It’s Not What’s Said, But What’s Not Said
There are different ways of “telling” someone something, and there are different ways of “showing” someone something. Don’t think that just because video games are largely visual experiences – rather than text – doesn’t mean they’re not “telling” (or, violently shoving information on the audience).
First, as much as I admire Half-life 2‘s immersive experience and its spine-chilling story of one scientist against earth’s violent alien overlords, I can’t recommend it without certain caveats. I’m not really a full-on horror/gore fan, though I’ve already discussed the way Half-life 2 initially pulled me in with subtle hinting at unspeakable (yet realistic) horrors. Now, I must address a later level of the game where they leave my comfort zone into the “gore” zone, and in some ways weaken their narrative.
If you’re at all familiar with the horror genre, you probably won’t be surprised by any of this. Although it isn’t the first place in the game where you’ve met Half-life‘s version of zombies, in the town of Ravenholm there are lots of zombies. Lots and lots of zombies.
The result of a parasitic alien life-form called a “head-crab” that latches onto a human head and takes over the central nervous system, these faceless, bloody, and physically deteriorating ”carcasses” are naturally hostile to everything (even each other at times, apparently [scroll to the bottom of the “Trivia” section; caution: link contains graphic zombie images]). There are head-crab zombies in other areas of Half-life 2, but Ravenholm is a town completely overrun by them. Now, not only are we surrounded by the broken buildings and shattered remains of a crumbled civilization, we’re faced with mowing down dozens of walking corpses that are yet somehow still human.
If that’s your cup of tea, fine. But it’s not very subtle, is it? I mean, military police shooting at you isn’t “subtle,” either; we get that they don’t like you. But why? Everybody seems to know your name, even though you’ve been away from the planet for several years at least. Clearly, there’s a deeper meaning to unpack here (in between crawling through sewers and blowing up hostiles).
With zombies, however, there isn’t much more to them. They’re coming at you with talons upraised – hack them! End of story. You should be scared – we get that. There’s a lot to be scared about. These zombies aren’t the green, stumpy ones of Minecraft. These ones are red — as the head-crab’s life cycle (whatever that is) shreds the host’s flesh off, alters the nerves and structures of the arms into attack-suited spines, and even bloats some of the hosts with more head-crabs (some sort of reproductive function?), the Half-life 2 zombies are anything but comely.
Body parts abound. If you don’t kill the head-crab on the head, even bisecting the poor host doesn’t stop the assault. Sometimes, you set zombies on fire. The creature is wreathed in flames, yet it refuses to collapse at once – the zombie continues to advance on you, even as you hear the muffled howling of the man or woman underneath the head-crab.
Some people like the intensity of gore. I understand that. It sure gets the adrenaline glands pumping. But it doesn’t leave a whole lot to the audience’s imagination. Gross, sticky, and in-your-face disgusting, it lacks the psychological finesse of the earlier scenes of Half-life 2.
Now, let’s revisit that classic of sci-fi gaming mastery: Halo. While the graphics and high-speed game processing impress players, the storyline of one super-soldier out to save the sentient world is gripping and resonant. [here’s a link to a walkthrough: Lament for Pvt. Jenkins. Alert: spoiler]
For most of the game, you’ve been fighting an alien conglomerate called the Covenant. As you fight your way into an ancient alien facility, suddenly you come to a door with alien blood on the other side…and you’re not sure you put it there.
Moving on through the passages, you find doorways blocked with fallen debris (although usually the structure is immaculate). Peeking into a room, you catch a glimpse of an alien body…and you definitely weren’t the one who killed it. Was it your fellow human soldiers? Who knows.
Through another door, there’s an open gallery where the Covenant have set up their stationary gun emplacements. These pivoting energy guns are usually staffed with Covenant soldiers…but these ones are empty. Oh, and there’s more blue Covenant blood on the floor, even though the room is completely deserted.
Down another passageway, through another door, you walk straight into a human marine. He should be one of your friends, but he opens fire on you, yelling crazed, paranoid things like, “You’re not turning me into one of those things! Stay back!” What could he have seen to crack him like this? “They took the live ones…find your own hiding place!” Who took what? What is this guy’s problem? [this walkthrough lets him talk longer]
In this room, there’s more Covenant blood, and discarded Covenant weapons. Did this psychotic soldier kill them all…?
The normally clean, well-functioning facility is burned and littered with the debris of combat. In the corner, a fire rages amid the wreckage of a ramp. Blast marks and green blood stain the walls and floor. And still, nobody (except Psycho Marine) confronts you.
One of the next doors you come to is broken down completely, though there are no signs of life nearby. Who broke it down? Friend? Foe?
The view switches to a cutscene, which in Halo means you leave first-person POV to watch the Master Chief (your character) act. He’s about to open the last door, when he hears a squishing, rattling sound. None of the Covenant make this sound. It’s new…it’s unnerving.
The door opens, and a soldier’s corpse falls into his arms. He checks his back, but there’s still no sign of any hostile forces. The room beyond has clearly seen battle…but what kind of battle? Humans died, but what killed them?
The Master Chief takes the footage from a soldier’s helmet cam to find out.
This footage is (naturally) in first-person. The team (that went before you) encountered a group of Covenant – all dead, and surrounded by plasma scouring, indicating Covenant weapons. The team is as puzzled as you were.
The team in the video come to the door you just entered. Although the Covenant “tried really hard to lock it down”, they’re going to open it. Naturally. We already know what happened to one of them. What was the what? Adrenaline pulses through our veins.
As the soldiers enter the unsealed room, the weird slushy, rattling noise begins again.
Someone over the radio calls them: “We’ve got contact! Lots of contact—but they’re not Covenant!”
The rattling gets worse. Even the officers are noticing it now. As the squad glances around, searching for a hostile target – any target – a door to the side crashes open. Out pour the things that made the squad vanish except for one corpse.
Cutscene over. The Master Chief drops the video recording and grips his weapon. You slip back into first person POV—your turn to fight the horror!
And that makes the experience that much more resonant, because you’ve had a chance to take it and make it your own reality. Real-life evils usually leave tell-tale hints and signs of their presence even as they try to hide in the shadows. Don’t forget to ask yourself if your Big Monster is able to take the weight of all the expectation that’s been built up by your subtle foreshadowing. Let the apprehension pay off, so that the audience will always be just as afraid as the characters are. One way you can do this is letting the fiend be shadowy enough that every reader can write their own personal demon on top of him.
You’ll have to decide which approach is right for your story’s tone and theme – but consider leaving the box and digging for something deeper and closer to the reader’s psyche.