There are many occasions with video games where we as gamers let things slide. If a game has a particularly good story then we don’t mind if the graphics are a bit questionable (see Final Fantasy VII) and we certainly don’t mind if the story is a bit thin on the ground if the game is a genuinely enjoyable experience (see the Prototype games) but more often than not, we find ourselves accepting that some games are missing a certain component.
Imagine a puzzle with a piece missing – it doesn’t stop the puzzle from being what it was designed to be but you know that it’s always going to be missing something. That certain component that would make it complete. As technology has advanced over the last twenty years or so video games have seemingly evolved this way so that a game can excel at one aspect but at the sacrifice of another aspect. Having a great cover system for example means that you seemingly lose the ability to use colours. Having a solid story means that the game resembles something out of a Minecraft fan-movie and having a good foundation in action means that the horror element you tried to inject becomes a limping mess instead of a stalking terror.
As the title of this article implies, I am of course talking about Horror in video games. Horror is a simple enough concept; by its very nature it is intended to horrify you, unsettle you and cause you psychological discomfort. It’s that feeling you get when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end or your mouth goes inexplicably dry and you begin to feel uncertain about your own surroundings. In order for a video game to achieve this the developers need to put you in a very vulnerable position. It’s all well and good branding a game as a horror game or even a survival-horror game but I firmly believe that two key ingredients change the very nature of a video game from being a truly scary experience to a mediocre jumpy action title:
Explanation – The more you explain the situation – the less scary it becomes. It’s that delicate balance between offering just enough information so that the player knows what they’re doing and what their motivation is but keeping enough information back to allow their minds to draw their own conclusions; making the situation scarier than it necessarily is.
Self Defence – “If it bleeds, we can kill it!” Now, this may be a no-brainer for any video game developer but the ability to defend yourself instantly makes whatever horrors that are chasing after you less of a threat. It doesn’t really matter if it’s an unexplained shadowy horror that’s chasing you down a tight corridor – if you can turn around and empty a 12-gauge into its face or pummel it with a baseball bat until it stops twitching then it’s not nearly a scary.
There are a couple of key examples where these aspects excel. In the original Silent Hill for example you were offered weapons as a means to defend yourself from the horrors which shambled towards you but were given very little information about your situation. All you really knew was that your daughter was missing and you had to find her, an easy enough objective to believe in but when you start being attacked by shaky legged mutants or the entire world seems to transform with no discernible reason – your mind begins to run wild with possibilities making the whole situation scarier than it was probably intended. Even by the end of the game; after everything had happened, there was still a lot of unanswered questions. Where did these creatures come from? Why did the world really change like that? But you didn’t care by this point, your goal was making it through that digital nightmare in one piece and in an almost ‘fight or flight’ paradigm you simply want to get to the end of the game, not because it’s a bad game but because you, as the protagonist, just want to get out of that situation and back to safety.
In Resident Evil 3: Nemesis on the other hand you found yourself in a very familiar situation and a storyline which you had experienced before. Racoon City was an old friend by this point and you had explored the RCPD Police Station countless times in the previous game. This time around however you were being relentlessly hunted by the towering Nemesis character whose imposing size, power and the ability to follow you through doors (a big deal in gaming at this point) offered you a truly worrying experience. You would end up spending most of your ammo in one room taking the behemoth down only to escape into the next room, move so that the camera was no longer pointing at the door you came through and hear the Nemesis follow you through. His booming voice declaring “STARS” (the special unit your character was a member of) also made this a much more personal encounter – this was not a chance meeting of a mid-level boss. The Nemesis was purposefully hunting you.
I can’t think of a period of time which can be clearly labeled as the ‘Golden Age’ of horror games – it seems that building a good horror game is something akin to alchemy – you have to get the correct ingredients together in the right quantities for it to work. Too much action will ruin the horror element and not enough atmosphere will make the game appear silly.
Another prime example of this formula are the Project Zero games (titled Fatal Frame in the US) which popped you in the shoes of a virtually helpless young girl searching for her brother in a haunted mansion in the mountains of Japan. Armed only with a ‘Spirit Camera’ which would banish the ghosts and a finite amount of film for said camera you would encounter spirits ranging from small children simply stood watching you with their cold eyes to the more severe ‘boss’ ghosts such as the ‘Blinding’ ghost who would prowl the halls weeping whilst blood ran from her vacant eye-sockets and especially the ‘Final Boss’ – a ghost who was torn apart by ropes in an ancient ceremony To this day this concept causes the sound of tightening ropes to send a shudder down my spine.
