Sanity in Survival Horror Games (Survival Horror Series Part 5)

There is a difference between sanity and mental illness when it comes to horror with supernatural, absurd, or surreal elements. Real mental illnesses are not fun and most of the time a person suffering from a mental illness did nothing to suffer from it. Generalizations should be avoided when thinking about or interacting with people with mental illnesses. Most people suffering from the myriad of mental afflictions out there aren’t psychotically dangerous or about to “snap.” They are people too and should be treated as such.

The portrayal of mental illness in video games is a bit uneven (I will probably be tackling the representations of mental illness in a latter post). I have seen criticisms of sanity systems that pop up in horror games. Some argue that it is dehumanizing and distorting the image of people with mental illnesses. I would disagree with their arguments. Often times when a sanity system is implemented in a horror game it is trying to represent something else. Whether these systems accomplish what they are trying to do is up for debate.

cthulhu
http://zaidoigres.deviantart.com/art/Cthulhu-188961776

H.P. Lovecraft starts his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature with the line, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Lovecraft’s fiction is filled with characters confronting the unknown and more frighteningly confronting things that could never be comprehended or known by human minds. The characters in his stories started to loose mental stability as they were faced with horrors they had no chance of understanding or over coming.

Think about not existing. I don’t mean dying and arriving in some afterlife or the process and pain of dying, I mean simply no longer existing. No more consciousness or thinking. It’s hard to think of and comprehend. We are existing thinking creatures, to suddenly not be can be frightening and hard to comprehend. Look up at the night sky. Think about the vastness of space, how large it really is. And now think of how tiny the earth you stand on is in comparison to the rest of the universe. The skyscrapers and mountains we marvel at are nothing but the tiniest of specks compared to the vast and dark universe.

Lovecraft was trying to capture the horror of not knowing or even worse the inability to know, to never to be able to comprehend what you are facing. This is the insanity of horror games. One’s mental stability begins to unravel as you are faced with something incomprehensible. How can you overcome or defeat something you can’t understand? How can you overcome or defeat something that is cosmically greater than you are? You are its plaything whatever it or force it may be. This is the insanity of horror games.

Insanity is facing things you would have never thought real or possible. It is facing forces that shatter your very perception of reality and realizing you are its plaything. It’s trying to comprehend the incomprehensible as all rational thought and reasoning withers away because such things are built on the conviction that your perception of reality was correct. It’s trying to convey to others what is happening, what you are experiencing, but can’t find the right words or make any sense because how can human language convey something beyond human comprehension. You are ignored and never believed. People deny the horror you are trying to bring to their doorstep. You are left alone and raving. This is the loss of sanity. This is the descent into insanity.

Various horror games have tried their hands at how to handle sanity. One of the most well-known of these games is Eternal Darkness Sanity’s Requiem. The game seeks to affect the player as your character loses sanity. The game starts playing tricks on the player like saying your controller is unplugged when it’s not or saying your saves have been deleted. The sanity system is used as a scare tactic to unnerve the player but has no narrative impact.

Amnesia’s sanity system looks to unnerve the player through distorting how the player sees the game world. Bugs crawl along the screen, how the world is presented becomes distorted. In both Eternal Darkness and Amnesia loss of sanity can led to death. Once the character’s sanity is drained your health starts draining. Then there are other games where sanity or mental stability is treated as a simple point system that will end the game the same way as losing all your health. Games generally treat sanity as another scare tactic gimmick or a secondary health bar. But remember what the loss of sanity means. It is the erosion of the certainty of your perception of reality.

Sanity is your conviction in a rational and stable world. Everything has an explanation; anything can be understood and comprehended. It is also the belief that you are ultimately in control of your circumstances and that your actions and emotions matter. To lose sanity means to have these assumptions eroded away. Sanity systems in survival games should be implemented in more subtle ways to better represent what the loss of sanity means.

First off sanity should never be measurable to the player. Behind the scenes, in the code there will need to be some kind of measure but to the player this system should be hidden. Secondly sanity needs to stop being treated as a secondary health bar. Loss of insanity does not represent your closeness to death; it represents the loss of what you thought you believed about the reality you live in. Along with stopping to treat sanity as just another health bar you shouldn’t be able to regain sanity just because you turned away from the monster or moved out of the dark. The only way to regain sanity should be by taking narrative action to reestablish your crumbling convictions in the lie about reality you have built for yourself.

