October is Horror Month here at the Ontological Geek! All of our pieces this month relate to horror in games, and we’ve got a bunch of great guest articles lined up for your enjoyment. We’re still accepting pitches for about a week or so, so e‑mail us at email@example.com if you have an idea!
There must be something in the air. The Ontological Geek has announced horror as its theme of the month, but simultaneously lots of other game critics have been taking a look at the genre, its limits, and its implementations. Perhaps the recent enthusiasm was spurred by the release of several games that are associated with horror. Gone Home plays with our foreknowledge of the genre clichés, only to leave those expectations unfulfilled by going in another direction; Outlast, although I haven’t played it, seems to have scared quite a few people; and most recently, the Amnesia series was continued with A Machine for Pigs, created by The Chinese Room of Dear Esther fame. So yes, there is something in the air. A miasma. A sentient, evil fog. Or maybe everyone has been gearing up for Halloween? Yeah, that’s probably it.
Horror art nowadays tends to stick to clichés, to familiar genre markers. A review of a few of the latest horror games makes this clear, almost painfully so. That said, part of the appeal of the genre, to some people, is its predictability. Horror orbits around a few central themes because they are apparently important to our culture. These occupations of the genre are analysed by Noël Carroll in his 1990 book The Philosophy of Horror. Although it may be outdated or incomplete in some respects — I wouldn’t know because this book is my first encounter with horror studies — I think many of Carroll’s analyses hold up, even for the medium of videogames, which he does not discuss in the book.
One of the more important assertions in the book is that “art horror” is defined by the mingling of two emotions: fear and disgust. We (the character in focus and/or the reader/viewer/player) need to be both afraid of a monster (or situation) and disgusted by it. Fear is perhaps the most straightforward of these two: the threat of bodily or psychological harm. It is often easy to rationalize particular instances of fear. Disgust is trickier, but Carroll argues convincingly that it has to do with the transgression of very basic cognitive categories. Disease and the diseased revolt us because they represent a violation of the wholeness of a body. For the same reasons, animal hybrids, the living dead, and sentient objects are seen as disgusting, to name just a few examples.
Behind this last emotion, I think, is something deeper. Disgust as an emotion is us riling against challenges to the way we view the world. As we grow up as humans, we learn to conceptualize and categorize what we perceive in the world; this is a fundamental cognitive ability without which we could never make sense of our lives. Based on analogy with prior experiences, we can even generalize into the future, forming expectations about what is (likely) to come. In short, this ability is very fond of pigeonholing, of putting things in neat categories. But the thing is, the world can be messy, unpredictable, or just plain weird. In horror, such challenges to our worldview are exaggerated and celebrated.
So, how can games tap into this tradition of serving up close encounters with the uncanny? The easy road, not necessarily a bad one, is to transplant the well-known horror monsters from literature and film into a game world. This happens so often that examples are superfluous. In fact, the mere inclusion of a zombie, vampire or other monster trope doesn’t make a game a horror game, as Cameron Kunzelman notes several times in his interesting look at various (potentially) horrifying games. In some games you are given so many weapons that monsters suddenly seem less threatening. Sure, you may be scared for a split second when there’s something slimy behind a corner and your ears are pierced by dissonant strings from the score, but if you can shoot that slimy thing to oblivion a second later, there is little sustained fear. As Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs designer Dan Pinchbeck says in a recent interview with Cara Ellison for The Guardian: “There was a distinction in our mind between making a horror game and making a game with jump scares in it. They’re not the same.”
Some of the most successful horror games therefore carefully manage the tools made available to the player, in order to make threats (feel) really threatening. The survival horror genre takes this to a logical extreme, taking any and all weapons away from the player so that the only possible responses to immediate threat are flight or hiding. Suddenly things get a lot more nerve-racking.
Tools are just one thing that give you power over threats, though. Equally important, if not more so, is clarity of perception and awareness of your surroundings. Obviously, darkness is threatening because our vision is constrained. One of the strongest ways to make use of this is to provide a character with a flashlight or similar tool, which illuminates part of the scene at the expense of decreased visibility anywhere else.
When we are in third person, rather than first person perspective, a spotlight can serve the same function, revealing the immediate surroundings of the character, but making everything around it into a dark unknown from which anything could spring.
