stop yelling at the screen, and instead just enjoy a thrilling chase, or an outburst of violence. We still don’t know whether the victim is going to survive, but at the very least the knowledge differential has been equalized, releasing that particular tension.

My fourth and final category is apprehension—a term that I chose not for any principled reason, but because it’s a word to describe tension that we haven’t used yet. In this situation, there’s no knowledge differential between the victim and the viewer. The victim is fully aware that they’re in danger. They have, however, temporarily evaded the monster. The question now is how safe they really are. Maybe they lost them during a chase, and are peeing around. Maybe they’re hiding, and we know the monster is stalking around their hiding place, but we don’t know any better than they do whether it’s about to find them.

So, those are my four quadrants. They don’t describe every possible situation in a horror film—for instance, I don’t have a precise term to describe those moments where we see a victim’s reaction to the monster, while the monster is still obscured from us—but they get the job done well enough. We can use them while looking at a brief clip from Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood—a movie that is nowhere near as good as Halloween, but is at lease competently made, and just inartful and over-determined enough that it’s easy to see the gears working below the surface.

Back to the matter of games.

When videogames leverage our own self-preservation instincts, and short-circuit the need for empathy, there is a trade-off involved. We can’t shuffle through subtle gradations of knowledge gaps between viewer and victim, because we, the players, are the victim. As a result, there are real limitations in horror games’ visual vocabulary.

Early on in the history of survival horror games, when the genre was still in its fixed-frame phase, you could spot moments where the developers were deploying cinematic framing in an attempt to generate cinematic suspense. Your onscreen character might be facing one direction, while, slowly but surely, a zombie was creeping up behind them. These moments visual resemble the classic “look behind you!” moments in horror cinema. They’re nifty, in design and execution. But the similarity is only a surface one, because the effect is not the same. We don’t feel frustrated that we can’t communicate to the characters onscreen, because … well, we are them. As a result, they’re not clueless, and helpless. They can effectively see behind them, and around corners, with our help.

The games that get the closest to cinematic levels of suspense and paranoia are those that are the most radically experimental in their visual style. One good example is ZombiU, developed by Ubisoft as a Wii U launch title during that brief moment when Ubisoft was actually making interesting games that explored the unique affordances of the Wii U hardware, before they dropped it like a hot potato.

ZombiU forces you to look away from the game’s main screen frequently, to focus on a task that’s represented on the Gamepad’s touchscreen. The idea here is to simulate split attention, giving you something important to do that requires your full concentration, while inspiring the feeling that you constantly need to be looking over your shoulder. And, in fact, in these moments, looking at the main screen directly simulates looking over your shoulder: it shows what’s going on behind your character. This creates these weird and fascinating moments where the game might actually visually represent a zombie sneaking up on you, but both you and your character might simultaneously be oblivious to the threat, because your face is buried in the smaller screen on your lap. ZombiU is a single-player game, but it’s a game that’s ideally played with someone else sitting there on your couch with you. If you’re watching the game as a spectator, keeping your eyes on the main screen, the game performs a really satisfying trick: it gives you a situation in which you can shout “look behind you!”—and actually have it make a difference.

Another game that experiments radically with visual style is Siren, and its two sequels. There’s enough to say about these games that it’s worth breaking off into a separate episode, so I’m going to end things here. Stay tuned for more, continuing on these themes.

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