Loss of sanity also shouldn’t lead to any sort of end game. Loss of sanity should have in game effects but more subtle and not as fourth wall breaking as Eternal Darkness. Amnesia is a step in the right direction but still doesn’t get it quite right. The perspective of the world changes for the character but this doesn’t mean bending walls or hallucinations. In game this might mean the character refuses or avoids certain things. Or certain things stand out more to a character because of a growing sense of paranoia and questioning things. This could be interesting for a clue finding mechanic in some games. Losing sanity makes it easier to find clues for solving puzzles or alternative methods of resolving situations but has consequences else ware for the character.

Take Amnesia’s darkness mechanic. Tweaking it a little, being in the darkness doesn’t lower one’s sanity but if a character’s sanity is low enough it affects how the character will deal with it. Darkness in a way represents the unknown. If your character has low sanity, which represents his/her loss in conviction of a comprehendible reality, they will avoid things that represent the unknown because why confront more things that might shatter your grasp on reality. The character might refuse to hide in the dark or after a certain amount of time turn on whatever light source they have or move back out into the light.

In a survival horror game where the character is still among society, the level of insanity can be represented by dialogue or how other characters react to them. Have dialogue trees built around the level of sanity. Does what the character say make sense to others? Do various dialogue options based on sanity levels increase or decrease the chances of other characters helping them? If your character is a detective, the level of sanity, how you try to convey what is happening on your case, can affect how much the institution is willing to help you with resources. Maybe if your sanity becomes too low you get taken off of the case and have to attempt to complete the story without those resources.1

The point of all this is that a sanity system should be an ingrained and organic part of the game and be something more than just another health system. It should augment the narrative and setting of the game. Not every survival horror game needs a sanity system. It depends on various narrative elements and the framework you are working in. For any game based off of or inspired by Lovecraft’s fiction yes definitely have some sort of sanity system. That’s what his stories are about: confronting cosmic horrors and having them shatter your perception of reality. But for a game like Scratches, a good classic pure adventure horror game, a sanity system is unneeded. The game builds horror through atmosphere and the distortion of what we are used to in everyday life (which is a different mechanic for creating a sense of horror). In the end we discover and understand what took place but that doesn’t change the horror of the narrative. And for most action horror games there is no need for sanity systems because the framework is just to destroy everything. There is no real attempt to comprehend or know; just put a bullet through everything until it’s over.

Survival horror games can and should be enriched with an effective sanity system. It’s tiring to see sanity systems tacked on and treated like a gimmick or just another health bar. Especially when there are so many different and cool mechanics you could implement with an effective sanity system. Maybe someday we’ll truly get to experience insanity in a survival horror game.

1. The idea of playing with dialogue trees and societal resources based on your sanity level came about through a discussion with a friend on how developers could better represent sanity narratively in video games. I mean flesh out the ideas we discussed into a game concept, which I may post later.

Here are links to the various sanity effects that take place in Eternal Darkness and Amnesia.

Storytelling in Survival Horror Games (Survival Horror Series Part 4)

Given survival horror’s slow burn nature a good story and other narrative elements can make or break the game. While action horror games can get away with simple narratives such as just trying to survive; the constant waves of enemies and combat systems are usually enough to keep the player hooked. Survival horror games require a narrative with a little more investment. Not only is the narrative itself important but also how it is told. Finally there are other narrative tid bits, such as notes or diaries that might not contribute directly to the story being told at the moment but enrich the overall narrative experience.

We’re All Stories

The player character should have some sort of personal connection in the events surrounding them. This personal connection allows the narrative to be about something more than just surviving; the character progresses through the narrative in order to understand or learn something new about him/herself or the world around him/her. This personal connection allows the narrative experience to be something more than running to point A to point B and still being alive. It becomes a journey of discovery in a way where the player is compelled to move forward not because of survival but to experience the story the game is trying to tell.

