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Call of Cthulhu: Helplessness In Horror Games

Posted by Nick Dinicola on February 13, 2009

I love Dead Space, but it is not a horror game. Yes it’s scary (at least I thought so, but then I did play at night with the lights off), however there’s a difference between “scary” and “horror.” In the October ’08 episode of The Brainy Gamer podcast, there’s a good discussion on the state of the survival horror genre and weather or not it still exists. Personally, I don’t think the genre really exists anymore. As much as I enjoyed Dead Space, it and other scary games that have come out since RE4 have been missing a crucial element of horror: A sense of helplessness.

Helplessness is certainly a tricky thing to pull off in a game. On one hand, you want the player to feel like he won’t survive an enemy encounter, but on the other hand, you want him to survive the enemy encounter. Dead Space fails in this regard because it gives us a variety of guns and plenty of ammo with which to protect ourselves. At no point are we really helpless. The old survival horror games were far more effective at making the player feel helpless, mainly by limiting how much ammo we found. In older Silent Hill and Resident Evil games, we never had enough ammo to fight every enemy. We were always aware that a few poorly aimed shots might leave us unarmed, and that made each monster encounter more frightening. The Fatal Frame series took away weapons completely and instead gave us a camera that could scare off violent ghosts. While we still had a tool to defend ourselves with, we had no backup tool, no pole or knife we could resort to in desperate times. They may have been ineffective, but at least they were something. Not only that, but we still had limited number of shots with the camera, so in order to make every shot count we had to wait until the ghost was dangerously close before snapping the photo. Again, each encounter was more frightening because of the possibility of running out of ammo. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has taken the next logical step, and taken away all weapons completely. I’m only 2 hours into it, but those 2 hours have made me feel more helpless than any game has before.

In the very beginning, I was supposed to enter a house from the side, and make my way up to the second floor where cultists were sniping at my fellow officers. I took a few steps into the large house, heard the gunshots, and tried to go back out so I could find a gun only to realize that I was now locked in. For a few minutes I just stood there, too afraid to open any of the hall doors around me for fear that a cultist might be behind it just waiting to take my head off with a shotgun. When I finally did start exploring I moved slowly, peeking around corners. I kept telling myself that this was just the beginning, and the developers wouldn’t do anything to kill me off so soon. Every sound ahead of me scared me because if I did run into an enemy I honestly did not know what I would do.

I play a lot of shooters; put a gun in my virtual hands and I immediately know what’s going on. Sometimes I might have to shoot a head off, sometimes I might have to shoot a limb off, sometimes I just have to shoot a lot, but no matter what the obstacle is the solutions is always the same: Shoot it. By taking that certainty away from me, Call of Cthulhu put me in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. I was acutely aware of how helpless I was, and that feeling of helplessness added another layer of fear to the game and made even the most mundane of threats terrifying. If I had had a gun, I imagine I would have run through the twisting passages beneath that beginning house instead of hesitating around every corner like I did.

The best part of the game so far has been the Fish(er)men attack at Innsmouth (by the way, I don’t really think I’m spoiling anything here since this happens less than 2 hours into the game). They attacked me in a hotel, hacking through my door with an axe, and all I could do was run. I ran from room to room, closing doors behind me and bolting them shut, jumping out windows and across rooftops, until I reached the streets. I really tried to sneak past them, because unlike in Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, I knew if I was spotted there was no way out of it. Of course I was spotted, and ran. I had no idea where I was going, I just turned corners and kept running. Finally I saw a building I could enter and ran inside, and after a short cutscene I knew I was safe. I was bruised, scratched, and had bones sticking through my skin; I was limping and bleeding like crazy, but I was alive. For me, this chase sequence was so memorable and frightening because I knew I couldn’t fight back.  Without the ability to protect myself, I felt so vulnerable that I thought every time I was hit I should have died instantly, which made every splat of blood on the screen that much more intense. Every time I ran into a Fishman on the street I was scared, but not because he suddenly popped out at me; I was scared because I thought for sure he would kill me. The intensity of that sequence came not from the frantic action, but from my fear, which in turn came from the sense of helplessness the game gave me.

At one point during the last boss fight in Dead Space (don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything) Issac gets knocked to the ground and drops the Plasma Cutter. He’s dazed for a few seconds while the boss thrashes behind him, and then he picks up the Plasma Cutter and I regain control. As a player, I’m never unarmed; that moment plays out before me like a movie: Issac drops the Plasma Cutter, and Issac picks it up. I know that in every future playthrough Issac will drop the Plasma Cutter and then pick it up. But the first time I saw that, Issac on the ground, unarmed, in the middle of a fight, I realized just how utterly screwed I was without my gun and I yelled at him to pick it up. For those few seconds I realized how helpless I was, and it was terrifying.

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