Experienced Points: Game Developers Don’t Know How to Scare Us

By Shamus
on Oct 12, 2015
Filed under:
Column

My topic for the column this week is nicely summed up by the title, which is I guess what titles are supposed to do. So that’s nice.

Here is a conundrum for people who write columns for a living:

When is it okay to repeat yourself? It would obviously be completely unreasonable to publish the same column every week with the same points, only slightly re-worded. But if you write a column on some problem or issue and (say) six years later the problem is the same (or worse) then surely it would be okay to run it again, right? Some people will have forgotten. Heck, six years is long enough for a generation of kids to progress from middle school to graduation, which moves them from the “I want Mario for Christmas!” to “Shit, I’m broke. Where do I spend my very limited gaming dollars?” demographic, which turns them into potentially new readers who didn’t care what I had to say about survival horror back in 2009.

I worry about stuff like this. I want to keep things fresh and interesting, while at the same time making sure the Important Stuff”Important” being an extremely relative measure, here. gets said. Where is the line? Could I do this topic every year? Biennially? Leap years? Harmonic convergences? Wednesdays?

How much do I need to re-word things? What if I really nailed the wording the first time? Do I need to re-arrange the sentences to make them less optimal just for the sake of avoiding copy & paste writing? What if I just happen to word things the same because the sentences are still coming from the same brain with the same writing habits?

I dunno. Nobody has ever complained, but it’s the sort of thing I worry about anyway.

Enjoyed this post? Please share!

Footnotes:

[1] ”Important” being an extremely relative measure, here.


2020201777 comments. (Seventy-seven is the smallest positive integer requiring five syllables in English!)

From the Archives:

  1. Daemian Lucifer says:

    When is it okay to repeat yourself? It would obviously be completely unreasonable to publish the same column every week with the same points, only slightly re-worded.

    Depends on the topic.Is it something done for humorous effect?Is it something that keeps repeating despite you harping on it?Are you trying to prove a point about people not paying attention?All of those are valid reasons to repeat yourself as soon as possible.

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      I do think it would be somewhat amusing if Shamus ended his every column, regardless of the topic, with something along the lines of “Furthermore, I believe that DRM should be destroyed”.

      On a more serious note, I think some problems, if they refuse to go away or even become more pronounced, need to be called out again and again. That said it’s good to approach a topic from a new perspective, for example right now everyone and their mother seems to think that it’s enough to have a low light environment and a jumpscare or two to make a horror game…

      • John says:

        Let me bust out my Latin dictionary. Let’s see, I think administratio iurum digitorum delendum est mostly works.

        Of course, I’m working from a classical Latin dictionary, so I really just said that finger-rights management must be destroyed. I’ll leave it to somebody with the Vatican’s contemporary Latin dictionary to provide a proper translation of the word digital.

        • Kylroy says:

          “DRM Delenda Est” seems sufficient to me. Lots of *living* languages port over English tech terms untranslated, why not dead ones?

          • John says:

            It so happens that the contemporary Latin dictionary does include a lot of Latin-ized loan words from other languages, not that I can remember what any of them are at the moment. In fact, post-Classical Latin has a long and distinguished tradition of stealing words from other languages. When I was in high school, I bought a copy of the Magna Carta in the original Latin and foolishly thought that I’d be able to read it. Nope. Medieval Latin uses a lot of non-Classical words. To make matters worse, it also uses a lot of non-Classical letters, like Y.

            While we’re Latin-ing, I’d like to propose Administratio iurum digitorum delendum est! as the motto on Shamus’ coat of arms. If not that, I would also like to propose Quae edunt?, or “What do they eat?”

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    But the problem isn’t this study.

    Considering that “Other games, such as Left 4 Dead 2, Gears of War 2, Condemned 2, FEAR 1 & 2, Dead Space 1, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Alone in the Dark and Mass Effect 2 were considered, but ultimately disregarded” ,it kind of is.Its easy to put all the blame on the publishers because “its hard to do it”,but a large chunk of the blame is on the players who praise them as good scary games.I mean,its not the developers that invented the name “cover shooter”,its the players and critics who decided to lump all these games under that label.

    • Cinebeast says:

      Mass Effect 2 is the one that gets me. The others make a bit of sense — hell, even Gears of War has the trappings of a space horror, even if it isn’t trying to be one — but Mass Effect?

      What, was Amnesia never released on the Xbox 360? What about Alien Isolation or something? Bewildering lineup.

      • Thomas says:

        The study predates Alien Isolation I think.

        Maybe if you just look at the Collector levels and squint you might accidentally mistake ME2 as having hints of something a bit Aliens?

        More charitably, maybe “considered and rejected” means someone brought it up and then everyone else told them how dumb an idea that was.

        • Sleeping Dragon says:

          Other than the “piles of corpses” in one place and the “human slushie” we all know where (both of which are more macabre than scary, if that) I’d say between husks and indoctrination the dead reaper had some horror potential as an idea, not that it felt designed for that.

      • galacticplumber says:

        I’ll have you know mass effect 2 was terrifying. It had a monster so dreadful it murdered the very plot itself within the first hour or so.

  3. EricF says:

    Link to the old article at the top of the new one, then add new information / complaints about how nothing has changed.