James and Laura in hotel room

Silent Hill 4 is a prime example of a game where the player character has no personal connection to the events taking place and the game suffers for it. You feel nothing for the random guy who just happens to get caught up in Silent Hill’s bullshit. Henry Townshend gets involved simply because he chooses the wrong apartment to move into. Compared to previous Silent Hill titles none of the manifestations of Silent Hill have anything to do with Henry or his psyche. The only tenuous connection Henry has with the events taking place is his unlucky choosing of an apartment and his infatuation with one of Walter’s victim. The player has no investment in the character he/she is playing.

man staring blankly
http://www.deviantart.com/art/Emotions-129413985

How We Tell Our Stories

If we step away from horror games for a moment we can take a look at competing philosophies on conveying stories to the player and how those choices affect immersion. We will look at two video game franchises and the different ways they approach telling their stories: Mass Effect and BioShock.

The Mass Effect games go for a very cinematic and epic experience. Because of this there are a lot of breaks from the actual game play for cut scenes. For any plot progression there is a cut scene. The makers of the Mass Effect wanted to tell an epic, personal, and engrossing story that the player felt they were a part of but at the same time they wanted the player to be immersed in that epic narrative. The developers presented the player with cinematic cut scenes to convey the epic nature of the narrative but to keep the player immersed the player got choose what their Shepard looked like. Everyone knows the feeling of seeing someone else’s Mass Effect play through and saying to themselves, “That’s not Shepard. My Shepard is Shepard.” In this way the developers could present an epic cinematic effect through cut scenes while minimizing immersion breaking.

In the first Bioshock game the developers wanted the game to be as immersive as possible. Their philosophy was that cut scenes broke this immersion. The only two cut scenes in the game are at the beginning and the end. The game is presented in first person. Throughout the game when narrative progressing scenes take place this perspective is never paused for a cut scene. The player is always in first person, able to move about as things are happening. This method helps keep the player immersed in the setting that is being presented to them.

Both ways discussed above are valid ways of telling a story. While Mass Effect found a way of maintaining immersion with its cut scenes this is not always the case, being pulled out of the flow of game play can break that immersion for some people. What is important to a good survival horror game is immersion and so it may seem that cut scenes may not be the way to go. While I consider Silent Hill 2 to be one of the greatest survival horror games I’ve ever played its cut scenes could be iffy. The cut scenes didn’t always maintain the atmosphere and dread that the in game play did, coupled with slow paced and somewhat monotone voice acting one could easily have their immersion broken with a cut scene. There is also the notorious voice acting of the early Resident Evil games which has you laughing more than feeling the fear you should be.

This doesn’t mean a survival horror game can’t be good and effective with cut scenes just be prepared that some of the immersion might be lost. At the moment most survival horror games use cut scenes but the use of cut scenes should be limited. The escape horror game Amnesia avoids cut scenes itself by letting the player to move around as they experience flash backs. The player isn’t removed from their first person experience instead the environment around them becomes distorted and the scenes are conveyed through audio only. Survival horror games could become truly frightening if they could move the narrative forward without using cut scenes, reducing the chances of breaking the immersion for the player.

Who has the Time to Write All this Shit?

I don’t want to say random tape recordings and notes scattered throughout survival horror games don’t have their place but often they get ridiculous, breaking the immersion because of how absurd they might be. But used effectively they can help enrich the narrative atmosphere. Notes or recordings of someone in their death throes will make me raise an eyebrow. But a diary where its entries become more surreal would be good way of showcasing someone’s descent into Lovecraftian madness thereby enriching the overall narrative atmosphere. They can also be used to enrich and inform the player of what is taking place in the moment. Fatal Frame 2 effectively uses notes and its version of tape recordings to help enrich the environment in which the game takes place.

How a story is conveyed to someone is important in video games if you want that game to be immersive and grip the player with fear as most developers of survival horror games want to do. Looking at how to move the narrative forward, for immersion, cut scenes should be used sparingly. Along with that if one decides to convey narrative enrichment through things like notes and recordings don’t let it become absurd. Avoid things narrative devices/methods that could break the immersion for the player. The goal of immersion in survival horror games is to keep the player locked in a never ending sense of slow burning dread.

