September 1, 2014

RPG Solo – A Very Cool "Genre" To Play

A few months ago I found this website called RPG Solo. It's basically a virtual GM with a general purpose open system you can use to play RPGs by yourself, using the hints and tips from the GM to guide your adventures.

Instead of playing an actual RPG adventure as we know it, and put myself as a PC, I experimented with using it as an assistance for writing Fiction. When you don't know where to start or what to write about because there's just too much freedom, restrictions are probably the solution you're looking for.

This is a short story I wrote using it just to test the idea, and also to support another article I'm writing now that will link here. The following excerpt is from said article:

You don't have to follow all their rules and actually put yourself in the position of a PC, but simple write around and dictate (yep) NPCs Actions, Events and Effects until you lose the next idea, where you can use the randomization to inspire you going forward, or when you simply decide to leave an outcome to be decided by a dice roll, simply to make things more interesting.

The blue text are outputs from the virtual GM, everything else is my textual interpretation and adaptation of the ideas. (Please don't mind the "quality" of the Story, I'm not a Writer.)

I recommend going to the RPG Solo website and trying it for yourself. It's very fun!




Sidereal Impasse

Bio-scanner.
Oppose.
Below average map.
Cheap alien artifact.
NPC negative.
Med-pack.

The setting is occupied gate involving high quality anti-gravity generator and burning observatory. Your quest is to return stolen technology to the swarm staging area. Trying to stop you is the demonic assassin skilled in planetary cartography. You are currently at the industrial research station.

— Here we are...

— Shut up, monster! — screams Mrs. Ferreira. The ferocious words come out inevitably punctuated by the lack of oxygen amidst the vapor leaking from the Engine's pipes, and from her swollen vocal cords. She has been screaming for hours.

Screaming with her crew, not with the woman in front of her. — "If it's even a woman!" — A quick reading with the Bio-Scanner would be able to answer the pertaining question in the back of her mind.

But she doesn't have much time to think about that or to go looking for the Bio-Scanner in the tools room. The young Andreas' arm is bleeding, pumping out dark red blood. Mrs. Ferreira is an engineer, not a medic, but she can tell that the color and pressure of that blood means no good.

"As if the sheer amount of it wouldn't be enough to tell how serious it is" — she thinks. She needs the Med-Pack, not the Bio-Scanner. Not yet.

As a matter of fact, the Bio-Scanner isn't even the second thing she needs. The first engine is collapsing, leaking vapor from the cooling systems everywhere. The main control system of the ship should be shutting the engine off to prevent overload. Should, but isn't.

The Universal Orientation System of the biggest Industrial Research Station of the human colonies, commonly called by the crew as "The Map", is right now, for lack of a more suitable word, lost. "The Map" is lost. The most advanced Orientation System ever put in a non-military space-station, completely useless.

— Such a bitter irony, isn't it? — commented young Andreas earlier, before the woman the emergency crew rescued from an escape-pod two days later teared his arm open with that weird cutting artifact she's now pointing at Mrs. Ferreira.

Andreas is unconscious, bleeding to death, and the first engine is about to explode any moment now, yet the Bio-Scanner is still there, in Mrs. Ferreira's mind. — "What in the word is this woman?"

— Yes, here we are. We're all on the same boat! — Replies Mrs. Ferreira, trying to talk the woman-shaped thing into some logic that only maybe, open some advantageous possibility later —  "Later, as if I had time for that..." — her engineer brain still trying to make long-term decisions even in an urgent situation like this one.

— Ship! — the woman replies with an unsettling semblance of tranquility — It's a ship, not a boat. As an Engineer, you should be able to tell the difference.

Mrs. Ferreira presses her jaw in disconcert. The monster is trying to get into her mind.

— Do you think that's a joke? If the first engine explodes, we all die! — She shouts promptly trying to disguise her anger into a semblance and tone of pondered seriousness — "I won't lose focus that easily if that's what you're thinking!" she almost says out loud, but still manages to separate her thoughts from her words — "Not at this crucial moment!".

— If you don't let me pass, and stabilize him, I cannot go back to the Engine to stop it. — Mrs. Ferreira keeps talking while trying to ignore her fears that this demon cannot be reasoned with. But she has to try, losing hope won't do any good. — If he dies, we all die!

Mrs. Ferreira is bluffing and hoping it sticks. She's not worried about her own old and achieved life, and would certainly give it up to save young Andreas, and certainly yet, she would proudly die to kill this traitor all in the same move. She doesn't care for the cost of the I.R. Station either, she only works for the Corporation because they fund her research. But the lives of the crew, which are many, clearly out-weight the life of young Andreas alone.

"Even if he dies, I still have to save everyone else!" — the simple thought of it scares her. As Chief of Enginery for twenty years, Mrs. Ferreira have always been responsible for many lives in the I.R. Station, as any error committed by her or those under her orders would put everyone in danger.

"Of course she won't fall for this bluff..." thinks Mrs. Ferreira. "It's such an obvious situation and I'm clearly the one in disadvantage here".

Assist.

The woman looks down on the unconscious young Andreas — Alright!

The Engineer can’t really believe her ears.

— I’ll fix the boy. You fix the engine — Says the woman with the tone of who's definitively settling a deal.

— You “fix” him? — Mrs. Ferreira can't hide her disgust for the choice of words — Do you think I’m stupid or what? — She can't tell if she's acting out of anger or simply being pragmatic in distrust of the murderous demon, but quickly writes the question out of her mind as it doesn't really matter right now — I'm not letting you alone here with him and go fix the Engine while you kill him and escape! — she concludes from her own words it was both, after all.

— Where would I escape to? You said yourself we're all on the same boat, dear. Engineer — talks the woman so calmly it seems she's even oblivious to the current state of affairs — This kid wasted enough of my time by attacking me and now the last escape pod has already been used.

The detached condescending words make the Engineer's blood boil again. She's ready to shout, jump, attack the monster and fight to the death. Nothing else matters. — "Wait," a thought stops her muscles now ready to do anything that comes out of it, "she means it?" — Mrs. Ferreira ponders in surprise. "It's unbelievable! The bluff worked!?".

Before Mrs. Ferreira has time to work out the certainity of those those thoughts, the woman lowers the artifact she's been pointing at her all this while and starts regulating something in it. Mrs. Ferreira stands confuse for a few seconds — "Should I attack her now? It could be my only chance! Or maybe it could be throwing my only chance away".

— So are you letting me pass or not? — her words seem to come before her actions — I have to bring the Med-Packs to stabilize him right now! — Urges her, trying to keep following the path of diplomacy since it's already been taken anyway.

The woman crouches and points the device at young Andreas again — There's no need for that. I got it sorted.

This time not only she can't sort if the time is for words or actions, her entire body is frozen with shock. A scream wants to come out of her lungs but the air stops dead at her throat, and what follows only deepens her despair.

A red flash comes from the device and the light involves the entire room, accompanied by a weird loud noise that quickly fades away bringing together all other noises with it. — "The fucking bitch killed him in could blood!" her thought's mixed between the sudden emotional shock and the necessary means to fix the situation with the Engine. "And I believed this monsters words once again" — thinks Mrs. Ferreira feeling guilty for what has unfolded.

The sudden flash of light is so bright she feels dizzy for a while. Her pupils forcibly shrinking with the disproportionate increase of light in comparison to the dim darkness she slowly got accustomed to after all these years. Everything went black for a couple seconds.

— This will do! — The calm voice of the mysterious woman breaks the sudden deafness caused by the noise — The wound is sutured and he won't bleed to death anymore.

