Console Yourself++: Bio-un-shocked
KITTY: But in the middle of the road, there’s this little girl, just standing there…
PETER: Little girls are scary?
KITTY: No, you don’t understand. This little girl- she’s dead!
PETER: That makes her even less threatening.
X-Men: Blinded By The Light
And now for something fractionally different. No review this week- instead, I’m going to be pondering on some of the responses to last week’s Bioshock piece. What’s particularly interesting is the differing experiences of the title, with some readers disagreeing with my assessment that playing, while enjoyable, is never an actually scary experience. I’m going to examine the approaches that Irrational have used in the title to unnerve the player, and the reasons why I didn’t find them particularly successful.
On one hand, the game credibly refrains from inserting artificial jump-shocks, as found in lesser horror films. Instead of leaping into the air at unexpected loud sounds or camera shifts, we’ve all seen cinema audiences groaning with frustration when a director resorts to such cheap tricks. This game, on the other hand, resorts so such an approach only once, as a means of introducing the teleport abilities of the Houdini splicer. Irrational put all their eggs in one basket, relying on the decadent mood of Rapture and the silent tragedy of its inhabitants leave the player fearful for his or her safety. It’s clearly the right bet to make, but a number of design choices undermine the tone. The frequent intrusions by radio never allow the player to feel isolated or lost. Despite its all-out action, the sixth level of the first Halo manages to build a genuinely daunting atmosphere in the moments before the introduction of the Flood. Many commonsense devices are adopted, with rule-breaks such as enemies ignoring you while fleeing an unseen opponent, and insane human troops begging for mercy. However, the most astute of Bungie’s tricks is to have left Cortana in the ringworld’s control room. Without her calming explanations, the player’s imagination is left to run rampant, as the small clues as to the mystery begin to play on their mind. Even when Cohen disrupts Jack’s communications, the artist gives a verbose commentary on events. Without isolation, the other steps that the game takes to build tension are undercut.
Bioshock sticks rigidly to the Half-Life “first person only” school of thought. It’s a credible bid to build immersion and identification with the player character, but doesn’t play to the strengths of the story. Sticking with the game’s conventional viewpoint as Jack clubs his father to death lessons the horror in the scene, and reduces the potential for the game’s creators to dramatise the action. It’s also noticeable that the events that follow from this aren’t that removed from the normal course of gameplay, with Jack initially a passive observer of events, and then fleeing a sentry attack. Comparing this to the greater storytelling ability of conventional cut scenes, the game comes off as considerably weakened. Crimson Butterfly complemented the strength of its scenarios and plot with some exquisite direction. When the player first encounters the principle antagonist, she initially seems out of place in the game, apparently still living. As Sae begins to laugh, the camera pans backwards, revealing that the patterned floor she stands upon is actually a carpet of her family and friends’ corpses. Just when the player thinks they have the measure of the situation, she spreads her arms and summons her pet kusarbi, from which the player must then flee. Both Mio’s encounter with the other girl and Jack’s meeting with Ryan are almost totally uninteractive, but by maturely acknowledging this, Butterfly has access to greater storytelling techniques to engineer a moment of terror.
There’s only one moment in the game that really approaches this level of finesse from a first person perspective. In the flooded basement of Fort Frolic, Jack makes his way past a number of frozen statues, which seem to move closer every time he looks away. The flamboyance of the location makes this splicer attack more psychologically acceptable, as the player’s initial encounter with Sander Cohen has made clear that deadly attacks can be masked by such showmanship. Irrational have set the mood right from the moment the player enters this area, with the corpse laid out upon a table making clear that there is still the intelligence left in the splicers’ heads to construct such a trap. However, as the with Houdini splicer, it’s really the slight rule break of the statue enemies which allow the creators to get away with this approach. Titles more successful in generating horror employ such stratagems at a more profound level.
One of Noise To Signal’s administrators freely admits to not enjoying tense or horrific games, but was entirely unmoved by Bioshock’s horror elements. I believe that this is a result of his familiarity with the Deus Ex rule set (cut him, and he bleeds Denton). Bioshock largely takes this set of concepts as an utterly solid core to the title, never varying or undercutting them. A classic example of the opposite approach is found during the derelict prison that forms the penultimate area of Silent Hill 2. In one corridor, the player is alarmed to hear the sounds they have come to associate with a Doorman monster, despite the enemy itself not being visible. You have to pass through this part of the prison several times before you escape, each time convinced that you are about to fall victim to the unseen creature. If the creators had just chosen to overlay the sound effect on this area, then it would have been an audacious move, but the team went further, positioning a Doorman on an inaccessible ledge, far above the camera angle.