  4. steves says:

    Yeah, Wednesdays sounds good;) Every other year.

    Just update the references, most of what you moan about is still sadly relevant.

    I mean it’s fucking 2015 and we still have PC games with un-skippable intro movies/cutscenes, controls that can’t be bound properly (WoW let you assign alt/shift key commands in like 2006 FFS! why does no-one copy that?), retarded ‘save’ systems, the alt-tab lottery, dual-monitor screwiness, etc.

    And that’s without even ranting about the adolescent writing and general idiocy of most games.

    Meanwhile, I’ll be here replaying STALKER Pripyat (playing that will scare your shit right up) and moaning about what could have been…

    • Lanthanide says:

      “controls that can’t be bound properly (WoW let you assign alt/shift key commands in like 2006 FFS! why does no-one copy that?)”

      Because every feature, including binding of shift and alt keys, takes more work to implement, more work to test and more work to maintain.

      Developers and publishers simply say “is this amount of work worth the trade-off”. For marginal features like that, the answer is generally “no”.

      It’s not a case of “developers don’t know how to do these things”, so much as “developers choose not to do them”, or “the mere thought of doing them never occurred to the developer because they’re such marginal / minor items in the grand scheme of things”.

      • tmtvl says:

        Yeah, but how has nobody in all these years made an input library that makes it easy enough to where it generally is worth the effort?

        • Because a shocking amount of stuff to do with IT and computers in general is secretly held together with paperclips and sticky tape under the facade?

        • Lanthanide says:

          That’s a reasonable question. I believe there was/is a DirectX library component to do with input. Obviously these days DirectX is best known for the graphics driver component.

          For ‘industry standard’ engines like Unity, Unreal and ID Tech etc, I’d expect this to be part of the standard functionality – those engines should be fully-featured. But for any company implementing their own engine and game, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t implement support for it. But you’re right, there should be some middleware that makes this a no-brainer.

          Even-so, such middleware would cost money to buy, implement, test and maintain, and the publisher/developer may decide that building it in-house is more cost-effective – especially if the middleware is “all the bells and whistles” with a price to match – sacrificing some bells and whistles in order to make the budget and sales projections line up, even if it inconveniences some customers, would be the correct business decision.

          TANSTAAFL

        • Phill says:

          I don’t think a library would help much. Writing game code to work with concepts rather than keys (“the ‘jump’ channel has activated” (whatever it might be), rather than “the ‘space bar’ has been activated”) is virtually the same amount of work. There is a little bit of overhead in translating raw input into channels, but any game supporting more than once input device (game pad vs keyboard) is already doing that anyway.

          Having the mapping done dynamically – data driven rather than hardcoded – and loading / saving the mappings is also pretty trivial.

          And that’s pretty much the list of things that a library is going to help you with – there’s not much to it, and getting a 3rd party library to work in your code is probably about as much work as doing that stuff yourself.

          The headache is when you come to do the UI screen for remapping controls. *That* is probably 5-10 times as much code work as the rest of the input system, plus the extra art requirements to design and lay out the screen and create the assets for it. Two screens if you want to chuck in controller remapping too. And those kinds of screens are also a great source of bugs (in my experience).

          And if you have a minimalist front end, and a lot of controls, there is a whole load of custom code (scroll bars, sliders, check boxes) that might not appear anywhere else in your game, and actually take a reasonable amount of work themselves (although much less so if you are using a UI library of some sort that provides those things already).

          So basically, control remapping is pretty easy to support. The UI for control remapping however is more work than you might imagine, and for a small team it might well find itself on the ‘optional’ list particularly if it doesn’t fit easily into their existing UI systems.

          • Thomas says:

            Anything AAA should still be putting in that effort though. Especially when you consider it’s going to be released in areas without QWERTY keyboards anyway.

            • Phill says:

              Absolutely. There is no excuse for AAA games not to support this. I was talking more in terms of indie, or smaller projects (the ones I worked on had 4-6 programmers, plus designers, artists etc., and we managed it, but I wouldn’t criticise a team smaller than that for not dedicating the resources to do it; it’s unlikely to affect your sales to the tune of the several thousand dollars it might cost you to implement it well, and if you are living close to the financial edge, as many small games are, it’s the kind of decision that cumulatively pushes your company under).

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                Sorry,but no.This arent thing that change every few months,like graphics.This is something that has a known code and has not been changed for years.You have to know this.

                Further,whenever someone says “indies are small teams,cut them some slack” I will point them to dust:an elysian tail.If one man can do that,there is no excuse for anyone else not doing a good job.At least,if they are charging money for it.

              • Bubble181 says:

                You can remap keys in Shadow of Mordor, but for some reason, in a *few* menus (selcting a new target captain/warchief), the “old” keys remain valid. You can *mostly* use the mouse, but for some missions you have to go to those menus and select a specific captain. Well, for *those* – and only those! – you have to use WASD. Not the keys you rebound those to, no, actual WASD. Pretty confusing on an AZERTY….Not to mention a really, really weird oversight.

                • Phill says:

                  I know how this one goes.

                  You have one programmer dedicated to working on the front end menus (and consequently hating his/her life), right up to the point where the publishing deadline looms, at which point an extra junior programmer gets assigned a few of the menu screens to work on. Said junior programmer either doesn’t notice the complex input system, or figures they don’t have time to work it out, and either way ends up taking some shortcuts on those screens.

