Everything You Need to Know about the Future of Game Analysis

TL;DR:

Dear Readers,

I’m happy to write you with news of big changes coming to With a Terrible Fate very soon. We’re getting ready to grow in some big ways, and we want you to be a part of it.

First, a brief history of the site to set the scene:

I founded With a Terrible Fate back in 2014 with a single, simple (if not somewhat crazy goal): to write about the artistic value of Majora’s Mask every week until its remake was released. That work confirmed in my mind that video games really are a new and special mode of storytelling, one that deserves way more rigorous attention than it’s currently getting.

This idea—that video game storytelling deserves more rigorous analysis—inspired me to grow With a Terrible Fate into a central hub for the analysis of video game storytelling. I started using my education in philosophy to analyze other games, publishing work on titles like Xenoblade Chronicles and Bloodborne.

Something exciting was happening: the more I talked with other gamers about my work, the more I could see how much they appreciated this kind of serious attention being paid to games. I realized that these other gamers had their own insights into the stories of video games, and that together, we could discover more about video games than I ever could on my own.

That’s when I decided to start bringing on Featured Authors: writers besides me, each of whom has their own unique perspective on the storytelling of video games. With their help, With a Terrible Fate evolved from being a blog about the philosophy of video games to being a website dedicated to the serious analysis of video game storytelling.

Thanks to this team of like-minded video game analysts, With a Terrible Fate has grown a lot in the past couple of years. One of our most recent, thrilling milestones was speaking at both PAX Australia 2016 and PAX East 2017. Each of these talks drew hundreds of gamers and developers who were ecstatic for the chance to dive deep into the storytelling dynamics of their favorite games. One of our writers was also recently cited in an academic journal article. This is exciting for me, because it shows that the site has grown into something that’s both academically valuable and extremely interesting to the everyday gamer.

This past May, I finally graduated from college (earning a degree in philosophy that included an honors thesis on the philosophy of video games), and I now have the time and opportunity to turn to the site in an even more serious way. I’m endlessly thankful to my other writers, and to all of you, my readers: it’s thanks to all of you that I’m able to contemplate taking With a Terrible Fate to the next level.

Here’s what you can expect from With a Terrible Fate, starting next month:

With college over, I’ve at the time to develop a new vision for where With a Terrible Fate is going. This means that soon you’ll be seeing some rebranding and some changes, but (hopefully!) all of these changes will be in the spirit of enhancing what you already love about the site.

First, With a Terrible Fate has a new mission statement: the mission of With a Terrible Fate is to give gamers new tools for understanding and appreciating video games as a form of storytelling. Our articles have always been implicitly written with this goal in mind, but now we’re making it explicit. We’re also hoping to expand in the near future to develop other “tools” that serve our mission, meaning we won’t just be publishing long-form articles anymore.

We’re also transitioning away from the blog environment and into the space of a serious publication. This means you soon won’t be seeing articles by “Aaron Suduiko + Featured Authors”: instead, you’ll be seeing work by a team of video game analysts, all equally dedicated to understanding the games they love and hate in new, insightful ways.

Do you want to be one of these analysts? We’re still accepting applications. Check out all the information in the below call for applications (featuring the old “Featured Author” branding):

Poster_web_size

Several new game analysts will be joining us next month, and I can’t wait to share their first articles with you—they’re all quite interesting.

The site itself will also be getting a face-lift next month. We are especially grateful to all our readers who keep coming back to our work even though the design of the site itself leaves so much to be desired. You can expect a much sleeker interface, with easier-to-read articles and easier-to-search categories. We’ll also be taking steps to encourage more discussion: we want our readers responding to our work and talking about it, not just reading it!

Next month will also mark the start of a regular schedule for article releases. Up until now, I’ve been publishing articles as soon as they’re completed; now, I’m holding articles back and planning a routine release of them so that readers know when they can come to the site and expect new content. Logistically speaking, this means we won’t be publishing any new work for the rest of July, but, from August onward, we’ll have a steady stream of work released at regular intervals for you.

Want to know what the schedule is looking like? Want a sneak-peak at our upcoming topics of analysis? Well we’re also starting an email newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

This isn’t spam, and we won’t share your address with anyone. This is just a way for us to directly tell you about our publication schedule for the coming month, upcoming features, and more.

Here’s why the email newsletter really matters: you may not know it, but Facebook only shows the posts that a page makes to a small fraction of the people who like the page. If you want more people to see your content, you have to pay Facebook for “advertising”: you need to pay for advertising in order to reach your own fans.

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 5.00.55 PM

Almost 10,000 people like With a Terrible Fate on Facebook…

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 5.00.19 PM

…but not even 250 people see this post without paying Facebook for “advertising.”

Right now, Facebook is With a Terrible Fate’s main way of communicating with its followers. However, we also have no funding right now, and we want to be able to actually reach everyone who wants to read our content. So please, if you’re interested in keeping up with us, sign up for our newsletter (one more chance, for emphasis).

Now a bit more about funding. With a Terrible Fate doesn’t have any revenue at all right now. If you ever find yourself wishing we published more content, the reason why we can’t is that everyone involved in the site is working for free: that’s just how much we love thinking about video games.

To really take this to the next level, we need the funding to compensate writers for their time: that’s what will allow us to grow and expand in all the ways we can imagine. But I refuse to rely on ad revenue for this purpose. So many video game website are saturated with ads and sponsored content these days; at With a Terrible Fate, the focus will always be on the value of thinking in new, rigorous ways about the storytelling of video games. We want you to enjoy our content, not to see ads.

To that end, we’re starting a Patreon to give our readers the power to fund us. If you haven’t heard of Patreon, it’s a service that allows fans of creators to give them a recurring, monthly payment in exchange for cool rewards. This lets fans feel more intimately connected to the work of their favorite creators, and it also gives those creators the time and resources to commit more fully to their creative projects. This is what we’re hoping to use to grow With a Terrible Fate. 

We’ll be doing a full launch of our Patreon page when the new site is ready to roll out next month, but we’re actually already to do a soft launch of Patreon for our existing fan base. If you already feel like you know us and appreciate what we do, we would be honored if you would help us realize our full potential. Take a look at our Patreon and contribute here.

We have lots of ideas for how to expand, but funding will also just help us do more of what we’re already doing. It will give us more time to write, and it will also give us the resources to speak at more conventions (airfare and hotels add up quickly).

Speaking of conventions… 

You’ll be seeing us at more of them. In fact, we’re thrilled to announce that With a Terrible Fate will be speaking at PAX West this September in Seattle. We’ll share more details with you soon, but here’s a first look at our talk’s name and description:

The New Game Theory: How to Analyze Video Game Stories”

“You probably googled “BioShock Infinite Theories” as soon as you finished the game. But when it comes to video game theories, what separates the wheat from the chaff? How does the “canon” of a game define or limit how we understand its world and story? Do developers get the last word on which theories about their games are right, or can a theorist be right even if the developer disagrees? Join the game analysts of With a Terrible Fate as we discuss the standards of good video game theory.”

If you’re heading to PAX West, come connect with us and take in our talk! I’m especially excited about this talk because it explicitly focuses on With a Terrible Fate’s primary objective: developing new ways to think rigorously about the storytelling of video games.

And, as a last, miscellaneous tidbit about ways to connect with us: we’re now on Instagram. Follow us for artsy pictures and links to our analyses. For example:

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.06.21 AM

As we’re populating the account with content, we’re going all the way back to the start of the site, so following us will give you a fun retrospective on everything we’ve covered over the years.

Thank you for being with us this far, dear readers. We’re so excited to take these new steps into the future of video games with you.

Best,

Aaron Suduiko, Founder & Chief Video Game Analyst.

Nudgy Controls, Part II

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

Introduction

In Part I of this series, I discussed some examples of types of games that benefit from the lack of what I’ve termed “nudges,” which is an instance of some player input X that typically yields output Y instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative consistency and Z preserves narrative consistency. For clarification on this term’s formal definition I would suggest reading the introduction to Part I before reading this article. And I would definitely suggest reading Part I before reading this article if you have yet to do so, as this article will assume knowledge of the ideas covered in Part I.

In Part II I will discuss games that have narratives that benefit from nudgy gameplay. There are two principal ways to think about how a game’s narrative may incorporate nudges. First, it may incorporate nudges that help the player, allowing them to perform feats that are potentially outside of their skillset without the helpful nudge. I will term these sorts of nudges “player aids.”[1]

Second, a game may incorporate nudges that cause the player to perform worse than they would on their own. I will term these sorts of nudges “player hindrances.” Importantly, a player hindrance is not simply a lack of a nudge. It is an active change in output from what the player expects that makes the player perform worse. It is not like the examples of Banjo Kazooie or Dark Souls given in the previous article, in which the player likely fails frequently exclusively as a result of their actions, rather than the corrective measures of the game engine.

A nudge can be either a player aid or a player hindrance. I’ll start with a discussion of games with player aids and then move on to a discussion of games with player hindrances.

Games with Player Aids

Player aids exist to make certain potentially difficult aspects or portions of a game easier for the player to accomplish. They are most effective when a task that might be difficult for the average player is not difficult for the avatar the player is controlling. The player aid turns this task into something trivial to accomplish, maintaining the narrative consistency of a game by continually establishing the competency of the character. There are many games that have done this over the past years, notably the Batman Arkham games as well as the Assassin’s Creed games, so many readers are likely familiar with the gameplay I’ll be describing. I will go over two examples of player aids, and then discuss an example of something that potentially looks like a player aid, but is not.

The first example of a player aid hearkens back to the introduction of Part I, discussing the antics of bridge-crossing between Banjo Kazooie and Assassin’s Creed. I’d like to take a moment to look at a related set of circumstances in Assassin’s Creed: whenever the player is making Altair jump off of a building. Usually, the city of an Assassin’s Creed game is such that there is a convenient building to jump onto, or an even more convenient cart full of hay to dive into (and somehow stay completely uninjured, but we’ll ignore that complaint for now). For the sake of example, let’s imagine that the only safe landing space when jumping off a building is one cart full of hay on the ground. If the player runs directly toward the cart, Altair will reliably jump off of the building and land in the cart. However, if the player misses the mark slightly, Altair will jump off of the building and somehow steer his course, mid-fall, toward the cart, even though by the laws of physics in the real world he should have missed and landed with a nice splat on the hard ground. Each of these instances in which the player misses the path toward the cart of hay is a player aid: an enforcement on the part of the game mechanics of Altair’s status as an expert assassin who could not have made such silly mistakes—otherwise, he would have been dead long ago.

leapoffaith.jpg

Altair jumps into a hay barrel.

One will note that the pattern I described in the previous paragraph holds for an uncooperative player as well as for a less-than-competent player. If the player intentionally attempts to miss the safe landing, the game’s engine corrects the player’s actions to be more narratively consistent. I have personally attempted to cause disasters in Assassin’s Creed, and can note from experience that one must actively attempt to cause harm to Altair in order to do so, as the game liberally aids an uncooperative player to a safer output than the one she was attempting to incur. In this case, input X is forcibly shifted from output Y, the output in which Altair is hurt, to output Z, in which Altair is not injured, even though the player did not want this to occur.

Another example of a player aid is seen frequently across shooters on consoles: aim assist, which is any instance of a game engine helping the player to shoot at enemies, rather than shooting into thin air. While aim assist often exists simply for the purposes of making multiplayer shooting games balanced across skill levels, or just making a shooter game more approachable for beginners, aim assist (lack thereof) often serves an important purpose in narrative consistency as well.

