As I creep through an abandoned research installation on a foreign planet I am surrounded by a strange silence, highlighted by the carnage spattered across the walls of what appears to have once been a space where scientists worked and lived. I move through old labs, through mess halls and bunks, waiting for something, anything, to leap out at me. Suddenly, a sound blares from a nearby computer monitor, where a pair of green eyes gaze back at me. I jump a little in my seat. Much spooky! Very scare! I brace myself for an attack, hunkering down behind some nearby cover, but no such attack comes. Curious, I interact with the computer again. It makes the same blaring noise, still fairly creepy, though I now feel confident no attack will come. I tap the computer once more for good measure. This time, the sound is just annoying: a blaring noise that seems intended to alarm me which grows grating upon sustained use: the horror/suspense equivalent to a smoke alarm.
By the end of Mass Effect 2's "Overlord" expansion, which I finally got around to playing recently, I encountered a more than sufficient amount of spook to warrant its labeling as a horror or suspense oriented expansion. However, most of that aforementioned spook came from drawn out periods of exploration and quiet moments of exposition, where I came to understand how characters with reasonable motives went about justifying some pretty terrible actions. The more lived in the world felt, the more I felt like I was picking through the ruins of a real place, rather than moving through one of Mass Effect 2's many interactive shooting galleries. But the jump scares, the blaring noises and attempts at ambush that the various enemies of Mass Effect 2 staged against me, didn't really contribute to that overriding sense of dread that the expansion clearly aimed to impress upon me. The spooky-sound trick, a nice trick when you use it once or twice, lost its effect fast. The frightening, when imbued with a sense of normalcy and stripped of menace, quickly transforms into the irritating.
This was far from the most disappointing horror-suspense video game experience I've had recently. At my girlfriend's insistence I sat down and, with her at my side, played through the generously qualified "Adventure Game" Serena. While horror games are best experienced alone, any horror game worth its salt can put the dread into two players just as easily as it can put it into one: the act of spectating a fellow player as they creep through an environment under constant threat, piecing together narrative in an effort to survive, can be nearly as viscerally satisfying as inhabiting that character yourself. But in Serena, an initially "spooky" game with some interesting concepts rapidly shifted from an interesting experiment in minimalism to a frustrating "figure out my thought process" clickfest.
See, Serena locks players into a limited number of possible vantage points, forcing players to engage with scenes through a series of imposed visual planes. Click on a location and you'll walk there. After that, you'll hear your narrator say something about the space you just walked to. It's a venerable convention of exploratory games, emerging from the feature sets of classic adventure games like Myst, but it's an effective way to promote exploration, and ask players to carefully investigate an area that you can fill with intriguing details, red herrings, and fun, fulfilling places to explore. The trick is making the spaces that you're examining feel genuine, like real spaces where the details are holdovers from real habitation, and not artifacts of design, and giving players plenty of freedom to establish context and meaning within those spaces themselves.
Serena fails miserably at both these goals. The end result of its efforts is a set of systems that call attention to their own existence, a set of seams that appear around the edges of the game which make playing it less an exercise in inhabiting the skin of a man picking through the ruins of his life, and more an exercise in the tedium of trying to figure out what the goal of a development team was at any given moment. Serena is a piece of freeware, so I didn't have high expectations when I started playing it, and I don't mean for this to be a mean spirited screed. It just serves so well as a counterpoint to strong horror game development that I've just got to point out its failings. After all, they illustrate how to do horror wrong so well that, through that dubious achievement, they've created a sort of blueprint for crafting good horror games.
See, horror games play on two countervailing forces: the drive to explore, and the fear that exploration will either harm your character, or present a disruptive or discordant experience for a player. There are a number of ways to generate an incentive structure for exploration. Thief, for example, encouraged players to explore for the dangerous world they created for the promise of material gain which, in turn, would give players more options for how they'd approach new problems at the start of the next level, since they'd be able to spend the money they found while exploring for new supplies. Removed from progression or score oriented mechanics, developers sometimes have to be a little trickier, incentivizing play by making players feel attached or connected to the world they're in, instilling a curiosity in players to uncover more about the world around them. Many contemporary horror games rely entirely on this mechanic, and some games that utilize progression oriented incentive frameworks will reinforce their incentive structure by making their players want to explore for exploration's own sake. I've been having that sort of experience with Alien: Isolation of late, where I find myself creeping around the world not for additional resources (though those are nice) but to discover more information about what life is (and was) like on Sevastopol Station.
