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The Horror… The Horror! How Music in Horror Games Effects Player Experience

Do you feel that? Your pulse starts to beat a little faster; you can feel sweat slowly slide down the back of your neck; goosebumps tiptoe along your forearm.  Are you scared?

You should be.

My Research Questions:   How is the music present in horror movies similar to/different from the music present in  video games of the horror genre?  Does the type of music in horror games instill a positive or negative effect in their players?  How does the music in “Silent Hill” edify a gamer’s experience with this medium?

How I Came to this Topic:

Mirror:  I. Love. Horror Movies.  Maybe it’s the fact that I wanted to be a bloody body part when I was two years old, or the fact that I saw Child’s Play at age 4.  Now, at the college level, I find horror movies to be the most intellectually stimulating genre.  In order for something to be truly scary, it must display proper understanding of psychology.  Face it- psychological thrillers are so much more terrifying than a visceral gore-fest simply because it is unknown (Uncanny, if you will…).  When I discovered that there was a horror genre of video games, I was fascinated; the genre paradoxically combines a player’s ability to control his or her environment through game play with the helplessness that many people experience while watching a good horror movie.

Window:  The first step in analyzing something is to know that something deeper exists.  According to Zach Whelan in his article on music in video games, good video game music will blend seamlessly into the game’s action and draw the gamer into the game.  Affirmatively, music is a powerful tool present in most movies that edifies the viewing experience.  Some people do not know how important music is in creating a gaming environment.  For example, most people know the theme from Jaws when they hear it.  Also, most people will recognize inappropriate music when they hear it (like this… interesting… twist on the trailer to The Dark Knight).

Lens:  When we entered this course, many of us found the concept of theory to be difficult.  First, we began with a Reader Response Theory in which we applied our own reactions to the analysis of a game.  Then, we transitioned to a higher level of theoretical application, perhaps applying Formalism (studying the formal aspects of a game, including design and sound aspects).

In my project, I’ve decided to apply the theories of Psychoanalytic Criticism (which is largely inundated by the principles of Freudian Psychoanalysis) and New Historicism.  Freud’s theory of “The Uncanny” is a popular theory that is used in analyzing why horror movies and games are scary.  New Historicism asserts that works are, inevitably, a part of the historical movement from which they originated and should be analyzed as such.

“While much of the history of music takes place in the public space of ritual or diversion, videogames enter the picture at a time when more and more cultural activity began to take place at home” (Bogost 31).  Additionally, more recent trends indicate that a gamer can insert his or her own musical playlist into a game.

So, in an age of technological advancement and a world in which video games are becoming commonplace in every home, where will music fit in?  Moreover, as Jane McGonigal demonstrates, “Reality is Broken.”  She says that “games gave a starving population a feeling of power in a powerless situation, a sense of structure in a chaotic environment.  Games gave them a better way to live when their circumstances were otherwise completely unsupportive and uninhabitable” (McGonigal).

Can games and movies of the horror genre, a genre which is categorized by the innate feelings of helplessness that it can give viewers/players, give participants the control they need to conquer the fear that penetrates their own realities?

The Heart-Racing Truth Behind the Genre:

Fear: “Apprehension; dread; alarm; by having an identifiable stimulus, fear is differentiated from anxiety which has no easily identifiable stimulus” (Web MD).  Human beings may have rational or irrational phobias.  From an arachnophobic fear of particular eight-legged insects to a fear of drowning, each phobia may cause a variety of symptoms, including increased heart rate, sweating, goosebumps, etc.

Medical research by Purdue University’s Professor Glenn Sparks suggests that the sweaty palms and racing heart produced in many people while watching a horror film is no different to the brain than if the person were being chased by an axe-wielding maniac.

The Amygdala, the blue portion highlighted in this graphic, is the part of the brain activated while watching a horror movie or playing a horror game. The Amygdala is connected with various emotions, especially with fear.

So, why do people still watch scary movies and play scary games?

“For adults, morbid curiosity may be at play — the same kind that causes us to stare at crashes on the highway. . . Humans may have an innate need to stay aware of dangers in our environment, especially the kind that could do us bodily harm, she says. . . Yet another theory suggests that people may seek out violent entertainment as a way of coping with actual fears or violence” (Sine).

