On Horror, “Fun”, and Dead Space

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January 30, 2013 by Daniel

Dead Space is a good game. It is fun. It is well-made. But it is not scary. Tense, certainly – there’s always one too many decaying, multi-limbed Necromorphs and about ten too few bullets, and the silent protagonist Isaac isn’t exactly the most athletic fellow around. But nothing in the game gave me nightmares; nothing haunted me days afterwards, keeping me away from dark spots in my house or looking over my shoulder throughout the day. All the elements are there – an isolated, run-down setting, aggressive enemies that have very small effective hit windows, and characters who you’re never sure if you can trust – but it never coalesces into anything beyond the occasionally well-done jump scare.

Booga booga booga!

This boils down to one of the descriptors I used in the intro – “fun”. The “fun” problem is one that has shackled the video game medium since its inception. We define good video games in terms of their potential for the nebulous barometer of “fun”, but that’s a misnomer. Jonathan Blow, creator of indie game hit Braid, has a very salient interview where he calls for a new way to classify games and our enjoyment of them. The full video is worth watching, but for those who can’t find the time, I’ll summarize quickly.

Blow makes the point that one of his favourite games in college was Counter-Strike, the extremely popular multiplayer FPS game, but he questions whether that experience was actually “fun” – in contrast, he actually recalls that Counter-Strike is a brutal, gruelling game that demands a lot from the player. And if you’ve ever played Counter-Strike, or almost any other realistic military shooter, you can see what he means: you need to be aware of your environment at all times; you have to have cat-like reflexes and the accuracy to pull off regular headshots; you get into situations where your entire team’s hopes of winning rest on your ability to make split-second, high-skill decisions. It’s a stressful, harrowing experience. Indeed, rating games based on “fun factor” is one of the things that keeps the medium from growing to its full potential. We accept that not every movie needs to be a summer popcorn flick, every book a traipse into loveliness, every record a collection of bouncy pop music – so why should we hold video games to a different standard?

This is where horror games come in, and why their claustrophobic, panic-inducing experiences are such a breath of fresh air. I’ll admit that I’m not the foremost aficionado of horror games – I only gathered up the courage to try them about a few years ago, and can count the amount that I’ve played since on one hand – but the thing that distinguishes horror games from almost every other common genre is that they’re not fun. At all. They’re terrifying and horrible, and they stick with me when I finish my play sessions in ways that are overwhelmingly negative – I’m jumpy as I walk from the basement of my dark house, up through the stairs to my room, feeling just an inkling that maybe when I open that door, things won’t be as docile and everyday as they are normally.

The most effective horror games take away the power fantasy. The interactivity of games has resulted in developers traditionally putting the player in a position of power – you’re nigh-indestructible Dante tearing up demons, or big buff Marcus Fenix chainsaw-ing his way through alien scum. Even when the narrative takes a dip into “we’re screwed” territory, the player is still the one mowing down scads of enemies – the one who has more health than any individual enemy and has the means to destroy just about all of them.

But a good horror game flips the script, making you the prey instead of the predator and removing the privilege of power that players are used to experiencing. Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent for example, where you have no weapons and a dwindling sanity meter, and the only way out of any conflict is to run away, find a place to hide, and most harrowingly, look away in the hopes that your stalker won’t discover your shaking, sweating ball of nerves in the corner of the dingily-lit basement. Or check out indie game Imscared, easily the game that’s scared me the most, where you’re chased by a creepy, pixelated floating head both in and out of the game space itself (I’ll leave you to experience it for yourself to see what I mean – it only takes about 30-45 minutes). Even somewhat more mainstream fare like Condemned relegates its combat portions to brutal melee skirmishes, forcing you to confront your foes up close and making every fight a spastic flailing of arms and improvised weapons where you just make it out alive.

Pictured: every combat encounter in Condemned

This brings us back to Dead Space, where the main obstacle keeping it from being great horror is that it simply gives the player too much power. In Dead Space, you usually have anywhere from three to seven ways to deal with enemies – up to four guns, the ability to slow down time, and a kinetic device that allows you to pick up dismembered portions of enemies and fling them at oncoming ones. Compare this to the three games I mentioned above which have a single way to deal with enemies. The problem with Dead Space is that it’s too much of a traditional “game” – there’s a certain degree of minimalism to those interactive horror experiences above, and by contrast Dead Space is too occupied with creating “cool” gameplay systems for the necessary sense of powerlessness to take effect. And that system is a really cool one – having to shoot off parts of limbs, which are significantly less static and much smaller targets than a head, is a nice twist on the usual horror modus operandi and creates some nice tension when you’re not acclimated to the controls yet. By all the counts it is a well-made mainstream videogame.

However, there are just too many weapons, too many strategies, too many avenues for dealing damage to succeed as a piece of horror. What Amnesia, Imscared, and Condemned all have in common is that you’re unable to succeed against forces greater than yourself. The most you can do in Amnesia is hope that you don’t cross paths with the various monsters stalking the mansion’s halls; the only respite you get from Imscared’s antagonist is the option to hang yourself at the end of the game; and while you can beat on all the homeless people you want in Condemned, and are even able to track down and kill the primary antagonist, the otherworldly forces that caused the insanity in the first place are unexplained and unsolved. But in Dead Space, you are capable of so many things – you can get yourself off of the doomed planet, you can cut off every limb of every enemy in every room, and you can beat the massive, hulking final boss by circle-strafing and shooting it in its exceedingly obvious weakpoints. You can, in short, win.

But good horror never lets you win. Good horror drags you down into the deepest depths of despair and softly but menacingly whispers into your ear that there is no escape, that you are powerless, and that just about everything good in the world is a hopeless fever dream.

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