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Silent HillThe Terror Engine
By Bernard Perron
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2012 Bernard Perron
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSurvival Terror
Terror is the widening of perspective and perception. —David Drayton in Stephen King's The Mist
A Perfect Genre
The survival horror (and let's accept forthright the label even if it has been criticized)1 is maybe the video game genre par excellence. There are many reasons—some more clear-cut than others—to make this claim. First and foremost, as the game designer of The Suffering (Surreal Software / Midway 2004) and The Suffering: Ties That Bind (Surreal Software / Midway 2005) Richard Rouse III states: "It isn't by accident that so many games have found success in the horror setting. The goals of video games and the goals of horror fiction directly overlap, making them ideal bedfellows" (2009, 15). Moreover, video games rely on the same foundations that many suspense-driven horror films such as Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), and Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) rely upon.
Through its actions, this antagonistic force [of horror films] shows itself to be so thoroughly inhuman that no audience member would fault the hero for killing the evil as an act of self defense. This exactly maps on to the experience most action-oriented designers want to create, going all the way back to Space Invaders; the player is thrown into a dangerous situation with a clear, undeniable "kill to survive" motivation. The evil forces are numerous and all deserve to die. Hence horror games are a natural fit. (Rouse 2009, 16)
To paraphrase Rouse's essay title, the "match made in hell" is as inevitable as it is successful.
To be true to the genre, survival horror games should be played at night when you are "alone in the dark," and even better, when everyone else is asleep. If this requirement puts the gamer in the same receptive state as the film spectator, it does not lead to an experience similar to cinema, an experience that is always a collective one through the relations of the hero with others (relations expressed among others through shots / reverse shots, i.e., switches between people interacting). Jean-Sébastien Chauvin explains:
The video game is organized according to an inverse schema: to the collective, it opposes an onanistic experience of the fiction, secret and solitary. It is a time where there is no more than oneself and a (the) world. To this measure, the Survival Horror genre (Silent Hill, Resident Evil) could well be the quintessence of this age of solitude, since when one is there, one is literally, the last of Men. The solitary experience of the character mirrors the player's experience, where both mind and body are engaged by the manipulation of the controller, from which emerge vibrations linked to the context of the game (heart poundings, physical pain). Here, one properly experiences the self. (2002, 39; my translation)
"Quintessence of this age of solitude," survival horror well and truly puts forward the fact that the emotional experience of a video game is a personal one. In the dark, controlling your player character, you are the only one negotiating the menacing game space and facing the monsters.
We can easily imagine that to those who are afraid of video games and only see their evil influence on children, adolescents, and even adults, the survival horror is truly frightening. Indeed, you may remember the 1993–94 Senate hearings regarding the use of violence to promote video games. In a first judgment of 2002, it was upon viewing excerpts from two (out of four) survival horror games—Fear Effect (Kronos Digital Entertainment / Eidos Interactive 2000) and Resident Evil—that an American federal judge denied video games the protection of free speech, that is, the right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In addition, in the UK, as reported by Steven Poole, a member of Parliament tried in 1999 to limit the sales of SH1 because its "story centers on the disappearance and torture of a young girl" (2000, 219). Silent Hill: Homecoming has also been banned in Australia in its original gory state (Ramsay 2008). To argue against this hostility, which is itself a by-product of fear, we could take a look at the games from the survival angle.
Play is as much an innate predisposition as an important activity for both our species and other nonhuman mammals, insofar as this activity only occurs because the participants are capable of some degree of meta-communication (exchanging signals that say, for instance, "This is play" and not a real fight). Bateson has observed that "the evolution of play may have been an important step in the evolution of communication" (1972, 181). As he pointed out, learning to recognize a threat leads to being able to foresee and prevent the denoted potential attack. Torben Grodal has summarized this evolutionary perspective by showing how "our ability to empathize with, identify with, and cognitively [and above all virtually in video games] simulate the situation of other members of our species is linked to the evident survival value of these prosocial activities" (Grodal 1997, 86; emphasis added). Without the fatal consequences of "ordinary" or real life, it is possible in the virtual space of video games to try out and observe the effects of different behaviors (for instance, being aggressive when it is not in your nature), test different strategies for problem solving (in a problematic and unsafe situation: charge in, run in zigzags to avoid being attacked, slowly bypass unnecessary confrontations, etc.), live in danger, and experience strong feelings. Opportunities to encounter disgusting and abnormal creatures like those of Silent Hill are limited in our daily life, but the techniques for dealing with a survival situation probably remain similar. As studies have shown, video games enhance visual processing and can even be effective for overcoming phobias.