                  Meanwhile, testing fails to spot this, for the same that players find it very weird: it doesn’t occur to many people that haven’t worked on the input code that this sort of thing is even possible. So they right their test plan, and put in stuff like testing that navigating the menus (one or two of them) is possible, and that you can get in to the gameplay okay, and the in-game controls are all working as expected.

                  (Bear in mind that the testers have a test plan they run through entirely for each build, so very quickly get into doing the minimum required to tick each check box, because they will be doing the whole test suite dozens and dozens of times with almost identical results each time. It’s not a system condusive to catching stuff like remapped controls inexplicably not working on just one or two screens).

                  It’s the sort of thing that beta testing ought to catch though. If the publishing deadline allows enough time, that functionality is ready in time for beta testing, and you can afford to run a large enough beta test to catch the more obscure isses.

          • Chuk says:

            Instead of a UI they should just make reconfiguring controls an option in an .ini file. Everyone’s already got a text editor, right?

    • lurkey says:

      Pripyat’s beautiful, but ain’t scary at all. Unless you play it before “Shadow of Chernobyl”, I guess. I will forever treasure the memory of that “whatisthatohshitohshitohshitOHSHI-” feeling upon meeting my first Controller. ♥ :3

    • Michael says:

      Call of Prypiat’s probably my favorite in the series, from a gameplay perspective. But, Shadow of Chernobyl has got to be the most effective as a horror game. Between the poor weapon accuracy, weapon degradation, armor that can be shredded in a few hits, and a world with very arbitrary rules, it can be very scary.

      Multiple playthroughs let you learn the systems, understand how enemies work, and generally get a handle on things. But, because SoC is so short, you’re still going to be staggering around in the dark by the end of the game.

      CoP and CS are both more traditional shooters. CoP is a buggy, but kind of brilliant open world shooter. It’s been kind of eclipsed by the Far Cry series (since 3), but CoP does play really well.

  5. Also, what is scary? I’ll jump and scream if you put a jump “scare” in front of me, but I’m not scared, just startled. (This might be why I don’t like haunted houses, I hate being just startled (and also not a big gore person)). You want to truly frighten me? I still haven’t managed to finish watching the Babadook (Australian movie, on netflix). Being stuck in a small enclosed space’ll do it too, and while heights don’t scare me, the imp yelling Jump! in my head sure does (that probably doesn’t work for anyone who hasn’t been suicidal, but trust me, it’s terrifying to me).

    There’s also that horror doesn’t always age well. Dracula was scary in the 30s (and to me as a 6 year old) but now, well, I see the armadillo and the mood’s gone. Getting that gradual creeping “something not quite right” feeling going and keeping it ramping up is a difficult thing to do compared to gore and jump scares, but I think it’s the only way you’d get a good horror game with some replayability. I remember reading an excellent essay last year on the horror movie genre (which I sadly can’t find again but it was great and recommended the Babadook), and games have a few of the same problems, as well as some unique ones of their own.

    How do you keep players off-balance when familiarity breeds contempt? If mechanics are certain and solid, then players have something solid and comfortable to count on (less fear) but messing with mechanics is a risky game to play. People generally don’t get scared when you change the rules on ’em, they get angry (in my experience, anyway). And then you start looking at what different people are scared of (spiders are cool, I like ’em. Flying bugs freak me out. Other people are the opposite). Sure, a labyrinth of corridors where you get insanely lost is scary to someone like me who can count on one hand the number of times they’ve been lost (in RL, in games I get lost frequently due to landmark navigation not working so well with texture repeats), but to someone who needs a GPS to make it to the street corner, not so scary. So, how to add more fear? Throw in chainsaws and spiders and snakes and unknown monsters and creepy little kids? Temporarily give the PC locked-in syndrome (which might piss off a good portion of the audience who wants to DO SOMETHING)?

    The monster isn’t so scary once you’ve seen it. Once you have ways of dealing that are decently effective (whether it’s running away, using a weapon of some kind, distracting the thing, whatever) it’s hard to keep fear going. Jump scares are easier and for a portion of your audience, just as effective. Of course, you gotta keep those randomized a bit, nothing says fail like waiting for the jump scare you know’s coming around the 3rd corner. Building tension effectively is an art.

    I have no idea what my point is, other than horror is hard? Human beings are amazingly adaptable (kids in Ukraine have learned all the different shelling noises so they know when it’s safe to play and when to hide)? Scary is subjective?

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Well,there is one thing that is universally scary,still scary years after coming into light,and no matter how much you know about it it can still freak you out.That thing is,of course,the poison headcrab.

      • Never played HL2, so no, not horribly freaked about headcrabs specifically, but living things flying at my head freaks me out (hence the flying bugs fear, I had a moth get stuck in my hair as a child and yet am not freaked out by bugs crawling in my hair, just them flying at me. Fear is weird). And headcrabs also nicely tap into fear of being taken over by something or someone else, whether it’s a parasite or a demon or whatever, and being helpless and unable to control your own actions.

