[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time--Capcom's Haunting Ground and the design of empathy.]

In order to explain why Capcom's Haunting Ground is an important game, I need to relate a discomforting story.

My college was surrounded by corn for miles and miles so when there was nothing else to do on a Friday night, we would wander around town. On one particular night, we went to the cemetery. It is eerily close to a golf course, which I imagine makes from some awkward moments when golfers hit balls in the wrong direction.

The way to the cemetery is surrounded by nice neighborhoods and Victorian homes and is only a few blocks away from the south end of campus. I wandered around in this area with my friends until I remembered I had to meet my girlfriend so they, who had been planning to stay, offered to walk me back.

"I think I'll be fine," I said.

"Oh yeah," my friend said, "I guess boys don't really have to worry about getting raped, do they?"

I didn't know what to think. She hadn't really meant for it to shock me. But it wasn’t something I had ever seriously worried about. The worst thing I could think of happening to me on the walk home was getting mugged and since I was broke that sounded more like an inconvenience. It shocked me that they had to be afraid, that walking around alone at night was a completely different experience.

I hadn't given any thought to the fact that I could walk out without that sort of fear, just for being me. I didn’t think it was fair that she had to be afraid. I also felt a little guilty that I didn’t know, and hadn’t thought of it.

This is why Haunting Ground is, despite its problems, something unique. It is not just a narrative about the fear of assault, something that can be and has been accomplished in literature or film (and also more adeptly). Haunting Ground is the experience of fear itself and its strength is that can place anyone in the role of Fiona.

The gameplay itself is its primary artistic element, and from the way it defines Fiona's strength and movement to the way it handles injury and death, it forces the player into the role of the victim and to experience her fear. It is a flawed game that is like few others in the way it allows the strong or privileged a glimpse of what it is like to be without. In Haunting Ground, the player doesn't watch a victim; the player is the victim.

3.1 Person Perspective

Haunting Ground is unusual as a third person game for how much it relies on visual cues that are based in the first person. Exhaustion and injury change both the way Fiona moves and the visual style of the game. Initially the camera presents a clear picture, but as the stalkers wear her down the camera transitions will become blurred and a sepia tone settles in. At the height of fear, when Fiona breaks into a run, the camera shifts to a stark monochrome.

Of course, Fiona doesn't literally go colorblind when she's scared. The style shifts are there to convey the disorienting, disturbing and surreal fear she feels to the player. The visual shifts are solely used as an empathetic tool. Rather than convey the same information that Fiona is experiencing, it conveys the same emotion. This state prevent the player from calmly watching Fiona while she's being chased, so the chases are tense instead of voyeuristic.

The monochrome that soaks the screen during this state is especially powerful because while it lasts, movement is the only thing that is visually distinct. All the details of the environment fade in visual importance, while the movements of Fiona and her pursuer stand out. As a player, you can clearly see from her desperate movement this isn't the time to fuss around with a puzzle. The monochrome impairs the player's ability to interact with the environment, not Fiona's, which is necessary for the player to share her experience.

Out Of Control

The controls in Haunting Ground's design take a multi-layered approach to emotion. The first layer is conveying Fiona's emotion to the player. These cues are represented by Fiona's movements, like her shortness of breath or her wild gait when fleeing. From this information the player can tell what Fiona is feeling. The second layer consists of emotional cues that are meant to inspire the same emotions in the player. The first layer shows Fiona being frightened, the second is directly frightening to the player.

In the case of movement, this second layer comes in the way Fiona responds differently to the controls. When she panics she's faster, but she also slips and falls and responds to input almost as if she was on ice. This gameplay element is extremely disorienting as the player's control is jeopardized. Fiona responds differently under stress but always consistently. The intensity of the speed and the slippery controls increases the likelihood that the player will make a mistake. So when Fiona falls, it's because the player has panicked.

Watching Ground

Haunting Ground has voyeuristic themes, and part of the problem with it is that it sometimes includes the player as voyeur. However, during the chases it does quite the opposite, which is why the visual devices like the monochrome are so important. The more she's attacked, the further the game shuts down the player's ability to see her. It literally won't let the player observe her like a voyeur.

During the cutscenes which often show off her chest or impossibly short skirt, there's almost always another observer watching her through peepholes or stroking her hair while she sleeps. Fiona's outfit is clearly ill-suited for the situation, but it's her attackers who make her wear it in the first place. So as much as the game shows her off, it can feel really uncomfortable for the player knowing what kind of other people are watching at the same time.

Visions of Death

A certain study showed that players feel a sense of release and relief upon dying in a game, the rationale being that death provides a relief from the tension of gameplay. Haunting Ground has no in game penalty for death, other than restarting, so the sounds alone are more than enough for players to understand exactly what the consequence of failure is, without voyeuristic connotation of watching her die. We don't see her death in part because the implication is that it is the viewer's death as well. Players don't have the luxury of externalizing their death on a virtual body.

Haunting Ground is very explicit about what's at stake: to make Fiona's fear believable, and to identify her fear with ours. The shifting of screen and camera does nothing for Fiona's perception. It's purely for the viewer, to experience fear as if it was hers. This is a powerful technique that allows for a sort of first person immersion in a third person game.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, where you can PRESS "X" TO NOT DIE, and can be reached at [email protected]]