Training to Survive in an Ugly Reality:

As I wrote in the rough draft for my paper 2 assignment on The Sims 3 and its relation to Genetic Engineering,  simulation games like The Sims give players the opportunity to simulate every day life.  This could be a simulation of good aspects of life (e.g. a happy family life) or of bad aspects (e.g. games like “True Crime” that simulate realistic murders occurring on the streets of LA).  The Sims and other Alternative Reality Games allow this simulation to take place.

In an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), players participate in order to “get more out of [their] real life” (McGonigal).  The purpose of these games can range from the building of an entirely new Civilization to killing zombies to improve typing skills, such as is the premise behind The Typing of the Dead.

Jane McGonigal refers to ARG’s as “small-scale probes of the future… a showcase for new possibilities” (McGonigal).  Indeed, horror movies and horror games typically include fantasy elements that provide viewers/players with a way to escape their every day lives and to be scared for a short period of time.  Because games are a distorted reflection of reality, we can test our limits by examining our ability to progress through a game.  These games “mirror back to us a positive sense of our own capabilities” (McGonigal) to escape and to cope when appropriate.

While Horror games and movies remind us of the helplessness we can encounter during our every day lives, viewers/players always have an escape when they leave the theatre or turn off the game console.  Perhaps people continue to return to horror movies and games because it gives them the power to cope with their fears in a safe, enclosed environment.

The Horror… The Horror!”

Regardless, safety in ARG’s may not necessarily diminish the game’s terror-effects.

Many horror movies and games are based upon the principles of Freud’s theory of The Uncanny, or what makes something scary (Helene Cixous, a literary critic, gives an advanced yet interesting overview of the topic).  “The Uncanny,” can include subjects such as haunted houses, ghosts, dolls, ‘animatrons,’ etc., and  Allyssa discusses this further in her Gaming Culture Presentation.  For instance, in the Konami game Silent Hill 2 (2001), the presence of a ‘double’ is a very uncanny concept because a double is familiar yet strange.  Something is just… off.

There's something wrong with Maria...In the following clip, the main character, James, meets Maria, a double of his deceased wife, Mary.

In the following clip, the main character, James, meets Maria, a double of his deceased wife, Mary.  There is something uncanny about “Maria”… isn’t there?

In more recent years, movies and Literature aren’t the only media in which “The Uncanny” can be seen.  Art forms, as some would say, video games like Silent Hill belong in the horror genre as much as do movies like The Exorcist and Psycho.  The cultural acceptance of video games as transmitters and interactive analyzers of the most horrifying aspects of human life have become prominent in games like Silent Hill.

Scary Music for a Scary Genre:

In addition to the elements of “The Uncanny” that make movies and video games scary, the music used in the Horror genre plays an important role in how we experience these forms of entertainment.

Major characteristics of music in the horror genre:

1) Atonality: The lack of a tonal/harmonic center in music

2) Dissonance:  The impression of tension or clash some listeners experience when two or more tones or notes are sounded together.

3) Music is typically in a minor key.  The minor key typically provides the feeling of sadness or negativity as opposed to a happier major key.

4) A gradually-increasing tempo mirrors the increased beating of the heart.

5) The lack of resolution in the music instills a nervous feeling in viewers/players; they don’t feel safe, but must continue viewing or playing in order to solve an inherent puzzle.
Listen to this scary clip and then listen to this neutral clip.  Notice a difference?  In the scary clip, did you hear the screeching violins and the clashing, dissonant sound?

For example, watch this clip from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining .  In the movie, “the music will often rise steadily to a cacophonous crescendo to parallel a character’s escalating terror or psychosis” (Whalen).

Music in the Movies:

The well-renowned movie franchise, Halloween, depicts a masked Michael Myers as he lurks in the shadows in close proximity to whomever he’s plotting to kill.

A malevolent Michael Myers from the popular horror movie franchise, "Halloween," lurks in the shado

Most people are familiar with the Halloween movie musical theme, an atonal mash-up of high-pitched violins, a crescendo that begins eerily quietly and builds to include the low-pitched drone of bass synthesizers, and a continuing motif of pulsing piano music.

WARNING: THIS CLIP BECOMES RATHER BLOODY AT ABOUT 3:55.  Most of the film footage leading up to this is based on the psychological thriller motif that is common in many horror films.

