Yet another idea pulled from me putting off writing articles (I’m consistently inconsistent, it seems). As absolutely none of you know, I am a survival horror/general horror video game enthusiast. Now, one might extend that notion to being a fan of horror movies, and while that is true to some extent, it is true for vastly different reasons than my love of running the fuck away from things. Now, a common notion (one that I agree with) is that the advantage that horror video games have over the film experience is the interactive nature. Having a customizable self-insert is one thing (and can be done well, as per Mass Effect), but often horror games have a facet of subconscious identification with an already developed character; that is, you are both the character and one who empathizes (to an extent, some you are pretty directly not supposed to as I’ll explain another time)
One of the main conceits of most horror video games is that they’re scary. I don’t think this is necessary for a game to have quality. For example, the F.E.A.R. series, while scary at some points, is actually far more well perceived as something in the vein of horror themed science fiction action shooter (a more populated subsubgenre then you’d think, largely because of Half Life). The first game had many genuinely tense and scary sections, and for the most part kept up the atmosphere, but a large driving part of the gameplay and even the story was more in line with cyberpunk- giant evil corporations, absurdly cool advanced technology, body modification (especially in 2, poor Beckett). Does that not make it a successful experience? It depends from what angle you approach it, and since I’m playing general devil’s advocate here I’m not going to take a position on it. Another game that wasn’t scary by any accounts but had competent, fun gameplay was Resident Evil 5. My friend/contributor to here long before I have Sam Legow referred to it as ‘biopunk,’ and that’s exactly what it is, with some horror elements (though considerably scaled back from the already ‘not scary but already amazing fuck you it’s the best game ever Resident Evil 4’). The question that remains, however, is are these successful horror games? Or are they just successful games that happen to be horror based? If the latter is true, then does that mean they’ve faild as horror video games if the conceit was that they were supposed to be scary in the first place? None of these questions will be answered but I am sure as hell going to have quite a time talking about them into text form.
Another issue that is prevalent amongst the video game communities concerning horror is what type of horror it is. The spectrum runs from the subtle (Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Silent Hill 2 being paradigms of this) with oppressive atmosphere of the unknown pressing down, often without the game having to do anything other than play a noise that catches you off guard to tide you over for two minutes of ‘oh fuck oh fuck’ to the extremely non-subtle (Doom 3, Dead Space) with jump scares galore. Of course, there are ones in the middle (System Shock 2/Bioshock and yes, the first Silent Hill) that take elements of both and utilize them in conjunction with each other: the threat of a jump scare is enough to create an oppressive atmosphere when combined with proper aural and visual stimuli that foster an ‘anything that I don’t want to happen can happen’ feel. I’m not of the mind that any school is inherently better than the others, though as a generalization, the subtler games tend to be scarier precisely because of the subtlety letting the mind go absolutely batshit with possibilities beyond what is presented. Meanwhile, relying completely on jump scares is considered a ‘cheap’ tactic with good reason: most modern horror movies indulge far too much into this and it basically equates to what I call “things jumping out from behind other things” (a movie script I want to work on of the same name features several scenes of white rooms with random pieces of furniture with dramatic music swells culminating in someone in a silly mask jumping out from behind them with orchestral blasts accompanying them). That said, though this tactic is often used in the more blunt games as I mentioned before, usually successful ‘non-subtle’ horror games tend to have other facets that make them work. For example, Dead Space (a game I will defend to the death) does not have much in the way of subtlety: the second game starts off with poor Isaac, the unluckiest man in the universe, waking up to a necromorph (space zombie) outbreak, starting with the guy who just freed him turning into one in front of his face.
