By now you've probably guessed what the topic of this column is -- fear and horror in our MMOs. But while we haven't made a successful game in the horror genre, we have had some major successes in themed areas of our fantasy worlds. Join me after the break as we look into why the genre is so hard to write for in a massive setting, where horror has appeared in MMOs successfully and what may be looming on our gaming horizon.
Horror is technically nothing new to the genre. Free to play MMOs DarkEden and Requiem: Bloodymare have already attempted to capitalize on the "horror" genre by soaking their programmers in tanks of blood and expecting them to churn out something decent. And when I say decent, I mean "completely not a horror game."
Both games are relying on a simple gimmick, i.e. DarkEden's focus on vampires and Requiem's focus on blood and gore, instead of actually infusing true fear and suspense into the setting. These two games are more like the line of Dracula films produced by Hammer Studios than true examples of MMOs in the horror genre. They're flavoring a rather generic game with horror bacon-bits instead of building their game design around the concept of true "horror."
What most programmers and developers are assuming is that horror can't work in the online setting. But what most people are focusing on are the chilling types of "jump" fright that is shock horror. Shock horror, obviously, only works once. Once the user realizes when the shock will occur, they can brace themselves for the encounter and let it just wash over themselves. Users of massively multiplayer games regularly play the same scenario or quest over and over again, making shock horror almost a moot point.
But it doesn't mean horror, specifically psychological horror and fear, can't work in the massive setting. Certain aspects of these types of horror could translate perfectly into the MMO genre and work continuously even if the player has already been through the area and could be informing other players of what lies ahead.
Playing on the player's fears of not knowing what lies ahead, using ambient sound and lighting to create a tangible theme, and use of randomly spawning creatures can quickly create an extremely suspenseful and "frightening" area in your game.
Offline games have already taken advantage of these concepts, and it's only a matter of time until they can be appropriately translated to the online setting. Condemned: Criminal Origins, uses artificial intelligence that keeps the enemies away from the player, but still allows the enemies to come into the field of view for a brief moment before slipping back to their hiding place in the setting. These brief sightings and creepy noises keeps the player on their toes, even if they know how many enemies are in the room.
Bioshock is an excellent example of the utilization of random enemy spawns in order to create a suspenseful atmosphere. Add to that the inherrent disconnection between the theme and certain areas of the environment, like a bright and cheerful song playing in a dark and creepy tunnel filled with the moans of enemy splicers, and you have a wonderland of psychological horror.
Even attributes and NPCs that may not adversely affect the character can have a hand in creeping out the player. One mean trick could be to cause monster sightings in the distance randomly on the client in certain areas. These NPCs would not be generated by the server, but rather by the client itself. They would only exist for a moment before "running away" and disappearing, causing the player to freak out and talk about a monster in the distance. A monster that no one else will ever see -- very much akin to the devilish tricks played by Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem on the GameCube.
But not all of these ideas exist only in our minds. Games like Final Fantasy XI and Lord of the Rings Online have wonderfully captured the essence of fear in a few of their areas.
The Gusgen Mines of Final Fantasy XI is filled with undead and the ghosts of miners long gone. The tunnels are claustrophobic, barely letting two people stand next to one another, and twist and weave around about the area. Any player without a map can quickly get lost in the eerily lit blue mines. But, past the undead and ghosts, the siren of Gusgen is what usually gets people's hair to stand on end. A loud, wailing siren signals the spawning of a undead notorious monster in the zone, a warning to all those who are exploring the mines.
Lord of the Rings Online comes close in the scare department, and in some ways completely surpasses it. Humans starting out in the small town of Archet who take quests from Atli Spider-bane will soon come into contact with a cave filled with spiders. Not only is the cave very well designed, but the animations that some of the spiders use to re-spawn, i.e. dropping from the ceiling on a thin thread of web close to the player, is just insanely creepy. To be fighting spiders and then have one drop right in front of your camera and block your vision is not only bad for battle, but intensely creepy to boot.
So what can we look forward to in the future? If you're looking for a game full of international conspiracy and huge, gigantic, Cthulhu-esque monsters, then you might want to take a look at The Secret World. If their pre-release puzzle driven media blitz is anything to indicate the psychological nature of the game, then I'd have to safely say that we're looking at a true horror title -- the first to hit the modern MMO market. If you're interested, the main forums, Dark Days Are Coming, are always looking for fresh blood to drop in and aid in the discussion.
As for me, I'll be biding my time in the discussion as my intelligent character, Dr. Seraphina Reymont. Because, you know, the Doctors are always the ones who survive in these types of stories... until they go horribly insane.
Colin Brennan is the weekly writer of Anti-Aliased who wants to have nightmares after playing an MMO. When he's not writing here for Massively, he's over running Epic Loot For All! with his insane roommates. If you want to message him, you can do so in Second Life (SL: Seraphina Reymont), or send him an e-mail at colin.brennan AT weblogsinc DOT com.