The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
In the first part of this series we tried to identify and define three (of many possible) abstract forms of incomplete information (knowledge) packaging – the unknown, the vague and the uncanny– and three common subsets of the subject of information – about image, about presence and about imminence.
The point of this breakdown is that it lets us look at horror from an MDA point-of-view and take advantage of the Mechanics and Dynamics of horror with more control over the resulting Aesthetics, without having to only work on the Aesthetics directly.
This second part will try to study a few examples of each crossover from the previous picture and also include their relationships with the known and the nature of things.
The known is the sufficient and supposedly correct information about something (not all the information, just sufficient information). The nature is a common package of archetypical information that helps the informee complete (against the vague) and filter (against the uncanny) bits of information, using that archetype to turn the otherwise unknown into known.
Another parallel information subject concept will also be introduced here, the intention, which's not part of the table even though it's relevant in Horror and Suspense because I found it hard (the shame) to qualify it independently from the other three aspects and packaging forms because it works more like a Dynamic while the others are Mechanics (i.e. it's a resulting effect instead of being one of the building-blocks). That's because, while intention exists as a real thing, its virtualization in the informee's mind is a product of his own judgment (feel free to contest that).
Intention,in the case of Reality (things that exist or happen in the Real world) and Fiction (things that are made up), is commonly introduced as an unknown, vague or uncanny packaging: there's always the possibility of a hidden agenda or ulterior motive, always. But in Virtuality (where Fiction meets Reality) it is usually delivered into a known packaging (which is a mold we want to break here): assuming there are enemies, who the enemies are is almost always clear to the player and, if not, it's considered a failure of conveyance in Game Design, supposing Trial and Error is the only way to find out what the intentions of Virtual agents (from Gameplay) or Fictional characters (from Writing) are.
For this article's consideration (it should be its own article but we'll need it here, so here are some of the very basics of it) let's assume the Player is both a Character and a set of Mechanics that exist simultaneously in the Real, Virtual and Fictional worlds in a Video-Game story (story as in sequence of events, not plot/writing). Even if there's an authored avatar in the game, it's only the Fictional layer of the character, and the player still fills the Real and Virtual slots of the player-character construct. Hereafter we'll be calling the Mechanics created by the systems designer by Game-Mechanics and the Mechanics that naturally exist in the human players by Player-Mechanics. Player-Mechanics exist before a game is created and remain after the game-session is over. Without a player there's no game, therefore there's no game without Player-Mechanics, nor Game-Mechanics that aren't affected by Player-Mechanics.
Beware that this article contains spoilers for some Video-Games, Books and Movies!
A Dog (or not) In The Alley
This is a practical series of introductory examples to warm up (also if you want to avoid some of the spoilers, these made-up examples can fit the gap):
If I tell you there's a dog in the alley, and assuming I'm telling you the truth, what I'm giving you is the known nature and known presence of the subject. From there on you know it's a dog, and (most likely) you know what dogs are and what they do, yet it's unknown to you what kind of dog it is, so the idea you have of the dog still characterizes with vague image and unknown intentions.
If I show you a dog in the alley, assuming it's an event under Reality's (or realistic Fiction) rules, I'm giving you the known image and known presence of the dog. From the known image you have enough information that you will use to extrapolate the nature, size and potential threat of the dog, but it can't yet give you the intentions of the dog (unless they are telegraphed by it's behavior or body language towards you).
If I make you hear howling down the alley, you have the known presence but unknown image and vague nature. It might be a dog, or it might be a wolf, or even a werewolf. You might be able to tell based on the pitch and loudness of the howl that it can mean a wolf or a dog and it's size and age, but that's assuming I, as the creator of the moment, understand those matters as much as you do, and that I intended to use the correct and seemingly logical kind of howl for the moment. Maybe your character is under the effects of drugs or lowered sanity and I got a dog to sound as a wolf to reflect how scared and paranoid you are and whatnot, which means you're receiving wrong information from your character's senses and mind. Or maybe you're even hearing things in your head, which turns it into an unknown or uncanny presence.
