CATS – Critical Perspectives – Environments in Horror Games

For my critical perspectives essay, I intend to compare two horror games. I will be looking at how they use environments and environmental effects to fully immerse the player. I intend to look at them through the perspective of psychoanalysis. More specifically, I intend to look at the introduction scenes of the games.
Introduction scenes are generally important in horror games as they set the tone for everything that is to come. In my experience, horror games tend to be a little more intense at the start. This is because the situations which the characters find themselves in are very unknown to us as players. This can be backed up by a quote from the official blog of Frictional Games, developers of Amnesia.

“In most games the player usually starts out in some strange and not very normal situation. In our own game, Amnesia, the story takes place in early 19th century and has the protagonist waking up in gothic castle. Not something very easy to relate to. Other games see the player has some secret agent, has them trapped in a spooky town/village, etc. All of these are very abnormal situations, and something few of us will ever find ourselves in.”
– Frictional Games Blog – “10 Ways to Evolve Horror Games”, 26th April 2012

However, it must also be said that Freud’s concept of “The Uncanny” can quite easily apply here. The concept of “The Uncanny” can be described as a feeling of familiarity and unfamiliarity in equal parts. Silent Hill plays on this quite considerably. Freud describes “The Uncanny” in the following quote.

“The uncanny is something which is secretly familiar, which has undergone repression and then returned from it. Everything that is uncanny fulfils this condition.”
– Sigmund Freud – “The Uncanny”, 1919

I intend to look into the introduction sequences from both games from the perspective of psychoanalysis, exploring what exactly makes them scary.  I will first look at Silent Hill in relation to the Freudian concept of “The Uncanny”. I will then look into Amnesia in relation to the opposite of the uncanny (I shall call this “The Unexpected”). Once I have explored both of these games, I then intend to compare both and see where they are similar and where they differ. To conclude, I will reflect on this discussion and resolve it.
A glimpse into Horror Games
It is well known that the horror genre is very popular amongst gamers. It is important therefore, before we continue, to understand why this is the case. It is certainly true that, for some people, it is seen as a challenge to sit through something thoroughly unpleasant. However, it also seems that there is a scientific component to the question of why people are attracted to the horror genre, as Dr Robi Ludwig explains in the following quote.

” Experts know it’s not uncommon for people to want to push the envelope just to see just how much fear they can tolerate. There is a great sense of satisfaction when we can prove to ourselves we actually can handle more anxiety than we ever imagined we could.
There’s also a hormonal component when it comes to fear and enjoyment. The love of being scared. The moment we feel threatened, we feel increasingly more strong and powerful physically, and more intuitive emotionally. This charge to our physical and mental state is called an “adrenaline rush,” and as humans we are apparently hard-wired to be drawn to this type of feeling”
– Dr Robi Ludwig, Today Health “Why we like to be scared: The science behind the scream”, 26th October 2013

Horror games have been very popular for a number of years. With the release of Resident Evil in 1996, this spawned a new style of horror game called the “survival horror” game, which lessened the emphasis on combat and increased the emphasis on giving the player more of a feeling of helplessness, achieved by giving the user nothing to not much to defend themselves with.
These days, horror games seem to have transcended beyond the realms of what we would have thought possible five years ago. For instance, the Kinect technology from Microsoft enables games to read your heart rate and effectively tell how scared you are and use this information to alter how intense/scary the game is. Whilst it is still the case that horror games are advancing rapidly in terms of complexity, the ingredients which make a horror game scary have pretty much stayed the same. With the added layer of realism, this further enhances the experience. It could be said that this is a great example of where “The Uncanny” comes into play (more realistic graphics causing people to actually look real and exhibit real looking emotion).
Silent Hill/The Uncanny
The first game I am going to be looking at is called “Silent Hill”. It was released in 1999 by Konami on the original Playstation console. The game itself is set on a small lakeside town. The main character, Harry Mason loses his daughter after a car accident whilst approaching the town. It is important to note that the town is, for the most part, deserted. Very quickly, you get the sense that not all is well in the town and immediately, you will notice that this occurance could quite easily happen within a real life situation. This, paired with the fact that you appear to be alone in this unknown, abandoned town, gives a feeling of fear. This is a very good example of where Silent Hill uses “The Uncanny” to create fear.
I think that it is possible for anyone, no matter who they are, to think back to a time when they felt alone. This is pretty much always combined with a feeling of vulnerability, and this sense of vulnerability is a big part of what makes these kind of things scary. More importantly, this feeling is what is so familiar to players when they experience the stepping out into the town for the first time.
Quite quickly during the introduction scenes of the game, the player is put into situations where they will be moving and the camera will jump to a nearby wall. As the player is moving, the camera will pan around the environment, following you along. This is a very powerful effect, as it gives the player the impression that they are being watched by something perhaps perched up on a wall or hiding behind something in the dark. This voyeuristic point of view is incredibly powerful.
Another interesting area of the introduction is where the character wakes up after his first ordeal in a “Cafe”. This cafe is notable as it does not have any enemies or even anything particularly gruesome or horrifying in it. This is a “safe house” of sorts and serves also as the main area where the game can be saved. There are also several items which can be found in this cafe which can aid the player.
Amnesia/The Unexpected
The second game I am going to be looking at is a game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It was released in 2010 by Frictional Games for the PC. It is said to be one of the most intense series of survival horror games in existence. John Walker, a video game critic with “Rock, Paper, Shotgun” said the following:

