For the Love of Fear. Horror out of bounds, and in Visual Novels. [Article]

We’re going to go on a little adventure, you and I. We’re going to go out of one ring fenced area and enter another. We are going to be Pioneers… Investigators! Then, we’re going to look at the differences between our neatly cultivated areas and wonder if it might be a good idea to let the grass grow between them a little, to spread and reinvigorate their respective pastures. You’re likely to hiss and protest, wail and gnash your teeth over their relative purity. What I hope to do though is convince you that maybe it isn’t such a bad thing if the lines blur a little in this instance, particularly when the grass that has been growing is so beneficial to the life-cycle of what it encounters, the crop that benefits in this instance is the genre of horror and its audience, both expecting and unsuspecting. Now to make this a little more interesting I’m going to take us to a field full of the gaming equivalent of lepers. That’s right! We’re going to enter the land of Eroge Visual Novels and Waifu bait.

You’re quite likely to raise an eyebrow at best or feel your skin crawl at worst, depending on the preconceptions or experience you have of the form. I would encourage you to stick with me on this though. If one of the dominant features across media is the presence and importance given to interpersonal relationships then maybe even the gaming crowd can find it in their calloused hearts to let in a little love? Or just maybe, we have been for quite some time and we’re not quite adept at communicating it to other media forms. At least not yet.

Visual Novels – the genre gaming loves to hate.

We have a social climate currently that takes a particularly dim view – or at least espouses to, towards objectification (particularly of female characters) and an in general, largely sex-negative mindset. Visual Novels can cover a wide range of topics and themes, yet they are seemingly best know for, or at least correlated with; porn, hentai, eroge, dating sims or waifu bait – whatever word or words you want assign to them as descriptors – know this, their reputation isn’t great. At least not …yet. Where a game genre struggles to be recognised or accepted by the very noun it is indicated by, debated over its entitlement to the use of the word “game” then we’ve got an added challenge for legitimacy. If you’ve ever wanted to be the David to Goliath, then Visual Novels are the battleground to have some fun on.

See… Visual Novels, depending on who you talk to are refuted as even existing as games, regarded as little more than glorified picture books with scant interaction and existing as little more than a strained justification for hentai porn – pretentious jerk off bait if you will. It is true that some have zero choice present in them, acting solely as linearly told stories, the Narcissu series and Juniper’s Knot for example. Others have supporting features that extend the range of interaction within them including one of our subjects for this discussion; Kara no Shōjo and of course there is the space in between perhaps best illustrated by the Key Visual Novels, Clannad or Kanon for example. Within the Visual Novel form there are dedicated horror titles; the Bible Blacks and the Saya no Utas (沙耶の唄) lit. “Song of Saya”, they can be for another day though.

Juniper’s Knot, Clannad and Saya no Uta.

They are poison to advertise, stock or sell – or at least according to prevailing wisdom they are. Valve with its Steam platform seeming to be taking tentative steps to tap the goldmine that Visual Novels represent. Of course they do have to be censored for sexual content. They are perceived as having little redeeming artistic value and they are regarded as the preserve of gaming’s Morlocks to the mainstream’s Eloi. Or… at least so we’re told. So come, join me where the skittering and heavy breathed clawing through the gutters of gaming takes place. You might just feel something, maybe beyond the horror that you are here for.

 

We’re going to look at three Visual Novels; Kara no ShōjoEverlasting Summer and Analogue: A Hate Story. What we find may surprise you. I’m going to try and convince you, that they, perhaps do horror more effectively than a purpose built title of the horror genre. Part of this is going to require going through the salient elements of each game’s story, so consider this your spoiler warning. No, you do not get to have your cake and eat it. If you wish to discover these title’s secrets yourself then stop reading;

here

…and go play them instead.

Otherwise …continue

Kara no Shōjo (殻ノ少女) lit. “Girl of the Shell” is for the most part a hybrid of murder mystery, period thriller and high school eroge. A Japanese produced VN, it is set in post-war, reconstruction Japan of the 1950’s. It is, of the three titles the one that snuggles up most comfortably with the horror genre given its content of gruesome murders. To say though that it is the central focus though would be unjust. There’s a lot more to it as a game than tickling the responses of a desire for the macabre.

