There's a fine line any artist walks when trying to titillate and terrify at the same time. But making video games scary is especially tricky. Repetitive behaviour — even when that behaviour is running and hiding from flesh-eating monsters — doesn't mesh all that well with the spontaneity required to make someone jump out of their seat. That, and always knowing, no matter what happens, you can reload and try again.
I'm a coward, so as I noted in my impressions of Outlast: Whistlebloweryesterday, I actually find the process of dying a grisly death and then restarting to die a slightly less grisly death relieving. Empowering, even. But for the people at Frictional Games, the small Swedish studio behind horror sensations like Penumbra, Amnesia and the upcoming SOMA, that's the whole problem.
Frictional's creative director Thomas Grip was recently inspired to dig into this subject after seeing a video that showed people's reactions as they were playing Alien: Isolation, another upcoming horror game. Writing on the studio's blog, Grip took issue with how death in the game morphed from a terrifying experience to one of "relief and repetition" once players were devoured by the Xenomorph:
If you watch the video you can see that the players aren't being freaked out of their minds when they die. They're laughing, and feeling relief. And the death sequence is non-interactive, which further enhances this sense of sitting back and becoming a spectator. You can clearly see the effect here, where there's a stark difference in emotion compared to the fear that was expressed earlier. So when a death occurs, the situation has lost its sense of fear and the unknown. The player now knows what they're up against. It's gone from tense terror to "I need to beat this gameplay section".
Game developers should try to "postpone death" as long as they possibly can in order to "extend the terror," Grip goes on to say. Only problem is, that could just as easily end up showing the player "that the monster is harmless." So what's a developer who's earnestly trying to "scare the shit of players" to do?
"It might also be interesting to look into 'a fate worse than death', a subject that's perhaps too big to cover here," Grip continues. "This is something we're trying out for SOMA right now. The basic idea is that 'death' is not final but takes the player closer and closer to a very disturbing state of being."
I have no idea what "a fate worse than death" would look like, exactly. And it doesn't sound like Grip has a clear enough one to show the gaming public yet either. But it's interesting to consider how different types of gameplay can be instrumentalized to incite emotions both unpleasant and invigorating, and how "death" in video games can be more varied than a singular, unified concept.
In the much-loved and occasionally masochistic Dark Souls II, for instance, every time your character dies a sliver of his or her maximum health is chopped off — at least until you obtain and use a special item that restores you to full health. Dying repeatedly can therefore send you into a downward spiral where you're left desperately fending off bad guys until you manage to fortify yourself again.
Is that scary? In Dark Souls II, it's usually not — at least in the way that Grip is going for. But plenty of the game's fans would still describe it as "a disturbing state of being." Imagine, then, what that type of gameplay might look like in another developer's hands. I'm excited — and more than a little scared — to see what ideas Grip and the rest of the team come up with for their game in turn.