Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Terror Vs. Horror - Fatal Frame Vs. Cthulhu

The title of this post is misleading, but let me clarify.  I'm not sure how it happened, but I apparently love horror. My favourite games include Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly and Dead Space, and one of my favourite movies is Silent Hill.  Given that I spent 4 months terrified of zombies after watching Shaun of the Dead, this is a little odd.

However, the reason I love these stories is the same reason I love Alan Wake.  It's the same reason I can never play these games.  I'm quite highly anxious, quite a lot of the time, so the idea of picking up a controller in one of these 'unsafe' environments causes me to hyperventilate.  When playing the intro section of Dead Space - even before everything happened and everyone got killed - I was pausing the game every five seconds to take a breather.  Yet they're my favourite games, and Cthulhu, like so many other people, is my favourite littlest elder god.  Why?

The reason the title of this post is misleading is because Fatal Frame/Project Zero combines elements of both terror and horror - terror is the immediate fight or flight impulse that gives you that sick feeling in your stomach, makes your mouth dry, and gives you adrenaline.  Horror is the creeping dread, the fear in the dark, the flicker of a shadow at the edge of your vision.  Terror lasts for up to ten or fifteen minutes, after which the feeling dissipates.  This is the theory behind 'flooding', a method to reduce people's phobias.  Horror lasts for much, much longer.

You see, terror is a physiological reaction.  Fatal Frame does this very well.  Horror is a psychological reaction.  Fatal Frame also does this very well - amazingly well, in fact.  Minor spoiler in the links.  You see, terror can be included in horror, as a gut reaction, but horror is what sticks with you, much like my reading of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.  It's the things you think about that become more creepy the more you think about them.  This is why I prefer Cthulhu to any kind of slasher flick.  Cthulhu is believable.  That's where the horror lies.

Despite the fact that Fatal Frame is steeped in Japanese lore - the reading of which both makes the games make more sense and adds to the entirely sinister feel - one of the elements in common between these titles is the aspect of the familiar.  Travelling to Japan, we stayed in an inn like one of the houses in All Gods' Village.  We crossed a bridge like the long, wooden one, over the fast-flowing, freezing water.  At night.  In the mist.  I could barely breathe.  Silent Hill and Alan Wake are both set in middle-America.  The fictional town of Silent Hill is actually based, in the movie, on the real-world town of Centralia.  Dead Space, while science fiction, has an aura of credibility based, only in part, on the fact that Unitology is based purely on Scientology (as evidenced by a typo in the pre-release comic, as if it wasn't obvious enough).  To have a good horror, you have to create belief.  I would argue that, in a good horror, you have a harder job of creating belief, since your audience is going to be resistant to the strange ideas you're trying to convince them of, and actively looking for ways to not be scared.  Horror, like comedy, is incredibly difficult to get right.

Alan Wake is so good it inspires me to write.  Despite the fact I was the one watching, I was the one on the edge of my seat, watching the screen and stifling screams when enemies appeared, sitting back and sighing with relief when a battle was over, and my friend, who was actually playing the game, was leaning back in his chair, eating M&Ms.  That was a whole-game process, much like Heavy Rain.  I can't do anything else when Alan Wake is being played nearby.  It sucks me in.  I can't look away.  I don't want to.

It's that compelling element of horror, the need to keep watching, that most fascinates me.  Silent Hill was the first horror movie I watched the whole way through.  It so expertly navigated the waves and troughs of the panic-release endorphin combination, sticking almost religiously (ha ha) to the ten to fifteen minute rule of anxiety that, every time I thought I couldn't take it anymore, it gave me respite, and I was able to keep watching.  There's a balance, here, between scaring the player, and letting them explore the landscape of the story.  You may wander off the path to collect coffee thermoses in Alan Wake, but you know you're going to pay for it with both ammunition and health, since a group of enemies is almost guaranteed to spawn behind you when you take too long.  It's risk reward, but the danger is very real.  Alan Wake and Isaac Clarke both don't respond instantly to feedback, giving the game that delicious half-second of inertia that would be hopelessly frustrating in other games, and which is hopelessly frustrating to many players, but which lends the world its sense of realism.  I love Uncharted as much as the next Nolan North groupie, but I also spent the first fifteen minutes of the game making him run around in circles (his head stays in the same spot and his body revolves around it) and making him jump (he jumps like a monkey).  These aspects of animation may be good in terms of gameplay, but I certainly didn't think he was a real character any more than I expect to see Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie at my local Coles.

So, I suppose, for me, Cthulhu is more real.  I can't see the cover of Crimson Butterfly in my house, or I have nightmares - once, I'd already had a nightmare, and my mum came in to comfort me, wearing a long, white nightdress such as Sae wears in the video above; I did not stop screaming for minutes - but these games gave me something that I find sadly lacking in other games or common stories.  They give me belief in something different to what I know.  More than stories about superheroes or dream invaders or the advertising executives of the 1960s, these horror movies and games give me an insight into a world that may be, and that I desperately hope is not.  Fear is a powerful motivator.  How better to create belief by suggesting something abhorrent to be true?

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