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Sounding Scared

18/01/2010 Thinking Scared Gamer Article
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Sounding Scared

Familiarity nurtures a sense of safety, but it is a feeling that is easily broken. Every time I have woken suddenly to an unfamiliar sound or unexpected shadow is testament to this fragility, my comfort shattered by these ethereal apparitions. Games struggle to imitate this illusion. Those that can, in turn gain the ability to take it away. And being robbed of this security is far more affecting than being submerged in any horrifying world.

I only began to think about this recently when I revisited Siren: Blood Curse. Between initially playing the game and replaying it I stayed in a small Japanese village similar to that in the games. My original experience with the title proved unnerving, but after my time in village I found Siren's effects accentuated. Elements of the traditional house in which I stayed were recreated in the game, but there something unidentifiably wrong about the interpretation that created a new tension in me.

For developers the difficulty of creating familiar environments in this manner is rooted in the audience's experiences. It's a problem that is becoming increasingly taxing as games become more dependent on international markets and increasingly diluted.

By utilising a number of nefarious tricks the game lulls players into a false sense of security before shattering it.

Silent Hill is one series that has successfully managed to continually manipulate its audience in this fashion. It thrives on abusing its audience's complacency in familiar areas. By utilising a number of nefarious tricks the game lulls players into a false sense of security before shattering it - not least in the upcoming Wii release - Silent Hill Shattered Memories. This is effective because it doesn't simply rely on a single method, but continually layers these tricks on top of each other to perverse player's perception.

In a strange way Silent Hill hedges its bets by placing the action in America. It's a setting that guarantees resonance with a large audience, but also capitalizes on the proliferation of American pop-culture. We all have expectation of an American town that can create a sense of familiarity that can be broken.

Not content with imitating familiar settings though, Silent Hill also set about creating a sense of security by giving the audience time to become comfortable with specific safe areas. Silent Hill 4 gives the most concrete example of this by giving players a sanctuary in the form of their apartment. Each time I returned to this hub area I became increasingly accustomed to the safe haven it provided.

But then at the game's halfway point, this is shockingly perverted. Healing effects that the room had previously possessed stop and a twisted haunting begins to infiltrate what was once my shelter. Familiarity whipped out from under me.

But it was a fragile safety that the game readily robbed me of as the air raid siren sounded.

Every installment of the series manipulates environments in this fashion. For example, it trains players to feel almost safe in the fog filled 'light world'. At first these seemed alien to me as I entered the town, but as I progressed the twisted dark world made these brighter areas feel almost homely. I quickly found my initial fear dissipate as I realized that the swirling fog proved the better option. Long periods spent in this location made me accustomed to whatever I was exploring. But it was a fragile safety that the game readily robbed me of as the air raid siren sounded, marking the start of the fog's transition in to darkness.

Silent Hill's dark world toys with its audience by the corruption of the familiar. Even dirty school toilets began to slowly feel safe to me thanks to the refuge they provided from the surrounding horrors. Then hearing the siren I was left watching as the familiar light world twisted and warped, rusted metal and flesh transforming the toilets into something terrifying.

It was the acuteness of the contrast, taking me as it did from the assumed safety of a school and the toilet to this darkness, that made it more powerful than existing in the dark world alone ever could. If it wasn't for my experiences with Siren I could perhaps be convinced I was over complicating this. That I am subconsciously more scared of horrors in real world settings because they seem more possible. Siren however convinced me there is something more at work, something that relies on contorting my expectation and experiences to more deeply affect me. And in a strange way I kind of like it.

Written by Alex Beech

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Alex Beech writes the Scared Gamer column.

"Games connect us to exhilaration in various ways. I love mine to scare me. Although the shock, horror and gore are all pretty unnerving, nothing comes close to the sweaty palms of playing games that take you to ridiculously high places - InFamous, Mirror's Edge and Uncharted to name a few."

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