Thursday, October 30, 2008

Survival, and Sometimes Horror

Over on the Brainy Gamer podcast this week, Mike Abbott had Mitch Krpata of Insult Swordfighting and Leigh Alexander of Sexy Videogameland on to discuss the survival horror genre. Odds are that you know the work of all involved if you find yourself on this blog, of all places, but if you don't you should visit their sites and listen to the podcast, it's top-notch. (On the podcast tip, I would also recommend the recently-resuscitated Idle Thumbs podcast. It's been soothing my GFW Radio withdrawal; also, for some reason I find Chris Remo's voice incredibly appealing.) But the discussion of survival horror got me thinking.

Now, Wittgenstein thought that the job of philosophy is to help us overcome our bewitchment by language. But I'm a Hegelian, so I have this idea that our common speech contains glimmers of reason, waiting to be brought forth. And so it is with “survival horror” as a tag for the hallway-stalkin' zombie-shotgunnin' genre that began with Resident Evil for the Playstation. And because I'm not above pedantry I'm going to take each word in turn.

The “survival” of survival horror represents the genre's commitment to an experience centered on vulnerability. All games trade on empowerment in some fashion, if only because you get better at them as you play. But classic survival horror had a tool to worry the edges of your progressive mastery: scarcity. Survival games differ from most other games in that they deliberately ration the things you most need to make successful congress with the environment, even as you proceed through the game-- weapons, ammunition, save points, and (in one notorious instance) the ability to save. Trying to make your way past enemies under conditions of extreme scarcity creates this immense feeling of tension, because you are always anxious as to whether you have survived your last encounter in the right way-- if you've been sparing enough with your ammo and recovery items to make it to the next checkpoint.

Not all survival games are horror games. For example, I believe that the most recent Ninja Gaiden series are great survival games. Even though the combat is fluid and satisfying, the relative strength of the common enemies and the distance between save points fills the games with a feeling of frenzied desperation. Even when I wasn't dying (which was often), I was always worried about whether I had survived in a way that would allow me to upgrade my weapons in the next shop, rather than spending my resources on recovery items. I even felt that the early stages of Fallout 3 had a suitably survivalesque feeling to them-- when you go into a game and you're unsure about the reward scheduling, those first few levels make you feel like you need to save every last bullet you can. In the early going, I found that the limiting resource was ammunition rather than health, and this facet of the game injected a level of gravity into my early choices.

I was glad Krpata brought up Resident Evil 4, since that game made some bold and successful experiments in vulnerability. Instead of heightening the scarcity, RE4 uses basic combat mechanics and the feeling of vulnerability key to the survival genre. As he noted on the podcast, the key element is the fact that you cannot run and shoot at the same time. This turns open ground between you and the enemy into the scarce resource; you are constantly torn between ceding and standing your ground. Since RE4 also surrounds you with enemies (there's an unforgettable standoff in a house, where zombies start swarming through the windows from all sides), your inability to strafe (along with the slow, un-shooter-like turning speed) turns a shooter into a tension-filled dance with death.

Horror is a different animal. There are two distinct types of horror, the scary and the uncanny. The general consensus is that the American school of horror excels at the first kind, espousing the jack-in-the-box theory of dread. Where it succeeds, it manages to create this constant sense that some horrifically jacked-up human or irregularly-thorax'd beast is set to spring from the nearest closet or vent at any moment. Even though I have some fondness for this type of scare (it's been perfected in Dead Space; which apparently compiles the extant elements of the American-scary-game genre so well that David Ellis memorably dubbed it “Now That's What I Call Survival Horror.”), I'm going to pass over it in silence.

The Japanese school of horror thrives on uncanniness, rather than the surprise and phantasmagoria of the American school. Freud, who wrote a treatise on the uncanny, noted a theory that our root sense of the uncanny comes from a sense of “intellectual uncertainty,” our inability to distinguish reality from delusion. (The sanity effects from Eternal Darkness is a great example of horror-as-intellectual-uncertainty.)

But Freud goes on to say that uncanniness is fundamentally tied to the familiar. Playing on the fact that the German word for “uncanny” has the word “home” in it, he notes that “It may be true that the uncanny [unheimlich] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimisch], which has undergone repression and then returned from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfills this condition.” Of course Freud immediately connects this idea to his lifelong obsession his mothers' genitals, but he makes a good point. Psychological horror comes from the juxtaposition of intense intellectual uncertainty and with things that are familiar; it's why nursery rhymes, children, dolls and clowns are so terrifying when shorn from comforting context of childhood. Contemporary Japanese horror often creates dread by rendering familiar modern technology (the cell phone, the television) alien, mixing them with magical elements (demons, ghosts and magic)from Japan's “repressed” past.

