The State of Horror Games: A Dark Future Ahead?
There are a number of things that a lot of modern ‘horror’ titles get wrong. For example, the player isn’t treated like a victim; they are the one in control of the situation. This is often a result of arming the player to the teeth and throwing waves of enemies at them. There’s nothing scary about out-gunning everything that comes after you.
The elements of horror have become too tightly entwined with the staples of the action/shooter genre. Players are often put in a position in which they are exposed to the enemy regularly. The enemy itself is often one of many, further detracting from any sense of horror they may carry. The player is often equipped with various firearms that are more than capable of killing anything in sight, and the resulting experience is more ‘intense action’ than ‘heart-pounding horror’. But this just seems to be the modern day method–’action horror’ rather than just ‘horror’.
Real scares are crafted, not forced. Sure, the odd jump scare does shock but they are only effective when used in moderation. Atmosphere, vulnerability and tension are all key ingredients in creating an effective horror experience. Games that place players in a position in which they are at a disadvantage are often the scariest experiences. The most recent example of this would be last year’s Zombi U.
In Zombie U, the player is not combat efficient; they struggle with firearms and swing a cricket bat like any average person. The zombies are far deadlier, with even one of them enough to slay a player. This instantly creates a viable threat that results in the player fearing their enemy. It’s odd that as technology has improved, the ability to create scary video game experiences has declined. The big studios often turn their horror games into full-blown action titles, complete with cinematic set pieces and dual wielding pistols. It’s left to the ‘smaller guys’ to produce the real horror.
Is the problem rooted in how the ‘big’ studios look at their games, the industry and the customer? The horror game genre (much like the horror film genre, funnily enough) is currently in a strange limbo. Classic horror experiences are thin on the ground (at least on the console side), which then poses questions around whether people still want them or not. There’s also the problem of capturing the attention of many, rather than a few. What can a genuinely scary game do to pull people away from what they are used to?
The majority of people don’t tend to find slow-burning games all that appealing. We live in a time in which most people want instant gratification; they want their pay-off sooner rather than later. This is how the gap between the ‘smaller guys’ (or indie, if you like to use that term freely) and major studios is formed. The smaller guys can afford to take the risk on creating a true horror title–after all, the niche markets suit them just fine–but the bigger studios are often under pressure to create a game that will bring in the money via sales to the masses.
Horror can not be rushed, and this is why I believe we rarely see horror titles being released from larger studios. Sure, there’s a decent flow of action-horror titles (Dead Space, Resident Evil 4 and beyond, to name a few) but genuine horror? That’s a rarity these days. The smaller/independent guys have time to work on each of the key elements of horror. Frictional Games offer the best example of creating and including all the key horror elements. The likes of Penumbra and Amnesia show a clear understanding of how to scare people. The atmosphere is foreboding, almost suffocating, and the audio is pitch-perfect. The enemies in both games aren’t thrown at the player. Instead, they are slowly and steadily brought into the player’s attention. It’s a true showcase of how to create an effective horror experience.
The horror genre may be dying in terms of big-budget releases, but the independent scene is steadily producing quality experiences. With Sony’s recent warming towards the indie scene, this could result in more true horror experiences appearing on their systems. The future could be surprisingly bright for the horror genre. Just don’t expect it to be courtesy of the major studios.