Official Site [text in Japanese]

Everlasting Summer (Бесконечное лето) is a Russian produced VN that is no bones about it a harem set in a 1980’s, Soviet Era, Pioneers Camp. Part time travel mystery and part reminiscence on lost youth and ambition it has its own secrets squirreled away.

Official Site [text in English/Russian

Analogue: A Hate Story (아날로그) is a Canadian produced VN set thousands of years into the future on a derelict, generation seeding ship, floating in space whose on-board culture was influenced by the traditions and social structure of the medieval, Korean, Joseon (대조선국) State. At its heart another mystery, it primarily concerns itself with investigation – as with Kara no Shōjo and social politics, though does have its harem elements also. Again though, it has some secrets that it is at first unwilling to share.

Official Site [text in English/Korean/Japanese]

Each of these titles makes use of largely, if not entirely anime/manga influenced presentation. They have differing levels of realism and Moe/Kawaii overtures. “Moe” (萌え) and “Kawaii” (かわいい) being a representation or style that favours a youthful, cute appearance to the point of idolisation and fosters a feeling of attraction and/or adoration in the viewer.

Character art for Everlasting Summer (1), (2), Analogue, Kara No Shōjo (4) and (5).

The effectiveness of these art style choices will be something that we come back to, for now though let’s look at each of the three titles, how it plays out, then how all this relates to the use and presentation of horror as a device, a mood and a genre.

You have been warned that the narratives, or elements of them are going to be revealed. Let’s get started with Kara no Shōjo.

The Girl in the Shell.

Kara no Shōjo as mentioned takes place in post World War 2 Japan, in the 1950’s. The player controls one Reiji Tokisaka (時坂玲人), a former police officer and now private investigator, haunted by the events and loss of a previous case. So far it’s a pretty stock setup for a hard-boiled detective. The game varies things up with the motivations for the series of serial murders that are taking place. While it could be simplified down to insanity, it is the desire to recreate a masterpiece painting as a living work of art that drives the narratives killer, combined with the damage done to his personality and a myriad of other influences they all create a twisted drive within him. As they proceed through a sequence of victims they hone their skills in pursuit of recreating the “Girl of the Shell”. It is the investigative gameplay features and the choice to travel between locations that provides a burst of life to the Visual Novel formula. It is possible to miss details when searching a crime scene that, when creating a summary of the case through an inference sequence will result in failure, likely to have disastrous consequences. Failure is the likely outcome for the player, eager to meet them and their loved ones at most turns. As a rhythm for the game it can grow irksome but as a motivation when combined with the connections built with the game’s characters it just about works. It is worth noting that as a sub-genre, Kara no Shōjo is what would be known as an utsuge (鬱ゲ) lit. “depressing game”, it is purpose built to make the player cry and feel a state of depression.

I said that Kara no Shōjo is the most comfortable bed-mate with the horror genre. It’s box art and general tone are not too dissimilar in general. It is in the crime scenes and the viewed murders that horror at its most obvious and basic unfurls. The way that the murder sequences are displayed, despite being inactive participants or viewers in the events occurring, there is an almost complicit and intimate feel to what is happening. It leaves a feeling of the actions having transpired, staining your very being. The voice acting and sound effects throughout act as a cruel punctuation to the violence carried out, almost past, though not quite the point of ghoulish pantomime.

It would be much too simple to rely on elements of gore or splatter, sub-genres – typically in film, to cause the true horrific effect. It is the aftermath, the moments of cold silence where you are left alone with the broken remains of what was once a life, clouding your thoughts and prompting the questions of why this is happening. It is when the game sends the player into locations and situations where they create bonds with a warm and welcoming cast of admittedly troubled characters, subsequently killed off, that the personal bonds we have made are tested and we start to fear for the survival of others. We’re not sure who has a narrative invulnerability flag and who does not. Likewise we’re never sure if the world itself is a threat. It is one thing to inhabit through a game where the actions of an antagonist are a constant looming threat, it’s another where the mundane but equally damaging hazards of day to day life can take their toll.