        But that’s a really good question to ask… why is the poison headcrab still scary? To do good horror (imho) you need to know what has worked in the past, and why. If HL2’s creatures are still scary after you’ve played the game a half-dozen times, then why? What did Valve do right?

        Edited to add:
        There’s a story I’ve read hundreds of times, the Colour Out of Space, and it still scares me. I still get a tiny bit nervous when I look out at a light-polluted and cloudy sky at night and the trees are moving. Part of that is that the story hits some fear points in my brain that most people don’t have, and part of it is that the first time I read it the power went out just as I finished and there was a huge storm outside and I was right by a large window. You can’t necessarily count on hitting fear points in everyone’s brain (most of the “universal” scary stuff has been used enough that anyone genre-savvy has some resistance), but if you can do the second bit you’ll at least scare your players for a while.
        Note: the fear points I’m speaking of are related to depression. What happens to the victims in the story is very similar to what happens to me as my depression worsens. Yeah, it’s a great way to scare the crap out of someone with a history of severe depression and suicide attempts, but it doesn’t work so well on those who’ve never experienced that.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          First,the sounds.The sounds for all of the crabs and zombies is great.Second,poison headcrabs are a cross between spiders and snakes,what with their weird long legs and methodical movement,and their stripes.You cant go more basic than what we fear on practically the genetic level.

          • evilmrhenry says:

            The poison headcrab also has the benefit of being scary on a gameplay level by taking you down to 1 hitpoint. It’s a bit of a fake-out because you get the health back, but there’s an instinctual fear of dying when you see you only have 1 health. It’s actually a good example of the “making the player think they’re in danger is scary, actually killing them is not” thing Shamus has talked about before.

            • Felblood says:

              Yes, but it goes deeper than that.

              It isn’t a fake out, really, because for those 6 seconds, you really do have just 1 HP, and the tiniest scratch will end you. –and the crab that poisoned you probably just landed behind you.

              When you are playing a game that is normally an empowerment fantasy, about slaying foes before they can do much damage, rather than really avoiding damage, suddenly finding yourself playing Touhou can be thrillingly uncomfortable.

              Once you recover, you find yourself thinking about how you don’t want to feel that vulnerable in a game about being a power-armored, walking genocide. The fear of the fear of dying motivates you to respect the poison headcrab.

              The scary noises an the way them hunt in packs, and the spidery legs all help, but they are just window dressing to a subtle and brilliant piece of gameplay kinesthetics.

              Don’t believe me? compare these to the black spiders in System Shock 2. The two beasties look and sound enough alike to invite aspersions on Valve’s honor, and they have pack tactics, a love of ambushes and a similar poison attack. The only thing really different is that Freeman’s HEV suit can remove the poison and heal the poison damage over a short amount of time.

              Meanwhile in System Shock, suddenly losing all but 1% of your HP usually means reloading your save about 5 minutes later.

              • Ivan says:

                All good points but I have to say, the scare that I got when I first walked into Ravenholm and saw the dead pants hanging from the tree was the best that Half-Life ever did to me. After I got my act together about a week later I powered through Ravenholm without any more issues. Honestly the fastcrab zombies were worse than the poisencrabs. They have that horrible howl (actually I do have a fear of dogs, so there’s that), they’re hard as hell to hit, and they close into melee range super fast and move very erratically making hitting them at point blank range incredibly difficult. Not to mention that they’re wailing on you the entire time you’re trying to line up that shot and spray and pray is an excellent way to run out of all your ammo.

                At the end of the day though I still had my shotgun and killed them all. Hell I actually enjoyed the poisencrab zombies because they were great for practicing my skeet shooting.

        • Syal says:

          I’ve only read the Lovecraft anthology, but The Colour Out of Space was the standout for me. There’s just a sense of horrible inevitability about it, where if you do nothing it’ll kill you, and if you fight it it’ll kill you faster. There was another about a vampire house that hit a similar note.

          Hard to translate that into a game, though; the main character is usually supposed to do something, or at least try to. Thinking about it, Five Nights at Freddy’s might be the closest thing to that mood of complete ineffectiveness.

          • Phill says:

            Of all the Lovecraft stories I’ve read, I think “The colour out of space” was one of the ones that genuinely creeped me out the most. Mostly I find Lovecraft good to read, but not terribly scary, but that one stayed with me. Not so much scary, but haunting, and horrifying in a different sort of way.

            (And, for some reason, parts of “Herbert West – reanimator” (IIRC), when the hero is crawling around in the dark underground, but I’m not sure I’ve got the right story there.

            • Drlemaster says:

              I think Lovecraft used that crawling-around-in-the-dark more than once, but the one I specifically remember is in The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward where the hero drops his flashlight in the pit, and then has to try to crawl back in total darkness while avoiding the pit.

    • Tektotherriggen says:

      I’m definitely not denying that a history of depression makes it worse, but I suspect that everyone has the jump imp in their head. It never tells me that “jumping will stop the hurt” or anything like that, but that doesn’t stop it making me want to jump.

      Maybe that’s a good place for a game – you start out with a voice telling you to do stuff, just like hundreds of other games, but eventually you realise that it’s trying to get you killed or commit atrocities. But even so, you can’t just ignore it, because you need its knowledge to escape (or whatever).

