Survival horror and playing as in acting

In their insightful book, “21st Century Game Design”, Chris Bateman and Richard Boon say:

In many ways, [the survival horror genre] marks the development of one of the first modern genres -being a blend of so many aspects of previous games, we have no choice but to consider it on its own terms. Where a control mechanism or play perspective doesn’t suggest a genre (as in racing or FPS), we can expect to see more genres of this style emerge as games continue to develop.
The survival horror genre is characterized primarily by its commitment to atmosphere. This is not to say that these games are light on design expertise or gameplay; merely that atmosphere is inseparable from gameplay. Resident Evil, for example, is a very easy game to play if one ignores its atmospheric effects; if the player allows themselves to be immersed in its world, however, it feels tremendously dangerous. Crucially, this suspension of disbelief is made very easy, if not compulsory, by excellent atmospheric design.

It struck me how pertinent this quote is to what we’re trying to do at Tale of Tales. Even though we may be coming from a different background (fine art) and we’re not exactly making horror survival games, the end result is the same: our work relies heavily on the active collaboration of the player. In that sense, our games may be more similar to theater than to anything else. We ask the player to assume a role and we give them some freedom (and thus responsibility) to fill it in. And depending on how they do that, they will enjoy the experience or not.

I guess that’s where the challenge lies in our work: Can you play the part of a magical deer in an idyllic forest? Can you behave like an old lady -a dying lady even- in a cemetery? Not everyone can. It requires a certain talent. And a certain willingness (more so, admittedly, in our low budget productions than in the work of our triple A horror survival brethren).
Perhaps, ultimately, player satisfaction is not as dissimilar to other games as we may sometimes think: in both cases, the player is happy when they have adequately performed in a way that the game expects. Our expectations are different. And we don’t award points. But if you don’t play in the proper way, chances are you won’t enjoy the game.

Much like survival horror games will be enjoyed much more deeply, if you control your avatar in a way that makes sense in the fictional world. If you only make him or her do things that fit with their personality and in the circumstances. As opposed to using that avatar as a tool to make progress through an abstract system (which is what I imagine pure gameplay is about). Playing a survival horror game comes to mean acting as much as it does gaming. Perhaps even more so, considering that it seems to be vital for the enjoyment of the title, especially for less action-oriented games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame.

I agree with Bateman and Boon that this is a distinctly modern form. One that really uses the unique qualities of the interactive medium, instead of replicating older forms of entertainment (like sports or games or theme park rides). And I hope that they are right: that we will indeed see more genres in this style in the future.

8 thoughts on “Survival horror and playing as in acting”

  1. This is why i would argue that the concept of a Video Game as they are now is closer to the concept of “Theatre” than “Film”.

    I have quite a few reasons. Film is the same every time you watch it, it’s a span of time forever captured in time. Theatre and Video games, though often placed on a predefined script are ephemeral and never are the same twice. The differences may be minor but are also infinite at the same time during each performance and playing. The ephemeral nature of Theatre or Video Games make them an experience in a way that Film is NOT an experience. Film happens and always happens whenever someone chooses to place that film in some video player. However, the experience you have had at a theatre or on a video game will never come back, it’s in your memory. It’s an experience that will never and can never be recreated.Furthermore, with film there is less of a social element than there is with theatre. In film, there is a small amount of audience interaction with themselves. In theatre and video games there is interaction between audience members, between actors, and between actors and audience. This interactivity is somewhat greater in some video games than most theatre performances (though there are a great many that have an equal amount of interaction). Another difference is that film is exactly or as close as possible to the director’s specific vision through editing and careful cutting. A theatre production, because it is living and breathing is different every time, and sometimes made better for it. It’s hard to cut and edit life into a scene. Video games are also similar to theatre in this aspect as it is IMPOSSIBLE for a video game creator to make a player play EXACTLY as they plan for them to play in the scene. As such, a video game, even moreso than a theatre production, is even LESS of the director’s vision, partially because the player plays as an undirected actor (or directed by more subjective cues).
    In a sense, a video game player walks in as both the audience AND a cast member. The video game maker has the difficult task of creating an environment where the player can ACT while also being able to experience the event as an AUDIENCE. As i’m sure you know, this is profoundly difficult, and part of why some people quit playing video games, they get tired of being “trained for their role.”
    I essence, it is my belief that if more developers focused on making a video game closer to a Theatric experience as opposed to a Cinematic experience they would be far more successful. In my opinion, a cinematic video game can become like an apple dressed like an orange. It may have all the looks of cinema, but the taste is different: and when you expect one taste and get another it is never a pleasing experience.
    Oh, and i also forgot to mention the willing suspension of disbelief, which is less of a requirement in film because everything can be made to look so real, even as if the film is a documentary. The uncanny valley makes many difficulties is suspending disbelief in video games, and being there at a theatre production watching Hamlet get stabbed and not bleeding is another difficulty. The video game must humbly beg of the player to suspend their disbelief in a way the film does not.
    My two cents :-)

  2. I agree with Chris Bateman and Richard Boon on the subject of horror being commitment to atmosphere. The Resident Evil series has always been my favorite when it comes to horror; I always admire the finer details in the games that seemed to send chills through you if you stop and think about it. (Like how you find a diary where a man who dies in the mansion mentions losing his lighter that his wife gave him for his birthday and if you examine the lighter that you pick up in the game, it has “Happy Birthday, George. – Love Jessica” written on it.) I suppose this is why Resident Evil 4 disappointed me. Even though it enhanced the gameplay with a new control scheme and better camera angles, it abandoned what made the series what it was: the atmosphere. The game just wasn’t scary.

