Fear relies on a sense of helplessness; a dread that you have little to no power to overcome the hellish obstacles in your way. In survival horror games this means most of the time the characters the player plays or encounters is the every man/every woman. Compared to action horror where the characters tend to have lots of combat experience in their past. Because survival horror tries to create an atmosphere of fear built upon subtle things that eat away at the players sanity, effective character design for both the player character and non-player characters is vital.
Who am I?
When playing a video game with narrative the player places themselves into a character much the same way an actor places themselves into a role that has been written. The more substance that has been given to the character the easier it is to immerse yourself into that character and what is happening to them. A poorly written or thin character can break the immersion and atmosphere of fear as the player is finding it to hard to fit into the character’s ill fitting skin.
One of the failings of Silent Hill 4 was the design of the player character Henry Townshend. He is presented as a quite and stoic loner with no real relationships. Throughout the game he is shown to be willing help those in the nightmarish events taking place, yet no personal motivation is ever conveyed. He also has no real emotional connections to anything taking place and really is just involved by complete accident. It is hard to experience fear through Henry because he doesn’t feel real enough to immerse yourself in. The game has to rely on other aspects to help create a dreadful atmosphere of fear.
Not only should a player character be fleshed out they should also be ordinary. It does no good in creating a sense of fear if you feel like your character can kick all the monsters’ asses. Action horror games like The Suffering, Doom 3, or the F.E.A.R series don’t create fear through their player characters which is why they often seem to be generic combat type characters.
The first three Silent Hill games all have ordinary and relatable characters. Harry is just trying to find his daughter. James is trying to figure out how he received a letter from his dead wife. While Heather is on a quest to avenge her father. The Fatal Frame games all have females as the main player characters. Fatal Frame 2 and 4 make their player characters younger adding to the atmosphere of fear; the young are even weaker than ordinary men and women . The Siren series and Eternal Darkness relies on a whole cast of ordinary characters. Rule of Rose and Haunting Ground, like Fatal Frame, use younger female player characters to try and create a sense of helplessness and fear.
Another important aspect for the player character is their emotional involvement in what’s happening in the narrative. It can be easier for a player to immerse themselves into a character if that character is connected to the events taking place. Except for Silent Hill 4 all the player characters throughout the series have deep emotional ties to the events taking place. The first two Fatal Frame games have the player character seeking out a lost sibling. The third installment drags the player character in emotionally by having her capture a picture of her dead fiance. And the fourth Fatal Frame the player characters are on a quest to recover lost memories.
We’re All Crazy Here
Non-player characters are just as important in creating an atmosphere of fear as the player characters. Non-player characters should ultimately be as weak as the player character. Even Maria who is a creation of Silent Hill is shown to be weak against it’s power. Over and over she dies as punishment towards James. As the town taunts Angela she is constantly seeking a way to die. Eddie eventually crumbles before the town’s treatment of him. Even though the cultists throughout the series believe themselves protected even they succumb to the town’s nightmarish powers.
Helplessness is essential to creating an atmosphere of fear. It does no good to have the player character seem weak against the nightmares if another character seems to cope just fine. Those characters that stand in the player character’s way have to fall before the resolution takes place or else a little hope might rise. If even the characters that were supposed to be working with the nightmares fall to it what hope do you have.
And just like the player character should have emotional investment in what is going on non-player characters should too. The cultists of the Silent Hill series are emotionally invested because they believe what they are doing, the suffering they are causing will bring their god into the world. In Silent Hill 4 Walter believes he will bring back his mom.
Any video game could be improved with better character design but for survival horror games it is essential. Survival horror games rely heavily on characters and narrative to help create an atmosphere of fear. The player characters have to be relatable and fleshed out enough for the player to immerse themselves in that character and experience the fear of the nightmare. If there is distance between the player and the character there is distance between the player and the fear. The same goes for non-player characters. What is to fear if you’re standing in a room of superheroes? Any character opposing the player character should be shown to be just as powerless. Only the nightmare and its monsters should be left standing when it’s over.