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Visualizing Fear

An Analysis of Modern Interactive Horror

Eric Nilsson, Blogger

May 9, 2012

18 Min Read

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,
and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" - H.P. Lovecraft

I like video games.
I like video games because they are diverse. They can be fun, they can be moving, they can be sad, they can be challenging, they can be happy, and sometimes; they can be scary.
I like video games because they can convey information in a very special way. They can change someone's point of view, change how someone perceives a certain aspect of things and little by little change an entire person's view of the world.
Video games can do a lot of things, and they can be a lot of things.
I do very much like video games as they are.

- But mostly, I like video games because of what they can be.

The Silent Hill series, especially Silent Hill 2, is a work that has always fascinated me since the first time I laid eyes on it. It is, after all, that particular horror game that made me seek the career that I'm now striving for at the university I attend. This is because Silent Hill was one of the first video game experiences that stayed substantially in my mind even after I stopped playing it.

'What does that weird letter really say, between the lines?'
'What does the "There was a hole here - it's gone now"-rambling represent?'
'What other-worldly insanity are the creatures a product of ?'

...but it was not only remarks and questions like these that kept me up at night after I'd played it all the way through. The most interesting - game design-wise - part of my experience is that the feeling of being alone and vulnerable in misty Silent Hill stayed with me, even long after that green LED faded to red on my PS2.
The feeling can only be described as if a part of that world followed me into daily life. It was as if one was moving along in every-day life in some sort of haze, wherein all thought was ltered and processed through that of James Sunderland; the player's avatar in Silent Hill 2.

This experience made me realize the true potential of interactive horror, in which the player could almost completely immerse his/her mind into that of the game's avatar and eff ectively mimic the avatar's train of thought and how that character perceived his/her own existence. The feeling of claustrophobia and sense of being restrained - that surged into me from the console - depends on some very well thought-out design choices from the developers of Silent Hill 2, which leads me to my next bit:

What makes us receptive and impressionable to Fear in video games;
which methods work - and which don't?

As mentioned above; one of the most distinctive traits of a Silent Hill game is the re-occurring theme of claustrophobia which is achieved in a number of ways - all of which attempt to visualize this emotion to the player in terms of graphics, sound and some methods that are often overlooked. (for example camera movement and placement)
Silent Hill 2 creates a claustrophobic touch to the player's overview to a certain scenario by either having the third-person camera, which not only has the avatar taking up a substantial part of the screen; blocking whatever may be behind the avatar, but also restricts the player from seeing what lies far ahead.
When a higher third-person placement of the camera is allowed, such as in outdoor environments, this distance is always heavily concealed by fog or mist e ectively isolating the player from having a good overview of what's going on. Generally, the player's eld of vision is very limited creating a physically tiring e ect on the player.
Also, at carefully designated spots, fixed camera positions are used to emphasize certain elements in a scene. This does not only aff ect what the player sees and restricts his/her, albeit limited, control of the camera but also changes the controls to move the avatar (relative to avatar - relative to camera) keeping a vulnerable - as if you were new to the game - feel throughout the game.
What's interesting about this particular design choice is that it, whilst restraining the player, contribute to the experience by making the player feel vulnerable and weak in terms of gameplay. There is a number of aspects to this issue and I believe it to be considered a trade-o in between how often the control-change occurs, how substantial the change is - and how much it actually improves the experience. It is obvious that this type of design-choice is like balancing on a razor's edge. This is probably, unfortunately, why risky elements like these are so rare.

Grain filter, fog and humanoid creature in Silent Hill 2

Figure 1

Figure 1: Grain filter, fog and humanoid creature in Silent Hill 2

Another technique the developers used to enhance the claustrophobic feel was to carefully design the graphical elements of the game; wherein the goal was to create a feeling of 'Repulsion and Attraction'[10] amongst the players. Not only are the environments in Silent Hill dirty and uncomfortable in a general sense - but a grainy fi lter was also applied to make the environments even more-so disturbing and, I'll say it again, claustrophobic. This was an eff ect popularized years later by the developers of Left 4 Dead[9], wherein the e ffect was applied onto dark scenery. (much like in Silent Hill 2)
Of course, one cannot discuss the graphical design of Silent Hill without mentioning the, almost cult-status, monster design. In the Making-Of documentary 'Alchemists of Emotion'; artist Masahiro Ito mentions how the monster design was carefully chosen to, at first, represent a sort-of human abstract but gradually thereafter deform into something more deranged and twisted as the player progresses through the game.[10] This was meant to prohibit a player from getting 'used' to the monsters and thusly keep them scary and weird throughout the experience. The trick was in taking something normal, something the player can relate to - whether it's a female body, a bathroom sink or a shop-window mannequin - and twisting it into this dark and alien form. A concept previously mastered, I'd say, by cult writer Thomas Ligotti.[8]

