#BoRT: There’s only one way out of here…

I love frightening movies and games.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve sought out entertainment that would provide me with years of nightmares fuel.  I’m really not sure why I do that to myself (or why anyone deliberately subjects themselves to frightening entertainment.)  I’ve written previously that maybe frightening games are a way to ask ourselves “what if…?”

If I had to guess why we enjoy being scared, I would say that it is because it’s a pretty good way to elicit a candid reaction.  You can spend your entire life getting to know yourself, and it’s a task which we aren’t always thinking about.  The difficulty in this lies with reconciling the person you are, and the person you want to be.  When you’re scared, there’s no room to think about who you want to be.  It can be a liberating experience to have the living daylights scared out of you.

One of my earlier experiences deliberately trying to frighten myself was to watch the movie Alien.  I was a grade-school age kid who had stupid action figures based on the movies from the series, but I knew from commercials like that one there was something far worse that I hadn’t yet encountered.

The video clip shown above shows Tom Skerritt’s character, Dallas, who must enter the ship’s air shaft system to attempt to flush an alien creature out of his space ship with a flame-thrower.  The scene captures so much of what makes a movie frightening for the audience and is one of my favorite from the movie.  He is completely vulnerable in the pitch black compartments with no easy escape route.  The only way he can know where the creature is located is based on what his crewmates can describe to him over a radio while looking onto a motion sensor with a display that’s smaller than your phone’s screen.  It becomes abundantly clear that the creature has the advantage, and when Dallas decides to leave – well, just watch the clip.  It is revealed afterward that in searching the air shafts for Dallas, they found a flame-thrower, but no body.

Alien is a fantastic movie and it scared me like nothing else up to that point.  But when things got dicey (and boy, do they get dicey) I could turn away or shield my eyes.  Eventually, I would find that I could have similar experiences with games, and that first one was Silent Hill.  I would also find that, unlike with movies, I couldn’t turn away from a game when things went bad.

I’ve written about my experience playing Silent Hill for the first time before.  It left an impression with me that’s hard to forget, and I feel safe saying it’s the scariest piece of entertainment I’ve yet consumed.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I was sitting in front of the TV, trying to psyche myself up to open a new door and find out what lay behind it.  And there were many times that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it and wound up just turning off my Playstation.  Silent Hill, and frightening games in general, excel where entertainment tightly controlled by its author falls short.  Ridley Scott couldn’t tape my eyes open for Alien’s infamous chestburster scene, but Team Silent was counting on the fact that I knew that unless I was giving the game my full attention, the protagonist would surely die and his daughter would be lost.

Games like Silent Hill create an intensity like no other kind of entertainment because because they create such a strong sense of cognitive dissonance in the player’s mind.    I remember each and every location in Silent Hill because of how much I didn’t want to be there.  Each and every new location was like being Dallas and climbing into that air shaft to find a creature that most certainly would kill me.  But I memorized them in order to solve the game’s arcane puzzles and to try and find out what was happening there.  If you let yourself get caught up in Harry’s plight, then you’ll feel just as trapped as he does when you consider that the only way he gets out is with your help.  There’s no covering your eyes and waiting for the credits to roll.  When you turn off the game, you are abandoning Harry and Cheryl in that town.  It’s such a simple premise – find Harry’s daughter and get right the hell out of there.  But try telling yourself that when you’re randomly phasing in and out of consciousness between two worlds which can be accurately described as bad and worse.  There’s only one way out of Silent Hill (and all other good survival horror games) and that’s to force yourself to face some disturbing scenarios while still managing to effectively play the game.

Silent Hill made the survival horror genre my favorite.  I can’t say for certain what it is that makes games like this so compelling, but I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.  For those who haven’t played it before, it probably looks and sounds like a very silly game.  But I eagerly anticipate when I will have the chance to play through scenes like the one above from Alien (in Colonial Marines, perhaps?) and am looking forward to nightmares yet to come.  If you’re looking to have a good Halloween this year, go track down a copy of Amnesia, Dead SpaceSlender, or even pick up Silent Hill on PSN.

Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table.  The preceding post was an entry to the October 2012 theme: Fear and Loathing in Game Spaces.


5 Responses to “#BoRT: There’s only one way out of here…”

  1. November 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    This post was extremely well-written. Thank you for writing it, Peter, and thank you for all of your insight into the horror genre. Being one that has not played through the first Silent Hill game, I am now certain that I must. The game sounds fantastic. I have, however, played through a large amount of the second title in the series, Silent Hill 2. And I must say, your description of being unable to make a single move at times, turning the television off instead–this is exactly how I have felt as I slowly move through the second game.

    In fact, it’s incredible you wrote this post when you did. Just the other day I was talking to my wife about the power of psychological horror games over the preceding horror genre found in film. I was basically arguing that the horror film genre is a joke, though there have been some good moments. Horror games by contrast leave an indelible effect on the player. I actually made the exact point you did–that the power of a film goes only so far, leaving you with the ability to close your eyes, turn away, or shut off everything. But with a game, you are involved; there is nothing that you can do, short of aborting the experience, but keep moving forward. The experience of playing through a truly terrifying game is truly sophisticated, and it is so interesting to see where developers have gone with this concept.

    Anyway, I just started following you. I really enjoyed this post and I hope to hear back from you. Thanks for writing.

  2. 2 Peter Shafer
    November 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Thank you so much for the kind words. If you decide to play through Silent Hill, I would recommend picking it up on PSN and playing it on a PSP or Vita. Playing it on larger screens or higher resolutions don’t do it any favors. It may not have the same impact as it did 10 years ago when its graphics were more passable for the time, but who am I to say. The game is a trip in any case. (You may also be interested in trying out Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor, a game that takes a great deal of inspiration from Silent Hill.)

    I really do think that games have the capacity to leave audiences with a deeper impact than with film, but it is a medium that’s still getting its footing. When they shine though, they really shine. I tried to sit down and watch as many sci-fi/horror movies as I could this month in anticipation for Halloween, but I have to agree with you that the horror genre is really lackluster. Funnily enough, I watched the latest Silent Hill movie in theaters last week, and it really drove the point home for me. It’s just not the same when you can pick and choose which elements of the experience you want to consume.

  3. November 4, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    I think the best “survival horror” game ever made was Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. 😉

  4. 4 Peter Shafer
    November 5, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    I never played much of the Breath of Fire games, but after reading a bit about Dragon Quarter it sounds pretty cool.

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