What I Learned From Ghost Hunting

When I was a freshman in high school Ghost Hunters premiered on SyFy. Until then I had not been exposed to the more methodical approach to the paranormal. I grew up on ghost stories and some of those stories included people who would chase them down. Ghost Hunters introduced me to what at the time I considered a more realistic and logical approach to the paranormal. I couldn’t resist the urge to try and be a part of that world.

haunted house with Ghost Hunters logo

Throughout high school and my early college years there were sporadic attempts to integrate ghost hunting into my life. There were two attempts to form a ghost hunting group with some of my friends. Neither attempt went very far. Cases and investigations were few and far between. After the first couple of investigations my first lesson was ghost hunting is actually quite boring. Working to keep yourself under control, not freaking out over every little thing your nights become less being chased by scary ghosts and more like this:

“Dude what was that?”

Friend looks around.

“Car just drove by. Its lights came through the window.”

“Oh, I’ll make a note of it so we know what it is on our cameras. Want some more coffee?”

Not to say there weren’t fun and exciting times. There were experiences that I would say were legitimate paranormal experiences. Unfortunately these experiences are barely supported by pictures, video, and audio. They are even less supported by the other supposed evidences of ghost hunting. As I thought more and more about this conflict between my own experiences and legitimate evidence I learned my second lesson.

I came to realize that in ghost hunting/paranormal investigating there are an unbelievable amount of assumptions made. A lot of ghost hunters can be hesitant about commenting on the exact nature of ghosts but they will have no issue with saying EMF fluctuations, radiation, temperature drops, etc. are evidence of ghosts. But why? When did anyone ever capture a ghost and discover that they affect the environment this way? And even if some did, by what mechanism and why? At the same time I was asking myself these questions I also learned there was a lack of knowledge in how to properly measure and interpret these various pieces of evidence in the community. Even more so there was frighteningly lack of knowledge on how various elements of the environment influenced the readings. Ghost hunting teams were inadequately trained to tackle the subject of their research. I learned and decided I should approach the paranormal more like psychology, trying to understand the paranormal as a living relationship with human beings. I become less concerned with finding hard evidence to prove the existence of ghosts and more with how the dead affected the living.

I still believe in ghosts and all manner of strange things. I just don’t think we are at a point conceptually and technologically to approach the supernatural world the way ghost hunters attempt to. About half way through college due to various factors the ghost hunting group my friends and I tried to form fell apart. Since then I have had little desire to try and form such a group again. The closest I came was shortly after I graduated college I was approached by someone I had gone on a hunt with. He wanted my help in putting together a more rigorous and scientific ghost hunting group. Unfortunately he got laid off from his job shortly after approaching me and had to back out to deal with his employment and financial issues.

Does this mean I’ll never ghost hunt again? I’m not done. If anyone were to ever ask me to go on a ghost hunt I’d be there right away with a camera and an audio recorder. I’m never too far from the supernatural. I still experience it regularly through private spiritual/occult practices. Through ghost hunting I learned to be less concerned with finding hard scientific evidence for such things and more how the subjective experiences affect and influence the living. I realized we didn’t know enough about what were researching and we probably didn’t have the technology to properly investigate it. But that doesn’t mean such things aren’t still affecting people. Some hauntings cause people to live in dread. I learned that what is really important is how the living and the dead relate to each other.

Character Design in Survival Horror Games (Survival Horror Series Part 3)

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?

Man looking into mirror

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

woman hung upside down by the feet

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.

World Building in Survival Horror Games (Survival Horror Series Part 2)

I’ve said before survival horror games are like slow burning candles. The world of the game slowly creeps into your mind, instilling a sense of dread, something more than an adrenaline rush, something that shakes your very core with fear. One of the ways survival horror games achieve this is by presenting the player with a world that is more than darkened hallways, flickering lights, ominous sounds, or spectral figures. The world in which the player walks and the enemies he/she faces are imbued with meaning, they represent something, and as the player thinks more about what they represent the more it helps to eat away at the sanity of the player.

Not Just any Old Haunted House

One of the most recognizable locations for anyone who has dabbled in survival horror games is the ghostly town of Silent Hill. But the town is so much more than a truckload of fog and creepy sounds. The town constructs itself based on the sins and fears of the unfortunate souls who become trapped within.

