How Does Horror Work in Videogames?

Allison Road, Fear, And What My Dog Barks At In the Dark

Games Features Allison Road
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How Does Horror Work in Videogames?

My family’s dog Pokey used to get into these barking fits where he’d stare off into the distance, all teeth, yelling into the abyss. This always terrified me, because obviously there was a ghost in the house. It didn’t matter whether it was full daylight or deep into the night—I convinced myself that he knew something that I didn’t, that something was there. And it was going to hurt me. Allison Road is like that, except there definitely is something there. But the way it’s set up—going off the 13 minute gameplay trailer released early in its development—promises its players that they’re safe. That it’s all in their heads.

It’s not dark inside. There’s plenty of light, in fact—a table lamp huddling in the corner, decorative overhead lights throwing shadows in tangled patterns, fluorescent cabinet lighting washing out the counter below. Allison Road is not Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The setting is relatively disheveled—papers strewn about and dishes left in the sink—but there’s no real indication purely in the environment hinting towards any misdeed. It could be your house, or mine. But we know it’s a horror game; the creaks in the scuffed wooden floors and the music (or lack thereof) is the dog barking into nothingness. Something is wrong. But it’s never really clear what’s wrong, until it’s obvious.

A game like Allison Road works primarily because of perceived control. Horror films use lack of control—watching something scary happen rather than actively participating in it—to connect with viewers on a less intimate level. There’s a sort of camaraderie that draws viewers into horror films; watching a film allows viewers to distance themselves from what’s going on, and imagine what decisions they would have made in whatever situation arose in the film. Videogames remove that window. And a game like Allison Road takes things a step further, pushing past the fantasy elements that allow for some distance. Players are able to take control of a character that’s grounded in reality. That’s familiar. Allison Road creator Christian Kesler and his new studio, Far From Home, is going to great lengths to establish this reality—look at the bookshelves in the game, for instance. Each book appears to be individually crafted and explicitly detailed; there are books there one would expect to find in a family home, like the Divergent series or a family cookbook.

Perceived player control in Allison Road comes in when thinking about how the gameplay moves forward. Obviously, we don’t exactly know how that’ll work. The game isn’t out yet, and we’ve only got the gameplay footage to work from. Instead, consider gameplay in P.T., a Hideo Kojima game that heavily influenced Kesler’s work on Allison Road. The game feigns a lack of control by providing the player with no particular instructions. Players are able to roam around home as they please. Look at the radio, look away from the radio. Inspect a picture. There’s a sense that players are able beat the game with a series of correct movements or actions—to be the character in the horror film who makes it out alive. Or, at least, in my case, to be the character that hides in the closet until everything’s over.

But P.T. is a videogame. Allison Road is a videogame. Ultimately, the space has been deliberately designed. The control of the designer is flaunted through the game’s series of loops and locked doors. Despite being inaccessible, a room a player can’t enter can actually play a major role in the psychological nature of a videogame—especially horror. Maybe there are sounds seeping through the door frame, leaving a player desperate to know what’s behind. Locked doors pile on the insecurity of what’s unseen. It becomes an obsession. The same goes for P.T.’s endless series of loops; each time the player enters the door, something changes: the radio plays a sinister voice, the lights go red, or a new door is unlocked.

Dead Space utilizes a similar sort of control with locked and unlocked doors throughout the game; most notably, in the opening sequence. The player, as engineer Isaac Clarke, is locked out of the crew’s flight lounge, separated only by a large glass window. Necromorphs come crashing through the ceiling vents and kill the crew members on the other side of the glass. Clarke has no weapon; he can only watch what happens. It’s assumed that the door will eventually open and Clarke will be able to escape, but it’s not clear when or how he’ll get out. And when the door is unlocked, the only thing Clarke can do is run. Run, and don’t look back. Fear of the unknown is important in Dead Space, but necromorphs are more scary. The third-person perspective used in the game—especially in the opening sequence—heightens the fear as players know they have no weapon to face the monsters with; it’s clear just how close the necromorphs are to snatching Clarke.

Kesler gives Allison Road players a narrow scope of view, which is, naturally, similar to how real life works. But unlike a third-person game like Dead Space or a top-down videogame like Darkwood, which is scary in its own right, players will always have their back to something; what that is is up to the player. Early Resident Evil games took a different approach with similar results—In Resident Evil, Capcom used a fixed perspective, almost a security camera-esque view, to illustrate its control and obscure danger. There’s a different anxiety in Resident Evil’s lack of control compared to Allison Road’s; Resident Evil is clear that there’s a threat, while in Allison Road’s threat is implied.

First-person perspective is nothing new in videogames, but it’s not something attributed particularly to the horror genre a whole, except when it comes to found footage. Allison Road, like Resident Evil and its fixed camera angles, has a found footage vibe to it; what it comes back down to is perceived control. Horror films, especially found footage films, exist as a warning of what’s already happened; horror videogames like Allison Road, however, trick players into thinking they are steering the story, that they can change the ending.

Exactly what Allison Road has to offer has yet to be seen. Kesler has kept quiet about the game since it was first introduced. And that almost adds to the horror element. I hope it stays that way. Much of P.T.’s allure for many was that the hype surrounding it was vague. No one really knew what to expect; it wasn’t entirely clear to many that it was a Silent Hills teaser. I don’t want Allison Road to be like P.T. in a ton of ways, but if I had to choose one way, it’s going into it with less of an idea of what to expect.

And it all comes back to the nature of the unseen. That’s Allison Road, for me; it’s not being able to see whatever my dog is barking at. Not being able to hear what he hears. Though once the hype dies down, and Allison Road goes back into its quiet development, I’ll likely have to turn my back to it. Many of us will, I think. That’s what excites me most about Allison Road; it’s going to creep back up when we’ve all forgotten about it, and spook us just like it did the first time.

Nicole is a freelance writer and reporter. She has a cat named Puppy. Follow her (and Puppy) on Twitter.