F.E.A.R.: Forget Everything About eRgonomics

Or, how much I suck at acronyms.

My copy of F.E.A.R. 2 is in the mail, and I have been spending some quality time with the Resident Evil 5 demo, so it seems a good time to reflect on the nature of fear in video games.  A good way to start seems to identify four ways that our favorite survival horrors get the blood pumping.

1.  “Boo!”  Pop-out scares.

This one is a hold-over from that *other* visual medium, film.  The original Resident Evil used this to great effect (dogs through the windows, anybody?), and it is a good way to catch players off guard.  There is nothing quite like the moment of panic when these events occur, and a good script can leave players nearly sick with anxiety as they round the next corner.

Note that I say a good script.  In games like Doom 3 and Dead Space, pop-outs become predictable and mundane.  The result is a boring, uncomfortable mess that keeps the player from wanting to move through the next level.

Note also that this is not restricted to horror games, or scripted sequences.  Pop-out scares can also happen in more action-oriented games, and especially online.  Few things are as scary as rounding a corner in Halo 3 with an SMG and walking into an enemy with a shotgun.

2.  “No!  I haven’t saved in ninety minutes!  Noooo!”  Risk.

For the most part, risk-based scares rely on the mechanics of the game.  It is what keeps us from staring down the Berserker in Gears of War because it took us ten minutes to find the exit.  It is why we do not plunge head-first into a smoke cloud in Call of Duty 4 when we have a six-kill streak going.  It is also why we do not think twice of smacking a Big Daddy on the head with a wrench in BioShock.

Risk is what gets gamers’ heart rates up.  It is what makes them wet their pants when the game throws a pop-out scare at them.

3.  “Dodge, dodge!”  “Okay, reloading.”  Bad controls.

Anyone who played Lifeline for the Playstation 2 will recognize the above dialogue.  It “featured” a control scheme whereby you shouted into your mic for the on screen character to perform basic tasks, because future-waitresses on luxurious space-hotels are too stupid to run away from monsters of their own volition.

And Lifeline was far from the worst controlling game to be released in the past couple of decades.  Resident Evil pioneered the “Tank” control scheme, and it still has not completely shaken it, if the new game’s demo is any indication.

Why are bad controls scary?  They make risky situations riskier and pop-out scares more terrifying, because the player knows that he/she will have to come to a complete stop, spin around in a circle, then set off again before the character will get around that corner.  Seriously, the 180 ° quick-turn was one of the selling points on the Resident Evil 3 jewel case.

I also count crappy cameras in this category.  I am willing to accept that it was tough to come up with a good control scheme for a 3d horror game in 1998 (when RE1 came out), and I accept as well that static backgrounds were necessary on 32-bit hardware.

Unfortunately, bad cameras have been around well since consoles got the horsepower to allow dynamic backgrounds.  At this point, it almost seems nostalgia that keeps the camera locked firmly on Lara Croft’s behind instead of the charging velociraptor in Tomb Raider.

4.  “Why am I scared?  I’m a %*^&*%$ vampire!”  Honest-to-god ambiance.

The above was muttered during the mansion quest in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.  This is the hardest kind of scare to generate.  A good scary story can be so powerful that it does not even need a visual component.  Remember those old papery things?  What were they?  Books?  Yeah, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was making Victorian readers wet their beds over a century and a half before some dude named King wrote The Shining.

Unfortunately, I never dug into the Silent Hill series when it was new, because I hear that the first two entries had some of the most genuinely terrifying psychological horror in the entire genre.  Although I have tried to go back and play them, the gameplay has not aged well and feels rather wooden, mainly for the reasons listed above.

I read Jim Sterling’s article on Destructoid, entitled “How survival horror evolved itself into extinction” a few months ago, and it planted the seeds for the article I am now writing.  He correctly pegs Resident Evil 4 as the turning point in the genre, where a new emphasis on fast action reinvigorated the genre, but snubbed the bad controls that were so important to past entries in the genre.  He also seems ready to sacrifice good horror games for more like RE4, and while that was a great game, I still think the genre can be salvaged.

Make no mistake, the survival horror genre is where it is today because games like Resident Evil had shitty controls.  Back then, 3d was still relatively new, and examples of great control schemes were hard to come by.  By now, other genres have mastered this ergonomic hurdle, and the survival horror genre still continues to drag its feet.  Even the controls in the RE5 demo are frustrating.  They have gotten so close to a Gears of War style third-person shooter.  Why not bite the bullet and focus on the other three sources of fear?

Personally, I think the genre has gone the wrong way in some respects.  The new Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill games have characters who are fairly slow, but competent in battle.  I say, why give the gamer the comfort of a weapon and a slow pace that makes it easier to react?  Instead, take a game engine like that in DICE’s Mirror’s Edge and set it in a dark, dilapidated corridor-crawler, with plenty of debris to dodge at break-neck speeds.  Imagine trying to make that tough off-the-wall jump knowing there’s a zombie dog hot on your heels!

F.E.A.R. showed that games can be plenty scary from a first-person perspective, so either take that view and design the game accordingly, or give the player a tight third-person camera, and the ability to switch between flight-focused cameras (looking down hallways, etc) and threat-focused views (which automatically swing to show nearby enemies).

With bad controls and cameras out of the way survival horror games can concentrate on risk, pop-out scares, and ambiance.  As I said above, it is easy to get players with pop-outs the first time, but easy to overuse them and create a bored audience.  Instead, using risk and ambiance, they can time these pop-outs to great effect.

Action games like Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry escalate the amount of risk at any given point in gameplay steadily.  Encounters start out with a group of enemies and an unhurt protagonist.  Players trade kills for damage, the amount of both based on the skill of the players, and lead to situations where the players must choose to use fixed resources like healing items, or take the chance of dying and restarting.

Horror games tend to put more emphasis on flight responses than fight, so a smart developer could actually have more control over the rate at which the risk escalates.  While still action-heavy, Valve’s Left 4 Dead is a great example of this.  It utilizes an AI “Director” to monitor the players’ progress and match semi-scripted events to their observed skill level.  A modified version of this idea could be used with a fast horror game like the one I suggested above to challenge the player or offer them respite when things get too tough.

Unfortunately, good scary stories – stories with “ambiance” as I have used the term so far – are written by smart authors.  Smart authors understand fear, and use careful pacing and maintain tight control over what the audience knows and does not know.  Good stories, horror or not, are hard to come by in this industry, and from what I can tell, recognition for the authors is rare.

I probably sound like I have an agenda, and I do, when I say that the horror genre is one of many that could significantly benefit from a shift in the industry toward more writing talent.  A few big name authors, like Tom Clancy and Clive Barker, have dabbled in games, though they tend more toward product branding than actual story penning.  I am more excited that writers like Rhianna Pratchett (Overlord, Heavenly Sword) are getting recognized for their portfolios, and even landing interviews in game magazines.

Do not forget that I want stories of YOUR gameplay experiences.  Horror games are great for creating memories.  Commit some to a text file and send me an email at daniel@scopsblog.com!

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