The Art of Ambiance in Horror

I recently reviewed Phasmophobia and its underlying strengths and weaknesses. The purpose of that review was ultimately to touch on whether or not the game was worth playing for most people, and whether the mechanics were used well enough to warrant a 14 dollar price tag (they absolutely were).

But what I didn’t touch on was the art direction of the game, the art direction in horror as a genre, and the nature of ambiance in horror stories. I think that decision was a bit of a miss, so I’d like to do that today, and I’m going to start by talking about horror films in the 80’s.

Horror’s Birth

You couldn’t really put your finger on horror’s birthplace if you wanted to. The genre as a whole could be pointed all the way back to stories mothers tell their children to keep them weary of the wild unknown, and even before then horror was used in the stories we tell ourselves as humans to keep our fear of the dark alive.

What you can do is point to the birth of the horror genre in film. And even though we can go all the way back to the late 1800’s for that, I’m going to get started in the year 1978 with the release of Halloween.

Strode!

Slasher films are synonymous with gore, jump scares, and a good time in the theatre. Any time I picture Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream all I can think about is cheesy one-liners and a lot of hack n’ slashing. Blood everywhere!

The crux of these films were, in part, the gore. The idea that dismemberment and bloody faces would be showered over a screen in front of the viewer was a scary thought for audiences back then. Because of this innocent sense of dread those early films had on audiences, and because of the fact that they lacked the modern day “Get me the fuck out of this theatre.” effect that films are known for today, many people think that these old flicks just can’t hold a candle to contemporary horror.

In part, that take isn’t incorrect, but in another way it totally is. Here’s a scene I’d like you to take a look at.

Now riddle me this, Aurelion Sol. What horror film today has the sheer nerve to make a scene like that? I totally understand that the scene is objectively hilarious today, but the fact that Halloween had Myers stand there like a half witted-knob in broad daylight while quite literally half-succeeding at hiding behind a bush speaks to its confidence in being able to manipulate the audience further on in the movie.

That confidence, that tone setting, is a seed that was planted in this era of film making that we can see today. Let’s take a look at that evolution.

Horror’s Evolution

Not two years after Halloween did we see a far more effective use of this tool in The Shining. Now, for everyone who hasn’t seen the movie, you can probably only roll your eyes at yet another reference to the film. And I understand that you can’t be bothered to see something that was made over 40 years ago, but also, you should probably go see that film now, so, I’ll see you later.

For the rest of you, take that Halloween scene above and apply that principle into this film; The Shining takes the idea of introducing a looming danger in the same way Halloween does. The difference here is that The Shining obfuscates it. Jack Torrence, played by Nicholson, is obviously an antagonist of the film by the middle of the story. Early on, however, its completely unclear what the threat of the film might be.

Hell, by the end of the film, you could still argue that the antagonist of the film isn’t as simple as being one person, but more of an idea, or a history. That aside, The Shining takes what Halloween did (note, I didn’t say invented) and applies it with a broader brush that’s seething with intent.

The horror of the film, straight away, isn’t that The Shining has introduced a threat, it’s that it hasn’t introduced a clear threat at all. In fact, audiences need to re-watch the film multiple times over while reading scene by scene essays about the understand exactly what’s happening and why.

A haunting? A madness? A calculated plan? Nothing at all?

Again, its obfuscated. And because of this, the horror of each scene is multiplied ten fold. This is because the monster of the film isn’t any one thing, its an ambiance.

You, the reader of this article, just had someone or something close a door in your house. I don’t know which door it is, and I don’t know what side of the door it was on when the door closed, but it closed the door all the same.

You’re not in any more danger now than you were before you read that paragraph, and yet you feel like you’re in more danger just knowing that something is coming, or waiting (and it is actually doing one or the other, I’m sorry to report). You might even feel compelled to get up and check just ‘because’. The horror is in the ambiance, is the point. Not in any real antagonist. Don’t check the bathroom.

I’d like to say that this film accomplishes something that every contemporary horror film tries to match pace with, and that’s to elevate itself to a

Greater Piece of Art

The Shining is a horror film, and horror films are known by general audiences to be made to scare, and sometimes have good-ish writing.

The truth is just the opposite in today’s world. And during its age, The Shining bucked trends by becoming a piece of commentary on something, or many things, or nothing at all. It’s a poem and a song, its a horror film, and some people think its satirical in some ways, all at the same time.

