Context Sensitive: The Enemy Within

Context Sensitive: The Enemy Within

The most terrifying videogame enemy you'll ever face lives in your mirror.

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I like Silent Hill 3's motivator the best. Run away out of a survival instinct? Or keep going out of sheer curiosity? It's strange to think that we as humans desire the truth more than we dread the dangerous unknown.

However, Silent Hill 3 also adds another feature to add to your final paragraph: Frustrating puzzles. Nothing pulls me out of a horror game faster than running around the same area trying to find that one item or clue I keep passing.

I just started to replay System Shock and while it is a good classic, it did not age very well. I'd suggest that you try to get some plot info/cutscene videos from the first one and go straight for the sequel.

Of course, if you like to have a game that actually requires you to use the "notes" section of the manual and textures that can make it hard to distinguish a switch from a wall, just go for SS1. Then again, it pains me to say this as I still can remember playing the game in the old days and it still holds that nostalgia value for me.

In addition to playing it, also check out the podcasts at Irrational Games which discusses some really nice anecdotes about the time when System Shock 2 was done.

I always find the self-preservation model works best with me. Like in Dead Space. Your trapped, and your on a ship with a bunch of things which want to go "OM NOM NOM" all over your face.

So, you work hard to get everything ready so you can GTFO outta dodge!

Lvl 64 Klutz:

However, Silent Hill 3 also adds another feature to add to your final paragraph: Frustrating puzzles. Nothing pulls me out of a horror game faster than running around the same area trying to find that one item or clue I keep passing.

Ugh, so true. It goes from tense to frustrating to "why am I playing this, again?" very quickly.

You could argue that any game that puts your life in peril does the same thing, but I don't think that's necessarily true. A guy with a gun may be dangerous, but he's a concept you can wrap your head around. His threat is one you can quantify - bullets plus fleshy bits equals ow - and so the fear he creates is manageable. Because you understand him, you know, or at least can take a reasonable guess, how you can defeat him and survive the encounter

This so much. In STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl, there is this very spooky lab called X18. It's inhabited by some sort of ghost enemies not seen before in the game. After you managed to find some documents, you fall unconscious. When you wake up the facility is flooded with bad guys with guns. I was actually relieved I was fighting those guys, even though there were far more dangerous than the creepy mutants, just because I knew what they were.

Very interesting article, I love this sort of psychological analysis. Particularly good point about Dead Space; I think the conflict of logic vs instinct had occurred to me before, but I never thought it through to that point.

When you were talking about Silent Hill, I think I realized why most people don't find my favorite horror game, FEAR, scary. The game gives you two reasons to continue (curiosity about Alma and Fettel, and your superior giving you orders), but for the scares to be effective, you have to give yourself a third (wanting to make sure that Fettel and the Replica soldiers can never do something like this again). The game tries to really set you up to be disturbed by Fettel to such an extent that you'd want to stop him (i.e, showing his cannibalism), and they try to put a human face on the Replicas' victims via phone messages to motivate you to stop them, but at the end of the day, it's up to the individual gamer whether or not they form that connection. If they don't, the game just loses its scares in favor of making you sit there thinking "why is he going on? Screw orders, I'd be getting out of there", whereas making that third motivation makes you think that you actually would continue on, and it just gives you that necessary extra immersion.

You know what? You should really, really play system shock!

First of all, super well written.

Second of all, super good points about having to really get into the game. It should start with the game though. The story and gameplay has to invite the gamer in, and then the gamer needs to surrender to it and really put themself into the story. I couldn't get into Condemned, but I WAS Isaic from Dead Space while playing that.

Oh, a third of all, anyone ever hear of Extermination. I really liked that game. Started to really pour on the scary in the later half of the story.

Survival horror could work if the true objective were to be horrified and survive.

Let me break it down. Horror is a combination of confusion and disgust. I'd argue you have to have both to be horrified. Horror is when you see the part of an underlying evil, but can only understand bits and peices of it, and so the full scope is uncertain. When full knowledge of the adversary comes together, there still might be disgust and anger and even fear, but horror at that point doesn't quite capture the vibe.

