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November 6, 2014

What’s the Key to a Good Horror Story?

Question: How good is Bayonetta 2?

Answer: Too damn good.

I’m not the type to tag scores and numbers to my opinions, but I can see why people would give Platinum’s latest such high marks (including a hyper-rare ten out of ten from Gamespot!).  There’s plenty of good stuff in the game.  And even if the ride’s destined to end -- albeit after a healthy play time -- it strikes me as the sort of game I can and WILL play through again.  I did the same with Devil May Cry 3, after all.  Dat Vergil battle…

Still, I’ve had The Evil Within on my mind for a while now.  I…didn’t care for it, so you can chalk it up as yet another disappointment in the eighth-gen library.  But while I don’t have any problems heaping hate on stuff like Watch Dogs or Destiny, a part of me feels bad for being unable to like Shinji Mikami’s latest.  It could have been the one, man.  But it wasn’t.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize that there’s a reason for it.  TEW may have been botched, but it made me realize how much potential and how many possibilities there are when you make good use of horror elements.

Too bad I have no idea how to do that.

I don’t think I’ve ever written anything “scary”.  Ever.  I haven’t even conceptualized anything.  The closest I’ve come on that front, if you can call it that, is cobbling together some half-assed story about skeletons in the closet to scare some friends when we were in a dark room…and even then, I had to bank on a jump scare (i.e. throwing a stuffed animal at a girl’s face) to finish what my words couldn’t.  Because I’m nothing if not a master of mashing the panic button and hoping for the best.  Tact be damned.

I guess if you’re lenient -- and I am too -- there’s an argument that some of my present-day stuff has scary stuff in it.  It’s got ghosts and junk, and plenty of bad things happen, but my stories aren’t even close to being in the horror genre (at least in its purest form).  That’s obvious in my eyes; I’m the sort who makes characters and the tales surrounding them based on what superpowers I can give them.  How much horror can you possibly have when your main character can and will punch ghosts in the face?

I’m mostly okay with the general arc and nature of my stories, so I’m not going to suddenly shout “I NEED TO DO HORROR NOW!”  And trying to shoehorn in horror at this stage will probably do more harm than good.  Still, I want to at least consider horror for future reference.  A story can do a lot of things and inspire a lot of emotions.  Fear is just one of them, but I’m guessing it can have an even greater impact than the most heartwarming moments or the hypest showdowns.  Or if not that, then…hey, it’s something different.

I went into TEW expecting some display of “how to do horror”, but if anything it felt like it knew even less than I did.  Like a lot of modern games, it has issues with power; to its credit TEW isn’t a straight-up power fantasy (or one of my ever-beloved predator games), but I felt as if I had control over nearly every situation to the point of excess.  Or some semblance of it.  I long for the day when devs realize that A) not every game needs to have instant-kill knife takedowns, and B) instant-kill enemies do not automatically mean tension.  If anything, it feels more like tedium -- a game of “Who Can Expose Their Soft Underbelly First”.

But if I had to point to a better example of how to do horror (in games, at least), I’d point to P.T.  It’s surprising how much it could accomplish with just a hallway, a bathroom, and a staircase; if the full release is anything like this showing, then it’s going to make for a very good title.  Part of that, I’d bet, comes not from its ability to scare, but its ability to not scare -- its restraint.  Sure, it’s got a couple of OOGA-BOOGA-BOOGA moments and bloody ephemera, but the majority of the time is spent bumbling around trying to figure out what to do, while dreading what the game can do to you.  It feels paradoxical that people playing a game designed to scare them wouldn’t want to be scared come play time, but oh well.  Let’s not think about that too hard.

My takeaway from P.T. is that making anything horror-tinged is all about dread.  Like I said last time, it’s all about creating the feeling that “there’s something coming to get you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”  P.T. accomplishes that, and makes good on the promise of frightening illusions.  That’s the clincher; viewed as-is, the teaser is nothing but a bunch of scare tactics presented in one of the most lavishly-rendered hallways to date.  But the beauty of it is that the game’s illusions get layered on the player’s illusions.  Thinking back, I’m not even sure it’s possible to conventionally die; the worst it can do is keep you in that hallway until you quit the game.  The way people talk about it, though, you’d think it tossed you into a pit full of Nemeses.

I’m not about to call P.T. the perfect game (let’s just say some of its solutions are esoteric), but it does what it set out to do: scare people.  It manages to throw players off their game, using its oppressive atmosphere to make them feel weak, vulnerable, confused, and reluctant to see what nightmares are around the corner.  That absolutely stands for something, in my eyes.  There are a lot of answers to the question of “how to do horror”, and I’m glad one team managed to figure it out.

But let’s not rely solely on someone else’s answers, yeah?  This is your chance to solve the puzzle: what’s the key to a good horror story?  Is it the threat of violence?  A crushing atmosphere?  The unknown, and unknowable?  Skeletons, perhaps?  Or pretty much anything from deep enough in the ocean?

Don’t get spooked.  Ready?  Set…comment!

Or could you just watch Plague of Gripes’ videos on the subject.  Because I’m nothing if not obsolete.

…I need an out.  Pumpkin-headed guy in a leotard, play me out!

Halloween ain't over till it's over!

*checks calendar*


1 comment:

  1. "I don't want to spoil the ending either"

    No worries there. I spoiled the ending for myself almost as soon as I was able. Whoopsie-daisy! I mean, splendid.

    Anyway, horror. Yeah, I get what you're saying here. I mean, all things considered, do we really need fiction to create horrifying scenarios when you can find some nasty stuff just by cracking open a history book? (Or, alternatively, just running a Google search for ocean life.) I'm the sort who thinks that people are pretty cool, but even I can acknowledge that there's something scary about one's potential to bring harm to others.

    So there's something to be gained from real -- or real enough -- threats. Sounds fair. And I can see myself working with that more than anything else; it seems easier than trying to come up with some new type of monster. On the other hand, it sounds as if there's a lot that can be done just by letting the audience fill in the blanks. Let THEM make the monster, and the threat, for me. Definitely feasible, assuming that I or anyone else has the right touch. Subtlety's the word.

    Then again, subtlety goes a long way in plenty of things besides horror. That's a lesson that a lot of stories could stand to learn, but whatever. It's cool.

    ...And now to begin feverishly worrying if my stuff has the proper level of subtlety. Considering that it features not only ghost-punching,but ghost-wrestling, I suspect the answer's already clear.