Friday, October 2, 2009

The horror... The motion-sensitive horror...

Time for a bit of a change of pace on Pointless Side Quest as we take a break from the usual inane anecdotes, tawdry filth, and blatant lying that usually fill this space for a foray into actual commentary about gaming. Found via Kotaku: In an interview with Gamepro, JU-ON: The Grudge game project manager Makoto Chida said the following:

We believe that the Wii is the most ideal console to experience horror games and started development of this title under that premise. If the Wii did not exist, I don't think that we would have ever developed this game.
This touched off some controversy in the comments at the Kotaku post where I first found the quote, but I think he’s got an interesting idea. Horror, it seems to me, is precisely the genre of game best suited to exploiting the Wii’s strengths and minimizing the effects of its weaknesses.

For one thing, Wii’s lesser graphical power is not the same sort of handicap in horror as in other genres. In an action game, I’m thrilled by what I see. If I’m playing a first-person shooter game, for instance, I like the best graphics possible because a gunfight is so visual: bullets streaking through the air, stuff blowing up, bodies flying, my idiot squadmates wandering into my line of fire, etc.

On the other hand, horror is probably better-suited than any other genre to draw power from sound- creepy music, eerie ambient noises, and such. Horror can also get a lot of effect from pacing, knowing when to tensely draw things out and when to abruptly jolt you, and that’s not a matter of technical power. One of the most memorable moments I’ve had in a horror game was the “corpse in the bathtub” hallucination in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. It wasn’t effective because it was shown in particularly impressive graphic detail, it was effective because I was calmly going about my business in what I thought was an eerie but fairly safe place and was OH GOD THAT’S MY OWN CORPSE suddenly struck when I didn’t anticipate it.

Furthermore, unlike action/adventure, horror is often exciting not because of what I see but because of what I don’t see. Often the greatest fear comes from the unknown, from ignorance, from sensing that there’s something out there but not being able to see it clearly, hence the venerable horror movie practice of not showing the monster too early, or showing it only in brief flashes that don’t let you get a clear view. Again, having maximum visual quality is less of a concern, because the unspeakable abominations trying to kill me are often scarier when I can’t get a clear, detailed look at them.

Horror can also get a lot of mileage out of written or voice recordings through the common device of the protagonist finding logs or records left by previous victims, or by the people who originally created or unleashed whatever the antagonist of the game is. You probably know the type if you've played Resident Evil or the like: “Dr. Aronson’s log, day 32. Subject Gamma has now grown to a mass of almost 250 kilograms. Showing increasing signs of awareness. Have expressed concerns about possible errors in translation of Sumerian necromantic ritual being used in experiments, but Dr. Harris says current phase of experiments must be completed before end of fiscal year. Shot down by Jenny the lab receptionist when I suggested trip to Olive Garden, says she has been plagued by recurring nightmares of a colossal beast with my face and a locust’s body chasing her through the lab while chanting blasphemous hymns to Yog-Sothoth in the voice of her deceased mother. Fourth girl in administrative staff to give me this excuse in past month; am considering switching to new brand of cologne. Log ends.”

It’s a cliché, but it’s repeated enough to become a cliché because when done well it really works. You can create a lot of mood and atmosphere through simple text, regardless of technological power.

The motion controls have interesting potential, too. Fear is a very physical emotion, affecting blood flow, muscle tension, metabolism, and biochemistry, and so horror is a genre of entertainment you experience with your body as well as your mind more than just about any other. I experience growing fear not just from my conscious thoughts, but from the sensation of my own heart thudding or my hands trembling as tension grows. The first time I saw the previously mentioned bathtub scene, I didn’t just think, “Gee, that’s scary!” I physically leapt in my seat, as if recoiling from actual danger.

Thus, I think controls that bring the player’s body more directly into the experience could have a profound effect for horror. There are limitations to how much can be done with a simple motion-sensitive hand controller, but the simple fact that the Wii controls encourage the player to get up and move about while playing could potentially add a lot, just by making the player more aware of his body.

Oddly enough, the traits that make the Wii a good potential home for horror games are the same factors that have made it the dominant system for casual and family-oriented games: the motion controls catch the interest of people inexperienced with gaming through their novelty and intuitive nature, and many of the games occupy niches that have been traditionally dominated by much lower-tech activities like board games, where looking fabulous isn’t a big issue.

This is a fly in the ointment. The Wii has opened up a huge market of people newly introduced to video games with a family-friendly image and lots of games that non-gamers can quickly pick up and enjoy, at the cost of neglecting and to some extent alienating more dedicated gamers. (I don’t like the common “hardcore/causal” terminology, both because of its imprecision and because of the self-congratulatory mine-is-bigger-than-yours way it is often used. If something is calling itself “hardcore,” it better involve either nudity, Mick Foley being chokeslammed through the roof of a steel cage, or a band of burly, tattooed New Yorkers with guitars screaming at me about Ronald Reagan.) Thus, I would expect big fans of something like survival horror to be underrepresented among Wii players.

So, ironically, the same attributes that make the Wii a natural home for horror games also give it an image that will tend to discourage horror game fans and an existing player base that will tend to discourage horror game developers. The canceled survival horror game Winter, which apparently would have heavily exploited the Wii motion controls to create the sort of physical immersion I’m talking about, was a casualty of this; the game received positive responses at presentations and pitches, but never saw a release because publishers didn’t think such a dark game would sell on the Wii. Both problems are mutually reinforcing- no horror games means no horror gamers means no horror games and so on and on forever like some horrible camp sing-along. That’s a real shame, because I think there’s a lot of potential there.

You know, when I started, I honestly hadn’t intended for this post to end on such a downbeat note, though given how ubiquitous the surprise downer ending is in modern horror I suppose it’s appropriate. Or it would be, if the surprise downer ending hadn’t become so clichéd and predictable that it hasn’t actually surprised anyone since the 1970s.

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