To see how aim assist can act as a player aid, first note that it fits the mechanical model described in Part I. The player can try to move her targeting in any particular direction, and when an enemy target is not on screen, the engine consistently moves the targeting in the direction of the player’s input. However, when an enemy target is onscreen, the game engine aids the player by making an output that differs from the direction of the player’s input, so as to make the player aim at the enemy target. In this way, in some circumstances input X, which often yields output Y, yields output Z instead.

What we need now to see how aim assist can be a player aid is motivation for why aim assist may preserve narrative consistency. Rather than point out a particular game for which this is the case, I will construct a category of games in which aim assist preserves narrative consistency. Imagine any game in which the protagonist is a well trained, expert marksman. For any game in which this is the case, aim assist will preserve narrative consistency, because expert marksmen rarely, if ever, miss. Aim assist works to prevent, to a degree, an incompetent or uncooperative player from undermining the expert status of the marksman.

In contrast, if a game features a protagonist with little-to-no training with guns, it would not make sense narratively to include aim assist. Aim assist would actually make the protagonist too competent, and would thereby undermine narrative consistency.

To further understand what player aids are, it will help to see an example of something that one might initially think is a player aid, but actually is not. Many games with action-filled cutscenes, such as Resident Evil 4, Uncharted, and even Final Fantasy XIII-2, have sections that demand user input in the form of action commands. These are sections of gameplay in which the player acts by pressing a button in response to a visual input on-screen. In response to a single button press, a player may run up the arm of a goliath while dodging bullets, do a backflip over an Indiana-Jones-style boulder rolling down a hill, or deliver a finishing blow to an enemy. These sections are usually designed to allow for player involvement during sections of gameplay in which the actions being performed by the protagonist are too actiony and cinematic for normal gameplay. Initially these seem like they may be player aids, in the sense that the game engine is making it almost atrociously easy for the player to perform incredible feats.

re4_dodge_rock_9059.jpg

Leon prepares to dodge a boulder.

However, cutscenes with action commands do not thereby contain player aids, because these sections always have one specific output for the player’s input. If a player presses ‘B’ in response to some prompt, for instance, this button press is mapped to a specific output, there is no potential other output that might occur. Because of the one-to-one mapping of player input to game output, there is no nudge taking place. A nudge requires a shifting of output that is not occurring in this case. Simply making some complicated avatar action easier for a player to accomplish is not equivalent to a player aid. A player aid fundamentally changes how a player controls her avatar by shifting the output of some input to something that better fits the narrative than the usual output. To use an analogy, one could think of player aids as a proofreading system akin to error-correcting on a smartphone. A game with player aids corrects the player’s output to what is more correct for the story, rather than simply making it easier to give the correct input to yield said output.

Games with Player Hindrances

A player hindrance exists to disrupt a player’s actions, making simpler tasks more difficult to complete. A game may include a player hindrance to show that a character has difficulty with or is unable to do something, regardless of player ability. They are most effective when the player is controlling a character who is in some way less able than some standard (as defined by the game) regardless of player ability. There is a variety of potential reasons for the gap in ability, usually having to do the current bodily status of the avatar—in particular, when a character is inebriated, in some way physically injured, or close to death. The difficulty in diagnosing a player hindrance, then, comes in correctly identifying what standard it is that the character is failing to live up to. I will go over two examples of a player hindrance, both from NieR: Automata, in which the standard being compared to is the normal functioning state of the avatar. Then I will go over one example from Resident Evil 4 that is more difficult to diagnose. Finally, I’ll discuss one crucial example of a situation that initially appears to be a player hindrance, but actually is not.

At several points in NieR: Automata (a game with multiple avatars), the player’s avatar, an android, is hacked, EMP’d, or injected with a computer virus. When these events occur, various capacities of the avatar get removed, from the ability to attack, to the ability to jump, to the ability to see shapes with edge detection. While there are several instances of this throughout the game, I will focus on one in particular: when 2B, one of the avatars in the game, is infected by a virus that is threatening to control her entirely, leaving her unable to operate normally, on the verge of death. Thus player hindrances are warranted in order to make clear that 2B is no longer able to control her own body sufficiently, regardless of the actions of the player.

Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 12.20.25 PM.png

2B losing functionality from a virus.

In particular, when attempting to walk in a straight line, 2B will suddenly stop in her tracks, and sometimes when attempting to stop, 2B instead just keeps running forward. In this way, the player’s usual input can yield one of two outputs, either stopping or continuing moving forward, in a way that is not predictable to the player. The simple task of moving from one spot on the map to another becomes significantly more difficult, regardless of player ability, and so we can say that this section of the game contains player hindrances so as to preserve the narrative of 2B losing control of her body.

Again in NieR: Automata, the avatar is at times a robot with only very limited maneuverability, in contrast to the usual android avatar, who is very agile. The agency of the robot is much less than that of the android, evidenced by the robots’ slow movement speed, simple attack patterns, and a camera angle close to the robot that doesn’t allow for much peripheral vision. While the player is “hindered” in that she is less able to act through the avatar than before, these are not player hindrances: they are simply instances of the player being given fewer options, or simply fewer effective options, in accomplishing any particular task. They are akin to an avatar getting into a car: the control scheme and abilities of the avatar change, but that does not constitute a nudge in the gameplay. Changes in control scheme are not instances of player hindrance.

One particular way in which the player will be hindered by the gameplay when playing as the robot is when attempting to carry a bucket of oil. Usually, the robot can walk over pipes on the ground without falling over, but this action causes the robot to fall over when carrying a bucket full of oil on its head. In this way the output for the player’s input has shifted, meeting the first requirement to call this gameplay a player hindrance. Initially, the shifting output is surprising for players, who do not expect carrying a bucket of oil to be sufficient reason for tripping and falling over a pipe. But, the gameplay reinforces the narrative conceit that many of the robots are weak and relatively incapable individually. In this way the shift in output is narratively impactful: it shows that carrying a bucket of oil is a sufficient hindrance for the robot that even skilled player inputs cannot lead to success at walking over a pipe. The robot’s status as a pathetic being is at least maintained, if not more forcefully asserted, by this moment.[2]

In both of the examples given above, the avatar is not able to operate at their usual standard, in the case of 2B because of her near-death state, and in the case of the robot because of carrying a bucket on its head. But the “standard” that a character is not living up to does not actually have to be inherent to the character themselves. To see this let’s consider another example. Those who have played Resident Evil 4 may remember that the protagonist Leon Kennedy’s aim with a gun is often not great. When the player pulls out a firearm, even when giving no input, the location that Leon is aiming can move in any direction: up, down, left, right, and any diagonal mixture of these. So one can see that the first part of the definition of a nudge has been met: when the user is giving an input (in the form of no input), any of many directional movements of the gun is possible.

Resident_Evil_4_Ganado_village.png

Leon (attempts) to aim at an enemy.

There are three potential ways in which this gameplay could maintain narrative consistency. One might initially think that perhaps Leon is not trained in using a firearm, and thus it would not make sense for him to have rock-steady aim. But this theory does not seem correct, since Leon was trained first as a police officer and then as a special forces agent. So his aim should in theory be very good. One might then be tempted to think that the explanation for his terrible aim is the frightening situation that he is in, fighting for his life against parasitically controlled people and monstrosities wielding chainsaws. But again, this theory isn’t coherent plotwise, as Leon must have been trained to manage his fear in combat situations as part of his training as a special forces agent.

Many players do not consider the third potential reason for Leon’s terrible aim, which I will explain in the following paragraph; as a result, these people believe that either Leon must be either a terrible shot or a coward. The lack of explanation for Leon’s terrible aim has plagued the impression that people have of him since the game’s release. Many people explain the existence of the nudge as being indicative of Leon’s actual incompetence, even though his attitude and demeanor appear competent. I recognize this as a weakness for the game: it’s easier to embrace the idea that Leon is incompetent than to recognize the larger theme that Leon’s shaky hand speaks to.

In the Resident Evil series as a whole, there is an idea that, in order to improve humanity and win wars, one must create biological enhancements for people as well as biological weapons. Many of the game’s villains describe normal humans as inept and/or weak. Leon’s shaky hand speaks directly to this theme, and grounds the player in the body of a human person (albeit a very well trained human person), who is subject to imperfections and up against biologically enhanced enemies. The fact that Leon’s aim is bad maintains the consistency of the idea that Leon is physically inferior in various ways to his enemies, and only stays alive through clever use of weapons, supplies, and his own smarts. The gameplay has less to do with Leon as a person, and speaks more to the world in which he is embedded. The standard that Leon does not live up to ends up being the standard of the ideal military combatant, which in the world of Resident Evil must be biologically mutated/enhanced.[3]

One may worry that this analysis is problematic in that presumably every character in a story has uncountably many arbitrary standards to live up to, and since these standards don’t all align, the character must be failing to meet at least one of these standards. In this way it would appear that all gameplay should be instances of player hindrances. But this is clearly not the case, since intuition tells us that most gameplay is not a player hindrance. This is where narrative consistency comes into play. The narrative should define the specific standard out of the uncountably many out there that the character is not meeting, so as to justify the use of a player hindrance.

In the case of Resident Evil 4, this standard is created through dialogue with a character named Lord Saddler in particular. At one point Saddler shoots down a helicopter arriving to rescue Leon and says “Don’t tell me you’ve never swatted a bothersome fly! In essence, it’s the same thing… When you’ve acquired this power, you too will understand.” Through this line, Saddler communicates to Leon that humans are no better than insects, and that there is a power greater than humanity out there to subscribe to. Leon does not meet the standard of this greater power. Leon’s shaky hand keeps this narrative consistent to make it believable that a power greater than humans—greater than Leon—could conceivably exist out there.

saddler.jpg

Lord Saddler.

As evidenced by the example of Resident Evil 4, player hindrances can be tricky to diagnose, for it isn’t always clear whether there is a standard within a narrative that an avatar is failing to meet. Further, player hindrances are uncommon: outside of characters who are in some way gravely injured, intoxicated, or afraid, or simply incompetent, it is difficult to imagine when a player hindrance might be used. This is especially true since players tend to find player hindrances frustrating, and so developers have a tendency not to design them, as evidenced by the number of players who bitterly complained about Leon’s aiming in Resident Evil 4, followed by the subsequent removal of this feature from the studio’s future games.

Now that we’ve considered some games that incorporate player hindrances, let’s nail down exactly what player hindrances are by considering a game that initially might appear to be one in which player hindrances are warranted, but actually is not. One may be tempted to think that the example of Octodad, from Part I of this series, may be a game that would benefit from player hindrances. As a reminder to the reader, Octodad is a game about an octopus masquerading as a normal human suburban father and somehow succeeding. The game has intentionally very difficult controls, so as to put the player in the shoes of the octopus. The player’s experience navigating the difficult controls mirrors that of an octopus trying with only minimal success to be a human father. However, there is a crucial reason that Octodad does not fit in the schema of games that benefit from player hindrances.

The games with player hindrances discussed above all drive home that the avatar is unable to perform some particular action regardless of the input of the player. In the case of Octodad, however, a key part of the narrative is that somehow the octopus manages to successfully act in the role of the human father, even though there are numerous physical difficulties present in doing so. Unlike the example of 2B given above, the octopus father actually does manage to accomplish his goals so long as the player succeeds, even with all of the obvious obstacles in his way.

octodad yo.jpg

Octodad shrugs.

The intrigue comes from the hilarious attempt of the player to succeed at being a normal human father even with the intentionally difficult controls. As mentioned in Part I, to introduce nudges into this gameplay would take the player out of the shoes of the octopus. Like the octopus, the player must fail of their own merit, rather than being forced to fail by a player hindrance. If the player were forced to fail, the nature of the story would be very different.

