I think most people find themselves enjoying mild terror or spooky things every so often. From horror movies to Redditors going on the WTF subreddit, there’s this silent agreement as to what makes something horrible, and we’re comfortable with it.
When people play that Slenderman game or Amnesia: The Dark Descent, there’s this feeling of terror knowing that something is out there seeking your end, and you have to actively avoid it. Either you live to avoid the scare, you seek the scare out, or you fearfully keep yourself from trying to play the game.
There’s this Japanese animation called Shingeki no Kyojin (Assault on Titan, though I’ve heard an unofficial subtitling group has called it The Eotena Onslaught with some pretty expansive explaining of the logic behind the references to Ettins) that’s made me think about horror, or rather terror, as a mechanic in MMORPGs. Abject terror isn’t something to be experienced in any normal setting; that said, I am wondering about the potential for imposing terror on players as something that could either break their spirits or have them aspire to greater heights as a group.
The Terror of the Eoten
The opening premise of The Eotena Onslaught is that humans have been nearly wiped out by giant humanoids (the Eoten) and they’ve managed to maintain some semblance of civilization by shielding themselves using massive 50-foot walls that the Eoten can’t breach. There are three main walls that form concentric circles, and we start off the story on the day the first wall is breached by an Eoten whose size surpasses the 50-foot wall.
The protagonist is a young teen who basically runs back to his house to find his mother under the rubble of the house, which was hit by wall debris. Her legs are broken and she cannot walk. She tells a soldier to save her children, and that soldier, who is terrified of actually facing an Eoten, rescues the protagonist and his sister by carrying them away from the mother.
The above picture is one of the last things the protagonist sees of his mother, who is found by an Eoten and picked up. The mother’s back has just been snapped by the giant, and it is about to sever the mother’s body in half with his teeth... by biting through her. This all happens in the first episode.
By the second episode, the second wall has been breached, and mankind has essentially retreated to its last bastion. After everything that’s happened, the protagonist surpasses the abject terror he feels, giving himself to anger and to a promise to annihilate every Eoten once he is able to grow stronger and learn how to fight.
Failing to Terrorize
Here’s the kicker about MMORPG. Terror is very hard to implement, because if you make a game too scary from a “spooky graphic” or “horrendous difficulty” standpoint, it will be more difficult to make it economically viable. To elicit terror or at least a reaction of strong fear, game designers use “people against people against terrible monstrosities” as a feature, creating stress in gamers by making the penalty for dying far greater than what is normally seen in a common MMO today.
Such attempts are done in full-loot PVP games, such as EVE Online and Darkfall (or Darkfall: Unholy Wars now). To some extent, DayZ also does this with by pitting players against other players while the zombie threat is all around. The end result is compelling gaming for many heavily-invested gamers and a healthy respect for one’s in-game mortality.
At the same time, however, the terror essentially dies down once you realize that the game will never completely try to trounce you and will always remain balanced to some extent to keep people happy.
The Mechanics of Survival
While I am no game designer, I do wish to see a collaborative MMO where the focus is the struggle rather than the triumphs.
Taking from The Eotena Onslaught and from multiplayer FPS games, I laid a thought experiment out, which I’m calling Onslaught Survival. What if a game forced all the players to work together against supremely powerful NPC enemies who would only come out once a year? How would the drama of a game play out if the overall losing scenario required the loss of every player-controlled territory and the stakes were the wiping of all character data, forcing everyone to reroll and start the world over?
The drama works in a number of ways. For one thing everyone knows the specific day of reckoning, but not the time. Every player has a year of Earth time to prepare for the Onslaught by growing stronger and expanding the reaches of player-controlled territory, People can fight each other or expand the territory or shield themselves in a massive player-territory zone... but the terror of losing everything 365 days after launch is always present.
When the day of Onslaught comes, however, the entire world becomes hell for 24 hours, but if the player-characters can manage to keep at least one player-controlled territory in their control after the Onslaught, additional features (a pseudo-expansion) gets released and they have another year to see if they can’t expand once again and maintain the world.
Terror into Triumph
Going back to episode two of The Eotena Onslaught, the first day of boot camp for the protagonist begins with a speech, which goes,
I offer you no words of welcome. Right now, you lot are just livestock, useful only as Eotena feed. Actually, you’re worse than livestock! You aren’t good for anything, but we will spend three years training you. We will pound your bodies into Eotena-fighting shape. When you stand before an Eoten in three years’ time, will you still be feed? Or will you act as honorable shields to protect our King? Or perhaps - will you exterminate the Eotenas as glorious soldiers of Mankind? The choice is yours!
In my thought experiment, I asked myself, will players succumb to the terror of losing everything and quit playing, or will they rise to the challenge and turn despair into a hope for a continued existence?
That there is terror turned into MMO-gaming triumph, and I would willingly seek abject terror in a game space if someone told me that an entire game world’s literal continued existence was dependent on my ability to thrive in that second life I’d lead.
Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains The Devil’s Advocate and ArcheAge columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can find more of his writings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.