The Shining is a piece of art with horror mixed in. And because of this film, people, especially coming of age directors, were able to grasp some forgotten reality of life in film. That life isn’t just the standard film genres, its also horror, for every one of us, at some point. And that’s why horror is now a standard film genre.

Midsommar is a film about the loss of life, grief, and the way we rely and abuse those around us to cope with the tragedy that befalls every human being. It uses horror to draw out the overbearing nature of holding onto that loss, but also shows the way in which others around us can use that loss and vulnerability to get what they want.

You find a civilization’s outright delusional practices and their wisdom met in step with every single individual’s own strengths and flaws. Sometimes these practices and flaws, both of individuals and of the societies they belong to, are so realistic and so awkward and obviously misplaced that its embarrassing to look at, even on a distant screen. And this is by design.

Midsommar is mostly completely almost entirely fleshed out with those narratives: of individuals plaguing what could or could not be good intentions with their own child-like inaccuracies. And those inaccuracies expand themselves to reveal their nature on a societal level. And Midsommar does this without being pretentious. The film is more afraid of what its depicting than it is above it.

Its a greater piece of art that uses horror as one of its many tools, and its horror, much like The Shining‘s, is implied through ambiance more than its shown directly through visuals (although Midsommar doesn’t shy away from visual horror). You feel something wrong, you hear that something is wrong, but you can’t see what’s wrong. Neither can the characters in the story, and their ignorance is matched by yours, step for step.

This is a feat that was created by those older films we talked about, and its only aided by a century of films evolution and story telling skill mounting on top of itself. Halloween isn’t, in my opinion, nearly as good a film as The Shining. And I’ll say that The Shining can’t accomplish as much as Midsommar does by virtue of not having as much evolution in tech and style.

Something is in the Air

We return to Phasmophobia. The game greets you at the beginning of every match with empty wind or rain that doesn’t do much for anyone of sound mind. It’s just rain, its just wind. Upon entering the location of choice, though, the sound dampens. The air halts, you can almost feels the cold of the house you’re wandering (or desperately trying to find the exit to) seeping into your face, all through audio. Something swirls around you, is it distracting, or is it malicious?

Again, its the ambiance tormenting you. But this time, Phasmophobia has what I would consider a great advantage over the aforementioned examples: It’s a video game.

Movies take the audience for a ride and try their best to put them into the movie’s scenes. Its difficult, but can be done with enough skill from the direction and cinematography. Video games, on the other hand, cannot help but force the audience to put themselves in the scene. Not only that, but the audience is the scene. When moving through a house in Phasmophobia, your character makes all of the decisions you make by default. He or she reacts just as you do, and so you cannot help but immerse yourself in the horror. Immerse isn’t even the right word. You can’t help but become tortured by it.

When a movie displays proper creation of a horrifying setting or sound, its up to the audience member to try and place themselves in the world and understand what’s happening.

When a video game displays those same attributes, it isn’t up to the player as to whether or not they get to take part in every tidbit of horror. They don’t get a choice. Not only are they forced to see reactions to the world around them that directly mirror their own, but they are forced to go through that difficult experience with their own effort and mental fortitude.

A movie pushes you along, but a video game opens its doors and lets you walk in, if you can handle it. And Phasmophobia really makes you want to be able to handle it.

I recently got my hands on Resident Evil: Village

And I won’t ruin the game for you, but I found myself next to a life-sized doll that I had to interact with, okay?

She sees you

Now, in any film where this was a situation the protagonist had to deal with, the effects it would have on the audience would be dampened too much to warrant this kind of mention. But in a video game, or, more aptly, in this video game, the situation is one of the more terrifying I’ve experience in any medium.

The room that houses the doll is an empty, dry, and a hostile location. There may or may not be things there that can harm you (you really don’t know), but you do know that you hear doors in the distance that keep slamming every so often. And sometimes these doors sound a little louder, a little closer, than before.

Additionally, you have to leave the doll room temporarily to progress with the game and continue solving a puzzle that the doll is key to. In short, you have to leave the room and come back. Will the doll still be there? You definitely want the doll to be out of your life, but on the other hand, its MUCH better if it never moves, wouldn’t you say?