A Non-Obvious Similarity Between Player Aids and Player Hindrances

The reader may notice an apparent discrepancy between player hindrances and player aids. It initially appears as though player hindrances are always relative to some standard, whereas player aids are more “absolute” in that they do not seem to be tied to any particular standard. This is actually not the case. Both player aids and player hindrances are relative to standards. But with player aids there is not much need to specify the standard in question, since it is relatively easy for most people to recognize an avatar with superhuman capabilities (notice the implicit standard of “human” in the word “superhuman”). In contrast, in order to understand a player hindrance, especially those similar to the Resident Evil 4 example where the standard is something the character ought to meet, it tends to be necessary to more explicitly identify the standard. So while identifying a standard seems to be less pertinent in analyzing a player aid than a player hindrance, the difference does not arise out of the theoretical grounding of these terms, but rather just the process of analysis.

Conclusion

In Part I and Part II of this series, we’ve defined nudgy controls, considered games that importantly do not use nudges, and considered how some games use nudges in one of two forms, player aids and player hindrances. In Part III, we will explore how this paradigm of game controls allows us to better understand the challenging control scheme of The Last Guardian.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.


[1] Thank you to my good friend Luke Wellington for the suggestion of this term as it applies to helpful nudges, as well as providing criticism to my first article which led to its theoretical grounding.

[2] As an aside, from a game design perspective, this particular choice is designed to be frustrating. The designers know that the player has no way within the game itself of knowing that the robot will trip in these contexts. When the player takes these actions to save time (as the environment is set up in a way that encourages these actions to make traversal faster), the player will spill the oil and waste time. This sort of design decision is frustrating for players, and many developers avoid it so as to keep their players from quitting playing the game. The designers of NieR: Automata likely designed this section intentionally with the goal of frustrating the player in mind so as to put the player in the shoes of the robot.

[3] Thanks to Brendan Gallagher for pointing out that this analysis is not canonical or based on the author’s intent. My analysis is agnostic to author intent, and with that disclaimer the argument presented should hold.

Mythology, Horror, and the Unknown: Horror Traditions in Video Games

-by Laila Carter, Featured Author. The following article is based on Laila’s portion of With a Terrible Fate’s horror panel at PAX Australia 2016.

Horror is always an interesting genre: it subverts all the norms that we are used to, goes against human nature, and forces us to confront our own fears. When video games embrace horror, they enable players to willingly embark on a journey that thrives off of dread, thrills, the grotesque, the abnormal, and the contrary. What I want to explore is the storytelling elements behind this, and how the horror genre has transversed different media, from the ancient myths all the way down to present-day media. Storytelling tropes come together in gaming in a fascinating way, creating the fundamental aspect of the horror gaming genre: something that I term “Daemonic Warped Space.” Various mythological elements correlate to various aspects of this idea: specifically to the warped, to the daemonic, and to the combination of the two. In the paper, I will explore how this is the case, demonstrating how ancient and modern mythological tropes can produce horror atmosphere in the present-day storytelling of video games.

Mythological Roots: Horror Tropes

In ancient mythology, the first stories ever told, certain events or occurrences appear in several cultures, thus establishing themselves as common myth anecdotes. Whether these elements were shared between cultures or came about separately in isolation, these anecdotes are widely recognized and still used to this day. Here, we will examine three of these anecdotes in order to understand how they form the atmosphere of the horror genre.

One of the most prominent motifs in almost all mythologies is the descent to the underworld. A hero must embark down into the abyss, into the land of the dead to encounter its mysteries and overcome some obstacle that is keeping her from progressing. The Underworld is the most famous type of “Otherworld” – a supernatural realm of spirits, of the soul. It is a realm opposite to reality, one that makes regular mortals question their judgment, sanity, and existence. Most of the time, the Underworld is portrayed in a religious light since the afterlife is one of the greatest mysteries in all faiths. The Underworld can be Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory in the middle (like in Dante’s The Divine Comedy); it can be Limbo, the Spirit World, the Realm of Shadows, or it can be Hades in Greek mythology. But it doesn’t have to be religious: the Underworld is simply a place of no return, where the spirits of those forgotten tend to wander; if characters ever do escape, they come back up as changed people (and if they don’t escape, then the story is badly written). It is Frodo’s journey into the horrid land of Mordor, where the land is covered in ash, fire, and brutality; it is Limbo – the deepest layer of dreams – in the movie Inception; it is Harry Potter’s literal death and meeting with Dumbledore one last time. The Underworld may appear very differently in each medium, but each place has one thing in common: the realm serves as a place of spiritual undertaking, forcing the hero to deal with internal struggles and psychological roadblocks, whether those be identity crises, relationship issues, or lack of faith in others or oneself. As Clyde W. Ford says:

“Mythological journeys of descent into the world of the dead are symbolic of movement from the light world of ordinary reality to the dark world of the unconscious; there, just as when we fall asleep, we die to the world of wakeful consciousness and awake to the marvelous world of evanescent forms and symbols within. The challenge met by those who successfully travel these corridors of the psyche is to claim some boon or gift from this inner realm: an insight or revelation that will release the energies pent up in the labyrinths of personal and social crises; the marker of a new direction that offers reinvigoration where old ways have grown stale” (Ford, 20).

Once you enter the Underworld, it is very hard to escape. Successful characters learn to look within themselves for the way out of this haunting, confusing, and dreaded place. The hero’s descent, then, is not only to uncover whatever secret she needs to in order to progress in her physical quest, but also to overcome her fears and the crisis of mortality. She must accept who she is, including her faults, yet also realize her potential for growth—that it is not her time yet to stay in the land of the dead, but rather to find meaning in the descent as a way to challenge her current mindset and change it for the better. The journey to the Underworld helps the character cross the threshold into a “personal land of the dead…dying one’s former self so that a new self may be born in its stead” (Ford, 26). The character must confront the personal hell within herself before she can save the day. This does not necessarily mean defying death outright (though sometimes it does), but more of accepting death as a possibility. Characters learn to let themselves change in order to succeed in the normal world, whether they initially like it or not.

The descent to the Underworld is such a universal theme that is appears in almost every single mythology that exists: heroes rescuing (or attempting to rescue) their loved ones from death, immortals dying and becoming gods of the Underworld, or demigods trying to prove their resistance to death and courage. A famous example of the descent to the Underworld lies in the Odyssey. Odysseus must travel down to Hades in order to figure out how to get back home and restore his life. He meets all the fallen heroes of the Trojan War, as well as his late mother; from them, he learns to be a bit wiser, and to take a good look at what it means to be a (Greek) “hero.” Was the glory from the Trojan War really worth it? Does acquiring riches and killing all those people amount to such glory? Odysseus takes these questions to heart, and because of this, he is able to approach the problems at home with a new perspective, enabling him to win the “glory” of his home with tactics different from the Trojan War (except at the very end, but that’s always controversial). The Underworld and the meeting of the dead help Odysseus succeed in completing his goal of returning home and protecting his family. He has to overcome inner struggles and change his old self into a different man before he can leave to continue on his quest.

The second mythological trope of horror is hard to explain, given its nature. The Unspeakable “It” is a presence that permeates throughout the entire setting, invading all space with its terrible presence. This entity is usually never directly seen, but instead felt: the character is overcome with an inexplicable sense of dread as she feels something on her skin, something watching her every move—yet she cannot say what that something is. The Unspeakable “It” is an amorphous being contaminates the very air you breathe and surrounds you with its unsetting power. It has no shape or boundary, and it tends to make up its own rules as it grows into something overwhelming. There is no true escape from this creature: there is only unwilling acceptance, complete assimilation, or mad obsession.

The Unspeakable “It” appears in all forms of storytelling, though some incarnations are much subtler than others. In mythology, this creature can be a force of evil that constantly tries to consume the world—for example, the chaos god Apep from Egyptian mythology. It can also be a being who exists throughout the whole world and is not constrained to one specific place, like Gaea from Greek mythology. Many times, the Unspeakable “It” is simply “The Darkness” or “Chaos” with a capital ‘C’, as nothing else can really describe such forces. They just exist and usually try to thwart the heroes of the story. The most famous portrayal of this mysterious entity, however, comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. Lovecraftian horror appears at the very beginning of the story and never leaves: it haunts the narrative to the very end, even if the characters somehow “kill” it (spoiler: Lovecraftian monsters never truly die. Their existence is permanent throughout the world). These monsters are made of a conglomerate of pieces, from tentacles to eyeballs, from disjointed arms and legs to inhuman mouths, from ordinary animals to creatures never seen before by a human.[1] These monsters can be unimaginable, as Lovecraftian himself can barely describe the creatures in his stories – they do not fit into a coherent description that humans would comprehend. For example: “It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualised by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions” (“The Dunwich Horror”). Most importantly, Lovecraftian horrors are ancient, huge, and everywhere. When describing his creature Yogo-Sothoth, Lovecraft states that it “was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self—not merely a thing of one Space-Time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence’s whole unbounded sweep—the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike” (“Through the Gates of the Silver Key”). Lovecraft’s horror features creatures of unimaginable amalgamation and limitless possibility, threatening the entire earth and space as we know it.

Like Lovecraft’s monsters, the Unspeakable “It” is a “kind of force that doesn’t belong in our part of space; a kind of force that acts and grows and shapes itself by other laws than those of our sort of Nature” (“The Dunwich Horror”). It is an entity that invades our world like a parasite, consuming and overtaking everything in its virus-like corruption. The best thing to do it get rid of it as quickly as possible; however, you can never truly destroy the horror that is the Unspeakable “It,” because once it’s here, it is here to stay.

The last mythological story element we will consider is the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. Blaming Athenians for the death of his son, King Minos of Crete required seven young men and seven young women from Athens to feed to his Minotaur—an abominable half-man, half-bull—as payment. After the second round of sacrifices, Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, decides to go as as one of the young men in order to kill the horrible beast and end the sacrifices. Unfortunately, the Minotaur resides in a labyrinth created by the genius inventor Daedalus, and escaping from its confusing halls is impossible. Luckily for him, Theseus has the help of Princess Ariadne, Minos’s daughter, who gives him string so that he can retrace his steps to escape the labyrinth. Theseus navigates the complex maze, kills the Minotaur, and becomes a legendary hero.

The Journey to the Underworld and the Unspeakable “It” trope have features of obvious relevance to the horror genre, but The Minotaur and the Labyrinth might instead seem like a very specific, heroic story. I argue that the monster-living-within-a-hostile-environment narrative is one of the main elements of horror, one that makes a story enticing and tense. The Minotaur knows the layout of the Labyrinth, having lived there all its life, while Theseus does not. He, and others before him, had a great disadvantage as they had to navigate an environment that was foreign, confusing, and treacherous. The Athenians did not know the “puzzle” of the Labyrinth, whereas the Minotaur could easily find its way around. Theseus had to figure out a trick to solving the puzzle (i.e. using the string) in order to survive. However, unlike Theseus, many characters have a hard time finding “string” in their world’s labyrinth. These characters did not have outside help, and instead had to make their own string—sometimes on the spot, and other times through dangerous games of trial and error. All the while, they must escape from a terrifying force that wishes to destroy them. The danger can take place in a literal maze, like in the story The Maze Runner (which is the entire plot of the book). For a more figurative type of labyrinth in the same genre, The Hunger Games presents an open world of survival; there is no “maze” per se, but the setting remains hostile and foreign to Katniss, filled with murderous enemies and lacking any plausible means of escape.

