What went wrong with Horror Games?
Horror games or "games-with-horror-in" have been around since the earliest days of gaming and become one of the go-to aspects of videogames in the last 10 or 15 years. The style became popular around the time of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, which are now the juggernauts of the horror scene, and have both enjoyed consistent success and high sales as well as spawning their own film franchises and other merchandise.
A lot of AAA titles are starting to use horror in parts of their games, unfortunately often with lack-lustre results. But lately, the present and possible future standard of horror in video games seems to have become a bit of a debating point in the gaming community. Gamers have been left wondering, Do games actually scare anyone anymore?
With the exit of the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox, the new consoles ushered in high-processed visuals and physics engines. As with most generations, this has led to a change in the way that many games were previously realized. Developers wished to make use of new technology, signalling a shift in the traditional use of horror. Fans of former style games have been at odds with recent trends in horror, descrying more recent titles like Dead Space and FEAR as action games and not "real" horror games.
Survival horror is often penned as “the” horror genre, and there haven't been many releases over the past few years of this kind. Previous IP's like Ressy and Silent Hill have become more action oriented and less scary. But does a decrease in survival-based horror games mean that the entire style is dead? Why and what makes it so definitive of the genre?
Horror game is such a loose application. It's not a genre, like shooter or role playing game and can't be defined by gameplay mechanics. It's a theme or a style carried into the game and its narrative and functions. It's very hard to specify exactly what might constitute a horror game, with some games that are not a part of the horror genre but enjoy horror elements, such as Tomb Raider and Minecraft entering. Some games that might usually be called horror like Castlevania and Soul Reaver don't quite make the cut. The real definition comes from the effect. Is this meant to creep out or scare you? If yes then it can be called horror.
The effect of the game on the player is the key to all things concerning horror in games, not merely definition. Games are the only current and popular medium which have interactive elements. It is the reaction in the game to a players interaction and the effect on the player from the game's stimuli that mediate enjoyment and thus fear from someone. In order to elicit horror in something, you need to use the medium's unique purpose to its full potential. Films use controlled visuals, books use perceptive words and games use player control.
The possibility of failure due to the player is one of the chief reasons games can often be more scary than other mediums, you can receive penalties for your performance and this plays on the main thing that provokes fear in humans – security.
Books and films are finite and travel at their own pace, where games have freedom to progress at the player's whim. Games are not always the same length, or all linear. The player has the choice to do or not to do. This gives ambiguity to the nature of the experience, a lack of complete control or knowledge – a perfect fuel for horror. Your actions within the game give depth to the character, situation and experience, feeling more personal and more immersive giving another dimension of effect unlike the one-way and often short experiences of other forms.
Are games more in touch with modern fear? The games business is one of the newest around, the people making games now, were mostly around when the industry began. This means that there is a good possibility that the art as a whole is more in touch with modern society and its demographic than other older industries like film. Fear is wholly dependent on the audience and society. Dracula, Werewolves and even Zombies are all the result of the popular fears of the generations that created them. Those would be lust, aggression, and overpopulation. Perhaps a more up to date industry has a better chance of finding and selling fear to their consumers. But perhaps this is what may have led to the perceived demise of horror.
Companies strove to make use of the popularity of horror which started in the mid to late 90's by poorly integrating it into their games. One example is Bioshock where the game gets decreasingly suspenseful as you progress, it seems like the developers lacked focus when moulding some of the later areas.
Other games have the appearance of being a horror game yet possess few traits such as Dead Island where the game has little suspense and the zombies are able to be killed in amusing ways.
Both previous games also found themselves far from captivating on the scare front, due to various glitches and visual defects. It's hard to be scared of a big daddy or zombie that is caught in a movement loop or stuck in the floor. This is because unlike films and books, games are a product and service as well as an art. Things don't work sometimes.
Games have effected thrills in players for a long time but there has been a change, company interests may have had a role to play or it might be something more.
Next week I will be thinking more about different kinds of horror in games and the changes that have occurred through the generations.
I do struggle with sticking to structure in my posts, it's hard not to go off on tangents! Thanks for showing me that video, I've been having a hard time tackling the term "survival-horror" as it doesn't fall in place with other game genres and this video has helped illuminate why that is. Cheers!
I'd like to see another Clock Tower-esque title pop out in the future.
As for Bioshock, I think that the horror elements kinda became unneccessary once you'd acquired enough weapons and plasmids. You were no longer just a scared outsider in a strange city. Now you were more or less fully integrated with the nature of Rapture, and to some extent its equal.
Also, the story took precedence, and horror can get in the way of progression if it drags on.
Great article BTW. Loved how you highlighted how loads of games are taking horror elements, but that a lot of them don't feel like horror games.
It is getting harder and harder to find a good horror game that I will enjoy.
Probably for me, what makes great horror is always what you don't see. Suspense I find can often create some of the most terrifying moments in anything, whether it is film or games.
However, since this generation has leaned to more of an action route, suspense in anything horror related has disappeared. Instead, we get a lot of shock treatment, like high gore and jump scares. While jump scares and gore can be scary at times, they only really work the first time, I usually find myself continuing getting nerve-wrecked at anything suspenseful.
