The Value of Uncertainty

Low visibility. No HUD.

My TV was hissing. It was a small set, 15 inches across, set on a short table in one corner of my ten-tatami-mat room in Kyoto. It was 1998, the middle of the night, and though my hosts were two floors below me, I worried that the sound would reach through the thin walls and wake them. It was a familiar hiss–it is the sound of an detuned radio, the sound of white noise, static. This particular static was coming from a radio clipped to the belt of a man standing in a dark hallway, a large pipe in his hand, his small flashlight casting a narrow oval of light around him. It was also a harsh sound, one that made me uneasy. I wondered if my host family could hear it. More importantly, I wondered where the mangled nurses that it was trying to warn me about were lurking beyond the beam of the flashlight. This is one of my clearest memories of my first experience with Silent Hill.

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 position

Better visibility, but still no HUD. No specific information.

of 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 in

Lots of specific information.

Hellnight 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.

14 thoughts on “The Value of Uncertainty

  1. Excellent post. Given that fear and anxiety (and eventual relief) are the main drivers of enjoyment for these games, I really appreciate when devs use this knob to dial it up. A related example from Metal Gear Solid 2: When you get to a new area you don’t have radar showing enemies – you have to find a computer terminal to download the ability. I love the heightened tension during that time, being in a new area without radar, desperately searching for the terminal. The game is cooler with radar but those radar-less interludes spice things up.

    Great stuff. You could add to this that irregular cues also produce anxiety by interfering with the player’s mastery of the game. This is particularly evident in Condemned (I wrote about it in the linked site). Because moments of vulnerability in Condemned are sometimes followed by violence and sometimes not, the player never feels “in control” during the investigation sequences.

  3. Ah, survival horror. How I miss you.

    I take you you’ve yet to play / add Resident Evil 6? It’s more like an action horror game in the style of RE4 and 5…but still worthy of being in your extensive database. Plus, what about the Saw games and the third F.E.A.R. game? Shouldn’t they be in the database too? 😉

  4. Great article. It’s worth noting that since Fatal Frame 4, the filament in the series is directional, and this is one of the many features which I believe made that instalment lose a significant amount of horror (Which was fortunately regained in Shinku no Chou).

  5. Hey Chris, did you ever read the article I wrote for the conference two years ago? It covered a lot of this topic. Another example is how the maps in Silent Hill are usually designed after building blueprints but when you arrive at the location a combination of debris, locked doors, and knocked out walls it completely changes the layout of the map. Making at first a clear to read map but quickly becomes obtuse maze like design.

    Then there’s places like the execution grounds in the prison. On the map it is clearly a large open area with a special locked door blocking it. Clearly implied to be a boss room from a meta point of view (there is also the sounds of an unseen monster in the rooms leading to it, upping the meta implications that it is a boss room). But when you finally get in there there is nothing but the next key item you’re looking for sitting on the gallows. Really messing with the players expectations.

  6. > Sparky,

    Good article! Totally the same topic, and I’m agreed that Condemned does a good job of keeping the player on his toes by eschewing patterns. I also like the way the Condemned combat system is fast and error-prone; every fight could potentially kill you, even after you’ve played for a while. Knowing that certainly ups the ante when one of those dudes steps out from behind a column.

    > Bingo
    I totally forgot about your paper! It does indeed touch on much of the same territory. Is it published anywhere that I can link to?

    Excellent article!

    I could be wrong/maybe it’s only in 2/ maybe it’s only on harder difficulties, but I think Dead Space gets around the issue of certainty by having a hidden combo system for enemies. Five beads of health might be 2+2+2 attacks or 1+3 attacks. I’m pretty sure there’s a point where any attack becomes a one hit kill, even if you’re healing mid-battle. Enemy locations aren’t consistent either, so it’s easier to take unexpected damage.

    It’s part of why it’s so important to play on the right difficulty in DS, and it’s also part of why it’s fulfilling as an action game and a survival horror game.

  8. Great article – this is exactly why I found Dead Space to be boring.


    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.

    That is what I meant when I said this in a comment to an earlier post, talking about core properties of horror:

    Basically, the character feels powerless as well as physically, emotionally, and even intellectually overwhelmed (e.g. things are happening that defy logic), and the story centers around the internal struggle which arises [paralyzing fear vs survival].
  9. Actually, I believe at least in the first SH title, the sound of the radio differs depending on certain enemy factors. Even the manual stated so.

  10. That’s a really good point about the combat in Condemned. It’s well-known for having fights that are intrinsically disconcerting, but I hadn’t thought about how the structure of combat interferes with mastery. The level design may also contribute to that.

  11. Some elaboration on the Fatal Frame filament: in the third installment of the series at least, it does have a directional element, but only in combat – if you look into the direction of an enemy, it glows redder than if you look away from it (this, incidentally, is the way to get around the final boss battle you lamented – if you see red during the chase sequences, turn around and run the other way). Sometimes the changing glow is the only way to track ghosts, if they’re the type that likes to lurk inside walls. An exception to this was the character with stealth ability – his filament was a simple discrete three stage setup of “ghost sees you/ghost doesn’t see you/no ghosts around”.

    Fatal Frame 1 filament didn’t have this directional function, and in later playthroughs the filament was actually removed from you, leaving the telltale voices of the ghosts and screen distortion as your only warning. I don’t recall how the other games in the series handled it.

  12. > acabaca

    Yes, that’s correct. Every FF has mixed up the filament before. The red combat coloration is definitely useful, but unfortunately didn’t seem to help much against the end boss, at least for me: I was aware of the warning and attempted to use it, but she seemed to spawn randomly sometimes, hence my (immense) frustration.

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