Over on GamersWithJobs I have a new post up entitled Locker Home. There’s a lot of ideas touched on, though I primarily focused on the sense of safety within a horrifying setting and it can often work against us.
I was reminded of this habit of mine while playing through some of the Alien: Isolation DLC during my Extra Life marathon. There I was — or rather, there Dallas was, possessed by me via the mystical powers of the playstation controller — sitting in a locker, waiting for the xenomorph to stomp on through to the airlock. I managed to hide from it just in time, watching as it stalked about the room, fingers wriggling, eager for some skull to grab and bite into.
Then it turned and left, stomping around the hallway outside. I needed a proper lure to get it into the airlock, and all I had were flares. I avoid using flares in the story campaign. They bring attention to you immediately once you light them. So even if you plan on throwing one elsewhere to try and grab someone’s attention, there’s a good chance that android, human, or star beast will decide to go and inspect where the initial pink flash came from.
So not only did I need to emerge from the locker and toss a flare, I needed to be sure I could light it. Unfortunately I was stuck in a locker, unable to check my motion detector, listening for the heavy feet of the creature stomping back and forth just outside the door. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t prepare any tools. I couldn’t sprint to another hiding spot. I was stuck until I felt certain I was safe.
I wrote this before I saw that Gaijin Goomba had put together a video on how horror is not necessarily universal. That what people find frightening is often influenced by what we experience as a child. I’m not completely in agreement with him, but I certainly think he’s on to something. I’m always a little apprehensive when meeting someone’s pet dog, wondering if there will just be something about myself that will cause them to attack me. There’s no root cause of this in my childhood, either. The closest would be one day I was out with my mom on roller skates when some woman’s purse-sized dog chased me down and started biting and pulling at my pant leg. That wasn’t really a traumatic experience, though. It merely confirmed a fear that I already had as a child.
The notable detail is that I never had a pet dog when I was a kid. If I had one, or a pet tarantula or iguana as some other children do, then my modern fears may have taken a different shape.
Some fears are practical, but when you’re developing a horror video game you really need to dive into something a lot more basic than the fear of death or pain. I am afraid of heights, and when I drop a great distance in select first-person video games I feel as if I’m falling in real life. My stomach drops and my heart beat quickens just a moment. If I’m not looking directly at the ground, however, or if I close my eyes, then it doesn’t matter. It’s just a video game and my fear of heights are left in the background.
So how is it that Alien: Isolation is so effective? It has to be the vulnerability. It’s not enough to have creepy sound effects in the environment. I had to deal with that in Dead Space, after all, and I still do not consider those games all too frightening. The difference is that in Dead Space you are much better armed. As such, when you see a familiar vent that you recognize as a potential necromorph spawn point, you’re ready to take it out. You raise your gun, keep it pointed as you pass by. After all, in that moment the beast emerges, it will be the one at the disadvantage.
Cross beneath a vent in the ceiling that the Alien may emerge from, however, and your thoughts are different. It has nothing to fear. Your weapons cannot kill it. At best you can deter it once you obtain the flamethrower, a weapon whose fuel is scarce and precious.
So instead of aiming your weapon, finger on the trigger, with a smirk to your lips thinking “come get some”, your trigger finger is shaking, licking your lips, whispering “please not this vent”.
Yet in the end it’s all the same. It’s “just a video game”.
I have a feeling no matter how much I study video games, I’ll never be able to fully comprehend how that simple matter of interaction can result in actually experiencing fear over something that’s not real.