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.
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.
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.
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?
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.