Video Games and Unpredictable Horror
These are difficult times. Many people are turning to the media they love to get through it. For those of us in the theatre community, live performance is no longer an option and won't be for some time. Instead of panicking, this dramaturg is expanding her scope. Theatre is a uniquely visceral form, making it rather appropriate for horror, but it is also a communal one. It is designed to be consumed by a crowd of people in one sitting. Most people attend the theatre with other people, like their family and friends. And in the world of horror, this community can often represents safety. But what happens when a text isolates a single audience member and makes them face the fear alone? When a text can't be mitigated through safety in numbers? Literature can accomplish this isolation, but for me there is nothing that compares to the panic having to literally outrun the monster and not just watch it.
I vividly remember playing my first horror game.
Alien: Isolation is a 2014 survival horror game set in the world of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film. The story centres on Amanda Ripley, the daughter of the film's protagonist, as she struggles to stay alive in an abandoned space station that has become home to one very aggressive xenomorph. Three years ago, I played Isolation for the first time. And by that, I mean played for about half an hour before I got scared so badly that I nearly cried and it was time to let my boyfriend take over.
You see, for someone who is fascinated by horror, I am the wimpiest of audience members. I scream, I cry, I hide under blankets, I watch through my fingers. But this is a normal, if pathetic, way to approach horror. In an very basic sense, watching the worst moment of a horror play or film is optional. If you see something you don’t like, you can just shut your eyes. The power you have as an audience member is simple yet effective.
If I can’t see it, it can't hurt me.
What made Isolation so horrifying was that, if I simply shut my eyes and backed away from the computer, I died. In a video game the consequences of inaction are existentially stressful, to put it mildly. But there are several reasons why this kind of horror works so well in this medium, and they all come down to the dramaturgy of unpredictability in video games.
A play is obviously very different from a video game in style, technical consideration, and cultural reach- I am not an expert in this medium. I consider my relationship to video games to be one of spectatorship rather than participation. I haven’t played many games first hand (I am excluding narrative-lacking childhood juggernauts like Super Mario Bros. and Nintendogs), because I lack the skill and nerve to really enjoy that kind of challenge. But ever since high school I have watched a lot of people playing video games on YouTube. One of the first games I ever encountered was a 2010 survival horror game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The premise is simple- a man called Daniel wakes up in a spooky castle full of horrifying creatures. He has amnesia (what a twist) and must survive long enough to figure out who he is and what evil presence is tormenting him. What makes this game so good are the creatures that pursue you, and your inability to kill them. As a 13-year-old horror curious young woman, finding these playthroughs of grown men screaming as their run away from creatures with jaws unhinged and knife-like claws, I was inextricably drawn to the intensity of the horror presented in this style of game. It’s the same adrenaline-spiking horror that Slender: The Eight Pages would capitalise on two years later. For people who were young during this era, many will have fond memories of playing these games, or watching their friends play these games, and witnessing with glee the screams and cries of being foiled and murdered over and over again.
But these games were ultimately like haunted houses for many people, including myself. In the moment the screams are justifiable, but there will be no nightmares or long-term emotional consequences. These games were indie creations with small budgets that made excellent use of darkness and obfuscation to hide their technical limitations. And while you can’t kill your enemies, there are some less intuitive ways to avoid death. For example, Slenderman in The Eight Pages won’t appear until the player collects the first page. This means that you can wander the map and locate all eight pages at your own pace, knowing you are completely safe so long as you don't actually touch them. Once you find them all and remember where everything is, it's simply a matter of retracing your steps and grabbing the already-found pages before he catches you. According to the logic of a horror narrative, that's a stupid plan- if you're being chased by a monster, there's no time to leisurely clock all the collectables so you can find them later when it's more convenient. It’s a tactic that only works by exploiting the limitations of the game itself. Similarly, the monsters in Amnesia have several traits that can be taken advantage of; they tend to spawn outside of rooms, they don’t attack in rooms with lots of light, and the music will tell you where they are and what they’re doing. Horror logic again implies that knowing the whereabouts of your enemy is the key to survival. However, the monsters in this game can sense if they are being stared at, so a good tactic is to look in the opposite direction to the threat. What about never turning your back on an enemy? These are all ways to exploit the weakness in the games themselves, not so much the tactics of the non-playable enemies.
