Fear is the degenerative maelstrom rooted in the hearts and minds of humanity. Sucking the sanity from your very soul! You can see why horror is so popular? I’m not hear to philosophise or contradict what compels humanity to endure such feats of narcissistic endeavour. Other historians can philosophise what fear is and why we crave it, but I’m more concerned with how games can “maintain” that sense of fear. The installation of fear as well as the total loss of faculties that leads to bouts of decrepit senility, such as wetting yourself and screaming is the most base human instinct. And the emotional fragility associated with it is seemingly what the human condition thrives on. The thrill of the chase, the palpitations that sends the blood coursing through your veins at the very notion that at any moment you could die is exhilarating. With movies your observing interpretive perception of what a character is feeling, simply a distant spectator observing instances from an interpretive perspective. With literature your more involved, yet restricted by your own depicted conception of fear. But with gaming YOU are there. It’s you placed in these perverse locations. But due to the exposure of horror in gaming you’ll inevitably develop an immunity to its persistence. Once the overtures of a game and the suspicion of fear dissipates, what’s left? It’s difficult to emit a sense of ambient hysteria when you’ve inherited the terrifying fixtures of identically veneered dull grey walls and polyester drapes. So how do you retain fear?
Sure I’ve been scared. I’ve tossed my controller and ran from my room like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, but so many horror games squander their creative conceits in favour of cheap scares. Many horror situated games possess the innate capability to terrify its user, but with many falling prey to the inured monotony of routine. Jump scares, the otherwise dedicated proxy of video game anxiety expedites the dramatic tension with expository routine and plodding mechanics. The quantifiable mass of hysteria generated by jump scares does provoke a sudden brown tinge to accumulate on your undergarments, which arouses anxiety effectively. Jump scares are an arbitrary implementation and merely an illustration of fear not explanations. It is an effective substitute in inflicting terror, if used efficiently. Yet the juvenility of some proposed scares becomes an irksome plagiarizing of popular troupes. The regularity of jump scares obviates that instantaneous panic that causes a shuddering convulsion of your faculties. And herein lies the problem. That a games predictability results in content treating the audience as if they are stupid. As if the genre in any of its various forms has alluded you? Devs seem to forget that the majority of us have well established prescient for what to expect from the genre. Sure determining specifics that apply to the venerable breadth of horror franchises is like categorising the number of women Tiger Woods has slept with, but the general thematic is fairly stunted in progressive variation.
Okay I’m perhaps getting a little argumentative, but there does seem to be a conscripted inference that we as gamers require a ponderous dalliance of ubiquitous exposition to elaborate on very general plot points, forgetting that the genre itself is suggestive enough. It’s going to scare, or at least attempt to provoke intermittent fear. The simplicity in brevity seems to elude developers who had at one stage created something truly special. Resident Evil for instance established impressively eerie concepts under elaborate circumstances then waste it’s intriguing, if not subtle premise on convoluted stories. Its like sitting behind a cool fan on a hot day, your just wasting all of its intended potential! To add narrative complexity in addition to zombie pandemic mutes the entire cohesiveness of the series, as you waste hours attempting to understand what the hell is going on! It was always laced with ebullient B-movie ascetics, but now it’s a desolate vial regression. Some games forgo subtlety altogether, emphasising the situation with dramatic cacophony of masonic balladry which actually diminishes the impact of the situation, as if it’s trying to stimulate shock by prodding you on the shoulder to remind you that what you’re playing is scary. “Look, look. This is scary guys!” I mean what’s wrong with transience? Allowing your environment and your own anxiety to perpetuate your fear?
There’s something to be said for silence, the enunciated howl of some distant beast. The eerie plod of footsteps on creaking floorboards or the external ambivalence of your ambient surroundings as branches on aberrant tree are coerced by the nocturnal breeze, lightly tapping the window that then elevates the perception of dread to heightened, pant staining degrees. The perception of what you think you saw, or did you? Of course continually facilitating such fastidious practices of disciplined fear without the effect becoming contrived and scripted as any cheap ghost ride is almost impossible. Alien Isolation modulated the direct threat (the Alien) in the overtures instead utilising the darkened, ambient crevices of the ships cerebral structures that would dictate the level of fear. Reducing the visibility lowered exposure, nullifying your trusted sights to fleeting glimpses of identification meant that every inanimate utility posed a potential threat. You were questioning the validity of your surroundings, slinking through corridors, laterally skirting around precipices and getting scared by our reflective shadow! Everything was intent on causing respiratory failure, seemingly aghast at everything as you develop a mild case of Tourette’s! “Strange noise! Shadow! Nodding Duck! Toilet!!” Alien Isolation was also so clever in the way it’d utilised the clunking music to imply imminent danger, even though the benign environment presented no discernible danger. As a result your fooled into hiding into a locker for 10 mins as some technician who worked on the game is somewhere in the world chortling “he fell for it”. Eventually as you progress the game begins allocating predictable convalescence. Due to the overexposed regularity of the dangers, fear diminishes the once intimidating scenarios. Again maintaining perpetrated fear is difficult, instead generating involuntary nuisances.
Your curiosities to open a door for instance should feel like feats of gallantry. Fear and loathing are inexplicably linked. Fear is generated by the idea of death, not death itself. There’s no conclusive finality in simulated death, in fact if the game doesn’t provide enough resources to derive a feasible escape, then even the fear of death is diminished. Too much, and the same effect applies. There’s no negotiable parity insuring assertive fear as so many games generate varying philosophies when achieving it. For me though you shouldn’t be able to regenerate health or cure ailments through combative absence. Amenities and ammunition should be limited. Or in the case of Outlast, should be non-existent. Outlast presented a new challenge, negotiating through an insane Asylum without any defences to protect you from the innumerable patients in all there mutilated forms. It sustained anxiety with tempered moments of respite, thus instilling complacency in your safety with the adept profusion that–at least for the moment–everything is fine. The repository passivity counters the insistent trepidation, without negating the fear completely. Allowing moments of terror to resonate as much as it did at the start. Of course once you’ve adjusted to the scripted mechanisms, Outlast does struggle maintain this same fear without it turning into a Benny Hill sketch. And I think that’s the problem; you can only contribute so much before you’ve assimilated with such immersion that you begin to actualise and perform without the restrictions of fear to subvert you.
The purest essence of fear is derived from the connection you have with the situation. Now despite Resident Evil thematically imploding on itself and Silent Hill seeping deeper into vacuity, the likes of Alien Isolation and Outlast prove that games are still scary, without referring to the recycled excerpts from horror 101. Yet they also corroborate my theory that no matter how frightening, no matter how many times you poop yourself through every orifice, naturally games can only retain fear for so long.
What games have scared you from start to finish? Let me know. Cheers.