What HCI Can Learn From a 2001 Horror Game
In their paper ‘Ambiguity as a Resource for Design’, Gaver et al. present the idea that ambiguity (often considered something to be avoided or minimised) can be seen as an opportunity to affect perceptions and drive meaningful user engagement. In the course of the article, they argue that “ambiguity can make a virtue out of technical limitations”.
Technical limitations can often introduce ambiguity of information into a design. A designer’s first impulse, particularly if they are a technologist, may be to ‘fix’ this deficiency; perhaps by developing some new technology that provides users with more complete information.
However, uncritically using ‘better’ technology without considering its implications for the design may result in missed opportunities or even an outright detriment to the final product. Take, for example, the popular horror video game series Silent Hill. The Silent Hill games are works of psychological horror. In the games, players control an avatar exploring a 3-dimensional rendering of the eponymous fictional town, whose environment often takes a turn for the surreal, horrific, and allegorical.
The second game in the series, Silent Hill 2 (2001), was heavily limited by the technology of the time. The Playstation 2 (for which it was produced) could not render enough polygons on screen at once to display large, detailed 3D environments to the user. To deal with this, games of the time often employed a so-called ‘distance fog’; a translucent, foggy visual effect which disguised areas where the environment had not yet been rendered. This allowed a game to use expansive environments without subjecting users to obvious and immersion-breaking views of un-rendered areas. However, the distance fog itself reduced visibility on the screen, giving users only a hazy and indistinct view of distant objects. This was often seen as a concern for the playability of a game.
Rather than try to minimise distance fog’s impact on the users, the designers of Silent Hill 2 took advantage of the ever-present fog to add an air of uncertainty and mystique to their visuals. Users and critics praised the dark and oppressive atmosphere of the game and how it reinforced the experience and its narrative themes.
In 2012, a remastered (and hence ostensibly ‘improved’) version of Silent Hill 2 was released as part of the Silent Hill HD Collection. Advances in games console technology in the intervening 11 years allowed for many more polygons to be rendered on-screen at once, and the use of distance fog was much less necessary. One of the ‘improvements’ made to take advantage of the newer technology was to dramatically reduce the distance fog, allowing users to see their surroundings more clearly. This decision was largely criticised by fans of the original game, as it undercut the atmosphere and revealed unsightly and immersion-breaking areas of the environment that were hidden in the original work. Where Metacritic (a media review aggregator) gives the original game an aggregated review score of 89/100 from critics and 9.0/10 from users, the remastered collection receives scores of 70/100 and 4.7/10 respectively.
There is a lesson for HCI here: uncritically employing the ‘latest and greatest’ technological advances without considering their implications with respect to what the design sets out to do can result in a less effective product. As HCI researchers and producers of technological artifacts, we must consider carefully which technologies we are employing and why we are employing them.
 Gaver, W., Beaver, J., and Benford, S. (2003) ‘Ambiguity as a Resource for Design’, CHI ’03: Designing Design. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA, 5-10 April. ACM Press, pp.233-240.
Author: Adam Parnaby