For a more concrete example of the Minotaur and Labyrinth trope, in Neil Gaiman’s fiction book Coraline, Coraline must somehow find a way out of a distorted world that mirrors her own small neighborhood: a world that is controlled by the Other Mother, a grotesque, button-eyed figure who wishes to consume the girl’s soul. Coraline must traverse the twisted and changing hallways of her Other house, encountering decaying forms of her Other Father and neighbors, and saving her parents from the dark distortions of space and shadows. The Other Mother created the eerie version of the house and watches Coraline at all times—she knows the “labyrinth” that Coraline has to navigate, and is fully aware of the girl’s every move, putting Coraline at a severe disadvantage. Coraline also has no string at the start of the perilous journey, no way of knowing how to defeat the Other Mother and escape her realm; over time, however, she manages to overcome her fears, find a few allies, and collect resources to fight against the Other Mother and escape.

The Minotaur and Labyrinth story element, when used in horror, creates an atmosphere that keeps the reader/audience on the edge of their seats. The monster and the setting have combined into one force that the heroes must overcome in order to succeed, even though the monster has the advantage of knowing where it is in terms of space and time, while the heroes do not.

Horror Atmosphere: The Daemonic Warped Space

Next, I am going to discuss atmosphere in horror, because it is arguably the most important storytelling aspect to the genre. Horror (good horror, at least) has a specific type of atmosphere, one that creeps directly into the skin and leaves readers/viewers/players on the edge of their seat, not trusting anything that they see or hear.

The first element of horror atmosphere deals with the setting of the narrative: the Warped Space. In his essay “Lewtonian Space: Val Lewton’s Films and The New Space of Horror,” J.P. Tellote explains distorted or “warped” space as “the site of those ‘subject/object disturbances’ that distort our conventional experience of space and open onto a decidedly disturbing world” (Tellote, 5). The conventional setting—something the audience expects—has twisted into a new environment, one filled with unknown variables and situations, one that the audience does not recognize and thus fears. These spaces are “‘not empty, but full of disturbing objects and forms’, yet not so much real objects as amorphous projection of ‘all the neuroses and phobias of the modern subject’…(Vidler2000:viii)” (3), meaning the space of the medium distorts reality with the viewer’s own fears and imagination. People see one thing on the screen—an open doorway, oddly placed furniture, or a long dark hallway—but they project “phobias” that linger in their minds, creating a twisted space that blurs the objective reality on the screen and the personal fears of the audience. Lewtionian space has the “ability to place [viewers] in a space where the imagination is free to play – and to confront our very fears” (6). The space plays with the vulnerability of the human psyche. It leaves people to their own horrors, to their inner demons, and lets their fears run wild without any way of justifying their existence. This space “warps” the rational and the irrational, blurring the line between logical understanding and madness, preying on the audience’s fear of concealing darkness, eerie emptiness, and strange camera movement. The audience projects imaginative horrors into these spaces, and they then have no choice but to confront them.

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 12.52.25 AM

This irrationality of human fear ties into the concept of the “daemonic,” the second element of horror atmosphere. The daemonic is something Eugene Thacker describes as “fully immanent, and yet never fully present…[the daemon] is at once pure force and flow, but, not being a discrete thing itself, it is also pure nothingness” (Thacker 35). In this conception, daemons are not physical creatures with horns, hooves, and pointed tails; instead, they occupy no space, have no physical presence, and are something that humans can neither touch nor describe. They are a force parallel to our human existence, much like abstract concepts of chaos, luck, or, in this case, nothingness. As a non-human entity, daemonic force is “a limit…both that which we stand in relation to and that which remains forever inaccessible to us. This limit is unknown, and the unknown, as the genre of horror reminds us, is often a source of fear or dread” (27). Daemonic force is so against the natural laws of the world that it doesn’t exist in the same realm as we do, and yet human existence is defined and haunted by its presence. It is everything we are not. This situation of a non-human and intangible force that violates all the known laws of nature frightens us, for it is human nature to fear anything that is not like us, especially if its features remain a complete enigma. Humans cannot grasp the concept of the daemonic and they never will, but it is a force that constantly surrounds them. In order to understand human existence in the horror genre, we must acknowledge the presence of the daemonic.

In horror literature, film, and gaming, the two concepts of Warped Lewtonian space and the daemonic force fuse together that twists the environment into a twisted version of imagined, psychological fear. Everything combines into one realm, one entity that I call the “Daemonic Warped Space”: A place not empty, but filled with forces that are both incomprehensible and inaccessible to humans, forces that distort our perception of reality and fantasy. This new setting is everywhere; both physical and mental, it will follow the characters as an encompassing entity with a mind of its own. Characters can never touch or restrain it because of its ubiquity. The Daemonic Warped is both the hideous monster waiting to attack, and the creaking walls that trap the character within. It is both the darkness that hides everything in shadow, and the hallucinations stemming from a character’s tormented psyche. It is the embodiment of a character’s limit, subconsciousness, and fears, and it is nearly inescapable. The Daemonic Warped space is crucial to the horror genre because it forms the fundamental basis of good narrative atmosphere: it becomes an entity itself in the fictional world, trapping the characters in a living nightmare in its distorted yet contained presence.

Mythology and Atmosphere: The Storytelling of Horror Gaming

We have discussed three mythological elements that appear in horror storytelling, along with the atmospheric element of the Daemonic Warped Space. These all relate to each other and work together to create the foundation of storytelling in horror fiction, specifically in video games.

The Journey to the Underworld trope remarks on the setting of a hero’s journey, forcing the character to travel down into the world of the soul and the unconscious. The Underworld, then, is a Warped Space: a place of the dead and the supernatural, where a living being creates a conflict of existence between life and death, the physical and the mental, consciousness and dreams. In horror gaming, this descent into the Warped Underworld is the basis for the entire game. The goal for the player is to find a way out and survive the ordeal.

The Journey to the Underworld and the Warped Space come together in the murky, crawling city of Rapture in the video game BioShock. Rapture is a new place, both to the avatar, Jack, and to the player; it is a place with different rules and norms. It is a city at the bottom of the ocean, built in the 1946 and initially capitalizing on the American ideals of prosperity and success in its early days. However, when Jack descends into the city, its corridors are devoid of life and instead filled with corpses. Messages in blood are splattered across the walls, used weapons lie everywhere, and the glass walls separating Jack from the ocean groan against the silence of the city. Not only does the city subvert the norm by existing at the bottom of the ocean, but it is then distorted even further by its emptiness (a city is supposed to be busy, filled with people), its violent backstory, and its murderous inhabitants that have strayed away from both sanity and humanity. Unlike Odysseus, who travelled to the Underworld willingly, the player and Jack are thrown down into this world with neither an explanation nor any way of escaping. They confront the dark and eerie halls of Rapture with no clue as to what they are fighting or why, and yet they know they must fight simply in order to survive.

Rapture also distorts the very concepts of life and death. The life of the ocean surrounds the bloody massacre in the city, creating a conflict of existence between the living and the dead. This is also seen with the existence of Jack himself: (mostly) everyone else in the game is dead, and yet somehow you (Jack/the player) are still alive. You have to survive in a place that has been consumed by greed, corruption, and destruction. Welcome to the Underworld: a land of the dead that doesn’t greet the living lightly, where escape is a daunting and seemingly impossible task. Rapture is a city warped by death and fear, causing the player to doubt every corner, every character, and every action they take.

Both Jack and the player have no idea as to what is happening or why they are in Rapture in the first place. All they know is they somehow have to get out of the horrid, decrepit place before someone out for blood kills them. The player must survive and press forward in order to discover the secrets of Rapture, of Adam, and of Jack, someone about whom the player has very little information. Rapture, then, represents a realm of complete mystery, one that you must unearth as you proceed through the game. It is the embodiment of the Jack’s troubled psyche, dark from his amnesiac state and corrupted by his haunting previous life. His subconscious leaks into the atmosphere of the place, reminding him and the player of his tortured and distorted childhood, of his criminal tendencies, and of his “hacked” mind.[2]

During one moment in the game, the player finds the powerful shotgun lying in the middle of the floor. Once Jack equips the new weapon, however, all the lights shut off. The player can hear footsteps and sounds emanating all around, and tenses—an ambush is coming. A spotlight then switches on, lighting a small circle of the room while the outside remains covered in pitch black; from this cover, enemies pop out and attack. This switching off of the lights and revealing only a small portion of the scene portrays Rapture’s trickiness as a whole, and how the city messes with Jack’s mind throughout the game. Jack will remain “in the dark” about certain people or history of the city (and of his past), only gaining concrete knowledge through audio recordings that deliver snippets of information. The player can choose to ignore these audio logs and proceed through the game blindly, or he/she can slowly piece together the misses pieces of the puzzle, “illuminating” the story bit-by-bit. Rapture, however, will only show the parts of the story that it wants to show, not giving Jack what he wants—his past in Rapture—until the end. Before that, the avatar must deal with the “patches of light” that make his path clear, that clear up his mind about the truth of the city, and that help him discover who he is as a person. The rest of the city, though, will remain in the dark throughout much of the game, where hauntings of the city and of Jack’s past sneak out and try to destroy him. Rapture portrays Jack’s distorted psyche, and he must descend into its darkest corners in order to escape its traps and leave the demented place behind.[3]

If the Journey to the Underworld and the Warped space complement each other in storytelling, then the Unspeakable “It” Trope and the Daemonic do as well. Both the Unspeakable “It” and the Daemonic permeate the entire setting, existing everywhere and with no chance of escape. Both come together as one force in the horror games, as a monster that is both in the walls and has a physical form, hiding just around the corner waiting to scare you.

The Unspeakable “It” and its Daemonic presence appear in several games where the enemy is seemingly everywhere yet nowhere: In Metroid Fusion, the X parasite inhabits every biological organism and hunts you. In System Shock 2, the Many infect the dead to attack the protagonist while SHODAN hacks into cyberspace throughout the game. In Bloodborne, everything is a Lovecraftian horror waiting to pull you into its sick realm. Yet one game in particular stands out for portraying the Daemonic, Unspeakable “It.” SOMA, by Frictional Games, follows Simon throughout the claustrophobic halls of PATHOS-II, a(nother) facility built underwater after an apocalypse occurred on the surface of earth. The moment he wakes up in this place, he is confronted with a slimey, tarish growth on the walls, one that pulsates and quivers to the touch. The substance is the far-reaching extension of the WAU, an organic AI computer that consumes the entire PATHOS-II research facility. The computer grows and expands on walls and through computers mainframes into horrid creatures (who were former humans), within both deceased and living staff members. It infects nearly everything, and all your actions/decisions are based on its looming presence that either helps or hinders your progress. Even when you (might) decide to “kill” it in the end, its murky goop is still present in the corridors, in the systems, and in Simon. The WAU will continue to live on, and humanity will be corrupted by its organic technology.

The ever-consuming presence of the WAU is due to its programming: the computer’s main goal is to “save” the remainder of humanity by integrating humans with itself. It amalgamates with any organic form, whether living or dead, to produce a being that can survive after the apocalypse. But, are these beings really human? At one point, Simon comes across a woman who is still questionably alive, for tubes and wire run through her body, and her breathing is synced with the WAU’s organic goo that she sits upon. Other encounters with humans show their organs completely replaced with gears, lights, and machines. Catherine, the AI copy of a previous human mind that you find, is infected with the WAU on the device that houses her. Even Simon replenishes his health through the WAU at specific sites, because he too is a copy of a former human mind. Barely anyone in the game is fully human anymore, and the player can feel this shift into non-humanness as the story develops. Simon cannot escape the ever-present WAU, both physically—as it covers the walls and blocks his path—and mentally—as it constantly makes him question what he is. Is Simon a copy of a human, or another extension of the WAU’s organic components? Is the WAU really “saving” humanity, even though it is taking away basic human parts? The computer and its effect on the PATHOS-II make Simon, Catherine, and player question what it means to be alive, serving as a questionable boundary of human existence. The WAU’s consuming appearance is the daemonic force that Simon and the player must survive against, one they cannot truly escape but which instead allows them to examine their complicated existence as human and machine.