"Silence is also a sound"[10] - Akira Yamaoka, Composer - Silent Hill 2

The Silent Hill franchise mayhaps be most praised for it's music and sound; all directed by
Akira Yamaoka, who apart from composing the soundtrack also produces all sound e ffects for Silent Hill 2.[10] Akira claims that the goal of the audio in Silent Hill 2 was to stray from the classic horror theme, or 'formal' as he calls the sound of Resident Evil, and make the player feel physically uncomfortable by utilizing certain elements that human beings typically fi nd disturbing.[10] (for example: metal scraping, metal deforming and high-pitched noises) Over 100 sound e ffects for the avatar's footsteps alone were recorded to avoid giving the player a feeling of repetition and thereby a sense of security.
The audio of Silent Hill 2 utilizes all possible means of conveying the sense of oppression to the player, even when those means include not having any sound at all. The soundtrack to the game is so genuinely frightening, and even more so when it's not there.

"If we want to reach out and shake, scare or touch people's hearts,
we have to think about sex and death, deeply"[10]
- Takayoshi Sato, Writer, CGI-Director - Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill 2 is a very adult game, to say the least. The re-occurring themes of morbid nudity, rape, death and violent erotica were very consciously placed into the plot and design, according to Takayoshi Sato.[10] Whether it's the eff eminate monster design, the suggestive rape-scenes or the plot itself - these themes make themselves protrudingly obvious and disturbing. The combination, both in plot and design, of elements that makes up the very core of a human being - such as love, sex, death and violence - indeed results in a very un-nerving theme. Silent Hill 2 is, to my knowledge, one of few games wherein the merging of both plot and design correspond in such a beautiful way. The various themes blend together so greatly that it's hard to know what actually conveys the story the best; the actual plot elements
- or the symbolism in the graphical design?

"In Silent Hill 2, fear could be de ned in terms of what you don't see makes you feel afraid"[10]
- Akihiro Imamura, Producer - Silent Hill 2

...but what's so genius about Silent Hill 2, what makes the experience so unique within the video game-medium, is that it utilizes the player as a conduit to achieve it's heavily praised atmosphere. It does not force the player to witness a certain provocative or disturbing element - that may or may not work for that particular persona - but rather suggests a given theme and lets the player's psyche act out the rest of the scene. The game might let the player know, through a static noise or similar, that there is a lurking horror somewhere nearby or it may suggest certain imagery to relay a theme to a player. But in the end; it's the player him-/herself who creates the fear, making the experience so much more e ffective.
What Silent Hill 2 manages to achieve that is so special in terms of storytelling is that it spawns an atmosphere that really demonstrates the potential of the video game medium. Silent Hill 2 wouldn't have been the same if attempted in any other medium, such as film, since it actually places the player in that accursed town. The player is not a viewer to the plot and happenings in Silent Hill - he/she's in it! Thomas Grip, co-founder of Frictional Games, praises the first game in the Silent Hill series by stating that 'it was the fi rst time a video game beat literature and film at an established genre'.[1]

There's a particular scene at an early point in the game wherein the avatar, James, is forced to make his way through a forest-trail. That scene, along with some other scenes very much like it, are overly long which - apart from conveying a very heavy sense of isolation - also makes the player feel very much on edge. The player feels very exposed and as if he/she's about to get attacked, but in the end you're only making the entire thing up yourself. The masks keep on falling to the floor and you don't know which were created by the developers - and which ones you yourself created.
I later found out that these scenes were designed to be over-the-top lengthy,
to mediate loneliness to the player.[10]
It's this great blend of camerawork, graphical design, plot elements and sound that pretty much encourages the player to make up or add to the story, which contributes greatly to the game's eff ect on the player. My interpretation of Silent Hill 2 is usually very di fferent from the interpretation of someone else; which is an e ffect common in literature and poetry but not all common amongst video games. To me, this showcases the maturity and sophistication of Silent Hill 2 which made it one of my absolute favourites within the medium.

