Hello readers! I am trying something new this week. This article is a special collaboration between Dan the Physics Guy (from The Physics of Video Games), and myself. We are going examine the strong mental/emotional affect a game can have on a player and explore a way that the source of all of this is (theoretically) possible. Today we are taking a look at how feelings of panic, anxiety, and dread are swept over the player in a hidden gem for the Sega Saturn, Enemy Zero.
Some of you might remember me talking about Enemy Zero before in the tribute article I wrote for the late mad-genius game maker, Kenji Eno. In that article, I explained that Enemy Zero’s storytelling does a masterful job filling the player with feelings of isolation and suspense, but that alone isn’t what truly pushes people to the edge. What really creates fearful and panicky anxiety is the gameplay.
In Enemy Zero, every single enemy is invisible and your only means of detecting them is by sound. The main character, Laura Lewis, is equipped with a device that emits a high pitch piano chime if an enemy is in front of you, a mid-tune chime is heard if it is next to you or in an adjacent hallway, and a low pitch chime for when the creature is lurking behind you. The frequency of the pings increases as the predators hone in on you and spaces farther apart as it the distance between increases. To make these already startling conditions more intense, your gun has limited firing energy depending on the difficulty level and it needs to charge before each shot causing a short delay, and if you hold down the shoot button too long the gun fizzles out. The harsh difficulty encourages the player to try and be stealthy as they manoeuvre about the ship and dread each battle.
Luckily, the gameplay mechanics work well and players can get the hang of how things work pretty early on. In fact, the mechanics almost do too good of a job. It gives you just enough power to feel capable, but makes the threat high enough to keep you from ever gaining confidence in your surroundings. You really feel helpless while at the edge of your seat, and the long winding halls of the ship drive home how alone Laura is on this inescapable ship while you, the player sits shaking at the edge of your seat.
Sound quickly becomes your biggest ally but it’s also a frequent shock to the heart. The way the detector pings rapidly the closer you are to a foe and the awkward timing of combat can chip away at the player so after only two or three close calls the sounds will send you into a fumbling mess.
Sound is an essential component for emotion, especially fear. Humans naturally condition themselves to associate sounds with a specific action, emotion or memory. It’s why people reach for their pockets if a common ringtone goes off and why a Veteran might get shaky around loud noises like fireworks. Sound cues us into action, even if we don’t realize it; think Pavlov’s dog. Players of Enemy Zero are programmed to unconsciously become alarmed and feel disoriented by the very sound that warns them of danger. The game’s creator, Kenji Eno ingeniously chose to use a familiar, pleasant sound of piano chimes so the fear would gradually sneak up on players and make them feel less intimidated at the start. On top of that, he used a shifty game map, awkward, unusual timing, and a complete lack of other sensory cues, so the player can never acclimate and become dull to the sensations in play. There is no true safe haven in Enemy Zero.
Dan the Physics guy and I had a long chat about the game, and it turns out that theoretically, it wouldn’t bee too complicated to develop tracking methods and technology for a free-roaming invisible threat, but the methods used in the game would be tricky to use and far from ideal:
“An enemy is detected, depending on the distance between Laura and the target, the pitch changes. So how exactly does the life saving feature of the variable pitch, enemy detection system work? There are two components that we must consider: what type of signal to send to an enemy and how to make that signal sent be able to return in some useful form.
In spite of Laura being alerted by sound, we will not use sound waves to help her. They have a limited range, can only bend and bounce so far and have limited penetration abilities. Instead we are going to use some wonderful radio waves. They can penetrate walls, have a range as far as the source allows them to be, both wonderful for detecting aliens. Some people believe that these types of waves (wi-fi) have adverse health effects (they haven’t been proven to yet), but potential death is better than a guaranteed one from the enemies. So picking and sending the signal is the easy part, but how do we get it to return and become a useful signal? Radio waves gather and penetrate, but they don’t really bounce, hence why we initially chose them. This will require some finesse.
One useful aspect of radio waves we can use to our advantage, is that they can interfere with things. If these aliens have some type of electronic receiver, the interference could possibly create the sounds heard by Laura. The closer the enemy, the more it interferes, hence the pitch difference. But why would each alien have a receiver?
As alluded to, Enemy Zero is a horror game, a proper tidy one at that. The crux of this involves the isolation and the fear of the unknown. This has been coordinated by someone/something, not on accident. If Laura was to be killed, she would be swarmed and offed in moments. Thus, someone has coordinated very strategically placed enemies in order to create tension and fear within Laura, mess with her emotions, rather than immediately killing her. In order to coordinate something so complicated, each enemy has a receiver to be told where and when to attack Laura. It is unfortunate that this is what gives Laura the power to succeed though.”
Laura’s tracker might not be efficient, practical, or even safe, but it makes for one hell of a gaming experience.