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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Incest, Bestiality & Infanticide: Why is Horror Afraid of Taboos?

The purpose of horror is to unsettle people, to make them feel afraid, disgusted or dirty, to make them stare in the face of the very worst aspects of the human psyche, all within an ultimately safe and controllable environment. The screen, or the page, is the barrier between unspeakable terror and relative safety. It is a barrier, through which we should be able to experience things that we would be unable to face in the real world for any number of reasons.

However, even within the realms of darkness that is the horror genre of games (and to some extent also, of films and literature) there remain certain subjects, certain taboo content that is forced to remain under the surface, slowly circling in the depths. Everybody knows that they're down there, but very, very few choose to acknowledge them. As the title suggests, two candidates for these lurking topics are child killing, or infanticide, and bestiality, but there are many others. Just about any perverse or depraved sexual or necrotic act one could imagine is likely to be on the very list that horror is almost too scared to show you.

But you can imagine it. We all know that these awful things happen in the real world - in that regard, what we hear on the evening news is infinitely more horrific than any horror game, film or book. Murder, rape, imprisonment and torture are all frequently discussed on prime time evening broadcasting, yet are shunned by the very media that is supposed to portray that content in a way that is safe and more readily approachable.

In games, we all know that many of the well known horror franchises are betraying their roots, moving further and further into action and shooter territory than traditional slower-paced horror. However, even those games that have resisted the urge to follow this path rely on very much a core set of subjects from which they derive their horror. Moreover, even of those titles, there is still a fundamental misunderstanding of how horror is actually portrayed. True horror, real fear of something, does not come from enemies jumping out of dark corners, nor does it come from exaggerated violence or from excessive amounts of blood and gore cascading over the screen. The most effective horror is that which co-opts some of the most base of human fears, and some of the most base of human psychological processes. The Freudian approach to psychosexual emotions and associated neuroses may well seem outdated, even comical to some, but fears that revolve around sex, relationships and parental responsibility are common to just about all.

So, why then does horror, and specifically game horror, seem so reluctant to broach any topic considered even mildly taboo? Is it because of the way, perhaps, that games are created by large development teams and overseen by an often primarily financially driven publisher? Or maybe it is because of the current position of games and the industry as a convenient scapegoat when it comes to matters of violence or depravity amongst the younger generations? Maybe it is simply the case that games serve a different purpose to film or literature - they are active, rather than passive. Does the passivity of other media allow more time to dwell on the disturbing images conjured up than games do? Is it perhaps impossible in the current climate and current market, to produce horror within the medium of games that is able to tackle some of the more delicate subjects that literature and film is more able to? Are players unwilling to accept a certain level of passivity in their games in order to heighten the horror factor?

I don't think that is true.

Certainly, there are those that will argue a case that games cannot possibly offer enough narrative depth to convey the subtlety and detail required for good horror. There are those that may approach such topics with all the sensitivity of a ravenous Necromorph, which of course, do not help the case for the deeper horror game. However, given the correct framing and context, and given a high quality of engaging, approachable and understanding writing, games are every bit as capable of addressing such taboo subjects as mentioned at the start of this article. As was the case however with slasher horror or exploitation cinema, it is the smaller, independent side of the games industry that is making the biggest strides. The Binding of Isaac is an excellent example, focused entirely around the torture and killing of a child, and including imagery that, if dwelled upon, is actually very disturbing despite the game's 16-bit graphical style. Limbo once again portrays a child as the main character, lost in a horrific, dark and lonely world with traps that can kill and dismember him in a variety of gruesome ways.

While children are frequently portrayed in filmic horror,
they are significantly less common in game horror.

This is very different in its portrayal of children suffering than one may find in larger triple-A releases, such as Dead Space 2. Yes, this game also features child enemies, but they have been mutated so much by the Necromorph infection that they are, essentially, just slightly smaller and significantly more explosive zombies. This is something we see even when children are portrayed in horror films, which is far more common. They are almost always stripped of the innocent image that would otherwise make their demise much more uncomfortable. In films such as The Exorcist, or The Grudge, or The Ring, the children in question have all been wronged or subjected to evil forces, making them far enough removed from the 'innocent child' image that they become comfortable, or at least, comfortable enough viewing.

What the independent games succeed in doing is portraying children as just that. Children. That is why, even though you may first and foremost see a game to be played, there is significantly more underlying discomfort coming from the likes of Limbo or Isaac. If games that approach taboo subjects such as this can exist and succeed, is this not reason enough for larger budget titles to make some progress towards also tackling them? Perhaps as a medium, games remains still that little bit too young and not widely enough accepted to be able to get away with it on as wide a scale? 

But then, horror is not for everyone. It takes a particularly broken mind to imagine some of the more disgusting concepts and an equally broken one to consume them. I for example, physically couldn't watch The Human Centipede all the way through, but as a piece of horror, I appreciated just how incredibly effective it was - I can still see certain scenes of that film in my head, they've been burned into my brain forever because they were just that utterly disturbing. That is a sign of a truly effective piece of horror, and I don't think any game has ever been able to replicate that for me.