Mrs. Ferreira's vision is only coming back again, everything is so blurry she can barely make up the general shapes of the woman and young Andreas in front of her.

— I did my part of the deal. He's fixed!

As her eyes re-adapt back to the emergency lights of the I.R. Station and the words from the strange woman reach her years, Mrs. Ferreira looks in disbelief while still trying to understand what has just happened.

— Now you fix the engine!

February 14, 2014

Fear Of The Unknown, Part 3


Continuing were the Part 2 of this series left, here well talk about the presence and imminence of horrors.

Presence

“Panic is the sudden realization that everything around you is alive.”
― William S. Burroughs, Ghost of Chance
Unknown Presence

Sometimes it's not that we don't know what something looks like, but that we don't know where it is, and that can be a frightening experience. On the contrary, keeping our eyes on the threat makes us feel more secure about it. By looking at the source of terror we have a steady stream of information coming from it about when (imminence), if (intention) and how (nature) it will try to do anything that puts us in danger. If it moves, we'll know right away and react on time. If we don't have access to that information source, we cannot reliably evaluate the situation, and our minds will try to make up for that, again, extrapolating the limited information we have.

The feeling of being hunted, being preyed upon, being conspired against. Unknown presence goes beyond the simple spatial meaning of the word and ties closely to the notion of intention. More generally it's hiding itself entirely, but it could be concealing a weapon (unknown intention) or disguising it's nature (uncanny image) and the principle is still the same: that if it's hiding something, it's up to something bad.

In the more literal sense, the unknown presence most often tied with an unknown imminence. If something is possibly preying on you, it can attack you from anywhere (presence) any time (imminence). For that reason, the line between unknown presence and unknown imminence can be very blurry at times. But the feeling of being preyed upon – which is the most obvious use of this tool – elicited by our natura survival instincts (Player-Mechanics) is not the only form of unknown presence, there are other ways in which not knowing the location of a threat can be used to keep players on their toes.

Example of unknown presence:
Slender - The Arrival launch trailer:
Slenderman: you never know where Slenderman is, not until it's too late.

When the situation is inverted, and the player is the one sneaking around, it's also of extreme importance to know the whereabouts of the threats one's trying to remain concealed from. Acting undetected is a situation where more than anything else, information equals power. The presence of threats and the presence of the Virtual Player-Character are very connected things, as the fear generated by not knowing the presence of a threat is caused by being unsure about how to avoid it.

By providing extra-sensorial sources of information (motion scanners, x-ray vision, understanding the alarm state, visualizing the foe's cone of vision...), Stealth Fantasy titles empower players with everything they need to overcome the puzzles presented.

Clear light and shadow delimitations convey to the player where the binary safety and danger spaces meet each other, enemies are set up to contrast with the environment and walk in repetitive and predicting paths (known presence), and flashlights portray the angle and range of their vision.

In our specific case, where our focus of study is trying to understand how the Dynamics of fear emerge from the Mechanics of imperfect information – Fear of the Unknown –, what we have to look for is how the lack of that power affects the informee's (Real) mind-state when present in a context of (Virtual) danger and (Fictional) horror.

So let's see what that perfect information does for the player first, ignoring for now whatever are the Aesthetics used for providing that information. When given perfect information in a stealth-action situation, the players are able to understand the borders that divide safety and danger, the limits of the space they can use and the amount of risk they're subjecting themselves to at any given moment.

As an abstract and independent Game Mechanic, avoiding a saw blade and avoiding a line of sight are no different (not until the player fails at it). Both are about staying in safe space, avoiding dangerous space and making your time in risky space as short as possible.

The balance between safety, risk and danger, between safe space and unsafe space is the core point of stealth, concealment and, in our case, fear of the unknown presence. When the player doesn't have perfect information, the line between safety, risk and danger become blurred (vague) and the player can't be sure anymore about how much is the balance between safety and danger is in the situation. That specific feeling is the basis of everything we're studying here. One of it's more aligned interpretations of Fear Of The Unknown is the sense of unmeasurable risk.

The less information one has to act upon, the more thrilling that act feels. It can be either exciting or stressful depending on the Mechanics (using "excitement" and "stress" very lousily to categorize many things here, "fear" falling the side of stressful ones). When you're willingly taking a gamble for the fun of it it's more exciting than when you're forced to compromise planning and safety to fit a rushed ticking clock. Imposing a time for the player's action usually results in a more stressing version of the thrill.

But when the free will ("player agency") is not about time, but about space (or resources), a different thing happens and the weight of responsibility kicks in and suddenly being in control of one's own fate is the very source of stress – that's what makes Video-Games such a perfect format for Horror, as only this format can mimic life not only in Form (Fiction) but in Function (Virtuality). When you already checked every side route and realize the path that progresses the game is the only route left to take, to venture through the Unknown, that's scary.

If the player can simply blindly trust the designer/writer that nothing bad will actually happen in the Real or Virtual layers of the experience, and can simply keep going forward into unknown territory recklessly, the weight of that responsibility is gone. What happens is that again, there are no unmeasurable risks to be taken if all the risks are considered under a known threshold of "balance" that assures Virtual safety, even if Fictional danger still takes place – up to discussion if Plot Armor and Fictional danger can actually coexist, but since it's a pure-Fiction philosophic discussion I don't think it's worth pursuing.

The same is true for assured Virtual danger, in case of successive failure that turns fear into frustration by taking the unknown imminence factor away by rendering players cynical to the possibilities of success. Without hope there can be no fear. If the players stop caring about what will happen next – whatever be the cause for it – then you cannot threat them with unforeseen consequences anymore.

Note that it's an aspect directly related to the player's experience and is very dependent on who your target audience is, what expectations they have, if they have an understanding of game balance and so on. Some times it still clicks, some times it fails miserably.


This puts us back in the "Survival Horror vs. Power Fantasy" spectrum and it's Game Design directives: should the player be informed for sure where the line between safety and danger lies? There's no one right answer, it always depends on what the design is trying to accomplish. When Fear of the Unknown is the goal, it makes sense to cripple the information given to the audience.

Vague Presence

Limited information, the word vague means for us here, and such is the vague presence. Not so little information to fall into the (unknown but acknowledged) unknown, but not enough to render the player sure (even if wrong, in which at the point of discovery of the error it'd become uncanny) of said presence. That way we can consider any evidence of presence, existing or not, to be of vague nature.

The vague presence is what can be described as "the unproven evidence of a threatening presence".

Common sense says if you can't see or hear it right now, you don't know where it is, which would be a case of unknown presence. But specially in the case of Video-Games as they are currently, just hearing it or just encountering other evidences of a presence, and some times even actually seeing it are often not an assurance. There are at least two main sources for that:

1) In the realm of Virtuality everything is possible, and laws of Reality don't necessarily apply. Players minimum experience with Video-Games know that smoke-and-mirrors design is easily achievable and very common in the Entertainment Software medium, and that many of the stuff that supposedly should be an evidence of presence of a threat is nothing more than a "poltergeist script" that can't do much more than a few loud noises and barks; and

2) The Horror and Suspense genres of Fiction come with clichés and tropes known to the audience, which give them a very good idea of what to expect from a Mystery, Suspense or Horror story.

The combination of these two aspects makes otherwise strange and otherworldly things and events to be taken as normal within the Virtual and Fictional world of a Video-Game. Players know that art horror and terror will try to scare them. Players know weird things are expected to happen in Weird Fiction, that's why they're reading/watching/playing it to begin with.

Those are aspects that supposedly should fall into the uncanny presence category in the realm of Reality, but under the rules, tropes and common trends of Horror Art in general and specially Video-Games, they're wide acceptance as "natural" things render the known and the uncanny into territory reserved to the vague.