Classics like Halloween and The Shining play on our basic fears of being chased.  Plenty of scholarship has been written on “The Uncanny” in The Shining, by the way… Check Reeves’ Memorial Library’s Literature Resource Center for more information.

Horror Games:

Music has two functions in video games: To “expand the concept of a game’s fictional world or to draw the player forward through the sequence of gameplay” (Whalen)

A screenshot from "Silent Hill." Players encounter uncanny elements, a dreamlike atmosphere, and haunting music In this walkthrough of Silent Hill 2, pay attention to the way the clip uses atonality (no tonal center), silence, and sound effects to produce an effect in the viewer/player.

Horror games, according to a Narratology perspective (we studied this in class) typically contain a story into which players can be drawn.  The player’s immersion into the story allows him or her to get lost in the game and to live the adventure of the game vicariously without having to suffer the inevitable deadly results at the game’s end.

While both Horror movies and horror games typically provide a light at the end of a hopeless tunnel for viewers/players, there is a fundamental difference between movies and games:  Games allow us to control our own destiny, albeit under unsafe conditions that are edified by the unresolved nature of the games’ music.

Not only does music in a horror game help us to follow the story in an interactive way, it also helps to draw us forward through the game.  This drawing-in is accompanied by a player’s distinct ability to manipulate characters’ actions using a joystick or computer mouse.

Silent Hill:

The premise behind Silent Hill is that the main character, Harry Mason, is taking his daughter Cheryl on vacation to Silent Hill, a resort town.  Harry undergoes an accident and awakens to find himself alone in the foggy and abandoned Silent Hill.  The player has to follow a shadowy figure (who may or may not be Cheryl) in order to progress in the game and solve a puzzle.

In Silent Hill, composer Akira Yamaoka provides no music in a major key.  This creates a sense of urgency in which there are never safe moments of exploration, and players “must sustain a consistent and pervasive mood of terror or apprehension” (Whalen).  Some music present in the game is rather uncomfortable to listen to, such as this version of  “My Heaven” present in the first Silent Hill.

In this walkthrough of Silent Hill 2, pay attention to the way the clip uses atonality (no tonal center), silence, and sound effects to produce an feeling of being unsafe in the viewer/player.

The other music in the game begins as a “faint, atmospheric ambience barely above the clarity of white noise” (Whalen).  As monsters come nearer, the music gets louder and more dissonant.  The puzzle is difficult to solve because of the various obstacles that get in Harry’s way (e.g. monsters).  Yet, the player knows when the obstacles are coming by the crescendo and burst of orchestral music in the background.

This mood motivates the player to move forward, to either solve the puzzle or escape the uncomfortable and unresolvable feelings the music creates.

Conquering Our Fears:

Like the resolution of a song from a minor key to a major key, most horror movies resolve  into either blissful reunion with loved ones and/or the promise of a new beginning.  Of course, there are exceptions in certain horror movies, such as The Descent, the ending to which is terrifying because of its lack of resolution.  The music at the end of this movie also portrays hopelessness.

A Happy Ending for the Main Character in "The Descent"?

In video games of the horror genre, however, players have the power to manipulate the game and emerge victorious over both the game’s puzzle and their real-life fears.  In the ending of Silent Hill 2, James and Laura are able to leave Silent Hill, a technical happy ending.

So, I return to the question I posed at the beginning: Can games and movies of the horror genre, a genre which is categorized by the innate feelings of helplessness that it can give viewers/players, give participants the control they need to conquer the fear that penetrates their own realities?

Obviously, if we were to apply Freud’s theory of “The Uncanny” to the study of horror films, we’d see that Freud’s theory reflects a fear that people supposedly feel in their own realities (reality —and Freud— are subjective, by the way…).  This is what makes a horror movie/ game either a masterpiece or a flop.  Movies give viewers the ability to walk away from the film at the end and analyze how wonderfully they have it compared to the movie’s characters.

Games, on the other hand, always contain that possibility of loss, a possibility that could be more damaging than the refracting of reality present when playing a video game.  The lack of control over not being able to win a game could magnify a player’s fear if he or she fears failure.

However, “human activity may be driven by selfish genes, by the phantasms of inaccurate  perceptions, by reactionary tribalism and shortsighted dominance moves” (Koster). As a society driven by the desire to win and compete, a true manifestation of Social Darwinism‘s concept of survival of the fittest, could it be that horror movies and horror games like Silent Hill are training us to survive in a real-world horror movie?