All of this is experienced at a human’s pace. That is to say, you experience it as slow as you approach the doll, interact with the doll, and are able to solve its puzzles. And also, you notice that in some rooms near the doll, there are these lockers. What are they for? You interact with them and find that you can actually open them up, stand in them, and hide. Why on earth do you need to hide? And was that door that just slammed in the distance an actual door or just ambiance?

You jump in the locker and wait there for 30 seconds, not sure if you even needed to, or if you’ll ever need to do that again. But the developers put the lockers there, it has to be for a reason, right?

You start heading back to the doll’s room, and swear you see the outline of a figure moving as you approach. In an instant, the figure is gone.

Take That Exact Experience

And apply it to a film. Does the character move in the same way the entire audience would? What about the way he or she interacts with the doll? How about how long the he or she takes to solve the puzzles? Does our protagonist even notice the lockers in the other rooms? What about the figure?

A good director can answer all of these questions, and do it well. But no director can make a film that alternates its content based on who’s watching. It will always be the same film, even if people experience it differently. But a video game will be an entirely different kind of story depending on who’s playing, and its characters and villains (or lack thereof) will change depending on how said player handles each situation they’re confronted with.

What gaming needs, now, is a renaissance the likes of which film got in the 80’s with The Shining. Perhaps its actually having that right now, or maybe its already had it, and I’ve missed the plot. But if it hasn’t, what we’re in for is a collection of games that push the limits of what a horror experience is supposed to be.

I believe, in time, that gaming will show itself to be a true story telling medium, the likes of which film will struggle to keep up with, when done correctly.

Just do the evolution, baby.

GLHF,
-E

Phasmophobia, a Review

After getting my fix on the new Resident Evil game, I found myself in a need for more horror. Since going outside was too real of an option, I opted instead to pick up Phasmophobia.

The first-person ghost-hunter sim features multiplayer and solo gameplay, with an xp progression system that allows for purchasing of items that help with various aspects of the hunt. Each item allows you to detect different pieces of evidence to finally decide what kind of ghost it is. When you have all three pieces of evidence, you win. Another cool feature is the ability to use your voice as a gameplay mechanic. Want the ghost to appear for some reason, or move an object? Say “Show yourself.” into your mic, and BAM: you have to change your clothes again after a demon turns off all the lights by sprinting at you.

Seems simple, and to be honest, it really is. But the charm in this game is set right into something that’s hard to put your finger on. It might be seeing your truck loaded up with your own personal loadout, or it might be those moments where you use your experience to put two and two together and catch that ghost, or it could simply be the well designed atmosphere.

Whatever the case, Phasmophobia finds a way to rise above its simple design using very little to become one of the better repayable horror games on the market.

The Pros of Phasmophobia

You can pack all of the identifiable ‘good’ things about this game pretty neatly together. The atmosphere is always at least a little spooky, even for people who have clocked well over 1000 hours into the game. The fun of the gameplay is tied to your own wit and attention to detail, so there’s never a dull moment caused by the simple controls unless you’re really not in the mood to hunt ghosties.

The various ghost types and their respective attitudes they can have make for fresh games. A Poltergeist who is aggressive will be chucking items around you all night, but a Poltergeist who is shy might only nudge an item here or there, leaving you wondering if you’re dealing with another kind of ghost altogether. In such situations, going back into the haunted location to try to find one more piece of evidence is risky, but makes for the more memorable moments in the game, as you’re at the most dangerous point in the match at that point and are vulnerable to attack.

The Ghost Journal, complete with evidence and photo slots

It goes without saying, but playing with friends is very fun. I’ll give Phasmophobia this, though: If you’re into the game and really want an immersive experience, the game might actually be better played solo than with friends. By design, it makes for a far more difficult, and scary experience.

Although limited, customization of your character’s looks and item loadout give the game some amount of your own personality behind each Phasmo match. As aforementioned, each game starts you off in a safe truck, with items mounted on shelves all around you. Seeing these items you hand selected and knowing you did some prepping, at least for me, is a very satisfying thought to have while playing. I give Phasmo points for this, but maybe you won’t.

It’s worth mentioning that game the game supports VR, if you enjoy torturing yourself.

