Why horror games just aren't scary anymore

Hush little baby, don’t say a word, And never mind that noise you heard, It’s just the beasts under your bed, in your closet, in your head.

If there’s anything that annoys me with game design is when the writer believes that it is ok to treat the player as if he has the personality of a box of cereal, and expects that they will willingly accept any poorly delivered set pieces, and ignore any forced atmosphere. Ok, maybe I’m being a little bit critical, but it really brings my piss to a boil when a game that has potential is ruined by a poor design choice, and the focus of today’s rant is…HORROR.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, “Horror fiction is a genre of fiction in any medium intended to scare, unsettle, or horrify the audience. Historically, the cause of the “horror” experience has often been the intrusion of a disturbing supernatural element into everyday human experience”. It has become increasingly popular lately to hybridise genres, in this field of thought, namely survival horror, action horror, and god forbid racing horror…I just made that up, but it would be awesome if somebody could pull it off. And what is essentially happening is that the genre is being inadvertently watered down, not because it is being combined with other elements, because it has been arbitrarily designated a back seat in the operation where it merely trundles along idly offering up the occasional monster in the closet . This I feel is unacceptable since it is pretty well cheapening the whole act and giving the genre of horror a bad name.

I think the main issue with this weakening of the horror aspect is that it is often merely scattered around the world without any particular build up or all important immersion to bring another dimension of emotion to the player, this is heavily reflected in the monster in the closet analogy where an arbitrary element of shock is misplaced as horror, and offers little more than a momentary scare, the effect of this tapers of steeply when the device is used repeatedly, without use of suspense or narrative support.

Come to think of it, this is hardly the main point, but one part of a culmination of points that are often foolishly used in order to give a game more depth, and something to boast about on the back cover, however the next example upholds more relevance to the depiction of horror when integrated into a game. NARRATIVE RELEVANCE; this is when the aspect that has been utilised is in some way, whether it be directly or abstractly related to the story, themes etc. In Silent Hill 2, the ubiquitous nurses were the result of the manifestation of James Sunderland’s anxiety surrounding the terminal illness suffered by his wife. This is interesting because in a way, the “monsters” are a direct representation of his mental instability surrounding his wife’s death and the subsequent sexual deprivation, which leads the player to believe that the entity that is trying to hack his limbs off and decorate the wards with his intestines may just be a figment of his imagination. This is not only scary because the enemy is wrought from his imagination (a theme that is repeated throughout a lot of the monsters) but because there is really no explanation of the origin or meaning of the incarnations above what can be observed. The polar opposite to this can be observed in a game like Resident Evil 4 where the game gives you a nifty recap of everything that’s going on, and plain explanations of all of the phenomena that occurs within the game. Although I think it is easy to agree that this is hardly a pure horror game, it really does sort of screw its own credibility by instructing you to be afraid of some mysterious force while practically giving you a comprehensive history on everything surrounding the events of the game, which really feels as if its ruining the magic of the unknown by chalking it up to some incredibly unconvincing scientific conspiracy.

Besides exploring horror in the fields of natural and intuitive positioning of horror elements within a games structure and fear of the unknown, I think that there is one final element that, when played well, will guarantee brown underpants material, this element is the art of playing off human emotion. For this demonstration I need to bring forth, once, once more my whipping boy S.T.A.L.K.E.R Shadow of Chernobyl. By now you probably thought that I have milked this game to dust and then turned the dust into some kind of disgusting post apocalyptic space bread, but oh no gentle reader, I’ve managed to draw one final breath from this shining gold example.

The element of human emotion is a subtle one in Stalker, this is mainly because nobody actually had the patience to play up to a stage when the game becomes immersive, but when it does it tends to do a rather good job at getting under your skin. I think this is a culmination of the previous points, excellent atmosphere, mystery of the zone, and finally the simplest forms of fear that plague the mind which pretty well play of the previous points, these include loneliness, fear of darkness, isolation and the fear of death. It may seem silly to believe that such things can affect you through the impenetrable barrier that is the monitor, but Stalker does such a fantastic job taking the time to let the atmosphere sink, grow on you and latch onto you before it ramps up these variables in a certain point of the game, allowing the player to feel apprehension and the need to personally push through a psychological barrier before the game confronts them with what could paradoxically be called a “subtle crescendo”, a sequence that is not fundamentally scary, but due to the conditioning that the game has imposed, had me trembling in the swivel chair. The game had forged fear into cynical obsidian hearts. After this event the fear quickly tapers off but the feeling of dread still lingers as the player is uncertain of what is to come and what horrors may be waiting for them is some far off corner of the bleak and dilapidated wastes.

Humans are “rational animals”, and Aristotle was quite right; if you are aiming to develop a genuinely scary experience for the player in a way that you never intend to diverge into the comical, than you have to delve deep into the human psyche and discover what makes fear what we do not know, it is only natural. Obviously there are many factors that can branch off this from atmospheric composition down to something simple like timing, but if you want these things to be successful, you always need to come down to the root of the issue which is always rational human emotion and how it is impacted by different environmental variables.

Cheerio,

Miles Newton – The Machination, Creative Director

I’m thinking of ways I can improve the blog since writing about game design fundamentals and industry trends is can be noticeably dry if I don’t mix it up a bit. Don’t worry I’ll think of something. Also I apologise for the lateness of this entry, but the man said nay, that and I’ve spent the last week catching up with friends and working my way through a long list of games I need to finish.

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