Halloween has come and gone and my only big scary thing was troubleshooting corrupted drivers preventing my computer from starting. But ‘tis the season. What better time to talk about scary stuff?
Now survival horror isn’t my genre of choice, so for all the games I’ve played only a handful could be called ‘scary.’ That’s fine though, the internet’s already got plenty of scariest game lists to go around. And unless you’re looking for a game you haven’t played, I don’t find them that interesting. So instead I’ll come at this from a new angle: fear in multiplayer games. I’ve seen Day Z on at least one of these lists, and it’s definitely the big zombie hit of the year. There’s plenty I love about Day Z, but for all its tension I didn’t find it scary very often. I role played my part in the zombie apocalypse my first few lives, but after learning the ropes other players became the only real threat. Zombies just became indicators to myself and others that another player was nearby. Granted, Day Z has plenty of tension. But while tension is needed to create fear, not all tension is fear. There was a paranoia in Day Z from the knowledge that I could drop dead without warning. This happened several times. I never saw it coming, and it wasn’t scary in the slightest.
Fear is seeing the end coming; staring it dead in the face as it steps towards you in that dark alley. You’re already imagining the knife pressing into you before it even produces the blade. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to do. You’re stuck helplessly reliving the agony of a moment that hasn’t even happened yet.
A key here is feeling helpless, whether or not you actually are. For a multiplayer game this means creating asymmetry between the sides. One of my favorite modes in competitive multiplayer, Survivor from Aliens vs. Predator 2 (AVP2,) took this to the next level by giving one side an unfair advantage. It played much like the now-popular last stand cooperative modes where a group fights off endless waves of enemies, not to defeat the attackers, but simply delay defeat as long as possible. The main difference is that the alien attackers were other players in AVP2. Starting as a lone player, they could respawn endlessly and converted each human killed to their team. It created an interesting escalation from quiet tension early on, accentuated by distant bursts of gunfire, to desperately fighting off an endlessly surging horde of aliens. As it nears the end the humans are inevitably holed up in a dead end. There is no way out, and they’re lucky if that corner of the map has enough ammo to keep all of them going. On top of being cornered, AVP2 has the scary influence of the Aliens license going for it. From the skittering killing machines themselves, to that iconically pinging motion tracker that lets you know there is indeed something you can’t see out there that wants to kill you. All together this mode created a unique feeling of really being overwhelmed.
Despite what it did to create those scary moments, AVP2 often had too much action to let your inevitable death sink in. Even then, it was only scary for one side. But there’s at least one game I know that beautifully created this tension and fear for both sides, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow.
Multiplayer came down to a cat and mouse game between high tech modern day ninjas, and some all around badass soldiers in various dimly lit settings. It was a perfect balance between stealth and strength, where each side could quickly find themselves powerless against the other depending on how things played out. A lot of the tension comes from a more sophisticated form of the paranoia Day Z creates. While in both games you can go from minding your own business to doomed in seconds, in Splinter Cell it was rarely without warning. The game did a much better job of clueing you into how and where the other team was preparing to kill you. An open vent could be a sign someone was just here, passed through minutes ago, or intentionally left a trail to lure you into a trap. It’s more obvious how this made things scary for the slow, oblivious defending troops, but the agents saw it too. For all their tools and sneakery they were very fragile, and had a harder time reacting on the fly when things went wrong. You and your teammate could position yourselves to corner a lone soldier. But where is his teammate, and did you count 5 or all 6 of their trip mines on the way in? You may have only seconds to decide if this is your opening or a trap they set for you.
To be fair, neither AVP2 nor Splinter Cell are ‘that’s it, I’m turning on the lights and not playing any more’ scary. They’re not horror, but they do create fear in ways that most multiplayer games only stumble into by chance. The thing is there hasn’t been a big push to try and create scary multiplayer games like this. Action has long been the most popular genre in multiplayer and games in general, and most go for the simpler, more accessible symmetrical balance.
On the other hand we have Day Z this year as a sign that less accessible and non-traditional multiplayer have a large, untapped audience too. AVP2’s survivor and Pandora Tomorrow certainly didn’t start trends in their time, but then they didn’t have the runaway success Day Z has seen.