It doesn’t have to be a break in game mechanics- a shift in tone can be just as effective. The most unnerving moment in Resident Evil CODE: Veronica comes when Claire Redfield discovers what is effectively a dungeon underneath Rockfort Island’s medical facility, where the base’s doctor had been torturing his patients. The fragments of prose found in the building make clear that the man’s actions had nothing to do with the overarching corporate conspiracy plot, instead being motivated by his own private perversions. (The novelisation of the game goes further, with the doctor’s diary making explicit his sexual gratification.) The move succeeds in two ways- the player is both instantly nauseated by the discovery and genuinely fearful for their character’s safety. It’s a very uncharacteristic inclusion, as the Resi characters are essentially sexless (at least until The Umbrella Chronicles, which used Albert Wesker’s break-up from his boyfriend as a metaphor for his rejection of Spencer’s corporate ethos). Claire is in no more danger in the medical facility than elsewhere on the island- it’s just another zombie infested building. However, by varying the tone of the piece, Flagship was able to completely alter the way players viewed that part of the map.
Of course, it’s possible to combine both approaches. Thief: Deadly Shadows drew rapturous acclaim for its Shalebridge Cradle level. After pursuing a conspiracy through a variety of locations, evading guards and looting treasure, the player is completely at ease when the trail leads them to an abandoned orphanage. Inside, however, genuinely supernatural elements are at work, with the place inhabited by shambling men made of scab tissue and rust, remnants of the time when it served as a lunatic asylum. The occult forces mustered by the villain of the piece have run riot over the building, and Garret is forced to use his normal tricks as part of completely new strategies to escape. It serves as game within a game, with the primary motivation being to return to the “reality” of the rest of the title. Although the title’s shadowy aesthetic is well suited to horror, it’s worth appreciating the care that was taken with the direction of this level. The game’s finale, when the supernatural Night Mother attacks the town proper, appears rather comical in comparison, with the careful framing completely absent. By just placing a horror element within a normal Thief area, both elements are diminished.
Looking at the examples of successful horror above, the common theme appears to be the presence of something out of the ordinary. Whether it’s introducing a stray element into the gameplay mechanics or making a dramatic alteration in tone, the fear seems to lie in the intrusion of the unexpected. It’s this element that makes the Project Zero titles so utterly compelling, with sketches of a harmonious existence shattered and twisted almost beyond recognition. Every house or room explored carries individual traces of its former inhabitant, which you know will be manifested when you face their spirit. The most memorable example is Chitrose, a young girl who starved to death hiding in the dark. When fighting her spectre, it comes as little surprise when all light is suddenly removed from the environment. The recent rush of J-Horror films seems to specialise in taking something ordinary and making it the centre of a nightmare, such as video in The Ring (which fits this model far better when its origins as an 80s novel are considered). Bioshock, in contrast, shows an extreme of individualism and laissez-fair philosophy, which has sunk into anarchy. The player is frequently left with the impression that life in Rapture before its fall may not have been that preferable to the experience charted in the game. The environment has moved from one caricature to another, and so never really generates the feeling of discord that is necessary to unsettle. Bioshock dwarfs the early Resident Evils philosophically, but the once-normal Raccoon City makes for a more disturbing exploration site than the always-fantastical undersea city. In fact, games’ immersiveness gives them far greater potential than other storytelling mediums in the field. Instead of being a passenger, the player must venture into areas of “wrongness” for themselves.
Such a lack of thematic contrast is what really hurts the game’s bids to unnerve. Like the third Silent Hill title, the world presented is all too coherent, with the splicers and Big Daddies feeling too well integrated into their world to horrify or catch the player off guard. This undermines the feeling of “a world gone wrong” that the title appears to have been banking on. The warder and inmate figures of the Shalebridge cradle may have been an inherent part of their environment, but existed in contrast to the relative sanity of the majority of the game. We’re arguably introduced to Bioshock’s enemies too early, with the player still reeling from the spectacle of Rapture on arrival at the bathysphere station.
Another problem for the development team is that their chosen theme, the complexities of a truly free market scenario, is not naturally conducive to horror. Consumerism and capitalism may have influenced George Romero, but he concentrated on the effects upon the mindset of ordinary citizens, rather than a broader ethical canvas of the struggles between high-level financiers. The mistreatment and conditioning of children is a suitably sinister note, but it’s only at the very end of the game that the player stumbles across the indoctrination suite where the Little Sisters were brainwashed- too little, too late. By having unravelled so many of Rapture’s mysteries already, Irrational are handing the player the final piece of the puzzle, not introducing the stuff of nightmares. Bioshock is a great game, but by playing it safe too often, it never overcomes the limits it imposes on its ability to generate tension.