Lastly, the atmospheric element of the Daemonic Warped Space corresponds to the mythological story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. With the Minotaur representing the Daemonic and the Labyrinth the Warped Space, both come together to illustrate the perfect balance of physicality and psychological tension that a good horror game needs in order to make the player fear for their virtual safety.

These two elements of horror will appear in every (good) horror game, but Amnesia: The Dark Descent masters the performance. The player must walk in the shoes of Daniel, an amnesiac who must wander through dungeon hallways in Brennenburg Castle in order to uncover the truth of his past. The corridors of the castle are all giant puzzles, which the player must “solve” in order to proceed forward, serving as the labyrinth that will eventually lead him to the “Minotaur” he has to defeat. Eventually, the player comes across the iconic monsters of the game: The Gatherers, deformed humanoid beings with disgusting, gaping mouths. Unlike the avatar in BioShock, however, Daniel cannot fight against the Gatherers. His only tactic for survival is to hide behind boxes or run to a safe area. Given this and the total eeriness of the mansion, the monsters and the setting of Amnesia: The Dark Descent create a collective sense of dread for the player. You must avoid the monsters in layered, environmental darkness, making the monsters hard to pinpoint. The darkness blocks the visibility of entire rooms sometimes, and yet the player can sense when a monster is present. Most of the time, all you have to go by are the sounds the Gatherers make, a door creaking open across the room, or soft footsteps. And, because of the nature of a labyrinth, it is incredibly hard to know when and where a monster will appear. The player can only move forward by guesses, inferences, and imagination. To make matters worse, Daniel cannot stay in the dark for too long or else he will lose his sanity, blurring the lines of reality and causing hallucinations to appear on the screen. Daniel does have a lantern to light his way through the complicated maze of the mansion, but this help is no Theseus’ string: the lantern needs to be constantly replenished with oil (a resource that’s hard to come by), and the Gatherers can spot you more easily with the light on. Darkness is both your friend and your enemy, helping you hide and helping the monsters finding you. Amnesia: The Dark Descent perfectly captures feeling of terror in a game where the monsters know the “puzzle” of the environment better than you do. The Gatherers understand the tricks and complexities of the maze-like hallways, and surprise the players in rooms with undiscovered entrances. They use the long hallways where darkness covers the end to ambush you; they conceal themselves in fog-filled rooms; and they corner you into one-way corridors filled with boxes, planks, and other items that thwart your progress and bring you closer to death. The Gatherers and the mansion work together as the Daemonic and the Warped Space to create the sensation of all-encompassing danger, consuming darkness, and inevitable death for the player, bringing out the sheer dread in anticipation of a monstrous encounter.

The Daemonic Warped Space works effectively if the two elements, the Daemonic and the Warped Space, are together. If they are separated, however, the atmosphere quickly falls apart. Unfortunately, this situation can be seen in The Dark Descent’s sequel, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. At one point, the enemy pigs, the equivalent of Gatherers, leave the manor where the avatar wanders and begin to attack the neighboring town. The initial setting of the Machine is now left behind as the avatar walks through a more open space of the outside village, hearing the massacre of the villagers by the various pigs off-screen. The once-horrible monsters have abandoned the space, no longer using the environment to their advantage; the setting is no longer blocking the player’s path and producing suspense situations around the mechanics of the game. The Daemonic and the Warped Space are no longer using each other to create the basic element of fear: the player does not feel threatened, and the horror of the situation is lost. In order to create the tense and chilling atmosphere of the horror genre, a game must keep the Daemonic and the Warped Space together. Only when the two play off each other’s strengths to create one dreadful enemy can a player be immersed in their own fear.

Conclusion

In closing, I will look back upon one of my favorite horror games, one that represents the ultimate form of the Daemonic Warped Space and demonstrates how effective it can be in a video game. P.T. is the perfect example of the daemonic forces and warped setting fusing together to produce pure terror in the minds of players. What the game so extraordinary is it was only a demo for a much longer game (that got cancelled!), and the player does not actually do anything in the demo except for keep walking. The Warped Space distorts onto itself and repeats, causing the player to walk down a seemingly endless loop of the same corridor. You are stuck in a weird limbo where the rules of reality collapse and the dark subconscious reigns. The hallway projects different phobias and scares in each iteration of the loop, growing darker each turn, having a once-closed bathroom door now open, or inputting a different sound in the air. The monster is nothing specific; rather, it is an unknown force that you cannot fight against. It keeps changing, and the threat against you is vague in nature, making it even more terrible. Yet the “force” of the daemonic feels everywhere, like it’s the very hallway itself because it keeps messing with you. You experience the Daemonic according to its own will: it produces fears and monsters regardless of your decisions, acting alive in its own hauntedness. The only way to overcome this loop nightmare is to keep journeying, surviving the loop and experiencing the sadistic presence. The continuous, warped hallway remains alive with the Daemonic and keeps morphing to throw you into further torment, producing scarier circumstances at each turn. Your psyche does all the work, trying to piece together the story, the monster, the setting, and the way to escape, yet halting when confronted with an unknown entity due to your imagined fear.

The best example of this occurs on the fifth iteration of the loop. You turn the corner to face the exit door, and instead spot the first being in the game standing your way: a deranged, mumbling, crooked woman sways in your path. You know approaching her is a bad idea, but that is the only way to continue. So you walk forward, and, right before you reach her, the lights shut off, leaving you in pure darkness. It is the most terrifying thing because the setting and the monster are both fooling with you, and you as the player know that there is nothing you can do about whatever will happen next. You simply must continue forward in a darkness where a monster may or may not be, and that is utterly horrifying. The Daemonic Warped Space is an essential atmospheric element to horror storytelling and gameplay mechanics, for it makes you confront the fear of the unknown, and, no matter how hard you try, you will be going against monsters beyond your control and knowledge—monsters that work with the dreadful environment to make your life absolutely miserable.

jhjh

Laila Carter is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out her bio to learn more.

[1] From “The Dunwich Horror”—Someone describing the invisible monster terrorizing the village: “‘Bigger’n a barn . . . all made o’ squirmin’ ropes . . . hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything, with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step . . . nothin’ solid abaout it—all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together . . . great bulgin’ eyes all over it . . . ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stovepipes, an’ all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’ . . . all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings . . . an’ Gawd in heaven—that haff face on top! . . .’”  http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/dh.aspx (Seriously, read this story).

[2] I am not trying to spoil the game entirely, but instead just hope to give readers a hint of the story. If you want to know more, you’ll have to play the game for yourself.

[3] Or not, depending which the ending the player gets.

 

 

Nudgy Controls, Part I

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

banjo kazooie.jpg

Introduction

1990s 3-D platforming games were relatively difficult games, especially for my 3-year-old self. I distinctly remember playing Banjo Kazooie back in 1998. With my young, untrained fingers, it was simply impossible to walk across one of the many absurdly thin bridges spanning a dangerous gap without falling. But at that age my will was indomitable, and through countless hours of training, I became a master at crossing thin bridges. Platforming games became unilaterally easier at that point. I could apply the same skillset to each instance.

Then in 2007 Assassin’s Creed came out. Within the first hour of the game, I ended up in the same thin bridge predicament that I remembered so fondly from my days of playing mid-90s platformers for the Nintendo 64. As I set out across the bridge, I moved very slowly, ensuring that my camera was pointed straight ahead and I maintained exactly the course that I wanted.

Then I messed up. I got distracted and my thumb twitched ever so slightly. I mentally flinched, and awaited my inevitable plunge from the bridge. But that plunge never came. Altair remained perched on the bridge as if nothing happened. I stared in disbelief. I knew that I should have fallen.

But a thought occurred to me at that moment: Altair is an expertly trained assassin, not a bear named Banjo bumbling his way through the world. Why should he ever fall unexpectedly while crossing a thin path? How would he have survived his training and his missions up to this point? Maybe it was not actually possible to jump off the bridge.

I decided to test my theory, and try to jump off the bridge. Needless to say it didn’t work. The game prevented me from jumping off the bridge. But rather than be mad at the game for not placing trust in my ability to handle the mechanical difficulty of crossing the bridge, I was pleased. I was pleased because the game really put me in the shoes of the avatar. Altair is a master assassin, and as such needs to be more skilled than the 12-year-old who was controlling his actions as an avatar. By shaping the input I gave the game, the engine preserved the character of Altair.

1110215-altair_and_ezio_by_darkespada.jpg

Authors have a difficult task in creating a narrative for a game. While the author is in command of a majority of the events in a game, there is a single variable which remains outside of their control: the player. The player’s actions are integral to the narrative of a game, and yet are by nature not within the control of the person who wrote the narrative of a game. But that does not necessarily leave the integrity of a game’s narrative to the whims of the player. In order to maintain a game’s narrative consistency, the believability of a story and the actions of the characters contained within, an author may introduce subtle nudges to the player’s actions. Not all games need to do this, however: some narratives are perfectly well maintained by a non-cooperative or incompetent player. But some narratives cannot afford the level of outside shaping to the narrative brought on by a player left entirely to their own devices.

The example I gave above is instructive because it shows how a game’s controls can be an important force in preserving, or not preserving, the narrative consistency of a game. If Altair had been able to fall, it undermines to a degree our ability as players to believe that he is an expert assassin. If Banjo never fell from ledges, maybe it would be hard to believe that we were playing as a human-like bear. By restricting (or noticeably not restricting) the ways in which the player can control the avatar, an author can maintain the consistency of the narrative being presented to the player.

There are many ways that control schemes can have an impact on the internal narrative consistency of a game. But in this and the following two articles, I would like to describe one particular concept: nudgy controls.

In the interest of defining nudges I would like to start by first defining what a game that lacks any nudges looks like. These are games in which an input X on the part of the player reliably yields an output Y within the game, so long as the physics of the engine allow it. For example, pushing left on the control stick always yields moving left, unless there is a physical wall blocking your path. There is a consistency to how the controls work. This is the example of Banjo who will reliably walk left in all situations when the player presses left, even if that results in him falling to his death.

Nudgy controls often resemble the paradigm described above, in that most of the time, an input of X yields output Y. However, in some cases, instead of input X yielding output Y, instead some other output, Z, is yielded. A nudge is an instance of some player input X that typically yields output Y instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative coherence and Z preserves narrative consistency. As an example, most of the time when a player pushes left on the control stick, the avatar moves left. However, in some minority of cases the avatar instead moves forward. This is the example of Altair, who is nudged away from jumping off of the path to his death, presumably due to his training as an assassin.

Each individual instance of Y occurring instead of Z does not necessarily preserve narrative consistency. Context determines the effectiveness in this regard. The nudges in Assassin’s Creed help to preserve internal narrative consistency, while the same Y-to-Z conversions in Banjo Kazooie would actually undermine the internal narrative consistency. Thus the same mechanic used in Assassin’s Creed would that could be called a nudge would not be called a nudge in Banjo Kazooie. My definition of a nudge contains only the cases in which the instance of Y occurring instead of Z actually does preserve narrative consistency.

There are several kinds of games which maintain narrative consistency explicitly through lack of nudges. These games include:

  1. Trial-by-death games.
  2. Games with intentionally obtuse controls.
  3. Multiplayer skill tournaments

For the remainder of this article, I’ll go over these three types of games that don’t incorporate many nudges. In a follow-up article (Part II), I’ll discuss two differing models for nudgy controls.

