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The Elements of Horror: Human Fears and why AAA Titles Forsake Them

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When we as humans are brought into this world--kicking, screaming, and drowning in the blinding light of our first few breathes--we enter this existence knowing only two inherent fears: The fear of falling, and the fear of loud noises. We laugh, we cry, and we experience as our consciousness expands into the world around us. Our minds, enlightened by an illuminated world of opportunity and possibility, evolve by a need for survival honed evolutionary by the success of our ancestors. We grow, we learn, we adapt, and in the light of our everyday life, fears and phobias silently take root and blossom from the shadows of our traumas and insecurities.

The nature of fear is elusive though many phobias can be traced back to some triggering catalyst. A fear of heights, for example, could be the result of a traumatic fall while a fear of water might stem from a bath-time burn or frightening submersion. Even the act of witnessing fear in others could be enough to trigger a lifelong phobia. While the process is seldom clear, with effects defying the logic of the unafflicted, fear, at its root, can be summed up as a primitive emotion, biochemical reaction, and a learned behavior.

So what makes a book, movie, or videogame scary? We aren't personally experiencing the event and even witnessing it occurs through an altered sense of reality. Yet, we've all had moments in games and movies alike where we've jumped from fear, gripped the sides of our controller or seat in anticipation, or felt the cold rush of adrenaline as we put the lights out, walk terrified across a foreign room with new shadows in every corner, and crawl into a bed that no longer seems safe. Can fear be controlled, channeled, and crafted into the stories we write or the games we play? Can horror be cultivated and molded through a master's touch to rival the living experiences of eating, sleeping, and breathing life? Or does fright ascend beyond the realms of categorized limits and human boundaries, bound by neither, through a mastery of art and prose?

To understand horror in both storytelling and gameplay, we must understand fear at its root. We must acknowledge that beyond the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises inherited as birthright, fear is both a learned and conditioned behavior, and subsequently, can be altered to fit our needs as readers, storytellers, developers, or gamers. While many experience personal fears including, fearing the dark, heights, death, spiders, and aliens on a space station, they remain individualized phobias while fearing the unknown, abandonment, and the prospect of losing control are far more universal and psychologically damaging in nature. While we may fear a spider or snake because of the physically threat they represent, our fears of the unknown or of losing control cut far deeper into our mental and emotional states. Understanding this explains why AAA games like Resident Evil or the Dead Space series can offer the occasional jump of the joystick with their overplayed gore, heavy reliance on dim settings, and ungodly sound effects--while smaller titles like Fatal Frame (Project Zero in Europe and Zero in Japan) or Amnesia: The Dark Descent, offer up something more visceral and haunt us on a much deeper level.

Fatal Frame, which is by far the scariest game I've personally played, haunts and horrifies for multiple reasons. I loved it. I hated it. I never finished it. Perhaps playing alone in the middle of an unlit and unfinished basement was overkill, but the game was horrifying from start to panicked finish. If you haven't played it, the story revolves around Miku Hinasaki, a schoolgirl clad in stereotypical Japanese uniform, armed with an old camera and her physic touch, as she wanders through a demonic mansion in search of her missing brother. Sounds horrifying, right? Like a little Pokemon snap with ghosts? You'd be surprised. Here you face something beyond the realm of the physical, under a distortion of falsified perception, where neither gun, plasma cutter, or professional training matter. You are driven by the believable ambition of saving a sibling as you unravel a history rooted in historical claims and urban legend. You are alone, facing the unknown, and losing control with every step forward. Prepare yourself, and keep a pair of clean underwear nearby because Fatal Frame attacks at the core of life and death and the world that exists between.

So why does it work? Fatal Frame succeeds where others fail by understanding the nature of fear while supplying pseudo moments of calm in a rollercoaster ride of terror. Though you can fight back with your camera in an exposed, tunnel vision manner, the effects are often temporary and vanquished spirits can return through walls, ceilings, and even the floor beneath you. Unlike games where a monster's movements are limited by their environment (windows, doors, and the ventilation), the denizens of Fatal Frame perversely break our physiological boundaries by defying our definitions of reality. Forget the occasional jump or sweaty palms of suspense, Fatal Frame grips in a way that takes weeks, if not months, to pry loose.

Another great example of true horror, though I'm still in the process of completing it, would be Amnesia: The Dark Decent. Amnesia is an Indie game developed by Frictional Games that follows the protagonist Daniel, a gentleman mysteriously stuck in a foreboding castle, as he descends into darkness in search of both his memory and sanity. I know, you'd never guess with a title like that, right? Regardless, the game is terrifying in ways similar to Fatal Frame while creating a character utterly vulnerable to every psychologically whim of the imagination. In Amnesia, even shadows are dangerous as hallucinations break way from paranoia to pure insanity as darkness, or even the close quarters of the castle, begin to close in around you. Forget a gun, knife, or even a camera for that matter: Daniel is completely defenseless in a game that commands suspense through anticipation, uncertainty, and dread.

So why does it work? The horror of Amnesia: The Dark Decent is capitalized by a gradual increase of suspense as the unknown is slowly unraveled to reveal a truth far more frightening than the perceived realities of the game's opening scenes. Here the enemy is unknown, your purpose, mission, and background are equally unexplained, as the atmosphere of emptiness consumes until heightened suspense breaks way to the psychological horrors of the imagination. You are constantly expecting something, and as seconds give way to minutes, that suspense rises like bile in your throat until every sound echoing through the empty corridors becomes another doorway in the halls of your own deepest fears. Amnesia ruthlessly attacks the insecurities of the uncontrollable--the horror of losing our mental cognition and drifting slowly into madness--while driving us forward in torment at a Jigsaw pace. Here, our only hope lies in doing what we fear most: Moving forward, exploring the next room, and facing the horrors of an ever growing sense of insanity.          

While experiencing fear is part of human nature, and the elements of horror exist on many levels of the physical, spiritual, and emotional realms, understanding the phenomenon is neither brain surgery nor holy clergy. So why then is the aspect of capturing fright so elusive to mainstream developers and AAA titles while lesser or independent developers excel with tighter assets and limited resources? Both Fatal Frame and Amnesia: The Dark Decent are master strokes in the genre and yet big named companies continually fail with their offerings. If fear is so readily understood, why aren't game or movie studios pushing the envelope rather than overcompensating with gore and shock tactics? Do software giants fear creating games too scary for the million dollar masses when the medium has far more potential for fright by virtue of forcing the viewer to participate in the horror? Even when big name games like the original Dead Space manage to get it right to some degree, the following sequels abandon fear for accessibility or multiplayer options. Is corporate greed, parallelized by the inability to take a financial risk, killing the genre by making games more accessible to the weak willed and terror sensitive? Now, that's a frightening thought indeed.

Please, post your thoughts. And thank you for reading!

Also, what is the scariest game you've played and why? What worked and what didn't?

-Saigo- Out

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