When I started my formal study about games and design, some years ago, one of the first things I heard and read about was games genres. I particularly remember a topic that arose amidst one of those discussions: In which genre do horror/terror games fit or are they a genre on their on?
Most of the horror/terror games I came across after that I could label as an action/adventure with scary elements and theme, but every now and then I had the luck of playing something truly innovative, games that make me agree to think of terror games as a separated genre.
One of those unique experiences happened when I played Fatal Frame, a game with some interesting directions. Now that I am studying game design in a deeper manner I’m returning to the nightmarish setting of the series to try to identify and explain which design decisions were those that made the experience so remarkable for me.
First of all, let’s separate the core mechanic, the action that the player is doing every moment in the game: Navigate through a 3D environment and take pictures. Yes, if you haven’t played any of the Fatal Frame games you now know that the main interaction with the game world is taking pictures, which means switching form 3rd person view to a framed 1st person vision in order to capture the framed image!
Pokémon Snap already has already toyed with photography back in the Nintendo 64 era but in a safari-esque manner, I don’t know if there were games before that with a similar core mechanic. But this time the cameras were in service of fear.
What kind of experience this core mechanic brings to the table? It demands the player to be aware of the surroundings, like a ghost hunter, trying to capture a picture of a supernatural phenomenon; it demands the player to pay attention all the time.
How to capitalize this feeling to create a meaningful experience? The answer lies in the level design, I once read that it’s in the level design that art, engineering and game design meet (I think it was in a article about Bioshock or in a 2K job posting, I’m pretty sure it involved Bioshock). It happens that this sentence is particularly true in Fatal Frame. The quiet atmosphere becomes an unnerving setting when you know that a ghost can appear out of nowhere at any time, the most used paths in a level often mislead the player’s eyes, creating spots where ghost appearances can be an even greater surprise and all the textures and shadows in the level make the player paranoid, like confusing a stain on the wall for a human presence. So we have an image-capturing mechanic coupled with a morbid setting where you always have the impression to be seeing something with the corner of your eyes, a place that demands you to be on your toes and all of the sudden a sinister figure appears, scares you but can’t gaze elsewhere, you have to turn your eyes to it. In the end you have to look for the scariest thing in the scenario. This unnerving expectation for the ghosts to appear is the emergent feeling from this “mechanic + level design” arrangement.
Since the core mechanic is about the player’s line of sight, some level features acquire a new dimension in Fatal Frame, for instance a window or any hole in the wall becomes the means to capture an important image, or even to be surprised by some dark figure through the other side. It’s a fine example of how a proper level design should serve the gameplay and not just compose a beautiful photography.
Fatal Frame has other mechanics as well, some more traditional to the action/adventure genre, like a progression hindered by the acquisition of further information and items, some puzzles or elements often used by the games in the survival horror category, such as a scarce supply of ammunition, which in this case is photography film. But there’s another aspect where the core mechanic is used to fright the player: the combat. Some ghosts charge into the player and the only way to fend the attack is to photograph
them, the better the angle the player gets the most damage she deals to the ghost. I found it a clever decision because it not only integrates the combat into the game’s core mechanic but also guarantees that the player is looking to the ghost’s scariest angle, giving the artists a reference by which they can build some really intense moments.
Now that we took a brief look of how the core mechanic and level design are able to produce fear and anxiety, a question remains: Why is this experience enjoyable? For this answer, let’s turn to anthropologist Roger Caillois and his studies in Les Jeux et les Hommes (Man, Play, and Games). One aspect of his study about the relationship of games and men starts with a model for organizing some forms of play, a classification with four fundamental categories:
Agón – Competitive Games, like counter-strike
Alea – A category where luck plays a heavy role, such as poker
Mimicry – Role-playing or make-believe games
Ilinx – An interesting category, in which play occur by inducing physical sensation of vertigo, like spinning around itself or a roller-coaster.
As Caillois explains, his last kind of play consist in those based on the pursuit of vertigo, an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception, to bring to himself an urgent sensation of panic.
It’s my belief that Ilinx is very present in today’s games, but frequently overlooked. Would adrenaline-pumping moments in online multiplayer games a facet of Ilinx in a play clearly identified as Ágon? Such affirmations require more study but I think it would be safer to classify fear-inducing elements as Ilinx. Playing to be scared is playing to lose the control of one’s nerves, to momentarily feel unsafe and in panic, same feelings of being in a roller-coaster, excluding the vertigo, but wouldn’t the vertigo be in service of the aforementioned feelings?
Those reasons and feelings can be applied not only to scary games, but to scary movies or scary attractions in a carnival as well, and that’s not a novelty. Losing and regaining control of your own heartbeat is pleasure-inducing indeed. Whether is the moment of losing or the moment of regaining we can’t say for sure, but that’s certainly fun!
Fatal frame is an example of how a different core mechanic can not only bring intense moments, but can almost create a game category on its own. Most games today share a few core mechanics, be it for engine or marketing restrictions, but it’s always important to keep looking for new directions. That’s the beauty of this job, there’s so much to be done and experimented!