For example, the movie Alien was a horror flick, whereas Aliens was an action flick. Same enemy, more of 'em in the second one, and same basic problem, but two different levels of understanding and preparedness.

So horror can be done if you come up with a rich story about a great evil, then scramble up all the pieces of the puzzle and only give half of them to the player. One fills in the missing spaces with their own fears.

Now for the survival part: if the objective is to kill the boss, that isn't exactly survival--that's domination. If the objective is something other than killing the boss, such as rescuing your daughter, and the boss is unbeatable so you have to evade it and get out of Dodge with your duaghter alive, through actions like running, sneaking, and hiding, that I think can be a perfectly workable and fun game.

If one needs to actually kill the boss to fully reap their gamer catharsis, you already got plenty of games that will do that.

Now, I'm all for the survival-horror MMO where the two classes are farmers and peasants and you can choose between pitchforks, shovels, and torches.

One of the things I love and hate about horror games is that all changes depending on the "mood" of the place you're in.

Personally, a good setting in real life (dark room, late at night, alone, no sounds but those from the game itself) can really put me in the game and feel like I'm character X trying to survive. For example, I remember when I played Dead Space with the above setting for my room, I wouldn't run and every little sound in the game would scare the hell out of me.

However, the setting can also ruin the game, at least for me. When I played SH: Shattered Memories I made the mistake of playing it with the lights on. Suffice it to say, for me the game lost the potention it could have had.

Of course this has little to do with the developers themselves as they cannot influence on us beyond what's on the game, but I think having the right mood and real life setting is one of the most important factors to really enjoy a horror game.

Thedutchjelle:

This so much. In STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl, there is this very spooky lab called X18. It's inhabited by some sort of ghost enemies not seen before in the game. After you managed to find some documents, you fall unconscious. When you wake up the facility is flooded with bad guys with guns. I was actually relieved I was fighting those guys, even though there were far more dangerous than the creepy mutants, just because I knew what they were.

I felt the same way in Metro 2033, it's so relaxing to be fighting normal guys with guns :P

Reminds me of the Clock Tower games, bloody brilliant all the way until you actually fought and defeated the bad guys.

Running away and hiding like the scared little girl you really are is very exhilarating.

A wise man once said, I forget who, that the reason we enjoy horror so much is that it's small chunks of horror. In our lives we face so many unimaginable terrors like war, nukes, corruption and disease; that it's cathartic to see a horror we can face - be that the Flood, BLU team or even little bejewelled blocks out of order.

To experience real horror though, you need something so vast that you can't take hold of it, but small enough that you can still picture it.

That's why making horror games is still such a skill - and why games such as Fallout 3 aren't the horrifying places they actually would be. The human mind just can't comprehend the enormity of the downfall of civilization, so we daintily skip through the radiation as if it was another health counter.

Turn out the lights though, and even fully armed, we're terrified. Add in a children's music box and flickering shadows, and...

Boo!

The_root_of_all_evil:

That's why making horror games is still such a skill - and why games such as Fallout 3 aren't the horrifying places they actually would be. The human mind just can't comprehend the enormity of the downfall of civilization, so we daintily skip through the radiation as if it was another health counter.

That was one reason I loved the Pitt so much. It still fell short in that regard, but it was still closer than vanilla Fallout 3 was. It depicted a society that managed to pick itself back up, but relied on horrendous slave labor and raiding nearby areas to stay alive at all. Add in the disease that creates the Trogs, the hellish cityscape (which is still somehow nicer than real, modern day Pittsburgh), and an overall situation wherein whether or not to kidnap a little girl is actually an ambiguous choice, and the entire expansion is just horrifying. I mean, it's not scary, per se, but it manages to be so disturbing.

The_root_of_all_evil:
A

That's why making horror games is still such a skill - and why games such as Fallout 3 aren't the horrifying places they actually would be.

