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The Social Side of Fear

March 27, 2011
Isaac from Dead Space

I’ve always loved horror games. Since I was little, playing Alone in the Dark on my older brother’s PC (with its pathetic little old-school speaker that went *beep* whenever the game was trying to scare you), I’ve always found the concept of exploring dangerous, dark environments appealing. I think this has gone beyond subject matter for me; it’s not so much that there’s zombies or ghosts or monsters or that the action takes place in haunted mansions, it’s more about what all those things combined with the mechanics of a good horror game convey. And that is a feeling of disproportionate excitement and fear of failure. I say disproportionate because horror games aren’t necessarily more difficult than other games. Indeed, many games in other genres try to get players excited and fearful by overly increasing the level of difficulty and being unfair, but this usually just results in frustration. Horror games – the good ones – are often quite easy so long as one is meticulous and cautious going through them. But you’ll rarely hear anyone say that Resident Evil or Silent Hill were easy games. This is because of the psychological pressure that those games apply to the player. The difficulty in playing them, in beating them, ends up going beyond the mechanics of actually progressing through the game. This is not unlike Japanese RPGs, where final boss fights aren’t normally very difficult – they’re just long and gruelling so it feels like you’re accomplishing something. There is a sort of meta-game that happens in players’ minds, making players’ experience go beyond the actual events in the game. Everyone who’s played a good horror game knows what I’m talking about. There is nothing in the game mechanics that makes you pause and catch your breath before opening the door to the next unexplored room. Yet you wait. And wait.

My favourite horror game series of all time must be Resident Evil, with Resident Evil 2 being the high-point of the franchise, or should I say the high-point of the “Zelda-like” Resident Evils. Resident Evil 4 and 5 are both very good games. But they’re not really horror games any more. I don’t lament Capcom wanting to take the series in a new direction, the only sad bit is that for the longest time there was a huge void in the horror game genre. Silent Hill was never as good a game as Resident Evil was, and since the stories and aesthetics in those games have become increasingly less interesting, their only remaining selling points are now all but gone. Then there were games like Fear and Condemned, but they didn’t quite tickle me the same way Resident Evil had. I’ll admit that I was really sad that there was a whole genre of experience that I’ll call “Horror Action-Adventure” (because “Survival Horror” is dumb) that was no longer being explored by anyone. But a few years ago, out of nowhere, came the very appropriately named Dead Space. Very obviously made by people who longed for the same type of experience I did, it made quite a bit of noise when it was first released. While some reviews called it “derivative” and “uninspired”, nobody could argue against the skill with which the team had interpreted past horror and indeed action games. As copies go, it was picture-perfect, with an aesthetic all of its own on top of the admittedly tried-and-true mechanics. And actually, there were a couple of quite interesting gameplay quirks in there that deserve mention, such as the whole dismemberment thing and the zero-gravity bits (pun unintended). Many games have added less than that to their suite of mechanics while still managing to avoid being called “unoriginal”.

Perhaps most important was the game’s use of sound. Everything in the game sounded just right in the context of the story, and if someone were to play me a snippet of Dead Space’s soundscape I’d be able to pick it out nine times out of ten. I loved, and still love, that game. And its sequel, Dead Space 2, was one of the few games that I’d ever bought on launch day. My first experience with Dead Space 2 wasn’t with the game itself though. I couldn’t resist downloading the demo when it was released some time before the full game – even though I’m usually wary of playing parts of such atmospheric games, without the context that the rest of the game provides. But I had to take a peek, in part because I’d read stories and interviews stating that some of the core creative personnel behind the first game were no longer with the development team, and also that the new creative direction was going to try to introduce more dynamics and contrast into the game. This made me a bit worried – I was still convinced the game would be good, but would it go all Resident Evil 4 on me and lose the fear factor altogether? If anything’s scary, it’s the thought of that. I really need this genre of games to exist, as they fill such an important niche for me. Luckily, the demo managed to calm me down (by scaring me senseless), and once the 20-minute long morsel of terror was finished, I was left feeling deeply disturbed, in a good way, and anxious to play the rest of the game through. I remember starting the game up for the first time, after launch day had come and gone. The feeling of anticipation was profound. What was to follow, however, was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life.

As I played through the game, I found myself not only battling to get through the many combat encounters and trying to manage my economy and upgrade paths like I did in the previous game. I was also trying my hardest to fend off a thought that was slowly creeping out of my subconscious and into the forefront of my mind. This internal struggle might be similar to what born-again atheists brought up in religious homes go through, prior to their “coming out” to their families. An unwelcome thought that they fear will not go away however much they fight it.

In my case, the unwelcome thought wasn’t “there is no god”. It was “this game isn’t scary”. And the unavoidable follow-up question to that statement, that I tried for the longest time to avoid trying to answer, is “why”.

