Hey guys! I’ve got a great idea for a game! It’s a survival horror game without any sort of combat or means to defeat enemies. The game is going to focus primarily on building a tense atmosphere and you’re going to have to manage your [random resource that seems out of place in a video game] and there aren’t going to be any cheap scares. Well okay, there will be a few of those. The monsters are all going to really ambiguous humanoids. I’ll rip the story from H.P. Lovecraft or just base it in an already established property. Oh, and there’s going to be puzzles! What do you mean Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Hide, Penumbra: The Black Plague, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Slender, SCP Containment Breach, Among the Sleep, and a bunch of other games are already doing that?
Of course, considering the dreck that horror fans have had to put up with lately, it’s hardly a surprise that so many developers have formulated such a crystallized reaction. The real surprise is the uniformity that pervades this movement. With everybody flipping the hell out over Visceral Games’ decision (perhaps not truly their decision but who really knows) to make Dead Space 3 into an action title, people seem to be avoiding scary combat simulation like the plague. You see this exact same thing in politics: those who oppose an ideology will often and flock together while slowly morphing into its perfect antithesis. As with everything, there are upsides and downsides to this reactionary kind of group think.
So we’ve been over-saturated with horror titles that feel like action games with less ammo for quite some time now. You have to admit that they’re a pretty safe bet from a publisher’s standpoint. Games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill captured our imaginations as children and seemed to promise profitable franchises, but the industry has a way of going on autopilot with these things. During the mid 2000′s, right as gaming was becoming more prominent in popular culture, the predictable sequel formula for horror titles quickly began to atrophy. The wanton abuse of the genre was enough to spawn the modern reaction movement we’re privy to today.
While Shattered Memories predates the weaponless horror revival by almost a year, the real shot in the arm for the genre was the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. One has but to look through the hundreds of ‘Let’s Plays’ on YouTube to see the impact this game had on people. There was something very elemental about hiding from monsters that you couldn’t even look at while you try to feel your way along a wall to see where you’re going. While Amnesia wasn’t the first title to try to recapture this kind of terror, it represents the peak of the gaming community’s backlash against watered-down action titles being billed as horror. But Amnesia is far from a perfect game.
Take a moment to think about Amnesia for a second. What was the most memorable part? Was it the puzzles? How about the flashbacks? Didn’t think so. The story itself is rather self-contained and doesn’t deliver in the crucial final chapter. For all of its Lovecraftian influences, The Dark Descent’s story keeps the horror safely behind the computer screen. Even Dan Pichbeck, writer for A Machine for Pigs, has stated that the game “pulled up short” in several places. In other interviews, Pinchbeck has stated that he wants to hold back on the dialog and let the environment tell the story. It’s a step in the right direction but it doesn’t quite dodge the fundamental problem with many horror games.
For all of the fear that lurking about in the shadows of Castle Brennenburg can stir up, the gameplay has but a threadbare connection to the story itself. Indeed, the clearest indicators of safety in The Dark Descent are the systematic pauses for dialog and the occasionally tedious puzzles. While the dialog serves as a rather primitive exposition device, most of the puzzles are only temporary impediments for the player. I’m not saying that every single puzzle in a horror game needs to have a deep connection to the narrative, but honestly, what on earth is scary or interesting about creating an acidic compound to dissolve the living tissue that’s grown over a door? While the Silent Hill series is often guilty of this exact crime, in many instances puzzles instead focus on instilling a sense of surreal confusion in the player, or highlighting persistent themes (playing only the broken keys on a piano, finding the innocent man in a room full of corpses). Amnesia wasn’t a bad game at all; it was a fractured one. The great gameplay and atmosphere held together an otherwise unremarkable story and a series of time consuming puzzles. While The Dark Descent was without a doubt an achievement, it’s more important to look at the game for the potential that it’s sewn rather than trying to imitate its success.
But Amnesia is hardly the only perpetrator here. Though the Slender Man creepypasta has been around for ages, its recent incarnation of Slender. is the embodiment of what is quickly becoming a cheap device. I’ll give the developers credit: the game does a fair job of creating a looming sense that you’re going to see something spooky. The problem is that there is literally nothing else to the game. Ladies and gentlemen, we have cracked the illusive code for manufacturing pervasive fear. It’s time to move on
SCP-Containment Breach manages to push a little further in the right direction. The blinking mechanic in its current state is somewhat gimmicky and really only serves to build tension while around SCP-173. The game being randomly generated is great for keeping players confused and afraid, but again I’m only talking about devices here. While the developers behind this new crop of horror titles are very talented when it comes to scaring us, that should never be the end goal for titles in the horror genre.
When we look at the chief sources of inspiration for horror games such as H.P. Lovecraft, Alien, or Jacob’s Ladder, are their plots simply vehicles for a set of cheap scares and a feeling of continuous dread? What made H.P. Lovecraft terrifying was his ability to transform a rational protagonist into a bawling child by dropping the floor of reality out from under him. Alien had a rather grotesque monster, but the real horror was in how well the creature reflected the savagery of humanity. Jacob’s Ladder wasn’t a great film because there was a hospital with blood on the walls–it was great because it presented a terrifying view of our greatest fear: death. Using the imagery from these and other seminal works of horror may have seemed like a cute tribute at first, but now it’s more like a gross misappropriation of the tools of great works of the genre. As I said earlier, relying only on creative devices like not looking at the monsters or timing your blinking still only keeps the sense of fear limited to the screen. Strangely enough, creating something scary is rather easy. The real talent is in revealing the terror of something familiar.