It is this element of horror which has been missing for so many years and it is this element which enthusiasts like myself and many others simply aren’t finding in today’s games. Games such as Dead Space are being praised as one of the ‘shining achievements’ of modern horror games and although the game certainly has moments of tension – walking down a pitch-black corridor being chased by sounds of unknown origin – these are sadly outweighed by the amount of set piece encounters where the enemies would clumsily stumble into well lit areas awaiting dismemberment and full dossiers explaining how these enemies come into existence.
It appears then, that it has fallen on the shoulders of the crowd of Indie developers to take charge of the horror genre which is no huge surprise. Taking risks and trying new ideas which may or may not succeed will always be the playground of the Indie – if they try an idea in a game they are creating and it fails it’s not always a major financial loss like some of today’s multi-million dollar titles. Studios such as Frictional Games who bought us the truly inspiring Amnesia: The Dark Decent, Superflat Games who bought us the 8-bit horror-survival title Lone Survivor and XX who very recently created the title Slender are all prime examples of developers who are trying to re-imbue the horror genre with that long lost magic that fans like myself have been craving over the last number of years.
Lone Survivor does give the player the ability to defend themselves but it presents itself in a uniquely creepy way – being a mixture of the elements from both Resident Evil and Silent Hill but presented in an 8-bit aesthetic gives the game a unique uneasiness to it. Things this pixilated should not be this creepy and it affects you more than you’d expect. There is a certain safeness and innocence about playing a pixelated title and this is stripped away by Superflat. Hiding in the shadows from shambling horrors or placing rotten meat down as decoys for them makes you feel as though actions like this should not happen in a game of this style. The game – whilst not exactly revolutionary – is certainly a title which will stick with you.
Slender is a title based on the popular Internet phenomenon of The Slenderman – a fictitious figure created on an internet forum and subsequently doctored into many vintage photographs. The Slenderman, as the name implies is a very tall but faceless individual whose capable of stretching his limbs to aid in his quest to capture young children. The game adaptation of this – bought to us by Parsec Productions – has the player start in the middle of a wooded area looking for eight pages from a notebook about The Slenderman – with the collection of each page The Slenderman gives chase. The twist in Slender however is that The Slenderman does not move whilst you are looking at him but if you do look at him for too long, you lose.
Giving the player the simple instruction of ‘Don’t look at The Slenderman’ instantly makes you want to look at him when you think he is nearby. Pair this with the fact that he makes literally no noise when chasing you and you have a promising indie horror title.
Carrying the horror banner higher than it’s been lifted in years however is Frictional Games with their truly amazing title, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Throwing you into the shoes of Daniel – an archeologist who is trying to escape a shadowy being who has been hunting him since he found a mysterious orb whilst on a dig. Employing the services of Alexander Brennenburg who later becomes the antagonist, Daniel complies with the torture of innocent people for a component to a ritual which will rid him of the Shadow hunting him.
Something eventually happens and Daniel loses his memory. Upon awakening and discovering what he has been part of, Daniel then embarks on a quest for redemption through Brennenburg Castle (where the experiments took place) to try and stop Alexander from performing a different ritual to open a doorway to a different dimension.
In the castle however you have the twisted and malformed Gatherers – the servants of Alexander who stalk the hallways in search of Daniel, these beings cannot be killed and must be avoided or hidden from. You have the completely invisible Water Demon who only gives away its presence by the slight movement of the water around it and amongst all of these invincible creatures you have The Shadow which is still chasing Daniel for stealing the orb originally.
Amnesia is a wonderful example of getting the chemistry of horror just right. As a protagonist you are completely unarmed against the beings chasing you which forces you to rethink potentially decades of video game experience and find the nearest hiding spot and you are never given too much detail about the creatures, there are many theories floating around the game about who The Gatherers really are and it’s up to you as gamers to draw your own conclusions. You’re informed that The Shadow is chasing Daniel because he stole an orb from a tomb but it’s not explained where The Shadow came from prior to this or what its limitations are – all you know as a player is that there is an unstoppable dark force chasing you and this really sets the scene for one of the greatest horror video game experiences ever.
I’m honestly hoping for some kind of revolution in the years to come in video games, where games like Amnesia aren’t just the intellectual property of the indie crowd but where larger developers start to work on specifically scary games. Amnesia is a great game but think about what other aspects could have been added if someone like Epic Games were involved – other than a cover system, obviously.