Without the connections that Kara no Shōjo strives to make between the cast of characters and the player it would have been reduced to a splatter fest, a carefully and superbly executed one but as hollow as the shell that the titular heroine finds herself potentially within.

Thankfully this pitfall was avoided. The aforementioned connections to characters are built on with explorations of their troubles and personalities and the personal investment of the player to help them overcome the same. Assisted by a swelling musical score and considerately performed voice overs the right emotional notes are hit to help the player create the bonds that needed to be created and invested in to get them to care about the potential loss they face. Whether the player has that opportunity to save those they have invested in snatched away from them is partially predetermined and in others up to their skills as an investigator. When the player is left alone to consider why these actions are occurring and constantly under threat of those same actions transpiring against others, the horror of dread fills the player character and essentially that of the person controlling them. Being left alone with your thoughts is one thing. Being left alone only with your thoughts is a far more dreadful proposition.

More puzzling however is why Kara no Shōjo is also an eroge. It adds little to the game beyond its value for value’s sake. The frequency of hentai sequences and slight shift in tone undercut the tension that has been built. It also does something of a disservice to the player that they could be perceived as unable to make the emotional investment, without a sexual stake in a character’s well-being and or survival. There is an argument that can be made that the deeper connection that is made between the characters would also in turn raise the stakes but given that the game also acts as a collect-a-thon the effect is diminished by its very inclusion. More interesting for me from a personal perspective were the particular characters that I found myself more protective of and dreading harm coming to. It was less those that would be likely targets and more those that had established histories with the player character. It is for this reason that I believe the approach Kara no Shōjo took towards its implementation of horror was so successful. It got me to care, to invest and to fear. All for something that isn’t actually real.

Kara no Shōjo

The Summer of Love, and Hate.

Everlasting Summer is the most interesting of the three in this selection for the way it utilises horror I think. Where Kara no Shōjo is a comfortable bed-mate with horror and Analogue makes a surgically targeted use of it, Everlasting Summer toys with it, it wraps it round its finger in expected uses of campfire stories and urban legends. It turns a valve releasing tension at expected times and it is adept at using the fear of isolation and abandonment to give a primary motivation to the player. It also uses horror to subvert everything that had gone before, turn the identity of the game on its head and gleefully fuck with the player. Also of the three it is the one I would most eagerly encourage you to play. Kara no Shōjo is the more technically and mechanically accomplished, Analogue is the most conceptually interesting but Everlasting Summer stayed with me long into the Autumn.

The player finds themselves occupying the role of a 25 year-old recluse named Semyon (Семён), on the way to a University reunion and reminiscing, he falls asleep, only to wake up in a 1980’s Soviet Pioneer Camp, essentially a collective youth program/holiday camp. From the very beginning it is made clear that Semyon is someone stuck in a loop within life. He is without ambition or goal, yet at the same time is fearful of the possibility of an “out” from this state of being. To be taken out of his naturalised comfort zone, back in time and to a social and political era rife with its own challenges and idiosyncrasies provides an immediately delicious proposition.

The first character we meet radiates a simple beauty that telegraphs straight away the likely nature of the game. Slavya (Славя) is tall, beautiful, inquisitive and helpful. We’re in waifu territory Captain, make no bones about it. From this we can infer there are going to be a selection of character archetypes, each with their own problems that we can solve and we’ll potentially get to live happily ever after. If that is the inference you made then you’d be correct. That is absolutely the surface identity of Everlasting Summer. It is happy to be this, confident in its nature. So much so that it decided to have some fun with that.

