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Keith Stuart on: horror, madness and control

There is a famous phrase, often attributed to the Greek dramatist Euripides but likely much older: whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. The loss of control and identity that “madness” represents (and we should all be aware that madness is a colloquial term for an array of complex mental health issues) is a primal human fear – our sense of self is the only constant in our lives so to lose that is an unthinkable horror.

Naturally then, madness is, and always has been, a prominent theme of literature, art and cinema, from King Lear raging across the moors to Jack Nicholson smashing his way through a door in the Overlook hotel. In his book On Writing, Stephen King explains that the fundamental terror at the heart of The Shining, isn’t anything to do with bizarre mental powers or supernatural forces, it is about his own fear of isolation, frustration and creative impotency. The Shining is about Stephen King being driven mad by writer’s block.

But when video games explore the idea of madness, which they often do, there is an extra weapon in their arsenal. Games don’t just have to tell us about loss of control – they can make it happen. Good game design principles tell us that the player should have seamless, intuitive control over their on screen character(s) at all times – so to remove that is the most terrifying thing a game can do.

A recent example, of course, is Darkest Dungeon, a fairly familiar roguelike dungeon crawler, with an interesting Lovecraftian riff: if members of your party experience too much horror, they are driven insane, either becoming unpredictable and dangerous or simply dropping dead. It’s not a new feature, of course. The XCOM titles use a similar mechanic, while horror games like The Thing, Amnesia: Dark Descent and Eternal Darkness have all used “sanity meters”, or an equivalent, to simulate the human stress response. In most cases, if the gauge gets too high, the player-character becomes less efficient and reliable in some way. The controls turn on us.

The question I wanted to ask is, why is this so effective?