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Context Sensitive: The Enemy Within

Susan Arendt | 1 Apr 2010 21:00
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Self preservation is a pretty powerful motivator, so horror games typically give you an equally emotional goal to counter it. In Silent Hill 2, you're trying to find your wife (your dead wife), in Condemned, you need to clear your name, in Fatal Frame, you're searching for your missing brother. The ensuing battle of emotions - your need to survive versus the guilt you'd feel for abandoning your goal - provides an undercurrent to the game's tension that's so subtle you don't even realize it's there. The immediate peril of surviving demands so much of your attention that everything else gets shoved off to the side, where it's free to quietly infect your psyche without threat of discovery.

Dead Space goes one step further by pitting your survival versus your survival. To make it off the Ishimura alive, you have no choice but to keep moving into its depths, repairing the ship's vital systems. Yet the further you go, the more horrifying and deadly the trip becomes, putting your emotional survival instinct at odds with your logical survival plan. To live, you must put yourself in harm's way, a paradox so unsettling that it leaves you constantly off balance, unable to mentally stabilize yourself in preparation for whatever horror is sure to come next. That kind of emotional manipulation takes the quick frights you get from the sudden appearance of Necromorphs (or, worse, their refusal to come out into the open) and chains them together for increased impact.

All of this depends on a certain frame of mind, of course. In much the same way that hypnotism won't work if you're fighting it, games won't scare you if you're not willing to take the journey with them. Even when you are willing to meet them halfway, maintaining a mix of atmosphere and gameplay that won't yank you out of the experience is incredibly difficult. One bad line of dialog, moment of unfortunate collision detection or uncooperative camera is all it takes for the carefully-crafted illusion to be shattered and for you to be unceremoniously thrust back into your living room. Fear is an uncomfortable and unpleasant state of being, so your body and mind will seize any opportunity they can to fight against it. Ever find yourself laughing hysterically after narrowly avoiding a traffic accident? Same idea.

But when it does work? When the mojo is running hot and everything comes together? That's when you find yourself staring down your most dangerous opponent and, hopefully, living to tell the tale.

No, Susan Arendt has never played System Shock, but really, really wants to someday.

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