We’re Being Toyed With

On the use of puzzles in survival horror.

Spoilers for Bendy and the Ink Machine to follow.

Classic survival horror like Silent Hill or Resident Evil (before RE: 4 ruined it, sorry not sorry) typically contains two major gameplay components: combat with enemies where the player is at a distinct disadvantage, and puzzle solving that often involves exploration to find items in far-flung places on the map. Combat is often what’s remembered as the most terrifying bit, since it involves the most immediately high-stakes gameplay and sees the player in their most vulnerable state. It’s certainly what a lot of big-budget horror has clung to in terms of creating fear, with examples like Dead Space and later Resident Evil entries relying almost entirely on combat with minimal puzzle solving. But while the puzzles are not pulse-pounding in the same way as curb-stomping a zombie in a narrow hallway, that doesn’t mean they’re a break from the horror of the game; they just function a little differently.

Survival horror allows us to examine the particular relationship between developer and player that takes place in the genre —  even though the emotional experience can be thought of as negative, as one has to stand and face the sense of powerlessness and suffering embedded that comes with it, we get positive things out of our successful attempts. But I believe what thinking about puzzles in a horror game can do for us is to get us to consider the authorial intentions of a piece of media, and how those intentions in themselves can have implications for how we experience that media, beyond just how they’re translated into the content itself.

The power of puzzle solving in horror media was broken wide open by the now uber-famous film franchise Saw. Before the franchise descended into absurdity, the conceit was simple: people were trapped in a room, and they were forced to solve unpleasant and painful puzzles in order to please the sinister power who has put them in this situation. Successfully solving the problem in these situations is not about the hero or protagonist being clever and thwarting the evil, but about playing directly into the evil’s hands as a puppet for their amusement. While in a horror film the viewer is simply watching the protagonist and perhaps relating to or empathizing with them, in a horror video game the player is actively embodying the victim and solving the puzzles themselves. And since the plot progresses in an authored fashion upon successfully completing a puzzle, players are working toward the whims of both in-universe villains and the developers as a sort of meta-puppetmaster. So, puzzle solving in a survival horror game actually works not to empower the player, though the joy of figuring it out can be real, but to increase the player’s sense of powerlessness over the experience – they’re being toyed with.

To further demonstrate the point, let’s look at an example from the indie horror Bendy and the Ink Machine. In Chapter Two, entitled “The Old Song,” there’s a puzzle that revolves around a recording studio for a pit orchestra. In order to solve the puzzle, the player has to find an audio log that lists five instruments in random order, and then the player has to turn on the projector and play the instruments in the correct order before the projector turns off. This will open a door and let the story progress and doesn’t immediately seem like that big of a deal. But, as you attempt to run between the projection booth and the orchestra pit to hit this small time trial, the environment around you changes. Every time you hit the button in the projection booth and then run down the stairs, if you look up at the projection window, a new cardboard cutout of Bendy appears. If you fail to get the instruments played and have to head back to the booth, looking out the window reveals cutouts slowly populating the orchestra seats. These cutouts are only visible if you are not in the room with them: you can’t see the cutouts in the orchestra as you’re running around playing the banjo. And the cutouts seem endlessly generating: every time the door does not open, a new cutout appears, until the projection booth is both entirely empty and overflowing with cartoon mascots.

What this small horror equivalent of a sight gag does is reinforce the ultimate powerlessness of you as a player to outsmart the forces of evil at work in the game. You’re not figuring out the puzzles against the will of evil – evil knows you’re here, it knows exactly what you’re doing, and it enjoys watching you try. This functions pretty handily as pulling the curtain back on horror game design at large – even if the game itself does not tell us that we’re being watched by the in-universe villain, we are still ultimately being toyed with, dancing to the tune of the code and the narrative design that developers created for the experience. In another genre, where the goal is not to frighten, playing on rails as part of an authored experience does not feel particularly threatening. But with survival horror, players have an odd type of adversarial relationship not just with the enemies inside the game, but with the people who made it. We want to be scared, but that doesn’t mean we like cooperating with the people trying to scare us.

By Emma Kostopolus

Emma Kostopolus is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Kansas, where she studies how we can use games in the classroom to teach writing, especially through role-play and game design. She plays exclusively squishy comfort games and nerve-shredding survival horror and enjoys existing in that duality. You can find more of her words and games she’s designed @kostopolus on Twitter

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