Realms of Nightmare: An Expedition through Survival Horror
(Assistant Professor, Department of English, St. Mary’s College, Manarcaud)
Video games or digital entertainments which engage the audience through game play can be critically studied under Game Studies. Theoretically, games have been given a narratological and ludological aspect. When we approach video games critically the two aspects ludology and narratology are unavoidable. While the Ludologists focus on game play the narratologists are concerned with the story of the game. Espen Aarseth a leading ludologist in his essay Genre Trouble points out that ‘currently in game and digital cultural studies, a controversy rages over the relevance of narratology for game aesthetics. One side argues that computer games are media for telling stories , while the opposing side claims that stories and games are different structures that are in effect doing opposite things’(1). These two aspects are inseparable and both add colour to the game play experience. Barry Atkins in More Than a Game claims that “ The stories we read in a computer game are not pale reflections of novels ,plays, films or television programmes but they have a different relationship with both other textual forms and the real world”(6). While the Ludologists argue against this, as they think the dragging narrative spoil the spirit of the game and they become a hindrance to the rules and plot. The success of a video game lies in the part where, both the two aspects go hand in hand, where the story part does not become a hindrance to the spirit of the game.
Like literature, video games are also classified into different genres based on their game play interaction. Action games, shooter games, action–adventure games are some of them. Fear or horror is one of the main themes of many action-adventure games. Survival Horror is a sub genre of action-adventure game which is inspired by horror fiction. In this game both narratology and ludology is given equal importance. As the name suggests it focuses on survival of the character as the game tries to scare the player. Unlike other video games it deals less about enemy numbers and more about the difficulty in killing the few enemies that do appear. In Survival Horror, the game is focussed more around the story and the frightening atmosphere, rather than a difficult gaming experience and therefore the puzzles are relatively easy, logical and straightforward. The Survival Horror video games have always been a popular theme since the term was first coined in the mid 1990’s. It is very scary as every move is a surprise. Like the character each step might take you to a horrifying scene of torture
Video games differ from movies or fiction because of their digital origin but the fear created in Survival Horror games by ghost like creatures and the swarming of zombie hordes is nothing different from a horror movie. When the fear factor in the Survival Horror is analysed it comes to the generalisation that a lot of visual and dramatic elements are behind that. Entering a fearful situation and how you stand up against the situation summarise the genre. Realistically guns won’t be around every corner and if you find one, ammunition is limited. Resource management is essential as it teaches the player to choose wisely, if they want to escape. So evading the attacks are integral part of survival. The horrifying part is the surprise of not knowing where each move leads you to, perhaps to a fearful scene of torture or another disturbing image. Survival horror functions best in its ability to transport you to high anxiety making you feel like a prey.
Analysing the fear factor, is an interesting area of study. When one goes through various Survival Horror games one can see that certain features like ambiguous settings, subtle changes in the environment, empathy towards the main character, sound and image all play a vital role in making the player tensed. The analysis will be done on concentrating the Silent Hill series and Metro series video games.
Ambiguity: From the beginning of the game itself the player gets a feeling that something is not well. In all the survival horror games the action takes place in suspicious places like abandoned and dilapidated buildings. Players wonder what is going to scare them and how big the scare is going to be. “Certain levels of intentional ambiguity can be used to build tension and create emotion” (Ekman 204).
In the Silent Hill Series the ambiguity plays an important role in the horror factor. Silent Hill is the name of a town. Although it is known as a scenic resort area, it is a cursed and mysterious place. The town is centred on Toluca Lake, from where a thick fog enshrouds the area. Metro series is another Survival Horror, which takes place in the Post- Apocalyptic Metro System of Moscow, following the events long after the devastating world war III. In it the player takes control of a man named Artyom who must make his way through the militant, mutated and supernatural dangers of the dark Metro. He is to save his home station from a new mutant threat coming from the surface. Danger is always around the corner and the player must be well alert and proper conservation of ammunition is an important part. The player must make smart decisions as to when, where and how to make the next move and in the judicious use of ammunition. The game is narrative driven and features two endings that are given to the player based upon a hidden system of Moral Points. Moral Points are a hidden system in Metro game series that follows Artyom’s progress and affects the ending. This system is never explained to the player and its mechanics can only be speculated about. This ambiguity in choosing the correct Moral Points itself is the spirit behind this game.
Subtle Changes in the Environment: The player is not given a chance to get used to the environment. Subtle changes take place in order to increase the player’s curiosity and fear. The environment in Silent Hill series differ from game to game. Though realistic it will create a chilling and tense atmosphere. The location is the same, but the plot develops through three versions of it. When the game begins the character is portrayed in a normal world, but it is rarely explored. The second one is a fog world which is gloomy and depressing. It may appear normal but enshrouded in a thick fog which limits the character’s vision and conceals distant monsters from view. Buildings appear abandoned and the fog world includes snow, rain or ashes falling from the sky. The third world which is the frightening one is an abode of darkness and of monstrous creatures. It is usually portrayed as covered in rust and blood. In addition to these three worlds, the player sees a lot of ordinary things out of place and makes the player suddenly confined in large spaces.
