Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #30:

Exploring Genres: Horror

by Travis S. Casey
March 29, 2002

Knock, knock, knock. Knock, knock, knock. John sat in the cold gloom of the refrigerator, listening to that sound. It was at the door. It wanted him, he knew. It wanted to break his bones, drink his blood, devour his flesh. But John had an edge; a silver bullet, carefully tucked away.

He creeped slowly to the door, careful not to make any sound that might warn it he was coming. He'd only have one chance, and failure would mean slow, painful death — but even that would be better than the waiting. Holding the pistol in his right hand, John came to the steel door. The knocking had stopped. Had it heard him? Only one way to find out.

John took one last moment to steel himself, then threw the bolt, kicked open the door, and fired at the shape he saw in the darkness beyond the door. The silver bullet flew through the air, into the shape, and down it fell. And then John saw what he had shot.

The werewolf was elsewhere. John had shot his father.

I have a love-hate relationship with horror. A good horror story has an impact that sticks with you. The first time I read Stephen King's The Shining, I couldn't stand to stay in a bathroom with the shower curtain closed for weeks afterwards. (And if you don't know what I'm talking about, go read the book. It takes a while to get started, but once it does, it's got some incredibly scary moments in it.) Bad horror, though, too often descends into a shock-and-gore fest. Horror has been seen by many as an easy genre to make a quick buck off of, with the result that tons of formulaic pieces of trash have been turned out.

Previously in this miniseries, I've mostly been listing subgenres. Horror has subgenres too (zombie, slasher, possession, etc.) but personally, I don't see those as being too important — especially when we're dealing with the subject of trying to do horror in online games. The central point of all horror is fear. We want the reader/audience to be afraid of what's going to happen next. And at the end, we may want to let them release their fear in a happy ending — or we may want to give them a twist ending that goes beyond even their worst fears.

Fear itself is the problem. Traditional role playing game setups work strongly against fear. In a horror movie or book, the audience isn't usually afraid for itself — they're afraid for the characters. In order for that to happen, they have to feel an attachment to the characters, and to temporarily forget that the characters are purely fictional.

Players typically become attached to their own character, and may become attached to other player characters, so it would seem we've got the first part licked. The second part, though, is very hard. Traditional computer game setups, both standalone and online, have either "multiple lives" for characters or the ability to save the game and go back to a previous point later. These reinforce the fact that the characters are fictional, and also rob horror of consequences — it's not very scary to know that your character might die, when that same character has died a dozen times before and just come right back to life. Permadeath, having death where you can't just revive the character, would seem to be an answer to this problem. However, if the player can just make a new character and start the game over, then the consequences are still relatively minor.

Horror stories also run into this problem. "You can't kill the hero," the audience says to themselves, "there's still two hundred pages left in the book." The traditional way around this in horror is to surround the hero with friends and family who can be killed at any point — like John's unfortunate father above. By threatening them, we can cause fear in the reader (once the reader has attached to them enough, at least). Further, their deaths provide extra motivation to the hero, and can make clear the seriousness of the situation.

But that brings us back to the first condition for feeling afraid for the characters — attachment. It's easy to get players to attach to their own characters and each other's characters, but under a traditional setup, all the players have to be "heroes". In our present state of technology, computer-controlled NPCs are hard to attach to — they're not very interesting, and the obvious fact that they're computer-controlled makes it easy to dismiss anything that happens to them.

How do we get around this, then? Well, we could wait. In another twenty years or so, we might have computer-controlled NPCs that can seem real. The drawback here is obvious, though — we want to write games now, not twenty or more years from now. A second method is to have staff-controlled NPCs. With a greater variety of interaction possible, it's easier for players to attach to the NPCs. A variation on this is to have one or more staff-controlled NPCs who appear to be PCs. This makes it a little easier to achieve attachment (at least in a cooperative scenario). Further, by killing off that NPC, it makes it appear that any PC could be killed, even if that's not true yet at this point in the scenario.

A third method is to kill off PCs, with permadeath. This seems to me to be best suited to a time-limited game — in such a game, character death could mean that the player is ejected from the game or reduced to an "observer" status, able to watch but not participate. In a long-term game, such a consequence would be too severe, but for a short-term one it's not nearly as bad — especially if PC death can't start to happen until a bit later in the game.

Larry Niven and Steven Barnes' "Dream Park" novels (Dream Park, The Barsoom Project, and The California Voodoo Game are about a high-tech version of live-action roleplaying (and, in fact, largely inspired live-action roleplaying). At various points in those books, there's talk about death and how it works in the games. A character who's "killed out" is out of the game, but the player can still observe. In some of the games, getting "killed out" leads to a subscenario, where the character goes to hell or some other underworld. In some games, players who are killed out are offered the chance to have their characters come back as zombies or ghosts — usually as enemies now, but sometimes to help. The same sorts of things could be done in time-limited online games.

(There's also mention of using NPCs who are fake PCs. I won't go into the details so as not to spoil it for those who haven't read the books, though.)

Even once you have characters the players are attached to, the RPG tradition of "shoot-and-loot" type games also works against horror. Monsters are there to be killed by the players, in most setups. This mentality spills over to horror games, with the result that players aren't so much scared of the monster as they are eager to hunt it down. To counter this, you have to find other ways to scare or horrify the players — like in the example that started this column, where John has worked himself up to face the werewolf, but winds up killing his father. Next time, I'll present some thoughts on how to frighten players with something other than throwing the monster at them. Until then, see you in the forums!

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