Playing with Death: The Appeal of Horror Games
Do you remember your first time? The first game to make you take a worried glance at the shadows playing on the wall? To send a chill down your spine? I’m not talking about a fright, here, but a full-blown attack of the wiggins. Doom, maybe? Resident Evil? More recently, Dead Space or Slender? And as the goose bumps spread, did you duck behind the couch? Throw the cat at your console? Or did you play on, tight-chested, eyes stinging because you were too nervous to blink?
You only have to take into account Stephen King’s bank balance, or the fact that Freddy, Jason, and Chucky are household names to know that people like to play with fear. When the chance of coming out intact is high enough, we’ll leap from planes, swim with sharks, jump motorbikes between casino rooves, and sit transfixed in a theatre, eating popcorn on autopilot. In fact, the capacity of cinema to induce chills was experimented with as early as the late Nineteenth Century. The vampire classic Nosferatu predates Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Most sane people won’t permit themselves to be captured by terrorists or play Russian Roulette, but when it’s highly likely that frightening events can’t harm us, we’ll get in line. But why? Fear isn’t pleasant. So how can it be enjoyed?
Research has shown that there are two fundamental differences between people who seek out fearful experiences and those who avoid them. One, the fear-seekers enjoy intense emotions. In psychological parlance, they are high in N.F.A., or need for affect (emotion), whereas the fear avoiders may or may not be. Two, and the real thing which distinguishes them, is that they’re accepting of negative emotions—in other words, they feel that experiencing fear is normal, and therefore nothing to worry about. Fear-avoiders, even high N.F.A. ones, feel that experiencing negative emotions is an abnormal part of life, akin to disease and financial ruin, and therefore avoid contact with them whenever possible.
If fear satisfies people seeking gripping emotional experiences, then, what creates this intensity?
To answer this, we should start with the ultimate fear—that of death. As opposed to the anguish felt by people considering being absent for loved ones, or missing out on things, we possess a primal fear of ceasing to be which doesn’t necessarily involve dying. Horror and science-fiction offer myriad examples of the erasing of subjectivity (of the self) without death, from the bite of a werewolf to being assimilated by The Borg, enabling this primal fear to be explored in an unlimited number of creative ways.
Video games lend themselves to creating scary experiences, given the tendency of players to identify with their characters, projecting our subjectivity inside them and therefore their world. However, while the vast majority of games involve death in some form, and may be tense or exhilarating, they aren’t particularly scary. Being shot to death in an FPS, for instance, isn’t really frightening. On the other hand, being gnawed on by a zombie – even though such a thing doesn’t even exist – is. (Play World at War, and then the Zombie mode to experience the contrast). So, what’s the difference between an enemy soldier and a zombie?
Freud explained the difference by his concept of the uncanny – in his native German, the unheimlich, which translates to the “unhomely.” By his definition, something can only be unhomely if it reminds us first of the “homely” – familiar things that we enjoy or need – while at the same time possessing some sort of crucial difference. Like the dolls and androids which are said to occupy the “uncanny valley,” a zombie is uncanny because it reminds us of a person (it looks, moves, and eats like a person), but is clearly not a person because it’s only the shell, absent of a self; a corpse. The uncanny induces feelings of fear or disquiet because it makes us question the stability of our own subjectivity—that is, our own selves; their durability, and their differences from others; whether we are human, or a thing, like Slenderman or Pyramid Head.
We know intuitively that death involves the loss of subjectivity, annihilation of the self, and that other states such as madness (a loss of the boundary between self and other) involve a similar loss. A French euphemism for orgasm is la petit mort—the little death—reflecting the erosion of the boundary between self and other that occurs at this point; the basis for an emotional intensity that is actually caused by fear. As the other side of the coin to knowing that we’re living individuals is knowing that we can go mad or die (lose our subjectivity), being put in touch with this knowledge is always an intense experience, whether it be safe and pleasurable or otherwise.
Closely related to Freud’s uncanny is Julia Kristeva’s conception of the abject. Whereas the uncanny is a perverse or impoverished version of the familiar, the abject is something we find to be the opposite of the familiar; that we completely disavow, and won’t tolerate even to the slightest degree because there is nothing even remotely “homely” about it. In this way, the abject could be thought of as an extreme subcategory of the uncanny. While coming into contact with the uncanny can induce discomfort, coming into contact with the abject induces horror. As Kristeva puts it, the abject is comprised of things that “show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live.” Blood, excrement, dismembered body parts, signs of disease, all belong to the abject, and thus comprise the mise en scènes (elements that make up the setting) of the horror game.
Playing such a game, therefore, essentially involves the defence of subjectivity against the uncanny and abject. The degree of fear and horror experienced is directly related to the difficulty of this defence. The survival horror genre, which reached peak popularity around the turn of the century, was based upon putting the player in touch with human frailty. Making use of the familiar techniques of horror films, such as limited visibility, the sounds of concealed adversaries, an eerie score, a character’s isolation, involvement of the alien or supernatural, and the sympathetic character’s relative powerlessness, fostered uncertainty about whether one might be able to get through the experience with body and soul intact.
A more recent trend in the horror genre, however, has been to make the separation of the player-character from the abject impossible. BioShock, for instance, almost immediately sees its protagonist begin the process of becoming one of the artificially augmented and insane Übermenschen he must defeat in combat—a process which reaches a gory conclusion ensuring that while Jack may live, it certainly won’t be to tell the tale. Similarly, it’s suggested to the player that F.E.A.R.’s Point Man, with his superhuman reflexes and hallucinations related to the supernatural phenomena which comprise the game’s action, is more than an anonymous soldier, but in fact an uncanny phenomenon himself.
The purpose of the protagonist who has been sullied by the horror surrounding him is to put a finer point on the defence of subjectivity. The fight is no longer cast in terms of human vs. inhuman, but rather self vs. other; an attempt to raise the stakes by more intimately connecting the player to the game’s events, a trend which has emerged in tandem with so-called “moral choices”; harvesting Little Sisters, for instance, versus rescuing them; defusing the atomic bomb in the centre of Megaton, or blowing the place sky high. The appeal of such “negative” moral choices is that one can reduce the tension felt by the need to defend the psyche by letting oneself become, to some degree, “the other.” If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Another dimension to playing with fear.
Essentially, however, the appeal of the horror game is that the horror can be overcome. While certain films have concluded with the main protagonist being stuck in diabolical circumstances (Event Horizon, for instance, or The Dark), games always permit at least a temporary respite—if only until the sequel.
Gamers who enjoy horror games, therefore, wish not only for intense emotional experiences, but ones caused by the need to actively defend their subjectivity from threats, enjoying the primal feelings of risk and reward that go along with them. The central appeal of horror games is the prospect of being active in the defence of one’s self—something that is assured by the very nature of a video game (a skill-based puzzle that has been made to be survived; completed), and therefore gaining fantastical control over death itself. It’s only natural that if death is our ultimate fear, mastering it is our ultimate fantasy.
Daniel Clark is an Australian freelance gaming journalist and writer. Why not follow him on IGN and join the IGN Australia Facebook community?
By Daniel Clark