    • Benjamin Hilton says:

      I really think a large problem is the “keeping things fresh” notion. To me the most interesting result from the study was that it was easier to scare “casual” gamers who aren’t as used to games. The example they used was the moving house scene in Alan Wake. The Casual gamers were genuinely frightened, while the “core” gamers weren’t afraid because they knew how games work and knew they couldn’t die there. So here I really feel for the developers. How do you judge something that truly would be scary in real life, versus the expectations of genre-savvy players thinking in the meta all the time?

    • Bryan says:

      The monster isn’t so scary once you’ve seen it.

      Or, as JMS said, it’s the scratching behind the door that’s scary, not the six foot cockroach that shows up when the door opens. Because, well, the six foot cockroach could have been eight feet long instead. But when it’s just a scratching at the door, your brain fills in all the scary details.

      Or tends to, anyway…

  6. Syal says:

    It’s Halloween month, you can redo this article every year.

  7. MadTinkerer says:

    The scariest game I’ve played recently is Undertale. I went for a True Pacifist (mostly not scary) run the first time around and then, out of curiosity, tried a more violent playthrough. You think you’re just going to see some alternate content based on different choices but…

    They know what you’ve done.

    I can’t finish a Genocide playthrough. I just can’t. Youtube is enough for me, despite Flowey’s accusations that I’m worse than the person playing in the video.

    I really don’t want to have A Bad Time, so I think I’ll just stick to the nice happy ending where everyone is happy and I am not demon possessed. Yes, happy endings are best.

    EDIT: I just remembered that I saw this video recently. (Note: video contains some M-rated gore.) It makes some interesting counterpoints to Shamus’ article.

    • Syal says:

      …huh. I found the True Pacifist run to be scarier. Genocide’s just… dark.

      • MadTinkerer says:

        Genocide isn’t super-scary. In fact, I was technically on a Neutral run when I got to the part that I found unsettling. It’s mostly that regardless of what you do, the game will comment on it as you play through multiple times, and I wasn’t expecting it to be so thorough in it’s commentary.

        I wasn’t saying it was jumpscare-scary. It was more like “Let’s see if there are any cookies in the jar OH CRAP MOM IS BEHIND ME” kind of scary. Plus I had come to like the characters and I felt the game was totally right to criticize me for murdering them out of curiosity. Truly “horrifying” rather than “scary”, if you will.

  8. shiroax says:

    “Nobody has ever complained”

    Do you do that often? I think I’ve read all Experienced Points, I didn’t really catch anything except when you link to it. 6 years is surely enough time to repeat yourself safely, who remembers anything that long on the internet?

    Besides, you repeat your main complaints every month like on rotation (DRM, uninvertable mouse, nobody making Descent clones, people complaining about kids these days), if we minded repetition, we’d stop coming by now :D

    P.S. I’ll never forget the dork tiles. They’re my one true Experienced Points banner forever.

  9. ChristopherT says:

    I rather enjoyed the most recent Resident Evil game, Resident Evil Revelations 2 (came out earlier this year), and found that I think the horror aspect of it played a decent part in that. Not to say it’s one of the scarier games out there or anything, some of the monster designs are somewhat fresh and unnerving (I think most so the Revenants http://www.biohazardfrance.net/NEWS_IMAGES/RE_REVELATIONS_2/2015.01.06/revenant.jpg), the invisible enemies the Glasps have a nice added screen and noise distortion that affects the player when they are near given a quick fight or flight choice to the player while not knowing for sure which direction the Glasp is coming from.

    There’s also how the game handles the partner characters. Where in Resident Evil 5 and 6 where each partner set was a pair of equally useful characters armed with firearms, in Revelations 2 in the two main campaign stories only one of the pair in each has a firearm. With Claire is Moira who scared of using firearms, and is left with the few grenades about (which can be shared with Claire) and a crowbar. And little Natalia is with Barry, and she only gets a brick, but she can see weakpoints on certain enemies and see the invisible Glasps, which can create a fun tension (which may not always be comfortable to call scary exactly) where the fragile Natalia becomes a desired choice (although defenseless) to spot enemies with. Not a game I’d hold up as a seriously scary game or story, but I think it shows that some of the AAA-ish companies are still at least trying in some regards. Though that being said the game has a lot of cheese and some dork, and is more of a sort of an Evil Dead.

    A game (visual novel) I played recently really got me unnerved a few times through it. Saya no Uta (if you have any problem with gore, questionably aged cartoon nudity, or rape, I would NOT look that up.) It’s a game about a guy (by the name of Fuminori) who through a car accident lost his parents and temporarily his vision. While in the hospital his vision returned and everything suddenly looked wrong, different, gore and other nasty messes covered the walls, floor, everything, people looked like Lovecraftian horrors, and sounded and smelled like them too. And in that mess, in that horrid world, one young woman stood out as a normal looking cute young lady. The story follows as Fuminori continues to lose touch with his friends (who now look like nightmarish creatures) and society, and the questionable state of his mind.

    I enjoyed the story, sometimes it really did get my skin to crawl though, one point in particular. Where, some spoilery stuff It’s reveled Saya eats people, which is brought up, talked about, however the little it is actually shown is through Fuminori’s eyes which to him and the player appears to be some jelly slug-like substance that’s a bit unnerving but mostly only off putting. Then, later in the game, through the eyes of another character Fuminori’s house is searched and in the refrigerator are people parts (shown to the player for the first time), intestines, and a severed hand, which for me marked a sudden turn of uneasiness.