The reason I was avoiding it was because the second I allow myself to ask that question is the second I need to start doing research with my analytical, professional mind. After which the whole thing just becomes a self-sustaining feedback loop of non-scariness. But before I knew it, it was happening. I couldn’t stop myself. I started noticing little subtle touches in the game’s design like how the music changed just by my raising my weapon to aim – even if there was no threat around. Little mechanics, like the rules for how the game chooses to spawn enemies, were now in plan sight. I was unable to look away. And so, somewhere around the 80% completion mark for the game, I had to stop playing entirely and try to get to the bottom of why in the world the original game (and indeed the demo for this one), had managed to scare me and make me feel uncomfortable, while this game didn’t.

I tried evaluating everything. Was it the balancing of the game? The pacing? The level of difficulty? The newly-added contrast where not every part of the game was dark and dreary? The storytelling? The enemy design? Was it perhaps the added, more sophisticated cutscenes and the way characters were portrayed? Nothing really held water. There wasn’t really anything in Dead Space 2 that wasn’t at least partially explored in its prequel, or indeed in the demo. Indeed, most of the parts of Dead Space 2 that differed the most from Dead Space were exposed in that demo. So what was up? What had been introduced between that vertical slice of the game and the final product that had managed to take all the fear away? Or was it not even about the adding/removing of something? Was it about the nature, the portrayal of something that had been there all the time?

Then it came to me. Or rather… she, Nicole, the main character Isaac’s girlfriend, came to me. I remembered her message to him at the start of the first game… and it was so perfectly timed with my thought process that I actually thought I was going insane to think of it when I did.

It’s all falling apart here. I can’t believe this is happening. It’s strange… such a little thing… in the end, it all comes down to this one little thing…

She knew. Nicole knew. Or at least my deranged brain was connecting the dots in ways I couldn’t consciously comprehend. So I had to look up a clip of her message to Isaac on Youtube. And there it was. Not at the end, or suggested somewhere in the phrases I had already remembered, but at the very beginning of he clip.

… I wish I could talk to you… I wish I could just… talk to someone…

When something is that blatantly obvious and you miss it, realizing the truth, as well as your own stupidity, feels kind of like taking a punch to the stomach.

Of course.

They made him talk. They gave Isaac a voice.

Such a little thing… it’s strange, in the end it all comes down to this one little thing.

Now, it’s not just that Isaac has a voice. He had one in Dead Space as well. It’s that he vocalises his emotions, and is generally chatty with people on the other side of a communications relay. There was a bit of this in the demo as well, but it was quite sparingly used, and he didn’t have the same opportunities to say the wrong things at the wrong time. In Dead Space 2, Isaac is usually not even remotely afraid of the things he gets put through. He cracks tasteless jokes and hardly even seems agitated during encounters that are meant to scare the player half to death. And it rubs off on you. Ask anyone who’s ever seen a kid adopt the phobias of a parent; someone else’s reaction in a certain situation influences your take on that same situation. It’s the psychological herd-mentality effect that lets us walk idly by unconscious people on the street – nobody else is stopping, so why should I? And the best way to make a player less frightened is by exposing him/her to characters that they are supposed to identify with, and then having them not be afraid of the situation at hand.

Nicole understood this. She knew full well that her isolation was the biggest problem in her predicament. If she’d only had someone to talk to, ideally Isaac, she would’ve been less afraid, less desperate. Less fatalistic.

What makes me very sad is that it seems that EA themselves don’t quite grasp the importance of this very big, important piece of the aesthetic puzzle that was the original Dead Space. So they couldn’t foresee the consequences of giving Isaac an all too chatty, all too personalized and all too frequent voice that always has someone to talk to. Sadly, there is no reason to believe that Dead Space 3 will go back on this one; it’s so much harder to undo something like this than to make it happen in the first place. If anything, he’ll be even more talkative, even more badass, next time around.

So I’m back to square one, fearing that horror games – my kind of horror games – will go away for the foreseeable future. And that there won’t anything to fill this very important niche in my games library until someone else gets it right again. If that even happens. I don’t think I could say it any better than Nicole:

I didn’t want it to end like this. I really wanted to see you again, just once. I loved you. I always loved you.

Yes. I think that summarizes everything just fine. Thanks Nicole.

I owe you.

3 Comments
  1. Brilliant text my friend. As so happens, I’m now finishing Robert B. Cialdini’s book Influence in which he, as you know, discusses this herd mentality and social proof. It all makes sense in this context too! Great application! It also furthers my understanding of why we’ve never heard Link say a single lexicon word, ever.

    And oh how I miss the old school Resident Evil games! Good to know Dead Space might be the thing to try out if I ever come across a next-gen (current-gen nowadays, I suppose) game console.

    • Erik, welcome. :) Thanks – I really need to finish that book. You’re thinking of the whole Kitty Genovese thing? Yeah, that was pretty scary. Though I recommend Freakonomics/Superfreakonomics for a different take on that same topic.

      Also, you can come to my house and play Dead Space whenever you want. Just get your ass over to Cambridge and we’ll do that shit. :) I promise I won’t say anything – that’d mess with the impact, after all.

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  1. Dead Space 3: Fearing Fear Itself « Odious Repeater

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