Since tomorrow is the 2014 edition of the Capitalism-fest that is Hallowe’en and the “scary things” closet has already been opened once again and a whole bunch of horror media sent barrelling our way, I thought I’d consider the role that video games play in our annual celebration of creepiness. Hurrah!
I’m a sucker for horror movies: creepy ones, silly ones, gory ones; you name it, I’ll devour it. Horror video games, on the other hand, can GET THE FUCKING HELL AWAY FROM ME.
Largely, horror films completely fail to give me the creeps: perhaps it’s the knowledge that it’s all just a big scam, and the girl being chased by the guy with the big axe isn’t really being chased, and the guy with the big axe doesn’t really want to examine the girl’s internal organs in minute detail and with the complete opposite of surgical precision. Like everything in the movies, it’s just a big ol’ fake and there’s really nothing to be scared about at all.
At best, a surprise set-piece will give a brief shock, but never nightmares: the only things in recent memory to actually, properly, scare me were the Spanish original of [.REC] (which, incidentally, I will never ever watch again; not because it was too scary, but because the next time I see it will be a disappointment and I want to maintain it as one of my favourite horror films of all time) and pretty much all of The Descent (which was largely an hour and a half of Scary Things Jumping Out at You in the Dark™). Aside from that, I’m pretty unshakeable even in the face of maddening terror. When it comes to horror video games though, then you can rewrite all the rule books and Consequences Will Never Be the Same.
It’s here that I should probably define what I mean when I say “horror game”:
Horror Game [hawr-er geym]
n. A video game whose predominant function is to scare, or thrill, above and beyond a regular ‘action’ game.
“I played this horror game last night and it was so scary that I accidentally vomited out my internal organs.”
It’s not a necessary prerequisitive for horror-games to be action-based, but most fall under the well-trodden banner of ‘survival horror’: your Resident Evils, your Silent Hills and your Alone in the Darks. These (almost universally) place you in the scope of some city-wide outbreak of nasties keen to chew on your face; away from which you must navigate your way (from fixed camera angles) in a third-person manner whilst simultaneously trying to find your wife/daughter/dog and understand what the hell’s gone wrong with the world. Even so, there are plenty of other horror-filled titles that meander away from the standard ‘shoot at and run away from the monster things chasing you’ to encompass psychological horrors, as well as the physical ones. I can categorically say that I will never, ever ever ever play Amnesia: The Dark Descent: I may own it on Steam, thanks in some manner to some Humble Indie Bundle somewhere along the line, but I’ll never install it.
Broadly, I watch horror films to be amused (usually by their shocking production values, hilariously bad dialogue and entertaining special effects), not to sit on the edge of my seat. but I can at least appreciate that some find horror films “scary” in some way. Horror video games, on the other hand, require direct input and often an emotional attachment (likely with the main character or perhaps for a “damsel” in “distress” that provides the key focal point for the story slash action) which amplifies the terror through your desire to see them survive the ordeal.
With a horror film, you know everything’s on rails and that the horror will progress without your direct involvement; you’re just along for the ride until the credits roll. If you do get scared, the action will progress regardless and you’re safe in the knowledge that, in 1-2 hours’ time, it’ll be over; no matter how much (or little) you engage with the scares. Where horror movies largely stick to the same sort of tropes (meaning you can largely predict how and when the scares are going to take place, who’s going to die, when something’s going to jump out, yada yada), proper horror games don’t have the same heritage and traditions and are tend to be far more innovative and inventive with how they give you the creeps. Aside from the more direct input that the player has on the action in a horror game than horror movie, this might also arise because of the relative infancy in which horror games inhabit, at least when compared to the 100-odd-year history of cinema.
Around this time last year, Naughty Dog unleashed one of the defining games of the PS3 generation in the form of The Last of Us; a survival-horror (ish) adventure game combining tension, emotion and zombie-ish things into a snowball of praise and Game of the Year (GotY) nominations from gaming critics. A year on (and with its recent re-release on PS4 in the form of a ‘remastered’ edition), many critics still view it as the high point of the previous console generation, drawing comparison with some of the ‘greats’ of cinema and banding around nicknames like “the Citizen Kane of games”. Still, given that the first, proper, piece of horror cinema is almost a century old now (widely accepted to be the creepy, unsettling The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it’s unsurprising that video game developers have caught on to the main tricks of making a survival-horror game scare both physically and psychologically, becoming genuinely innovative with its horror engagement and leaving much of cinema’s generic horror output writhing in the dust.