“I think it is safe to say that Amnesia is the most successfully frightening game to have been made. It feels perhaps a slightly over-obvious observation, but the compliment is utterly valid… [Amnesia: The Dark Descent is] Unrelenting in its scares and jumps.”
– John Walker – Rock, Paper, Shotgun Review, 07/09/2010

The game is set in the early to mid 1800s. The lead character, Daniel, wakes up in a castle. The opening scene of the game shows Daniel trying to remember who he is. When the player awakens, he does so in a room which is under very low light. Initially the corridoors are lit by daylight coming through the windows and candles placed around the corridoors and rooms. However, the deeper the player goes, this changes to just candlelight. This is very important to set the tone of the game. The deeper you go, the less light there will be.
As the rooms and corridoors get darker, the player starts to lose his sanity, which the developers turned into an actual game mechanic. The more sanity the player loses, the more the player will start to “see things”. This is delivered to the player by blurring and distorting the vision of what is up ahead. I thought that this was a very interesting, literal use of the environment to enhance the game, and definitely makes it feel more intense and definitely scarier.
At this point, the player enters the “old archives”. Straight away, it can be noticed that initially, this room is a lot brighter than the others. This changes very quickly however, as a door blows open and extingueshes the torches and candles providing light. This leaves the user in almost no light until they find the room which contains the lantern. This certainly seems to be done to catch the player off guard, and is a tactic used in many horror games to achieve the same effect. It all happens very suddenly, and whilst it doesn’t leave the room in pitch blackness, it certainly imposes the fears of claustrophobia and paranoia. These are common feelings experienced when you are placed in a room with little to no light.
Comparing both of these games brings up a few interesting points. Both games were released 11 years apart. I believe that this reflects in the fact that both games are very different, despite being of the same genre. First of all, I’m going to take the most obvious approach by highlighting that both games use different means to scare the user. Silent Hill’s environments are completely relateable, being set in a fairly modern looking town.  It is entirely plausible to consider that, however unlikely, you could be in a similar situation yourself. Whereas Amnesia’s environments aren’t quite so relatable to a gamer in the 21st century, being set in the 1800s in an abandoned castle. The following quote from Freud made me think about this a little more.

“The Uncanny is something hidden which ought to have remained missed but which is brought to light.”
– Sigmund Freud – “The Uncanny”, 1919

I think that this means there are feelings we occasionally have of “what if this bad thing happens?”, which leads to worry, paranoia and fear. We opress these feelings, but understand fully what it is to feel that way and this is what is familiar to us whilst playing the game.
Another aspect to look at here is the how technology of the time when Silent Hill was released  would not be able to handle anywhere near what Amnesia achieves. More to the point, how does this affect the environments of both games? The first thing we can obviously point to is graphical capabilities. Whilst this is an obvious point, it is worthy of note as you can see by looking at both games exactly how far we’ve come in 11 years.
In this respect, Silent Hill is obviously much more limited. However, it must be said that, for a game that is as old as Silent Hill, it does a very good job at making the environments work well without having much graphical horsepower at its disposal. In fact, a positive outcome of the technical limitations is that Silent Hill utilises the low draw distance the Playstation can provide to enhance the fog effect whilst outdoors. An article in EDGE Magazine in which the Art Director for a game called “The Secret World” (Joel Akerman) was questioned about how the fog was designed in the game puts this into perspective.

“The fog itself is very much a story element. I’ve been on the project for four and a half years and Kingsmouth has always been foggy. I guess it ties into the Lovecraftian idea of something lurking out there in the mist. Draw distance is obviously an added benefit for us on the optimisation side, but that’s not the reason for it.”
– Joel Akerman – EDGE Magazine – The Art Of… The Secret World, Issue 248, Christmas 2012

Another area in which these games are different is that Silent Hill uses the environments in the game to substitute for game menus. Amnesia does not really do this, and I think that as a result, the level of immersion suffers. For example, to save the game in Silent Hill, you go to the cafe and approach the log book which is sitting on the bar. This helps to keep the immersion constant and can therefore keep the player in the mindset that is enforced on them by the game.
This also affects the pacing of the game as the cafe also doubles up as a “safe house” where the player knows they will not get attacked. Amnesia does not really have such a thing, forcing the player to just “brave the storm”. EDGE Magazine features an interesting article on the subject, specifically referencing the Raccoon City Police Department from the Resident Evil games, which serves a similar purpose.

“Outside, it’s all exploding tanker trucks, zombies and gun store owners with jumpy trigger fingers. In the RPD [Raccoon Police Department], there’s enough tranquil security to slow down, check your green herbs and figure out what the hell happened in town.”
– EDGE Magazine – Places: Raccoon City Police Department, Issue 241, June 2012

In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that both games deliver their horror very differently and this reflects in the choices of environment. Silent Hill goes for a fairly realistic looking town, playing on the player’s familiarity with these elements, whereas Amnesia goes down the route of taking the player way out of their comfort zone. I would say that the comparison of these games really shows how far the survival horror genre has come in the space of 11 years.
Both games use environments to scare the player to great effect, but in very different ways. Both are completely valid and both have their own strengths and weaknesses. Horror games which make use of the concepts of “The Uncanny” I feel would make better games in terms of immersion, which in the perspective of a horror game, makes for a more terrifying experience because you feel as though you’re in the game. However, games that make use of the concepts of “The Unexpected” could be more intense and play on more extreme feelings that aren’t necessarily realistic but utterly terrifying to think about.

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