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Horror Game Artists Search for Authenticity in the Disturbing

A knot of torn pink meat clings to the long shaft of bone like an axe head secured to its handle. Blood drips down the ivory bone.

Leaning over the remains, Glen Schofield carefully focuses his phone’s camera on the viscera and taps the screen, taking a snapshot of the plated gore.

Tap, click. Tap, click.

Where many would see the remnants of a satisfying meal, a tomahawk steak cooked medium-rare, the meat closest to the bone rare and torn free, Schofield, the co-founder of Sledgehammer Games and former vice president of Visceral Games, was inspired by something else.

What Schofield saw in that half-eaten steak was decaying zombie flesh. He sent the photos along to his art director to use as a reference point.

“I’m looking for realism,” Schofield said later, recalling that moment. “I’m looking for a reaction. You want to be authentic.”

For Schofield, being authentic means wading into the reality of dismemberment and gore, from animal attack victims to war-time injuries to car crash scenes. In creating art for horror games and games that sometimes trade in intense imagery, Schofield, and many other artists in the industry, use reference material that one might find disturbing and lurid. As he tells Variety, if the art is trying to be evocative of real life, all of the gore and ugliness needs to fit with that style, too.

Beyond being merely unpleasant to behold, some experts, such as Allison Forti, professor of counseling at Wake Forest University, have lingering concerns about the long-term desensitizing effects of immersion in such graphic imagery.

A bit of raw meat is on the tame end of what Schofield has exposed himself to for the sake of art and game development. In bringing “Dead Space’s” macabre scenes to life, he immersed himself in photos of car crash victims, war-time injuries, and people being blown up. “Anything that was just brutal.”

Schofield remembers his dissatisfaction with how games portrayed the loss of a limb. When necromorphs tore Isaac’s arm from his torso, he did not want the breaks to look unrealistically clean. Instead, he wanted flesh dangling over jagged bones like a tattered meat curtain. Photos of shark attack victims were used as a reference for how grizzly such an attack should look in the game.

In the developer commentary track for “Left 4 Dead,” Bronwen Grimes, a technical artist for Valve, described her colleague’s “nightmare folder,” as being full of ghastly reference material. Jojo King said that he looked up shotgun-inflicted wounds for his eponymous horror game, “Shotgun.”

For individuals with no history of trauma, Wake Forest University’s Forti is concerned about the risks artists face in becoming desensitized to this sort of gruesome imagery including a diminished ability to empathize with victims of traumatic events. She also warns of the risk of experiencing vicarious trauma wherein one might become more irritable, anxious, frustrated, or experience trouble sleeping. Others coming into this process with a traumatic experience, she says, might experience acute stress, depression, anxiety, and even traumatic flashbacks.

Dr. Cheryl Andaya, a clinical psychologist with years of experience in forensics, echoed these concerns.

“Having listened to and looked at graphic images for my forensic work, it becomes overwhelming at times. After so many exposures, one becomes somewhat desensitized to it. One graphic scene, or as in my case, graphic case of murder or abuse, starts to blend into the next. It’s difficult in the beginning if you are not able to compartmentalize things, or are triggered because of your past experiences.”

What both Andaya and Forti also agreed upon was that self-care techniques such as regular exercise, maintaining a strong social support system, and practices like mindfulness meditation go a long way towards alleviating the stresses put upon anyone regularly immersed in disturbing content.

Jordan Leendertsen, quest designer for Gran Skrea Online, is now working on his own independent horror game, “To Dawn and Back.” He says that all of the characters in the game will appear as hideously deformed creatures.

The monstrous body of work of Masahiro Ito – the mind behind the warped inhabitants of the early Silent Hill games – serves as a source of inspiration for Leendertsen. Manga author and luminary of body horror, Junji Ito, is another. He says, however, that he also looked at vintage medical textbooks and studies on genetic deformities to come up with his character designs.

“I’ve known about disorders like Proteus Syndrome, which can cause unchecked cell growth, but in my research I found so many more obscure disorders. There’s Epidermodysplasia Verruciformis, which can cause hard tree bark-like growths that consume the hands and feet. The one I come back to most is Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, where muscle tissue is gradually turned into bone. Some of the pictures can be very hard to look at, but it is a fascinating disorder. There are some disorders I just don’t look at because I find it too uncomfortable, like Ectopia Cordis, where the heart forms outside of a child’s chest cavity. As a rule I stay away from fetal disfigurements.”

Leendertsen is familiar with the adverse effects of lingering too long on disturbing imagery. He says that when he comes across something particularly challenging to witness, he fixates on the sensations of what he saw happening as if it were happening to him. His mind races toward the worst-case scenarios and it becomes difficult for him to calm down. He said that coming across explicit real-life gore and infants suffering from particularly shocking diseases can put him in a negative head space for lengthy spells. He tries to deal with this by immediately taking his focus off of work and decompressing with a game of Overwatch, a walk outside, or by listening to soothing music.

While he doesn’t seek out disturbing things with the intent of just using them to shock, Leendertsen does acknowledge the value of explicit content.

“We see so many horrible things in the world, and horror can give us a lens to see those terrible things from a safe place.”

He added that he doesn’t think realistic gore itself is a necessity, but, like Schofield, believes realistic depictions of explicit, challenging, or otherwise disturbing content should serve the authenticity of a game.

Leendertsen feels as though the aim should always be about something more than simply commoditizing gore.

“The goal behind gore and gratuitous violence has always been to shock and disturb, but I think that restraint is important. Otherwise, it can just become white noise.”

Schofield admits that he has developed an iron stomach for gory images, but he, too, still finds himself upset at times and that it is still difficult for him to handle videos with graphic content.

“I just have to tell myself “It’s research.” But I’m not only just researching bad stuff. My research includes all sorts of things from vehicles, to locations, languages, music, etc., so violent research is just a small part of my experience,” Schofield said.

In doing his research for “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,” he delved into videos and photos from Central African genocides. He described a video that turned his stomach. The video features a man whose hands were just lopped off. He was made to cross his arms in front of his chest, propping his dismembered hands on the stumps.

“I nearly fell off the couch when I saw it,” Schofield said.

But, to Schofield, that is necessary. “You want that gut reaction. Even in ‘Call of Duty.’  You want people to know this is war.”

Schofield also brought up movies that stabbed at the mind and left a lasting impression of shock. He specifically cited the ending of, “Martyrs,” as well as a graphic scene from “Hostel” in which a character’s eye, dangling by the optic nerve, is severed with scissors. The sickening snapping sound – which Eli Roth later told Schofield was created by layering the noises of nine sets of scissors on top of each other – is bored into Schofield’s memory.

He also said that games need to go one step further into lurid territory in order to provoke a reaction of shock because, unlike movies, you know your avatar in a game is not real.

“In movies when somebody gets an arm blown off you react viscerally. Sometimes it feels like we have to take that extra step,” he said.

“In games, you have to go over the top because people know it’s not real.”

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