Important to make here is a quick distinction between "emergent unknownness", when the player simply doesn't have track of the threat's whereabouts – as studied in the unknown presence section –, and "scripted unknownness", when false evidences (poltergeist scripts) are given to the player. This section refers essentially to the latter.

Giving clues about the presence of a threat but holding back visual confirmation allows the player's mind to imagine the proximity of a terror by completing the information puzzle, while still being unsure of it's actual presence (vague). This works both ways, some times for making the uncertainty frightening and some times for causing the player too see clearly through the smoke-and-mirrors design and stop caring about the fake threat that just wants to scare the Real Player-Character (the player) but not to hurt the Virtual and Fictional Player-Character (the avatar and the character).

It's a tool that works well for many types of players, being specially effective when they're not much under the effects of Medium Awareness. For the most seasoned and self-aware players, the smoke-and-mirror design can lose all it's magic at the first realization of nothing being actually there (presence) and all that's going on is a combination script and audio tricks from which no Virtual (read "Real" inside the Virtual world) consequences can arise. Also, if there are Fictional-only "consequences", those are already decided in the player's fate by the interventionist god writers and there's nothing the Real Player-Character can do to stop them from happening, the players might ask "why worry about those anyway? whatever will be, will be".

Ultimately, the goal is to make the Fictional world feel Virtual and the Virtual world feel Real. However the designer can pull that, and it works, that's great. Also, not having much experience with video games can do wonder for the first experiences you get to play. There is an audience segment that is just getting to know the hobby, that don't have the same burden of knowledge most of us do, with fresh and unspoiled minds to what's possible, and we can and should totally target them too in some of our works.

I remember back in school, my friends speculating about who or what takes the dead zombie bodies away in the first Resident Evil while you're in another room. Such a mystery remains unsolved.

When used correctly, the vague presence is a very powerful form of the Closed Door device, which makes complete sense because the Closed Door device is also a form of vagueness and unknownness: a missing link of information that the player's mind will extrapolate (Player Mechanics), rendering the whole experience (Fictional, Virtual and Real) closer to feeling Real (Dynamics) than if the complete information was simply given, which would fail to create immersion (Dynamics).

I know some of you might dislike the "immersion" word due to conflicts about what it means in terms of depth and nature, caused by the common confusion with Cognitive Immersion (which's what I mean), Sensorial Immersion (The Matrix), Deep Immersion (not knowing it's The Matrix) and Liquid Immersion (ha!).

While the use of the vague presence can be to make it seem like there's "something" around (and how it can fail if not used with care), the best effects come from the application where it goes beyond adding a something to the existing Virtual world, but when it adds a Fictional world to the something.

And here's a question: the extrapolated portion of the Virtual world, created by the player's mind to fill the information gaps and give consistence to the rules, is it Fictional, Virtual or Real? The fact that it's hard to define only hints at how powerful it ultimately is. It goes beyond Video-Games, being present in Film, Comics, and Literature. It's what makes all Fiction feel Real, and it's the best goal to look for when using any tool.

Example of vague presence:

I saw something... It is right there... in the outside.

What worked a decade ago doesn't necessarily work today, but the principle still remains and can be adjusted to fit todays savvy player's perceptions in order to weed out the designer's hand and give the Virtual world a sense of natural and seamless continuity that really feels like it goes beyond the play-field.

Again, it wouldn't be fun if it wasn't challenging.

Uncanny Presence

Other case of seemingly uncanny presence turned into vague presence in the realm of Video-Games is the relationship of the uncanny with the idea of disguise. At the heart of it, that's what the uncanny is and why it scares us: something disguising itself as something else is always creepy and dangerous. It cannot have good intentions.

The line between the idea of something disguising itself and of something disguised by design is another blurry spot when it comes to things that happen on the bridge between Real and Fictional (it is, the Virtual). In which case, while the uncanny image is seemingly natural in aspect and keeps things clear, something trying to disguise it's own presence is a product of its behavior as opposed to it's nature and can be looked at as either vague or uncanny, all depending on how the player perceives it.

True uncanny information is not supposed to make sense. In fact, it makes too much sense for things that cannot be. Some times to be more than one thing (as in the "doll or human" uncanny image case).

Needless to repeat, once stablished by the medium that the Virtual rules and the Fictional rules are not the same (Ludo-Narrative Dissonance), there's no such thing as "impossible" anymore, and the otherwise uncanny can sometimes become the "normal", some times even when the really weird things happen.

But the uncanny is never alone, is always comes after the known and subverts it, and that's why it still works. As mentioned in the first part of this series, the uncanny is many times viewed in media as a form of "plot twist", but it's not necessarily the only form of it.

For those reasons, a common use of the uncanny presence in the Virtual world of Video-Games is the "ghostly appearance", when the player sees something that isn't really there. A ghostly appearance can have many different Fictional explanations, from actual ghosts, to visions, to hallucinations and so on, but Virtually they're the same thing. First the players sees something or someone spatially positioned play area, which's sufficient information to conclude it's there (known presence), then latter comes the realization it's not actually there, or has never been, and the previous information is proven wrong (uncanny).

Coming from the "plot twist" connections of the tool, it's one that works better the first few times it's pulled, before it becomes a "known absence" or "known false presence" for the informee, which can make it either fail as a form of uncanny presence, but also gives the design a new opening to subvert the current status of information back by making the "false" appearances be real the next time around, reestablishing the uncanny presence.

Example of uncanny presence as ghostly appearance in Video-Games:
First Encounter Assault Reckon:
Point-man sees Alma multiple times through the game, usually as a ghostly appearance, but sometimes she is true, either in spatial presence or as an invader of the Fictional character's psyche.

If "weird stuff happens in Horror Fiction" and "Video-Games usually break consistency rules" are unavoidable tropes, it only means "normality" and "rules" aren't forms of the known that work well to be simply subverted into the uncanny. But information is limitless and there's always a new jumped-to conclusion to twist.

Using uncanny image effectively is certainly easier than to do so with uncanny presence, that's because Fictional and Virtual image are essentially the same thing, but presence can be more dissonant between worlds layers. The lack of Mechanics in Fiction (specially the uncontrollable forces that are Player-Mechanics) makes everything easy and allows the designer to pull many forms of uncanny presence by using them exclusively in the Fictional world as, with anything Fictional, it's no different (nor harder) than using the same things in any other art-form capable of portraying Fiction.

Example of uncanny presence in Fiction:
The Village (2004) (Spoilers)
The "ones we don't mention" exist. Then they don't really exist. Then they actually show up on the screen. But the character that "sees" them is blind, so maybe they're only in her imagination. Or maybe it's not just in her mind and it is actually there... is it? This is a tricky example to truly replicate in the Virtual world, as you can dictate a Fictional-Character's mind, but not a Real-Player's one.


Isaac's mind is disturbed and he keeps seeing his dead girlfriend. At all times, the Real player is aware of it, but for Fictional Isaac the hallucinations are very real the moment they happen. Some times, there's a Virtual aspect to it, when the girlfriend's actions is in fact Isaac's, another Fictional character or a Virtual enemy, in which case a Quick-Time Event tells the player what's happening.

Clearly the great goal and the most interesting challenge is to perfectly blend the Fictional and Virtual world, making everything that "happens" to do so in both, and feel as Real as possible to the player. But when design is somehow constrained out of that option (for whatever reason it might be), the Fictional uncanny presence stills adds to the experience, and should still be employed given the opportunity.

