Fear and control: the path.

So I jumped into the Path last night. I have been working on editing video and trying to get my head around website design, I’ve been reading verbose academic takes on man’s ludic nature, play as the root of learning, of joy. I have been sleeping odd hours and sneaking in rounds of League of Legends or a couple of TF2 maps when I deem myself worthy. But last night, after finishing my demo reel, I needed a palate cleanser, it was time for Tale of Tale’s “short horror game”, the path.

The game has been summarized elsewhere, so I won’t get into that, but I really enjoyed – and was affected by, my play through of one of these women’s adventures on the way to Grandma’s house. I was a bit emotionally involved in the end of my game, a tragic one that seemed to hint at my girl having been violated past the point of recovery, but I think what forced me to see that unfortunate conclusion out to it’s end was that the earlier stages had been so immersive. Immersion comes when you begin to lose awareness of your actual state (sitting in front of a screen that refreshes at a steady rate, in a comfortable chair with one hand on an ergonomically pleasing mouse), due to becoming so focused on a virtual environment (in this case the mysterious forest where the Path’s adventures take place). And what really was drawing in my focus was the fear that playing through the game had made me feel, mostly due to the way the user controls are limited depending on where you are in the forest. Dark scary places slow down your ability to move, you can’t run anymore, your walking slows, your field of view and draw distance are shortened, the left to right movement sensitivity of the mouse is lowered, so looking to your side, let alone behind you becomes an agonizingly slow procedure…

Limiting the ability to see what is around you is a perfect way to play on a natural human fear of the unknown, and by adjusting these handful of mechanics (walk speed, rotation speed, drawdistance, field of view) the game is very successful at creating a feeling of dread. That coupled with my long slow walk in the rain back to Grandmother’s house, and then having to click your way through that house to what feels increasingly horrible end (the wolf? – spoilers?) that left me feeling shaky.

The game also crept into my dreams, which is a rare occurrence for me, I didn’t dream of the Path per se, but rather I was recollecting the first time I felt scared by a video game, a moment I hadn’t thought of in a while, but will never forget. In that case the game was Sierra’s Colonel’s Bequest… which taught me that a game could scare me right out of my seat. (On a lighter note, I recall that that game also taught me how the word Colonel was spelled.)

Someone has been nice enough to post this scene to youtube, fair warning to those who might go back and play a 21 year old adventure game:

Yikes!

Edit: After reading another post which factored fear into the gaming equation I noticed a few things that seem worth pointing out.

Firstly note the two types of events that induced the fear reaction into me. My younger self was spooked by a couple of horror movie cliches. The room is dark, the sound design is spooky (in a low bit kind of way), there’s a knife, a scream and some blood. The sort of tropes that made me leave the theater when watching Pet Cemetery as a kid after being spooked by one somewhat innocuous ‘horror cut’ where a cat suddenly appears in the frame. Years of toughening up, a catholic high school education, and watching a couple more horror movies (and especially watching through horror movies, laughing at these same tropes as a way of combating them), has made most horror movies more amusing than scary to me.
Then take a look at my newer fear reaction, a sense of dread brought on by losing an aspect of control over my character in the Path. The cause of this fear wasn’t one of the old tricks that I have become accustomed to, but rather a new trick: a switcheroo where your control over your avatar is hindered. This fear’s source, especially at first, was aided by the immersion we expect from video games. This fear was real video game fear, not a fear borrowed from big brother cinema.
However the video game fear, while initially more scary due to the loss of control, was also easily sublimated by ‘gaming’ the same system that brought it on in the first place. A quick-cut shock fear will always spook most people, but The Path’s loss of control fear was eventually dealt with simply by using my fancy mouse who’s sensitivity can be adjusted on the fly.
I wonder what video game scares are both not transplanted movie scares, and also not controllable by gaming the system. Another example that fails this would be the limited resource fear of the Resident Evil series. Limited resources = save game/missed headshot/save reload = less surprises and more experiencing of AI behavior that undermines the mood the designers wished to create.
I haven’t played many scary games, which is part of the problem (and also part of the reason The Path freaked me out). I do have Dead Space sitting in my Steam games, I hope to play through it in the next couple of months and will maybe glean some insights from it’s well-regarded scariness.
Edit2: In rereading this post I notice that the games I have been playing up to playing The Path are League of Legends and TF2, both games where exacting user control of their avatar is of the utmost import in reaching success. It might be a question of contrast too.

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