  1. Trial-by-death games

A game’s mechanics can be described as trial-by-death if a majority of the gameplay consists of players dying at least once before success. There are a few possible reasons for the repeated player death. Through the death they could learn about a mechanic they could not have known without extra-gameworld knowledge before succeeding. In a puzzle game, there might be asymmetric information, such that the player cannot learn the solution to the puzzle without failing once at it. Or the game could just throw innovative, difficult challenges at the player that do not require a player death, but simply often result in it. These games are not simply “hard” in a conventional way; players usually cannot avoid dying entirely simply by learning some basic set of skills and mastering them. Unlike Pac-Man, which always features the same ostensive situation but with an ever-escalating degree of difficulty, a trial-by-death game will constantly change the nature of the challenges along with the difficulty.

In order for trial-by-death games to function properly, the player has to be sure that they can trace the effect of their death to their own actions. That way, given the new information they get from dying, they can change the way they play to not get killed again. This is one crucial reason for trial-by-death games not to have nudges in the controls. As the game designers at “Extra Credits” put it, studios like From Software (which created Dark Souls) make a “covenant with the player.” This covenant is that the game has a consistent ruleset. So the rules will not suddenly change, even in extenuating circumstances. If the player gets killed, they can always trace it back to their own actions, rather than pointing at the game engine and saying “it changed the rules.” The flipside is also true, though: if the player succeeds they can rightly congratulate themselves. But this sort of covenant with the player requires consistency in the controls. And so it precludes nudges. There should never be a moment in which input X could spit out either Y or Z. The player should always be sure of the output (if they’ve learned the game sufficiently). If there were nudges, it would be difficult for the player to diagnose the cause of their death, because they may be unsure about whether their own action or the nudge killed them. The inability to diagnose the problem would then lead to an inability to coherently change behavior for another try.

But the lack of nudges also can preserve narrative consistency in trial-by-death games. Dark Souls is an exemplar in this regard. As an undead in a world of gods and other undead, each task requires many attempts before success. By leaving the controls unhindered by nudges, narrative is preserved, since the player inevitably must try each task multiple times before success.[1] In this way the play experience parallels the avatar’s actions. Within the context of the game world, the avatar dies repeatedly attempting to accomplish his or her goal. The player as well most likely fails and tries again many times before success.

2. Games with Intentionally Obtuse Controls

Dark Souls is not unique in being a game that benefits from a non-nudgy control scheme. There are other narratives for which non-nudgy control schemes contribute to narrative consistency. In Octodad, the player controls an octopus masquerading as a normal 1950s breadwinning human father. Octodad has a control scheme which is intentionally obtuse, in that the controls are unintuitive and difficult, yet faithfully respond to player input. In particular, there is a button that lifts his “leg” (which is actually a tentacle), a control stick to move said leg, another control stick to move his “arm” (again actually a tentacle), and many objects in the game are easy to knock over. The player’s difficulty navigating the obtuse control scheme mimics the experience of an octopus attempting with only minor success imitating the normal motions of a human.

octodad.jpg

Needless to say, it’s very difficult to do. No nudges are necessary in Octodad because either a change from output Y to output Z would help the player control the octopus better, which is antithetical to the narrative of the game, or the change from Y to Z would further inhibit the player. While initially this may seem like a choice that would further enhance the narrative consistency of Octodad, I’d argue that actually wouldn’t be the case. In order to mirror the experience of the inept octopus, the player should also feel as though their own actions are not very effective by their own nature. If the player feels they are forced to fail, they will not be in the same sort of physical situation struggling with the controller as the octopus has in struggling with his body. The introduction of nudges does nothing to further maintain narrative consistency over leaving the game non-nudgy.

3. Multiplayer Skill Tournaments

There exist a wide variety of games that could potentially be considered multiplayer skill tournament games, and any game that fits the archetype is well suited for a control scheme that lacks nudges. I define this category by its three primary features. First, it is a multiplayer game, meaning that multiple players participate in a game. Second, it is a competition of skill, meaning that within the narrative of the game, the most skilled competitor comes out victorious, leaving nothing to chance or sabotage by another player. Third, it takes place in a tournament environment, in which the central narrative thrust is the competition itself, rather than a narrative that contains within it a competition.

A multiplayer skill tournament game doesn’t use nudges because an inclusion of nudges would undermine the narrative of the game. A nudge may cause an of imbalance in the skill levels of the competitors who are controlled by players. This imbalance potentially makes a player question the validity of the victor of the tournament, and thus the narrative itself. One will note that in the absence of any one of the three conditions—that the game is multiplayer, that the game is skill-based, and that the game is a tournament—the requirement for nudge-less gameplay vanishes. A game that is not multiplayer could include non-player characters that are simply more or less skilled than the player. A game that is not skill-based (for instance a game based on randomness) does not require an even playing field. And if the narrative is not a tournament or simply contains a tournament within it, non-tournament aspects of the tournament may require nudgy controls.

There is nothing in particular that pins the multiplayer skill tournament to a particular genre, such as racing or fighting games. Presumably any multiplayer game could have the narrative and gameplay of a multiplayer skill tournament. However, in practice, one finds that only a particular subset of games have realized the multiplayer skill tournament. Those games are 1v1 fighters. There are numerous multiplayer games that one may think are multiplayer skill tournaments, but actually aren’t. I’ll begin by explaining some examples that may seem at first glance to fit the category but actually do not. Usually this is due to the game not satisfying the second requirement: that the game is purely a competition of skill

The first example is the least related to multiplayer skill tournaments out of what I’ll discuss, but it’s still instructive to consider it. Mario Party seems to be an instance of a game that is multiplayer, where the players compete in a game of skill to determine the victor. However, a significant portion of the results of the game are blatantly based on randomness as opposed to skill (evidenced by the constant die rolls). So Mario Party fails to meet the second requirement and so should not be considered a multiplayer skill tournament.

Another example that one may consider is Call of Duty, which features a set of players competing at a skill-based game to determine the victor. Call of Duty fails to meet the requirement in two important regards, though. Firstly, there is no notion of a tournament present in the narrative. More often, Call of Duty is about a single war, or various covert operations, which have far more complicated victory conditions than a single match between players (including civilian casualties, and political stability post-war). Secondly, due to the nature of the cruelty of war, there is an awareness that sometimes even the most skilled soldier is a random casualty of war. Within the narrative of a war game such as Call of Duty, there is an awareness of the possibility of random loss, since war is too complicated and messy. Sometimes the best soldier dies. I will not be considering Call of Duty to be a multiplayer skill tournament because of the random losses and lack of a tournament narrative.

One example that may initially seem to be a multiplayer skill tournament is a racing game. In principle, there is nothing preventing a racing game from fitting the category. If the game is multiplayer, the vehicles are roughly equal in power (however this is defined for a particular vehicle), and the narrative is that of a tournament, the game would fit the category quite nicely. However, this is not what you tend to see in practice. In racing games one tends to see one of two things: sabotage, or unequal vehicles. In the instance of sabotage, one character has somehow tampered with another character’s vehicle, skewing the results of the tournament. In this case, an author should probably introduce nudges to the gameplay to make clear that there is something preventing the player from fully realizing their skill. Often, as well, the different characters have clearly unequal vehicles, making it not the case that skill specifically is what determines the victor. If a racing game avoids these two problems, it would be a good candidate for a multiplayer skill tournament.

From these examples one can see how fitting the mould of a multiplayer skill tournament is a case-by-case basis. From here I will consider a set of games which nicely fit the category.

1v1 fighters are a paradigmatic example of a multiplayer skill tournament. There are many games that fit the 1v1 fighting game paradigm. A few notable examples include Soul Calibur, Tekken, and Street Fighter. Although the category cannot be pinned down entirely, a majority of these games feature two players fighting against each other in two dimensions. There exist a wide variety of moves available to the player, some of which are activated by button combinations, or a specific sequence of button presses. These moves tend to be more powerful. In order to be successful at a 1v1 fighter game, a player must know three things: the powerful button combos, when it’s best to use any particular move, and how their opponent will likely play.

Most 1v1 fighters tend to share a similar narrative basis: a collection of fighters come together to compete in a tournament, where the winner takes all. A prototypical example of this would be the original Tekken, which features no overt story other than the existence of a tournament. While some of these games take characters from other stories, the narrative is more often than not framed in the fighting tournament schema, in which the strongest, most highly skilled fighter is the winner. And since the players are the participants of the tournament, acting as the fighters themselves, the most highly skilled player should always come out victorious. 1v1 fighting games realize this narrative by creating a cast of fighters who all have roughly equal potential for victory, and keeping the game as close to nudge-free as possible.

Tekken_the_most_powerful_second_episode_by_jin_05-d5otl9v.jpg

All of these games share one key common feature: they are all designed to have a cast of roughly equally strong fighters. Due to the difficulty of that task, there is no 1v1 fighting game that is actually perfectly balanced between all the characters, but having a cast of equally powerful fighters is the end goal of the design of these games. Evidence of the goal is the constant “nerfing” of powerful characters, who are made a little weaker, and “buffing” of weaker characters to bring them up to par. The unachievable end state of fighting games is a set of characters all on a par with each other.

We can thus see that 1v1 fighters meet the essential requirements for a multiplayer skill tournament. Multiple players square off against each other, the victor is the one who is most skilled (given that the fighters are equally strong and/or fast), and the central thrust of the narrative is a tournament.

So why does a multiplayer skill tournament require nudge-less gameplay? What differentiates the winner from the loser is supposed to be the better player. Skill is what determines the winner. Let’s consider what happens when a developer introduces nudges that further hinder the player. In this case, the players can tell that they are being hindered from performing at the level they desire, similar to the case of an opponent sabotaging them. The players will feel less like skill is determining the outcome, and so the tournament no longer will feel like a competition of skill. In the case that the developers introduce nudges that actually help the player, then those players who are less skilled will have an artificial boost in skill. This is a problem because if these players should win, it would not be through skill, but rather through the benefit of nudgy controls, similar to the instance in the racing game of one character simply having the best car. Less experienced players will be able to achieve success without skill, to the detriment of the more skilled players. In both the instances of hindering and helpful nudges, introducing nudges into multiplayer skill tournaments is problematic. In order to maintain the narrative consistency of the worlds of multiplayer skill tournaments, in which the more skilled competitor is the winner, the game needs to be unhindered by nudges.

Conclusion

All three of the kinds of games I mentioned share one fundamental feature: they are all games in which the level of competence of the player is a necessary element in the narrative of the game. In trial-by-death games such as Dark Souls, the narrative of the game contains several instances of failed attempts by the player, and so narrative consistency is preserved by having a player transition from being incompetent at a task to be competent and then succeeding at that task. In Octodad, the controls are obtuse enough that a majority of players will be incompetent at the game in the same way as the octopus is incompetent at being a father. No nudges are necessary to realize this narrative. In multiplayer skill tournaments, the differentiator between fighters is supposed to be skill. By introducing nudges, a designer undermines the extent to which skill feels like the determinant of the course of the narrative. So introducing nudges would be counterproductive.

That does it for my discussion on games that are unhindered by nudges. In Part II I will discuss some examples of games that use nudgy gameplay to preserve their internal narrative structure.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.


[1] I prescind here from the obvious counterexample of people who have played Dark Souls many times, and so rarely die.

From PAX Aus: The Psychology and Neuroscience of Jump Scares

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author. The following article is based on Nathan’s portion of With a Terrible Fate’s horror panel at PAX Australia 2016.