Some times, simple but clever tactics can be employed to achieve the effect of blending worlds, without going to extremes. Making what happens in the Fictional character's mind to exist as real in the Virtual world is a way of doing that. Other options are to use the software to read' the player's reactions to appearances and judge if he treats them as real or not, and go for the opposite in order to subvert his expectations.

Example of Fictional and Virtual uncanny presence brought together by clever design:


In Dead Space 3, co-op player's are transported to different versions of the Virtual reality, by hallucinations fueled by each Fictional character's own internal demons, and each Real player sees a different situation developing in their screen, while still faced with real Virtual conflicts.

Imminence


Unknown Imminence

Fear of unknown imminence is the fear of the unknown future. More than just the consequences of a risky action, but the unforeseen and unexpected event that's out of one's control or when you know something will happen, just don't know when and you cannot impede it.

Following the norm of analyzing the most common forms first, we can observe that usually in Horror Video-Games, what the players don't know in this case is the moment something will jump out or make a loud noise with the purpose of startling them. The "jump-scare". There are other forms of jump-scare usage that don't necessarily involve something jumping at the player (floors collapsing bellow the avatar are another common appearance) but the forms of holding and releasing information are the same.

The use of this tool is most common in Horror Video-Game segments that strive for startling the (Real) player. This is done by submitting the player to a core loop of anticipationsurprise and relief, of which the first one (anticipation) usually compromises most of the play time, followed in time by the third one (relief), while the second one (surprise) starts and ends very quickly.

Sometimes when this tool is used it does so while wasting the potential of an otherwise powerful moment of reveal, spending it into a mere jump-scare when the information being revealed could have had a greater shock and more lasting impact if not obfuscated by the quick-come-quick-go startling effect. There's a physiological limit to how much emotional response the human body can sustain at any time, it's not like our blood could be completely diluted by Corticotropin (we'd literally die of fear way before that), and there's also a psychological limit of how much each layer of consciousness can focus at any given time and more urgent matters will overshadow more delicate ones. The Real adrenalin pump of a jump-scare is immediate, and can easily take away the precious attention a shocking Fictional moment might require from the player to understand the depths of the horrors he's in contact with.

This is a tool that's very easy to make use of, and that's effective for what it proposes to accomplish, but that quickly falls into the traps of losing all it's positive effects when combined with the Genre Savvy Player-Mechanics. The biggest downside of the jump-scare design tool is that the Dynamics that arise from those Mechanics can fall into the meta-game category, or in other words, into a Real-world game detached from the Virtual and Fictional worlds.

Once the player is focused on a loop of Unknown Imminence (anticipation, surprise and relief), it leads to him/her to fear the possibility not being prepared for it when it happens. Exactly what happens or what jumps out of where isn't really important to the player. It's all about being or not being prepared for when it happens. The player then engages – consciously or not – in a self-imposed Meta-Game of either: a) trying not to be caught by surprise by the game; or b) overplaying his surprise with jumps and screams.

The player starts to "fear" (anticipate) being startled by the Video-Game (Real piece of Software) instead of being scared in the Video-Game (Virtual and Fictional world). By the point the player is meta-gaming, he's not in the Fictional and Virtual slices of the Video-Game's world anymore. That's an important distinction to make, and it's equally important to define what the design is aiming for. Both are valid design goals, what matters is if the design achieves what it's actually trying to.

While jump-scare design can raise your heartbeat and pump adrenaline in your system, it's not exactly the same as Fear, and not the same as fear inside the Virtual and Fictional world, but instead of Apprehension in the Real world about the Video-Game as an entertainment product and disconnected from the Virtual and Fictional world inside the Video-Game. Apprehension can become Paranoia but it's also not exactly the same as Fear – unless, or course, you have Hormephobia, then that's a different story.

I want to point out the fact that it seems very clearly to me, that horror movies seem to have a lot more acceptance from usage of jump-scares than Video-Games do: jump-scares in movies are "cool" and "scary" while in Video-Games they're boring, lame, lazy and cheap. I guess that tells a bit about the difference in audiences and audience expectations, which in my opinion is good that Video-Game audiences put the bar higher and don't accept lazy design. I won't dive much into that, just leave it here for consideration, but also add to the note that horror novels and other written stories don't have that card in their repertoire, and their strength lies in other, more immersive and elaborate tools.

But not everything about surprise and jump-scares is flawed. They work as, though very short-term, fear catalysts because the human mind allows it. Humans, in general, worry too much about things that will never happen, and about things that already happened; some do so to a degree bigger than others.

Once you get surprised and see what just "jumped" at you, the shift from unknown to known is too fast and brings too much information at once. This is what we call a shock. Despite the very visceral and immediate carried information about intention that it's something attacking you – which initially works regardless if it's correct or incorrect information, but that we as a fit species also adapt to and quickly learn if it's just trying to scare us instead –, it also carries the revelation that we did not have sufficient information about it coming to happen prior to the moment.

This causes the fear of unknown future (Paranoia) to now be boosted with fear of unknown past. Yes "fear of the past" and "unknown past" are both illogical sentences, but that's because "worrying about the past" is also illogical yet humans do so. Neurotransmitters simply defy logic, and exploiting these openings remains an effective strategy of Game Design until the audience adapts and develops immunity to such strategy.

Sometimes, the fear of unknown past can come alone. That's when a jump-scare is not preceded by Paranoia (the future version) which means that the player is not expecting it. It can be good or bad depending on the player. The potential to break immersion and pull the player into the meta-game is the same or greater, it'll depend on how self-aware the moment will be for player. If the the player thinks "the 'Game scared me", or "the 'Game got me" (even worse, this means the meta-game is already going on), it's a failure; if the player thinks about the moment within the Video-Game's world, it's a success. That is, unless it's the design goal anyway.

Being scared by a Video-Game and being scared by the world of a Video-Game are very different things, the former only involves the Real dimension of the Player, the latter encompasses the entire Player-Character construct in the Real, Virtual and Fictional dimensions.

It's important to note that not every shock classifies as a jump-scare. But the usage of cliché jump-scare sound effects and similar tricks can bridge the gap and degrade a shocking moment into a jump-scare even if it doesn't classify at first. It's like screaming, swearing or pulling the troll or nazi cards in a discussion: even if you might be initially right, you're acting like people that are wrong do (i.e. being emotional), therefore you're wrong regardless. Over-playing a shocking revealing moment into a mere jump-scare throws lost of good work and potential down the drain can be a huge waste.

Scared players.

While it's true that some players like to pretend to be surprised, immersed and scared by anything and some just blame the consumer instead of the designer for when it doesn't work, I prefer to think it's always our fault when it fails. Making Video-Games is a hard game, and that's a good thing: it wouldn't be fun if it wasn't challenging.

Use at your own discretion.

Vague Imminence

As with all the vague packagings looked at so far, the vague imminence is the event in which the informee is teased with a possibility of something happening and an approximation of the idea about how close it's getting. It's still not known, but not certain either.

Contrary to the unknown imminence, this is not the kind of suspense where you cannot see it coming (even though in practice the opposite is most times true, because clichés and patterns are predictable in nature) and, more importantly, what's coming. That's the key point that differentiates the vague imminence and the unknown imminence: you know what is about to happen, but not sure if it will, and what precise moment.

This tool is very commonly used in Fiction media, specially effective in film with it's visual and cut language, and the characteristic of Fiction of being able to give the audience information that the characters – or the enemies – lack.

Example of Fictional vague imminence:

In the classical shower scene of Psycho (1960), the audience (Real) has information the character (Fictional) doesn't. The approaching moment fuels the audience's fear of the imminent events.


