I’ve been experimenting with scrying recently. Turns out you can do these things without a budget. I just fill the bath with an inch of Cif, straddle it with one leg on either side and stare straight down into the yellow ooze until the fumes cause me to start seeing visions. It usually only takes about half an hour to get to the good stuff, and while I thoroughly recommend it you should be sure to have a friend or spouse to hand in case you pass out and fall in.
Last time I did this I got a crystalline vision of where horror videogames, or at least one of them, needs to go next. Check this monumentally fucked up creature out:
That robot’s called BigDog. It is the pride of the Boston Dynamics robotics design company. Needless to say, it’s also one of the most abnormal and unsettling things ever created by man.
Robots as subjects of horror is obviously nothing new. You’ve got the dedicated murderers of the Terminator universe, the sinister escapees of Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Blowjobs and the million permutations of killer robots to be found in pulp fiction. But watching that video of BigDog, it’s hard to shake the idea that they’ve all been doing it wrong.
When creating scary robots we always seem to focus on the same two ideas- that robots are like, really strong, and that they have one-track robot minds. How is it possible for us to be so unimaginative when the real-life horror of robots is staring us right in the face? These things are so deeply rooted in the uncanny valley that even when we’re making them for real life practical purposes they’re unsettling. Look at these robots showcasing superhuman speed or dexterity! Look at this Chemical Brothers video about robots haunting a member of the public! Look at this ant robot! That last one might not be too scary until you imagine 40 of them repossessing your home, brick by brick, as resistant to your pathetic attacks as basketballs.
I was going to link to Honda’s Asimo robot in that last paragraph, but I just read a YouTube comment pointing out how he runs like he has a boner and now I can’t take him seriously. Nevermind.
Anyway, by and large it’s a perfect fit. The robots we’re building today display the same characteristics that we tend to invent for the weird organic creatures you fight in horror games. Jerky, indecisive movement? No evidence of a mind? Superhuman ability? No eyes? Unable to stop making very strange noises? Check, check, check, check, check.
As modern robotics (or at least unmanned drone technology) becomes more and more practical, we’re going to see more horror games playing up to society’s insecurities about these new, unliving beings we find ourselves hearing more and more about. I just want somebody to get it started already.
In particular I had this robot-centric vision of Dead Space, except it was called The Last Welder. Or maybe Welded Shut, or perhaps simply Weldead. Here’s how it went:
In 25th Century deep space, a man by the name of Isaac Clarke has just lost his job aboard the USG Ishimura. Advances in robot welding technology has made even his incredible welding expertise redundant. Beer in hand, Isaac makes his way aboard the small lifeboat which will sink him into a deep freeze and pilot him home, to Earth.
Isaac awakes as the game begins. He’s not on Earth. He’s back on the USG Ishimura, and something’s gone terribly wrong.
Throughout the game Isaac pieces together what happened. After he left the Ishimura the welding robots performed their tasks with such competence and speed that the engineering staff realised they didn’t need quite so many and planned to shut a couple down. In a tragic confusion of priorities, the welding robots saw this decision as in conflict with their need to complete any and all welding tasks that arrived. As the welding robots began disobeying the crew, the crew became more and more desperate to shut them down, causing the robots to respond more and more drastically.
When Isaac makes his unexplained return he finds the entire crew has been welded… to death! As he searches for a way off the ship he finds the final piece of this puzzle- the maddened, broken welding robots read Isaac’s personnel file, and became so scared that his welding expertise might put them out of a job that they called his lifeboat back to kill him.
The Last Welder keeps Dead Space’s central mechanic of cutting off limbs, but what I don’t want to keep is Dead Space being an action game and generally not being very scary. Here’s how we could fix that.
To break it down, Dead Space wasn’t scary because, like F.E.A.R., the action-based core mechanics (in this case the excellent controls of Resident Evil 4) were so much fun they hobbled the horror. The most horror either game could muster was a spooky atmosphere and the occasional jump scare.
It comes down the basic fact that when your only means of interacting with monsters is shooting them, and doing so is a satisfying and simple process, you have nothing to be a afraid of. Either something’s going to try and hurt you and you’ll be able to shoot it, or you won’t be able to shoot it and it won’t be able to hurt you.
Horror games need to take control away from the player. If you look at the original Resident Evil games or the first few Silent Hills, the controls are terrible. The combat is terrible. The dramatic camera angles make it harder to see what the fuck is going on. As much as these “flaws” were criticised at the time (by imbeciles and perverts) they were all conscious development decisions. In a horror game, when monsters are coming at you there needs to be a sense that you’re not in control of the situation. If you’re in control of the situation, you’re in control of the monsters. If you’re in control of the monsters, what are you afraid of?
The only time Dead Space’s combat provided a glimmer of horror was when you threw an entire clip at a… Necromorph? I had to look that up. When you shot at a Necromorph and missed consecutive times, you sometimes got the distant fear that you’d run out of ammo further down the line. This was scary because not having any ammo was the only way you’d lose control of your situation.
Ultimately it rarely came to anything because Necromorphs always go down with enough firepower and you’ve always got those shops where you can buy ammo, but I want to expand on this idea. Likewise, the most tense moments in Resident Evil 4 were when you were being attacked from multiple sides and had to keep turning back and forth, which poked a hole in the control scheme’s biggest weakness- your limited field of vision and slow turning speed. Since Dead Space uses the same controls, I want to expand on this too.
So, combat in The Last Welder would be about welding. The projectile weaponry you carry will only knock robots back, stagger them, or temporarily disable them. To finish them off you’d need to run up and use your ultra-high temperature welding gun on them to slice off vulnerable bits. Except these short-range welding guns are also what the robots are equipped with.
So, to finish robots off you’d have to run into melee range to use your welding gun, but while you’re focused on your welding you’d be leaving your back and sides open to a welding attack. So, you’ve got a game where trouble with a given fight can absolutely drain all of your ammo (because the robots get back up), and in creating this need to run into groups of enemies you amplify the one scary part of the Resident Evil 4 control scheme- the horror of being surrounded.
The simplest of combat scenarios in The Last Welder might begin with you shooting a robot against a wall, running up to finish it off and then having a second robot lurch out from a side door a couple of feet away. You turn, shoot the new robot, shoot it again, and quickly turn back to start welding the first robot. Except now you’re worrying- that second robot’s going to be getting up and grabbing you any second, and as you’re thinking about where you shot that second robot and what you shot it with you start the slow-but-steady welding minigame to burn off the first robot’s welding arm, which (unlike destroying the tougher core) leaves the robot disarmed, but still able to charge you and bull you over
Are you in control? Are you fuck. And that’s before we introduce robots that have started modifying themselves to travel on ceilings (well out of welding range), carry human weaponry (which serves to knock you and your protective suit around in the same way you knock around the robots), and smaller ant bots which creep up with the tiniest whirring noise to quickly weld one of your boots to the floor, necessitating that you burn yourself free.
Because you don’t want to see the animation that happens when a big, half-ton robot charges you when one of your feet is fused with the ground. Your only option in that situation would be to shoot the would-be chargers, staggering them, and quickly turn to face your boot, praying, praying you can get yourself free before they get back up. You can look back up and check on them, of course- but doing so resets your progress of welding yourself free.
Ah, yes. That’d be some good shit. Back in reality, here’s the freshly leaked trailer for Dead Space 2. It’ll be good, sure, but it still won’t be a horror game.