If I show you the shadow of the dog projected on a wall in the alley, I'm giving you a vague image and known presence (even if imprecise in space, there is a dog, you're just not sure where exactly) of the dog, which gives you information on it's vague nature by lack of further details (maybe it's a dog, or a wolf, or a coyote, or a fox... are there hyenas here?). If the shadow never moves, then it could be a statue or a pile of trash that makes the shadow look like a dog, so it has a vague presence (maybe there is a dog, maybe not). If the shadow disappears improbably fast as you briefly blink or look away, then it's leads to a conundrum between a vague presence (did it enter a hole or just got away from the light or got behind something?) or an uncanny presence (was there really a shadow or am I going crazy?), and reinforces it's vague nature (what other animal could make that shadow and move away so fast?) or switches it into an uncanny nature (no animal is that fast, so is it really an animal or is it some kind of haunting or demon?), and puts it's intentions into vague territory (did it hid because it smelled my scent? did it run away or is it sneaking up on me now?).
That's a lot to process very quickly I know, but it's the basis that will help understanding the rest of the article and its examples.
Now enough of dogs (or not) and alleys. Let's get to horror!
As previously observed, the word "unknown" is often used interchangeably with "unseen" when talking about Horror Video-Games, which points to the subset of unknownness of not having information about the looks of the subject: the unknown image. From that interpretation we could say that what Lovecraft meant to say in his famous quotation was that the things we fear most, are the things we don't know how they look.
While it's a leap of logic depending how you look at it, when looking at it from the fact he was a writer and specifically the author of The Colour Out of Space, which's a very convincing practical proof of the the quotation we're using as a basis here, it seems like one fitting definition for starters. In a story told by words you're never sure of what something looks like (image) without a very technical and precise description, or a straight naming of what the subject is (nature). The writer can put the terrors right in the face of the POV characters and still not let the reader know exactly what it is, letting his imagination float about to create a terrific atmosphere even with something as simple as a dog in an alley.
Jumping from Literature to Video-Games, it makes sense for a medium that heavily uses the participant's vision as it's primary avenue of conveying information, that the first thought to cross our minds is that the unknown must be that of which we haven't received graphic information from. When a Video-Game puts the player through a long start of not having a glimpse of whatever it is the player is supposed to fear – which often involves making use of sound effects and poltergeist-scripts to keep a sense of event density in the Virtual universe – unknown image is the primary form of unknownness (lack of information) the designer is making use of.
This is one tool that's mostly effective to the unspoiled player (just as everything else, possibly, but even game designers can feel really immersed in a Video-Game world eventually), which makes Game Designers working on sequels very likely to lose it as a tool from their belts given the genre of the IP. Another characteristic of using the unknown image device is the way it builds up expectations. While it can make the beginning and bulk of the experience intriguing and exciting, it does so at the risk of having a disappointing conclusion that doesn't meet such expectations.
However, both the effectiveness of the mystery (unknown image) and of the reveal moment (known image) might have less to do with the imagery itself than we first assume, and more to do with the amount of information a visualization of the subject conveys. Being a species that relies so much on the vision to collect information about the world (and being most Video-Games as we know them now a visual-heavy art form) we're often quick to come to conclusions once we put our eyes upon something. It's just human nature (Player-Mechanics).
Visual information is commonly considered by our brains to be of high value ("a picture is worth a thousand words"), so once enough of it is received (when we have a clear look at something) we tend to assume that we already know enough (the known not all information, but sufficient information) about a subject. That's why players tend to lose all the sense of fear of something once they finally get to see it, even if the extrapolated assumptions about the nature of the threat are mistaken (it's still known even if it's wrong).
The weakness of this tool is that it can only be used once for each threat acknowledged by the player as a new entity. Once the threat is fully seen, it can't be unseen.