Another modern take on interactive horror with emphasis on atmosphere is Frictional Games' latest title 'Amnesia: The Dark Descent', which follows in the tradition of their previous take in the genre; the 'Penumbra'-series. I've been an avid fan of Frictional Games since I fi rst played Penumbra: Overture, as I see the same potential in both the Penumbra series and Amnesia as I do with Silent Hill 2. These games are very similar in the sense that they all, from an early point in respective experience, let the player establish his/her own idea of what's going on in the sense that the storytelling is relatively subjective.
A similarity both Amnesia and Penumbra shares with Silent Hill 2 is that they all try to convey a claustrophobic atmosphere to the player. Like I mentioned some paragraphs above; Silent Hill 2 has a number of ways to accomplish this - as do previously mentioned titles - but neither Penumbra nor Amnesia attempts this via a third-person perspective. I usually call the third-person view a claustrophobic such, but a first-person perspective can be utilized in very much the same way.

Using modern 3D-sound, which Amnesia uses extensively to create a frightening - almost to the verge of paranoid - atmosphere, in combination with a first-person perspective may very well add to the claustrophobic feel. This is mostly thanks to the very limited visual field that the player has, since both Amnesia and Penumbra takes place in very dark environments. These factors result in gameplay where the player feels exposed since he/she cannot establish a complete overview of his/her surroundings. (on the contrary to the third-person camera angle the player cannot see, albeit limited, behind him/herself )
Worthy of mentioning is that Amnesia uses similar, discomforting, ambient sounds as that of Akira Yamaoka but restricts it's usage of such when it comes to the musical score which is, on the contrary to Silent Hill, very rarely played. A product from Frictional Games' small budget, I would presume. This does not work against the experience, however, since Amnesia's audio design is based more on ambient noises than Silent Hill 2 and therefore very fitting of the slim soundtrack.

Similarly, as with Silent Hill 2's fixed camera positions, Amnesia also restrains the player's control over the avatar by various means. When the avatar's 'insanity level' reaches suffcient levels in Amnesia: the game modi fies how the character is controlled. For example, the character may be tilted back and forth or his field of vision may be blurred and disfi gured.
These are all e ffects that derail the player's sense of control which is an eff ective way of contributing to the helplessness that Amnesia tries to convey.
This may, of course, work in both ways. As a designer one must attempt to find a balance
so that this atmosphere-enhancing mechanic doesn't completely disconnect the player (viewer?) from the experience, hence ruining said atmosphere. Some would claim that Amnesia's way of restraining a player's control over his/her avatar is more eff ective that that of Silent Hill 2, since it may be considered too harsh to change the actual controls of the game, even slightly. (since this may harm immersion)

Madness filters and humanoid creature in Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Figure 2

Figure 2: Madness fi lters and humanoid creature in Amnesia: The Dark Descent

"We try to keep everything in the player's mind"[4] - Thomas Grip

Frictional Games' horror titles expand upon Silent Hill 2's strong focus on the player's own imagination; to enhance the horror experience and storytelling. In an interview from Nordic Game Jam 2011[6]; Grip points out how older horror classics were the primary inspiration for this type of terror-relaying, since these fi lms had very little resources to work with. (and therefore had to utilize these types of methods to achieve their horror) He names 'The Omen' and 'The Exorcist' as two particularly strong inspirations to Amnesia.[6]
In another interview; Grip explains his view by stating the guideline 'Show as little as possible' and also to let the player 'do as little as possible' in order to maximize the player's focus on immersion.[4] He expands on this outlook by pointing out that a player's focus should not be on a certain set of actions within the game, but rather to immersive him-/herself into the game world - two properties that do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. He compares this method to sensory deprivation.[4]
Frictional Games' latest title Amnesia is very di erent from both Penumbra and Silent Hill 2 in terms of action and combat since the player has no way of defending him/herself in the game. In his lecture at GDC, Grip makes it clear that experience from their previous Penumbra-games and play-testing indicated that combat could potentially harm the gameplay experience by exposing obvious game mechanics to a player.[3] Grip talks about the very di fferent approach of avoiding killing the player or to let that player repeat certain bits of a game as punishment of performing 'poorly', and that such mechanics should be avoided if a very strong immersion is to be kept.[6][3]