Perhaps it is because a game, even a small independent title, is often being developed by a reasonably sized team, often with more than one person having some sort of design influence. Now, it is unlikely that, for example, you will find a situation where two individuals as fundamentally twisted as each other are working together, so more often than not, the original horrific vision of the Lead Designer may have to be distilled, or balanced out by some other parts of the development team. In literature, of course, the work is that of one lone individual. In film, whilst not a steadfast rule, it is far far more likely to find an auteur-like director who takes full responsibility for the film, even though the production of it may include a large team. There are a very small handful of games that perhaps have some of the trappings of 'Auteurship', such as those coming from developer Grasshopper Manufacture. In development currently, Among the Sleep from Krillbite Studios is looking particularly interesting, and has the potential to do some of the very things this article discusses, by placing the player in the role of a baby in a fully 3D environment, surrounded by monsters, shadows and otherworldly happenings. How this very different type of protagonist is portrayed will be vital in determining whether this game is an intriguing curio, or whether it can stand tall as something truly terrifyingly rule-breaking and taboo quashing.

Whatever the reason may be for the lack of advancement in games in terms of tackling these types of subject matter, I hope that independent games are able to change the trend for what passes as 'horror' within the genre at the moment, as there is so much more room, so much more scope and so much more potential in taking some more risks and tackling some more taboos. With this, perhaps those with the bigger budgets will sit up and take a little bit more notice. Perhaps we will eventually reach a turning point where the horror and revulsion of the likes of The Human Centipede, or the depravity of DeadGirl, can combine with the gameplay of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the subtle beauty of The Path, and the budgets of Dead Space or Resident Evil.

A man can dream, no?

Well actually, they're usually more nightmares than dreams.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Make Something Less Real: Where Should We Be Looking for Innovation in the Next Generation?

I'm a little late writing this article, I'll admit - other commitments kept popping up and sapping time and energy like a monstrous black hole. However, the following comes off of the back of the recent unveiling of Unreal Engine 4 screenshots, and the accompanying propaganda surrounding their release.

Being a huge fan of Epic Games I was, of course, excited to see the advances in their engine technology. Excellent as it is, and capable of making very shiny and polished things, the attitude towards the advancement of gaming that it supports is not necessarily one that is beneficial in the longer term. One particular quote I think sums it up rather nicely;
"There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of our engine team and our studio to drag this industry into the next generation" - Cliff Bleszinski, Design Director at Epic
 Well yes and no.

Whilst console generations have typically been defined in terms of hardware upgrades and increases in raw horsepower, there is only so much further things can advance before we start to hit a couple of problems...

The Uncanny Valley and The Ultimate Aim of Games Graphics

The Uncanny Valley concept is something I most likely need not explain to anybody that is reading this blog. In a nutshell however, it is the hypothesis that when human replicas behave in a way very close to, but not perfectly the same as, human behaviour, it elicits a response of revulsion in human observers. The 'Uncanny Valley', being a dip in the proposed graph that shows the positivity of responses to human replicas, as shown below.

Graph highlighting the Uncanny Valley hypothesis.

This phenomenon is well documented and certainly needs no further discussion, however, what I think does need further discussion is the implicit ultimate aim that comes along with every new graphics technology iteration, every new advancement in processing power and, apparently, every new console cycle. This is the implied aim of 'true-to-life' computer generated graphics.

Logically, it is the only end goal that there can be - why else would we constantly strive for improvement if we were not aiming for eventual replication of the real world? However, with such replication would come a whole range of other, potentially very serious issues - for example, if games were capable of replicating real life, it would mean that presumably they were also capable of causing real life ailments, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Is this really a goal that is worth obtaining? Surely it is safer to maintain that level of abstraction from games and stay firmly on this side of the Uncanny Valley?

Forgetting the Games

This, really, is the heart of the matter for me. The quote at the start of this article really hits this point home by saying that it is the job of the engine creators to "drag the industry into the next generation". The games industry should first and foremost be about the games themselves. Yes, we all like our games to look good, we all like our games to perform well... but there are only so many particle effects, dynamic lights and procedurally generated game elements that can be pumped into a product before it starts to become a little pointless.

I'm very sorry Epic, and Crytek and just about every other engine manufacturer out there, but the fact is that while it may be your job to move the technology portion of the industry forward, it is certainly not on your shoulders alone. You are not a collective Atlas bearing the weight of the entire games industry on your back. The real innovation - the individuals and companies that will be moving the games industry into the next generation are the designers, the people that use your new technology to make games for people to play. Engine technology alone a games industry does not make.

This is an argument that can be supported even within the current generation - we have the evidence readily available with franchises like Call of Duty, like Battlefield... Each iteration brings slightly shinier graphics, slightly more explosions - but when the substance of the game is not improved upon very drastically interest begins to wane rapidly.

Forgetting the Developers

If there is one thing that engine developers should be thinking about it is the usability of the tools that developers will need to use to actually make games with their new technology. It's all very well if the new cycle of engine technology is of all-powerful demigod standing - if the underlying tools and interface still contain archaic elements and require lengthy pipelines to get things working, it is all for nothing.

This is something that is improving, yes, but the only place I think I can recall seeing this kind of information plastered all over the promotional material for an engine is over at Unity. This is the sort of information that really should be selling your technology, but of course it doesn't look nearly as impressive as a few canned screenshots do. Even I have succumbed and plonked one of those screenshots at the top of this article, because it's a good way to grab attention... 

In Closing

That may seem like an attack on the companies that produce engine technology, which it certainly isn't intended as. What it is a argument against is the attitude that seems to permeate a not insignificant portion of players that technology and graphics is the be all and end all of games and the games industry. If those within the industry itself reinforce that view, where does that leave us? It is the innovators that create new, original game experiences and formulate clever new ways of utilising the underlying technology that are what the industry is based on. Without them we would be looking at a very stagnated and unattractive industry indeed.