On Flashlights

A key aspect of almost all horror games is how the player interacts with darkness: a darkness which is, perhaps, the most universal aspect of the horror genre itself. Usually in a game the player is given a source of light with which to combat the darkness, be it literally like in Alan Wake, or psychologically like in Amnesia. Importantly, the player can’t just have an unlimited source of light–this makes him or her far too powerful over the darkness. The player must be made, to an extent, powerless. Most games, like both Alan Wake and Amnesia, implement a system of resource drainage. Using the light reduces the amount of immediate time you’ll be able to use it, making it an incredibly valuable resource. Sometimes, the developers choose a more direct approach to manipulating the player’s ability to wield light, for example scripting times when the light is on or off.

The first F.E.A.R. game opts for the former method. You always have access to your flashlight (as far as I remember), but using it quickly drains its battery. The amount of time you can keep your flashlight on is, all things considered, fairly short. Enough so that when, faced with a wall a darkness through which you must travel, you are (well, I was at least) often worried about whether or not you’ll be able to make it through to the light on the other side without your flashlight dying. I would often try to run through the dark areas, and if my flashlight was running low, I’d run to a corner and hide while my flashlight recharged (don’t judge me, that was the first time I played a horror game). The point is, in addition to fearing the dark, the flashlight mechanic adds a great deal of tension. Not only do you fear what could happen or be in the darkness, but you have your most valuable tool at your disposable to constantly worry about. The combination feeds itself. Fearing that your flashlight will run out makes you fear even more the impending darkness.

F.E.A.R. 2, however, went with a different flashlight mechanic. I can’t remember if your flashlight slowly drains or not, but regardless, I never feared that my flashlight would run out of power. Instead, at pre-scripted scary events, your flashlight begins to flicker or go out. This does a great job in building up dread, but feels a bit contrived. It makes sense in the story–the presence of Alma always affects your electronics–but it made me feel like the developers were taking a little too much control. That control, however, turned out to be very effective. It made some parts far more frightening than they would have been if I had been able to hide in a corner and let my flashlight recharge. Taking that control away from me made me feel powerless. At first, I guess that’s why I didn’t like it, but then I realized that that’s what makes it so effective. Not only did it give the developers the ability to formulate scarier events, but the mere feeling of powerlessness that it gives the player generates a lot of emotional tension. Especially in a first person shooter, the player expects to always have power over the environment. Taking that power away, however, makes the player frustrated and more susceptible to fear. In the F.E.A.R. games the player always has access to his guns, but you need light to see what you’re shooting at. Thus in F.E.A.R. 2 when your control of the flashlight is taken away, you suddenly go from being a bad-ass gunman to being powerless and alone in the dark. That contrast makes it all the more effective.

On a whole, the idea of stripping power from the player–of having forces far beyond the control of the player–is definitely one that I’m going to explore in Katabasis. It is, of course, a major theme of my game, though I’m still trying to figure out how to implement it on a larger scale. Lately I’ve been trying to decide what mechanics I want to use for the flashlight. I think stripping the player of that power altogether could work very well, but lacks the contrast compared the player’s feelings of power whilst wielding a flashlight, making it thus rather ineffective. If the player never has a source of light, they won’t really notice the lack thereof, and if the did, they’d just be annoyed about it. I’ve decided that I want the player to have to go through much of the cathedral I’ve been working on without a flashlight, but how can I ensure that? I could, like the first F.E.A.R., make the player worry about their resources and thus attempt to use their light as little as possible. But that wouldn’t give me the control that I want, nor take away the player’s power like I want to do. I could, like F.E.A.R. 2, script the flashlight to supernaturally die at points while in the cathedral, or perhaps to run out of batteries shortly after or before the player enters the cathedral. But the former wouldn’t really make sense in my story, and the latter would probably feel very contrived.

The best option I’ve come up with is to make the flashlight like the guns. The player will begin with a few guns, all of which have a set amount of ammo, which is never replenished throughout the game. You have only what you start out with, and it’s up to you to ration it out. So why not do the same for the flashlight? Perhaps you start only with the battery that is already in there, and when that runs out, it’s done. I’d probably try to time so that for most players it’d run out around when they enter the cathedral. I’m really excited about this non-replenishing resources idea. As the game goes on, the player’s resources will become more and more scarce, which, easily on my part, will add a slowly mounting tension throughout the game. At least I hope it will.

And that is that. I was going to post some screenshots of where the cathedral is now (it’s come pretty far since the last post), but as this post turned out pretty long, I think I’ll hold off until later today or tomorrow to do that.

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