The game’s cast has just about the right number of characters. Not too many to be overwhelming and loose track of the issues and relationships between them but enough to support the key routes. Romance paths are available for Semyon/Семён – the main character, if there is no love or at least acceptance of the self how on earth are they supposed to love another? Slavya/Славя – the first character the player meets, intelligent, caring dedicated. Lena/Лена – quiet, submissive and bait for the social outcast. A volatile temper and unpredictable nature is hidden under the exterior. Alisa/Алиса – the firebrand, aggressive, confrontational and with the of course to be expected, later revealed softer side. Ulyana/Ульяна – younger than the rest, mischievous and looking to prove her worth. Miku/Мику – an outright ripoff of Hatsune Miku, a ditz and general nuisance to the player and Yulya/Юля – the game’s “hidden” route, necessary for the harem ending. Her route will enable you to find out the hidden layers of the story – which while interesting and worth experiencing in their own right aren’t the focus of this piece. I don’t need to give it away so I’m not going to!

There are thirteen endings that can be reached. For most of the characters there is both a good and a bad ending which is determined by the number of points of positive action (by character perspective) that are collected. Each allows Semyon to develop (or not) as a person and for his life to move and change in different directions. It is in the case of one of this routes though that I’m particularly interested for the purpose of this piece.

…That would be Miku’s route.

Miku, in all her Vocaloid, or cunningly appropriated Soviet glory.

Miku’s route is unlocked after reaching One (1) Good Ending then starting the game again. Where the game’s other routes, including the “True” route that explains what was going on all maintain a consistency and take place within the same “World”, it is Miku’s route that takes everything you thought you knew and shifts it enough to knock everything on its head. You learn that everything that is happening is all just part of a student film production, a final piece set funnily enough in a 1980’s era Pioneer Camp. Miku is not the scatterbrained musician we assumed she were but is instead a former lover of Semyon with her own regrets, she and the rest of the cast are similarly inverted to entertaining effect. As she and Semyon go to the lakeside at night to swim they rekindle their romance. On waking we are plunged into a nightmare of survival. Choice is taken away from us and we are led down a predetermined path, one which grows ever more desperate and grusome. The route handles its pacing better than other routes in the game to the point where there is less need for choice, it’s enough for both us the player and for the characters to be stripped of control or influence, made vulnerable. It is in that state that fear works its insidious magic on the players mind and our connections with characters and fears for their safety are realised.

 

Admittedly the twisted goings on are not going to win awards for originality but the manner in which they are displayed, the inversion of characters that we’d previously connected with (remember it is necessary to have gone through the game once already to unlock Miku’s route) and the thoughtful use of existing, established rumours and urban legends within the setting – they all come together to lead the player into thinking; “Maybe this isn’t a Romance VN… Maybe it’s actually a horror… Maybe this is what is going on”. The use of some pre-existing character traits feeds into this manipulation wonderfully, especially when it plays on natural predilections and assumed preferences, archetypes used to their best effect. Lena in particular is set up as a character for Semyon to desire to love and protect. Her legitimate path has a questionable enough “good” end (for its nature and in it’s own manner) as well as a genuinely horrific “bad” ending. She becomes a nightmare figure of vengeance in the Miku route however. I like to think they made this choice as a nudge in the ribs to those that extol the virtues of certain archetypes. The game again smiles wryly as it nudges you in the ribs with a wink when you wake up and realise that what you have experienced were the script ideas of this routes Miku, read aloud to you as you sleep on the beach while she writes them down to be used in future, as yet unmade productions. You have a future together, but if this is the type of situation she envisages you together in… well, I’ll let you entertain the possibilities of what that relationship would be like.

By building on what is already there, steering and toying with the player, Everlasting Summer cracks open the Soviet Era bunker with its miniature, Cyan haired, stealth horror-bomb. And you know what?

I loved it.

If the game had been built from the ground up as a horror experience it wouldn’t have been able to pull this double bait and switch, as part of a whole gestalt of emotions horror takes its place, sympathetically informing and driving on other more gentle ones to better perform. It makes the player more aware of the more subtle instances of its usage as well throughout the game, better attuning the player to its presence, something of a double edged sword that I’ll get to later. Where Kara no Shōjo perhaps struggles to justify its eroge content, Everlasting Summer thrives on its teenage hormones, nostalgia and subversion of Soviet Collectivist social responsibility and with a nod and a wink, relatively quietly embraces its form’s nature. It’s a subtly smart game that while prone to over explaining and a love of word soup has good intentions and is a journey worth traveling.