The Cons of Phasmophobia

Right off the bat, it has to be said that the skill cap of the game isn’t very high. There’s a lot of knowledge to be taken up in the game, and that knowledge is almost limitless, but the skill cap itself starts to top off fairly quickly. Within 20-100 hours of gameplay, depending on how well you intuit the game design, you’ll find yourself recognizing how to handle most (if not all) situations you find yourself in.

Additionally, there isn’t really a sense of item management in the game despite buying your loadout pre-match. This is because you can take three items out of your truck and use them to find evidence, drop them, go back to your truck and repeat. Once you leave the match, all of those dropped items return right back to your inventory, so long as you don’t die. Maybe this is a pro for some people, but I feel the game is definitely missing a ‘hardcore’ or ‘realism’ mode that requires greater use of item management skills. In some ways, the feeling it gives you is simply lacking and easy as apposed to ‘quality of life’.

Lastly, one of the cons you’ll find in this game that pulls you out of the immersion is the side missions. They’re uninspired, have little to no effect on how well you capture evidence, and only exist to serve as ‘bonuses’ to your end-game payout. It feels like wasted potential, seeing as those side missions could have been more tied to natural gameplay; finding the homeowner’s belongings, performing a ritual against specific ghost types at the end of a match, and things of that nature.

Instead you’re given missions like ‘get the ghost to walk through salt’ which feels more or less like the easiest payday of your life as you drop salt near the ghost and walk back to safety. Other times you’re given missions like ‘escape the ghost during a hunt’. Which means waiting around for the ghost to hunt you (which can take anywhere from 1 minute to 15, in extreme cases), getting the ghost to find and chase you, and escaping it. Difficult, and not guaranteed as the game might bug out and not detect an escape properly.

In short, these Phasmophobia side missions pull you out of the horror and put into a more ‘game-y’ mindset. A mindset the makes you see the forest for the trees, like watching a horror movie for the fifth time. Not quite as scary, not quite as immersive. In this game, that feeling doesn’t just come from the gameplay itself, rather the objectives the game puts in front of you. The problem is hampered by the fact that you can’t always / usually get the ghost to commit to actions you need him or her to.

Need to snap a photo of the ghost? Saying “show yourself” might work. Or you might be waiting around for 10 minutes after already finding out what kind of ghost it is just so you can grab a 50/50 photo during the hunting phase. Boring, but for the completionists, feels required to make the game difficult enough beyond just gathering evidence.

Altogether, this game really only has cons you if you like to dissect design from the top down. If you enjoy casual horror gaming without the need for optimization or too much meta-gaming, this game has little to no downsides aside from a lack of late-game progression.

The Verdict

Phasmophobia is a good time for casuals and meta gamers alike. The horror is always at least creepy enough to make your look away from the screen from time to time, and the gameplay loop is sure to keep you coming back for games well into months of playing, if you can get past the fact that its developed by one dude who can’t always catch all of the bugs you’ll likely come across.

If you like horror, get this game. If you’re not sure if you like horror, get this game. $14 on steam as this articles post date.

8/10, great game. Closets OP.

GLHF,
-E

Among Us: Why Efficiency is Detrimental for Bad Games

There’s a number of takeaways I’ve found since playing around with Among Us for the past month. None of which have anything to do with praise for the game. Yes, it can be fun. Yes, it can be fresh if you haven’t been outside in a couple years. But it’s also a game of minimalism, purposeful simplicity, and straight up annoyance when played in a public lobby (and sometimes elsewhere). To bluntly summarize a month’s worth of experience, it’s sometimes just a touch above okay when played in small doses, but usually just terrible, and you can hate me for having that opinion.

The point of this article is talk about the art of min-maxing and why Among Us is at the stage of it’s life where casuals will find it far more appealing to play the game at the moment as apposed to competitive folk who play games on a regular basis. But before we go any further, let’s start with that first bit, ‘Min-maxing’.

Min-maxing is a term that was created during the MMO glory days, right around 2005. Games like WoW or Runescape offered players the ability to level skills individually while leveling their character as a whole. For example, a player who is level 30 in Runescape might have something like 30 attack, strength, and defense, making them seem pretty well rounded. But someone who is min-maxing, or minimizing the unnecessary skills and maxing out the crucial ones, might be level 30 with 50 attack 50 strength and 1 defense.