In the also famous kitchen scene in Jurassic Park (1993), this time the audience has information the antagonist deinonychus lack. At any moment now, the ferocious hunters could spot the kids. 

Clearly signature of Spielberg's style, the vague imminence is present in many of his films.

The uncertainty of the outcome combined with the acknowledgement of what the result of such suspense, and how close (imminent) it is to be fulfilled, is the source of the audience's fear.

The difference in tangibility of the imminent danger created with the vague information contrasts with the effect of paranoia created by the unknown counterpart. The context created by the source of danger helps pulling the audience into the Fictional world (as long as plot armor doesn't go to far to build disbelief), avoiding the effects of meta-scariness characteristic of the jump-scare tool employed by the unknown imminence.

By this point you must all have already notice the trend of stealth-action situations directly tied to most of what the tool is about. This is a truly powerful combination, specially when it gets across the line where Fiction ends and Virtuality starts. The stream of adrenalin caused by the act of sneaking around is a strong, Real addition to Fictional Aesthetics of the horror atmosphere and the Virtual danger of getting caught by the enemies in the Video-Game's world. What results from the combination of all those factors is a thrilling experiential product only Reality can surpass.

Example of Virtual vague imminence:

Even with full top-down view and super powers, the unpredictability (unknown imminence) of randomized patrol paths, added to the knowledge about how close it is to happen, make this game a very thrilling stealth-action experience.

Uncanny Imminence

Across the analog path that goes from unknown to known lays the vague, many variations of it, and there's a form of Suspense that works exactly by moving along that path, from the unknown and towards the known. At some point it gets so close to known that it becomes uncanny in nature.

I like to call it "bold suspense", because it's a very confident tool of horror design. When the subject of horror is a tangible thing, it uses known or uncanny image and presence throwing away many tools and leverages given by the most powerful assets of unknown horror design and goes all out on the confidence that the subject is all that frightening in and of itself once the tricks are all dropped. It's also a staple of the climax pacing event, which eventually all horror and mystery lead to.

That form of suspense is what we could call "dramatic pause". First, it doesn't have to be a literal interpretation of a binary pause, but rather a form of delaying the outcome of the horrific situation. There are multiple small variations of how to pull it, like the "waiting horror" that stands on there, which deals with uncanny intention (and other natures of uncanny packaging) to delay the threat's move, and the "slow moving horror", which slowly get's closer and closer to the victim character/agent.

The "waiting horror" has a direct link to our primal survival instincts (Player-Mechanics), by mimicking the behavior of wild predators, in the preparation for a  deadly lunge and in the creepy act of stalking a prey. It also increases the sense of danger to have a pragmatic predator opposed to a mindless one.

Packs of wolves and hyenas derive many of it's efficiency at survival by minimizing their own risks, making them able to catch preys stronger than themselves, otherwise impossible at a direct confrontation. Like wolves and other canines, vultures also calmly follow their preys for days, beating them in an endurance contest, patiently waiting for them to extinguish their energies in other to maximize the effectiveness of the attack, only committing when the success is guaranteed.

Similarly, the "slow moving horror" hints our instincts (Player-Mechanics) into the dreadful acknowledgement that the predator has it all under control, while also capitalizing in the "ticking clock" embedded Mechanic and the Dynamics it creates.

That's another example of the importance of keeping Player-Mechanics (which happen in the Real world) in mind when design horror.

Ability to strategize and confidence to act calmly make any predator a much more deadly encounter, and this is something we know at an unconscious (and irrational) level. If the rest of the experience does it's best to remain immersive.

I won't get deep into this subject here but, in my humble opinion, "immersion" is what happens when your mind is too busy playing the game / reading the book / watching the movie to remember it's one. Different people in different moods have different amounts of parallel mind processing capacity. As long as an experience can exceed that capacity and nothing too wrong and obvious forces it's way into the priorities, all the Real-world thoughts will be filtered out of the most conscious layers of the mind, and that's how immersion is sustained.

Don't let your players have spare resources laying around so that they can be used to see things you don't want to be seen, and don't let said things climb the priority queue. Keep your players too busy in the Virtual and Fictional worlds to afford thinking about the Real one, and they won't. How much is "busy enough" varies from player to player, some are so used to the most basic things that they become second nature. Some can be engaged enough (sometimes even overwhelmed by) just holding forward and looking around, while others can be rocket-jumping through the stage and not even think about it while they do so.

Examples of uncanny imminence:


Creepy bastard.

It's true that slow enemies are a compromise of balance design in horror games of early generations due to the limitations control schemes, but with them came many positive side effects lost in today's games due to advancements in technology (as mentioned in the vague image section of the Part 2 of this series). But the thing is, we don't necessarily have to lose those tools, just try to understand them and find ways to make them work in today's and future's context.



I bet you didn't expect to see Rayman in a horror-related article, but those players certainly did expect what was coming at them, slow and steady. The closer it gets, the more the players panic and end up screwing up something they'd easily solve by staying calm.

In the Rayman example above, the two-dimensional side-scroller view allows the players to measure the approximation of the creepy slow-moving hands with precision and the closer they get, the closer the initially vague imminence moves towards the known, painting the whole moment into the realm of uncanny.

The most important characteristic of the uncanny imminence (Mechanics) is the eerie atmosphere it gives to the scene (Dynamics), as it's the reason why we make use of the tool to begin with. Being so, it's use in horror goes beyond the simple aspect of using the "dramatic pause" device in combination with known presence and known image counterparts. The effects of any of these tools can be leveraged by the combinations of others, as in the next example:


The uncanny imminence of the slow approximation and uncanny presence of coming out of the TV and of teleporting around at times are combined to increase the effects of both, giving a final result that's better the sum of its parts.

The video above is also a good example of not failing into that trap of the use of jump-scares possibly undermining the shock effect of a climax moment. If the scene started with Sadako (she's not called that in this remake) jumping "boo" out of the TV, that would have the audience jump momentarily, but the lasting effect of the scene could have been reduced into "that moment with the jump-scare".

Known Imminence

The known is similar to the uncanny but with – or rather, without – a twist: it's inevitable. When caused by emergent Mechanics, the known and the uncanny imminence can be two future possibilities of the same present, as the player might have a chance of turning things around to impede the events. The possibility space of a Virtual world when compared to the rigid nature of Fiction, makes it complex to define the differences between what will definitely happen and what can be impeded in the last moment.

Spielberg creeps into the examples again...

In the Jaws scene above, the known nature of the shark and today's audience awareness of the genre of Suspense in the medium of film certainly make the effects of uncanny imminence fade to a big extent (nobody said it's magical or will be trivial to use) into known territory (the audience can predict what's coming and there's no twist), but the composition of the scene fits the principle of the tool.

An attempt to create the same scene in Virtual form would bring the situation onto the line between known and uncanny, as it'd be on the player's responsibility to hit the shot that will save him from that situation, with the possibilities premature success or failure, where design tricks to avoid both can always compromise the perception of fairness and the immersive potential of the moment.

Anyway, the uncanny imminence of the shark is not the only imminence factor in the scene. It's the sinking ship, the last safe spot against the predator for which water is home, the true protagonist of the inevitable. Sure, killing the shark solves the real problem, but the ship is going down and nothing can stop it.

If uncanny imminence is "bold suspense", the known imminence is "bold anticipation". It's the core difference between disarming a bomb and running away from the blast that defines the difference between the uncanny imminence and the known imminence tools, and it's the difference between seeing the bomb's clock ticking down or not that separates the known and the unknown. It's the knowledge of the inevitable outcome.