Everlasting Summer.

Namjon yeobi (남존여비) “Men are honoured, women are abased”.

This brings us to Analogue. Possessing a fascinating concept and raising questions about the costs of societal degradation or stabilisation based on circumstance or perspective, the removal of personal autonomy along gendered lines and of the consolidation of power in very strict forms. It explores issues of trans-humanism and acts as the starting pistol for many discussions.

It’s also a damn good game, let alone Visual Novel. The player takes on the role of a investigator tasked with finding the reasons for the disappearance for the generational seed ship; Mugunghwa (무궁화) – also the name of the national flower of South Korea if you’re interested? The ship has already been found, 600 years after its disappearance, but now someone wants to know what went wrong.

The investigation is carried out via two sets of actions. A terminal interface that is used to activate the on-board AIs *Hyun-ae (현애) and *Mute, as well as routing power and enabling/disabling shipboard functions. It is wonderfully used at a time of crisis where the clock will be counting down and you must stablise the ship’s engines before they critically overload. The second form is a GUI that enables you to open, read and show log entries to the selected AI. They will offer insight and commentary on what is recorded in the logs – with varying levels of truth it should be known.

This gradual process of uncovering log entries and piecing the truth together is the core of the game. What you find however may highly surprise you. While Analogue does feature the romance elements, shared with the other two titles it is quite insidious in the manner that it uses them. The game builds up to what could be perhaps be best termed as a “shit test” from your potential, new partner. On board the ship society reverted from that of 21st Century South Korea to that of the 13th Century Kingdom of Joseon (대조선국). As part of this, individual liberty was curtailed, education regressed and became the purview of the select few. Language reverted to the use of Hanja (Chinese) characters instead of Korean Hangul. Birth rates dramatically fell and society stratified dramatically. The central, character specific effect of this was the especially stringent restrictions on life for women. The character of Hyun-ae, not the AI, was to live as property in an arranged marriage, the “Pale Bride” to be seen (barely) and certainly not heard, to be fucked and bear children or to otherwise simply be fucked. An intelligent and capable young women who desired to emulate her father professionally, she was of weak physical constitution and put into stasis before the on-board society so dramatically regressed and declined.

Revived to serve as breeding stock, her life was no longer her own. Her adoptive “family” saw her as little more than a bargaining chip and in concert with small acts of rebellion against her new family and the on-board society the punishments grew ever harsher, till we reach an important point – the first of two.

On refusal to go through with the arranged marriage to the Emperor Ryu and a life as his concubine, for her protest and dissent and to prevent her from speaking out against men, her tongue was cut from her mouth by her adoptive family. The invasion of the person, the mutilation and deprivation of a voice, surely this counts as a horrific act? A staggering act of punctuation in a series of passages detailing a society in decline.

There was more to come though.

A nearly broken mute, abused and isolated she was wed to the Emperor where she found unexpected friendship and a connection with the Emperor’s first wife; Empress Ryu Jae-hwa. It was on the sudden death of the Empress that Hyun-ae broke. A capable engineer, knowledgeable before the societal regression she, in weakening health but ever consuming rage and sorrow disabled the ship’s on-board life support systems. All hands, all life on board ceased in an act of per-meditated, mass murder. Mapping her brain via a “neurosynaptic” scan and stealing a copy of the AI program of *Mute, modifying it she was able to live on within the ship’s computer systems.

Analogue is a tragic story, one of horrific actions on a personal and wider scale. It carefully navigates its web of deceit, pain, and suffering to encourage the player to make the effort to find out the truth of what occurred on-board the Mugunghwa. I raised the issue before of a “shit test”. There comes a point in the story where you will have the leave the ship and have the choice of taking one or neither of the AIs with you. Hyun-ae/*Hyun-ae has by this time developed strong feelings for the player and would choose to accompany you, a point were issues of trans-humanism and the transition of memories and personality to an artificial body are raised. You are given a question though; can you in all faith accept and forgive the actions of Hyun-ae? Would you be willing to leave with and as is generally implied live your life with a person(?) who willfully committed mass murder? The game nudges you towards valuing the individual over the group when choosing to take *Hyun-ae with you though does still leave the decision up to the player. The character of *Mute and her concerns was less well developed as well as the case for the crew and population of the Mugunghwa and subsequently received a sequel, focused on her – Hate Plus.

