Feature: Why AR Horror Just Isn't Cutting It
Posted by Philip J Reed
In the case of the first core requirement of horror gaming, the atmosphere, it's compromised in these 3DS titles and exchanged for the novelty of bringing the game into the "real world" around you. Unfortunately we already know that the real world isn't infested with ghouls and hellbeasts, so it's difficult for a player to suspend disbelief. There's a reason that horror typically transports us to areas beyond the scope of our experience: it's the unknown that stirs up the greatest fears. Whether that location is Castle Dracula, The Village of the Damned, City 17 or even Silent Hill it's, to some variable extent, something different. It's an area we don't know with rules we might not understand, and we're unnerved immediately upon arrival. Playing a game that takes place in your living room, with your furniture, your possessions and your pets reminding you every second that there's really nothing to fear, the horror simply doesn't come.
Additionally, the technological limitations of the 3DS mean that you're expected to play these games with good lighting. The oldest and simplest source of fear is mere darkness. It's easy, it's effective, and it's cheap, which is why it's used as genre short-hand for "things are about to get bad." Spirit Camera in particular doesn't let you advance the plot unless you're playing in a well-lit area, which keeps any genuine atmosphere far beyond its reach. The Hidden is even worse as it requires you to leave your home in order to play later levels, meaning you'll find yourself in a coffee shop or a bus terminal where you'd be even less likely to find yourself embattled by the forces of darkness, and where others who are in those areas probably won’t be too respectful of the spooky atmosphere you're attempting to maintain.
It's not that these games couldn't have been capable of cultivating an evocative and frightening atmosphere, it's that they decided not to. Rather than create worlds, they decided to use the world that was already around you. We'll talk more about this later, but for this point, it's safe to say that unless you actually live in a haunted mansion yourself, it's unlikely that you'll be unnerved by the environments of either game.
It (The Hidden) might be a game about survival, but it sure isn't a game about survival horror.
Secondly, we need things that could actually scare us. Once again, these games fail to provide this, each by way of their particular gameplay quirks. In the case of The Hidden, the swarming beasties you need to defeat look like generic stuffed animals with silly faces. They simply aren't very frightening visually, and since their appearances are clearly telegraphed and you're rarely in any danger of being caught unaware by a mob of enemies, The Hidden can't even fall back on cheap scares. In most other games, you could make up for this by having enemies appear from behind unlikely objects, or to rain down upon you from behind a door you never should have opened. Since The Hidden wants to use your actual environments as its backdrop, and since it has no idea what those environments might be or how enemies could plausibly hide there, it doesn't bother. A character tells you to beware of onslaught, the onslaught comes, and you blast them silly. It might be a game about survival, but it sure isn't a game about survival horror.
Spirit Camera errs somewhat differently, mainly by requiring and frequently utilizing a pack-in pamphlet called the Diary of Faces. This real-world, physical object needs to be periodically inspected through the 3DS camera which, when it comes to immersing a player in horror, serves as more of an obstacle than a facilitator. The 3DS strains to recognize the pages sitting right in front of it, and you are sometimes asked to flip through the book at random until you find the page it's looking for. Being as the recognition of this object is so poor, that can take several complete run-throughs of the Diary, all while you're flipping back and forth, adjusting the angle of the 3DS, turning up the lights, and basically doing all manner of mundane, practical things that are not even slightly conducive to horror. By the time you find the correct page and a scary face grows out of it, or something, you're more relieved to see the game progressing again than you are frightened by whatever just happened.
This is another reason AR horror just isn't working; its scares, for technological reasons, need to be telegraphed. If a scary face is going to come out of a book, that can be scary. But when the game requires you to meticulously create a scenario in which that is possible, it's easy to guess what's coming, and the simple surprise — and subsequent scare — is lost before it ever comes. As mentioned in our Spirit Camera review, one of the game's most gruesome surprises is artlessly revealed before the game even begins, by requiring us to take a picture of our face and then informing us that the game's main villain is...running around stealing faces. If you can't see where this is headed long before you get there, you're probably not old enough to be playing these games to begin with.
Thirdly, we need detail. Without an adequate level of detail, the scary worlds these games attempt to build would, simply, fall apart. It's the same reason we laugh when we see things we aren't supposed to notice in bad films. We see a string holding up a flying saucer, or a hose poking in from off camera and spraying red paint that we're supposed to believe is blood. Every medium of entertainment requires a certain amount of artifice, of course, but we aren't supposed to be able to see the seams. In both The Hidden and Spirit Camera, practically all we see are seams.
Whether it's The Hidden informing us that we can't progress to stage 2 unless we travel to some other wireless hotspot or Spirit Camera informing us of yet another camera malfunction, we're reminded all too frequently that we're playing games. When we see these characters stumbling about our living rooms it might make for an interesting experience, but then we see them walk through solid objects, or jitter like mad because nobody can hold a 3DS perfectly steady for very long.
While the technology hasn't evolved to a point where any of this is possible, it does suggest that developers are jumping the gun with AR horror.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that these characters and creatures don't behave as though they’re in our homes. They're not knocking things over or interacting unexpectedly with our belongings. They don't comment on their surroundings because they're not aware of them. While the technology hasn't evolved to a point where any of this is possible, it does suggest that developers are jumping the gun with AR horror. Unless these characters can react to what's around them, what's the point of having them there? Far from making it seem like they're in our homes, it makes it seem more like they're passive creations that behave in ways completely independent of where they are. Instead of reacting to us, as they should, they react to nothing...which is far from compelling behaviour.
That's why these games fail in their levels of detail. They simply can't be very detailed, because they don't know anything about us, or where we live, or what they will find there. Because they don't know that, they're limited in what they can do, and so they often do nothing, either by having enemies swarm disinterestedly around our heads as in The Hidden, or by having them stand like cardboard cutouts and hope that'll scare you for some reason in Spirit Camera.
Interestingly, however, there is one glaring exception to the rule of inadequate horror available for the 3DS: Resident Evil Revelations.
Whether or not you find Revelations scary is going to be a matter of taste, but it's clearly the most effective at what it sets out to do. Its atmosphere is brilliantly realised and maintained, scares of both shock and disorientation abound, and the level of detail is simply stellar. The dialogue isn't great and the plot is as unnecessary and convoluted as ever, but escape from the Queen Zenobia feels both urgent and unlikely. The sense of such profound isolation at sea is perfect, and while you may not find yourself screaming in terror it's easy to be haunted by the game's more disturbing imagery and implications long after you've finished the game.
How does Revelations do this? Or, rather, why is Revelations able to do this when The Hidden and Spirit Camera cannot? Well, that's easy: it uses the technology of the 3DS to its advantage when it can, and disregards it entirely when it can't. In the former category we have the option for gyroscope aiming and vast rooms that make impressive use of the 3DS's impressive depth. In the latter we have everything else. No cameras, no real-world environments, no facial scanning. Some things worked for the atmosphere Revelations wished to create, and some things did not. Capcom was smart enough to dump everything that did not.
Horror is not — and was never — about grabbing everything within reach and tossing it together in the hopes that it would work. Horror is about limitation, about imagination, and about a sense of real and actual danger. Perhaps when AR horror stops trying to invade our world, it will discover the courage to create its own.
When it does, we'll be happy to come visit. Until then, well...we'll be playing some Revelations.