Thomas Grip mentions[3][2] that a primary goal for Amnesia was to have an as tight coupling - in between the player and the avatar - as possible. He points out that he wanted the player, not to play or watch his/her avatar, but to be that avatar.
This is related to a certain phenomenon utilized in several horror titles, in which the player thoroughly roleplays his/her avatar through particularly frightening scenarios and through this self-aware immersion maximizes the horror experience. It's a phenomenon exclusive to the genre, I feel; where the player knowingly participates in this weird sort of terror-sado-masochism.
Grip talks about this phenomenon in an interview[6] whereupon he mentions that, during playtesting a scene in which the subjects were hiding in a closet from an unknown terror; people would roleplay their character as if in a cliche horror flick. (for example opening the closet door slightly too peek at the monstrosity, even though they fully knew it was there waiting for them)
There is no doubt that this type of immersion is key to a rich and atmospheric horror experience, and surely most games would gain from such dedicated devotion to the medium.

"Like great works of art in other media a videogame can require a lot from the player. However, this does not mean it is up for the player to create meaning and depth"[5] - Thomas Grip

Imagine a world in which the primary goal of a 'video game' is for the player to fully immerse him-/herself. There's no focus on highscore, no levels to beat and minimal coupling in between the player's mind and the avatar's. A world in which the player participates in the avatar's train of thought and allows him-/herself to think in the patterns of that persona. A world in which the player permits the developer of said experience to mediate his or her thoughts on things - to for a fraction of the player's time convey his/her views on things, without the un-necessary boundaries of conversation and questioning. A world in which a video game is a ride on opinions and views - not necessarily shared by the player - but yet comfortably experienced in this ride on someone else's train of thought.
I'm talking about a world in which a 'video game' is not necessarily seen as a challenge or something to overcome but instead as a valuable experience to grow on as a human being, to meditate on things
...or to simply have some very immersive hilarities.
I want to believe in the medium, and I want to believe that video games can be so much more than what they are now. We're at the frontier of a very early point in the evolution of interactive worlds, and we must not fool ourselves that we've seen even the tiniest fraction of the medium's potential.

"My view on the core of videogames is not that should to provide us with problems,
but to immerse us in engaging virtual worlds"[7] - Thomas Grip

We could argue on whether Silent Hill 2 or Amnesia are early fore-runners in this evolutionary step, or if they're just dead ends amongst the many mutations of the video game industry. We could argue on how to best convey various emotions in video games, to what scale it's already been done - and to what level it can be pushed.
We do not know where the interactive medium will take us in the future, but what we do
know is that new horizons are being opened in the industry - and we're finally ready to start experimenting properly.
Along with success there is always dead ends and we could argue forever on whether or not video games will ever be considered a legitimate art form, or whether games will ever evolve - or if they already have.
This is why I like horror. Because no matter how much you debate or how much you question, whether you like it or not
You cannot deny Fear - Fear is absolute
...and Fear is evolving.

[1] Lewis Denby. Silent hill 'better at horror than other media' - amnesia dev. Article, 2011. http://beefjack.com/news/silent-hill-better-at-horror-than-other-media-%
[2] Thomas Grip. How player becomes protagonist. Article, 2010. http://frictionalgames.
[3] Thomas Grip. Evoking emotions and achieving sucess by breaking all the rules. Lecture, 2011. http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1014889/Evoking-Emotions-and-Achieving-Suc%cess.
[4] Thomas Grip. Interview with thomas grip of frictional games. Interview, 2011. http:
[5] Thomas Grip. The player - the artist? Article, 2011. http://frictionalgames.blogspot.
[6] Thomas Grip. Thomas grip interview at nordic game jam. Interview, 2011. http://youtu.be/he4kcehs15U.
[7] Thomas Grip. Narrative - not game mechanic. Article, 2012. http://frictionalgames.
[8] Thomas Ligotti. Teatro Grottesco. Virgin Books, 2010.
[9] Randy Lundeen. L4d art direction, part 1: Filmic e ffects. Article, 2008. http://www.l4d.
[10] Team Silent. Making of - alchemists of emotion. Documentary, FUN TV, 2001.

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