The Theology of Horror Games: Introduction (Part 1)

I find myself both baffled, fascinated, and frightened to death by horror films, horror video games, horror stories, and just plain reading about it. It’s a strange thing to investigate, but I imagine there’s some part of me that wants to know: why do we fear? Why am I fearful of some things and not others? This series will be personally motivated on a number of levels, so rest assured these conclusions may not apply to you at all. Join me, though, and we may discover things about ourselves we may or may not want to know!

jump-scare

Whenever I am confronted with jump scares or anything of the like, I tend to end up in a heightened state of awareness for things that don’t actually exist. I find this extremely strange, consider that I’m a Christian. Why should the mundane things of life scare me? What puts you into this mode of thought after receiving a jump scare? Is it sinful or am I merely worrying about things that don’t exist and aren’t there?

Of course, Christianity is a religion, and I’d be remiss in saying that spiritual forces do not exist in the world. Things not known, and things unexplained, frighten us all, especially in the modern world. We believe that technology puts us in control, and horror reminds us that we do not hold all the power. Forces far beyond us with rules both simple and unexplained could wipe us out in an instant without us even knowing why. It’s why H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror resonates with so many, and continues to entertain believers and non-believers alike – perhaps we’ll all just stop existing from a being that does not even care that we exist. Perhaps it’s all a doubtful dream in the end, and the awakening of beings beyond our comprehension will spell our doom. In a way, Christianity exists as an existential “no!” to that sort of idea with a creator God who loves and cares for the entire universe – even the parts we don’t know. In effect, Christianity says that someone, if not necessarily us, remains in control and looking for our welfare. The world of Christians hasn’t seen Jeremiah 29:11 enough, right?

11 For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans forwelfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.

But, you know, it does actually work when you know God tells Jeremiah that He will remain Israel’s God even after the exile. God will fulfill His promises, even after many years. That sort of reliability comes only from an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being we can barely comprehend ourselves (see: the Trinity). In that respect, Christians do not fear and feel horror within this context.

On the other hand, most of our horror-related media does not frighten us in the same cosmic respect; in many case, the target of said horror looks like an average person doing average things. A couple of college students driving into the woods pick up a hitchhiker. Culture forever will remind us that this, in fact, always appears a bad, bad idea that will involve you running away from weapon wielding supernatural maniacs. An office space crawls with spooky noises at night; a supernatural entity walks the halls. It even varies from culture to culture, and transmissions from one context to another rends the horrific display much more frightening from the culture shock. Who knows what terror lies in wait within the normal day-to-day? Well, probably not a strange supernatural girl who frightens you to death. This is why I can’t play FEAR, much as the gunplay entertains me greatly!

None of this renders us with paralysis; after all, much of it remains fictional, and we know this. Our bodies react, and then peter out within the next few hours (or days) for most people. Those of us who dwell on it uncontrollably (such as, well, ME) can make it linger on and on, but it’s rarely an event. Rather, we use the trigger of a natural fight-or-flight response for the purpose of entertainment. What a strange world in which we live! Horror media exists everywhere, from films to video games. In fact, people like PewDiePie and Markiplier on YouTube highlight a gigantic, burgeoning horror indie scene from around the world. People from places like Brazil and Japan also make their own brand of scares with great effectiveness, and the trend continues.

Horror games merely come from a long line of people wishing to scare each other silly for the purposes of fun. This notion seems so strange to me that we now manipulate a genuine feeling that existed since time immemorial. It makes you think about what else we’re doing that also co-opts our feelings for the purpose of eliciting an emotional or physical response. Pornography, for example, comes to mind almost immediately. You trick your body’s sex drive into excitement through the use of sexually-charged imagery into arousal mode (or whatever they call it nowadays in psychology). Same goes for most of our entertainment, and video games look no stranger to this phenomenon. The on-screen display does elicit some modicum of expectation and desired response to events occurring therein.

Just take it from Ben Ruiz, co-developer of the combat action game Aztez; his game contains reams and reams of violence and satisfying combat in equal measure. He’s designing a combat system, so when you read this it makes sense (NSFW language ahead):

A critical part of the human brain wants to overcome obstacles. We all know this to be true, because when we successfully overcome something we experience a distinct sense of pleasure. That is our brain sending a message to the body that “Hey yeah that was fucking awesome you should do that more because it make you even more fucking awesome and more likely to LIVE”. Our highly evolved neurological systems have come to understand for themselves what is good for you, and this reward process is an iconic example of this. Recall now what it felt like when society graduated you after all that work, or when you experienced your first major professional success, or when you narrowly avoided that terrible thing because of a smart decision you made. So what does this have to do with beat ’em ups?

Because the right beat ’em up (I can’t stress this enough; you have to be playing certain ones) is pitting your mental resources against a gigantic array of obstacles in the form of simulated opponents. Overcoming them means you have successfully utilized your mental and physical resources. This feels good physically because you have defended yourself (even in simulation) and your body wants you to know that.

aztez-1

Yep.

Apparently, I play such combat action games for the same reason, even know I don’t know it at the time I’m playing it. I enjoy pitting my mental resources against heinous obstacles and emerging victorious. I, admittedly, like to control my environment and all the things therein. I do not often play well with others, and their failings and downfalls frustrate me totally and utterly. It’s horrible to think that way, but it usually comes out only when playing difficult video games. These stylish character action games in the vein of Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, and God of War put me in control. I own my failings and strive to improve as I play more and more. The success over my foes gives you quite a rush. That’s a wonderful feeling – even if I now feel a little guilty about it!

Of course, horror works on the exact opposite principle: a lack of control. Most games strive on regularity, specifically the ability to comprehend and coordinate static systems to your advantage. If things don’t work consistently, they invoke frustration and complaints, mostly due to bad “controls” or “design”. And yet, here lies a genre that controverts the entire notion on which we categorize “good” games. In many way, they controvert common game terms.

resi1psx_003-large

To take the progenitor example, Resident Evil (the original) uses pre-rendered backgrounds and fixed camera angles for dramatic effect. Due to this set-up, which places the viewing lens under the control of the game’s whims, a new controls scheme emerged. We now know these as “tank controls”, due to the unwieldy motion it produces. You must turn before you can run, and you must RUN from things that want to harm or kill you (probably the latter, most times). Limited resources, dim lighting, and a lack of spatial awareness further compound it. Lastly, and the most important element of video game horror, comes from who’s actually in control: YOU. This makes the events infinitely more frightening, and entirely engaging throughout. The mystery remains yours to solve, whatever it may be. Game overs do sort of ruin the tension when you know what’s happening, but that’s part of the nature of the form.

What makes these experiences work so well? Are they useful, and should we engage in it? Psychology certainly provides some answers; so does the Bible.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.