The Horror of Mortality

Posted on October 30, 2011 by
The Horror of Mortality

By Jason Venter

Wind gusts suddenly and brittle branches scrape across a pane of glass in response. In her bedroom, a child whimpers. She is trying to get to sleep and her imagination is making that difficult. She wonders if she can make a break for it, if she can reach her door and step into the light that bathes the hallway beyond it. That's a possibility, but she knows that the monster under her bed wouldn't like to see her leave. It might grab her and stuff her in its mouth, rip her to shreds with its thousands upon thousands of gleaming, razor-sharp teeth. It's hard to guess what will happen once she sets her feet on the carpeted floor. So she cowers under her blankets instead, trembling until the effort wears her out and finally she falls asleep.

Halloween is a time to celebrate those things that go bump in the night: the witches, the goblins, the zombies and that one guy from that one horror movie. Freddy? Jason? Jigsaw? Pinhead? Choose your poison. Or if you're a gamer, perhaps you'll choose one of the many games that have so effectively frightened us throughout the years: Splatterhouse. Resident Evil. Silent Hill. Fatal Frame. Those can be terrifying games... but why?

The convoluted answer to that question is that we sympathize with the main character in the game we choose to play. We become him or her and the instant we do, that protagonist's strengths and limitations become our own. Suddenly, we are a member of the S.T.A.R.S. team, lost in a spooky and zombie-infested mansion. Or we're sifting through the fog, looking for our lost daughter among ramshackle buildings populated by all sorts of unnatural horrors. That's the convoluted answer. The more direct answer is that we're afraid of dying.

The developers responsible for the best survival horror titles recognize the source of our fear and they use it against us so that we'll keep being scared and keep buying sequels. Resident Evil wasn't a horrifying game because you had to wander through hallways and cramped corridors in a mansion filled with zombies; it was horrifying because you didn't have the tools that would allow you to be confident that you could survive. Your perspectives were fixed so that you could almost never see everything you wanted to see. You didn't have enough ammunition that you could afford to waste many shots. You couldn't turn quickly, or run swiftly down a hallway to escape pursuers. For that matter, you couldn't even afford to save your progress often enough because then you'd run out of typewriter ribbon.

Dying in an early Resident Evil game sucked, and it happened a lot at first because you didn't know what was coming or how best to survive. That helplessness in the face of mortality was scarier than the sight of a slobbering zombie dog. It was more terrifying than a mutant monster on the police station roof in Raccoon City. The best games in the franchiseand indeed, the genreare those games where you know that you're living on borrowed time and something nasty is about to collect.

Consider, for a moment, BioShock. Ken Levine's masterpiece presented a beautiful and terrifying environment populated by disgusting monsters and sad little girls with powerful machines as bodyguards. There were guns available throughout the underwater city of Rapture, certainly, but often you had to rely on much weaker weapons such as pipes. It was the perfect setup for a truly terrifying game, but for one thing: vita chambers. Often it seemed that you could find one of the life-restoring cylinders around every corner. The vita chambers meant that if you died, you lost barely any progress. It was possible to play through almost the entire game with just a pipe for protection because all you had to do was try again. Death meant almost nothing, and so the folks who saw the potential for a horror masterpiece said horrifying things about an experience they didn't understand.

BioShock's transgression was easy to forgive, though, because horror was never the point. It made less sense when the Resident Evil series eventually headed down a similar road. Players responded well to the improved control mechanics and more satisfying gunplay in Resident Evil 4, so Capcom produced a sequel that upped the ante. Suddenly, players faced waves of zombies. It should have been terrifying, and it would have been... if only those players didn't have such awesome weaponry. Suddenly, survival was all but assured. The terror evaporated. Resident Evil 5 is a game for people who like shooting zombies, but don't call it survival horror.

As an increasing number of developers forget what once made their games so frightening, some of the most terrifying survival horror games that you'll see released are no longer considered survival horror titles at all. One recent example is Dark Souls. Here is a game where you find your pulse racing as you hear a monster bellowing in an adjacent chamber. You know that you're almost certainly going to be outgunned and still you haven't found a reassuring bonfire that will prevent you from having to backtrack. You're carrying around a bunch of precious souls and you know that if you die now, you risk losing them all. You catch yourself holding your breath as you wipe the sweat from your brow and from your controller. You round the corner and there you see a mist-shrouded doorway. You pause in front of it and that's when you realize that you're every bit as terrified as you would be in a house of zombies.

Numerous elements contribute to a good horror game, but none of them are more important than the fear of imminent death. A wave of zombies is only frightening when you hear the click of an empty chamber and you realize that there are no more bullets. An empty yard is only frightening when you realize that something might be lurking under the porch and you don't have anything more than a knife with which to defend yourself. Good horror games scare us because we realize (like the girl cowering under her blankets) that there are monsters out to get us and we probably don't have the resources we need in order to survive. They remind us what a fragile thing mortality can be.

About the Author: Jason Venter

"With nearly 700 reviews under his belt, Jason Venter has reviewed more games than some people have played. He's a freelance critic, a copyeditor, a novelist, a webmaster an SEO freak andmost of alla gamer!"

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