Given the immense (and almost universal) acclaim in which it is still held, I kind of feel I should play The Last of Us, but it just doesn’t grab me enough to give it a go (pun very much intended). I don’t go overboard for survival horror, and never have been: I think one reason why I dislike survival horror is that it takes itself so darned seriously (that Silent Hill dog ending aside), whereas all my favourite horror films (The Evil Dead, Saw, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Zombieland) are those ones that blow things over the top and deploy entertainment and/or comedy to complement the terror. The slow, tense styles of most survival horror titles hold no sway: the prospect of having to tensely save ammo/health and be frightened to death around every corner is often not the greatest motivator.
Instead, I prefer to be far more ‘gung-ho’ in my gaming style: it’s much more enjoyable to be charging around levels at full-tilt, full unloading clips of ammo in every available direction and trying to have as much fun (and cause as much chaos) as possible; preferably to a soundtrack delivered by Andrew W.K. or Turbonegro or something equally mental. This does, however,tend to make me a bit rubbish at stealth-based games like Thief and Hitman, let alone standard survival-horror games where you’re encouraged to save every last bullet and avoid alerting the entire zombie horde by careering around throwing grenades at the scenery. For shoot ’em ups of every colour and creed, I far prefer those that distribute copious amounts of ammunition and supply copious hordes of ghoulies/baddies to use it on; such as the glorious Bulletstorm or the masterpiece of Halo. “Saving some ammo for later” just isn’t in my dictionary, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I do stray into the darkened realms of horror gaming, I tend to to fall back on my love for zombies and zombie movies as a crucial pivot and gossamer connection to the world I know and love. And, even then, I like my zombie games to be entertaining struggles rather than bleak journeys of mere survival based on scavenging for crumbs of survival; the likes of Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead providing far more amusement than any number of repetitive, po-faced Resident Evils. I’ve recently been playing through Organ Trail (Director’s Cut) once again; clocking ever more hours into its cheesy, tongue-in-cheek conversion of the classic Oregon Trail into a homage-filled zombie survival adventure and enjoying every minute of it. And even then, if Plants vs. Zombies still isn’t the best zombie game ever made, then I’m a giant heron.
Okay, so enough about full-on ‘horror’ games; what about scary monsters and nice sprites in mainstream gaming at large? There’s an increasing trope for so-called ‘regular’ (non-scary, or mainly non-horror-based) games to artificially use ‘scary’ sequences to add to the drama or tension of a regular ‘action’ game, particularly in first-person person shooters, to varying degrees of success. Half-Life 2‘s superlative Ravenholm sequence is still one of the scariest (and most memorable) sequence in a modern first-person shooter, whilst the Sander Cohen section from BioShock – with all of its weeping angel-style mannequin-splicers and haunted theatre props – is one of gaming’s most expertly-executed creep-fests. Whilst Treyarch’s Call of Duty titles – with their schlocky zombies and undead Nazi footsoldiers – just feel like a tired resurrection of the same old trope of taking a standard game and trying to shoehorn some shocks into it, Red Dead Dedemption‘s glorious DLC/story expansion ‘Undead Nightmare‘ managed to implement a superlative zombie mode with infinite more care and grace.
Aside from traditional survival-horror games, there’s still a whole bunch of originality to be found within the ‘horror’ genre; resisting the mainstream horror genre’s tropes of endless wandering through endless dark, tight, grey corridors shooting zombies and collecting herbs. The likes of Project Zero (multi-platform, 2001-), Eternal Darkness (GameCube, 2002) and Cursed Mountain (Wii, 2009) come critically acclaimed by those in the know, demonstrating that there’s innovation to be found if players wander off the beaten survival-horror path, and the indie community also seems to be leading the charge in horror gaming of late; with particular successes such as the aforementioned Amnesia series, Penumbra: Black Plague and, this Hallowe’en’s breakout hit, Five Nights at Freddy’s. The equally-fascinating and terrifying Slender: The Eight Pages (which I have played; although not for long) demonstrate that terror can be inflicted without a bullet ever being fired.
So, despite the fact that I’m active only in the fringes of horror gaming, I’d wager that the genre is in fair health; so long as you steer clear of the kind of trash that The Evil Within appears to be peddling. With the growing success of Oculus Rift and true-VR gaming, I can only imagine that the successes of immersive, truly scary video games will also go interstellar. Schlocky, jumpscare games might not be my exact cup of tea, but I’m fully in favour of the injection of psychological, unsettling horrors into video gaming as a whole and engaging stories that place less emphasis on shooting space marines and more on tapping into the brain’s psychological fears. Game designers, take note plz.
Anyway, since this post has mainly been about scary things and personal gripes, I thought I’d leave you with a wonderful scene of beauty and harmony and everything that is ‘right’ with the world; don’t have nightmares.