By breaking these elements down, all I want to show is that these various elements of the survivor horror genre come apart. They turn on distinct experiences. Vulnerability, in particular, is an extremely interesting game-experience to me-- I wish we saw more survival-style RPGs, for example, because the scarcity-model (rather than the regnant loot-drop model) makes your decisions about upgrading your character and choosing weapons feel pregnant and interesting. And I hope keeping horror and survival separate shows why bad combat isn't crucial to the genre. There's no doubt that survival and horror go together like Eric B and Rakim, but knowing the unique dynamics of each can make us better critics and designers.


Anonymous said...

I have found this piece + the noted BG podcast really interesting, but one thing that I think is being overlooked is the religio-cultural overtones that influence the idea of horror in the East and the West. I think the sort of mixing of technology and horror that you mention (which to me in Japan reaches its apex with Kiyoshi Kurosawa's brilliant Pulse) is heavily influenced by the sort of animist Buddhist philosophy that the culture is founded on. Things can have spirits, and so the idea that terror can come right out of the technology that surrounds us carries special weight. In the modern primarily Judeo-Christian west it's a sort of opposite manifestation that has become paradigmatic, as we've seen the zombie ascend to the primary representation--and what is scary here in the main is that the zombie is something without a soul. It looks like a person so it should have a spirit, and doesn't.

(Aside: I think this cultural difference is also patently obvious in something like the way robots are treated in popular culture. In the West for the most part robots are seen as a slightly scary technology that will eventually rise up and enslave us all. In Japan, robots are much more likely to be friendly and helpful and feeling--and often not threatening in the least).

There is, of course a lot of grey area here as well. An older property like the Shirley Jackson novel/Robert Wise film The Haunting (and not the execrable remake Of Which We Shall Not Speak) really has a lot more to do with your idea of the "uncanny" than of your idea of the "scary". But really that's from decades ago, and so I guess represents quite a different beast. I think also in the more modern One World we live in that there's been so much cross pollination between the American and Japanese horror genres that differences are perhaps not quite as sharp as even ten years or so ago. But I think largely there still do exist extant cultural differences that maintain a hold and have a big impact when it comes to what those in the West and those in the East find to be frightening. There's probably a book/thesis in here somewhere for some enterprising person to wrestle with...

Julian said...

Actually, I can think of a few RPGs that use vulnerability or scarcity of resources as a central aspect of the gameplay, but most of them are old school and/or dungeon crawlers. Roguelikes in general hinge on making every encounter immediately and permanently dangerous, but they're such a specific niche that they're easy to ignore.

There are aspects of survival (in the Ninja Gaiden sense) in the balance of some jRPGs. Okage comes to mind, but it wouldn't surprise me if there were others. You get diminishing EXP returns from killing foes in an area, so it's next to impossible to rely on getting over-leveled, and the balance is such that every new area sees a very large increase in the difficulty of enemies, and power of available equipment. It makes this cycle where at the beginning of every area, you're vastly underpowered and completely lost. Every encounter can be lethal and you're not always entirely sure how to get back out to safety. By the end of the areas, you can deftly defeat most enemies, but they still can still kill you in a couple hits so if you make a mistake you could easily die. Many critics and fans of jRPGs thought the game was just plain TOO HARD, but I personally loved it. It was refreshing to play an RPG where you actually have to pay attention to random encounters.

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is probably the best example, though. Your strongest abilities are tied to a persistent gauge that will kill you if you overuse it (and that fills with time, keeping you on your toes and making it so that it's difficult to gauge whether or not you've overused), and yet the balance is such that you basically HAVE to use it on certain bosses. There's an interesting mechanic where you can restart from your last save, but keep some of the XP you gained and a very small number of items. It makes it possible to grind, but because saves and healing are limited it retains that "survival" feel. I've even heard other people independently come up with the idea to call it a "survival RPG," so I'm not the only person that feels this way. If you're interested in the idea of a survival RPG, I'd definitely recommend giving it a shot. You should be able to find it used for under $10.

Nels Anderson said...