    There’s also a scene where a man’s mind is tampered with so he sees the world like Fuminori does. And then this guys wife and child come home, he sees them as monsters, and he just chases them down and beats them to death, it’s fairly brutal and disturbing, but I think made more unnerving that all the while the player easily knows that that’s the wife and child and that the man cannot see nor hear them as such, and while he loses himself to the world appearing monsterous around him he embraces it

    One of the things I really appreciate about Saya no Uta though, is that while it is very strongly a Lovecraft inspired story, it is not a Lovecraft, big L, centric story, like most games and stories that try their hand at Lovecraft. There’s no Cthulhu or any Old Gods running around left and right. It is very strongly Lovecraftian, but without the need to shout so from the rooftops. Though, like I said above, it really is not for everyone, and contains some sensitive material.

    Though, I understand the article is more so about AAA titles.

  10. Joe Informatico says:

    I think the repetition concern is a valid one in the age of internet publishing, one that probably never crossed the mind of print columnists and editorial writers. That six-year-old column is only a split-second search away, and depending on the site you write for, might even be presented at the bottom of your article, recommended by the site’s algorithms (“e.g. If you like Author A$ and Topic T$, you will like other article on T$ by A$”). I guess if you’re aware of your previous work, you can start off by saying, “here’s what changed (or hasn’t) in the six years (e.g., a typical console generation) since I last wrote on this topic”; but if it’s slipped your conscious memory, I can just see the salvos of “copy-pasta!” from commenters.

    But in this case, if the issue you addressed is still an issue six years later, and hasn’t really changed in all that time, only to give you more recent and relevant examples, why shouldn’t you write about it? Do current events journalists get accused of repetition if they keep writing about conflict in the Middle East, or extreme partisanship in the US Congress? No–because those continue to be relevant, newsworthy stories year after year. If you’re a gaming journalist or columnist and AAA studios keep putting out non-scary scary games every year, never seeming to recognize their mistakes, why shouldn’t you point it out?

  11. AileTheAlien says:

    My recommendation for a repeated fear/horror topic, that’s still a problem: try to brainstorm new ways to make games that actually work as horror games. If we take your hypothesis as true, that game devs or publishers might simply not know how to make scary games anymore, then natch you’ve got to give them a crash course on the topic! :)

    Gameplay mechanics, visual / aesthetic styles, movement mechanics, input schemes/devices. Hell, humans can even be unsettled by things like weird combinations of light, sound, and motion. Graphical glitches, strange hums, and other stuff can either help make people sick, or just uneasy. The new 3D headsets offer even more room for nausea, or other discomfort – just look how hard the devs* are trying, just to avoid nausea! Furthermore, what kinds of stories, arcs, or beats are most unsettling / scary / creepy? Tonnes of avenues to explore, in making horror games! :D

    * Both hardware and software kinds. :)

  12. Duoae says:

    Can’t really comment on the repeating articles stuff except maybe look at how many times each article is still viewed (if at all) compared to ‘front page’ articles. If there’s no discoverability there than that would indicate to me that you could re-explore those ideas without a problem because you’re not cannibalising your own thought output.

    RE: the Escapist article – Have you played Alien Isolation?

  13. MichaelGC says:

    I think it’s one of those ones where as long as one does worry about it, then there’s nothing to worry about. It’d only be a worry if it wasn’t a worry.

  14. rjp says:

    Given how often Yahtzee (correctly) bemoans the parlous state of survival horror, I think you’re ok repeating yourself even once a year.

    • BenD says:

      Also, the repeat column describes issues with and successes by new games. Any broader topic can stand review of there’s new material serving as a lens through which to view that topic.

      As for word-for-word repeats, I don’t know what The Escapist’s audience (or editors) would think, but over here on Twenty Sided, as a blog, you can do a repost any time you want to revive an old topic for discussion and you’re well within the ‘standards’ of blogging. A quick comment at the top can clarify for readers why you’re interested in revisiting this content (from ‘Shooter Mans XI just came out and I can’t play it but I want to see if anyone has thoughts about it in this context’ to ‘I’m on holiday and I think my current readership might prefer this rerun to lack of content’).

  15. lethal_guitar says:

    I have one problem with this article, and that is being told “those are not scary” as if that were a fact. You say “Occasionally spooky moments”, but to me, FEAR was one of the scariest gaming experiences I had. I also found Dead Space scary – there were moments where I had to really force myself to enter some dark side corridor, because I was afraid of what might be in there. Heck, even Doom 3 scared me.

    Please don’t underestimate how vastly different people’s perception of the same experience can be. It’s the same as telling someone “What? That boss is not hard. I beat it first try with one hand. You just need to git gud”. Just as different people perceive different parts of a game as difficult, people will be scared by different things, or have different thresholds for what they perceive as scary.

    I have no doubt that e.g. Amnesia is much scarier than those action/horror games – haven’t played it myself – but that doesn’t invalidate how scary these other games are to me.