Examples of unknown image:
Excerpt from A Colour Out Of Space, by H.P. Lovecraft (SPOILER):
Then a cloud of darker depth passed over the moon, and the silhouette of clutching branches faded out momentarily. At this there was a general cry; muffled with awe, but husky and almost identical from every throat. For the terror had not faded with the silhouette, and in a fearsome instant of deeper darkness the watchers saw wriggling at that tree top height a thousand tiny points of faint and unhallowed radiance, tipping each bough like the fire of St. Elmo or the flames that come down on the apostles' heads at Pentecost. It was a monstrous constellation of unnatural light, like a glutted swarm of corpse-fed fireflies dancing hellish sarabands over an accursed marsh, and its colour was that same nameless intrusion which Ammi had come to recognize and dread. All the while the shaft of phosphorescence from the well was getting brighter and brighter, bringing to the minds of the huddled men, a sense of doom and abnormality which far outraced any image their conscious minds could form.
Lovecraft inspires dread in the reader without ever giving clear description of the subjects imagery, and constantly hinting that maybe it has one, but nobody that has seen it will ever be able to describe it because their minds will never accept what their eyes laid upon.
Side note: there are some History descriptions, which I failed to find now to link here, about the fact that when Colombo and Cabral arrived at the Americas beaches, the ships were virtually invisible to the natives. They could see and understand the Portuguese and Genoese sailors arriving in boats but could not "see" the caravels they were coming from. That's because such a sight was so alien to their minds that it was ignoring the view or taking it for something else more familiar. Only later when explained, they started to acknowledge the sight of the ships.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the water level (SPOILER):
The water monster doesn't have an image, it allows Grip and co. to explore the best of it's known presence (uncanny if you think it's in the protagonist's insane mind only) and known imminence (you can see it's speed, slowing coming close to you, this can be a lot scarier than unknown imminence jump-scares if done right).
The designer can deliver the information in bits and turn the unknown image into vague image by showing only parts of the subject at a time before the full disclosure, in an attempt to raise more questions than answer (remember that the unknown must be acknowledged to be feared, as noted in the first part of these series) with each deliver. This is a very commonly used tactic in Horror and Suspense movies, novels and graphic novels. By using this tool, the information packing follows the path: unknown image becomes vague image, and thenbecomesknown image.
The vague, as previously noted, is the incomplete information about the subject, which is not just as little as unknown but neither enough so the nature can be identified and then used to fill the gaps accurately (unless we're transitioning into uncanny, but it comes later). In the case of vague image, it means the player has only got access to partial information about the looks of the subject, which in turn causes her to have different ideas about the nature of the threat, leading to a wide range of possibilities in her mind (hence "vague").
The vague is a pacing tool. It makes the unknown more interesting with it's positive space (information disclosed) and delays the reveal of known by creating mystery with it's negative space (information withheld) to keep the audience's brain stimulated all the while the piece makes the transition from unknown into known. Being so, it's hard (not impossible, nothing is impossible) to successfully make a horror piece without making use of the vague. The entire Suspense genre is based around the vague and the Mystery genre also makes heavy usage of it (and heavy usage of the uncanny too).
A common form of vague image used in the Horror genre, specially in graphic media, is to show (or describe the visualization of) small parts of the subject with a close-up (using the limits of the screen as an occlusion tool), using light and shadow in a way that only part of the subject can be seen in the shot, or using in-scene occlusion of objects (walls, grids, vegetation...) to make only the desired part of the subject visible. Very often it's teeth, tail, wings or eyes – things that make non-human nature clear to the audience. It's a horizontal slicing of the vague as you can say that from the POV of different layers of information, the detail becomes known in itself, but we're treating the subject as a whole, so the whole is vague when only details are known and they're not enough to extrapolate and access the archetypical nature of the whole.
Example of vague image by detail disclosure:
With close-ups (screen-limits obscurity) and the cage's bars (in-scene obscurity), Spielberg gives the audience only bits of the subject's image, allowing known image of the details to compose the vague image of the whole. Suspense is the main use of the tool.
A different usage of the know image is the vertical blending of the image of the whole, where instead of disclosing clear information about details to the informee, we give vague information about the whole. This is very often done by using blurry imagery, shadows or silhouettes.
Example of vague image by uniform vagueness:
Shyamalan teases the audience with Suspense and ties it up with a jump-scare, then reloads the fictional tape to show the imagery in a more confident manner, without jumpy sound effects and sudden pop-ins this time around, using the uniformly vague image to keep the audience in a state of uncertainty about the alien's image (vague) and presence (uncanny, as it could still be a fake tape at this point).