If you've seen this sequence from Mission: Impossible 3, you might remember how this drone is portrayed as an unstoppable force of destruction, slowly maneuvering around to come back unleashing the next attack, with the aura of "inevitable" created by the known imminence.

Conclusion

Fear Of The Unknown is a Dynamic, the result of ripple-effects created by the combination of the Player-Mechanics of deep ingrown human and animal psyche that exist to increase our chances of survival in the face of danger, known or unknown, Game-Mechanics that wake those instincts up to work in a simulation of Virtual danger, and Fictional Aesthetics that contextualize the cognitive connections of those instincts at work to create the negative space for our minds to fill, bringing Virtuality and Fiction into Reality.

Each subject of information (image, presence, imminence, nature and intention), each information packaging and twisting (unknown, vague, known and uncanny) and each dimension of the Video-Game's narrative (Reality, Virtuality and Fiction) have their own characteristics, pros and cons, and functions in the system (Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics) that makes the all-important player experience possible.

All those factors, beyond creating the Fear Of The Unknown also contribute to the reduction of cognitive idleness, to get rid of opportunities in the players brains to look behind the curtains and spoil the magic of the media.

Finally we reach the end of this series that took the span of three months to come out. I wish it would have been better, but hope it was inspiring to some of you smarter than me to come up with more polished and effective tools we can use to increase the quality of our designs.

I'm currently finishing a big presentation of the internal pitch of our soon-to-be-announced horror project, which also involves the A.I. system I've talked about in a previous article – and which I plan to release a kind of "tech demo" soon. Investors' meeting next week's Saturday, wish me luck! :)

Boo!!!

January 4, 2014

Fear Of The Unknown, Part 2


In the first part of this series we tried to identify and define three (of many possible) abstract forms of incomplete information (knowledge) packaging – the unknown, the vague and the uncanny – and three common subsets of the subject of information – about image, about presence and about imminence.

The point of this breakdown is that it lets us look at horror from an MDA point-of-view and take advantage of the Mechanics and Dynamics of horror with more control over the resulting Aesthetics, without having to only work on the Aesthetics directly.

This second part will try to study a few examples of each crossover from the previous picture and also include their relationships with the known and the nature of things.

The known is the sufficient and supposedly correct information about something (not all the information, just sufficient information). The nature is a common package of archetypical information that helps the informee complete (against the vague) and filter (against the uncanny) bits of information, using that archetype to turn the otherwise unknown into known.

Another parallel information subject concept will also be introduced here, the intention, which's not part of the table even though it's relevant in Horror and Suspense because I found it hard (the shame) to qualify it independently from the other three aspects and packaging forms because it works more like a Dynamic while the others are Mechanics (i.e. it's a resulting effect instead of being one of the building-blocks). That's because, while intention exists as a real thing, its virtualization in the informee's mind is a product of his own judgment (feel free to contest that).

Intention, in the case of Reality (things that exist or happen in the Real world) and Fiction (things that are made up), is commonly introduced as an unknown, vague or uncanny packaging: there's always the possibility of a hidden agenda or ulterior motive, always. But in Virtuality (where Fiction meets Reality) it is usually delivered into a known packaging (which is a mold we want to break here): assuming there are enemies, who the enemies are is almost always clear to the player and, if not, it's considered a failure of conveyance in Game Design, supposing Trial and Error is the only way to find out what the intentions of Virtual agents (from Gameplay) or Fictional characters (from Writing) are.

For this article's consideration (it should be it's own article but we'll need it here, so here are some of the very basics of it) let's assume the Player is both a Character and a set of Mechanics that exist simultaneously in the Real, Virtual and Fictional worlds in a Video-Game story (story as in sequence of events, not plot/writing). Even if there's an authored avatar in the game, it's only the Fictional layer of the character, and the player still fills the Real and Virtual slots of the player-character construct. Hereafter we'll be calling the Mechanics created by the systems designer by Game-Mechanics and the Mechanics that naturally exist in the human players by Player-Mechanics. Player-Mechanics exist before a game is created and remain after the game-session is over. Without a player there's no game, therefore there's no game without Player-Mechanics, nor Game-Mechanics that aren't affected by Player-Mechanics.

Also for this article's consideration (yet another subject for an entire article), let's keep in mind that the Player is a Character that fits under at least these two storytelling tropes: Medium Awareness and Genre Savvy. One upside of the Medium Awareness is that being aware of the unknown is possible because players know that a Horror Video-Game will have the unknown in it. One downside is that the player knows a Horror Video-Game will try to scare her and when he doesn't know is when it's the scariest even more so when it's unintentionally.

Ok, let's go.

Beware that this article contains spoilers for some Video-Games, Books and Movies! 

A Dog (or not) In The Alley

This is a practical series of introductory examples to warm up (also if you want to avoid some of the spoilers, these made-up examples can fit the gap):

  • If I tell you there's a dog in the alley, and assuming I'm telling you the truth, what I'm giving you is the known nature and known presence of the subject. From there on you know it's a dog, and (most likely) you know what dogs are and what they do, yet it's unknown to you what kind of dog it is, so the idea you have of the dog still characterizes with vague image and unknown intentions.
  • If I show you a dog in the alley, assuming it's an event under Reality's (or realistic Fiction) rules, I'm giving you the known image and known presence of the dog. From the known image you have enough information that you will use to extrapolate the nature, size and potential threat of the dog, but it can't yet give you the intentions of the dog (unless they are telegraphed by it's behavior or body language towards you).
  • If I make you hear howling down the alley, you have the known presence but unknown image and vague nature. It might be a dog, or it might be a wolf, or even a werewolf. You might be able to tell based on the pitch and loudness of the howl that it can mean a wolf or a dog and it's size and age, but that's assuming I, as the creator of the moment, understand those matters as much as you do, and that I intended to use the correct and seemingly logical kind of howl for the moment. Maybe your character is under the effects of drugs or lowered sanity and I got a dog to sound as a wolf to reflect how scared and paranoid you are and whatnot, which means you're receiving wrong information from your character's senses and mind. Or maybe you're even hearing things in your head, which turns it into an unknown or uncanny presence.
  • If I show you the shadow of the dog projected on a wall in the alley,  I'm giving you a vague image and known presence (even if imprecise in space, there is a dog, you're just not sure where exactly) of the dog, which gives you information on it's vague nature by lack of further details (maybe it's a dog, or a wolf, or a coyote, or a fox... are there hyenas here?). If the shadow never moves, then it could be a statue or a pile of trash that makes the shadow look like a dog, so it has a vague presence (maybe there is a dog, maybe not). If the shadow disappears improbably fast as you briefly blink or look away, then it's leads to a conundrum between a vague presence (did it enter a hole or just got away from the light or got behind something?) or an uncanny presence (was there really a shadow or am I going crazy?), and reinforces it's vague nature (what other animal could make that shadow and move away so fast?) or switches it into an uncanny nature (no animal is that fast, so is it really an animal or is it some kind of haunting or demon?), and puts it's intentions into vague territory (did it hid because it smelled my scent? did it run away or is it sneaking up on me now?).

That's a lot to process very quickly I know, but it's the basis that will help understanding the rest of the article and it's examples.

Now enough of dogs (or not) and alleys. Let's get to horror!

Image


Unknown Image

As previously observed, the word "unknown" is often used interchangeably with "unseen" when talking about Horror Video-Games, which points to the subset of unknownness of not having information about the looks of the subject: the unknown image. From that interpretation we could say that what Lovecraft meant to say in his famous quotation was that the things we fear most, are the things we don't know how they look.