It's difficult to overcome fears. In the famous words of master of horror H. P. Lovecraft, which I have quoted elsewhere (Perron 2005b), fear is "the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind ... and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" (1973, 12). What's more, "As may naturally be expected of a form so closely connected with primal emotion, the horror-tale is as old as human thought and speech themselves" (1973, 17). To the adversaries of supernatural horror tales, Lovecraft retorted with a response that is worth quoting again both to give a certain status to the genre and to respond to academic colleagues outside of video game studies who do not understand why you're wasting your time playing video games, doubly so by playing horror games:
The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader [or the gamer] a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from everyday life. Relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to rappings from outside, and tales of ordinary feelings and events, or common sentimental distortions of such feeling and event, will always take first place in the taste of the majority. (1973, 12)
It is not just anyone who can enjoy horror fiction. The objects of fascination of the genre are impure, disgusting, and scary monsters. The natural inclination is to move away, not to advance toward those beings who call for both a cognitive engagement, so as to try to discover this very fearful unknown, and an imaginative engagement, in which one is willing to "creatively speculat[e] about what the monster might be like, what it might want and how it might be managed" (Vorobej 1997, 238). More specific to the video game, it forces a virtual physical engagement since the gamer, through his/her player character, will have to manage the monsters on his/her own. Those engagements make explicit the noteworthy observation of Janet Murray concerning fiction. For Murray, the expression commonly used to describe the pleasure of immersion in a imaginative world, Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief," constitutes too passive a formulation. The question is more about an "active creation of belief" since we use our intelligence to strengthen the reality of the experience (Murray 1997, 110). Without a doubt, the pleasure of playing, to reiterate, also depends on "being played." You play a survival horror game because you want to be scared. As Jonathan Lake Crane underlines regarding horror films, if you don't "manufacture particular kinds of belief" (1994, 47) and if you remain distant or turn your back on the imaginary dangerous world, the game is over even before it has started.
Drawing upon the concept made famous by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (2002), the video game has remediated the film. This videoludic refashioning of cinematic forms could not have been more evident with regard to horror. It's true that all genres are characterized by a set of pre-established conventions generating a certain number of more or less precise expectations. In this perspective, the notion of genre stimulates a certain reflexive game of guesswork and recognition. However, of all the genres, it may be argued that horror is the one most often compared to a game. In light of Bateson's theory of play and fantasy, the depiction of horror has to be framed as a playful and fictional activity since it would be neither tolerated nor bearable otherwise (which is the case of snuff movies, where showing the actual murder of a human being renders them intolerable and unacceptable to the general viewer—the antithesis to playful). To find pleasure in horror film, it is necessary to play by its rules. This is why, while many scholars have sporadically made references to a game analogy in order to explain the contemporary horror film experience, others like Ruth Amossy and Vera Dika have made a lengthy and narrower link that is also worth presenting.