The latter approach requires that developers create a space that feels "lived in." That doesn't mean you cover it in blood smears and litter it with corpses: it means you fill it with set pieces that make a space feel homey or real. Mass Effect 2's "Overlord" DLC, for all its ungainliness, actually did a great job of making me feel like the various bases that I was picking through had, at one point, been a place where people lived and worked. Alien: Isolation is a minimalist love letter to this art form, making even its sparsely decorated initial spaces feel like actual habitats. Serena, however, which takes place in a single enclosed space, and plays entirely on a player's careful surveillance of specific details, never manages to make its spaces feel real. From a book shelf filled with fake books to a shifting quote on the wall intended to imbue the game with meaning, Serena's cabin feels less like a space where people lived, and more like a first pass at an asset list for a subsection of another game, wherein interactions are all carefully curated, and objects are painstakingly placed, rather than left behind to be discovered. The manner in which objects co-exist in the world makes them feel like placed clues, not bits of exploratory ephemera we're permitted to imbue with meaning.
Serena also wholly undercuts the capacity of players to infer meaning in their environment, or imbue the objects they find with meaning, thanks to its persistent monotone descriptive dialogue, which ploddingly (in some of the worst video game writing I've encountered in recent memory) details everything that a player is supposed to think about a given object in woefully overwrought prose. The end result is a kind of exploration-as-object-oriented-storytelling approach, which can work, in theory, if the storytelling is strong enough. But in Serena, it simply isn't. Between arbitrary plot twists, lackluster writing, and stolid voice acting, there just isn't enough to hang on to. And, removed from any potential threat (the other countervailing force in horror games, according to my aforementioned arbitrary rules) there's no real counterpoint to the description that you're forced to listen to each time you examine a clue, which has the strange effect of disincentivizing exploration by making each act of "successful" exploration unpleasant to deal with.
I'm coming off as mean now, and I don't mean to tear down Serena completely: it seems like a genuine effort by people who love the genre in which their working. But it also feels like a student project, one that failed in a number of fascinating ways that permit examination and, through their distinct constellation of failure, illustrate something important about how to craft a functional horror game. That's commendable, and I don't mean that in a passive-aggressive way: I teach writing for a living, and it's often easier to illustrate rules for writing by demonstrating their violation, all the more so if many rules are violated in a single space. A poorly written essay can highlight mistakes that students might overlook in their own work, mistakes that can cripple their writing, mistakes that they're conditioned to gloss over when they're contained in a frame of reference that is, otherwise, pretty much okay.
I would find it quite difficult to articulate just what makes a good horror game apropos of nothing, but while examining Serena's failures, I believe it becomes apparent: immersion, the presence of threat or menace, and incentive all need to be in place to make players feel uncomfortable in their surroundings, but still want to keep playing and seeing more of the world. Serena exhausted my patience in a mere 15 minutes, and when I completed it in 45 minutes, I felt like I'd given it too much credit, and too much of my time besides, but the seams that make its artifice so clear paint a picture, through omission, of what a strong game in this genre is supposed to look like. It's important to note that Serena isn't alone in this regard: Alone in the Dark's reboot a few years back did something quite similar, with an array of original game mechanics that worked unreliably and a weak story frame that made me feel like I should be doing better things with my time. Dead Effect, a mobile-based zombie shooter that employs the elemental formula at work in Killing Floor to surprisingly little effect, thanks to some weak overarching progression systems, some poorly developed core game mechanics, and a sloppy aiming system, falls into this category as well. There are plenty of other games that I won't touch on here. Spectacular failures like these illustrate what's missing and, in doing so, they remind us of what makes for a great game. That is, in and of itself, a sort of service, and a dialogue with games as a medium, and art in general. That horror games are simultaneously so popular, and so marginalized, simply makes the tiny microcosm of genre riper for examination. Each attempt could be the development that resurrects the genre to the heights it experienced in the early 90s, or the nail in its coffin.