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Here Comes The Fear...

As many of you should know by now, I like dwelling on the psychology of games: the how and why of games inspiring human emotions. Why do games make us feel the way they make us feel? Why do games annoy us, excite us, and scare us?

While playing some Gears of War online with a friend, I coined the concept of the fear. Essentially, the fear is what happens when you’ve been doing moderately well in online matches and it suddenly becomes apparent that there’s one guy on the other team who is just wiping the floor with you.

Every time you run into him, he pulls off some shotgun wizardry and scatters your torso all over the floor. Flank him? He spotted you coming. Try to hide? He’s got a grenade in your corner. You know that, with all things being equal, you have just as fair of a chance as killing him as he does you.

However, experience has taught you that this is not the case. Your subconscious gets the better of you, and the image of this online adversary warps into something terrifying, at least in the bottom of your brain somewhere. This is the fear.

"The amazing thing about the fear is how absent it is from horror games. Why should we be more scared in military-themed online games than the games which actually set out to scare the heck out of you?"

You can combat the fear by finally laying a frag on the SOAB. The subconscious will be somewhat satisfied; getting that first kill will do wonders to shatter that nagging superstition that the guy is actually invincible. The fear is mostly destroyed, but your game may already be too far gone.

The fear can carry over to the single-player experience; it’s caused by the same irrational belief as in multiplayer – that your enemy is somehow more powerful than they actually are.

But the amazing thing about the fear is how absent it is from horror games. Why should we be more scared in military-themed online games than the games that actually set out to scare the heck out of you? Let’s take a closer look at the fear to see what we can come up with.

We’ll pull the view back a little bit. Why do we like videogames? Well, simply put, we like killing things—this is something pretty much everyone except those damn hippies can agree on, and I’m guessing even the most devout hippies couldn’t deny the thrill of curbstomping a Locust.

"We see a Locust and our subconscious says 'that Locust will make me happy because I will kill him and killing makes me happy.'"

So we enjoy killing, but what gives us that enjoyment? Not just specifically the games we play, but the enemies we face. We see a Locust and our subconscious says “that Locust will make me happy because I will kill him and killing makes me happy.” Because we develop bonds with things that make us happy (see: coffee, cigarettes, beer), we develop subconscious bonds with our future victims. Pretty sick, right?

So enemies are your friends because you can kill them to make yourself happy, right? What happens when they actually kill you? You had this wonderful parasitic bond with that Lancer-toting Locust, but when the camera swooped in for that oh-so-satisfying chainsaw kill, it slowly dawned on you that it was you, not him, on the receiving end of the gas-powered death. You were betrayed. The Locusts aren’t friends if you can’t trust them to give you that satisfaction of the kill. They’re not friends; they’re some sort of sinister, deceptive enemy. Ironic isn’t it? We’ve come full circle and landed where the story meant for us to be in the first place.

The fear comes when you can’t trust your enemy anymore. The enemy was a trusted adversary and a source of enjoyment, and in betraying your trust, the enemy became something dangerous and alien.

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James Silva

So what’s the deal with the fear? From a developer’s perspective, it’s important to know when we want the fear and when we don’t. In the former case the developer needs to know how to employ it, and in the latter how to avoid it. I think it should all come down to the style of the protagonist and mood of the game.

Let’s focus on one side of the spectrum: horror. We are making a horror game; we want the fear, and piles of it. Most games do this by filling their bestiary with the most imaginatively grotesque creatures—glistening aliens with lots of eyes and sharp bits, zombie-like things wrapped in chains and gore, and lots of claws and teeth all around—and then complementing it with a disturbing soundtrack. And while I like my disembowelled zombies and Reznor-esque soundtrack as much as the next guy, I just am not going to end up feeling the least bit scared of monsters whose attack patterns I am thoroughly familiar with.

The better we know our adversary, the more conditioned we will be to see them in a positive light—very much the polar opposite of what we want in a horror game. Let’s take the endless supply of Imps from Doom 3 as a case study. The Imp has three attacks: fireball (the timing had two variations it seemed), slash, and lunge. Once an Imp spotted you, it would hunt you down and use these three attacks and, depending on what range it was at, you could predict exactly what it would do. Shotgunning the Imp from a certain range would instakill it.

"The formula is basically this: the less familiar the enemy is to the player, the greater the perceived danger and thus the greater the fear."

It certainly leaves something lacking in the scares department when you’ve got the perfect Imp-killing strategy down; how could we remedy this? The formula is basically this: the less familiar the enemy is to the player, the greater the perceived danger and thus the greater the fear. Here’s a silly idea that no one ever tries: why not vary enemy health and ability greatly within a single enemy type?

Some Imps will have 100 HP, some will have 500. Some will be twice as fast as others. Players will think twice about charging that Imp with a shotgun if they know there’s a possibility he’ll just shrug off the shot and slash them in the face. Every subsequent Imp the player faces will be treated with the same caution, under suspicion that it may be another Super-Imp.

The other approach towards familiarity in enemy behaviour is the more obvious one, which, as an added bonus, doesn’t come across as an evil developer trick against hapless players: more strategic AI. Gears pulled this off to great effect. Nothing says “I am not your friend” like a flanking-manoeuvre-shotty-to-the-brain from a clever drone. And that’s the point of the fear: breaking the bond.

Also, maybe I should cut id some slack (it is, of course, powerful enough to destroy my fledgling career). Doom 3 has been billed as a survival horror FPS by quite a few sources, but let’s face it: id games are about slaughtering waves of demons, not survival horror. And visceral slaughter is something they sure as heck get right.

As for that Silent Hill V crew, however, I’ve got your number…