Controlling Fear

by Steve Bowler on January 17, 2009 · 9 comments

in general

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into control and how successful the player feels using that control lately.  Part of it came up when I read that Cliffy B was thinking of doing a horror game, part of it came up when I read Jerry’s short take on Dead Space (and how it’s not a horror game), and part of it is due to some things I can’t talk about, so we’ll just chalk it up to me just thinking about combat a lot lately, especially how it relates to horror games, or anytime a game asks the player to be afraid.  The following is more me documenting my thoughts for later reference, as I’m sure a lot of folks out there have already come to these conclusions.

Fear is a tough emotion to ask our players to have, especially when it relates to gaming.  Gaming is almost entirely about “success.”  How successful does the player feel?  Typically, if the player doesn’t feel good and successful about the game they’re playing, they’ll stop playing it.  They won’t recommend it to friends.  They pan it on forms and boards.  So as developers we’ve grown accustomed to players feeling successful.  It’s good for us and our industry.

We can argue that fear involves scaring the player.  Things that go “boo” or jump out at the player, or are visually horrifying to look at.  Those things aren’t really within the realm of design, but simply using art or a player’s own base instincts against them.  In the end these things get old, and players get conditioned against them.  If we want to ask how we can use core design techniques to scare a player, I think we need to analyze that fear stems not only from a lack of success, but primarly, from a lack of control.  We can take this literally to mean the controller in the player’s hands, but additionally it can mean a lack of control over a situation, or even an absence of control altogether.

The latter two examples above we can see in horror films.  The viewer has no control over the protagonists in the film, and is essentially on a ride, experiencing what the protagonist experiences by proxy.  The Blair Witch Project accomplishes this through a lot of use of first person cameras, and keeping the viewer in the dark about what is really going on the entire film (to the point of keeping the actors in the dark so they would convey this sensation and emotion to the audience), until the final reveal at the ending, which the viewer (and even the protagonist) suspects is coming but is powerless to stop.

An even better example of control (and who has it) in horror films is found when we examine the relationship of power and control between the protagonist and the antagonist in “classic” recent horror films.  Jason, Freddy, that Saw dude, and Michael Meyers are/were all horrifying antagonists, primarily because they held all of the power.  They had giant chainsaws, elaborate traps, huge knives, were seemingly impervious to damage, and could even control your dreams and kill you in your sleep.  How are mere humans supposed to contend with a “boss” of that magnitude?  Most of the protagonists’ decisions are made in response to actions that the antagonist is taking.  It’s the villain who has the plan and is in control of the situation.  The hero is the mouse and is being confronted by mountain cats.  Rarely ever do we see the protagonists come up with a plot to defeat the villain in a horror movie.  Going “toe to toe” in combat almost always results in death.  Most are lucky to merely escape.

This sort of mentality usually flies in the face of game development.  Players expect to be a badass.  They don’t want to have to fight a boss that they can’t really hurt.  Almost no one feels that they are getting their money’s worth from a title by having to side-step combat in order to succeed.  We as developers have trained them that we will either teach them how to defeat enemies or at least supply them with the tools to learn this for themselves.  For a perfect example of this, one has to look no further than Left 4 Dead’s witch, who was designed as a one-hit uber boss for the players to avoid, and yet everyone now wants to use the auto-shotgun exploit on her from behind.  Killing her solo has actually become a new challenge, not something to fear.  Now, I’m not criticizing Left 4 Dead’s control vs. fear ratio.  In fact, they’ve designed their game around this concept.  The AI Director that we’ve heard so much about constantly tunes the game so that players with lower health are challenged at the right proportion so they don’t feel overwhelmed.  Its objective is to make the game just difficult enough so that players limp, not sprint, across the finish line into the safe house.

And that’s a tough nut to crack.  Left 4 Dead doesn’t rely on poor control to make the player afraid and tense; they use a procedurally balanced difficulty system.  In this way they have taken away the player’s control over his environment, even though it’s a mostly linear route.  Players don’t know what’s around any given corner, no matter how many times they play the level.  So players are no longer frustrated by the control of the character, as was the case in old survival horror games.  They are powerful, but just powerful enough.

But what about when we’re outside of the “horror” genre?  How can we use the control vs. fear ratio to make players feel other kinds of fear, other than the straight up “I’m gonna get axe murdered!” kind?

I was surprised when I played Mirror’s Edge that I wasn’t really experiencing any real sort of vertigo.  We’re certainly high enough up.  We’re certainly in precarious enough situations.  But I think maybe we were too much in control of Faith.  Now, hey, I’m not saying make the controls clunkier here.  That’s not the argument, necessarily.  I think the problem is that we can either be a badass, or we can experience fear.  The two are nearly mutually exclusive.  Faith was pretty much a badass.  There isn’t anything in the game she can’t parkour over (or under, or around, etc.).  We’re taught right off the bat that this isn’t really so much a dangerous rooftop scenario; it’s a playground for us to play on.  Any sense of vertigo is typically overwhelmed by a rush of endorphins or adrenaline.  It’s not scary.  It’s exciting.  Compare the sensation of playing Mirror’s Edge, for a moment, with the sensation of watching this video:

In both examples, we are exploring dangerously vertical pathways.  But in one, we’re in full control and a badass parkour expert, and in another, we’re trying to keep from pissing our pants.  Part of this is the “level design” of the catwalk in the video, and part of it is in what we know our “character” is able to do.  Even if it was playable, the catwalk video is terrifying because:

  1. Our moveset only involves walking, stairclimbing, and balancing.  Running is too risky.
  2. We’re almost always asked to stand precariously on a ledge (so we’re constantly asked to flirt with but avoid failure).
  3. Failure almost certainly means death.

The only gameplay example I can come up with for comparison to the video was the Coruscant level from (I’m pretty sure) the original Dark Forces, where we’re asked to walk around a bunch of dangerous railing-free narrow catwalks so high above the planet’s surface we can’t even see the ground.  I was in full control of my character with an FPS control scheme.  I was even a badass with an insane amount of guns.  But the pucker factor for that level was off the charts.  Even with a quicksave feature, I was so afraid of falling it became almost crippling.  It was probably due to the constant wind noise, and if I’m remembering correctly I think they actually tried to blow you off of some ledges every so often.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that badguys were on the ledges too and trying to shoot you the entire time or melee you off of them.  But the point was that despite being given an insane degree of control (pinpoint shot accuracy, FPS view and controls), I felt at the time very not in complete control of the situation.

It’s interesting to note how this footpath takes control away from the hiker.  At times the path is literally crumbled away in front of him, and he is required to walk a balance beam made out of the catwalk’s understructure hundreds of feet in the air before he can return to the relative “safety” of the cement path again.  Ostensibly, this is the same mechanic as the balance beam segments seen in Mirror’s Edge.  Regardless of which one is real or not, one is exponentially more terrifying than the other, as we are expected to do brave and dangerous things in ME, but on this narrow hiking path we want to avoid them, but are forced to confront them if the hiker wishes to continue on.

So, as a developer, if we seek to strike fear in a player, how can we give them complete control over their character, yet restrict control in their environment, in their decisionmaking, and within the confines of the gameplay?

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