In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d take the opportunity to weigh in on the state of horror in the gaming industry.
I’ll also take a second to weigh in on Halloween: It’s the best. Period. Do not, under any circumstances, try and overrun my day with your Christmas bullshit. I like Christmas, a lot, as a reason to give gifts, a wonderful time to be with loved ones, and a celebration of my personal belief system. All Hallow’s Eve kicks its ass, though, and don’t you forget it.
Last night, I was thrilled to open up Steam – like I do every night – and see that they are celebrating this best of times with a sale on “spooky” games, which is Valve-speak for “almost all of the games, really.” I perused the selection, and came out of the process with Outlast, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, and Condemned: Criminal Origins. The first two are relatively new, but have been highly praised, while Condemned is one of the few big horror titles I’ve ever missed out on.
I’ve never been what most people would call a “scaredy-cat” when it comes to life… Unless there’s heights, deep water, or darkness involved. Or horses. So long as I’m not being dropped into a horse-filled lake at night, though, I can keep my shit together fairly well. My mom loves all things horror, so being a wuss about Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t an option. I saw Aliens at a very young, very impressionable age, and repeated viewings of the chestburster scene taught me that fear can be controlled.
I’m not talking about “controlled” in some grand sense, or even in a way that works in a situation that involves a genuine threat to my well-being; the Kwisatz Haderach I am most assuredly not. The Bene Gesserit mantra – “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.” – still rings in my mind at times, though. While I certainly lack the qualifications to discuss why people in general seek out thrills-and-chills, I know my own reasons: I like conquering those moments.
I don’t play scary games or watch scary movies during the day; I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t work. The reason it doesn’t work is because fear generated by media is something disingenuous by nature, and is best when you provide it as much fuel as possible; it helps the process when you can open yourself to the possibility that you might be in danger, no matter how safe you actually are. I can’t tell you the number of times I have shifted plans toward enjoying something scary just because a storm has blown up outside. My copy of Alan Wake was purchased under precisely such conditions, and I literally raced home so I could play it as much as possible while the weather was bad.
Horror movies are experiencing a spike in popularity that started with the first Scream, and has been fueled by franchises like Final Destination, Saw, and Paranormal Activity. I’m a bit pickier when it comes to crawling over the back of an auditorium seat; I love a good slasher flick, don’t mind some psychological horror, need to see everyone get theirs in the end, and rarely bother with anything PG-13. The Strangers, Funny Games, and Cabin in the Woods all fit the bill in recent years, and I’ll probably see Insidious at some point.
Saw and Paranormal Activity took Hollywood by storm because the ratio of expenditures to profit was mind-boggling, and such was the case with a little game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Amnesia isn’t the prettiest game in the world, and the mechanics leave room for improvement, but the overall experience is perfectly targeted to one goal: Goddamn nightmares. I’ve tried to really dive into it, but I’m lucky to get through a half hour each time before going “Nope” and shutting it down.
The horror renaissance has come to gaming in this way, with the apparent death of the big publisher old-guard giving way to indie titles, some of which begin their development cycles as free browser games. While I certainly enjoyed Dead Space 3, and still find necromorphs terrifying, I would never go so far as to suggest that it’s anywhere near as scary as the original. While careful inventory management was essential in Dead Space, my careful hoarding in DS 3 was merely force of habit, resulting in literally hundreds of health packs and thousand of rounds of ammo.
If we’re going to talk about massive failures of pedigreed horror franchises, the rotten core has to be Resident Evil 6. I’ve owned all five previous numbered entries; I loved RE 4, and felt that the new control scheme was less a “travesty” and more “not broken and terrible.” Resident Evil 5 got me in with co-op, but the core gameplay was starting to show signs of mutation. I’ve only played a few chapters of Resident Evil 6, but they might as well have come straight out of a Michael Bay film that happens to involve zombies.
If I’m being honest, the most harrowing game I’ve played to completion so far this year is The Swapper. An indie puzzle / platformer set on an abandoned space station, it perfectly captures the feeling of being afraid precisely because you are completely alone. In space. On a facility that used to be filled with people. Each new piece of information you receive only makes the situation worse, and the end of the game is as chilling as anything I’ve ever experienced.
The Swapper wasn’t a horror game at heart, though, at least not in the traditional sense of building tension and sending dangerous enemies to hound you. In games like Amnesia or Outlast, the entire design is geared toward getting you wound-up, and then sending you screaming for safety. They achieve maximum impact by stripping you of any means to defend yourself, turning them from standard “survival horror” to “hide under something and cry silently” horror. Even when Isaac Clarke was completely out of ammo, you could fall back on desperate melee attacks.