I dunno, some of the vaults are pretty damn creepy, I can't remember the last time I was creeped out as much as by some of those vaults... *shudders*

Thinking about it I cant remember anything ruining the immersion in System Shock 2, the audio logs, security alarms, respawning enemies, limited ammo. Everything was tense from start to finish, there is no interludes no 'safer zone Just 12 hours off unsettling horror. It was actually hard work emotionally.

I am gonna go play it again this weekend.

and the spiders they made the most horrible skittering noises when they came for you hudder

You too? Oh god, I really want to play SS 1 and 2. I feel like it's my duty as a gamer, everyone talks about it so much.

Just listening to the music from System Shock 2 still sends chills down my spine. SS2 is the best game I've ever played.

The original System Shock has actually aged pretty damn well, especially for suck a complex game. It's obviously old and the control scheme is dated, but it's still scary, still exciting, and as an experience it holds up to any current gen game.

Very well written text. I love Horror games too, and I feel like the newer "Survival Horrors" have been letting us down, because they lost the focus when it comes to make you "fear the unknown".

For instance, my all time favorite Horror game was the classic Clock Tower, because it's a game that really makes you feel helpless. There are no guns, no way to beat the enemies. All you can do is run and make some diversions. Some may feel frustrated by playing it, because they're not looking for the fear. They just want some ugly guys to show up, and some guns to take them down. I like it when the game buils an atmosphere that can make you identify yourself with the character you're playing with. If you have a character that is too heroic or idealized, you can't really get into the game and... be afraid at all. That's my opinion for Horror Games.

As I've said, Clock Tower WAS my favorite Horror game. Until Siren came up, for the PS2, and later Siren 2 (PS2 also) and Siren: Blood Curse (westernized remake of the first one for the PS3). For me, Siren is the absolute definition of what a true Horror game can be. Creepy atmosphere; very REAL and HUMAN playable characters (they all die in one shot or two... yeah, you die a lot in this game). Clever gameplay with puzzles that always involve strategic ways of dealing with undefeatable enemies or just passing through them without dying; Scary, intelligent and IMMORTAL enemies; and last but not least: Intense, compelling, and VERY complex storytelling. You're constantly mindfucked while playing it, you can't just sit and watch the game, you really have to work the timeline on your mind in order to truly understand the cause of everything. You feel like the characters you control: lost in a mess of supernatural events. If you just play the game and don't really try hard to understand the plot, you'll end up just like them: you'll just know the tip of the iceberg. However, if you read and organize all the archives on your mind, if you try to see the link navigator in a chronologic order, you'll have a better understanding of what really happenned there. The game doesn't give you everything for free, you can finish it without understand anything, but you can go ahead and try to figure the "puzzle" that is the storyline and it's very satisfacting when you start understanding the truth behind the horror.

This game doesn't get very good reviews, because it's not exactly an easy game to get into. You really have to put some effort in order to get sucked into the game. But when you do, you'll realize how underappreciated this masterpiece is. Hell, I found this game on a bargain bin on some retail store and I thought it was some underground bad game. But it's really an EXCELENT game. But, as you said, and more than any game, it needs you to want to be sucked into the game.

Haven't touched a single horror game. I don't know, they just don't seem to appeal to me. Suppose I'll give them a chance one day. On one of those days where you have nothing to do but don't feel like you have any games to play as you stare at your massive collection of discs.

Horror games, on the other hand, present you with an enemy that's not so easy to sum up. It's a thing, a force, a something that adheres to rules and laws completely other than the ones you know, rendering the total of your accumulated knowledge to that point completely moot. The life experience you've used to stay alive - stuff like physics, chemistry, even good old fashioned common sense - is now worthless. If there's anything more terrifying than that kind of naked helplessness, I don't know what it is.

This is why I think even games that aren't supposed to be scary can end up terrifying you. When you fight an enemy that is unknown, you don't know what to do. How do you kill something that is completley alien? You can't do much other than desperately pump bullets into it. But how much does this actually hurt it? Is it being significantly damaged? Or is this all just wasted effort? When you don't know what to do, you begin to panic. And you end up getting freaked out.

