Friday, December 6, 2013

The Necessity of Emotional Distance - Fear

As a horror Storyteller, I love the toe-tingling, spine-chilling sensation of fear (within limits). I find it cathartic to play with a sensation that I don't get to feel very often in real life (thank goodness). My life is safe and simple with the usual First World problems and anxieties that riddle the average Westerner and so putting my mind into a situation that taps into the primal sense of fear and confusion is a welcome relief from that. Welcome, because it is fictional.

Regrettably I have no other Horror Storytellers around me who aim for a sense of fear. I've experienced horror games that evoked repulsion. Horror games that play on the most horrible thing that can happen to you where even the average NPC is a *bad guy*. I've played in games with horror themes. I just never played in a game where the intent and design were based around scaring me ... or even my characters. Not really.

Add to that the fact that my players aren't Horror Players. Most of them hate horror. They rebel against the idea of the vulnerable protagonist. They find No-Win situations to be the height of irritation and sometimes contrivance. They become dejected or depressed when too many Bad Things happen. One even has the occasional nightmare based off my horror games because, well, the horror sessions really work on her.

And that has all led me to realise that there's a reason why horror games are less common than other sorts of games. The World of Darkness does tragedy quite well but it's focus on being the monster makes it less scary because your player avatar can quite easily become entirely unsympathetic. Oh no, the monster died. Sure it sucks that it was my monster that died, but that's hardly going to keep me awake at night.

Sure, there are investigative games with horror backbones like Call of Cthulhu which have vulnerable protagonists that are reasonably popular but the average Call of Cthulhu published scenario isn't generally very scary. Some have potential. Most are more interesting perspectives into a world of horrors rather than anything else, which is doubtless in part because it's hard for a published adventure to have the personal touch required of a truly scary game. And such games have plenty of room for a sharp focus on investigation or pulpy action, rather than on the lived experience of what it would be like to be in that situation.

Because, let's face it, a shoggoth in real life is scary because it exists. But then again, a ghost that does nothing other than stand in the corner of your room would terrify me in real life. In a roleplaying game where you can distract yourself with clue trails, dynamite and meta-knowledge, that shoggoth becomes far less scary.

DISCLAIMER: This isn't to say that Call of Cthulhu or even World of Darkness is fundamentally non-scary. I'm merely stating that it's easy enough to play these two games in a way that touches all those horror themes without ever really trying to scare the player (or if you are the player, to scare yourself) and that's one of the reasons why they can be popular. They can target a broader demographic of action heroes / villains and investigators, respectively.

So why is this the case? Why is horror such a small demographic?

There's probably numerous reasons but I'm going to assume the big one is that people avoid negative feelings and embrace positive ones, more often than not. Most people aim for a sense of empowerment, satisfaction and success in their roleplaying games. They want to feel like a hero, or at the very least a badass, because those aren't feelings they normally get to have in their day-to-day lives. They want to feel extraordinary. They want to charge across the room and take down the enemy rather than cower and crawl away on a broken leg. Sure, some players want their empowerment to be realistic rather than cinematic but that's probably because it feels more satisfying to them to have survived situations in a feasible manner.

Also, odds are those people who do like horror are those people who find it hard to feel scared and, like a numb tooth you're pretty sure should be sore, they keep trying to poke it. I don't know a single player who is easily scared and yet still enjoys horror videogames, movies or roleplaying games(though they probably do exist). Most horror fans get barely a fear twitch and thus keep searching it out - which ironically helps reduce their ability to be scared through sheer exposure.

I mean, think about fear for a moment. Fear tells you to leave the scary thing alone. Story-based fears also exist in your head, rather than in the real world, and therefore you can't literally leave them behind. If it truly manages to get under your skin than it can interrupt your sleep patterns, plague you at night, and make you nervous about leaving the house when it's dark inside. While the odd tingle during these times could be pleasant, generally fear either settles on you like a blanket or is shaken off entirely. It makes sense that people would avoid that.

Does that mean we shouldn't chase that moment of terror?

No. I don't believe so.

It just means we need to be aware that most people don't want that and while we can play with the themes of horror in their games, we probably shouldn't be dousing them in it unless they ask for it.

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