Lately there has been a trend of games released that center on jump scares.[1] The moment-to-moment gameplay in these games is relatively minimal, and in some cases even rather dull. But then, apparently out of nowhere, the monster appears on screen, killing the protagonist and scaring the player in the process. Some of these games include Slenderman, the upcoming Resident Evil 7, and the Five Nights at Freddy’s series.

But what is it about these games that makes them so effective at scaring people? And why might it be that people actually enjoy the experience of being scared senseless? It turns out that the fields of behavioral psychology and neuroscience have some answers to these questions. In order to answer them I will discuss various types of learning and how they apply to jump scares, describe the effectiveness of jump scares when the player is trying to multitask, and wrap up with a discussion of how hormones create the positive feelings that lead players to keep playing.

Before diving into these academic fields, however, I’d like to summarize the game that I’ll be using as my paradigmatic example of a game that makes fantastic use of jump scares: Five Nights at Freddy’s. Feel free to skip to the following two paragraphs if you’re already familiar with the game.

In Five Nights at Freddy’s the player plays as a nighttime security guard who’s been hired to run five night shifts at the Chuck-E.-Cheese-type location “Freddy’s.” However, as quickly becomes clear to the player, the real security threat at Freddy’s is not a break-in, but rather the animatronics that come to life at night and try to eat the people in the building. So the goal of the game ends up being simply to keep the animatronics from killing you during your five-night employment.

five-nights-security-guard

A personification of the security guard from Five Nights with two of the deadly animatronics standing next to him.

You have to do this all from within the confines of the security room, but you do have a few tools at your disposal. You can check the security footage for any of the dozen or so cameras set up throughout the facility, and you can briefly lock the doors to the security room. If one of the animatronics successfully gets to the security room, a jump scare follows, and the player loses. You can see a video of the gameplay including a jump scare below.

Five Nights makes use of two different types of jump scares, which I term player-dependent and player-independent jump scares. The difference between these two types of jump scares is fairly intuitive. Player-dependent scares are contingent on the actions of the player. If the player sits still and does absolutely nothing, then the jump scare will not happen. However, if the player does some particular action, the jump scare will happen. Player-independent scares are exactly the opposite: they are not contingent on the actions of the player. The jump scare will happen even when the player does absolutely nothing.

However, there is one important complexity in this model. Jump scares that depend on player inaction function equivalently to jump scares that happen irrespective of player input. There are jump scares that only occur if the player fails to do certain things. The lack of occurrence of a jump scare is contingent on the actions of the player insofar as the player can prevent the jump scare through action. However, the occurrence of the jump scare is actually contingent upon player inaction. Thus, when the jump scare actually appears, it behaves as a player-independent scare rather than a player-dependent scare. More important than that, the jump scares in question make use of the same underlying psychology as the player-independent jump scares, and because of that it is useful to think of jump scares that occur only if the player fails to do certain things as player-independent.

Player-dependent and player-independent jump scares make use of different underlying psychology. Player-dependent scares are based on operant conditioning, whereas player-independent scares are based on classical conditioning. Operant conditioning occurs when an animal performs some behavior more frequently because it is rewarded (or performs it less if it’s punished). In contrast, classical conditioning is the process of associating certain stimuli with other stimuli. I’ll discuss each of these types of conditioning and the associated jump scare type in turn.

Operant conditioning was first described by B.F. Skinner (along with Edward Thorndike). Skinner was known for the “Skinner Box,” which was the primary experimental paradigm for operant conditioning studies for decades. The basic idea of the Skinner Box is to put an animal in a box rigged with various contraptions. These contraptions give the animal some reward or punishment in a fixed way to specific actions performed by the animal in the box (some of the rewards were food, juice, sex, or just freedom from the box; the usual punishment was an electric shock). Skinner and Thorndike’s crucial initial discovery was that the animals tended to perform the actions that gave them rewards more quickly and artfully as more trials were run. This idea that actions that are rewarded occur more frequently is the basis of operant conditioning.

thorndike-box

Thorndike’s original experiment, in which a cat is placed in a box with a mechanism that opens the door.

skinner-box

A Skinner Box. The mouse can press the lever to receive a food pellet.

Creating an effective player-dependent jump scare, then, is a matter of playing with this tendency that people have to form action-response associations. The two ways of playing with this tendency that I’ll discuss in this article are: giving the player a false sense of security, and constantly changing the rules.

Creating a false sense of security is a fairly straightforward process. For a while, the game is very predictable. The player performs some action A in a specific context X, and then receives some reward R. This process repeats several times. Now whenever the player is in context X, they perform A without giving it much thought, and receive the reward R. To create the jump scare, all that need be done is make it so that at some point when the player is in context X, they perform action A, and instead of receiving R they receive a jump scare. This formula is very simple to execute, and when done properly is very effective, because it disrupts the operant conditioning process.

Another way that horror games play with operant conditioning is by never allowing associations to form in the first place. There are two ways in which this can happen:

  1. Nothing ever happens the same way given the same input.
  2. The player fails regardless of their input.

Both of these techniques have surprising consequences, however. Depending on how they’re used, games that incorporate these techniques can stray outside of the horror genre, or even create an emotional experience distressing enough that the player is more likely to stop playing then see the game through.

The tricky aspect about (1) is that this conditioning paradigm can easily stray out of horror and into absurdist comedy. One of the defining aspects of absurdist comedy is the inability for the audience to predict how events in the artwork will unfold. The two examples I’ll give are Jazzpunk and a very strange game, Japanese World Cup 3.

Rather than attempt to explain either of these games, I recommend watching the videos. The key takeaway from these examples is this: if the rules of the game are constantly changing and weird stuff keeps happening, then the game will likely induce laughter, or at least an “I don’t understand” response from the player.

jazzpunk

A tourist in Jazzpunk talks to the player. The “incoherent nonsense” is the subtitle for what the tourist is saying.

The tricky aspect of (2) has to do with another idea within behavioral psychology called learned helplessness. To understand learned helplessness, I’m going to explain the experimental procedure that led to its discovery. The experimental setup is basically a specialized Skinner Box. There are two compartments in the box, each with a floor capable of delivering an electric shock to an animal. There is a hole in between the two sections through which the animal can pass.

learned-helplessness

A diagram of the experimental paradigm that was used to first discover learned helplessness.

The experiment was originally run with dogs. There were two different conditions for the dogs. In both conditions, a light would turn on preceding an electric shock from the floor. What differed between the conditions was how much of the floor was shocked. In one condition, only the compartment that the dog was in when the light turned on got shocked. In the other condition, both compartments delivered a shock.

The behavior of the dogs varied massively between the two conditions. In the condition where only one compartment was shocked at a time, the dogs learned to jump to the other compartment as soon as it saw the light. In the other condition, however, the dogs eventually stopped doing anything at all. They would just lie there and whimper as they were being shocked. As a matter of fact, this was still the behavior of the dogs even after switching to the other condition. These dogs were in a learned helpless state.

The conclusion of the experiment was that the dogs in the second condition had learned that there was nothing that they could do to prevent the shock, and this state persisted even after options became available for the dog to help itself. Learned helplessness is the state of hopelessness and despair when those feelings are at their most vivid.

Learned helplessness is an incredibly powerful emotional tool, and not something that game designers should overlook if they seek to make emotionally powerful games. But there is a huge problem with a game intentionally putting its player in a learned helpless state: the player is not actually trapped inside of the game in the way that the dogs were trapped in the cage. An average player is likely to quit long before they reach a state of despair, just out of frustration.

rage-quit

So in general, if a goal of game design is designing a game that people want to play, it’s probably better to avoid mechanics that make the player feel helpless.

However, some games are able to masterfully deploy learned helplessness without compelling players to give up as a result. One of those games is Undertale (warning: the following section has spoilers for the ending of Undertale). One of the final bosses of the game is Photoshop Flowey, Flowey’s form after he ascends to Godhood by absorbing the souls of six humans. He’s determined not only to defeat the player, but also to show them their powerlessness. To do so, he repeatedly kills the player and crashes their game, all the while telling the player that they can’t win and that they’re doomed to failure. The player learns one thing from Flowey: they can’t win. Personally speaking, the boss fight put me in a state of hopelessness unlike anything I’d felt in a game before.

photoshop-flowey

Photoshop Flowey.

So why doesn’t the player just stop playing? Why aren’t there many rage quits during this boss fight? The answer has to do with a major tagline for the game: “You are filled with DETERMINATION.”

determination-in-undertale

The player sees this line appear every time they save the game, and they are also told not to give up every time that they are killed. The player has been given hints throughout the game regarding what to do during the Photoshop Flowey boss fight: not give up. The learned helplessness induced by Photoshop Flowey is thus made palatable by giving the player an anchor so that they do not quit along the way, and eventually see the other side of the confrontation. Eventually the game does allow the player to win when the souls of the humans rebel against Flowey and help the player defeat him. The game takes the player through an experience of learned helplessness and then helps them come out of it into triumph.

Classical conditioning was discovered by Ivan Pavlov while working with dogs. The experimental paradigm worked as follows. Initially, when Pavlov rang a bell, his dogs would not salivate in response (there is nothing inherently salivation-inducing about the sound of a bell). But, after repeatedly pairing the sound of the bell with giving the dogs food, eventually simply ringing the bell would cause the dogs to salivate. The bell thus became predictive of food, and caused a response of food-expectation from the dogs.

classical-conditioning

A graphical description of classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning forms the basis of player-independent jump scares, especially in terms of suspense. By classically conditioning the player, a movie can create powerful feelings of suspense. While suspense is a powerful horror technique, I will not focus on it in this article other than to say that an effective player-independent jump scare tends be one that has little suspense beforehand, and thus is difficult to predict. One method of making a jump scare work well is to remove any predictive hints that it is about to happen. Thus player-independent jump scares depend on unpredictability to be effective.

But removing the predictive hints is actually harder to do than one may think. In our lives as consumers of media, we have been classically conditioned to consider many different things to be “suspenseful,” and thus predictive of a future jump scare. That’s part of the reason why watching a lot of horror makes jump scares in general less effective: the well-trained eye can see the scares coming. Modern culture has made many player-independent jump scares predictable. Their effectiveness has thus been undermined, and we as viewers are often not scared, or even find them laughable.

But video games are able to avoid the problem of the predictability of player-independent jump scares because of the potential for the use of randomness in games. The potential for video games to randomly generate content makes player-independent jump scares fundamentally less predictable than those of movies. A player-independent scare can just be set up on a random timer, and thus be less predictable than a movie, even in a second or third watching or play-through. Whereas in a movie you could pause at exactly the moment the jump scare occurs, look at the progress bar, and record the time that the bar reads, there is no plausible way to do this in games. An example of one of these random player-independent jump scares in a game comes from Five Nights at Freddy’s. The animatronics will at some point end up at the door to the security room and jump out to kill the player, but this event occurs on a roughly random timer.

pausing-a-movie

A movie can be paused at a particular time. The same thing will be happening in a movie at that particular time every time it is watched. Games are not so consistent.

Thus it is easier in some sense to pinpoint exactly when a jump scare will happen in a movie than it is in a game.

At this point we have most of the tools we need to analyze why it is that Five Nights at Freddy’s will scare you. First, related to operant conditioning, the game-ending jump scares (which are the most potent ones) are player-independent. The player can take action to try to stop the scare from happening, but when the jump scare actually happens there are no player-dependent stimuli preceding it. So the main jump scares end up being player-independent. Second, since player-independent jump scares are more random in games than in movies, and since the game does a good job at hiding the cues for the jump scare, the jump scares are more likely to catch you off guard.

The third and final reason that this game is so effective at scaring its players is that the game induces in the player a state of cognitive overload. I will unpack this term by diving into some neural circuitry so that we can better understand just how Five Nights overload these circuits.