The area on which Silent Hill was built is filled with its own rich history that is colorfully strung throughout the series. The land was a holy site to Native Americans known as “The Place of Silenced Spirits.” After forcing the indigenous people off the land, the first colony was abandoned after a epidemic killed most of the colonists. When colonists returned to the land it would be used first as a penal colony and then as a POW camp during the Civil War. By the time we get to the first game the town has been transformed into a resort town. But existing alongside the beautiful scenery is the nightmarish shadow that the players find themselves in.

While the history goes a long way to explain the nature of Silent Hill it doesn’t always explain the town the player interacts with. The town likes to take a peek inside its victim’s minds to create a more frightening experience.

woman walking up burning stairs

In Silent Hill 2 it is hinted the town one sees is crafted from one’s own mind. While most of the locations James visits seem like just twisted versions of the real world Silent Hill the hotel he visits at the end has special meaning because it’s where he and Marry stayed. Angela implies that the Silent Hill she sees is one that is always on fire while Laura seems impervious to the town’s effects.

The world that the player experiences in Silent Hill 4 The Room is a reflection of the mind of Walter Sullivan. As the player progresses through the game the player learns more about Walter’s past, learning about his suffering at the hands of the Silent Hill cult.

Prison Island

While I don’t consider The Suffering survival horror it does share a lot of the design philosophies that make for a good survival horror game. The game takes place on a prison island filled with a bloody history that has infected the very land with an evil presence. The island has the power to corrupt and influence those that inhabit its land. As the player runs around the island they are not just running around a creepy environment but an environment that itself is pulsating with evil.

Zombies Are Overrated

Just as the environment the player finds him/herself in can be imbued with meaning the monsters the player faces can be something more than grotesque monstrosities. It’s one thing to face mutated monsters but it’s another thing to face something crafted from the personal demons of an individual or the depravity of human nature.

pyramid head

In the Silent Hill games the monsters the player faces come from within the minds of those caught up in the town’s influence. The creatures the player faces in the first game are manifested from Cheryl/Alessa’s mind. Except for the abstract daddies, which represent the abuse Angela suffered from her dad and brother, the monsters in Silent Hill 2 represent parts of James. Pyramid Head represents his desire to be punished while Maria is idealized representation of Mary. And again in Silent Hill 3 the monsters represent the mental scars of Heather/Alessa caused by her history with the Order. While the monsters faced in Silent Hill 4 are representative of the madness bred in Walter by the Order.

noose monster journal page

The design for the creatures faced in The Suffering didn’t come from the scarred minds of the individuals that found themselves on the island but simply drew upon the depravity of human nature. Each of the creatures represents a form of execution or specific deaths on the island. The slayers and marksmen represent beheading and firing squads while monsters like the noosemen represent COs who were lynched as revenge for letting inmates die in a collapsed mine.

broken neck ghost

In the Fatal Frame series the ghosts faced aren’t representations of a character’s mind or human depravity but they do represent something else that can frighten the player: death. The form in which the ghosts are presented is how they died. If a woman died of a broken neck that is how she is presented to the player. You are not only facing something might that might be seen to represent death but something that represents all the ways death can take you.

Bringing it all together what does this mean for designing a truly frightening survival horror game? It means that you should consider imbuing the creatures and environment you present the player with twisted meanings. Not all survival horror games implement what I have talked about here, or implement such design decisions to varying degrees. In the early Resident Evil games the monsters and environment don’t carry any metaphorical meaning but through other methods creates tension and fear in the player. The Silent Hill games tend to place more focus on the symbolism of the monsters while the environments of the Fatal Frame games tend to not mean much, instead opting for a more traditional Gothic feel. Choosing to add meaning to the environment and monsters adds something more than the flickering light in the hall or the strange sounds in the forest. A deep sense of fear and disgust comes from not just realizing that you have to survive the onslaught of a deformed creature but realizing that creature is formed from the dirt and grime of reality. That its shape comes from the depravity and terror humans inflict on each other. That the ground you walk wasn’t made evil from the beginning but because of the blood that was spilled upon it. These things eat away at a person even if they survive the nightmare because the things that gave form to those nightmares are still out there walking the streets.