I’ve started to notice a pattern when I play horror games on the computer. As the tension ratchets up, my chair begins to scoot away from the monitor. This happens habitually at first, usually in response to a jump scare or a gradual rise in dramatic tension generated by the music. Soon enough, I recognize what’s happening, and continue to move away from the screen. It’s a ridiculous move, though one not without some merit, if I’m to try and defend myself. The more distance between my face and the monitor, the more likely I’m to be fixated on a certain section of the screen, and better setup for an unexpected fright to scare the shit out of me.
It’s what made playing the choose-your-own-horror game, Home, such a strange experience. The iOS version came out recently, and with extra time on my hands earlier this week, I jumped into bed, strapped on headphones, and went into the night.
Somehow, I never got around to playing Home on PC or Mac, even though I’d heard nothing but glowing commentary regarding its experimental and divisive approach to narrative. Home is a 2D, side-scrolling horror game in which the camera is fixated disturbingly close to the main character, preventing the player from seeing much around him. Did I mention that just about everything is shrouded in darkness, and your flashlight barely illuminates anything? Right. You wake up in a weird house, start finding dead bodies, and aren’t sure how everything fits together. Players have substantial agency over the whole narrative--the game is merely a vehicle for them to tell their own story. It’s an atypical approach.
Despite its 2D nature, Home is a profoundly creepy game, buoyed by its hyper detailed art, slow-paced movement, and loud, crunchy sound effects. Part of the reason Home is effective at scaring you is because you do not expect a game like this can pull it off, so you want to applaud when it does so consistently (on the yelp scale, Home got 1/5 real-life yelps from Patrick Klepek). Like I said, one of the ways I guard myself during games like Home is by physically distancing myself. Since I was playing this on an iPad, this was much harder.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from trying over and over again. The music would begin to pulse, my character’s feet would scratch against the cement floor, a pipe would squeak, and the iPad would move a few inches away. Then, a few more. Then, a few more. Then, I’d remember this game is touch-based, and in order to properly move my character, take in the environment, and interact with the world (necessary to put together the optional backstory elements), the iPad would have to move right up to my face again. A few minutes later, the cycle would repeat, and each time my stomach would churn and my fingers would tense up, gripping the iPad tight.
It’s not just that my iPad is smaller than my 21.5” computer monitor, either. We are trained to have these devices right up in our faces, and we develop personal relationships with them. It sounds disturbing when it’s written down like that, but that relationship is part of their DNA, a fusion of the device’s tinier screen size and its requirement that we interact with our fingers. My body’s natural reaction to fear is to move away from what’s prompting my fight-or-flight, but the device beckons closer, constantly reminding me that our relationship depends on our distance.
I asked Home designer Benjamin Rivers about my reaction to his game, and how the devices we interact with prompt unique responses from our bodies. Here’s what he told me:
"One of the weirdest scary experiences for me was Silent Hill Origins on PSP. I played it with headphones, in the dark, as I wanted Home players to, and I started to notice how the portable system affected my play. I noticed that when I went into a new room that I was sure would reveal a scare or something disturbing to view, I started to hold the PSP away from me, because when it was too close and something too intense happened, it felt almost overwhelming, like it was literally invading my personal space.
I wanted something similar with Home, though I know it's a very different game. My favourite part of the touch version of the game is tapping on the screen to advance the full-screen titles (the text boxes). I find the little sound cue I put there, plus having your entire device get taken over by text, often felt a little stressful, because you weren't sure if you were missing something. How often in UIs these days are you asked to look at just one thing and tap just one or two items, completely focused?
Playing the game over and over for testing also revealed that it seemed a bit more morbid to have to touch certain things (such as Norman, or to look up in the tunnels where the bats are hanging). I thought the flavour text describing what you were doing (such as closing Norman's eyes) felt a bit more literal with the touch control, which was interesting, and not something I necessarily anticipated.
The just-updated PC version of the game includes (for the first time) force-feedback when you use an Xbox 360 controller, which I used for certain events and thought made a really nice addition. I wish I could have used this in the mobile version as well; I think it would have added to the creepy touch factor.
To more directly answer your question, I have found the feedback/submissions I have received so far from iOS users sometimes feels a bit more personal than it was with PC. I think it's because of the forced focus you have with opening an app and playing it through. Hopefully people are spending a bit more uninterrupted time with the game there, which was a secret side goal of mine. It seems like more people play it through in one sitting (I can only gather from anecdotal evidence) on iOS right away.
I can immediately think of many great ideas for taking the idea of a touch-based horror game you don't want to touch; there definitely is a lot of room to explore. I wrote this little piece on my blog before about Another Code: R for the Wii and how its Wii remote controls made me feel much closer to the characters (even via their simple pantomime), and with touch, I think, there is a lot to be done. Being forced to perform actions you may not want to, but need to, via touch controls could be used to great psychological effect. Maybe I should have added a real-time door-opening control scheme to Home. :-)"
Good to know I’m not alone on this one. What about you guys?