She'll run up the stairs... they always do.

Just think— every time you roll your eyes when a girl runs up the stairs to get away from her potential killer, you’re receiving a training guide for a life time of success.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011. Print.

McGonigal, Jane. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
Sine, Richard. “Why We Love Scary Movies.” WebMD – Better Information. Better Health. Web MD. Web. <http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/why-we-love-scary-movies>.
Whalen, Zach. “Game Studies – Play Along – An Approach to Videogame Music.” Game Studies – Issue 1103, 2011. University of Florida, 2004. Web. <http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/whalen/>.
“What Is Fear? Find the Definition for Fear at WebMD.” Online Medical Dictionary at WebMD: Find Definitions for Medical Terms. Web MD, 2006. Web. <http://dictionary.webmd.com/terms/fear>.
posted by orl4862 in Uncategorized and have Comments (10)

10 Responses to “The Horror… The Horror! How Music in Horror Games Effects Player Experience”

  1. 1) I had to ask… what bloody body part?
    2) I will never think of Batman the same way again. (Just as Mr. Bean completely changed how I react when I hear “All Creatures of Our God and King” in church)
    3) You’ll see lots of uncanny creepy dolls in Jen’s presentation, by the way.
    4) The Silent Hill walkthrough clip wouldn’t play for me.

    I’ll wait to comment until I see what your peers have to say.

    • orl4862 says:

      1) I don’t remember… probably an arm.
      2) Me neither…
      3) I’ll check that out.
      4) I’ll also check that out. Thanks for letting me know.

  2. jen says:

    First of all bravo nice presentation, it kept my interest for sure. I thought the part about people seeking out violent entertainment as a way of coping was clever. It reminds me of people that are sexually abused often become part of the adult industry. Why do you think that people that are exposed to something like a horror movie have such different reactions.? My nephew hates them, my friend can’t get enough and although I go to horror or suspense movies, I end up covering my eyes and squirming in my seat.

  3. orl4862 says:

    Thank you, Jen. To be honest, the first thing that comes to mind is nature and nurture. Genetics may have a part in this phenomenon because genetics somewhat dictate our preferences. Also, these preferences may or may not have been nurtured by our environment. I grew up with the notion that [most] horror movies were okay because they could be considered art. Why do you find yourself squirming so much?

    Scientifically, I don’t have an answer to that, and I would have to look into that more. Great question!

  4. […] Jessica: Jessica’s blog was about horror game (a topic which I love dearly) so I was very excited to read it. I was also excited to see that she had taken an idea that I had previously written about, the uncanny in video games, and talked about it. She even referenced the same game that I did. She mentions me, and links to a blog that I did on the subject. Her presentation went into a great more detail than my puny blog did, and it’s really worth the read. […]

  5. djbeckage says:

    I like the idea of the comparison between two different genres and how they are so similar once they have been broken down to their components.

    I also agree with Dr. Jerz that I will never think of “The Dark Knight” the same way again.

  6. […] takes a detailed approach to examining how horror game music affects the player experience.  She describes the brain and characteristics of horror genre music, and goes on to compare the […]

  7. mau7038 says:

    This is an awesome presentation. I like that you assert that horror movies and games could be teaching us real-world survival skills.

  8. Mike Arnzen says:

    Brilliant analysis of Silent Hill and I learned a few new things reading this (though I’m still skeptical of claims about ‘natural’ brain chemical responses to something artificial/artistic). Good attention to the structure of the emotional reaction. Wondering: are there unique elements to horror video game sound that don’t also appear in the movies? Because it all seems so derivative to me… But this paper is quite insightful and deserves to be read by others. Good work, Jess O. — Mike Arnzen

    • orl4862 says:

      I understand your skepticism when it comes to the ‘natural’ responses to artificiality. I can only compare the brain’s reaction to horror movies to someone who has a phobia. For example, I know a person who is terrified to look at photographs of spiders. The photographs are an artistic and contrived depiction of the real-life spider, but the physical reactions are the same.

      As for your question, I would have to look into this further. I hypothesize that horror video game sound is experienced in conjunction with the kinesthetic hand motions needed to use the game controller. Game playing requires more physical interaction than passively watching a movie. Perhaps this could make reactions of terror more vivid to a person.

      Thanks, Dr. A.

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