Weapons aren’t the only things you’ll be without, though, as the days of never-ending light from ephemeral sources are no more. Outlast, for example, puts you in the shoes of a reporter investigating a metal asylum. Your only means of illumination is the night-vision mode on your handheld camcorder, and it eats batteries like a Sega Game Gear. Amnesia employs a similar mechanic via a lantern with limited oil and environmental lighting sources that must be ignited via tinderboxes. The Dark Descent took things one step further by employing an Eternal Darkness style sanity system; stay in the dark too long, and your perception of things warps, hindering your ability to move, interact, and escape.
You’re probably asking yourself why I would pick up other games of this ilk if this one already stymies me so badly? The answer is simple: I like conquering those moments. I’ve mostly reached the point where I have to consciously allow myself to be scared by a film, but games can still take hold. The main difference I can come up with is interactivity; a game asks you to invest in the idea that the line between you and your character is blurred. If they’re in danger, you’re in danger, essentially. In order for that to work, a good horror game has to walk the line between fear and frustration; keeping the character / player in a constant state of danger and near-death, without actually killing them so many times that dying loses its bite.
Using this formula, the titles mentioned above have raked in impressive numbers – impressive, that is, considering that they’re indie horror games. Even the big-name titles like the upcoming The Evil Within from Bethesda won’t have the numbers of something like Skyrim, Call of Duty, or Madden. Video games are already less accessible than going to see the movies, and while watching Amnesia reaction videos on YouTube is entertaining, it still doesn’t approach the social connection achieved by watching a scary flick in an auditorium full of other people.
At their core, horror games have to succeed on the existence of a very specific group: Individuals with a semi-disposable income, the desire to play games by themselves, and the skill necessary for the generally steep difficulty involved. Even within my group of friends, there are only a handful of us that fit this criteria; even I haven’t ever purchased these kind of games at their standard $20 price point. When you consider what a horror game would have to offer to get me to shell out $60, I begin to have a little more sympathy for publishers and developers to be more cautious about investing in them.
Unfortunately, this can lead to wasted potential on certain titles, such as the recently announced Alien: Isolation. Sega has a lot riding on this title, as further mishandling of the franchise after Colonial Marines could destroy what profitability is left. The report is that you will be playing as Ellen Ripley’s daughter in an environment that contains a single xenomorph, in homage to the first film. Sounds fantastic, right? Except that the report also talks about “clone soldiers” and other nonsense that makes it clear the bulk of gameplay will probably consist of generic sci-fi shooting.
I feel this paradox – the seeming inability of games in traditional horror franchises to stay focused on horror – highlights the challenges facing the industry that have led to the current state of affairs. The more popular a franchise becomes, the more likely the call will be made to tweak it into something more marketable. I haven’t played A Machine for Pigs yet, but word on the web seems to be that it isn’t the terrifying tour-de-force delivered by its predecessor. Have we really reached the point were a new IP can’t even make it to the second entry without having to worry about “accessibility?”
For the answer to that question, you only have to look as far as the second paragraph on this post: Whatever sells, wins. Halloween isn’t much more than cheap candy and Instagram pics of girls in costume as “slutty sluts.” Christmas gets people spending money, and so has been allowed outside the confines of December. Hell, there are department stores opening up at 8 PM on November 28th, right in the middle of what should be post-dinner Thanksgiving naps and football.
In two months or so, there will be millions of people unwrapping copies of sports titles, action platformers and shooters, with some racing titles and JRPGs thrown in for good measure. These are the kind of games that show off new consoles with flash, or keep kids huddled around the TV, or let older gamers chat with friends while enjoying a round or two. You won’t find a whole of people whose first hope Christmas morning is “Oh man, I hope I get a hyper-terrifying game that will keep me alone in the dark of my room!”
For this weekend, though, I’m going to allow myself to become absorbed in the darker side of things; let my imagination run rampant, to the point where I triple-check the locks and keep my flashlight under my pillow. Come Monday morning, I want to exult in the rising of the sun, clawing my way up from a place of fear. I want to conquer those moments. Plus, it looks like Dead Rising 3 will probably be my holiday launch title that gets played while we gather around the tree, and at least it has zombies. My mom loves zombies.