While it's a leap of logic depending how you look at it, when looking at it from the fact he was a writer and specifically the author of The Colour Out of Space, which's a very convincing practical proof of the the quotation we're using as a basis here, it seems like one fitting definition for starters. In a story told by words you're never sure of what something looks like (image) without a very technical and precise description, or a straight naming of what the subject is (nature). The writer can put the terrors right in the face of the POV characters and still not let the reader know exactly what it is, letting his imagination float about to create a terrific atmosphere even with something as simple as a dog in an alley.

Jumping from Literature to Video-Games, it makes sense for a medium that heavily uses the participant's vision as it's primary avenue of conveying information, that the first thought to cross our minds is that the unknown must be that of which we haven't received graphic information from. When a Video-Game puts the player through a long start of not having a glimpse of whatever it is the player is supposed to fear – which often involves making use of sound effects and poltergeist-scripts to keep a sense of event density in the Virtual universe – unknown image is the primary form of unknownness (lack of information) the designer is making use of.

This is one tool that's mostly effective to the unspoiled player (just as everything else, possibly, but even game designers can feel really immersed in a Video-Game world eventually), which makes Game Designers working on sequels very likely to lose it as a tool from their belts given the genre of the IP. Another characteristic of using the unknown image device is the way it builds up expectations. While it can make the beginning and bulk of the experience intriguing and exciting, it does so at the risk of having a disappointing conclusion that doesn't meet such expectations.

However, both the effectiveness of the mystery (unknown image) and of the reveal moment (known image) might have less to do with the imagery itself than we first assume, and more to do with the amount of information a visualization of the subject conveys. Being a species that relies so much on the vision to collect information about the world (and being most Video-Games as we know them now a visual-heavy art form) we're often quick to come to conclusions once we put our eyes upon something. It's just human nature (Player-Mechanics).

Visual information is commonly considered by our brains to be of high value ("a picture is worth a thousand words"), so once enough of it is received (when we have a clear look at something) we tend to assume that we already know enough (the known not all information, but sufficient information) about a subject. That's why players tend to lose all the sense of fear of something once they finally get to see it, even if the extrapolated assumptions about the nature of the threat are mistaken (it's still known even if it's wrong).

The weakness of this tool is that it can only be used once for each threat acknowledged by the player as a new entity. Once the threat is fully seen, it can't be unseen.

Examples of unknown image:
Excerpt from A Colour Out Of Space, by H.P. Lovecraft (SPOILER):


Then a cloud of darker depth passed over the moon, and the silhouette of clutching branches faded out momentarily. At this there was a general cry; muffled with awe, but husky and almost identical from every throat. For the terror had not faded with the silhouette, and in a fearsome instant of deeper darkness the watchers saw wriggling at that tree top height a thousand tiny points of faint and unhallowed radiance, tipping each bough like the fire of St. Elmo or the flames that come down on the apostles' heads at Pentecost. It was a monstrous constellation of unnatural light, like a glutted swarm of corpse-fed fireflies dancing hellish sarabands over an accursed marsh, and its colour was that same nameless intrusion which Ammi had come to recognize and dread. All the while the shaft of phosphorescence from the well was getting brighter and brighter, bringing to the minds of the huddled men, a sense of doom and abnormality which far outraced any image their conscious minds could form.


Lovecraft inspires dread in the reader without ever giving clear description of the subjects imagery, and constantly hinting that maybe it has one, but nobody that has seen it will ever be able to describe it because their minds will never accept what their eyes laid upon.


Side note: there are some History descriptions, which I failed to find now to link here, about the fact that when Colombo and Cabral arrived at the Americas beaches, the ships were virtually invisible to the natives. They could see and understand the Portuguese and Genoese sailors arriving in boats but could not "see" the caravels they were coming from. That's because such a sight was so alien to their minds that it was ignoring the view or taking it for something else more familiar. Only later when explained, they started to acknowledge the sight of the ships.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the water level (SPOILER):

The water monster doesn't have an image, it allows Grip and co. to explore the best of it's known presence (uncanny if you think it's in the protagonist's insane mind only) and known imminence (you can see it's speed, slowing coming close to you, this can be a lot scarier than unknown imminence jump-scares if done right).


Vague Image

The designer can deliver the information in bits and turn the unknown image into vague image by showing only parts of the subject at a time before the full disclosure, in an attempt to raise more questions than answer (remember that the unknown must be acknowledged to be feared, as noted in the first part of these series) with each deliver. This is a very commonly used tactic in Horror and Suspense movies, novels and graphic novels. By using this tool, the information packing follows the path: unknown image becomes vague image, and then becomes known image.

The vague, as previously noted, is the incomplete information about the subject, which is not just as little as unknown but neither enough so the nature can be identified and then used to fill the gaps accurately (unless we're transitioning into uncanny, but it comes later). In the case of vague image, it means the player has only got access to partial information about the looks of the subject, which in turn causes her to have different ideas about the nature of the threat, leading to a wide range of possibilities in her mind (hence "vague").

The vague is a pacing tool.  It makes the unknown more interesting with it's positive space (information disclosed) and delays the reveal of known by creating mystery with it's negative space (information withheld) to keep the audience's brain stimulated all the while the piece makes the transition from unknown into known. Being so, it's hard (not impossible, nothing is impossible) to successfully make a horror piece without making use of the vague. The entire Suspense genre is based around the vague and the Mystery genre also makes heavy usage of it (and heavy usage of the uncanny too).

A common form of vague image used in the Horror genre, specially in graphic media, is to show (or describe the visualization of) small parts of the subject with a close-up (using the limits of the screen as an occlusion tool), using light and shadow in a way that only part of the subject can be seen in the shot, or using in-scene occlusion of objects (walls, grids, vegetation...) to make only the desired part of the subject visible. Very often it's teeth, tail, wings or eyes – things that make non-human nature clear to the audience. It's a horizontal slicing of the vague as you can say that from the POV of different layers of information, the detail becomes known in itself, but we're treating the subject as a whole, so the whole is vague when only details are known and they're not enough to extrapolate and access the archetypical nature of the whole.

Example of vague image by detail disclosure:


With close-ups (screen-limits obscurity) and the cage's bars (in-scene obscurity), Spielberg gives the audience only bits of the subject's image, allowing known image of the details to compose the vague image of the whole. Suspense is the main use of the tool.


A different usage of the know image is the vertical blending of the image of the whole, where instead of disclosing clear information about details to the informee, we give vague information about the whole. This is very often done by using blurry imagery, shadows or silhouettes.

Example of vague image by uniform vagueness:


Shyamalan teases the audience with Suspense and ties it up with a jump-scare, then reloads the fictional tape to show the imagery in a more confident manner, without jumpy sound effects and sudden pop-ins this time around, using the uniformly vague image to keep the audience in a state of uncertainty about the alien's image (vague) and presence (uncanny, as it could still be a fake tape at this point).


But there's also another very notable way of achieving the same result, one that's more present in Video-Games than anything else, with a track record of being present for a long time and be fading out lately: low fidelity graphics.

As the graphical technologies used in real-time rendering evolve and open more possibilities for designers to increase graphical detail about everything, less and less detail is left for the player's mind to fill. Also, image doesn't exist in a vacuum. The more graphics information the informee receives, the more information the informee receives and the more information he can extrapolate. The more information the informee has, the more power she has. Pixel sprites, limited color palettes, low resolution textures, stuttery framerates. The eternal unknown.

