Handheld Horror

It saddens me that it will be some time before I can truly enjoy survival horror in a portable fashion.

Think about it. Just how many bits of handheld horror can you think of? Maybe you remember Resident Evil: Deadly Silence, which came out in February of this year, and … that’s it. And while games like Deadly Silence may be considered part of the genre, they just don’t sit right. They mimic the components necessary to create a survival/horror title, but their digital make-up is completely different. Unlike the copious amounts action-adventure or puzzle games on offer, survival/horror games on handheld devices just aren’t present.

Deadly Silence suffers because its very existence is mired in the normal console-to-handheld porting ideology. You scale down what can be transferred over, and then work on what needs to be fixed to make it playable. This usually leaves you with watered-down gameplay and a husk of the game’s original atmosphere. And without the setting and mood to set the player off balance, survival/horror suffers. It’s like comparing a monkey’s DNA to a human’s: It’s that one percent difference that, indeed, makes all the difference.

What makes survival/horror games different and harder to translate is that unlike most genres, horror isn’t defined by the gameplay. Instead, it’s the thematic elements present in a game that account for its inclusion in the genre.

For example, here’s a garden-variety survival/horror game: Put one person up against an army of hellish beasts; toss in plenty of conventional weaponry to tip the scale a tad, but limit the amount of ammunition available (You know, so the player must ration their supply and find baseball bats to kill the undead laying siege to wherever he is currently trapped); oh, and make each location a claustrophobic nightmare.

So, why is this experience so hard to replicate on a portable device? Graphics, for one, haven’t reached a point where what’s going to be on a portable screen is spooky. Additionally, the size of the viewing area makes a difference. While zombies might get someone to jump when they’re on 19- to 62-inch screens, two-inch displays don’t make for a particularly yelp-evoking experience. It’s like going to see a $50 million horror flick and then checking out the haunted house at a local carnival. Is the latter really going to linger in your mind and haunt your dreams for weeks to come?

A player’s physical situation also becomes a variable when making the jump from console to handheld. When designing a game for a console, there’s no real thought that needs to go into where the player will be. He will be plopped on the couch, on his bed or sitting directly in front of the TV – inside, in a comfortable place. Once things go pocket-sized, though, developers can’t count on a player’s attention to be focused entirely on the game.

So much goes into making an atmosphere present and noticeable in a game. If you’re out in the park in the middle of the afternoon, playing the game while you’re on the phone with dogs barking and kids loudly tossing around the pigskin, you’re not going to be able to appreciate the full experience.>

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Sure, zombies running through a city, chasing you while releasing the occasional spine-chilling moan might be a scary thing to you in general, but you’re not helping things by playing the game in broad daylight. Light and day are warm, comforting entities. Darkness and night, however, put us on edge and make us more guarded, and thus, flappable.

Remember what it was like when you were a kid, reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles under your covers by flashlight, growing ever more fearful with each word you read, questioning if that noise was just the creaking of the bed, or possibly the cry of a being not from this world? We have just as much of an impact on how scary a game is to us, and as such, should put forth an earnest effort to make these survival/horror titles as down-right scary as possible. Perhaps “Play Under the Covers” and “Play After Dusk” should be put on the back of packing next to “Memory Stick Required” and “Wi-Fi Compatible (Ad Hoc).”

Now, developers can’t force us to sit under the covers with our Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, but what they can do is rework the way they construct survival/horror titles on a portable scale. We know the constraints, the fact that the graphics aren’t there yet, there isn’t a massive amount of support, but we have to stop focusing on the negatives. It’s time to innovate.

Just like Hideo Kojima broke the fourth wall in Metal Gear Solid by having Psycho Mantis toy with us by reading and commenting on our memory card save files and even making the screen go black like the PlayStation was on the fritz, developers of portable survival/horror need to try new ways to scaring us. Play with our heads a little: Have the brightness shift on the unit to recreate the flickering of lights in a horror movie. Pull photos and music from our memory sticks and insert them into the game; how weird would it be to see pictures of Mom and Dad on the wall when we take a closer look? The cerebral, mental scares are where it’s at, and it’s high time to capitalize.

There’s really no simple way to create practical, portable survival/horror scares. A compromise between gamers and developers has to come about before we can truly enjoy survival/horror in a portable variety. Gamers have to put themselves in a position to be scared, and developers have to be willing to reach beyond standard convention to scare them. Until that middle ground is reached, we’re left with mediocre scares, and paying another buck to go in the carnival’s haunted house because the horror movie we want to see is still years away.

Dan Dormer is a videogame freelancer who keeps a poorly updated blog
at his personal
. He’s also afraid of seeing scary movies. True story.

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