The Interaction Feint

Fatal Frame 4, which I keep coming back to every few months but never seem to complete, has a neat item pickup mechanic. Your character, a young woman trapped in a dilapidated hospital on a forbidden island full of moon ghosts, slowly extends her hand to reach for an item when you hit the A button. In fact, you need to hold the A button down or she’ll draw her hand back. As you hold the button down, her hand extends and the camera moves to follow it. There is a slow approach, a pregnant pause, and then ding!, a Shinto bell indicates that she’s got the item.

Except sometimes, every tenth item or so, a ghostly hand will shoot out of the darkness and grab her wrist just before it reaches the item. A stinger plays and the camera cuts to an animation of the protagonist fighting to get the hand off. And then the game resumes. It’s a pop-out scare built right into the item pickup mechanic.

Ju-on: The Grudge does something similar. Every time you open a door you see a slow animation of a hand extending, grasping the handle, and opening the door. Every once in a while, a little ghost kid’s hand shoots out of the darkness and grabs you. It happens just frequently enough that every time you open a door you hold your breath.

I’m calling this mechanic the Interaction Feint. Formally defined, an Interaction Feint is when a routine interaction is co-opted without warning to startle and surprise the player. It is powerful because it subverts common interactions that the player performs so often that they’ve become automatic. Its effect is to make those operations more nerve-racking by forcing the player to mistrust the interaction. The ultimate goal of the Interaction Feint, as with most horror mechanics, is to keep the player from feeling confident and in control.

The Resident Evil games have, from time to time, used the inter-room door loading animation as an Interaction Feint. A clutch of zombies appear and attack in the middle of what appears to be another boring room load. There are other examples, but they all serve a similar purpose: to keep the player from falling into a comfortable routine.

Even non-horror games use Interaction Feints. One great example is the Mimic in Dragon Quest 3 (and his jerkwad counterpart in Dark Souls). This is a monster disguised as a treasure chest that attacks the player when he tries to open it. It’s a great Interaction Feint because the player opens many chests and is excited to find them. He is thinking of what might be inside, and is (ideally) caught completely by surprise when the Mimic attacks. The Mimic can be pretty scary, too. In Dragon Quest they can often kill a party member instantly. Maybe next time the player won’t approach a chest so carelessly.

I think that pop-out scares have value in extreme moderation. The best pop-out scare is the kind that forces the player to wait for the next pop-out event, which should ideally never come. A good pop-out can coil the player like a spring, and then force them to stay that way, with no chance to unwind.

The Interaction Feint is a particularly insidious form of pop-out scare because it forces the player into a state of hyper vigilance. The player must now be careful no matter how routine the operation. If he forgets and relaxes, the Feint can achieve the shock value of a good pop-out scare. But it’s even better if the player doesn’t forget, because in that case he must worry about every single item he collects, every door he opens, every chest he investigates. Now a routine, nonthreatening, uninteresting interaction has been transformed into something that induces tension. That’s pretty cool.

12 thoughts on “The Interaction Feint

  1. Hey Chris! It’s glad to read you again. I too always thought that the mimic mechanic was a great way of getting you more focused while playing those games but sometimes you could tell when that was gonna happen. I played and finished Ju-on: The Grudge years ago and I get your point. I will try to play and beat Fatal Frame 4 in the near future.

    Another reason I came today was because of the expectation that Alien: Isolation got on people but, as you can see, it isn’t for all tastes… as a player that have played games like HellNight, I still have faith that Alien: Isolation is really a Hidden Game that most people won’t ever value until some time in the near future. I hope to read your take on that son because all the unscripted things in this game and many other aspects I know you’ll show us, are what probably make this a genre-breaking title (specially if played with a VR Headset like the Occulus Rift).

    Thank you so much and let’s hope to hear more from you, Robot Invader and anything SH you share with us!

  2. I haven’t played any of the Fatal Frame games or Ju-On, but both might be reasons for me to dust off my Wii. And with Halloween approach, it seems like the perfect opportunity to get/play those soon. They booth seem interesting.

    Though, I’m glad you mentioned Dragon Quest/Warrior as an example. I would have said that if you haven’t.

    Though bringing up an RPG, that reminds me that the concept of using chance to make the player more cautious and dilligient is something i see a lot in roguelikes with things like traps (to encourage you not to dilly dally and take the shortest route as to have less chance to run into a trap) or how a magical staff or scroll might not always have a consistent effect or may even malfunction on you. So, that makes me curious as to whether or not a game like Phantasmal, a “survival horror roguelike” could actually work or not. I’m hopeful at least.

  3. Dude, please update your database. No RE6, The Last of Us, Saw games (both) or Alien: Isolation. The hell?

  4. I’m not sure. I have to admit that I consider deleting the “update your database” posts that come in the form of article comments because they aren’t on topic and I have a rather detailed contact forum for that purpose. But on the other hand, there are so few places for people to chat that I just end up leaving them be.

    I am mostly through a complete rework of the site, but it won’t add anything specifically for the community. I don’t really know how best to manage that. I dislike forums more and more, but I’m not really a fan of social media pages either. Suggestions are definitely welcome!

  5. Long time lurker, first time poster. Although I’m not a fan of Reddit, I’d probably use it in place of a forum for like minded horror fans.

  6. Chris, if you do rework the site or make a new one, I hope you try to keep as many of the old blog post archived as you can. There’s likely some good ones I haven’t read yet and some I’d like to go over again.

  7. I’m keeping all blog posts, all comments, and all game pages! That’s what makes it hard, but yeah–10 years of work here, I’m not going to throw it away.

  8. Chris – I know you hate seeing posts about people reminding you that you’re needing to update your database, but it is getting to be quite outdated now. New horror games come and go, but they aren’t in your listings at all. Sorry if this sounds like nagging to you, however you should try to add some games.

  9. An opposite example: in Dead Space 2 (or 3, I’m not sure) there were these ventilation shaft crawling sections from time to time, where I expected some jumpscare or enemy appearance, but in the end, that never happened.

  10. You use the save and workbenches a lot in Dead Space 1. BUT there is one and ONLY one work bench you use and when you try to exit it a freaking necromorph will SCREAM in the side of the screen at Issac.

    This messed me up bad and was a good jump scare for the reasons Chris mentioned above. You use the workbenches all the time (the game didn’t pause ala Alien Iso, Dark Souls) But you usually were either in a safe room anyway, or you killed everything in that room to use the bench. The sinister act of adding the one jumpscare almost halfway through the game was genius to me, cause I sure as hell was cautious about going to any bench in the rest of the game and really was proud they did it once and only once.

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