One doesn't have to dig far into the Internet to find multiple players talking about how 'games where scarier when graphics were less advanced. That's a side effect of it not being possible to fully disclosure information about the terrors earlier Horror Video-Games presented players with. When the time came to finally let the player know what was it he was facing, the amount of information was still not enough to let the player have assurance about what exactly he was facing.

Think of this as a game design magic: you take a percentage of the graphical information away and in turn, the player's mind fill it with more than what was taken out. It's more than just curiosity about the parts of the subject that are not shown, it's the addition of details and aspects that wouldn't even be possible to describe, all created in the player's mind. When 100% of information is given, there's nothing more that can be added unless you bring in a twist saying that part of that information is wrong (the uncanny) so you can rewrite it. But what if we cut 5% and in return, the player fills it with enough possibilities that turn the remaining 95% into 150% of the original total? Well, that's exactly it: magic! Profit!

Examples of vague image by low fidelity graphics:
Silent Hill 2, fan-made AMV (SPOILERS):

The quality of the polygon detail and texture resolution and contrast makes already disturbing imagery to acquire a further surreal and nightmarish aspect, distancing the player's mind from thoughts of making comparisons with reality and filling the gap with his personal fears.

Lone Survivor (Trailer):

Pixel graphics allows the players to fill in details about the vague image creatures and to have uncanny image impressions about a perceived creepy smile in the character's face.


Another form of low fidelity graphics is low color fidelity. Low color fidelity was very common in earlier graphical generations of Video-Games by usage of color palettes.

Nothing new about early Video-Games having color limitations, but as far as graphical art forms go, Video-Games are not the only one to face graphical limitations due to technology or budget thresholds. Two other media are good sources of study on the subject: film and graphic novels. The interesting thing about them is that the limitations common of each are abstractly the same (limited information in the color sub-layer of image) but they're different in detail.

First let's talk about film. For a long while, films have been black-and-white. Monochrome/Duotone is a more powerful limitation of graphical information than other forms of color palettes encountered in Video-Games from previous generations, which means the negative space created by it's usage is increased in comparison. A simple lack of color can heighten the sense of unknown to very high levels.

Examples of incomplete visual information (vague image) by Monochrome/Duotone, in Video-Games:
Let's Play of 1916 Der Unbekannt Krieg (HUGE SPOILERS! The 'game is free, small, and can be played on the browser. Please play it instead if you haven't already. It's totally worth it):

Monochrome and Film Grain are used to increase believability of simple graphics
 by letting the player fill the gaps. Powerful tools to increase immersion.

Announcement Trailer for Outlast:

Outlast keenly makes use of greenish Duotone to create uniform vague image,
by having the player use the camera's night-vision to see in dark places.


Here's a personal tip: go and get any Horror Video-Game you have, or even any Horror, Mystery or Suspense movie, and play it with your TV, monitor or GPU saturation (sometimes "digital vibrance" or just "color") set all the way down to zero – optionally, set bright slightly down and contrast slightly up.

If it's just a Mystery or Suspense film instead of Horror, or if it's only marginally scary for a Horror 'game, it's an even better subject for this experiment. I won't describe how it affects immersion and negative space. Go and try it by yourself. I play all my Horror 'games in monochrome now. It's worth it, trust me.

And if you develop or publish Horror 'games, here's a request: please consider giving us graphical options to play your games in Monochrome.


In the case of graphics novels (and manga, I'm considering them together here), it's usually limitations in budget (of both printing and artist's time) that cause them to keep a limited number of CMYK channels and halftone spectrum (not all color percentages print well and if artists mostly work by hand or with limited time, chances are they won't go into much gradient accuracy, using other artistic techniques for shading and texturing).

The example I'll use here are the same examples I'll use in the next point; please wait a little longer.

Known Image

At some point, the information about the image of the subject might become completely known, and depending of how this is dealt with and what that image is, the informee will be able to use this amount of information to complete the big picture. Information is power.

It's not to say that the known cannot be scary too, it can and should be strived for. The known image can be specially scary when the other information packaging forms are also in the state of known. You know what it is, where it is, and when it's coming. It's a confident design and it's like confidence in anything else: hit or miss.

The advantage of the unknown is that the informee's brain will always be extrapolating information and bringing to the table things of specific horrific value to each person in question. This makes it easier to work with and gain time. The climax of a horror story might inevitably come to a point where everything is known, yet it's supposed to be the most frightening and disturbing moment.

Now one way to keep a bit of unknownness in the moment of reveal is using the uniform vague image tools previously mentioned (low resolution, monochrome, etc), but that's a bit of cheating. Of course using everything we can is good, but trying to separate these aspects is important to not just rely on tools and avoid the importance of having an ultimately great backstory and horrifying subject of information to begin with. Only then we should start using these tools to present and withhold information in interesting ways.

As examples of Horror in this case (and the case of monochrome graphic novels), I'll recommend the work of my favorite manga and Horror author: Junji Ito (the original manga before the movie adaptations), specially Uzumaki, Mimi No Kaidan and Gyo (and the short The Enigma Of Amigara Fault). He's a genius of exploring multiple scary possibilities a story can have and also coming up with awesome creative stuff, everything we're studying here basically doesn't apply to him, when you think you saw and know everything, there's always more. It's obligatory to anybody working with Horror. No spoilers here, go read his work.

Uncanny Image

Remember I said that for fear of the unknown to exist, the informee must be aware that important information is lacking? Making the informee aware of his lack of knowledge is what the uncanny excels at. But it doesn't stop at that, there's a very valuable characteristic of the uncanny: it can dial the known back into unknown. Because of that, many ways of using the uncanny can be interpreted as "plot twists", but those are not the only ways it can be employed.

Note of that the uncanny is based on time, even if you introduce two conflicting pieces of information at once, the receiver will first take one, then make conclusion, then take the other bit and experience the challenge of the previously taken conclusions. Mori's robots don't look both human and not human at once; they look like robots and the suddenly seem to be human and have life, and then again they don't. The information never feels right. Back and forth.

It's not necessarily a one-way path for the brain to take, as you can remain continuously challenging the same conclusions back and forth between two possibilities, but you also can just go once and remain with the uncertainty created by the first challenge and work from there. In the case of Horror art works, the point of start can be the known (this is awesome, right? the known is not the end yet, the horror can always come back).

The usage of the uncanny image is very common in Japanese horror. Little girls in white clothes down the corridor, women walking on the street at night, the human figure is always present in horror stories. You know what they look like, but are they what they seem by their looks to be? That's what the uncanny is: the presence of conflicting information. It looks like a little girl, but it's not one, in turn it can potentially be absolutely anything and, most importantly, we know that.

Examples of uncanny image:
Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Dracula, by Bram Stoker (SPOILERS): 


As I leaned from the window my eye was caught by something moving a story below me, and somewhat to my left, where I imagined, from the order of the rooms, that the windows of the Count's own room would look out. The window at which I stood was tall and deep, stone-mullioned, and though weatherworn, was still complete. But it was evidently many a day since the case had been there. I drew back behind the stonework, and looked carefully out.
What I saw was the Count's head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had had some many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow, but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall. 
What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature, is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me. I am in fear, in awful fear, and there is no escape for me. I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of.


The first sentence of the last paragraph is self-explanatory.

Dental training robot Showa Hanako 2:

Not an art-horror work so I won't analyze it as one, but see for yourself...


This concludes Part 2. It seems it always gets bigger and I end up slicing it into more and more parts, but presence and imminence are smaller and will fit a hopefully final Part 3. The horror is almost over, I swear! See you in Part 3.

Plot twist! I'm back! Just to reinforce my recommendations to check Junji Ito's work and to try playing 'games and watching movies in custom Monochrome color. Do it!