Again, King says “there’s little fun to be had in explanation.” But, if you read his article carefully you’ll find he isn’t talking exclusively about the explanation of a Nightmare. He was talking about the way you communicate – Nightmare. “Horror is the scene in The Strangers where Liv Tyler tries to hide beneath the bed… and discovers she can’t fit there,” he says. But what make that scary scene work is that the movie doesn’t reveal she won’t/can’t fit under the bed until she has just seconds to hide. Knowing she can’t fit before she tries is more like comedy. What King is alluding to is the language of film, the way a film communicates to the audience through editing, camera angles, acting, mise en scene, etc. Communication is exactly what Limbo gets right and what Alan Wake gets wrong.
ALAN WAKE, BIG EXPLANATIONS!
Wake’s problem is that it is always communicating to the player. It is constantly telling them what to do, where to go, when something is going to happen and yes, sometimes why. Remedy uses a day/light gameplay design. Use light to kill the “dark” enemies. Stay in the light to avoid being killed. It looks and plays great but it completely ruins surprise, a key element of horror. When it’s dark the player knows something bad is going to happen. There are daylight scenes in the game but nothing happens in those. Also, there are auditory and visual cues when an enemy is about to attack so you always know its coming. There is even a system where the player finds manuscript pages lying on the floor. Each manuscript tells the player what is going to happen, or something that recently happen with the extra depth that a book could capture. The problem is it violates the quote they use in the beginning of the game and, at worst, it ruins a future scare or it tips you off to the answer to a puzzle. In her analysis on Alan Wake, Leigh Alexander blames its problems on good game design.
Game design is continually evolving to better couple depth with accessibility, to better communicate with players, and to avoid frustrating them. One primary way of achieving these ends is to use clear communication — auditory, environmental, verbal and user interface cues.
Her comments on Wake mirror Kings problem with big budget horror flicks. Accessibility and horror which is suppose to frustrate, trick, and scare don’t mix. It works great for the action/adventure genre but in a game like Alan Wake it amounts to an apology from the developers for making you play a game that is suppose to frighten you, something they signed up for when they bought it.
LIMBO, CARESSING ‘EM WITH A KNIFE
Limbo on the other hand, tosses this design decision out the window. In the opening to Limbo a boy wakes up in a forest. That’s it. The game doesn’t provide you with anything else. At least nothing concrete. It doesn’t tell you where you are or why (although a description of Limbo says the boy is looking for his sister, and one would guess they’re both in Limbo). It doesn’t even tell you how to play. In a brilliant design decision, the player is forced to play around with the controller and figure out for her/himself which button does what. This creates an odd feeling of disorientation, like the boy must feel. It feels analogous to when a person wakes up in the morning and they have to remind them-self how to move.
What happens next are a series of puzzles and a powerful visual narrative that presents possible answers but still more questions. The first puzzle: A boat in water. The game tells you nothing. What do you do? I guess I get in the boat. The next puzzle: a ledge the boy is too short to reach. What do you do? It may take a bit but the answer is to drag the boat over to the ledge for leverage. That is Limbo. It never tells you how the game is played. The player has to figure it out.
Another thing the developers leave up to the player to figure out is the meaning behind what and whom the boy encounters. This is presented in an eerie black and white visual style similar to an old Fritz Lang movie. Andrew Kauz describes one such encounter in a Destructoid piece:
[E]arly on in the game you see a pair of children much like yourself who are scampering around in front of you. Since they are the first people you encounter, the player is naturally curious. Soon, it becomes evident that those children are attempting to interfere with your progress. You see one operating a lever to complicate the path before you just as they escape, never to been seen again.
Limbo presents a clear visual narrative which raises a number of questions most of which are never answered. But, the questions slowly open up a world of mystery that compels the player to run forward in fear and curiosity. The game keeps you in the dark narratively, visually and gameplay wise. The effect this creates, particularly in the early part of the game, is in line with King’s theory of horror. Show the horror, make sure it’s designed to be effective but don’t explain it. It is also in line with Sussman’s dream like description of Japanese horror.
The contrast between Alan Wake and Limbo are curious. Limbo is a low budget downloadable title whereas Wake is a big budget retail game. It goes without saying that Play Dead can take creative liberties with their game that perhaps Remedy can’t. It makes one wonder if the download space is a better place to make the type of horror games made famous with Silent Hill, Siren and Fatal Frame. Perhaps the retail version of horror games are now action/adventure titles with a supernatural horror spin to them. Indeed, this does sound familiar. As Lovgren notes, “American horror movies have increasingly come to resemble action movies.” And, that’s how I felt about Alan Wake. I though it was a good third person shooter.