Monday, August 23, 2010

Silent But Deadly

Resident Evil 5 is a controversial entry in the long-running franchise, dividing its audience by iterating on the fabulous additions its predecessor Resident Evil 4 brought to the table whilst also taking the series in a direction that is a far cry from its original roots. Action and spectacle are the order of the day, leaving scares and a general feeling of eeriness by the wayside. Co-operative play was the game’s central focus, and while what that means is the subject for another post, the end result is a fun, impressive installment in the franchise that just isn’t scary, period -- not a criticism in its own right, but when considered alongside the franchise’s history, it is definitely something worth contemplating.

Contrast and compare this with Alan Wake -- a game which I’ll have more about soon -- and its emphasis on atmosphere and ambience to create an eerie, uneasy experience where you never know what to expect, what will happen and, more importantly, when. Alan Wake’s model is the more commonly seen amongst today’s supposedly scary games, the genre’s reliance on atmosphere in particular reaching varying degrees of success. This is the model that Resident Evil established itself on, and while that series used cheap “Boo!” scares to scare its players, it still paved the way for games like Alan Wake. Both Resident Evil 5 and Alan Wake are loud games, then, in that there’s always a haunting score or chilling sound effect to be heard, and disturbing, omnipresent darkness or growling, menacing enemies to fight. The moments of silence are quickly punctuated by the sounds of the unknown, and the vividly black darkness soon gives way to sudden bursts of light, usually at the same time as an enemy overwhelms you with its attacks. It’s visceral, it’s definitely immersive, but it’s a model that is arguably overdone and loses its impact over time. Something less frequent than loud, moody survival horror games are titles that use silence to create their tone, and cleverly placed aural and visual assets to achieve moments of uncertainty: moments of fear.

I’ve been playing an absolute legend in videogame history recently, its re-release on the Xbox Live Arcade allowing me to finally experience the game fully rather than in short, minimal bursts. Doom II is one of the grandfathers of the first-person shooting genre, its classic status deserved for a multitude of reasons ranging from its impeccable level design to the stupid fun that can be had with its double-barreled shotgun. One element of the game was an unexpected surprise, however, something that I couldn’t get a decent grasp of back when I played it at school or at friends’ houses; Doom II is bloody scary, so much so that I’d argue it is more creepy and daunting than any of the games we see released today. It was scary for the players who got to experience it back in its heyday, and it is scary now, in 2010, when technology’s incredible progress means that the game should have been surpassed years ago.

But it is not scary in the traditional sense, the horror that we normally associate with the Resident Evils and Silent Hills of the world. Instead of haunting sounds and disturbing imagery, Doom II is violent and distinctly alien, the endless onslaught of Cyberdemons and Imps keeping things fast, frantic and inherently fun. Yet, I would argue, the game is the complete opposite of the slow-burn scares of more recognized survival horror games: it might be fast, it might be furious, but it’s also silent and that simple fact makes it far more creepier, freakier and terrifying than any zombie, monster or creature found in a more common horror game.

Silence is something I think is overlooked in the videogame industry and it’s somewhat ironic that a game that was released years ago exemplifies why it should be used more often. When you play Doom II, you do it because you want to shoot some aliens using some pretty damn awesome weaponry, but as you do you enter a world where the mere sound of an Imp that you can’t see; the sudden roar of a Cacodemon as he edges ever closer to you; or the punctuating sound of a Zombieman’s gunfire, gets to you, putting you on the edge of your seat and instilling an overwhelming sense of fear inside you.

Another game achieves a similar result, but again for different reasons. Instead of the lingering atmosphere of the typical survival horror, or the imposing dread of Doom II, Limbo is scary because it is weird; frightening because it is strange; and irrevocably eerie because it is brutally sadistic. Taking full advantage of a minimal presentation and design, and creating its own unique atmosphere through its clever use of silence, Limbo uses things like the harsh reality of death and pensive misery to convey its horror. It’s a game that has more in common with someone’s fear of spiders than it does their fear of an unknown and violent, monstrous enemy; it uses real life objects we take for granted like electricity and elevators to send chills more disturbing than the sight of a beheaded alien down our spines, and it uses the monotonous sounds of baby birds chirping and water dripping to give life to an otherwise dead and gloomy environment. It’s more harrowing than it is horrific; more morbid than malevolent; and more gothic than gruesome, but it’s still just as peculiar and alarming as the best of them, and it achieves its terror through a use of silence that is more black than golden.

But really, that’s little surprise. Death should be the scariest prospect of them all and by reveling in it, Limbo, Doom II and other games like them communicate a sense of fear as effective -- if not more so -- than the omnipresent and overwhelming atmosphere that most horror games provide these days. Loud and proud or silent and sinister -- both have their place and both have amazing power when it comes to making a player hesitate. It’s just a shame the two see such a vast difference in popularity.

3 comments:

Michelle said...

I still haven't finished Alan Wake! This is criminal I know but awkwardly it's a little too far into summer now and it feels like something I want to play in the Autumn when the nights draw in that much earlier - cannot wait.

Although I must say that that game doesn't make me feel uneasy at all, mainly relaxed, ambient. It's very interesting how it sparks very different feelings to people playing and observing it.

Steven O'Dell said...

Michelle -- Well some people claimed that it wasn't scary at all so perhaps you won't find it that effective when you return to it, but personally it certainly had its freaky moments that put me on edge or even made me jump -- precisely what I wanted it to do as you may recall I suggested in my preview post about it. It's not the scariest game ever -- far from it -- but if you allow yourself to be consumed by the world of Bright Falls and the atmosphere of the story, it can definitely leave you with some satisfying reactions.

And besides, I always took people's claims about its ineffectiveness with a grain of salt -- I can understand their thoughts, but I do wonder too if they're saying that to appear tougher than they are/were, or because they didn't get immersed into the game, perhaps due to rushing it? Each to their own, I guess.

Clint said...

Doom is only silent because the music sucks, and everybody turns it off.

BUT! It is a scary game when you do that!