What went wrong with Horror Games?

Posted on March 20, 2013 - 3:30pm by Molmoran

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?

Bobby has a splash in the bath in Clocktower.
Bobby has a splash in the bath in Clocktower.

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.

Earthbound/Mother 2 features elements of psychological horror.
Earthbound/Mother 2 features elements of psychological 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.

Silent Hill, Tomb Raider and Minecraft all feature short draw distances and absence of sounds.
Silent Hill, Tomb Raider and Minecraft all feature short draw distances and absence of sounds.

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.

Crazy lady
Late game scares are thrown aside for progression and story in Bioshock.

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.

Mario Piano
Look at the teeth on this fellow!


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