The model of neural circuitry that I will introduce makes use of an important hypothesis in neuroscience: the cellular connectionist hypothesis. The theory states that if we understand how a neuron (the primary communicative cell in the brain) functions, how it communicates to other neurons, and how systems of neurons are connected to each other, then we can understand the function of the brain, and how the brain creates human thought and behavior. One important corollary of this theory is that if a particular communication pathway in the brain is faster than another pathway, the cognitive or behavioral response associated with the former pathway will happen more quickly than the behavior associated with the latter pathway.

The following model will initially appear a bit confusing, but I will break it down piece by piece.

model-of-neural-pathways

A diagram showing the communication pathways between various brain areas.

The chart shows the communication pathways in the brain that progress from sense to cognitive and/or behavioral responses. The four items in the middle are different brain areas that communicate with each other to progress from sense to response. The arrows simply represent communication pathways.

There are four brain areas to consider in this model. The first is the thalamus. I will not be discussing the function of the thalamus in this article, as it is complicated and not inherently related to fear response like the other brains areas I’ve included are. The only function the thalamus plays in the model I’ve presented is a time-waster: it takes longer to pass through the thalamus than it does to just traverse an arrow in the model.

The amygdala (to make an admittedly gross oversimplification) is the fear-center of the brain. When activated, it arouses the body, in a way that can either be positive or negative depending on context. Activation in the amygdala tends to correlate with a feeling of fear.

The prefrontal cortex is an area largely responsible for complex cognition and self-control. Thus most of its function is to suppress action in other areas of the brain, including the amygdala.

In a further top-down process, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex manages the function of the prefrontal cortex. This process often displays as management of multitasking.

There three features of the diagram that I would like to emphasize in particular. The first is that the path from the senses, to the amygdala, to thoughts/feelings/responses is the shortest, and thus fastest, pathway. In contrast, the shortest pathway through the prefrontal cortex runs through the thalamus, and thus takes a little bit longer than the amygdalar pathways. Finally, the three brain areas that I’ve focused on can all communicate with each other.

shortest-neural-pathway

The shortest communication pathway in the model. This one runs through the amygdala.

longer-neural-pathway

A slightly longer communication pathway that runs through the prefrontal cortex.

neural-communication

The three main brain areas in question communicate through the prefrontal cortex.

If we combine these three features of the diagram together with the mechanics of Five Nights at Freddy’s, we can start to get a clearer idea of the cognitive overload the game has the potential to put the player in, and the multiple levels of fear that a player is likely to experience. The mechanics of Five Nights at Freddy’s focus on multitasking. The player needs to keep track of multiple screens, multiple monsters, the battery levels on various devices, and even multiple doors to their room. Thus the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is likely very active while playing Five Nights, as it is working to make sure that the prefrontal cortex is multitasking effectively and efficiently. Normally people are fairly decent at these sorts of multitasking games, but Five Nights adds in the complication of an impending jump scare.

The amygdalar pathway is faster than the more rational prefrontal cortex pathway, meaning that no matter what the player does, it is difficult not be scared for at least a fraction of a second in response to a good jump scare. But, if a person is expecting that a jump scare is coming, the prefrontal cortex can work to suppress the amygdala in order to keep the response from being as strong as it might otherwise be. But this takes work on the part of the prefrontal cortex, and prevents it from multitasking as effectively as it otherwise could. So, in the conditions of cognitive overload that Five Nights at Freddy’s imposes on the player, the player is likely to get scared by the jump scare, likely worried that a jump scare may happen at any moment, and likely anxious that they are not doing tasks well enough to prevent the jump scare. All in all, these are the proper conditions to leave a player a shivering mess (myself included).

So if Five Nights at Freddy’s is so effective at making people uncomfortable, why does anybody play it? One answer to this question relates to hormones in the body. After the jump scare occurs, there is a release of excitatory hormones throughout the body. These excitatory hormones are context-dependent: if you are in a safe place physically and/or mentally, you tend to feel good, and if you are in an unsafe place physically and/or mentally, you will be likely to feel terrible.

When the jump scare is over, hopefully the player detaches from the game a little bit, and realizes that they are in a safe space. So with the added hormone they feel good. So they decide to play another round. And then the hormone rush happens again so they play another round. This cycle could potentially repeat for a long time.[2]

But for two reasons the above cycle will not be infinite. First, players get better at games over time. As this happens, it does not take as much cognitive control to play the game, and the player can dedicate more cognitive effort toward suppressing the amygdala. Second, the player can also habituate to the jump scare, which means that there is less brain activation in response to the fear stimulus than there was when the player was first playing the game. These factors combine to cause less of a fear response upon seeing the jump scare.

In order to keep the players engaged from a neuroscientific and behavioral-psychological perspective is a scarier, more challenging game. In releasing sequels frequently that feature roughly the same gameplay but with more difficult challenges and scarier monsters, the developer of Five Nights at Freddy’s has accomplished exactly that. He’s given the players exactly what they want out of a sequel: a game way harder and scarier than the last one. One can see this progression by looking at the difference in monster art between Five Nights at Freddy’s (original) and Five Nights at Freddy’s 3.

five-nights-at-freddys

An animatronic from the original Five Nights at Freddy’s.

five-nightsat-freddys-3

An animatronic from Five Nights at Freddy’s 3.

We can use behavioral psychology to think about two different kinds of jump scares: player-dependent, and player-independent. Player-dependent jump scares make use of operant conditioning techniques to be effective, particularly by defying players expectations, or never allowing those expectations to form. Player-independent jump scares make use of classical conditioning, and are most effective when the player feels clueless about potential future jump scares.

Neuroanatomical pathways allow us to more precisely understand the jump scares at work in Five Nights at Freddy’s. Since the amygdalar pathway is shorter than the prefrontal cortex pathways, the only way to avoid being scared is to suppress the amygdala ahead of time, which is difficult to do in the cognitive overload situation that Five Nights puts the player in. So the player is highly likely to be scared. Even though the player eventually will habituate to these jump scares, or just get good enough at the game never to encounter one, since there is a new entry of the game every few months, there is always a harder, scarier challenge to take up.

Jump scares are a chance in games to systematically think about how the mechanics of a game emotionally impact the player. Jump scares do not need to be guess-and-check to create; they can be crafted to have precise emotional effects.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.

[1] I’d like to thank my fellow With A Terrible Fate game analyst, Matt McGill, for sharing his thoughts about the place of classical and operant conditioning in the context of game design. In this article I both intend to advance my own ideas and to be a conduit for some of Matt’s.

[2] This cycle does not manifest for everyone. Personally, I get so shaken up after a good jump scare that I often end up never playing the game again.

Recap and Looking Forward: With a Terrible Fate at PAX Aus

I and my Featured Authors Nathan Randall and Laila Carter were honored to have such a great turnout this past Saturday evening to our PAX Aus panel on the philosophy, neuroscience, and mythos of horror storytelling in video games. You were a great audience, PAX Aus, and we hope you’ll be able to meet With a Terrible Fate again in years to come. I wanted to take this chance to tell fans about the various ways we’ll be following up on our presentation in the coming weeks, as well as what they can expect from the site more generally in the “Coming Soon” category.

with-a-terrible-fate-pax-aus-audience

Pictured: the 300+ PAX-goers who filled the Dropbear Theatre for With a Terrible Fate‘s horror storytelling panel.

While we weren’t able to record the entirety of the presentation, we do have several video samples from the talk, which we will be publishing. Do check these out and share them if you weren’t able to attend the panel and are interested in With a Terrible Fate‘s take on horror storytelling in the gaming world.

Bloodborne™_20151009211937

Beyond video samples, we’ll also be publishing full-length articles presenting the arguments we made in our presentation on a more granular level. These articles will provide a robust analysis of the games and frameworks that we presented at PAX, and I hope that you’re able to check them out regardless of whether or not you attended the panel. And you can get started on these right now: my presentation on the metaphysics of Bloodborne was based on an article I wrote last year, and you can read it here.

Also, a number of developers approached me after the presentation and asked whether With a Terrible Fate consults on game development. If you’re interested in finding out what our analytic frameworks can do for you and your product, don’t hesitate to reach out either via email at withaterriblefate@gmail.com, via DM @Terrible__Fate on Twitter, or via message on Facebook. I’d be excited to speak with you more specifically about how we could help your particular project.

Finally, viewers can look forward to With a Terrible Fate coming off its content hiatus with a variety of new material. Without giving too much away, you can expect a new take on Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, an exploration of avatar-player dynamics in The Talos Principle, and a return to Final Fantasy… among other articles I can’t even discuss yet. And, as always, be advised that I take requests, if there’s a particular game that you believe should meet With a Terrible Fate.

Thank you once again to everyone at PAX Aus for the honor of presenting. We’re looking forward to keeping in touch with the many gamers we met there, and we’re excited to see what the future holds for gaming and for With a Terrible Fate.

 

Explore Horror with Us at PAX Aus

I’m thrilled to publicly announce on the site that With a Terrible Fate will be presenting a panel at Pax Australia this weekend. We’ll be talking about video game horror in the Dropbear Theatre to 7:30PM-8:30PM, and we hope to see you there. Right now, without giving too much away, I want to give you a taste of what you can expect if and when you meet With a Terrible Fate this weekend.

I, With a Terrible Fate Founder Aaron Suduiko, will team up with Featured Authors Nathan Randall and Laila Carter to discuss what makes horror storytelling special in the medium of video games. We’re each going to take a distinct methodological approach to analyzing video game horror based on our academic backgrounds; my hope is that the combination of our very different analytical perspectives will demonstrate how much people can learn about games by considering them through a variety of theoretical lenses.

Nathan Randall

Nathan will be applying the studies and theories of neuroscience to explore what makes for a really effective jump scare in video games. He’ll discuss various learning and fear mechanisms in our brains, and how games are especially well-positioned as a medium to capitalize on these mechanisms. Along the way, he’ll analyze 5 Nights at Freddy’sUndertale, and even JazzpunkEver thought about the science behind a really good game? There’s a lot to it, and Nate will show you just what makes it all so cool.

 

 

 

 

laila-carterLaila will be exploring how horror storytelling in video games fits into broader, long-standing traditions of horror in folklore, mythology, and literature. What does BioShock have to do with the Odyssey? How does Lovecraftian horror come about in S.O.M.A.? What insight can a Minotaur give us into Amnesia? Laila has answers to all of these questions–oh, and she’ll be talking about “daemonic warped spaces” and P.T., too.

 

 

 

suduiko-video-game-art-presentation

Lastly, I’ll be applying the tools of analytic philosophy, together with my body of work on video game theory, to explore the ways in which games can use the metaphysics of their worlds to generate especially deep-seated and cerebral horror for the player. I’ll argue that the horror of Bloodborne is actually much more realistic than you thought (and you’ll wish I hadn’t shown you why that’s the case). I’ll argue that the metaphysics of Termina imply an interpretation of Majora’s Mask that strays outside the realm of Legend of Zelda canon and instead finds its home in nihilistic terror. I’ll argue that the horror of Silent Hill 2 isn’t fundamentally about James’ relationship with any of the other characters in the town–rather, it’s about his relationship with the player. If you want to get primed for this section (or spoil it for yourself), you can check out my earlier work on Bloodborne and my comprehensive analysis of Majora’s Mask.

We’ll all be hanging around after the panel to answer any questions you may have, and we’ll be around throughout the rest of PAX if you want to keep the conversation going. We’ll also hopefully be able to get the presentation documented in some capacity, so look for that online in the coming week if you can’t make it to PAX Aus.

To all you PAX-goers: see you Saturday.