And there’s the core of the philosophy right there: Every game is but a collection of algorithms and equations, and so every game has its own ‘most optimal’ way to play, assuming the way you want to play is to win. For a lot of people, namely people who have been playing the respective games for a long time, this is the most fun way to play. For casual, or people who play as a light hobby, this strategy of finding an optimal route for completion, whether that’s in an online or single-player environment, its not only far too time consuming, it’s also soul-sucking in a way that makes the game not worth touching in the first place.

This fact leads us to our game, Among Us. Yet another take on the ‘Mafia’ / ‘Town of Salem’ / ‘Murder in the Dark’ / ‘Murder Mystery’ / ‘Who the Fuck Killed Sarah’ game of old, Among us is, as I’ve said, just below average on a good day. It’s built cleanly, it has a nice art style, it’s population is boomin’ and it can be fun when played properly by a group of semi-competent people. That said, the game is also horrifically bad. Like, really, really claw-my-eyes-out terrible.

The point of the game is to figure out who the killer is. There’s 10 players, 8 of which are regular crewmen, and 2 imposters (or killers). The 8 crew members are on a location where they need to finish tasks to win, while the 2 killers are secretly mixed among them. They pretend to do tasks while trying to pick off members of the crew. If someone finds a dead body, they can report it, calling everyone in the game to a meeting where they discuss the evidence: Where people were, who seems suspicious, what tasks have been completed, XYZ.

It’s a really fun game, when it works. The problems begin to crop up when you realize the only way for this game to function properly is to play it with 9 other friends of yours who are all committed to playing the game as intended. And by ‘intended’ I just mean they are playing while acting as best they can in their goals to win, not necessarily ‘min-maxing’, or whatever term you want to use for playing the game while giving your opponents as little a chance as possible.

If you try to play without organizing the game with people you know first, you’ll have to resort to a public match, which is filled with children who are inept at best. And that’s fine, I mean, children are supposed to be inept. They’re children, after all. But that doesn’t change the fact that the only way to play this game without an immense amount of organization before hand is to watch as little Timmy struggles to make sense of the fact that ‘cyan’ isn’t a color that can be described as ‘orange-y’.

I once had a game where a meeting was called after purple (all players are identified by a color) found a dead body. I asked him where he found it, and he replied with ‘I didn’t’. Now, the game tells everyone who reports dead bodies, and the game marked purple as the reporter for the meeting, meaning that purple was lying, probably because he reported a body he killed by accident or because he just didn’t know how the game worked. I mean, he was probably 7 years old, right? No big deal, we’ll just vote ’em out.

I pointed out the obvious lie, and was met with ‘where’s your proof?’. Which was hilarious at first, but quickly turned to a tad bit of annoyance when I realized that no one else in the match realized how the game worked, either. They all wanted proof where it was already given. After trying to explain to them that the person who’s marked as a ‘caller’ called the meeting, I was voted off as an innocent crew-mate. I proceeded to watch as 7 year old Purple ran riot, killing people and reporting them, then quickly saying ‘I saw yellow!’ ‘I saw red!’ and so on and so forth until he had won the game by just naming colors he probably learned how to pronounce not 3 years ago. What a monster.

It’s this same principle, this principle of randomness and stupidity, that makes the game awful for someone like me. And it honestly can’t last long with anyone competitive playing, or min-maxing, it anyway, since the most optimal strategy is to have everyone stick together and, one by one, complete their tasks so that the killers have no way to kill anyone in secret. I mean, that’s stupid, right? That’s even more stupid than little Timmy winning the game by naming random colors. Why would anyone want to play that?

On the flip side, this stupidity and inconsistent nature of public matches is exactly what makes this game fun to so many casuals. My friend, who does not play games competitively by any stretch of the imagination, loves Among Us simply because she can win in 50% of her games just by fucking around and making outlandish accusations. If she’s a killer, she can let the crew-mates vote themselves out with dumb calls while she picks off a player or two in secret. And as a crew-mate, she can literally do whatever she wants and it’s no big deal because if she’s killed she can join another game in about 5 seconds. She plays for this rewarding moments of killing or voting someone out, and whatever happens between or after those moments makes no difference to her.

It’s honestly very nice to see, in some ways. Her mentality the surrounds games is that of someone who just never plays, because she doesn’t. It doesn’t matter to her if the game is even actually good or not as long as she’s having fun. And that’s refreshing. It’s also disgusting.