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      Oh I feel you. I have problems with “scary” games (at least when playing, I found experiencing them second hand is pretty okay), to the point where, after having people cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die swear to me that Gone Home is not a horror game, there really are no jump scares whatsoever I still got my stomach in a knot when playing it.

      Anyway. while your argument is certainly true I would (counter)argue that in almost all cases it’s more tension in the buildup to/expectation of a jumpscare (real or imagined) than genuine fear.

  16. Orillion says:

    Professional wrestling seems to be willing to run the exact same story two years apart, so I would go by that metric. Two years between addressing the same topic will get you a fair amount of new readers and probably a fair amount of new content to address in it.

    • Wide And Nerdy says:

      Comic books used to completely recycle their stories once every 5 or 6 years on the theory that by then, everyone who read the original story had grown out of reading comics. Then in the Sixties, the audience started to shift.

  17. Wide And Nerdy says:

    I really don’t get wanting to play a scary game or watch a scary movie. I pay good money for prescription pills that make me feel less scared. I’m deteriorating at a steady pace and will someday die in one of hundred of different extremely unpleasant ways. If I live long enough, my reward will be watching others I care about die first. That’s more than enough horror for me.

    Since I can’t do anything about that, I want to spend as much of the intervening time as possible in Awesomeland pretending like thats not going to happen. That means happy games and prescription happy pills.

    So frankly, the whole genre can take a long walk off a short pier.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Other people enjoy things that I dont?How baffling.Screw them and burn their entertainment!With fire!

      • Wide And Nerdy says:

        And that’s just how i feel on a good day.

        I’m just saying its probably my fault because I send out the above post as an email to every game publisher every day.

        No really, explain why you need life to be even scarier?

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          I dont.I dont care for the horror genre.That doesnt mean that I ask those who do to justify their enjoyment,or hope for their enjoyment to be forever removed.

          • Wide And Nerdy says:

            Hey I’m a grouch. I admit it. I thought this was a safe space for grouches.

            I don’t need a justification but I’d be interested in hearing an explanation.

            • Dan Efran says:

              Physiological arousal.

              A sudden scare counts as a “thrill” and causes an adrenaline rush – a major shift in your overall body chemistry, heart rate, etc. An adrenaline rush can be very enjoyable. (It feels like falling in love! Somewhat. Science shows.) If the danger isn’t real but is presented compellingly – as in a movie, game, or roller coaster – you can “feel threatened” enough to get the rush without having to actually suffer the threatened pain or whatever. Fear is a type of excitement, and if the danger is fake, you can fake out your body, harvest the excitement chemicals, and not let the faux fear upset you. (Much. If you consume lots of horror media, you may run into stuff that really disturbs you after all. Just as you sometimes can get hurt for real on a roller coaster. Scary entertainment isn’t totally risk-free thrills, it’s just way safer than real scary situations.)

              Escapism.

              We play first-person games to spend some time as somebody else. We don’t play “Junior Tax Accountant II” because we want to pretend to be somebody interesting. Someone in mortal danger is generally more interesting just for being in that situation. Especially if the danger is some really rare and unusually dangerous kind, like monsters or lava. We don’t play “Running In Traffic III” because that kind of danger is too commonplace and impersonal to be thrilling. Grand Theft Auto isn’t perceived as a horror game. A monster – even a mindless zombie – is relentlessly after YOU. It’s personalized danger.

              Self-discovery.

              In general, a hero needs to overcome adversity to be interesting. How a person handles a crisis is commonly regarded as a very good test of character. Exploring how you’d react to, say, OMG ZOMBIES ARE TOUCHING ME, in a “sandbox” context of make-believe, seems to me like a valid and useful form of self-exploration. Again, since you’re actually safe, you are free to enjoy it more fully than any real-life crisis. Walking through a simulated dark hallway full of threatening monsters, and getting to the other side still alive, intact, and sane, might be just as much an empowerment fantasy for some folks as going through the same corridor with guns blazing. It’s a tough challenge that should be rewarding to conquer.

              We don’t play scary games to be defeated by the content. A game that’s so scary you don’t want to finish it is really a failure, not a success. As they say, courage isn’t lack of fear, it’s being afraid but doing it anyway. That’s the experience we seek in these media. Not feeling overwhelmed and out of control permanently – feeling afraid but functional, overwhelmed but retaining or regaining control. So a scary game is really a “courage game”. (I feel like I’m oversimplifying here. This is just one aspect of the genre’s appeal and effect.)

              Personal Development

              I wonder if you’re conflating fear with worry or anxiety. A dread of mortality that sends you running to “happy pills” on a regular basis sounds more like depression than the kind of “scary” that scary games are going for. (Games that explore depression as existential horror are pretty common, actually! But I’d argue that’s not quite the same thing as “scary” and it’s not what I’m talking about today.)

              Experts say that fear increases when you practice avoidance, and decreases with repeated exposure to what scares you – particularly in safe, controlled contexts. From this perspective, systematic desensitization treatment for a phobia is pretty much the same procedure as playing a scary game on the subject of the phobia until it no longer bothers you. That’s bad for game designers, but intriguing for those with crippling fears that happen to match up with games.

              Indeed, playing make-believe to work through situations that scare you is one of the most powerful functions of the human mind, one of those things that make us sentient. It’s a very common practice particularly among children, but is also well-regarded by well-adjusted adults and by experts. Again, for phobias it’s basically the standard treatment. (At least, before the happy-pill fad took off.)

