Thursday, 20 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 20 - The horror!

Prompt: Favourite horror game

Yeah, the immediate answer on this one is a bit of a no brainer. Call of Cthulhu may not be quite everyone's cup of gibbering cosmic terror, but it's kind of the horror game. Once more, James Holloway covers this better than I could, being a colossal Lovecraft nerd where I am more of a colossal dilettante nerd (not to say that he doesn't have his share of dilettantism, but Lovecraft is a bit of a specialty.)


So, to talk about something other than Lovecraft, what is the purpose and place of horror in gaming?

While the Big C... No, wait... While Cthulhu looms large in the background of any discussion of horror games, there was a time - the 90s - where the first and last word belonged to White Wolf's World of Darkness game series. Sort of. Vampire the Masquerade was billed as 'the storytelling game of personal horror' and Werewolf the Apocalypse as 'the storytelling game of savage horror', but Vampire games often ended up more towards a mafia-based soap opera in feeling, and Werewolf as Captain Planet: The Furry Years*, due to the former's emphasis on byzantine vampiric politics and the latter's on combat against truly and unequivocally monstrous foes. It was only with Wraith the Oblivion that White Wolf really produced a game that focused on horror thematically, rather than mechanically, but Wraith was an agonisingly difficult game to play well and a pain in the arse if you were playing it wrong.

I think in the end, the old World of Darkness failed as horror because their rationale for incorporating horror into the games was almost certainly, because this was the case with just about anything else, because it was cool, and horror that is cool is seldom really horror. I mean, did anyone ever watch The Lost Boys for the horror thrills?

In Call of Cthulhu and it's ilk, and perhaps in general, the primary purpose of horror is cathartic. As James notes in his video, the fact that you ultimately never win in CoC means that it's okay to lose, but it also means that small victories become triumphs as you overcome the unstoppable, if only for a moment. To me, that is part of the appeal of horror; not the inevitable defeat, but the small moments of triumph along the way. In vampire horror it's a major win making it to daybreak; in zombie horror a night of sleep is worth more than 100 gold and a really big party. Mere survival becomes a victory when victory becomes unattainable.

I guess that's why, for my money, Changeling the Lost is the most successful 'horror' game in the old and new WoD series, because it really is about facing something that you can never defeat; not just your Keeper, but your past. In some ways it ties in with the Lovecraft theme, because Lost is about characters who don't know who they are; whose very psyches are prone to collapse whenever the fragile networks of validation which they create are breached. Like Lovecraft himself, the Lost cling to evidence of identity and value that they know to be a lie, because they have nothing else. Creeping dread is difficult to maintain in the atmosphere of a gaming group - easier in many ways in LARP, which is more immersive - but identity crises can be managed with any group with a reasonable level of character investment.

And perhaps that's the real challenge to horror gaming: To find investment in a character you know to be short-lived. Certainly it's the real trick to horror writing, to snare the reader's sympathy for someone they know to be doomed.

* I'm being flippant, but I've enjoyed many games of both.