But this is leads to my problem with most horror games I've seen. Right after you kill this abomination, another one will wander into the room. And then another. And another. You end up fighting some many of these things that the creature that was once bizarre and unknown has become part of the routine. It no longer scares you, since it has become predictable. And this is why I like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series. The vast emptiness of the game is bad from a game play perspective, but it's very important to keeping you immersed. The game doesn't constantly throw enemies at you when you are crawling through some abandoned complex. In another thread a user described how this works;

Scrumpmonkey:

Oh God the empty Jupiter plant was so very paranoia inducing. I couldn't take the isolation, your so far from the nearest freidly STALKERS yet there's... nothing! Never underestimate the fear induced by finding a giant empty power plant. The lack of an eniemy firstly makes you think "What the hell are they about to trow at me?!" I kept expecting things at every turn but there was... nothing!

Secondly coupled with the atmostphere it begins to play on your mind, you can feel allpowerfull when slaughtering bandits but all alone is a semi-dark ruined power plant you start to really feel the lonliness and desolation of the place. Nothings happening but nothing breaks the tension, it just builds and builds until you want to sprint out of the place and seek out the nearest hug.

Game designers need to learn that less can be more. I would have loved to wonder the ship on Deadspace some more doing some exploration without encountering a soul just the feeling that something was very wrong.

I had the same feeling as him when I was playing. That area would have been a lot less scary had the game constantly assaulted me with enemies. Instead, it kept me thinking that something was lurking around the corner. I was constantly on edge, expecting something horrible to lurk out of the shadows at any moment. If the game had filled that area with tons of enemies, I wouldn't have had this feeling. There would be a greater chance of me dying, but that wouldn't have mad the game feel scary. If I had found a bloodsucker hiding in every room, it would have become predictable. Instead I had a fear of the unknown because I hadn't encountered any enemies. I was scared of monsters that only existed in my mind. The game let me stir in my fear. It's difficult to explain, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that the absence of enemies can be a lot more terrifying than their constant presence.

Internet Kraken:

This is why I think even games that aren't supposed to be scary can end up terrifying you. When you fight an enemy that is unknown, you don't know what to do. How do you kill something that is completley alien?

Scrumpmonkey:

Oh God the empty Jupiter plant was so very paranoia inducing.

I had the same feeling as him when I was playing. That area would have been a lot less scary had the game constantly assaulted me with enemies. Instead, it kept me thinking that something was lurking around the corner. I was constantly on edge, expecting something horrible to lurk out of the shadows at any moment. If the game had filled that area with tons of enemies, I wouldn't have had this feeling. There would be a greater chance of me dying, but that wouldn't have mad the game feel scary. If I had found a bloodsucker hiding in every room, it would have become predictable. Instead I had a fear of the unknown because I hadn't encountered any enemies. I was scared of monsters that only existed in my mind. The game let me stir in my fear. It's difficult to explain, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that the absence of enemies can be a lot more terrifying than their constant presence.

To expand on my comments i think horror is very hard to pin down. Going back to my comments on the STALKER series there are a few particualr incidents of the horror not working.

One such icident occurs with the same poltergiests you see on x18 but on the surface. All it does it menace you a bit untill you realise you can just shoot it. You know what it is. You know how to fight it. It just left me thinking "oh a poltergiest. i can kill that from here *Dead*" i was totally unmenaced. The reason they worked in lab x18 and not here was;

1. You had no idea what the hell you were dealing with and

2. you had no idea if it was even causing the disurbances (ie flining stuff at you) and;

3. you had no idea if you could even fight it.

The fear is not the fear of a horde of zombies, i can deal with that i have a fucking guass rifle bites! It's the unkown, the feeling of confusion coupled with the very real threat of death from an unseen and unidentified force. You take power away from the player. When the played's power paradime shifts suddenly and violently then the player feels helpless and wants to panic, all the more if it can be sustained for a period and not just be frustrating.

Of course being utterly powerless is no fun in the long run, you have to feel power of some things but then have the rug pulled out from under you and turn you quickly from a twitchy soldier into a weeping child.

