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The Independent Culture
IMAGINE that you're watching the beginning of a movie. Subtle pastels and fade-outs tell you that you are in the presence of art, and hint at unfolding themes of love and sadness. All of a sudden, an entirely different movie seems to have been spliced on to the opening sequence. This one seems to have been made by a manually impaired sociopath, with an ear for dialogue that makes voice-mail instructions sound like Keats. No movie producer could get away with something like that, but the rules are different in the chaotic world of computer games.

Taking their cue from upmarket comics, the more interesting game designers are revealing their artistic aspirations; but these are dropped chunk by chunk into game action sequences that don't really want to evolve beyond running, jumping and splattering enemies all over the scenery. The trend is seen at its most extreme in Silent Hill (Konami, PlayStation, pounds 39.99), which was designed in Japan and set in the typical American town that figures so prominently in horror movies.

Among the most striking images in the introductory video sequence is a man and a woman with a bundle, evidently a baby. There seems to be a picket fence in front of them, the traditional perimeter for the American nuclear family, but is that a gravestone beside them? The vision of family fulfilment is drenched in intimations of death. Yet we get a fair way into the sequence before we so much as glimpse a gun. We see a vampy nurse, a veiled woman with gimlet eyes, and a curvy but hard-edged female motorcycle trooper. Our hero, Harry, is driving at night, his daughter by his side. There's a crash; he wakes up to find her gone.

At this point the adventure becomes playable, and the quality plummets. For one thing, Harry now appears to be wearing flares. For another, there is the script. "It's quiet. Too quiet," he remarks. "This place is like a ghost town." If you think it's bad on paper, you should hear the way it's spoken. Nevertheless, the use of mood-setting devices such as mist and snow and moving points of view is effective: as Harry walks, the angle from which he is seen alters. The piece de resistance is something no film can do. When Harry has been exerting himself, or is just plain terrified, the vibrators built into the Dual Shock game controller throb like a heart pumping.

The wild lurches in quality act to dispel fear as well as subtler moods. But the game's developers have described it as a "deeply disturbing psychological horror experience", and its publicists issued a press release urging parents not to let it fall into children's hands. The Manchester Evening News took this as a cynical promotional stunt, quoting the MP for Wythenshawe, Paul Goggins, as saying that he "deplored" it, and would contact the Home Secretary on the matter.

According to its European Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) rating, Silent Hill should not be sold to anybody under 15. ELSPA's code is voluntary, though. Its lack of clout is illustrated by another recent adventure game, Virus: It Is Aware (PlayStation, pounds 39.99, pictured). Virus is based on a comic, as well as one of Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland's less memorable movie outings, and two panels on the box, in French and Dutch, advise that Virus should be kept away from under-16s. These overshadow the tiny ELSPA panel that rates it as suitable from the age of 15. But, a promotional sheet sent to the trade defines the target market as "12 and up". Stuart Furnival of Cryo, the publisher, suggests that the sheet might have been prepared before the game was finished, and that the trade would be guided by the ELSPA rating. But the trade is getting one message, and the customers are getting two different messages. It doesn't give the impression that the industry is taking this seriously.

You can contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.net

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