There's nothing wrong with an audience exploiting these limitations. In a horror movie, I take solace in being able to hide under a blanket to avoid having to watch too much gore. But this practice of exploitation can lead to an audience feeling less scared by gameplay that has become predictable. I rewatched Pewdiepie on YouTube for the first time in several years in the name of research for this piece. In a newer video from 2018, Felix Kjellberg replays Amnesia and comments on how his relationship to the horror genre has evolved with this sort of metagaming in mind-
"After you play a certain amount of horror games, you don't get scared the same way because you understand how the mechanics work, and the more you understand something, the less scared you get."
This brings us back to Alien: Isolation. One of the most significant features of this game is how intelligent the Alien appears to be. In an interview for PCGamesN, Gary Napper and Jude Bond, lead designer and lead artist for Creative Assembly, discuss how the Alien operates in relation to the player. In Amnesia and Slender a player may die, but can respawn and know what to do if that encounter happens again. The Alien, however, operates based on sets of behaviours determined on a level-by-level basis. In one section the Alien might be almost entirely hidden, while in other locations they will be very aggressive and hunt more openly. A player can’t anticipate what the Alien will do, and is truly at its mercy. Bond states that-
“...We needed that sense of unknown things to deliver horror that was actually horrific. You need to be able to go “what’s in those shadows around the corner? I don’t know” – and you’re right, you don’t know, we’re not going to tell you and you’re going to have to go and find out.”
The Alien will learn your tactics before you figure out theirs. For example, when my boyfriend encountered the Alien his go-to move was to blast it with his flamethrower. This was all well and good, until the Alien started to keep its distance. It knew to back up when it appeared because it knew my boyfriend would try the barbeque method first. In that moment of terror, the player may instinctively feel outsmarted and, if the consequences are deadly, defeated. But of course, they restart. For people who play horror games, the reason you keep going is the same reason horror movie fans don't turn off the TV when things get too scary. You weather the moment, you consume the brutality, and you stay invested. Your curiosity about what could happen is still more powerful than your fear.
Ultimately, dramaturgy is about how audiences interact with a designed experience. Here, the creators of Alien: Isolation aren’t just interacting with players in the moment. The people who play Isolation probably played Amnesia and Slender, or similar horror survival games. They understand the horror narratively, but can choose to ignore it and exploit the technical limitations instead of playing along. But Isolation’s creators know this and have crafted a monster that can’t be exploited so easily. Not only is the character in the game at a loss and completely alone, but so is the player. There's no crowd of people to feel the terror with and separate you from the moment- you are the moment, and only your choices matter. Isolation is a great equaliser- someone like me is just as likely to die as the most experienced gamer. It’s one of the most intense expressions of horror I’ve ever participated in because there’s no way out. You're outsmarted, you're alone, and all you can do is hide in a locker and hope it can't hear you breathing.
Because even if I can’t see it, it will find me eventually.
Now that my days have become a lot less busy, maybe I will find the resolve to explore more horror games and continue this analysis- I have heard terrible things about P.T. in particular.
However, I will make no promises.
Stay safe, stay inside, write plays and play video games.
StrategyWiki 2014, Slender/Walkthrough, StrategyWiki, viewed 15 March 2020, https://strategywiki.org/wiki/Slender/Walkthrough#Other_tips.
Amnesia Wiki 2020, Hiding, Amnesia Wiki, viewed 15 March 2020,
Hogarty, S 2014, 'How Creative Assembly designed Alien: Isolation’s terrifyingly clever xenomorph', PCGamesN, 10 January, viewed 15 March 2020, https://www.pcgamesn.com/interview-creative-assembly-alien-isolations-terrifying-alien-ai.
Beech, A 2014, 'Late video game review – Alien Isolation (PS4)', The Lost Lighthouse, 26 November, viewed 15 March 2020, https://thelostlighthouse.com/2014/11/26/late-video-game-review-alien-isolation-ps4/.
Bonifacic, I 2019, 'Horror series 'Amnesia' now available on Nintendo Switch', Engadget, 9 December, viewed 15th March 2020, https://www.engadget.com/2019/09/12/amnesia-collection-now-available-nintendo-switch/.
Vincent, B 2017, '5 terrifying Slender Man games to play... if you dare', 1 February, viewed 15th March 2020, https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/5-terrifying-slender-man-games-get-spooked.
ModDB, Alien: Isolation, ModDB, viewed 15th March 2020, https://www.moddb.com/games/alien-isolation/addons/silent-alien-mod.