Whatever you choose it would be hard to deny the horrific nature of what had been revealed. The mutilation of Hyun-ae I think is the more dramatic action, its personal aspect able to resonate more strongly. If the story had been a non-stop procession of and akin to an orgy of violence for hundreds of years the impact would have been lessened with every sequential act. By choosing One (1) act to focus all the hatred and regression within it allows the game to state in seconds what would have otherwise taken hours.

It is in the contemplation and choices afterwards that I feel the game made its most wry achievements. Knowing that this is a game that seeks to have the player form a connection, an interstellar dating sim, it is well aware the player is going to be reluctant to leave alone – a sly and subversive commentary on the nature of love-interests being regarded as a commodity and not as a unique personality? By allowing the player to dress up *Hyun-ae in a variety of outfits we have another potential subversion one which *Hyun-ae will provide commentary on depending on the outfit chosen.

*Hyun-ae is imbued with life with such a degree of effectiveness that it is harder to regard her as a commodity to be achieved and makes it all the more compelling that we are forced to face her actions and choices as well as how they would affect our own.

Without an act of such visceral horror, committed against a person’s being – would Analogue have been able to turn the screw on the player as well as it did? The lack of comparative impact in Hate Plus makes me think this is the case.

The choice to embrace, forgive or deride the Pale Bride’s actions is yours.

Analogue: A Hate Story

Hybridisation; a perfect Predator.

So here we are. Now we look at how this all comes together, why I believe that pure bred horror sets itself up for atrophy and the hybrid form is able to more carefully articulate itself and better sustain itself – for a time, towards its overall goals.

There are a couple of problems that need to be addressed though.

If I tell you that water is wet and the sky blue, then knock you on your arse into a puddle to stare up at the clouds – it’s not going to come as a surprise when you find yourself feeling wet and looking up at a blue expanse. You expect it. Does the magnitude, frequency or number of acts of horror determine a work’s genre place, is it overall atmosphere or thematic intent? How exactly are we defining horror?

The three games we’ve looked at? They’re all horror experiences, just not telegraphed initially. Not typical in nature. Horror is a component of their whole but not the point on which they are advertised or categorised. Kara no Shōjo’s calculated brutality, dismissive of the integrity of others, Everlasting Summer’s isolation and loneliness, a hopeless lack of self identity or direction and Analogue’s oppression and cruelty. They all are horrific in varying degrees, depending on the ability of the individual to face and overcome their challenges. There may not be a bump in the night or a rivulet of blood, snaking its way down a wall but they all make use of the language.

By not being beholden to the expectations of a pure horror experience though they’ve instantly made life easier for themselves. They can take the chance to breathe, to work out how best to manipulate you, the viewer and is that not what we are looking for? To have new experiences that shock and surprise us and in that dark recess within us, morbidly delight us? It goes to form a perfect predator, carefully formed of component parts, each considered and designed to most effectively pursue its ends. In this case, create and elicit a fear response in an audience.

To help explore this I’d like to introduce you to another “Perfect Predator”; Pluizig:

Pluizig – Dutch for “Fluffy”

[fluhf-ee]

– adjective, fluffier, fluffiest.

  1. of, resembling, or covered with fluff.
  2. light or airy:
  3. appealing, soft, cuddly, gentle

 

– noun, fluffy

  1. potential name of a creature or other item possessing qualities indicated by the adjective form
You may know Pluizig by another name;
…Xenomorph
Pluizig!

