Look Away: Horror and Player Punishment

By: Sarah Doukakos (friend of The Course of Horror)

One of the first things players are asked to master in modern games is camera control, especially in first person games. The camera is tied to an analog stick (usually the right stick), and that camera view represents the player’s eyes. Many game tutorials establish ways to help the player practice how to use their new “eyes.” Popular franchises like Call of Duty, Halo, and Skyrim train the player to quickly pan the camera around to check for danger or enemies, and act on that behavior. The player is encouraged to do this, and is rewarded in the game by discovering access to hidden areas or catching a glimpse of an enemy before they are seen themselves. If players aren’t aware of their surroundings, it means a quick death.

From these experiences we can see games have largely established a rule, where greater player sight or knowledge is a positive, and lack of awareness means they’re open to an attack.

However, many horror games force players to go against a key survival instinct and avert their gaze. They survive by remaining visually unaware of creatures that try to kill them.

Another key piece of game design is to try to make the player as active in the game as possible. They are not supposed to be passive viewers of their surroundings, but must work to either actively shape it or react to it. While in many other mediums the saying is “show, don’t tell,” for games it’s “do, don’t show.” That means constant player movement, of both their vision and their bodies to survive. Horror games upend player movement expectations as well. They’re encouraged to be blind, and often encouraged to be still.

A perfect example is the treatment of the Slender Man in Slender: The Eight Pages. The player can hear a crackle of electric feedback nearby, and their experiences have taught them to quickly spin the camera to see what the sound could be. When they do this and catch sight of the Slender Man, or linger on him for too long, it’s instant death. All of those years of being taught that they need to constantly survey their surroundings are being used against them.

In terms of player stillness, games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 break movement expectations. A creature, who is often more powerful than the player, will roam around looking for them. The player must conceal themselves and they must remain still. They have to watch and hope that this being that is breathing right next to them doesn’t notice them. They are encouraged to not do, but watch, and wait.

Many other games use these horror death mechanics. Minecraft punishes players who allow their camera to sit on the Endermen for too long, making the Endermen suddenly hostile to the player. Don’t Starve punishes players who look at or interact with characters that are hostile or evil by having their sanity meter deplete. At night the player has to sit next to a campfire, and can’t move, or the darkness will swallow them and kill them, so they wait by the slowly fading light. Don’t Starve’s expression of this camera and combat experience comes the closest in explaining why the player would be punished for their activity. The very Lovecraftian reasoning is this: there are some things that are too terrible for humans to see or comprehend. It’s better to look away and be still, just to survive another day.

Games that make the player watch and wait also break another element of many mainstream games: that the player is all powerful. Many games teach the player that they are a strong hero who can kill anything that comes across their path, that if they keep trying or get a bigger gun or stronger weapon that they can destroy everything. But horror games let players feel weak. They let them know that sometimes, there’s nothing to be done in the face of evil. Sometimes they have to sit and wait. That they are so weak and so frail that even looking at the face of their tormentor will destroy them. Some games ultimately let the player succeed by striking at the right moment, but often there isn’t a way to defeat these enemies. They only win by escaping, and living to tell the tale of those who could kill them with sight alone.

Sarah Doukakos is a Game Designer for Nickelodeon Digital, working with properties including SpongeBob SquarePants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Legend of Korra, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. In her past she worked as a producer at Cartoon Network, and her projects included the first Adventure Time game. She spends her spare time watching cartoons, playing a lot of Dark Souls and Minecraft, and creating game design curriculum for middle school students. 

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One thought on “Look Away: Horror and Player Punishment

  1. The point that, “Games that make the player watch and wait also break another element of many mainstream games: that the player is all powerful,” is one that I definitely relate to. When we played the zombie interactive game, no matter what decision I made in attempt to defeat the zombies and survive I felt completely helpless. I had to sit back and wait to see if the decision I had just made was one wise enough to save my life. It is a terrifying feeling relinquishing your power to a scary opponent, one who’s sole goal is to try and kill you. When you something up to the more powerful enemy, you are left helpless and the player is no longer all powerful.

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