Screaming for Control: Survival Horror and Gaming

Video games fight an uphill battle in story-telling. Their interactive nature demands emphasized action whereas literature divulges the inner workings of a character’s mind and surrounding.

Movies and television are passive and allow directors to gain full control of audience’s sights and sounds. It boils down to control; video games are the first story telling medium where the audience fully controls what they do, see and hear. For the horror genre, the point is to feel fear. A sense of helplessness and loss of control create fear.

If games lend control to the user, and horror relies upon the lack of control, there must not be any decent horror games. Bitter truth is, the developers are truly gifted puppetmasters, fully in control, pulling the strings and making it effortless. Here’s a few of their tricks:

Resident Evil is the king of this strategy. Resources such as healing items and ammunition were so tightly controlled that the user was forced to make some very difficult decisions. Do you kill zombies now and risk running out of ammo, or do you keep running around the zombies hoping to survive? It seemed impossible to clean rooms, and nothing could be done to give you reprieve.

The developers also controlled resources through a tight six or eight item inventory. Do you keep a healing item or two, or do you sacrifice those spots for ammunition? What do you drop when you realize that you have to pick up a puzzle pieces? What about those damn ink ribbons that allowed you to save the game? Figuring out what to keep, and what to drop became a real life and death decision, and while you are in control of the inventory, the impossible situation was created by the developers.

Horror movies need ups and downs. Too much stress and you either become immune or the game becomes unenjoyable. Safe spots are followed with intense boss fights; areas of beauty and the profane lie side by side. Developers know this and by controlling the pacing of the game, they know that they can ensure that our fear factor doesn’t run out.

We know the "rules" behind this genre. We see something skitter across a window, something nasty is breaking through. So what do developers do? Make you run past that window a few times, building anxiety. Pick up a major weapon: part of you sweats, knowing that there is something new and horrific around the corner.

Now, developers can have the subtlety of a velvet hammer and create their own rules. In Bioshock, the first time we see a Little Sister, we are introduced to Big Daddy; we are witness to the devastation that he can cause. From then on, see a Little Sister, and you know Big Daddy is close by. Little Sister = Big Daddy. Little Sister = peeing your pants.

Silent Hill has the air horn to herald the onset of the hell dimension and the radio where an increase in static notifies you that an enemy is close at hand. Static means things have gone from bad to worse. Air horn means things have gone from worse to "I screamed like the five year old girl I am".

How do the developers make us think that we are really in control, when we are not? What are your favorite "OMG: I think I peed a little." survival horror moments?

So what do you think 2old2play?

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