In my Art and History of Video Games course, students typically bring a vast amount of gaming experience with them, but relatively little experience reflecting on games in a formal or systematic way. When asked to consider a game's narrative structure, for example, they often rely on skills they have applied to analyzing literature or film. Inevitably, they observe that video games, unlike literature or film, offer the player/reader choice and control unavailable to them in books or movies. When we look at this closely, we usually agree that the best term for this important distinction is agency.
Two recent blog posts got my attention in this regard today, and they're both worth your time. Alice on her blog Wonderland - yes, she's clever - mentions a post on Wired that got her thinking about agency as it relates to horror games:
So you may or may not know that horror games make up my absolute favourite genre. Just love them. It's why Quake appealed so much, over say, Counter-Strike. I love them because of the agency: instead of watching dumb screamy people walk around dark houses without turning the lights on, I get to sit in my living room and stand at the entrance of a room, and not go in. It's so satisfying.
I go in eventually, of course. Resident Evil (the crows!) is a breeze compared to something like Project Zero, the first of which had me screeching at the telly (and throwing the rumblepak across the room) while my flatmate shook with laughter from the sofa.
The essay that inspired Alice is Clive Thompson's "Gore is Less: Videogames Make Better Horror Than Hollywood.":
Indeed, the endless potential for ass-handing is why games may actually be a superior medium to films for scaring the bejesus out of you...In a game, of course, the fourth wall is obliterated, and you actually do have the choice about whether to go into The Bad Room or to run screaming. If you're a total coward (like me) this ability to control your fate induces considerably more suspense, because I head-game myself into a frenzy. I'll start down a corridor, hear something freaky up ahead, then freeze in panic. Maybe if I stay quiet the monster will go away? Shit, maybe it's already headed this way, and I should move! But if I move the monster will hear me ... so maybe I should stay quiet ... gaaaaah!
Games already seem like dream states. You're wandering around a strange new world, where you simultaneously are and aren't yourself. This is already an inherently uncanny experience. That's why a well-made horror game feels so claustrophobically like being locked inside a really bad -- by which I mean a really good -- nightmare.
Notice how I never mentioned the game that inspired Thompson's piece? I promised no more Bioshock posts, and I keep my promises!