              So this genre isn’t for everyone, but it shouldn’t be baffling why it’s enjoyable to some. It has a lot to offer. It taps into considerable psychological potency, in ways far more complex than just giving you more kinds of death to worry about.

              • Wide And Nerdy says:

                Maybe I just haven’t experienced it as such I don’t know. With horror movies, my experience is that they’re either scary in a way that I have to switch away from them (rare) or just plain gross and unpleasant (more common) or if I can watch them all the way through they weren’t really scary.

                I think maybe the only real scary movie experience I’ve had that I watched all the way through is Psycho. It kind of snuck up on me because I knew all about the famous shower scene which didn’t scare me one bit but the scene where you finally get to meet Norman Bates’s mother made my blood run cold

                Actually, I just remembered that I have a childhood experience that freaked me out more. The Peanut Butter Solution. I think it all started there. I couldn’t finish that movie and I’m realizing that I never went back and tried to finish it. Upon looking it up though I found immediate posts from people about how this was the creepiest movie they ever watched. I wonder if this scarred me to the point of not wanting to watch horror.

        • All that stuff lives in the part of my brain I call “Not Coping With That Right Now,” along with my terror of my chronic pain getting worse and Mom dying and my biological clock running out of steam FAST. If I didn’t stuff that away, I’d be even less functional than I am (and I’m not horribly functional atm), so I’m quite thankful I can put those terrors away.

          For me, I love ghost stories. I’ve always loved ghost stories. I love cryptozoology and aliens and all that stuff. So, some scares kinda come with the territory and I put up with them because I wanna hear/see the story. Also, I’ve gotten damn good at seeing the scare coming, so I mute and possibly turn away if I think it’s something I don’t want to see (the fryer thing in Scream Queens comes to mind).

          There’s also the “hey, my life isn’t that bad” by comparison. If you’ve just watched a guy see all his friends get killed, his brother get possessed, and almost die himself, well, hey, no one’s actively trying to kill me, so life not so bad. My friends are alive, and I can probably go be sociable with them if my body’ll let me and if not I can talk to ’em online, and my mom’s here and my dog’s mostly good.

          And some people hold on to that like of being scared that most kids have. I don’t get roller coasters, I won’t ride any but the kiddie ones, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want them to exist.

          • Sleeping Dragon says:

            Since this has veered into personal experiences and preferences. As I mentioned above I react poorly to certain kinds of scares. In particular the tension caused by a buildup to a jumpscare (real or potential) causes me physical discomfort to the point of stomach pain. That said there was one summer where I developed a strange immunity at the same time desire to consume horror media, both of these have since passed but I learned two things. Firstly, I learned a lot of the horror tropes (especially for those of the cheaper kind). Secondly, I learned that while the jumpscare related tension is really unpleasant for me I’m hardly affected by gore. In fact I found I have a real fondness for Hellraiser (well, not all of it I guess) and its artistic/ritualized and alien violence. I sometimes found the imagery useful, for example when I wanted to use some aspects of Chaos in the Warhammer settings.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      Well, I think it’s different for every one of us.

      Horror stories (and games) must serve some purpose, and my guess is that they help some people deal with horror. You experience it in a safe environment, and over time it builds tolerance. Thus, 1) when things are truly and seriously terrifying, you are of course still terrified but not for the first time, so you can deal with it; and perhaps more relevant 2) The things in your head which terrify you every day, terrify you less. Because horror stories teach you to accept the feeling and let it pass.

      … not saying you should try this! What works for some don’t necessarily work for others.

  18. Chuck Henebry says:

    Fun to look at that old picture of you. I like Bearded Shamus best, though.

  19. I’ve been trying to think how I’d make a horror game, and I think one of the first things I’d do is find some tabletop DMs/GMs/whatever who’ve managed to scare their players. With a tabletop RPG you’re running into a lot of the same issues you’d have with a horror computer game, especially when it comes to system/rules/world knowledge, and the solutions the tabletoppers have come up with could be quite useful (might inspire some new ideas if nothing else).
    I’d especially be looking for DMs who’ve managed to scare D&D players or any of the other more tending towards Monty Hall over story kind of games. Scaring players who’re coming in thinking “kill the orcs, get the shinies” is quite a bit harder (imho).

  20. Nick-B says:

    Now I wanna google shamus’ site to see if he posted this same topic 6 years ago.

  21. Darren says:

    You know, I thought that Alien: Isolation was genuinely scary, and I think a big part of it is that only one element of it was really supposed to be frightening: the Alien. And there are long segments where you do not deal with the Alien, which means that the insta-death nature of the creature does not entirely wear down over time (though the game’s sheer length hurts in this regard) and the threat feels unique to the Alien as opposed to the game in general.

    But then, I find that the idea of a predator hunting me to be the absolute scariest thing, so this may be an instance of a particular experience speaking directly to my brain.

  22. Phill says:

    Topically, there is another gamasutra article today on horror that *does* mention Alien Isolation: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ThomasGrip/20141015/227733/Alien_Isolation_and_The_Evolution_of_Horror_Simulators.php

    Worth a read

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