In the Metro series we see a post-apocalyptic world. The player travels through rarely travelled tunnels full of monsters and other unsavoury characters. All these places are full of environmental story telling cues. While going through the metro tunnel, you will be frightened to death, once your flashlight dies. The mysterious and frightening environment will choke the player with horror and the hellish creatures surrounding the player gives a nightmarish picture.
Empathy: The player becomes empathetic with the protagonist. This feeling of empathy makes the player, having an emotional attachment with the character. He is horrified but by all the means wants the safety of the character and the characters survival.
Sound: Few things are as evocative as sound. In videogames also sound is used to create an atmosphere of tension. Harsh sounds and soothing ones are intermixed to instil a sense of dread in the player. In horror games, sounds are linked to certain events so that when the player hears them they will begin to get anxious because of the link they have made with the sound and the event.
Computer game sound is as crucial to the creation of the depicted game world’s mood as it is in its undeniable support to game play. In horror computer game, this role is increased tenfold as sound becomes the engine of the gamers’ within the horrific universe. From the morphology of the sound event to its audio-visual and videoludic staging, sound cues provide most of the information necessary for the gamers’ progression in the game and simultaneously supply a range of emotions from simple surprise to the most intense terror. In horror computer games it is not recommended that the gamer divert their attention from the various sound events, as a careful listening will allow for or at least favour – the survival of their player character. (Roux-Girard192)
The sound has both narratological and ludological impact in Survival Horror games. From the narratological point of view it will give a sense of atmosphere and content. The sound in the narratological part makes the player believe that what they see is real. From the ludological aspect the sound gives information on the game state and gives feedback on the gamer’s activity. In the Silent Hill and Metro series the music is always in a degree of danger state. The sound director of the Silent Hill was Akira Yamaoska. He opted for industrial music, which is a genre of experimental music that draws on experimental and provocative themes. The siren sound in the Silent Hill series is a typical example of the impact of sound in producing horror.
The Psychological Impact: Analysing the psychological impact created by these horror videogames is another interesting part like the analysis of its features. What will be one’s reaction when one encounters a dangerous situation or a scary event? One’s focus will be purely on one’s survival. He will somehow find a way to evade it and survive it. The Survival Horror game also deals with this particular situation. The player, quite unexpectedly faces an event to resolve. Fight or flight, the player is ready for either of these. In Silent Hill series it is either a search for a missing child or a situation where the protagonist wanders into the town apparently by accident but is in fact being summoned by a spiritual force in the town. In Metro series Artyom the avatar is with the responsibility of saving his hometown.
When a player plays the horror games, his adrenaline secretion increases and it is said that neurotransmitters evolve as it is formed at the time of abuse. Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body. The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat and your stomach to digest. They can also affect mood, sleep, concentration, weight and can cause adverse symptoms when they are of out of balance. Many psychological studies have shown that the fear factor during game play is at its optimum level for the beginners. When one gets used to the system the fear factor also decreases. Players also identified that the sound elicited fear and suspense. The game world of Silent Hill and Metro is haunted by sudden noises here and there that have no visible or identifiable sources. Unexpected and sudden events contrary to one’s expectation are a salient feature of Survival Horror games. So the player will be always alert of the sudden unexpected threat he has to face. This will surely cause psychological stress. Studies have shown that most of the stress reaction occurs during the anticipatory state than the real confrontation of the event. Though the player is aware of the fact he is not the real victim and he is in a fantasy world, his empathetic feelings towards the character or avatar cause emotional distress to him. The psychological impact of Survival Horror games is indeed an area that needs special attention.
Great horror games don’t stop scaring you after you finished playing it. Actually the lingering fear, the uncertainty feeling, the tensed atmosphere, the imperfect protagonist are all that makes Survival Horror games truly distinctive. Though a lot of changes from the conventional mode have been introduced, like adding more militant game play than helpless vulnerability, Survival horror games both narratologically and ludologically are indeed an all time favourite video game genre.
Aarseth, Espen. “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Patrick Harrigan. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004. 1. Print.
Atkins, Barry. More than a Game. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.Print.
Ekman, Inger. “A Cognitive Approach to the Emotional Function of Game Sound” The Oxford Hand Book of Interactive Audio. Ed. Karen Collins, Bill Kapralos and Holly Tessler. New York: OUP, 2014. 204. Print.
Roux-Girard, Guillaume. “Listening to Fear: A Study of Sound in Horror Computer Games” Game Sound Technology and Player Interaction: Concepts and Development Ed. Mark Grimshaw, Hershey: IGI Global, 2011 .192 . Print.