Monday, October 10, 2011

Shocktober Day 6 - Horror Gaming Fodder - Isolation

Safe from the flood, but what about the serial killer hidden in the house?
For today's Horror Gaming Fodder post I wanted to look at another key principle of what can make a horror game a true success. Last week I looked at the use of props in horror games which set the tone for the rest of the week's posts.  Horror games are full of tropes we all know and love. These common characteristics are so common because they tend to work, but nothing is more integral to making a horror game work more than isolation. Whether it's physical isolation that forces the characters into a location where they can't actually access help or it's psychological isolation that gives the characters that hopeless feeling that no one out there could help you or, worse, would help you if they could even understand the problem they faced in the first place, isolation is necessary to put characters and players in the mindset that no one is going to come to their rescue. 

When I think about my favorite horror movies, isolation is always at the core of them. Take Evil Dead II for example. EDII is one of my all-time favorites, and it's the quintessential log cabin horror flick. The characters are isolated physically by the forest itself and eventually are completely cut off from civilization by whatever it is that was summoned to the cabin. Ash (Bruce Campbell) can't rely on anyone else to save him because they is no one else. So instead of being kind of lame and helpless, he takes the initiative on his own to solve his own problems. I still find The Ring to be a chilling movie to this day, and the creepiness of the film owes a great deal to the fact that the characters are attacked and stalked in their homes, during chores, and just generally out in public by this oppressive spirit. In The Ring, the characters are surrounded by people they know and strangers, but it doesn't matter. Nothing anyone can do is going to provide a solution to their haunting. Whereas with Ash, where a shotgun and a chainsaw solves problems and a small group of special ops soldiers could tear through the monsters in the woods in a matter of minutes, the isolation in The Ring doesn't care how many guns and bullet proof vests you've got, and in fact you're only dooming more people to the haunting the more you bring in to fix things.

Isolation on its most basic level is a combination of two things. First, the characters are alone and separated from from help and the things they like. This is unpleasant and definitely not the situation that the players want their characters to be in, but it's not inherently threatening. Isolation only matters when the characters realize that they aren't in fact alone - they're not separated from all things. In fact, isolation only kicks in once the players realize that they're not alone because something that presents a danger is "in there" with them. I put "in there" in quotation marks because the "there" is incredibly subjective. It could be the forest such as in Evil Dead II. On the other hand, it could also be something as personal as your own mind. The Exorcist is a great example of psychological isolation with a threat lingering in one's own head. Better though, is the movie Repulsion which is a character piece that explores what it would be like to be trapped in your consciousness with a threat that only you can perceive. It can create an impression of being trapped which leads to a persistent desperation in the characters and, to an extent, the players. These are valuable things to a GM of the horror game. 

There are several easy ways you can throw your characters into a situation that forces them to save themselves and solve their own problems. First is the easiest, most obvious way - remove them from civilization by physically putting them in a place where help is too far away to get to them before something bad happens. Lovecraft does this quite often in his stories, and if you want to see this truly in action, go watch John Carpenter's The Thing (if you haven't seen this, you have to before you're allowed to watch any other horror movie). Characters at the bottom of the world in an extremely remote scientific outpost in Antarctica exemplify the value of putting characters out of the reach of those who could help them. This is best for isolating characters in a situation where physical threats can actually be overcome with a shotgun or a flame thrower. 

Another strategy for isolation is to encourage distrust in the general public. Paranoia is a great tool for isolation. Although this isn't horror, take a look at the newer version of Battlestar Galactica. Anyone could be a Cylon killer robot just waiting to be triggered to take your life. They look just like us, and there's virtually no way to test to verify who you are (okay, so this really applies to The Thing as well, but I wanted a new example!). When you can't trust the person sitting next to you on the bus or the clerk at the counter of the Seven-Eleven, to who do you turn to find help? The real fun side effect of this strategy is that it's really easy to twist and make the players suspect their fellow players of wrong-doings as well (but we'll get more on paranoia next week - trust me!). 

Alternatively you can flip this distrust back on the players. Maybe they're in the middle of New York City or some other major metro area, and they're stuck dealing with some secret threat. Instead of having the players suspect the general public, you can make the general public hunt and chase down the player characters. Maybe the players have been branded as dangerous terrorists who must be stopped at all costs through a botched werewolf hunting operation that caused the destruction of a city bus-full of people. The Warriors, another non-horror movie that showcases isolation for the protagonists, throws a New York gang deep into enemy territory across town without weapons and without any clear-cut way home, surrounded by possible enemies. There's real horror in this concept, and there's no reason it couldn't be played out that way. 

I've never played a horror game that worked and wasn't based off isolation. The main book for Dread, which I'll be taking a look back on later this week, has an extensive write up on planning isolation for your own scenarios. Additionally, all three of the generated adventures in the book also focus on isolation. It's not the only tool in the tool box to make successful horror, but it's a fundamental aspect that you can't neglect or very quickly your players will find a way to end the game long before the night is over, so you better have a way to shoot down the easy-outs!

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