Sound of Disbelief
May 19, 2012
I was directed to the above concept video on YouTube recently for a game called Sound of Silence. It has a pretty cool premise at work, even if it isn’t much more than an idea and some video right now. If this game gains some developers, the hope is to create a horror experience that caters itself to the individual playing it. Afraid of the dark? The game will use it against you. Don’t like tight spaces? It can adapt to that. It will structure itself, using a variety of scripted areas, to whatever you seem to want to avoid. It sounds deliciously terrifying, but also completely impossible.
Let me preface by saying that I would love nothing more than for this to happen. The idea of a game building itself from my nightmares could be absolutely incredible, scaring the controller right out of my hands. I would love to get a game that could dredge that kind of reaction out of me, but it just isn’t possible.
Since the days of point and click adventures, developers have been creating puzzles and situations that are completely obtuse to anyone except the person who first created them. More recently, we can look to L.A. Noire to see this problem at work. Key points in the game’s cases are often made or broken over when you decide to present a certain piece of evidence. If you choose the wrong one, or pull it out before you have your facts straight, then you’ll blow your interrogation and have a rotten time getting the case back on track. It’s kind of infuriating, since you have to guess when the developer felt it was the right time to show which proof. If a prisoner says I have no evidence on him and I show him the murder weapon with his prints on it, that only works if the developer decided this was the right point to do so. If not, it’s considered a failure, even if it makes logical sense at that moment.
Games can only be built with the variables that are put into them. Like the evidence presentation in L.A. Noire, if the game doesn’t have a script written to deal with the fact that my greatest fear is other people, then nothing will come of it. I don’t get to be scared by the game, since it wasn’t built with that variable in mind. What if it has it, though? Will the game suddenly become populated with other human beings? Horror games rarely have other people in them, and if this one does, will it just wait to see how long you avoid them?
Let’s assume it observes your avoidance. There’s the very real problem that people play video games very differently than they would conduct themselves in real life. If you have a fear of people but have been playing games for years, you’ve probably gotten over it in-game. There’s not many games out there where you can avoid one particular character and still continue the game. Eventually, someone who’s afraid of people will still learn to talk to people in-game.
You could argue that this game could use that to force you to confront your fears, but I don’t think it’s quite ready for that. We’re always being forced in one direction or another, and there is rarely a path in any game that you can avoid altogether. Therefore, our poor anthropophobic probably already knows that to keep a game going, he will have to talk to in-game people at some point. People become a means for making the game progress; sprites that you have to interact with to make the game continue. This isn’t facing a fear of people, but subverting it. The people are just another game mechanic. Nothing to be afraid of.
So, the only way to fix that would be to have the people be creepy and use them to put the player in danger. If you did that, you could then teach the player that there were some people who would hurt them in-game, but that’s creating a fear. The only reason anyone would be afraid of the people would be because there was a real reason to be. Making that fear a legitimate one might make for a good game and create some fantastic scares, but it wouldn’t work with the game’s core ideal of adapting to a player’s fears.
Players realize they have to go down the dark hallway. They know they have to poke their hands into dangerous places, stare monsters dead in the face, and fight against the oncoming horrors. They will come to your game expecting to have to follow the set of instructions and paths that you’ve given them, and accepting that there is probably no way around it. If there is a pitch-black hallway with nowhere else to go, odds are good that most players will just walk down the hallway without a second thought. They might not like it and move slowly, but that can come from being cautious about monsters just as much as it could a fear of the dark. Could you really adapt the game to being afraid of the dark after that, knowing their slow pace could mean any number of variables?
Again, people view an in-game world differently than the real world. Fear is only created based on what the game is willing to do to you. I eventually stop being afraid of the dark in a game with no enemies or resistance. After all, what’s going to happen in the dark? In the real world, the uncertainty of these situations causes the fear. You could get mugged in a dark alley, fall down a hole, or get killed by something. There are millions of variables. In a game, you’re only in danger from what the developer thought to put into it.
Which brings us back to L.A. Noire. This game can only have dangers based on what get put into it, and gamers quickly learn what is and isn’t a safe place. If you don’t have anything scary or bad happen in these places, then the player will stop being afraid of them and act differently. If you do make some monsters show up, then you’re guilty of manufacturing the fear by making the situation something that is worth being afraid of. That ghost that appeared at the end of the video might have made you jump, but who wouldn’t? I’m not exactly afraid of the dark in real life, but I would know to be afraid of it in the game.
It is practically impossible to do a game like this right. There is just no way around gamer logic or the limitations of programming to make something like this work. You could put a disclaimer on the cover asking players to play with an open mind and let their emotions flow naturally, but even the most open-minded person can see the seams of their imaginary play worlds after a few hours. With nothing actually happening to make these places into something worth being afraid of, I would soon stop being scared. The only way forward then becomes creating fear, and while that’s a worthy aspiration, it’s not what this guy is shooting for.
I hate to be a downer on this kind of idea, but it just isn’t practical. There is no way that you can incorporate every possible fear, no way to construct the game so that it preys on your fears exclusively. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories attempted something like this, but all they managed to do was change some sprites and alter the ending. It was really well done, but it still had very obvious limits to what it could scare you with. You can’t create this world of infinite possible fears without giving the player something to be afraid of, and then you’re the one who’s creating the reason to be afraid. Naturally -occurring fear is just not something we can hope to pull off.
If this game does see the light of day, it will probably still be pretty cool. It’ll have a handful of different fears to play on, and I imagine they’ll be randomized. You’ll see different ones based on what you look at or avoid, but since all of the fears in the game have to be legitimately dangerous, who knows which ones the game will pick to use on you? You can have something that will be scary in different ways every time, but I just don’t see it being possible for this game to be scary in a personalized way. It’ll be wide-reaching, but there are too many variables from real life and too many limitations in an imaginary world for it to work. I wish it would, but I just don’t see how it could.
Images courtesy of http://nightmaremode.net, http://firsthour.net, http://www.destructoid.com