It’s that time of year again. The time when all good little Gamemoirers get rewarded with articles about horror games just in time for trick ‘r treating. But in spite of the recent releases of AAA titles like Alien: Isolation (which I am very much enjoying) and The Evil Within, there seems to be a generally negative tone settling in on modern horror games. Like we’ve seen it all before with anything new and interesting being relegated to low-budget fare giving us a mere fraction of the scares we are entitled to.
We’ve all killed endless zombies, mashed buttons and waggled control sticks after being jumped on by all manner of beasty, been chased down corridors, stared into the hideous face of true evil, been slaughtered in the nastiest of ways, ran out of ammunition, been terrified by not being able to see what the hell is making that creepy sound, and borne witness to every gruesome act one can witness. Have we reached the end of our rope or what? Is there nothing else scary under the sun?
Normally I’d say to fix the present you have to look at what worked in the past, but seeing that much of the problem in modern gaming is the redundancy of it all rather than new approaches that don’t work, I thought I’d take a look at how gaming could change its perspective and draw inspiration from other sources to put the terror back in horror games.
The problem with gaming is that it’s a medium that requires a great many hours of investment from the player. Even your typical horror movie is only actually scary for some twenty minutes of its ninety minute runtime but gamers being the spoiled brats we are want to be entertained EVERY SINGLE SECOND of an at least ten hour campaign. It’s a steep challenge to sustain that level of tension for that long, to put it mildly.
But still, you’ve got your old-school Resident Evil and Silent Hill, your Dead Space, your Fatal Frame, and newer indie games like Slender and 5 Nights at Freddy’s that have brought out our inner scaredy cat and provided some chills, if only for a little while before the novelty wears off and the mechanics start to become familiar. So obviously, what we need to do is deviate from those familiar mechanics and look at what modern games are doing wrong.
First off, less is more. Real deal horror connoisseurs know that. Jaws would not have been a fraction as scary with a big CG shark in every frame. Ditto Alien. The anticipation of something being there and not knowing if it is or of not being able to see it is terrifying and a long wait with maybe the briefest of glimpses leading up to big reveal and pulse-pounding climax makes all the difference.
Although it isn’t a horror game, I’m going to use Uncharted 3 as an example since it’s what I’ve been playing and featured one of my personal fears. Early in the game, Drake finds amongst a collection of artifacts a huge, scary dead spider in a jar. Most gamers would shrug this off, but this one is immensely arachnophobic. I took this as a foreshadowing of what was to come and I was not wrong. Naturally I noticed when I entered a cave wallpapered in spider webs and was forced to squeeze through a claustrophobic crevice. I knew exactly what was going to happen, but it still made my skin crawl when a few big ass arachnids climbed down onto me/Drake. I always laugh when Nate goes “No, no, no, NONONO!” but I actually did it myself that time.
Then no less than 3 more times in the seven hours or so left in the story you encounter tsunamis of THOUSANDS of spiders you must flee. This makes for an impressive visual, but it’s not scary. The dead one in the jar by itself creeped me out more because it was the idea of it that was scary. The premise that there are millions of them chasing after you is frightening in theory, but in reality it’s a very video gamey thing to do. It’s like the Resident Evil movie. Not knowing where a zombie is and when it’s going to come at you, but knowing it’s out there is scary. A thousand zombies is just an impressive but unfrightening visual. You need atmosphere and anticipation.
This is why Alien: Isolation is so great. One invincible, ever-present, and only occasionally-seen threat hunting your ass throughout a journey through unknown hostile territory and coloring your every action with fear and anticipation; that’s how you do horror. Franchisess like Resident Evil, Doom, F.E.A.R., Alan Wake, Condemned, and Dead Space do a lot of things right, but at the end of the day, they’re typical video games and the repetition breeds familiarity, which isn’t scary. You kill the baddies and we can be comfortable always knowing that we can make the scary go away by shooting the crap out of it, which is again, extremely video gamey.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain immersed players in intense interactive fiction experiences and exposed us to the horrors of human psychosis and of attachment and the fear of inevitable loss that comes with it, but that style of storytelling is still the exception and not the rule. Being given so many choices may be nerve-wracking at times, but at least you can feel like you tried to do the right thing.
My idea for something new: make the player the thing that goes bump in the night. It’s one thing to defend yourself from gruesome horrors, but what about the psychological factor of actually being the horror? I actually got this idea during a Paranormal Activity marathon while pondering the effectiveness of the series. What would it be like to be a demonic entity with a sacrificial goal to reach and the only way to reach it was to feed on human fear, gaining more abilities the more frightened your victims become? Awesome. That’s what it would be like.
And unlike the Paranormal Activity movies, a big part of the experience could be the fact that your human targets’ lives are as disturbing as you are or more so. Given that you’d begin with limited powers and need to conserve your energy and plan scares, I figure that a lot of time would be spent invisibly observing your host family and plotting, sort of like a mission in Hitman. This means you need to make the characters interesting, and in a horror game the best way to do that is make them a creep show unto themselves. This not only makes things creepy from both ends, but it could alleviate some of the player’s discomfort with perpetrating evil if the victims are horrible people.
For example, one family could have abusive parents and as the entity, you would first feed off of the childrens’ fear of their parents and then begin to frighten the adults with telekinesis, noises, and the like before gaining enough power to communicate with the children, with the possibly of eventually convincing them to kill their tormentors, thus filling your sacrifice quota.
Or another level could be the home of a serial killer who chains his victims in the basement and is all but oblivious to your cheaper tactics, being a terror monger himself. You could work off of the prisoners’ fear of the killer and then invade his mind to find out what he fears before using that against him and driving him to suicide. The things you’d witness in stories like this would be awful and encourage the player to do evil to avenge the evil, making for an all-around evil good time.
Naturally, there should be many paths to your goal and multiple endings as well as dozens of possibilities for scares in each level to really bring out the player’s creativity. The option to help the evil people do their deeds could be another potential path and open up even more disturbing aspects.
It’s one thing to show players something scary, but it’s another thing entirely to make them take part. The Deception series lets players indulge in sadistic practices, but it maintains a dark comical atmosphere. The most memorable horror films aren’t just collections of gore and cheap scares and they don’t abide a light tone. It’s the ones that show you the nastiest part of the human experience and get under your skin that leave you lying in bed awake at night with uncomfortable images burned into your brained.
The interactivity of video games means the sky is the limit for immersing players into some deeply disturbing territory, but very few developers have chosen to latch onto this with most choosing to play it safe and keep it strictly fun. But as the medium continues to mature, don’t be surprised if the content becomes progressively darker and more psychologically discomforting. Once the industry crashes and indie devs rise to take the place of the AAA dinosaurs, we could have a genuine horror renaissance on our hands as creativity replaces the massive budgeting that defines current mainstream gaming.
With the groundswell of praise Alien: Isolation has received it may open up a lot of possibilities for horror games to abandon some of their tropes and ruts in favor of providing players with immersive experiences that fray the nerves and let us put into practice our “what would you do?” survival fantasies without the usual heavy artillery developers give us like pacifiers to keep our precious widdle power fantasies intact so we don’t get too scared. But this is horror. I want to be scared and disturbed and feel my heart beat faster in respsonse to something that’s only happening in a collection of pixels on a TV screen. That’s what horror -and what gaming- is all about.