Here, the tension doesn’t stem from the implications of what could very well be happening, so much as the hectic nature of what is already happening – and to worsen things, you start off with no weapons in a straight jacket, basically being told to run like a little bitch if you don’t want to be a red bony smear on some glass door. And it’s effective because the sheer hectic nature of the scene combined with the helplessness creates a feeling of confusion and dread, as opposed to oppressive atmosphere opted to by more J-horror and psychologically influenced games (although these tend to be much ‘scarier’ by design). Another Dead Space example: the final boss of the first game is staggering on first confrontation: by this point, you have fought every imaginable form of mangled body horror on parade, yet the sheer size(a medium sized skyscraper with a mouth of serrated teeth the size of a backyard swimming pool) of the Hive Mind and the ‘out of nowhere’ nature makes you feel helpless, something accentuated by it’s savage haphazard murdering of another character right in front of your eyes without any apparent effort, basically implying “you’re next.”
Now, this isn’t to say that I was chattering and running to the next room because of this thing; generally, ‘bosses’ in video games (horror included) feel like such a construct via presentation, cutscenes etc. that when you’re fighting one, they don’t tend to actually be scary because the ‘game’ part of ‘horror game’ is thrust into the forefront. That said, the first encounter (I like replaying games okay I’m poor) with this boss was memorable enough for me to write this much stupid shit about it, so I think that says something. Basically, what I’m trying to say is horror doesn’t come in just one flavor; if it did, then it would get boring really fast.
What Modern Horror Does Right:
Sound Design– Maybe it’s just the improved technology, but most A-list modern horror titles have fantastic sound design, which is important, as sound is often an important element in the misdirection and/or unexpected supplementation to the visual presentation, possibly best exemplified by Akira Yamaoka’s work in the Silent Hill series. In most modern media, the sound often works in conjunction with the visuals, acting as a support. Thus, it is all the more jarring when it seems to go off the rails and do its own thing; it implies that there is some visual aspect that has yet to manifest that may indeed never actually show up on screen. A good example of how to use this is in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. When you heard one of monsters make a noise, you knew damn well that it was about to come after you and tear you several new anal orifices. This is more effective than, say, the cheeky bastards springing from a closet and making the same noise because of the prolonged nature of it: the buildup creates the tension that is otherwise lost immediately when you see something spring out at you like a jack-in-the-box. I know I’m not revolutionary in saying this, but horror is by and large concerned with the unknown, and as soon as it becomes known, the mind shifts from ‘what could it be’ to assessing the threat, not necessarily no longer scared but working towards a solution. By having the unknown constantly present yet not visible (or maybe not even present but still audible), the assessment never happens, and the dread piles on like a pile of very spooky sand. Audio is extremely important for this end because it takes on the task of creating implication, of making you wary of what your eyes can’t perceive just yet, if ever. Music also is a factor, though that tends to vary from game to game more than a result of modern technology, something I’ll talk about another time.
Control Schemes/Interfaces- Yes, I’m one of those curmudgeons who believes that shitty controls do not a scary game make. I’m not saying everything has to be over the shoulder, in fact this could ruin a lot of the camera angles that obfuscate (and that I do believe help make a game scarier), but the tank shooter controls of the early Resident Evil games and subsequent clones just made it more annoying than anything. Think of it this way: you’re in a mansion with zombies. Scary right? Fuck you yes it is. Now you pull out your gun [hyperlink the phrase to the ‘trapped in the closet’ youtube clip south park] and what do you notice but that you can’t move while shooting it! To me, that is only frightening in that the universe fucks someone over that severely in an otherwise perfectly physics-following setting. Modern games have learned how to balance this issue by making characters controllable, yet still inept in various ways, be it Isaac’s pathetic flail of a melee attack in the first Dead Space or the horrible interface screw Daniel from Amnesia suffers from if he’s seen too many scary bits (and he sees a LOT of scary bits). What I’m trying to get at is that there are other ways to make the player feel helpless and not in control other than them literally being barely in control on a basic level.
