There’s a (mostly) unspoken axiom among players and designers that a video game avatar should fit the player like a tailor-made glove fits the hand. The ideal avatar, this theory holds, is an extension of ourselves; an attractive and comfy container that invites us to step inside. Any friction that makes us aware of our avatar’s otherness is nothing but bad design.
What if that glove was purposefully made too big or too small, with too few or too many finger-sheaths? The one genre where awkward controls are oft-suggested to be a feature and not a bug are horror games. But that is just the beginning. The best horror games are those that put a calloused, sharp-nailed finger on the elusive point where player and avatar meet, the ones that make us feel uncomfortable in our own (virtual) skin.
Good horror recognises that the troubling question of identity and self will always be more interesting than monsters jumping at you from dark corners. Over the last week you’ll have seen plenty of Halloween costumes and even they illustrate (albeit in a light-hearted manner) our fascination with uneasy double identities.
Spoilers for Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, Detention, Darkwood and the first episode of Stories Untold lie within!
There’s a handful of tropes horror games have relied on over the years. Ever since Silent Hill 2, the protagonist’s dark past has become a popular itching powder in the glove. Sometimes, as is the case with Silent Hill’s James Sunderland, we enter the protagonist unsuspectingly and only learn later in the game about the repulsive acts our alter ego has committed before the events of the game.
These omissions make us re-examine our close relationship with a protagonist, and retroactively feel unease or even disgust. It’s a powerful tool that not only serves to make us uncomfortable, but also to paradoxically make the protagonist’s own suffering more relatable, even if we don’t want to relate: James Sunderland, too, feels alienated from himself because of the ‘mercy killing’ of his terminally-ill wife, and desperately tries to reconcile two incompatible versions of himself.
Silent Hill 2 is the most well-known example of a small subgenre that could be called ‘psychological purgatory’ horror, in which guilt-wracked protagonists are trapped in a hellscape of their own making. Taiwanese horror game Detention is another excellent example: We play as high school student Ray, who finds herself trapped in a twisted nightmare version of her school, now haunted by the ghosts of the victims of Taiwan’s so-called White Terror.
Eventually, we learn about Ray’s own small but sordid role in her country’s history of persecution. Feeling slighted by a lover, Ray exposed a forbidden book club, then killed herself after her actions lead to the imprisonment and execution of teachers and fellow students. Detention, even more than Silent Hill 2, does a great job of making us feel empathy for a supposedly innocent hero before pulling the rug from beneath our feet.
Surreal survival horror game Darkwood baits us into believing that it, too, might offer a similar revelation. Our nameless protagonist, sometimes called ‘The Stranger’, is a deeply mysterious and ambiguous figure from the very start. We don’t know what motivated him to enter the woods. Upon inspecting his diary, we see that someone tore out all previous entries.
We don’t even know what he looks like; his clothes and hat always keep his features hidden. The only moment in the game that gives us a clue as to his appearance is an encounter with a broken mirror that reveals an ugly, scarred and haunted face half-hidden behind a scarf. It becomes clear: This is not an avatar anyone should want to identify with.
A caption reads “I guess you got what you deserved,” hinting at some past misdeed. Is the Stranger another self-condemned sinner, punished through a guilt- and potentially drug-induced nightmare? Darkwood resists easy explanations to the very end and beyond, and the Stranger’s past stays dark.
Beyond the ‘dark past’ trope, there’re more subtle techniques that highlight our strange relationship with our avatars. Mirrors, doublings and doppelgängers are old motifs in horror fiction, but in games they gain additional significance. The very act of playing a game is a doubling in which we find ourselves both seated in front of a screen and, in the skin of an avatar, acting within the screen.
No game illustrates this better than The House Abandon, the first episode in the horror anthology game Untold Stories. Here we are playing a game within the game, looking at a screen within the screen. Sitting in front of a desk, we are playing an 80s style text adventure within the game.
The doubling of player and avatar slowly turns uncanny when the events on the screen-within-the-screen start to intrude or spill out into the world beyond. The person playing the game and the protagonist of the text adventure, it turns out, are both in the very same house.
Finally, opening a door in the text adventure causes the door behind our virtual backs to open as well, and we hear the laboured breathing of someone – the text adventure protagonist – standing right behind us. The House Abandon makes clear: We are both like and unlike our avatars, and that tension can be exploited and explored to uncanny effect.
Once you look for it, doublings are everywhere in good horror games. James Sunderland, Fang Ray Shin and Darkwood’s Stranger all gaze into both literal and metaphorical mirrors at some point during their journeys. And as our avatars look at their mirror images, their mirror images look back at us, the players. Doppelgängers are a related tool for disorientation. Silent Hill 2 has Maria, who looks just like James’ dead wife Mary. In Detention, we meet a ghostly shadow version of Ray, which forces Ray to confront herself and her past.
A less common kind of doubling is the switching of protagonists. In Detention we begin the game not as Ray, but as another student, Wei Chung Ting. As Wei, we come across Ray sleeping in the empty auditorium and wake her. Soon after, we ‘switch bodies’ without warning or explanation and wake up as Ray in the auditorium while our former avatar, Wei, hangs lifeless and upside-down from the ceiling. Much later, we learn Wei had been imprisoned for 15 years because of Ray’s betrayal of the book club.
Darkwood’s prologue, too, introduces us to a temporary avatar, one that is even more unpleasant and discomfiting than the Stranger. As the ‘Doctor’, we move through a house of horrors full of filthy cages and tortured prisoners. Coming across the hurt and helpless Stranger in the woods, he brings him to his house to interrogate and torture him. Much later in the game and ironically long after we slipped out of his repulsive skin, the Doctor will be humanised and come to seem pathetic rather than monstrous.
A good horror game protagonist is one that makes us feel uncomfortable or even unwelcome in our adopted skin. Games like Silent Hill 2, Detention, Darkwood or Stories Untold withhold information, hint at dark secrets and disorient us with house-of-mirrors effects, all to make the player question the illusion of unity between themselves and an avatar.
They make us feel like strangers in somebody else’s body. And we cannot help but relate to these broken heroes who, like us, feel torn, monstrous and out of place.