Eek, A Ghost! or, The Role of the Supernatural in Video Games

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Yet another of my lengthy video game articles which seem to pretty much make up this blog at the moment, in which I attempt to look for the metaphorical creepy janitor underneath the poorly constructed cotton sheet of supernatural influences in games. Oh, and you can rest easy in the knowledge that I’ll not attempt another metaphor like that. This article is far shorter than the others I’ve written, because I seem to be even shorter on time this week than last week. Hopefully next week I’ll be back on form.

There are obvious places for the supernatural to feature in video games, just as there are certain types of films which you might expect a touch of the occult to feature. This genre is, of course, horror. However, while I will be mentioning the horror genre in video games frequently, in this article I’m also interested in looking at why games that otherwise seem like perfectly normal examples of the genre they’re classified within, sometimes use the supernatural as a kind of secondary feature to their games. After all, one can expect Doom 3 to feature zombies and whatnot to feature rather heavily, but one might not expect the inclusion of a ‘cursed gun’ in Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway.

So, first off, why exactly is the supernatural such a necessity when creating horror games? After all, films have of late moved away from the classic ‘ghosts and ghoolies’ style of horror to the ultra-realistic horror-thrillers such as Saw or Hostel. Video games have, admittedly, made a small move in that direction, thanks largely to Sega’s pipe-’em-up Condemned. However, even that game can’t resist letting the entire game go by without unexplaned (at the time) hallucinations and suchlike to give a supernatural feel to something which otherwise would have been equally pant-wetting. So, instead of following the film industry’s current trend, video games have remained focused on the traditional cast of things from beyond the grave.

Part of this is, as ever, down to the success of previous games using the formula – series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill showed exactly how effective using the supernatural in horror could be, and how profitable such games are to the creators. Once these games had passed, other games developers took note of the winning combination of atmosphere, shock tactics and the unpalatable nature of the monsters and zombies featured. As of late, the horror genre has moved away from a kind of ‘guns-blazing’ archetype, for a return to the old-school style of survival horror which was popularised by the Resident Evil and Silent Hill games. Due in part to the impending return of the Resident Evil series to the ‘next generation’ consoles, and perhaps just a general feeling of tiredness with the Doom 3 style of things, the games are now much more focused on each enemy being a challenge, rather than a scary thing to aim your gun at.

In any case, for the last decade or so, the supernatural element has been present in a large number of video games, and not just horror titles. After all, even Pac Man had ‘ghosts’ that you were meant to avoid. However, in more recent times, the supernatural world has been eclipsed somewhat by the rise of the zombie games. Technically a supernatural being, zombies have been in favour with western audiences for a very long time now, long after ghosts and other such horrors are left behind. There’s a reason for this, of course, and I would argue that it is simply the physical form them occupy. While ghosts can be scary as shit when used correctly, it’s not much fun for a player to be scared by them and not be able to fill them full of lead afterwards. Zombies cater to that audience very well, with their humanoid bodies, and already loose-fitting limbs. As FEAR 2 evidences, even when the palyer can hurt ghosts with bullets, it’s nowhere near as satisfying as blowing a rotting head open.

Within mainstream games, the appearence of something supernatural is almost always bad news. It’s an extremely rare occurance (outside of Fantasy games, which I’ll get to in due course) that you’ll come across a ghost, zombie or flesh-eating worm that has dialogue or character. Instead, they share the fate of the British in Hollywood films – to eternally play the ‘bad guys’ standing in front of the muscled American’s gun. However, unlike an unhealthy fixation with violence, the portrayal of the supernatural is the same pretty much across the board when you look at other forms of media. Barring the odd Sixth Sense type title, the supernatural world is generally all evil.

The game world does have a genre which includes the supernatural as people you can talk to, i.e. Fantasy, and Fable in particular always shows ghosts as lost souls rather than fiendish scaremongerers, intent in harvesting your organs to exchange for new chains. However, the vast majority still stick to the earthly = good, unearthly = bad scale of things. But why is this? One theory would be that would apply to all forms of media could be the fear of the unknown in ordinary life pervading popular culture and, with video games being such a young industry, the developers being unable to process that into any kind of meaningful concept outside of using it to create horror games. I realise this is much the same complaint that video games receive about story in games – that no matter what idea you bring to the table, a video game will always polarise it until it becomes a clichĂ©, and then act suprised when it’s called up on it. It appears that video games cannot really see past the idea of “Supernatural = ghost. Ghost = unknown quantity. Unknown quantity = scary.” and as a result we are stuck with the current crop of games for the forseeable future, in that respect.

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