My mind can’t handle it that sort of thing. This friend and I actually played together in a public match and I had to quit very quickly after having to witness another episode of stupidity. This time it involved an innocent crew-member doing their best to get other innocent crew-member’s voted off. It hurts my head just thinking about it, but that’s probably because I’m boring and lame.

The point is that this game thrives in a stupid environment. For most people, dumb accusations, random occurrences, and people playing extremely poorly makes the game fun because that’s the only way cool things can happen. As I’ve stated earlier, the game can be beaten by the crew-mates every time if they stuck together and just voted anyone who didn’t out. But that’s not really how the community wants to play because, as the titles suggests, this game is bad. It isn’t designed to make interesting things happen, it’s designed to just barely function. It’s the community, the inept children and the streamers that make bank off them, that make the interesting things happen.

Sometimes that interesting thing can be little Timmy winning by reciting the colors of the rainbow, sometimes that interesting thing is watching a streamer make a nice vent play. But it’s clear that these are only happening because people choose to put themselves in bad situations for the sake of fun… because this game can’t make that happen naturally… because it just isn’t very good.

And if you think I’m wrong about this, that this game doesn’t function well when played with the mindset of winning, try grabbing a bunch of friends and employing the tactics I laid out for you. Stick together and vote anyone who doesn’t off.

You’ll either get people who do whatever they want (because playing like that is boring) and get voted off while innocent or everyone will be on bored with the plan. And then everyone will be just bored. And then you’ll be wondering what you’re doing with your life.

Among Us is a fun game that’s just about as stupid as a rock. The defining features of the game include it’s highlights when played with friends, it’s quick and non-committed play times, and it’s community, who might actually be less intelligent than the game they play. And that’s okay, by the way. If it works for them, it works for them. Just don’t play it if you find some reasonable semblance of cause and effect to be a positive aspect to a video game, because you won’t find it here.

You SHOULD play it if you like to complete menial tasks. Or if you like turning your brain off to nothing. Or if you like killing innocent children who are cornered in a reactor chamber… you freak.

GLHF,
-E

Expanding: Does a Video Game Niche Really Fill Enough Space for a Writer?

It’s struck me, recently, that a good number of freelance writers today started off as a some other profession in a field of their liking. Clothes salesmen and women become fashion copy-writers, investors become opinion piece contributors, and lawyers become legal writers.

I’m someone who enjoys playing video games and writing. Naturally, I combined the two. But, unlike the original examples provided, playing video games isn’t a profession in most cases. Not only that, and more to the point of this article, it doesn’t necessarily branch into that many areas of exponential value.

Websites need content that draws audiences, sure. But what else? Writing up a game’s script? That job would more likely be given to an already-practiced screen-write than someone who knows how to freeze a lane properly.

Advertise a new game? How much is Infinity Ward really going to pay you for putting the amount of additional guns coming out in a new title on their website? Perhaps blog posts on their website regarding game development? That is probably going to be given to people who are actually developing the game, A.K.A programmers.

The idea here isn’t that writers who use video games as their niche are going to be out of work if they want something with a high pay ceiling, the idea is that finding that kind of work is going to take a lot of dedication. Like any high paying job, of course, but with a little more creativity in landing it. You have to be crafty, I’ve found, if you want to land jobs that aren’t simply article content. Practicing up on copy-writing, creative writing in the form of a story here ‘n there, and a lot of marketing.

This website, for example, is just a tool for me to throw content into the internet that I usually wouldn’t be able to post for a client, given the random nature of each piece. This means I can practice up on writing where I otherwise wouldn’t be able to while also compiling work that other clients might be interested in.

And that’s probably the most important variable here: Clients. How many are you talking to? Are you talking to them with the energy of someone who wants to work, or someone who’s hoping to work?

It sounds gimmicky, but casting a wide net to pull as much work as you can is the best way to make your niche expand into multiple practices. Some people just might need game-driven talents for copy-writing, script editing, or literally anything else. But you’d have no way of finding these people if you don’t shake as many proverbial hands as you possibly can.

And, just as importantly, they have no way of finding you if you don’t have a network of business-related pages, websites, and posts to call your own.

The point being that even in the contest between a writer looking for a buck and the steer that is a 150 billion dollar industry like video games, the outcome is not certain.

GLHF,
-E