Thursday, June 6, 2013

Amnesia, Among the Sleep, and horror economics.

I used to have a low opinion of the many busywork-type interactions that fill survival horror games. To me, it seemed like these games were about managing this totally artificial-feeling, designed-to-death resource scarcity ("I need more red herbs! I need more lantern oil! I need 9mm ammo!") and scavenging your environment for supplies. How can you optimize your ammo usage for the future when you don't know where you'll be or what you'll be up against?

Maybe these horror games work sometimes because, really, they're about the experience of being poor. They're about paralyzing uncertainty and the inability to plan, but still surviving. It's about how math can tire you out.

You become obsessed with your own poverty and hoard supplies. The scariest thing is the possibility -- just the possibility -- that you will not have enough supplies to survive, due to hours of poor choices, and now you are trapped in a failure hole forever. Then, while your logical abilities are distracted and fatigued... maybe then the lizard-part of your brain takes over and fills you with a special kind of dread or fear from the narrative or graphics or sounds or shadows or whatever?

So, I think I understand now why Amnesia: The Dark Descent has mechanics, or at least a thin veneer of mechanics. They exist to wear-down the gamer impulse with numbers and planning, so you don't end up circle-strafing around the monsters.

In contrast -- Among the Sleep, at least in the demo linked on their Kickstarter page, has no such resource management or stats or anything. Maybe that's why I was somewhat bored, and I never bought into its horror aspect. (Then again, why would the player protagonist, an impulsive and clumsy two year old child, plan ahead and hoard 9mm ammo and use red herbs? Hmm.)

I'm not saying mechanics are the answer. (Believe me, I'm shocked that I'm even writing something pro-gameplay like this.) I'm just trying to figure out why, apparently, a systems-y horror game works more than a systems-less horror game -- I'm trying to dissect why Amnesia utterly horrified me to the point that I'm too anxious to load the game, and why Among the Sleep put me to sleep. One of the main differences is the implied prevalence of mechanics and resource management between the two games.

Amnesia is pretty clear about saying "this bar symbolizes your sanity," which makes me obsess over hoarding sanity-juice. In Among the Sleep, there's not even a health bar or any implication that anything can hurt me -- can I even die in this game? The strategizing-part of my brain, running idle, uses some of its spare cycles on critiquing the mesh topology on their environment assets, or it's frustrated with the body awareness handling or the overly strong headbobbing effect.

Amnesia burdens you with all these stats and limited resources and keeps telling you not to run out of health or sanity or lantern oil -- even if this system isn't really the point, and I'm sure Frictional is cheating / scripting the math on it all the time -- it keeps me occupied and worrying.

In Among the Sleep, I'm an unusually acrobatic two year old who's totally oblivious to everything and worries about nothing. I am invincible.

Is it possible to omit the "survival" in "survival horror", or desystematize the "survival" part? Given how strong the genre conventions are -- I think it's either very difficult or impossible. Good luck, Among the Sleep team...