But there's also another very notable way of achieving the same result, one that's more present in Video-Games than anything else, with a track record of being present for a long time and be fading out lately: low fidelity graphics.
As the graphical technologies used in real-time rendering evolve and open more possibilities for designers to increase graphical detail about everything, less and less detail is left for the player's mind to fill. Also, image doesn't exist in a vacuum. The more graphics information the informee receives, the more information the informee receives and the more information he can extrapolate. The more information the informee has, the more power she has. Pixel sprites, limited color palettes, low resolution textures, stuttery framerates. The eternal unknown.
One doesn't have to dig far into the Internet to find multiple players talking about how 'games where scarier when graphics were less advanced. That's a side effect of it not being possible to fully disclosure information about the terrors earlier Horror Video-Games presented players with. When the time came to finally let the player know what was it he was facing, the amount of information was still not enough to let the player have assurance about what exactly he was facing.
Think of this as a game design magic: you take a percentage of the graphical information away and in turn, the player's mind fill it with more than what was taken out. It's more than just curiosity about the parts of the subject that are not shown, it's the addition of details and aspects that wouldn't even be possible to describe, all created in the player's mind. When 100% of information is given, there's nothing more that can be added unless you bring in a twist saying that part of that information is wrong (the uncanny) so you can rewrite it. But what if we cut 5% and in return, the player fills it with enough possibilities that turn the remaining 95% into 150% of the original total? Well, that's exactly it: magic! Profit!
Examples of vague image by low fidelity graphics:
Silent Hill 2, fan-made AMV (SPOILERS):
The quality of the polygon detail and texture resolution and contrast makes already disturbing imagery to acquire a further surreal and nightmarish aspect, distancing the player's mind from thoughts of making comparisons with reality and filling the gap with his personal fears.
Lone Survivor (Trailer):
Pixel graphics allows the players to fill in details about the vague image creatures and to have uncanny image impressions about a perceived creepy smile in the character's face.
Another form of low fidelity graphics is low color fidelity. Low color fidelity was very common in earlier graphical generations of Video-Games by usage of color palettes.
Nothing new about early Video-Games having color limitations, but as far as graphical art forms go, Video-Games are not the only one to face graphical limitations due to technology or budget thresholds. Two other media are good sources of study on the subject: film and graphic novels. The interesting thing about them is that the limitations common of each are abstractly the same (limited information in the color sub-layer of image) but they're different in detail.
First let's talk about film. For a long while, films have been black-and-white. Monochrome/Duotone is a more powerful limitation of graphical information than other forms of color palettes encountered in Video-Games from previous generations, which means the negative space created by it's usage is increased in comparison. A simple lack of color can heighten the sense of unknown to very high levels.
Examples of incomplete visual information (vague image) by Monochrome/Duotone, in Video-Games:
Monochrome and Film Grain are used to increase believability of simple graphics
by letting the player fill the gaps. Powerful tools to increase immersion.
Announcement Trailer for Outlast:
Outlast keenly makes use of greenish Duotone to create uniform vague image,
by having the player use the camera's night-vision to see in dark places.
Here's a personal tip: go and get any Horror Video-Game you have, or even any Horror, Mystery or Suspense movie, and play it with your TV, monitor or GPU saturation (sometimes "digital vibrance" or just "color") set all the way down to zero – optionally, set bright slightly down and contrast slightly up.
If it's just a Mystery or Suspense film instead of Horror, or if it's only marginally scary for a Horror 'game, it's an even better subject for this experiment. I won't describe how it affects immersion and negative space. Go and try it by yourself. I play all my Horror 'games in monochrome now. It's worth it, trust me.
And if you develop or publish Horror 'games, here's a request: please consider giving us graphical options to play your games in Monochrome.
In the case of graphics novels (and manga, I'm considering them together here), it's usually limitations in budget (of both printing and artist's time) that cause them to keep a limited number of CMYK channels and halftone spectrum (not all color percentages print well and if artists mostly work by hand or with limited time, chances are they won't go into much gradient accuracy, using other artistic techniques for shading and texturing).
