Zombies. I can’t stand them. Drooling, dripping, devoid of any redeeming qualities. (You can tell them apart from politicians because zombies are better conversationalists.) Chris reminded me of my general disgust with zombies over here, and I wanted to take a minute exploring that. Yes, this started out as a joke post, but I realized that I’ve been reading some Silent Hill reviews by Shamus over at Twenty Sided, and figured that there’s a serious bit of game design analysis to be unearthed here.
It’s funny; I’ll never play one of the so-called “horror” games, and I don’t watch horror movies. Reading Shamus’ articles on Silent Hill, though, I do find that there are some solid game design principles that such games are uniquely poised to take advantage of. Before that, though, Zombies…
One, gore isn’t scary. It’s stupid, crass and gross. It has shock “value”, but it’s lowest common denominator value. Truly scary things don’t need gore. They often don’t even need to be seen. We’ve lost much since the days of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock. (Yes, I know they used gore on occasion, but the terror they tried to convey wasn’t rooted in the gore, it was rooted elsewhere.)
Two, zombies are obvious. The shambling dead, creeping dread, “we’re coming to get your braiiiiiins” schtick just doesn’t instill much real fear. Yes, there’s some fear to be found in an utterly relentless and completely invincible foe, but zombies just don’t do it right. Sure, they mindlessly pursue fresh edibles, but they are typically not invincible. Also, they are typically very obvious about their intentions. Subtle they aren’t. More often than not, a foe is truly chilling when they come in the guise of a friend, with hidden intentions, and act with utter disregard for established rules of conduct or morality. We fear the “backstab” not because a zombie is (obviously) sneaking up behind us, but because we expect one thing and get another.
Three, desensitization. Wes Craven is no Hitchcock. Showing the gore, or proclaiming the “doooom” of the protagonist in grand, bloody terms isn’t scary, it’s stupid. The unknown is scary. The almost-seen or barely heard monster can conjure more darkness and fear from the imagination than any special effects house could ever muster, even with millions of dollars. Slasher porn (sadistically obsessing over brutal murders) isn’t scary, it isn’t entertaining, it’s pure shock therapy. The trouble with shock therapy, like drug use, is that we build up resistance to it. Druggies have to take ever-increasing hits of their chosen poison to get the same “high”. Walking the path to ever-increasingly spectacular murder, glorifying it in fine detail, destroys any sense of propriety in the viewer, and dulls sensitivity and morals, even as it builds the expectation of further depths of depravity. Zombies used to be merely heavily drugged people who were presumed dead, but were actually quite alive, albeit in deep stupors. (Losing one’s mind is terrifying; seeing a loved one lose their mind is sometimes even more so.) In the last few decades, zombies have slid into stupid territory, pushing for that ephemeral thrill factor.
There’s the whole “Uncanny Valley” effect that zombies used to tap into. There are few things as terrifying as the familiar that is somehow a little “off”. Imagine waking up in your room in the morning, but the shadows are wrong. When you open the window, the fifty year old tree in the yard has somehow moved ten yards closer to the house. Nothing else is obviously different, and the tree looks like it’s always been there. Are you losing your mind? Are your memories faulty? Are you even really home? Suddenly your notion of your home being a safe haven is blown away, as you never know what else might be wrong, and more importantly, why it’s wrong. Moving on in your day, if you went to the kitchen and your wife (or husband, whatever) was up like she always is… but moving a little stiffly, wouldn’t you hesitate? Maybe she says something a little differently, or acts like she’s left handed when she’s been right handed all her life. Pretty soon, even the smallest things set off paranoia, and nothing seems right any more. That’s effective terror, and it doesn’t require any blood, gore, profanity, nudity, shock or stupidity. Just a little careful tweaking of expectations, and the illusion of predictability that humans thrive on is shattered. Trust is blown, and even the mundane, normal aspects of life can take on new, scary meanings.
This is, not coincidentally, why dementia, Alzheimer’s and insanity are so terrifying. Psychological terror is so much more effective than slasher porn. Zombies have gone to the stupid side, and in so doing, have lost much of their potency and potential to actually be scary.
So what about game design? Shamus argues that “survival horror” games require some of the strongest design, and provide the greatest challenges for designers. It makes a lot of sense; building that sense of “not quite right” and nursing it slowly into outright fear and terror takes a deft hand, subtlety, and careful work. Save points, “gotcha” moments, drooling monsters, gore, profanity and such are very blunt instruments. While they can be effective at creating some level of jumpiness, more often than not, “gotchas” create frustration, monsters (especially if animated poorly) create mindless combat, and gore and profanity suggest that the devs are simply trying too hard to be scary, rather than allowing the player to feel scared.
Terror is being unable to control your own destiny, especially when you think you have things under control. Nintendo’s Eternal Darkness played with this, even extending the “insanity” to the player, messing with controls, lighting, system stability and such. Some of that reminded players that they were playing a game, but the fear was real because players felt something was at risk that really shouldn’t have been. It’s that “messing with expectations” that creates real responses in the player, not throwing another decapitated corpse in their way.
Game designers want to elicit responses in the players. Telling a story is only as good as how people understand and react to it. Games have vast potential to tell deep and compelling stories, because they are interactive. As designers, we have to be able to reach past the cheap thrills and offer something of substance. Games are unique in that the illusion of control is what they are built on, and the manipulation of that expectation is what terror is built on. Games have a huge amount of control to do that manipulation, more than any other form of entertainment. Going the cheap thrill route is lazy design.
Beyond all that, my personal style is far removed from the notion of instilling terror into the player’s mind, but I know how to do so. I’d rather teach or give my audience something uplifting, which is a big part of my opposition to zombies and “horror” content. Still, it’s helpful to understand how these things work, so as not to accidentally instill terror when none should exist. (The corollary being, if you’re trying to create terror, you don’t want people to laugh or get frustrated with stupid design decisions.)