Frank stared at the ebbing flickers of his final match. Light was keeping the horrors at bay temporarily — they seemed hesitant to approach — but already he could hear the scratching beyond the walls of his self-imposed prison. Theresa would have reassured him, told him rescue was on the way and squeezed his hand. Now all she could do was stare vacantly from the corner. Something thin and half-formed outside made a wet sort of moaning sound, and the light went out. Frank exhaled and felt around for the doorknob, and, on finding it, slowly pushed open the door of the closet. He grabbed his portable flamethrower and automatic laser machine gun and killed a bunch of monsters with explosions and blood and guts and killing.
Diagnosing the potential problems with mixing horror and meaty firearms isn’t particularly difficult. Fans of the genre have bemoaned the death (or severe maiming) of true horror games for some time, noting that modern incarnations are more action movie with a side of monster than real, mind-mucking terror. Game design is tricky and complicated with many bells and whistles, so changing the focus of a genre is no easy task. It’s all very well to say “this game isn’t horror”, but actually digging down to the filthy underground of genre and categorisation leads to loads of note-taking and semantic arguments about the definition of emotional states as they relate to gameplay. Where would you even start?
You just replace all the guns with a notebook.
Take all that firepower away from the player and give them a pen and paper. Straight away you’re making the situation dangerous all over again, which is an excellent — though not comprehensively effective — strategy in scaring people. Quite a few of the current horror crop fill your endless pockets with every type of angry pepper mill so you can effectively cut down the forces of darkness. Dead Space equips you with laser cutting tools and mine-launching handheld catapults, significantly diminishing the tension when facing inside-out corpses. Alan Wake, while keeping your arsenal modest, affords semi-phenomenal power to everyday items like flashlights and signal flares; the dread of approaching nasties becomes a practical decision about battery life. Buy Duracell.
And why a notebook, exactly? By centering gameplay around the idea of taking notes and uncovering information, you’re tapping into a powerful — and underused — aspect of interactive narratives: discovery. That’s intentional, user-directed discovery, of course. No matter how dazzlingly interesting the plot of Dead Space 3 or Resident Evil 6 might be, you’re never much more than a passive observer on the carnival ride who is allowed to run around and shoot things reasonably often. But if, as the player, we were given a mystery to solve, or an unknown location to explore, then we become willing participants in the events rather than onlookers. Then, much like eager audiences at a hypnotist act, we’re mentally prepared to be scared to death. As Liam discovered recently with his review of Miasmata, being given the chance to actively discover information about the world can be more immersive than a thousand well-textured monsters to rip through.
The other thing our humble notebook replacement can bring about is a focus on writing. For all the quality scares that you can glean from truly inspired enemy design, skin-peeling sound effects and darkly designed hallways, good writing is the key to truly horrific horror. Having gameplay focus on discovering and deducing the truth, or working out an escape, would produce games that were the result of considered thought over jump scares and variations on “everyone died because monsters are bad”. This push towards deeper (or better, at least) narratives also benefits everything around the plot that developers are perfectly happy to dedicate time and energy to. Silent Hill 2‘s notorious mannequin-rapist, Pyramid Head, is horrifying enough as a monstrous form bereft of context, but when paired with the eventual knowledge that he represents the main character’s buried sexual urges he becomes something that discomforts the player on many levels.
Let’s examine an alternate version of Dead Space, where Isaac Clarke — notable space engineer — is still stuck on the USG Ishimura with untold horrors of the void. I pick Dead Space only because it has an excellent setting ripe for tweaking; the series has its own little action-horror niche which it should rightly continue to occupy. This version of Isaac is more realistic, with guns (halfheartedly pretending to be tools) extremely scarce. He has to scour the corridors for survivors, picking up informative clues to their whereabouts in the clutter of the wrecked ship. He also needs to dodge the awful, skittering monsters that have taken over, all the while picking up optional information about what really happened on board. For my money, slowly finding out about the alien marker and its sinister religious helpers on my own time would have sent shivers all over.
This version also allows us to explore the world of Dead Space more methodically than is possible with guns blazing, a boon considering the setting is generally one of the stronger aspects of any horror story. Good horror settings have that car crash appeal: a terrible event with emotional, physical and mental consequences, but one that triggers curiosity and fascination in our tiny human brains. We want to look away, but we also want to know what happened.
Such thinking is present in my personal favourite horror gaming moment, which, incidentally, occurs in a game where you are the owner of several outrageous tiers of magic powers. Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines is an RPG, and not one you would describe as scary, generally; you are a freshly made vampire badass who can eat people and see through walls, among other things. At one point an NPC asks you to retrieve an amulet from an old house. Striding in confidently, you discover it to be haunted by an unknown number of ghosts, as light fixtures explode and plates fly at your head. Strange noises filter through the building while you search for clues, and sometimes you catch a glimpse of a woman on the upstairs landing, staring. Dead ends lead you back into the snarled face of an axe murderer, but nobody’s there. Lights go out and suddenly the wall is screaming scratched, profane warnings. Doors open on their own and a washing machine just begs you to check if a body is inside.
When I first played this section I was forced to take a break midway through, so shattered were my nerves. And, just to reiterate, I was playing as an immortal fantasy creature with the strength of 10 men. Nothing worse than a slight bump on the head can happen in the house. But I still hesitate to experience it again. That’s what horror should be: an uncomfortable experience voluntarily experienced. Power fantasies are buckets of fun, but investigation is a worthwhile substitute to violence and serves as a great motivator. Remember: guns don’t kill people, the hissing man with the crooked neck who only appears out of the corner of your eye does. It said so in that half-burned journal you found in the basement. Wait, did you see that? Was tha-