Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Enjoying The Fear

Don’t you hate it when a game that you found particularly scary is dismissed as being totally “not scary” by someone else? I find that to be irritating, but truth be known, I’m probably guilty of doing that myself; dismissing someone else’s opinion. But no longer! If you listen to enough opinions on the subject, you’ll find that there tends to be a great deal of disagreement on what is truly scary in games. I’ll say that Game XXX scared me senseless, and inevitably someone will chime in and say, “um no, that game wasn’t scary at all. I’ll tell you what game was scary.”

In the early part of 2010, I played through two games in the horror genre: Dead Space and Silent Hill Homecoming. Not only did I play them in the same year. I also played them back-to-back, one right after the other. First Dead Space, then Silent Hill. I found that both were good games, but I also found that playing through each one gave me a totally different experience. They were two greatly different takes on horror. And perhaps part of that had to do with the different territories they were developed in. The gaming experience in Dead Space was intense, and in-your-face. It was a loud, WAY over-the-top, and very straightforward type of game; a game that, I suppose, would be very attractive to a western audience. Silent Hill, by contrast, was much quieter, much more still, and I found, much more oppressive. “Silent” is in the very title of the game afterall. And after playing it, I can see why that is appropriate. While Silent Hill, it seems, seeks to gently smother you, Dead Space’s goal was more akin to a clobber over the head.

A short disclaimer: 90% of the time when I’m playing a game, I’m alone, in a dark room, and it’s the dead of night. And this is irrespective of weather or not such a setting adds to the atmosphere of the game. In the case of both of these games, it added a lot.

The reception to SH Homecoming was very lukewarm. I read many criticisms saying that nothing new was really being brought to the series with this game. But luckily for me, this was actually the first Silent Hill game I’ve ever played. For years, I have been playing Resident Evil, but this was my first experience with its primary rival. So it was all new to me. It was a fresh experience. But, I often found myself wondering, “why am I playing this?”

Playing Homecoming made me feel like I was in some type of dark, nightmare abyss. It was truly a testament to the notion that we are not always looking to have fun in our gaming experiences. This game was NOT fun at all, even though it was well constructed. Saying that it was not fun does not in any way mean that I thought it was a bad game. In fact, I think I experienced exactly what the developer wanted me to experience; or at least almost what the developer wanted me to experience. I wasn’t overly scared. And it definitely wasn’t the thrill-ride that Dead Space was. No, this experience was more heavy… menacing… draining. I wouldn’t call the feeling dread, but I would say it was something very much akin to dread. And again, I was often conflicted as to why I was making myself endure this mostly negative experience. I’ve played enough dark games to know that I can get through them. So, in that respect, I felt no need to prove my courage. But despite this feeling that was akin to dread, there definitely was a certain beauty that I experienced. 2 types of beauty: 1, it is a visually impressive game- something that screenshots and videos on the internet do not properly convey. But there was something else; another kind of beauty. There was beauty in the fact that I was being given such a unique experience. That sounds hokey, I know, but I do think it is valid. This game enabled me to, in a safe setting, experience emotions that I don’t typically feel, even if those emotions were negative. And it was a unique kind of negative; not how I’ve typically felt while playing other games that were focused on horror. Perhaps it was simply the masochist in me that wanted to persevere. How else could I have come away from this game, that was not fun, and was very draining, and still say that, yes, I think it is a good game?

Dead Space was a totally different beast. It was like a romp through an incredibly cool fun house. The demo scared me (a lot). But the actual game only scared me for about an hour or so. But this did not matter in the end. I found the Dead Space experience was something much more akin to fun. Is that what the developers intended? I don’t know. I could only make assumptions. But when it came to attempted scares, I’d say that there were simply too many of them. Too often did I expect something to jump out at me. And too often was I correct in that assumption. Or, in other words, I became too familiar with the enemies and their tactics. And, in the end, there was simply too much action for me to get scared. Given this, Dead Space was more of a thriller, not so much a horror. It was like an attraction at a theme park. There was always seemed to be some sort of insanity going on around me. Yes, these bursts of insanity were punctuated by periods of quiet. But it was a different kind of quiet than the quiet of Silent Hill. The quiet of Dead Space was more like a valley in opposition to a peak. In other words, non-stop action would have totally ruined the point of the game. Silent Hill’s quiet, on the other hand, was more than simply an opposing force. It seemed to be just the games natural expression. Like there was no other way it could be.

Writing about these games makes me think about what possesses us to subject ourselves to these types of experiences. These experiences that are often uncomfortable, and are often definitely not fun. Maybe it’s simply a modern day right-of-passage. We no longer live in the bush. There are no longer lions or crocodiles in the backyard that we can wrestle and subdue, thereby declaring our courage, our dominion over nature. Maybe monster filled video games are the best things we’ve got now. And even if there were lions in the backyard, haven’t we become too soft to even attempt to wrestle them? Or maybe we’ve outgrown the need to triumph over nature. Maybe we’re no longer interested in declaring our physical prowess. But now more interested in declaring our mental fortitude. Afterall, playing a horror game, you are assured that you will not be physically scarred. But there is a possibility that your mind may be scarred. And we are intrigued by that possibility. A physical injury is immediately noticed, and it is taken seriously. Mental injury tends to not be taken so seriously. There is no scar to see. And besides, the screen is always there to protect you. The monsters can’t come through the screen. But what if they could? Or maybe the better question is, what happens when they can? When we have the technology to move the monsters out of the screen and into 3d space? And how far will we take this concept? Will we once again create a right-of-passage that holds the potential of physical injury?