Posts Tagged ‘hope’
(This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post. If you haven’t read that, you might want to before reading this.)
I’m going to start by saying that action-horror is weak sauce. It’s cheap. It’s easy. All you need to do to make action horror work is play a combat game where the deck is stacked against the players, making combat scary and lethal. Oh, and fight “monsters” that are either traditional horror creatures (vampires, werewolves, etc.) or fight “indescribable things with lots of tentacles.”
So, when someone tells me “let’s do a horror game,” that weak crap is the farthest from my mind. Granted, there are similarities. Combat in horror is fucking deadly. Some stuff is indescribable. But I look deeper, into character motivations, and find the true gem of horror there.
The trick is creating a situation where the players feel similar hopes, hopes beyond “I want my character to keep living so I can keep playing” — which is the only thing action horror really threatens. How do we do that? We make it so that the game emotionally manipulates the hell out of the player, that’s how. Which means looking at carrots and sticks.
(“Carrots” are ways in which the game rewards certain behavior. “Sticks” are ways in which the game punishes certain behavior. Google for more game design theory. Or just, you know, design games for more design theory.)
I like using carrots to facilitate building of hope. Let’s say we have a character with the hope “I want to keep my daughter safe.” That’s an easy hope, one of survival but not focused on self-survival. What we want to do it create a carrot around that hope. A carrot that encourages repeated use, in order to create an environment where that hope is continually desired or sought out.
That is to say, we’re engineering gaming Stockholm Syndrome. I have no shame in saying that. Gaming is like most of creative communal activities, in that they’re about positive emotional manipulation.
To explain how I’d do it, let’s use Fate as a baseline. (It’s almost like I’m preparing notes for a game I’ll release Friday…) I would treat that hope as an aspect. But here’s the kicker: I need you to want to engage in that aspect easily, more easily than any other one on your sheet. So I don’t just want to ask you for a Fate point for said aspect. If I do, it’s the same as your High Concept aspect or Inner Demon aspect or your Relationships to the other PCs aspects.
No, this Hope Aspect can be invoked for free. If you can justify it, you can invoke it. And I’ll be kind on the justification. That will cause people to want to engage that part of their character in the fiction. You, as the player, will be constantly telling me why your daughter’s safety makes its way into the game. You’ll be tricking your own brain into caring about that. I, as the GM, will only have to push buttons to make you describe how you care.
This gets into horror gaming theory I call “stimuli vs response.” As a GM, I have providence over one of two things: what situation provokes a response, or what response you give. I cannot give you both without risking you checking out of the game entirely. I can say “A monster comes in the room!” but leave how you response up to you (and potentially the dice, with “A monster comes in the room! Roll your Withstand Horror skill.”)
Or I can say “Something comes in the room and your blood chills.” — but I can’t tell you what that thing is. I have to ask you what would cause your character’s blood to chill at that moment. That’s because if I tell you something that you can’t buy, then I’ve told you something that takes you out of your character’s mindset.
(I have a lot more tricks for that, but this post isn’t on that subject.)
With a Hope aspect, I have the tools to provide stimuli, in the form of threatening something you as a player have defined as caring about. And you can respond to situations presented by invoking that Hope to get out of a jam. So far, a win win. You’ve defined something you care about in your character and continue bringing it up.
Here’s where I’ll stop for today. I have the player side of this, a carrot they can use that causes them to continue re-engaging with their character’s hope, and in a way that causes the player to potentially survive the game longer. (And I mean player: with the character out of commission, the player is done playing.) Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the other side of this, and how to turn this carrot into a force of torment and hell.
 Not that I have anything against tentacles. I’m not racist or anything.
I wrote this article on my old LiveJournal a couple years back. I want to talk about it some more this week, so this Monday post will be reposting & editing that old article.
We’re awash in a sea of horror media in month. In an age of slasher flicks and tributes to the triplet gods of Gratuity, Shock Value & Special Effects, I feel that some people have lost sight of what something means to be “horror.”
I’m not particularly interested in the tropes & trappings of horror these days. Things like werewolves, gushing blood, creepy houses, etc., bore the hell out of me. It’s the themes of horror that turn my crank. Naked of the genre trappings, you could say it’s about fear. After all, characters in horror media are often afraid, and we as media consumers are often afraid for them.
But fear alone lacks meaning. I’m afraid of spiders–but my life, even a YouTube moment where I’m locked in a room with a tarantula (and if you try that, I will cane you), isn’t horror. In fact, it’s closer to dark comedy than anything else, very much schadenfreude.
So how does fear become something with meaning? When you couple it with hope. The core of a horror story is the turbulence of hope. And it’s not just character hope, but hope being built up in the media consumer.
The reason that my being scared of spiders isn’t horror (for anyone other than me, jesus man) is because there’s no hope displayed or at risk for the consumer of that that media. The reason that zombies trying to get to the characters in Night of the Living Dead is horror is because hope has built up and is being threatened.
Hope is not an instantaneous thing to ask of a media consumer. To build up a reader/viewer’s sense of hope, we have to see the character express two things:
(1) a sense of the character’s relationship to the world outside of an immediate crisis situation;
and (2) a sense that investing hope in a character would pay off if they survive.