I've been a horror fan for about as long as I can remember. While mindless murder is alright, I've always preferred more cerebral offerings. As a kid, I remember checking out old radio play-esque recordings of classic horror short stories, like H.G. Wells' The Country of the Blind, The Derelict and one I remember being especially terrifying, The Horla. All of these were certainly of the "uncanny" variety. (As an aside, I recently discovered a horror podcast that have a very similar vibe to those old radio plays called Pseudopod. Check it out if you're into this kind of thing)

Being short stories, the reader/listener was never sure how things would turn out. One of the major issues I have with most survival horror titles is, by focusing on a single protagonist, the player knows that everything will likely turn out alright in the end. I don't think anyone would expect Leon to die in the middle of RE4 and somehow have the game continue.

This is a consequence of death-as-failure mechanic that almost all modern games utilize. One of my favourite things about Eternal Darkness, aside from the madness mechanic, was its use of multiple protagonists. This means the player was never sure if their current protagonist would survive or not. This made the experience a lot more visceral for me, at least.

Leigh just posted an interview with Frictional Games and while they were a little skittish about an episodic horror game, I think that of all any genre, horror would be best served by shorter, more frequent games. A video game version of Masters of Horror could be extremely successful if it was done right. The Capital Wastes are calling too loudly to make a more cogent point, but there's my shotgun blast of thoughts ;)

Ben said...

When speaking to the 'survival' option, the tough question is how does walk the fine line between enjoyable survival and annoying inventory pedantry? Is there an applicable heuristic for this? When is it fun and when is it not? What makes some games fun and other dry annoyances?

Yeah, I got nothing but questions on this one at the moment.

Kirk Battle said...

Huh, I always define survival horror by the game's refusal to ever allow me to gain much competency at actual play. In order to maintain general fear the game has to keep up the sensation that you might die. Scarcity, tough creatures, bad camera angles, goofy combat...all these things make it possible.

I like the observations about handicapping shooting in RE4 with no strafe, it's the same concept but trimmed down considerably. I always found that game kept fear up by yanking the competency carpet out from under the gamer at random intervals then put it back while they ran around.

Anonymous said...

Survival horror is a weird genre. In a lot of ways it was one of the first genre's to experiment with the notion that you could design a specific emotional response into the gameplay rather than into the storyline of a game.

On the other hand it's one of those genres that loses it's power once you start to master it. The primary reason that I didn't like Resident Evil 4 was because even on the hardest difficulty I just wasn't that scared that I was going to die. I only started to like the game when I stopped thinking of it as a survival horror game and started thinking of it as an action game.

Survival games need to have a really aggressive difficulty curve to make it really work, which unfortunately doesn't seem very palatable to a modern audience.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you brought up Freud's uncanny. If I recall correctly, part of Freud's understanding of the uncanny is that, while it is familiar to us, we can't always tell why, as though it has some indeterminate affiliation with our past.

That's part of why games like Silent Hill are so powerful, too. It's not just the creepy nursery rhyme or the Little Sister, it's the can't-quite-put-my-finger on it moment when a plot begins to come together. I think that this is one of the reasons why survival horror games work so well as serial releases, too. The player knows they've seen that girl somewhere before, but where? Trying to place a voice it turns out you haven't heard since the first game in the series.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@chris: you see, this is why *you* should be writing about horror. I can kind of paint with a broad brush here, in order to bring out some of the important differences, but as you show I run up against the inadequacies of my knowledge of Japanese culture and horror pretty quick.

At any rate thanks for the comment, it really adds a lot to the ideas I put forward.

@julian: this is a good point; although I don't know the games in question there are quite a few aspects of Jrpgs that fit into the item-scarcity element. I also like the idea of "survival RPG," as a tag; as I mentioned, I think Fallout has some elements of survival to it (especially in Fallout 3, where I'm constantly running short on money and hitting issues with weapon degredation.)

@ben: ah, if only I had an answer for that. One thing I'm inclined to say is that pacing is really important. I think it's a good idea to alternate periods of great scarcity and inventory-management with periods of relative plenty.

@l.b.: well, the point I tried to make is that you can make the player feel vulnerable without making their relationship to the character and the action clumsy (with the bad cameras and the wonky combat)

Now, on the other hand there's a way to make the player feel like their *avatar* is inexpert, out of their element, without making the controls clumsy. This is different, and I think there's a lot of room for experimenting with this in the survivor horror genre. (when the first info was coming out on Dead Space they were touting the idea that the hero was a miner, not a soldier. But apparently this idea got shunted out in the course of development)