At the time I was convinced that the radio sounds played a key role in Silent Hill’s brand of fear. And a decade and a half later, I still think that the radio, and the greater soundscape that Silent Hill employs, is a big part of what makes the series scary. But the radio isn’t just a great sound, it serves a specific gameplay purpose: it is a fuzzy form of radar. Its job is to escalate the level of tension felt by the player and also to warn him of enemies in the immediate area. Though many games employ some form of radar, this one is a bit different because it is so indistinct. When the static sound flairs you know that enemies are close, but it’s not possible to tell how close, or in which direction they reside, or even how many of them there might be. It wasn’t the thought of lurking nurses that scared me, it was knowing that they were near and not knowing exactly how near. There’s something insidious about that, about having enough information to be concerned but not enough to act. Without the radio, the scares would have devolved into surprise attacks, which might work once or twice but would thereafter become routine. With a more specific radar, the uncertainty about the location of the enemies would be removed and dispatching them would become routine. Much has been written about how the sound of Silent Hill’s radio is itself a tension inducer, but I wonder if the fuzziness of the information it provides is also an important aspect of its function.
Silent Hill isn’t the only horror game with a fuzzy radar. In the early Resident Evil games, the sound of zombie moans and their lumbering footfalls warned you that danger was near, even if the angle of the camera restricted your view of the room. Like the Silent Hill radio, this communication was indistinct; it put you on your guard but did not give you enough information to anticipate the positionof the enemies. Fatal Frame has a visual radar, a glowing filament that brightens near areas of interest, but it too is non-directional. Enemy Zero is an entire game based around the concept of a fuzzy radar: the alien monsters roaming the space ship where the game takes place are invisible, their position revealed only by the incessant beeping of a warning device. The closer the enemies are, the faster it beeps; beeps beyond a certain frequency mean that you’re probably already dead. It’s an incredibly obtuse way to warn the player of impending danger, but then again, that’s probably the point.
Of course, none of these games have any kind of actual radar on the HUD–they don’t have a HUD at all. In fact, only a very small number of horror games actually have any sort of on-screen display. The absence of a HUD is often chalked up to “immersive” game design; the theory is that removing elements that do not appear within the game world itself increases the immediate believability of that world. I suspect that this is true, especially in games like ICO, but I think that horror games have another, more important reason to omit the HUD. Like the fuzziness of the Silent Hill radar radio, obscuring the HUD is a way to obfuscate the details of the game state from the player.
Obfuscation of game state is an idea that shows up in all sorts of places in horror game design. Take the Resident Evil health system: rather than a health bar or number, classic Resident Evil gives you a three state abstraction: FINE, CAUTION, and DANGER. Each state indicates a range of health values; sometimes you will take a hit and the state will not change, other times a hit may cause you to go directly from FINE to DANGER. Of course, under the hood these states map to something like a health bar, and dedicated players have deciphered the underlying system, but during normal play this system obfuscates the amount of health you have. Your health value is further obscured by the herb combination system. Are three herbs taken individually as powerful as three herbs combined? Is a green and a red herb combined the same as three green herbs? Does combining with a blue herb affect the amount of health recovered? The Silent Hill series has played with non-obvious health meters too: depending on the game, the information you get is limited to a pulsating color or an image that becomes more noisy as damage is taken. Siren doesn’t provide a health meter at all.
How near is the Slenderman in Slender? Can the creatures in Amnesia: The Dark Descent see you or not? You can hear the monster inHellnight coming, but which direction is he coming from?. How many bullets left do you have in your gun in Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or Siren? You can check in the pause menu, sure, but in the heat of battle there’s no way to tell. Speaking of Siren, how close does a shibito need to before he realizes you are there? How far away can your footfalls be heard if you walk rather than crouch? What’s in the darkness beyond the small oasis that your flashlight affords?
I think that horror games, more than any other genre, go out of their way to hide specific details about the game simulation from the player. It’s not that details such as health or ammo supply are not relevant to the simulation, it’s that the game wishes to keep you in a constant state of uncertainty. To that end these games obfuscate all kinds of details that are considered incisive in other genres: health, ammo supplies, enemy locations, and even the core rules of the game itself. The end result, I think, is a scarier game.
As a counterpoint, let’s consider a game that not obfuscate its game state: Dead Space. Though Dead Space has no 2D HUD, it still provides the player with plenty of information–much more than the other games discussed in this post. Isaac’s life bar is attached to his back, his gun prominently displays the number of shots remaining, and he has a special gadget that shows him where to go whenever he is lost. This information is reassuring. In the heat of battle, we can rest easy if Isaac has full health; even a couple of direct hits aren’t likely to kill him. We know where we’re going, and how much ammo and health we have, at all times. Though there’s some uncertainty in the narrative (a topic I’ll tackle next time), the game mechanics leave nothing vague. As a result, I felt that Dead Space lost a lot of its horror bite; it’s missing that overwhelming feeling of oppression that the others are able to pull off. All the information makes it a bit too easy to relax.
Uncertainty is a valuable commodity amongst horror games because it is part of the greater plan to make you feel that you are not in control of the situation. Loss of control, I have come to believe, is one of the core traits of all successful horror games; those games that evoke a feeling of helplessness are the ones we find the most frightening. Causing the player to believe that the events unfolding within the game are beyond his control is a complex task, and uncertainty is only a small part of it. But even so, making the player to feel uncertain about key game rules helps to knock his confidence down a peg or two. And when every system in the game is intentionally obfuscated, the feeling of uncertainty, and therefore lack of control, is strong indeed.