The example I'll use here are the same examples I'll use in the next point; please wait a little longer.
At some point, the information about the image of the subject might become completely known, and depending of how this is dealt with and what that image is, the informee will be able to use this amount of information to complete the big picture. Information is power.
It's not to say that the known cannot be scary too, it can and should be strived for. The known image can be specially scary when the other information packaging forms are also in the state of known. You know what it is, where it is, and when it's coming. It's a confident design and it's like confidence in anything else: hit or miss.
The advantage of the unknown is that the informee's brain will always be extrapolating information and bringing to the table things of specific horrific value to each person in question. This makes it easier to work with and gain time. The climax of a horror story might inevitably come to a point where everything is known, yet it's supposed to be the most frightening and disturbing moment.
Now one way to keep a bit of unknownness in the moment of reveal is using the uniform vague image tools previously mentioned (low resolution, monochrome, etc), but that's a bit of cheating. Of course using everything we can is good, but trying to separate these aspects is important to not just rely on tools and avoid the importance of having an ultimately great backstory and horrifying subject of information to begin with. Only then we should start using these tools to present and withhold information in interesting ways.
As examples of Horror in this case (and the case of monochrome graphic novels), I'll recommend the work of my favorite manga and Horror author: Junji Ito (the original manga before the movie adaptations), specially Uzumaki, Mimi No Kaidan and Gyo (and the short The Enigma Of Amigara Fault). He's a genius of exploring multiple scary possibilities a story can have and also coming up with awesome creative stuff, everything we're studying here basically doesn't apply to him, when you think you saw and know everything, there's always more. It's obligatory to anybody working with Horror. No spoilers here, go read his work.
Remember I said that for fear of the unknown to exist, the informee must be aware that important information is lacking? Making the informee aware of his lack of knowledge is what the uncanny excels at. But it doesn't stop at that, there's a very valuable characteristic of the uncanny: it can dial the known back into unknown. Because of that, many ways of using the uncanny can be interpreted as "plot twists", but those are not the only ways it can be employed.
Note of that the uncanny is based on time, even if you introduce two conflicting pieces of information at once, the receiver will first take one, then make conclusion, then take the other bit and experience the challenge of the previously taken conclusions. Mori's robots don't look both human and not human at once; they look like robots and the suddenly seem to be human and have life, and then again they don't. The information never feels right. Back and forth.
It's not necessarily a one-way path for the brain to take, as you can remain continuously challenging the same conclusions back and forth between two possibilities, but you also can just go once and remain with the uncertainty created by the first challenge and work from there. In the case of Horror art works, the point of start can be the known (this is awesome, right? the known is not the end yet, the horror can always come back).
The usage of the uncannyimage is very common in Japanese horror. Little girls in white clothes down the corridor, women walking on the street at night, the human figure is always present in horror stories. You know what they look like, but are they what they seem by their looks to be? That's what the uncanny is: the presence of conflicting information. It looks like a little girl, but it's not one, in turn it can potentially be absolutely anything and, most importantly, we know that.
Examples of uncannyimage:
Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Dracula, by Bram Stoker (SPOILERS):
As I leaned from the window my eye was caught by something moving a story below me, and somewhat to my left, where I imagined, from the order of the rooms, that the windows of the Count's own room would look out. The window at which I stood was tall and deep, stone-mullioned, and though weatherworn, was still complete. But it was evidently many a day since the case had been there. I drew back behind the stonework, and looked carefully out.
What I saw was the Count's head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had had some many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow, but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.
What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature, is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me. I am in fear, in awful fear, and there is no escape for me. I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of.
The first sentence of the last paragraph is self-explanatory.
Dental training robot Showa Hanako 2:
Not an art-horror work so I won't analyze it as one, but see for yourself...
This concludes Part 2. It seems it always gets bigger and I end up slicing it into more and more parts, but presence and imminence are smaller and will fit a hopefully final Part 3. The horror is almost over, I swear! See you in Part 3.
Plot twist! I'm back! Just to reinforce my recommendations to check Junji Ito's work and to try playing 'games and watching movies in custom Monochrome color. Do it!