Monday, January 26, 2009

Relearning Fear

It’s become fashionable recently to proclaim the death of survival horror. Jim Sterling at Destructoid wrote a lengthy piece titled “How Survival Horror Evolved Itself Into Extinction,” in which he argues that a forced “evolution” of gameplay spurred on by Resident Evil 4 has wiped out the older conventions of the genre – ammo scarcity, claustrophobic environments, clunky controls – and siphoned out the fear. One of the smarter rats in the race, Sterling points out that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Evolutions happen out of necessity, and looking at shots from Resident Evil 5, it’s hard to miss the static, pre-rendered backgrounds of yesterday. The king is dead. Long live the king.

I resist the idea that smooth controls, swift action and an over-the-shoulder camera rule out psychological horror. A third-, or even a first-person game can immerse the player in a hope-leeching stew of isolation and despair without handling like, as Sterling says, a forklift – really, shouldn’t fear come from the game and not the analog pad? Saying Resident Evil 4 killed survival horror is like saying the detective story died with Poe. It denies the possibility of future innovation.

What about past innovation? Sterling attributes “evolution” to commercial viability – i.e., Resident Evil 4 sold well, and rendered ye olde survival horror unprofitable. If a game released in – say, 1999 – sold poorly, its potential to innovate would be stunted because it was a commercial failure. Any propositions it made, any revolutions it contained would be left to gather dust. Who cares about critics? The wallets have spoken.

It’s time to dust off System Shock 2.

As we may have mentioned, System Shock was a thinking man’s FPS in an age of knuckle-dragging corridor crawlers. Ken Levine, designer, would go on to found Irrational Games, which would produce System Shock 2 in 1999. Shock 2 put you in the boots of a soldier stationed on the Von Braun, a faster-than-light vessel poised to make mankind’s first stab into the cosmos. You tumble out of your cryotube a few months premature. Surprise! The ship is overrun with hive-minded, pipe-wielding zombies called The Many. And the room is about to depressurize.

From there on, System Shock 2 is a desperate fight against depressing odds. No shit – this game is hard. At no point during one of my several trips through did I ever feel that I had the upper hand. Every moment was lived at quarter-health, hiding with a broken pistol, listening to one of The Many try to coax me out of the shadows. “Join us,” he says. He tells me to put down my gun, to give up, end my dissonance, and get in harmony. Harmony – sounds nice. Out of sheer emotional exhaustion, I half consider his offer. If I fight, I might not win – my gun is rusty, and low on ammo. If it jams, I’ll have to use my wrench, and at close quarters, I won’t stand much of a chance. So I wait for him to pass, pipe raised, tumor-blistered head panning from side to side.

System Shock 2 is survival horror at its purest. It doesn’t rely on cheap thrills or “gotcha” moments. The game burns slowly, relying on an ambient horror to sink into your bones and hold you in fascinated dread for all of its 15 hours. It’s the total sense of despair that keeps System Shock 2 from being just a spaceship shooter. And the despair is in the details.

You’re completely alone – at no point do you meet another living human being. The stories of corpses are told through the PDAs you pick up along with syringes and ammunition, and the hopes, fears and anxieties told therein are all over, ended unceremoniously on the metal floor of the Von Braun. Your isolation is compounded by the fact that you lack free will – you are SHODAN’s errand-boy, surviving only by her fancy. This cleverly masks the core conceit of any game – you never really have a choice, not if you want to play the game – but it also reduces you to subhumanity. Even SHODAN calls you “insect.” At least the corpses died free. Will you?

One of the game’s most immaculately constructed moments came underneath a conventionally demonic image, appropriated and twisted to horrific effect. In the game’s final acts, the player ends up tracing the path of another SHODAN-puppet, another insect who failed to fulfill the AI’s expectations. At one point, you realize that you’re not that far behind her – she addresses you directly in her PDA-messages, left like breadcrumbs behind her. You find her in the chapel of the Rickenbacker, a navy frigate piggybacking on the Von Braun for protection. Because you reversed the gravity earlier, you walk under a row of pews, and find her corpse under a giant inverted cross. This is someone who, over the course of more than a half-dozen monologues, you got to know. She is a future version of you, used for a purpose and tossed aside.

The horror of System Shock 2 comes from the careful management of hope, fear, exhilaration and despair. These are all basic ingredients – much simpler than dynamic lighting, monsters with blades for arms, or charnel-house levels of gore. It’s as easy as good storytelling, something you can’t conjure with a warehouse of programmers.

A good ghost story makes grown men and women hesitate before entering a dark room. Survival horror isn’t dead. It just needs to find fear again.

About the image: Gareth Hinds produced a great series of concept sketches for System Shock 2. Check them out here.