But even without light & darkness, perspective can be used to startle. In 3D games, usually at least a third of your surroundings is hidden at all times because they are outside of your field of view. There’s always the possibility of something creeping up behind you. In 2D games, this is less often used, but it would be possible to place a character at the edge of the screen, rather than in the middle, thereby hiding what’s behind. Alternatively, threats could jump out of the background, adding a play with dimensions to the situation.
So far, the game examples were mostly about inducing and managing a sense of fear in the player. What about disgust? Well, the inclusion of disgusting monsters and objects is, as said, an obvious possibility, but I think there are ways of tapping into category-violation in ways that are more unique to games, and they have to do with the experience of space.
I believe the act of moving or directing an avatar through a videogame heightens the awareness and sense of place we have with regard to the space represented in the game. What I mean is that while playing a game you are usually more aware of the space inhabited by the characters than when watching a movie or reading a book. This constant interactive awareness of gamespace heightens our sensitivity to both the practical in-game aspects of that space, as well as its meaning.
This sense of place can be used by horror games to induce both fear and disgust, at least in an abstract sense. Like I said, we use experiences to build up a mental representation of the world, both of the areas we have already seen, and of expectations about areas we have yet to traverse. Playing with these mental maps can be very conducive to evoking horror.
Subverting expectations about a space is a way to generate threat and fear. Although it is a common example of horror in games for various reasons, “The Shalebridge Cradle” in Thief: Deadly Shadows is an excellent instance of subverted expectations as well. Throughout the game — and the previous two instances of the Thief series, too — space is almost constantly contested: most areas of the game are populated by enemies that can take down protagonist Garrett in a few seconds, as well as light sources that can deny Garrett access his most powerful skill: stealth. In other words: space is rarely safe in Thief, and even more rarely is any specific place safe all the time.
The entire first half of “The Shalebridge Cradle” is super-scary, precisely because it’s not actually dangerous. Sure, it’s a classic haunted mansion (a subgenre unto itself): an orphanage and insane asylum rolled into one, but there are no guards, no monsters, literally nothing that could kill you. However, because the rest of the game series has conditioned you to be on your toes the whole time, you can’t quite shake that anxiety when you’re exploring the initial areas of The Cradle.
Another way to generate threat is not to subvert analogical expectations based on the aspects of previously seen areas, but to subvert actual experience of a particular area. This happens at several points in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, where a door previously seen in a corridor has disappeared when you return to it half a minute later, previously locked doors are suddenly found standing open, etc. By using such cues, such a game shows that not only are your expectations about a space untrustworthy, but your immediate experience is as well.
This violation of such spatial ‘rules’, albeit ones generated by our own fallible reasoning, constitute horror because they bring about both fear — things could change at any moment — and disgust — these spaces are not proper spaces, they are outside of our rational comprehension. All this amounts to a diminished degree of knowledge/control over a space, which speaks to our emotions profoundly, especially since many games tend to give you lots of power and control. Over the course of some horror games, you might be able to regain some amount of that control over these spaces, whereas others simply expect you to submit and survive.
It is my firm belief that in that last respect, horror — including and perhaps especially horror games — can be a statement about our lives as humans. The amount of control we have over the spaces we move around in in our daily lives is severely limited, and for some people more so than for others. Depending on the context, minorities of various kinds (ethnic, sexual, etc.) are confronted with hostile spaces almost all the time. That games can help us realise this is argued for by Samantha Allen’s and Bill Coberly’s articles in recent issues of Five out of Ten magazine.
From a more distant perspective, the genre can be an existential comment on the human condition. We walk around in a universe that is not always easy to make sense of. We try our best to fit our experiences into patterns, but every now and then something comes along that just won’t fit. Horror is an artistic expression of that sensation. It reminds us that there are limits to our understanding of the world, and that beyond those limits, things may be lurking.
References and further reading:
Samantha Allen (2013). “Going Stealth. Hitman: Blood Money and Gender Passing”. In: Five out of Ten 4. 5–10.
Noel Carroll (1990). The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge.
Bill Coberly (2013). “Hunted”. In: Five out of Ten 5. 24–29.
Cara Ellison (2013). “The horror of sequels – the Chinese Room on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs”. In: The Guardian (15 October 2013).
Kieron Gillen (2005). “Journey into the Cradle” In: PC Gamer 146 (March 2005). 132–141.
Cameron Kunzelman (2013). “Designing Horror”.
Adam Smith (2013). “Horror Stories: A Maddening Lack Of Imagination”. In: Rock Paper Shotgun.