    Anyway with my little rant over with…I have always admired games that gave me freedom while still being a set character. Recently I have found myself being hooked on Fallout 3 which is a great example of how developers can create a character but allow the player to develop the character on their own. Not only am I given the ability to choose how my character looks, but I am also given the option to give the character the personality I want her (or him) to have while still being the character I am meant to be. The developer may set up the character’s past and what the character’s main goal is via their story, but I am able to decide rather I want to be a hero or if I want to be…Well…A “not nice” person; I can do righteous things to achieve my goal, or I can be cold-hearted and force the answers I seek from my actions or word chooses in conversations.

    Personally, I feel that this is the best way to help the player be immersed into the game. Sure, we will always have games with characters that we have feelings for or maybe even relate to, but we always remember the ones we ‘defined’ ourselves.

    Do you need to be creative to get enjoyment from games like this? Not necessarily, a lot of people enjoy creating a character but they might not think about creating a certain personality for that character but can still enjoy games like Fallout 3, the Elder Scrolls titles, or Fable. People can still love games like Gears of War 2 without putting much thought into the plot idea of Dom looking for his missing wife.

    Does it help to be creative or to at least try to relate to the character? Yes, it does give you a much different experience compared to someone ‘playing’ the game over ‘role playing’ through the game. Some will naturally love the freedom given to them while others will hate it; it all depends on the person and how dedicated they feel to the character.

  3. Thank you, Stephanie.
    (Your blog seems very interesting, by the way!)

    The titles that you bring up are interesting because they are the kind of titles that I feel frustrated about not being able to play. I am jealous of the fact that you are skilled (or tolerant) enough to deal with the hardcore gameplay in those games. I remember being able to do that back in the day with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom 2. But I just can’t bring myself to it anymore. And failing in the game now immediately destroys all immersion for me. This is why I have always preferred Silent Hill 2 over any other survival horror game (even Fatal Frame was too hard for me: I mostly watched as Auriea played it).

    I wonder why there are not more attempts to emphasize atmosphere over gameplay to even greater extent. And why not in other genres than horror?

  4. (Thank you. I feel honored that it caught your attention.)

    Anyway, I think the answer to your question… I guess that with horror games, the developers focus on the atmosphere in order to try to recreate ‘real paranormal’ activity. (That is is you believe in ghosts and spirits.) Whenever people talk about experiencing something paranormal, it’s typically a sound they hear but don’t see a source, thus making sound important in the game. Just as people say they see things from the corner of their eyes, thus making developers play mind tricks on the player. Then I guess they try to replicate places that people say they are afraid of: someplace dark and spooky.

    I don’t think that many developers have realized the potential in atmosphere. I’m just guessing here since I’m not a developer, but I guess other elements outweigh atmosphere to most developers. (Solid gameplay is needed to keep the player entertained; good graphics are needed to keep the player interested, etc…) Perhaps they have not all seen possibility of the atmosphere provoking emotion other than fear.

  5. I have experienced all sorts of emotions in games. But only for very brief moments. And almost always the mood is quickly destroyed by the game demanding to be played in some form or other. I understand the need to keep people entertained. But -especially lately- designers seem to have gotten so good at that particular aspect of game design that they destroy the potential for beautiful and magical moments that happen because of atmosphere.

    As a designer , I find atmosphere especially interesting because it seems to be unique to the interactive medium. In the sense that the atmosphere can be built around you as a player and can feel very personal and even intimate. While the other emotions triggered by gameplay can also be experienced in sports or theme parks. Or even tabletop games or puzzles.

  6. I know this is kind of late to be commenting, but I really liked this post and I wanted to share an example that I think is worth looking at. Have you played I Fell in Love with The Majesty of Colors? It is a true “roleplaying” game in this sense. It is also a horror game. I know that you, Michael, have a hard time appreciating games with a chunky, pixelated look, but I have to say that this game is the closest I’ve seen to the direction that Tale of Tales is rallying toward. It’s extremely minimal, but it’s a step in the right direction. And it seems to have awoken some significant interest in the general Flash gaming audience. The tipping point is in sight.

  7. I remember trying to play that. I didn’t get very far. I suck at games.
    But you’re right, I’m also not very patient with what I consider to be lazy art direction.

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