Visual Presentation– Okay, so this is more of a result of technology advancing than any honed skill, but there is something to be said about well done monster and environment designs, lighting, and so on. As lame as it may sound, good visual presentation aids immersion, though that doesn’t necessarily mean worse graphics aren’t immersive- the first Silent Hill has some pretty blocky graphics, but you don’t have time to think about that while you’re processing running away from weird parasite controlled doctors and nurses in a rust covered nightmare hospital hell. Even still, this supports my point, because though the graphics are by most accounts extremely dated, there was a care put into the environment design’s details that is evident throughout, something the Resident Evil series was also fairly good at. So, in summation, good graphics do not good presentation make, but they certainly help a lot.
What Modern Horror Does (Often Very) Wrong:
Arms You to the Teeth- There, I conceded to you bastards, you’re right, a lot of modern horror neuters itself by giving you too much to overpower the enemies, to the point where it often becomes a generic Horror-reskinned shooter. This is more, however, an issue with attempts at ‘survival horror’; games like Dead Space, Resident Evil 4 and FEAR know that the feel they’re trying to set doesn’t stem from how inept or ill-prepared the protagonist is but from how overbearingly over the top the odds they have to face are. I find inventory management to be more stressful than horrifying, which is why it baffles me that people find it an integral part of survival horror; though this could just be me not really getting the early Resident Evil games with the bullet management (seriously, it wasn’t management, it was just running the fuck out of bullets and then annoyingly having to try to get past then in the hall without them munching on you). That said, a perfect example of how arming to the teeth can RUIN a game comes from Condemned 2: Bloodshot. The first Condemned was possibly the scariest modern-generation game I have played, and it focused largely on brutal melee combat, which combined with the first person perspective, made for really hectic situations in addition to the subtle horror that they laced throughout it. Condemned 2: Bloodshot, on the other hand, starts off strong for the first third, then gets less good, then gets really really stupid at a thousand miles an hour. What destroyed a lot of this suspension of disbelief for me (other than a stupid cult literally causing everything evil ever) was that the final sections gave you firearms. Lots of them. And you had to use them. Now instead of bracing with your picked up toilet seat or billiard cue every time you hear a noise from somewhere, you can just spray it without breaking a sweat (I’m aware this is hardly the worst thing this game messed up on, just using this in particular as an example)
Mistakes ‘Frequently Startled’ for ‘Scary’- yes, in spite of all the praise being heaped on it in this article thingy, Dead Space has this issue in spades, as do Doom 3 and pretty much all modern FPS based horror games (I’m looking at you, F.E.A.R. 2, seriously). Jump scares, when utilized too often, become the expected norm and eventually only elicit nothing more than a slight twitch and a blink before blasting it to shit. Really not much else to say on this one.
Makes the Protagonists ‘Hardened’ and/or ‘Badass’- this may come from wish fulfillment, which is all well and good, but it isn’t scary. Much of the time, these types are mute, because they’re so goddamn cool that they don’t need to speak, because their actions speak for them. Specifically their guns. Their massive awesome dude guns. Now, obviously a silent protagonist is more a video game staple than a horror thing, and it doesn’t imply that they’re going to be doing backflip shootouts or slow motion shit like Point Man in F.E.A.R. (though in his defense there is a very good reason he is how he is). To me, this is more of a problem of other genres’ influences leaking in. Silent Hill: Homecoming is a perfect example of how not to do a protagonist (and arguably taken apart in the end in a plot twist that, after careful game examination, makes no fucking sense) in a game that’s largely concerned with a sentient evil town (and the occasional EEEVIL CUULTIST) trying to dick you over in ways that you can’t fathom. Silent Hill: Homecoming is a case study in the failings of modern horror, but I’ll do that one later, but for now, let’s just say the protagonist is ex-military. That’s right, fully trained for combat, fully capable with firearms, fully conditioned to the horrors of war (the lattermost of which might be the biggest missed opportunity in a Silent Hill entry ever). Basically, if you’re going to a military/tuff guy main character in a genre that tends to be extremely story intensive, make a reason for it, and don’t make it so that this nature completely douses the tension.
So, a final thought. Does horror have to be scary in order to be horror? Still no answer from my end, but it’s an idea that you and I will both have to think long and hard about, my friend.