I know there are other elements to consider, like lighting, sound effects and if you want to mess with your audience, but for me suspense is the most important aspect of horror, not knowing what's around the corner and waiting for it to come is always frightening if done right.
Haha, I'm going to tackle some of the new kinds of horror in my later posts. Horror is far from dead, it's just a little harder to find. =]
What went wrong with horror? Frictional Games are pushing it forwards, there are still great horror games, Penumbra: Overture; Penumbra: Black Plague; Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Play those three games and then try to ask yourself ''what went wrong with horror games?''. But first you'll have to ask yourself, ''where did I put my change of underwear?''.
Amnesia: Dark Descent and Penumbra series are the best modern horror games because all you do is flee in terror and soil your computer chair waiting in the darkness for the monster to pass your door. You have to turn off lights and put on headphones if you want to enjoy horror games.
Bioshock was never really meant to be a horror game. The aspect was kind of thrown in at the beginning to set up the city but it wasn't really a focus of the game. It's also really hard to maintain a player's fear when halfway through the game they gain the ability to turn their hand into a torch and light enemies on fire from across the room just by snapping their fingers. "What's that creepy hallway? You're going to scare me by being dark? Have a fireball. Oh look, that's where the enemies are hiding."
Horror does rely on limiting characters in games. Superman doesn't need to be scared of anything because nothing really threatens him, but little Timmy can get his ass kicked by tripping over his own crutches. This has always bugged me though as it generally just translates to slow movement and game breakingly stupid logic. Is there a reason that highly trained special agents can't walk at full speed and aim a gun at the same time in Resident Evil games? Only so that the "horror" aspect is still there. Why can't you duct tape your flashlight to a gun in Doom 3? Because the dark is scary and characters don't need to be functional in horror games. As far as I'm concerned, old school horror needs to die. It was based on limited hardware capabilities and that just doesn't exist anymore. Horror needs to evolve in video games to further immerse players rather than just taking away ammo to the point that players would rather run from a fight than take that random hallway necromorph on.
It is an interesting perspective on the topic, less mechanistic and more thematic in approach to the structure of fear in video games. I think this piece could stand to be a little more coherent, but the gist of your central question is fairly clear.
As a particular term, "survival horror" was a marketing invention we adopted as shorthand for describing a specific (to its own detriment some would argue) horror gaming experience. The modern scarcity of such experiences is perhaps partly due to changes in industry attitudes that accompanied technological leaps.
Scary games of yore were, to some extent, products of the hardware limitations of their eras. Those ceilings began crumbling away no sooner than the tail end of the PS2's reign, after which everyone sought to maximize the previously undreamt of capabilities in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. By its nature, a survival horror game is not conducive to this type of computational posturing. Frights and unease won't move units if you're trying to sell your machine on its power. Military and science fiction shooters, on the other hand, demonstrate that power quite explicitly.
Congratulations on being promoted to the front page. I look forward to where you go with this series. Also, you might be interested in viewing Ronnie's argument with respect to genre definitions and survival horror on Digressing and Sidequesting.
I think in some ways (unlike other genres) horror really benefits from taking things away from the game like the music, graphics and in-your-face enemies and even taking stuff away from the player, like equipment, items and health. Minimalism just leaves everything to the imagination of the player, which as gamers, we have lots of.
Haha yeah, it was probably the creepiest part of the game. I love taking it and showing it to the son. It's hilarious.
Good read. Keep on keeping on.
Good read! I was suprised to see you bring up Minecraft for having horror elements and then I thought, well when a Creeper sneaks up on you and you turn around right before he blows up, yeah that was indeed horror. I guess the main problem is that players feel well-equipped to handle the problem such as shooting/dismembering with plenty of ammo and armor. Old school Doom exemplifies this perfectly. When you had full armor and health with a loaded BFG in hand, you strolled around hell without a problem. But when your ammo ran dry, your armor broke and your health was low, you feared going around every corner and opening every door, hoping a horde of demons wasn't on the other side.
Love the Oblivion thumbnail! :D
Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the thumbnail for this article a screen cap from Oblivion's Dark Brotherhood story arch?
Horror is definitely still about, it's just changed vastly from traditional survival horror. I've got a few follow ups I'll probably post sometime. Cheers for reading!
It's really interesting to read your thoughts on this. I think that one major element of fear in video games is a feeling of helplessness from the player. That is what a lot of the big name horror games built themselves on. A big reason that Silent Hill and Resident Evil were scary was because you never knew if you would be able to handle the next threat that came your way. With both franchises becoming less suspenseful and more action-oriented, they are losing that feeling and thus losing their fear factor.
It is definitely still around, though. I maintain that Amnesia: The Dark Descent is one of the most terrifying works of fiction - any type of fiction, not just games - I've ever experienced. Last year's indie darling Slender has made more than a few people cower in horror. There are definitely other games making the rounds that still have scares to spare.
I'm interested in seeing what else you have to say. This is a very good blog and I'm glad I read it.