Ruth Amossy associates the horror tales to play and games in a chapter of Les idées reçues: Sémiologie du stéréotype (1991) dealing with the industrialization of fear. She states that the "art of frightening" is openly put forward as a ludic activity. She then lists three categories of objects of fear: (1) transgressions of normality and elementary laws of the physical known world like the "Old Ones" of Lovecraft or King Kong; (2) harmless objects in themselves that become scary only through an abnormal and strange aggressive behavior, such as birds, furniture, and cars; and (3) objects already scary that undergo a hyperbolic processing, such as wolves, spiders, and snakes. This closed repertory of fear and the fundamental use of stereotypes therefore serve as "direction signs of the ludic domain. They announce at the entry and at critical points of the fictional terror: 'All those that enter here accept surrender to the dizziness of fear'" (1991, 142; my translation). To clarify the activity at stake, Amossy refers to board games:
The progress of the game is not purely fortuitous, and the public expects that some "moves" mark out the itinerary of fear.... [The] threatening interruptions [by objects of fear] in the daily universe and adventures that ensue are also meticulously programmed according to known rules. One thinks of those games where the participants have, with throws of dice, to cross a perilous space sown with ambushes until they reach the square of final resolution.
If, therefore, the imitated reality is not defined by precise rules, the precise delineation of the terror will bring some to bear. It is the grid of the laws of terror applied on daily and banal scenery, or at least on what is claimed to be realistic, that produces the narrative of terror. (1991, 138; my translation)
On any given game board, the moves differ, but the grid remains the same. What happens next always maintains some kind of predictability. According to Amossy, the secret of the industry of fear lies less in the choice of the stereotyped object than in the choice of representation. Cinema thus occupies a preponderant place since it constantly invents and perfects its realistic effects. The conclusions of Amossy put Steven Poole's reasoning in perspective:
Why is it particularly the horror genre, and to a lesser extent science-fiction, that largely provides the aesthetic compost for supposedly "film-like" videogames? ... The answer is that horror genre can easily do away with character and plot; it is the detail of the monster, the rhythm and tension and shocks that matter. Plot and characters are things videogames find very difficult to deal with. (2000, 79)
For the video game, a new media that is still audiovisual, the horror film provides a breeding ground for formal figures and techniques of mise-en-scène (anxiety-provoking music, expressive high/low angles, suspicious camera movements, startle effects, etc.). It also provides an ideal narrative framework: a small group of stereotypical characters barricade themselves in a place—or try to escape—in order to fight against and to survive an evil force embodied in monsters or ghosts. This perfectly suits the video game (the new media), which will inevitably, as did cinema (the old media), continuously invent and refine its realistic effects (in connection with computer manufacturers who constantly endeavor to sell new state-of-the-art technology).
Vera Dika has dedicated her book Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle to demonstrating the way in which the stalker film formula of the 1980s put the spectator in a condition "less like watching a tennis match, for example, than like playing a video game. Here the spectator is implicated by a number of conventional formal strategies, ones that encourage a play with the film itself" (1990, 22; emphasis added). For Dika, the formal opacity of the repeated patterns and the surface variations (point-of-view shots, use of onscreen and offscreen spaces, frameline, screen time, etc.) facilitate a gaming attitude toward two central questions: "Where is the killer?" and "When will he strike?" Starting with Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) and its two best copies Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980) and Friday the 13th Part 2 (Steve Miner, 1981), the safe and controlled interaction between the spectator and the stalker-film games established a play of knowing or not knowing the answer to those two questions, and of how they were asked. Such play has become even more pervasive in the new cycle of stalker films initiated by the self-reflexive Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), a cycle created for a generation of teenagers who are as much film and television viewers as they are gamers.
As Amossy's reference to game boards and Dika's video game analogy show, the contemporary horror film was already playful and "interactive" before the advent of video games and explicit interactivity. It was a short leap to make "interactive horror movies" such as Phantasmagoria (Sierra / Sierra, 1995) or Realms of the Haunting (Gremlin Interactive / Interplay, 1996). Moreover, when asked how he would like SH2 to be seen, the producer Akihiro Imamura answered: "As a horror movie, but with the fantastic feeling of being active within it" (Roundell 2001). With an action-oriented narrative framework and all the prominently displayed formal "direction signs" along the experiential route to fear, the spectator-gamer was more than ready to get into the labyrinth of horror and virtually display his competitive spirit.
Excerpted from Silent Hill by Bernard Perron Copyright © 2012 by Bernard Perron . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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