Doors, Stairs, Fog

Putting August, with its theme of tricks, and October, with its theme of dread, so close to one another is an interesting kind of mirroring because they undeniably share some space. There’s a trick to horror, and there’s a trick to designing good horror. Much of horror in my experience can be about learning something, and that means that good horror often relies about controlling your attention.

It’s something videogames have going on that many games that I design don’t. Videogames give you a camera, of sorts, that you control, of sorts, and that means that you’re often left with the illusion that you have control over what you see, how and when.

It’s that overlap of tricks. The way that games divide up levels sometimes relates to the way a videogame has to load information. I know that for me, game design that treats the back of the card as a point of tension, where one card that has important information is just sitting there and you can’t be sure if it’s the difference between success or failure. And really, isn’t that root to a lot of card tricks? What’s next, it asks. What’s here.

I sometimes wonder about cardbacks that look like doors. Like every revelation is just flipping another door open and seeing what’s behind it.

The videogame wants to control your attention and interrupt it with the right kind of reaction. What this means is that most horror stories that use the space as part of their narrative benefit from the invisible devices we use that control our attention already. You don’t, typically, look at doors. You don’t look at the familiar ones. A videogame can get you used to a door and used to stairs really quickly, just use them a few ways without making them difficult and suddenly they’re just part of the terrain. You don’t think about how they control what you can or can’t see, up or down them. You don’t think about the way that the game is making navigating its space an element it can use to control you by giving you control.

Horror games sometimes get criticised for existing in spaces that don’t make sense, which is a criticism I guess follows upon how every other horror media tends to rely on unreal spaces.

But it’s something that’s there, the things that control our attention. Doors and stairs are good indoors, of course. But outdoors, the most obvious natural ways to diminish our abilities to perceive things is – well, darkness. But darkness doesn’t control what you can see, not really – it controls how whether or not you can see at all.

To make an outdoor space confusing, to make it so that there’s something you accept as present and then start to ignore, you want fog.

You want a way to make people think they have control.

So that they don’t.

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