Alien Isolation (review here) is a purebred horror experience. It is the child of a middle-aged horror film and part of an extend family of other likewise determined horror titles. It didn’t half have to work its arse off to be good though…

There is an expectation when going into an advertised horror experience. You expect to be actively scared and challenged. Mentally you are likely to be making a list either consciously or sub-consciously of scenarios to expect, ones that have already been encountered, things to look forward to and past failures and successes at attempts to scare you. You are expecting to be entertained, to be challenged and to experience something new. The bar that must be hit is higher from the start and it’s going to be a crap-shoot if the audience is going to be forgiving if that standard is not met consistently. And remember that every time the bar of expectation is going to be raised higher.

Do you see why already it is going to be harder for a dedicated horror experience to scare you?

With every entry into the Alien series, the box of tricks from which scenarios to scare the viewer are taken must either be expanded, or a gamble must be taken that a love of the material will override a recognition of the lack of originality. You can only shout “Boo!” so many times before the recipient becomes dulled to the sensation.

It is a saturation and over-reliance on techniques and scenarios that make me wonder for the future of horror as a genre. If all there is to look forward to, is an endless recycling of the same methods then atrophy would surely be inevitable? A slow but gradual decline. There is the advantage of new generations of audiences being exposed to the worn box of tricks, each reveling for the first time at its reveal, but that same reliance on the existing box only results in a cycle of inevitable fatigue – an awkward marathon between the producers of media and an ever demanding Roman Mob.

…And the Colosseum is growing restless.

That is why I would be eager to see more hybridisation of themes and elements in support of more daring narratives, all as part of an effort to take audiences by surprise, rather than a blending of genres as a whole to the detriment of the participatory elements. If meeting the demands and expectations of one genre is difficult enough then imagine the problems of meeting the demands of two. In the video-game sphere, surely the wave of mediocre FPS/TPS-RPG hybrids, with shoehorned elements resembling the leaking stuffing from the saddening visage of a teddy-bear that has seen better days would attest to this?

By creating the emotional and dramatic beats through the use of a thematic element when it can be used most effectively, it frees the creator from some level of genre based expectation, they can surprise the audience more readily and experiment with greater freedom. I knew the Alien was going to appear in Alien Isolation. It’s tail unfurling over the table made me jump, it didn’t shock me as much as the reveal of the Pale Bride’s suffering in Analogue – and it didn’t stay with me afterwards. I know the Alien is going to kill what it encounters, its appearance tells me it wasn’t designed to provide day care facilities in a quiet post-industrial town’s community center. I didn’t expect the killer in Kara no Shōjo to be driven by a crazed desire to recreate a painting. I can understand one, the other requires effort to understand. Surprise and fear work together in this situation and create horror. The prominence of Moe as a style and concept in the three Visual Novels we looked at creates expectations just waiting to be subverted, these are tricks especially well played when the viewer is emotionally involved – and when the emotion is love, all the better to toy with the audience. Everlasting Summer’s Lena broke your heart and as we found, could have just as easily cut it out, standing over you while it still beat in her hand – she performed just for you. The Alien performs for the Roman Mob. And the Mob’s attention wanes ever so easily.

With existing audience expectations and a known tool box the opportunities for subversion and taking the audience by surprise grow smaller. As an impetus to encourage creators to reach further it is great. As a route to predictable media it is reliable. That doesn’t however make it desirable.

There is a problem either way. By increasing the utilisation of horror as a theme and technique it attunes the viewer/participant to the same with each exposure regardless of the genre hosting the incursion. We’re in a constant race to find ways to innovate. The other issue and admittedly one I have less sympathy for is the one of marketing. If an item of media cannot be readily categorised it will be harder to sell. In the world we live in that makes its initial production all the more unlikely. As audiences and producers we are collectively biting our own noses off to spite our faces.

By embracing the possibilities that we are afforded and making use of all the tools available to us we can consciously make the effort to really surprise and scare one another. The Mob will always be ready to roar as the Alien claims another victim. It’s what the Mob doesn’t expect that will really scare it, as there are few things more frightening than the unknown.

 

Let’s see if we can get a head start, and make the most of the tools we have available.