Editorial: Horror, And The Modern Video Game Landscape

The sequence moves with startling immediacy.

For those unfamiliar with the sequence (or even the game), you control Ethan Mars, a father who’s son has been kidnapped. The kidnapper puts him through several Saw-esque trials, and one he encounters about mid-way through the game is distressingly simple: he must cut off a finger within five minutes, his only supplies being what he can scrounge up in a dirty apartment. Before he has time to really consider the request, the timer starts.

As the player, you must control every agonizing step of this process. First, you look around the room. Maybe there’s some rubbing alcohol, or a bandage. If you’re smart enough, you’ll leave a piece of rebar on the stove top, and then use it later to cauterize the the wound. You must decide what implement to use; a saw, or a butcher’s knife, or an axe.

Because of Heavy Rain’s unique control scheme, the player is implicated in an act that other games might leave to a cut-scene. It’s the most realistic portrayal of pain I think I’ve ever seen in a video game. It is resonant, revolting, and truly, truly horrifying. Some other self-proclaimed “horror” games should take note.

Third-person horror, to me, is all about empathy, and that’s what this scene gets so very right. Nothing here is conventionally scary or unexpected. But it’s affecting because we empathize with Ethan. We’ve been inside his head for this long and we know what he’s willing to do to save his son. In any other game, this sort of pain is meant to be avoided. You’re never asked to jump onto a spike in Mega Man 2. But when this challenge is presented to the player (and to the character), the question is not “how can I get out of this?” The question is “how will I go about doing this?”

Heavy Rain makes you, quite literally, choose Ethan’s brand of cruel and unusual punishment. If you’re sloppy about it, he will suffer more than if you were sensible. The one aspect of great horror I keep circling back to is choice. In Slender, you are frightened because you chose, unwittingly, to look in a certain direction. In Heavy Rain, you are disgusted because you had to choose your method of mutilation, and you can empathize with the character’s pain after the deed is done.

Too few horror games understand that to be effectively scary, you need to break rules. You need to turn the player’s expectation on its ear, and present a scenario that is simply unthinkable. If that means stripping away our weapons, so be it. If that means presenting a challenge that has no optimal “win condition,” then we’ll just have to adapt. Falling back on what is safe and easy is never scary. Challenging the player in a deep and lasting way is.

In a video game, you have the ability to choose. For a few blissful, illogical seconds, the protagonist in a horror story can stop dead in his tracks. The sooner games start embracing that decision, the sooner we may reach a kind of wonderful, horrifying nirvana.


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