Best reason for horror I ever saw was in The Ring. You're going to die in 7 days anyway, and get constantly and increasingly mindfucked along the way, so it simply makes sense to walk into the scary places as awake and wide-eyed as possible for any clues you can find. Closing your eyes makes you miss the mystery!

(Ideal horror situation-being chased by an unknown entity with every door locked by a sudoku puzzle. Okay, maybe horror deconstruction, but I digress...)

Thedutchjelle:

This so much. In STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl, there is this very spooky lab called X18. It's inhabited by some sort of ghost enemies not seen before in the game. After you managed to find some documents, you fall unconscious. When you wake up the facility is flooded with bad guys with guns. I was actually relieved I was fighting those guys, even though there were far more dangerous than the creepy mutants, just because I knew what they were.

I know I'm gonna sound like a fanboy, but another good example for this is the level 'Two Betrayals' in Halo. Throughout this level, you find yourself fighting for your life against an almost neverending amount of Floods, some of which are sneaking around with rocket launchers. When you get to the ground level for the first time since you entered the coridors, however, you feel relief that there are only Covenants out there (even if they have all the dangerous vehicles)

Also, I agree that Silent Hill 2 is creepy. Through most of the game, you carry either a meelee or ranged weapon. However, at some point, to keep going further, you will have to leave it all behind for a while. You got no weapons, no light, no indication of how close the monsters are. Sure, there isn't a lot of enemies in your path, but still...

I personally found Fallout 3 deeply disturbing; definitely not, or was designed to be, horror. But with the ample gameplay time inside the vault growing up was enough time to actually put my mindset into that of a post-apocalyptic vault dweller. I remember a distinct unease about leaving the vault for the first time.

System Shock 2 was a horrifying game. You wake up in immediate danger with no idea what is happening to your ship, and if you get really immersed you realize that the ship is the only one capable of getting you back to Earth sometime during your lifetime. The sounds, the atmosphere, the audio logs all provide a bone-chilling experience.
That glitchy background noise when SHODAN talks... creepy.

Have fun with the controls in System Shock... mouselook is overrated anyway, right? Great game though. SHODAN is an amazing character.

And if we're talking about good horror games, I have to put in a mention of the Penumbra series. The developer, Frictional Games, is a little indie company, so it isn't the high-budget production you get with Dead Space and such... but they have a better understanding of the horror genre than any big developer. Penumbra shows just how viable and awesome the horror genre is, and puts in a good word for the adventure genre while its at it.

The best way I can explain Penumbra... I was about 6-years-old when I played the original Myst, and I got the sequel, Riven, when it came out a few years later. I love the series to death, but I can never recapture the feelings I had when I first played those games. I was younger, less aware of what games were capable of doing, and perhaps less jaded by modern graphics. Playing Myst, I constantly had the feeling that someone or something was standing right behind me, looking over my shoulder. I was in this very believable world, and I had no idea what to expect from it. Of course, there isn't anything behind you in Myst. Black-screen trap books aside, there is no way to "die" in Myst.

Penumbra gives that same feeling, as you carefully sneak through the world, praying that nothing hears you. You get that same feeling that something is lurking out there, ready to kill you in the blink of an eye, and you haven't even seen it yet. But unlike in Myst, you're right. And it will.

Can I join the chorus of System Shock lovers? My boyfriend made me play SS2, and I was terrfied the entire time, despite the fact we were playing in bright light, in multiplayer mode and had the music turned off (at my insistence, I am a wuss). I think it is the tension - you never know what is going to happen next, and even if you do have some idea, you never know when its coming. Or if you have enough ammo. Or if you will have fast enough reflexes. And it didn't matter if I knew I had the money to be able to afford to die - because I didn't want to! I have never cared so deeply about my character's survival in any game, ever. Mostly, its just a nuisance, a drain on my time and money. In SS2, I wanted my character to live. For a game that uses 4 polys for each hand on the character and doesn't give you any backstory, that kind of emotional involvement for me is amazing. And thats why I consider SS2 so special.

 

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