Furthermore, you need two more elements to make it horror:
(3) a sense that the risk to the characters, and thus to your hope for them, is real and in a manner that is irrevocable;
and (4) for that risk to be somehow alien or mysterious, and thus be unpredictable
Let’s look at #1. Now, if you just start off a movie with a gruesome murder of a teenage couple necking on Secluded Murder Point, that isn’t something we’ve invested hope in. Hell, we’re probably expecting them to die. In a vacuum, that’s not horror, it’s just a snuff film. But, as an opener to a film, it establishes the sense of risk, the threat to our hope for these characters,especially if the early victims resemble our main characters. (And if they don’t, the filmmaker is fucking it up.)
To really get a sense of hope, we need to see the main characters interact outside of the crisis. In some films, you see that interaction in the first act, before the Threat has been presented as targeting the main characters. Other files, like The Cube, the threat is immediately dangled in front of us. Still, even though the characters start off in the crisis, there’s time for interactions with one another that we learn about them and are able to hook into hoping for them.
Which is to say: downbeats are way crucial for a horror story. (Of course, you could just read Hamlet’s Hit Points for a fantastic education on the subject.)
With #2, we need a sense that hoping for these people will pay off if they survive. This is where I see the biggest problem with some people who build games that focus on party death as the absolute end-state. If, going in, you know that all the characters are going to die, then you’ve completely cut the balls out from the sense that hope will pay off. If the characters are destined to die, it’s more akin to tragedy than horror.
That is, you have if the most important thing from a hope perspective is survival. On the other hand, if you know that a character going to die, you can re-shift back to horror by investing hope in them achieving something important before they do. (Or, to give some Lovecraft love out, hope they can achieve this before they go mad–the mental equivalent of death.)
(Aside: once you’ve seen a story, you know which characters are destined to die. Why then can you re-watch/re-read a horror story? Because of emotional memories attached to horror beats in it — because you know what’s coming, you can slightly re-experience it. But, it isn’t the same. However, that doesn’t turn it into a tragedy, because no one is building into the framework upfront that specific or all characters are fated to die.)
Now, the modern American horror movie makes the hope focused on survival, and my language shows that, but that needs not be the case. Indeed, hoping that you can do some good before you go insane or turn into a monster hope enough for horror. (My language also shows a bias towards film.)
That said, the most important part of #2 is that you have to want the hope to be justified. Some characters are set up as clear victims early on, that aren’t worth investing hope. When they die early, they tend to do so in order to serve point #3. (Though, when they don’t, that downbeat gives them a chance to redeem themselves in the eyes of the audience, potentially creating a powerful sense of hope as guilt for wanting them to die or at least not caring is mixed in.)
I should make it clear that we don’t have to hope for what the character is hoping for. The classic B-movie T&A horror flick actually works on this–what the viewer is hoping for is to see topless the hot girl who is shy about taking her clothes off, and, well, to see it again. When they’re Threatened, our hopes for that (or for that again) is risked. Granted, this is actually a very low hope because the characters are being objectified rather than sympathized, but I think it’s important to note the distinction between character hope & consumer hope, and that it’s consumer hope that matters.
Of course, we can also hope *for* the demise of a character, and this sometimes works as well, especially when that hope isn’t fulfilled immediately because the character survives — but in this case, the hope continues to exist…until we’re made to feel guilty for it as I mention above.
Anyway…so we have downtime to invest hope in characters and justification that the hope will be worthwhile when paid off. And #3 has been mentioned–a need to see that the risk to the characters is real. Otherwise, we actually don’t need to hope very much, as instead we assume.
(#4 is something worth talking about in another post, because it’s the thing that separates horror from romance.)
In a sense, that’s another reason why the YouTube video with me threatened by a spider is not horror — we don’t know what’ll happen if I’m bit. But in Arachnaphobia (man the fuck alive I hate that film), we see what the spiders do to people. The sense of Threat is very real, which is the bit of magic required to make hope matter.
So, here’s the interesting part: by hoping, we’re actually doing something engaging with the work even though it can’t respond to us. Our hope for a broader thing, like “I hope the brother and sister survive” turns laser-focused with each scene and its immediate Threat, like “I hope that the sister doesn’t stop to investigate the noise she just heard!” Or, to call upon that classic stereotype, “Girl, get out of the house!” Yes, that classic stereotype of that dude yelling at the movie screen is a very clear example of this engagement at work.
Consider: even if you’re not yelling it, you’re at least definitely thinking it.
And that’s important, because it’s those little hopes being rewarded or crushed that make horror a roller-coaster ride. When it’s crushed, that’s both a disappointment and a relief, because you no longer have to continue putting your emotional energy into that hope. On the other hand, hope can string you along for scene after scene, and trick you right at the end. (Remember the part in Deep Blue Sea when Samuel L. Jackson’s character started to get his dramatic, inspiring speech on, only to be very quickly and unceremoniously killed by the shark from out of nowhere? That’s a dramatic example of this happening–admittedly not from a great movie, but that’s my go-to example. Deal.)
Spurned hope can turn into a lot of other things, like anger (“Motherfucking shark!”) or bargaining (“Okay, well, they can’t really kill any more characters, can they?”). But the problem is that, if the writer isn’t careful, they’ll spurn hope too often, which leaves us with the double-edged sword of the horror genre: it requires the threat of hope to work, but if that hope is threatened too often or taken too much, then the consumer stops putting energy into hoping and the emotional payoff of the story is lost.
That’s all for now. My plan for the rest of this week, should I choose to accept it, is to write about how hope in horror is injected in our games. (I may also talk about how cheap and weaksauce action horror is in gaming, because, hey, soap box.)