Thursday, 3 July 2014

Resident Evil: Bring Back Puzzles

Put a red gem into a stuffed tiger's eye to get a pistol. Set fire to a painting to find a jewel. Stick a coin in a fountain to retrieve a key.

These are the solutions to puzzles in Resident Evils 1 and 2. Lateral, weird, amusing, they're examples of twisted survival horror logic, where bizarre combinations of items are usually the way forward. Time was scary games thrived on this shit: Silent Hill, Clock Tower and Hellnight are all late-nineties examples of backwards horror conventions. But around 2000, and the launch of Resident Evil 3, things started to change. Abstraction gave way to concreteness. Confusion replaced confidence. Horror was cast aside in favour of action. Rather than daffy game logic, ostensible frightening games started to operate on more familiar, real-world terms. The central puzzle in RE3 is finding components to fix the engine of a tram car: fuse, oil, battery. Contrast that with RE2, where the rear exit of a police station is opened using electronic keys shaped like chess-pieces, and you see where survival horror was heading. It was changing, along with the rest of old-guard game genres at the start of the 21st century, into something more akin to an "experience". It was becoming slick, cohesive, uncomplicated. In this new hybrid brand of action-horror, tangled puzzle logic had no position. It'd just slow people down, make them frustrated. It had to go.

Which brings us to today, a time when game developers wouldn't know good horror if it jumped them from the back seat of a car. It's not that designers like Visceral or Frictional have forgotten about horror. It's that, in a blind rush to do something with the genre that's new, these guys have neglected everything save for monsters and combat. That's all horror is now. It's a weak mix of creatures and subversive mechanics. In Dead Space the enemies are all crazy arms. You have to - fnar fnar - shoot their limbs, not their bodies. In Amnesia, the monster has a wild face and you can't fight it at all. Slender, Outlast, Penumbra, Daylight - these games all trade on the same floor. As long as the creature looks weird (or distinctive enough to use in the promotional art) and the combat system is odd (odd enough that it'll draw a reaction from bored reviewers) the directors on these games seem satisfied. They've given up on horror as a quixotic ordeal. It's about what makes sense on a design document.

Pitch confusing puzzles to a publisher or focus group and sure, you'll get a negative (read: shortsighted) response. But put them in your game anyway and bang, you're scarier than everything else on the market. Because this is what horror is. Horror isn't safety or understanding - horror isn't about getting it. Horror is running through the woods not knowing what the Blair Witch looks like. Horror is turning a corner in the Overlook Hotel and coming face-to-face with two dead girls. Horror is the impossible milky innards of Ash, the surprise death of Father Karras. Horror is uncertainty, lack of agency, surprise. It's a puzzle where the solution is the last thing you'd expect, a mansion where guns are hidden in stuffed animals, a police station where the doors are unlocked with chess pieces.

It's about displacement, see? You take the player, put them in a seemingly banal environment, then flip that shit over. Think of the apartment block in Rosemary's Baby. It should be normal, but thanks to Polanski's low angles, and Cassavettes's always off kilter delivery, it doesn't feel right. Same goes for the mansion, or the RPD building. These are places players feel like they should recognise, but because the keys are all funny and the doors are all bolted by abstract locking systems, it's backwards - it's vaguely fucking wrong. Puzzles aren't important because they break up homogenous gameplay, or because they're a tip of the hat to point and click fans. They're fundamentally a part of horror because they pump, surreptitiously, misinformation into the player's mind. It's like listening to a pop song at three quarters speed. It isn't in your face - it isn't teasing you, smugly, that you can't kill the monster. It's benign. It's getting in your brain.

If you want to know where the horror really wasn't shot out of the barrel of a machine-gun, via an over-the-shoulder perspective. It was delicately written out. It was filtered away by a bunch of developers who thought that wrongfooting people was what it meant to be scary. Horror games today are the equivalent of a jump scare - they're in your face, with their massive conceits, yelling "GOT YA!".  It's all for show. It's all ironed-out and deliberate. Real horror is strange and abortive - it's rough and non-sensical. If people want scary back, they need to start hiding more keys in more tigers.