What are you afraid of?
After my Dead Space spree I decided to take an in-depth look at horror and fear in videogames and try to pinpoint what it is that makes them such potent tools for creating a memorable experience. Some games focus on aliens and monsters, a very real threat that invokes a fight or flight response. Others try to get into the player’s mind and tap into something primal in our psyche. To understand how scary games work, let’s begin with a look at the basics.
The term Horror is derived from the Latin word horrere, meaning to tremble. It is defined as a strong feeling of repugnance, abhorrence or fear or as a feeling of depression and anxiety. We are horrified by a large number of things, although admittedly this changes from person to person.
Fear is typically split into two factors – external fear and internal fear. External fear is the fear of something outside of ourselves that we have strong urges to avoid. Examples of this are the fear of dangerous animals, of death or of loss of money or possessions; the spectrum is wide and in extreme cases results in phobias, where these fears become irrational. Internal fear is the fear of something inside ourselves that we associate a negative feeling with such as fear of being rejected by others, fear of not being important, the fear of losing loved ones and so on. Whilst the causes of these fears are not as physical, they too can have powerful effects on the recipient.
Now let’s take a look at a few titles and how they portray both external and internal fear, and what results this lends to the game experience.
Silent Hill – Konami: Playstation, 1999
The player steps into the shoes of an average man named Harry Mason, driving with his daughter Cheryl to the small rural town of Silent Hill. Upon entering the outskirts of the town, a deep fog descends. Suddenly a small girl appears in the road and Harry swerves and crashes, knocking himself unconscious. Upon waking, Harry finds Cheryl missing and must venture into the fog to find her in the cursed town.
Throughout the game, the player is left feeling vulnerable and alone. The fear stems from not knowing what you are up against and having the familiar made unfamiliar. Monsters in the game are usually twisted, deformed people and animals created to resemble familiar shapes and rely heavily on symbolism. Enemies range from ghostly apparitions of babies to men that appear burned and bloodied, all of whom lurk in the dark shadows and thick fog.
Silent Hill itself changes throughout the game from a lazy rural town to a hellish nightmare known as “the other-world.” During these sequences walls crack and peel, revealing a skeletal rusted metal underside, and familiar hallways and houses are transformed into something completely alien.
The player is warned of hostile creatures by the sound of loud static coming from Harry’s radio. Instead of feeling relief that the monsters aren’t going to suddenly appear, the player is left feeling anxious and dreads the upcoming encounter as the radio crackles like a death rattle. The one comfort the player has is his flashlight, illuminating the dark, oppressive halls of abandoned hospitals and schools. This reliance on light is yet another portal to frights, as during certain times in the game your flashlight may fail or run out of batteries, plunging you into darkness. With the relative safety of the small beam of light snatched away, you’ll begin to panic, even if there are no immediate threats.
The plot of Silent Hill is steeped in conspiracy and cult worship and all is not explained until near the very end. Once again, not knowing the reason behind all the ghoulish apparitions and freakish occurrences adds to the feeling of dread, foreboding and uncertainty of the future.
Silent Hill has grown into a hugely successful franchise due to the fear it instills in players through the unknown and unfamiliar. The use of symbolism transforms everything into something more significant, and being unsure of what to expect puts the gamer on edge in a clear example of internal fear. Feelings of unease and loneliness aren’t immediately threatening but create a powerful feeling of dread and anxiety.
Silent Hill was re-imagined in 2009 as the Wii title “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories” following Harry Mason, the game focused instead on psychologically profiling the player and changing various gameplay elements to suit the player’s choices. Not as scary as the original, but worth a look.