Game design is a series of universal theories that can be applied to any facet of play, yet most people think the disparity between video games and tabletop games is too large to broach. Rather than seeing these concepts as a dividing line, let's take a look at some concepts often speculated to be solely digital and bring them into the tabletop environment.
The phrase “The Devil is in the details” refers to a catch, or a mysterious element that exists within the detail of a set of information, be that visual or otherwise. Within that, if one is to remove all of “The Details”, they are simply left with “The Devil”.
So leads to the concept of horror vacui, a Latin expression meaning “Fear of emptiness/empty space”. In design, as well as in visual art, horror vacui is a tendency to favor filling blank spaces with objects and elements over leaving the same spaces blank or empty.
Universally in concepts of design, there is a prevalence to strip away the unnecessary elements. Cutting back from the noise of non-useful elements will lead to a more functional and sleek design, oozing with purpose and importance. Within that horror vacui is a strange and compelling phenomenon to add instead of take away for fear of the absence of elements.
For this, I would again like to bring up the differences between the horrifying elements of a game like Silent Hill 2 versus the fear elements of Resident Evil 5. I have chosen these two examples for prevalence among game consumers as well as exemplary depictions of both concepts.
Silent Hill 2, as a concept, largely attempts to isolate the player and make them feel alone, from both interactivity and suspicion, to the point of tensions leaping from the unknowing fog at any time. It is a lack of stimulus that drives the fear of the game, as the player feels constant disconnection from a town that should otherwise be active.
On top of that, there is an unsettling fascination with things that should be but simply are not. While the monsters are certainly scary in Silent Hill 2 for fear of their deadliness and the imminent failure-state that they represent to the player, the people of Silent Hill 2 are unsettling and disturbing in a different way, representing something that is simply wrong, from the way that others talk to the titular moment of the phrase "There was a hole here. It's gone now."
Resident Evil 5 approaches a more active role in the fear that it tries to promote, in that the game begins with Chris “Refrigerator Arms” Redfield and Sheva entering a strange town filled with uncomfortable sights, such as leaking sacks and general unrest amongst the locals. Shortly thereafter, a fight breaks out, and the pair must maneuver their way through using the weapons available to them. That fight then continues for the duration of the game, moving from one action set piece to the next.
Silent Hill 2 strips away the potential for a player to interact within the world, which in turn makes the world more terrifying. The villains are vaguely human, but not enough to discern real characteristics. The town is empty, but the player constantly feels as if danger is right around the corner. In that, the emptiness of the game is the direct proponent for the psychological tension that is derived from the opening scenes.
Let me stress this fact, if the above was not clear: There is nothing more unsettling to a player than not knowing what to do next, or not having a clear idea of their immediate threat. If the player is never able to correctly identify the threat, they maintain in a state of hypervigilance, leading to a constant machination of tension.
Horror vacui, in a less interesting manner, can be used to promote the value of one option over another.
In theory, this practice of adding value by subtracting other perceived value. The lack of options causes one to focus more heavily on the options at hand. This can also be used to inspire importance to specific options when leading through narrative. If the players have one-hundred places to visit, each place loses intrinsic value.
Tell a player that they need to cross through a park to find a MacGuffin on the other side. Then, as they travel through the park, emphasize that they lose awareness of how far they have traveled and how far they must further travel.
Something they understand (a park) has now created new and strange dimensions (emptiness) which leads to a sense of aimlessness and feeling lost. Push this too far and it will turn to frustration, but keep it correctly balanced and the player will hold their tension for the whole game.
Have you run a horror game lately? Do you find the genre interesting or boring? What is the best horror experience you've ever had in gaming? Let us know in the comments!
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