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?
Thomas Grip, co-founder of Frictional Games and creative director on horror games Amnesia and SOMA, has a great answer: it is about toying with the player’s perception of the game world and their place in it.
“The thing to have in mind is that the exact make-up of a game – as in code and the abstract system underlying the simulation – is not a direct correspondence with what the player actually experiences,” he explains. “The player makes up their own imagined ‘game reality’ as they play, a so called mental model, and it is the shape of this mental model that forms how the player perceives the game to be. For instance, in a horror game, you want the player to view a monster as a lethal creature, and not as an abstract geometrical shape that deals out certain damage when close enough. When making a horror game your goal is hide the abstract notion from the player. You need to sell them a certain fiction and make them act in the game as if the fiction is true. The big problem is that the better the player gets at a game, the more abstract their view of the game becomes.”
So then, the best horror games are the ones that never let the player become comfortable with the challenge – or that exploit the player’s mental model and the game’s abstract systems for horrific effect. An example Grip gives is the inventory system which is especially common in survival horror games. This looks like an abstract system that the player should be able to manage and master, but the fact that space is so limited, and that players often have to discard objects creates a very real sense of anxiety which then subliminally feeds into the fiction of the game. As Grip puts it, “In the first Resident Evil titles, stress from inventory management can make the world feel more oppressive.” We see this too in all From Software’s titles, which deliberately obfuscate the inventory systems, making them complicated and limited. The player thinks they have control, but they don’t and the stressful complexities of the management screen leaves them vulnerable to the horrors awaiting within the game fiction.
There are other ways to use the loss of control as a fear mechanic. K Monkey is the creator of the acclaimed Dungeon Nightmare titles, which out psychological horror into procedurally generated horror chambers. “What I found after my first game is that players would bring up the map to pause so they could relax after something had happened,” he explains. “However, for Dungeon Nightmares 2, I decided to not allow you to pause the game at all. Even when reading something you picked up, or looking at your 3D map, or even pressing Escape to see the exit game menu, there is simply no mechanic in the game to let you pause. I wanted to take control away from the player to simulate fear… and it worked.”
We also often see games that take away abilities or items from the player, just when they need them the most. Again, this has a gameplay effect – it makes the level more challenging – but there is a more profound psychological impact: we feel as though we’re losing our sense of ourselves in the game world. “At the end of Outlast, you break your camera and suddenly lack one of the most important tools you have used throughout your experience,” says Grip. “Silent Hill 2 and Fatal Frame 2 also have similar segments where you are stripped of most of your items. This is a very nice way to increase the sense of dread.”
Hallucination has always been a reliable trope of horror cinema as it allows the viewer to actually experience the “madness” of the character. Film makers like David Cronenberg, David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky have experimented with this to sometimes startling effect. Video game developers are also able to play very complicated games with visual perception, reality and fear. In the sci-fi horror series Dead Space, for example, lead character Isaac Clarke is haunted by twisted visions throughout the adventure. The game’s director Michael Condrey had very specific intentions for these sequences, and the way they could marry the team’s interests in both science fiction and horror.
“We weren’t interested in telling a supernatural horror story: we wanted to deliver something more grounded in a semi-plausible and relatable reality,” he says. “Ridley Scott’s Alien captured that visceral feeling in film, and we wanted to deliver that to gaming fans. We knew that we were going to limit ourselves if there were no mysteries or unexplained events in the game – the idea of madness and hallucinations during extended time in deep space felt grounded and offered a good solution to our creative needs. This informed the rest of the story, which we used to reinforce acceptance of the theme in the player – as seen with the madness of Dr. Mercer, and Isaac’s attachment to Nicole.”
Dead Space, then, uses hallucinations as a way of projecting supernatural themes into an ostensibly realistic setting – and they are all the more frightening because they represent a primal loss of control in a highly technological environment. It’s a juxtaposition beautifully explore by Tarkovsky in the trippy Solaris and of course by Stanley Kubrick in 2001 – a gigantic paranoid hallucination in space.
While researching Dead Space, co-director Glen Schofield happened upon another source of fear that great horror games have exploited. “I spent some time at Wes Craven’s house in Hollywood – Steve McQueen used to own it,” he says. “We spent about four hours talking horror. His advice was to look for the most vulnerable part of your life – family. Nobody wants anything bad to happen to their family.”
Second only, then, to the horror of your own descent into madness, is the horror of watching it happen to loved ones. This is what’s really going on in Darkest Dungeon and XCOM and what makes those games so gripping – both feature teams of characters that we customise, upgrade, go on missions with, nurture and protect. So to see them losing it on the battlefield, running away, cowering, terrified – it hits all the terror centres in our brains.
But it’s important to realise that these mechanics of control and insanity don’t always work. While working on his latest project, the hugely promising tactical survival game Overland, designer Adam Saltsman toyed with including the sorts of psychological traumas someone may experience when alone in a post apocalyptic environment. “I first met Tyler [Sigman, designer of Darkest Dungeon] in 2014, we had a long drunken shouty talk about the sorts of things that could or should be possible in this space, things like psychological triggers, phobias, and other conditions were a strong focus for our internal Overland design efforts for a long time. Too long, in fact.”
But Saltsman realised that, in his game, it wasn’t working. “One of the reasons it works well in both XCOM and Darkest Dungeon is that a core mechanics of those games is basically rolling the dice. They have old war game/D&D roots in some ways, and to play the game at all is to sort of give up a little bit of perfect agency. Compare this to say Invisible Inc or Overland, where outcomes are more direct and at least in the short-term predictable, players aren’t necessarily psychologically opting in to a lack of control as a fundamental first step of playing, and I think it feels different.”
In short, there’s a reason why “madness” as a mechanic isn’t used more – it needs to happen within a universe that we expect to be somewhat arbitrary and based on chance. This is why, for example, Electronic Arts will never introduce refereeing errors into Fifa, even though this is an authentic part of the sport. It just doesn’t fit into the relationship between player and system.
Saltsman, however, has another concern with the use of “madness” as a gameplay element. “There is a very real risk of trivialising mental health issues by converting them into cold score-based game mechanics,” he says. “Darkest Dungeon is very thoughtful and smart here. It is using a kind of established setting – Mignola-esque Cthulhu – that is strongly anchored in fantasy and a genre that is anchored in romantic ideas about madness and psychosis, which in turn are the strong systemic hook of the game.”
Games like This War is Mine and Papers, Please have, however, shown how mental illness, depression and anxiety can become part of a game system, in a gritty authentic context, without trivialising those issues. It is a complex balancing act and one that developers will need to perfect as games continue to explore more mature and challenging themes.
One thing is certain: control is central to the video game experience, it’s why we play – and it’s why developers are so keen to experiment with it. Experienced gamers are extremely system literate, so to scare them, you have to allow them to improve at the mechanics and dynamics of a game, without ever allowing them to master the fiction. A monster must always be a monster, not a hit box with a damage value. But our reliance on systems makes us vulnerable to creators who know how to remove our sense of control. That is where real terror lies.
Condrey thinks we’re only just beginning to understand how effective this is. “The idea of losing one’s mind may be one of the most fundamental fears we all share,” he says. “I believe there are many untapped methods for games to explore this in a much deeper way – not just as a vehicle for scares, but on a much more profound level addressing many social and personal levels of anxiety, disorder, and fear. The recent Netflix hit, Making a Murderer, hit me on that level. The idea of losing all personal freedom and spending two decades in prison for a crime I didn’t commit – I might go mad.”
With both virtual and augmented reality games on the way, our understanding of control, and what it means in an immersive fictional environment, is about to leap into a new paradigm. The gods are only just warming up.