Horror games are dead.
Let’s back up a little.
The E3 demonstrations of Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3, 2 of the top 3 “horror” franchises in gaming (Silent Hill being the third, a franchise which has been terrible since Silent Hill 3 nearly 10 years ago) were less than exciting for horror fans. Resident Evil, long ago the pioneer of the “survival horror” genre, showcased a Michael Bay-meets George Romero gameplay demo that featured more explosions than your average 2 hour summer blockbuster. This gameplay demo, combined with the gameplay stylings of Resident Evil 5, have demonstrated to gamers that Resident Evil is no longer in the business of scaring the crap out of players.
The foreboding atmosphere and oh my god what just jumped through the window of the Playstation-Era Resident Evils has been replaced with this action-horror hybrid that more resembles the Resident Evil movies than any of the games.
It appears Capcom is out of the horror business.
Dead Space was supposed to be the antithesis of what RE had become. In response to Resident Evil’s newfound open environments and co-op action gameplay, the original Dead Space closed you in. It trapped you inside of a derelict spacecraft with no way out, and only the blackness of space to escape to. The encounter design was meant to terrify players, and the cold, unforgiving darkness of the Ishimura offered no respite. At the end of the game, a classic horror convention (the pre-credit jump scare) signaled to players that there was a new sheriff in town.
Dead Space 2 upped the ante, offering a space station instead of a ship, and while the encounters were less “monster-closety,” the game was still plenty scary, with some terrifying locations and enemy types.
It was with great excitement then that I awaited the Dead Space 3 presentation at E3. What I instead witnessed was a Gears of War clone wrapped in a Dead Space skin, complete with a quipping co-op character. Gone was the claustrophobia of Dead Space and Dead Space 2, replaced with open areas and…cover.
So, like I said…horror games are dead.
There is, however, darkness at the end of the light.
A independent horror game, Slender, was released a few days ago and tales of its horror spread quickly throughout online circles, with reaction videos (always a good indicator of the ability of something to scare people) popping up online at a rapid pace. Intrigued, I downloaded Slender and gave it a try.
Tales of its ability to frighten are not exaggerated.
The game puts you in the shoes of a girl, trapped in a forest, with nothing but a flashlight. Your only objective is to “find the 8 letters,” and the game gives no other assistance. It’s completely dark, and your flashlight needs to be recharged (although not that often), occasionally leaving you in pitch blackness. Most games give night a bluish tint, but in Slender, the night is black. The rows of trees are immediately disorienting, and as you find different landmarks (a building with a maze-like interior, a huge water pipe, a car, and others), you come across the letters. As soon as you pick one up, the game’s music immediately lets you know that something is about to go down.
Disoriented and scared, you look around.
What was that?
The camera crackles and static fills the screen as you see a figure in the distance, standing still.
You try to run away, but he will eventually catch up to you, even if you find all of the letters. There’s no escape, no rescue, no shotgun or pistol. It’s hopeless.
It’s scary as hell.
So why does Slender succeed in scaring where other games fail? The original Resident Evil and Silent Hill games had it right. In order to terrify, you must weaken the player. You must withhold something that is vital to their survival. In Resident Evil, it was ammunition. In Silent Hill, it was information (about what to do next) and capability (to fight and withstand attacks). In Dead Space, it’s maneuverable space. As the survival horror genre has slowly morphed into “action-horror,” the games have become simplified. There’s no more puzzle solving, and no more ammunition scarcity. Everything you need to complete a section is there for you, always inviting, always encouraging.
True horror is not inviting and encouraging.
Slender dumps you in the middle of these dense woods, with no map, and one objective. There’s no squad, there’s no one on a radio somewhere. It’s you, alone.
The funny thing about the Slender Man’s (the villain in Slender) design is that it isn’t exactly terrifying. In fact, he’s kind of funny looking. His name isn’t even scary. As other, AAA horror games have progressed, the enemy designs have gotten more outrageous, often bordering on parody. Slender demonstrates that simpler is sometimes more effective in conveying horror. It isn’t about what Slender Man looks like, it’s about what he can do.
That’s the other thing about Slender. It’s hard. With a primary mechanic (don’t look at Slender Man for too long) that evokes the similarly-excellent Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Slender doesn’t need to rely on great graphics or gore. Not being able to look at the thing stalking you gives the effect of looking at it between your fingers. You catch glimpses, but you never get a chance to get close and really inspect it. Every time you look behind you as you run away from the Slender Man, he seems to get closer, until he does the most terrifying thing possible.
This disorients the player even further, as now the direction they were running toward can become more dangerous than the direction they were running from. It evokes old-school slasher movies, with the ubiquitous villain always being on your heels, no matter how fast you run, or how far you go. When you look behind you, he’s there.
Back to the difficulty. Horror games need to have stakes. You need to be afraid of everything that’s around the corner, because it should be able to kill you. Both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls do this really well, and those games certainly make the players feel the same tension and anxiety as traditional horror, even though they aren’t built to be horror games in the classic sense.
The original Resident Evil did this well, also. One mistake can make your life end quickly, something that isn’t the case in later games, which are more of a war of attrition.
The problem is that present-day game design isn’t interested in any of these things. So much money is put into games that making large parts of your game inaccessible (due to difficulty or having people stop due to fear) becomes untenable. Today’s developers want gamers to be invited into their games, and they want the player to be powerful. None of this causes anything approaching fear. Just think, have you ever been scared in Call of Duty? Why not? Is it because you have regenerating health and basically unlimited ammo? What if you could die with 1 shot? What if enemy encounters were appropriately scary (as they would be in an actual war)? As we become more and more focused on setpieces and action-heroism in games, our ability to be scared is being lost.
Horror developers, play Slender. See what you can do with a small budget and a laser-like focus on an idea, and help usher in the new horror revolution.
Horror games are dead.
But they don’t have to be.