What in Hell happened to the horror game

Accompanied by the kind of excitement normally reserved these days for yet another DLC-on-the-disk debacle, Capcom recently unveiled Resident Evil 6, proudly announcing, without a flicker of insincerity, that, “Zombies, are back!”

Really? I had no idea they’d ever gone away.

Aside from The Walking Dead, the Mitchell brothers, and the cast of The Only Way Is Essex, as far as I’m aware, the TV schedules haven’t, as yet, been overrun by the grotesquely deformed lobotomised hoards. And it’s a similar story when it comes to movies and literature too. So why does the gaming world seem to have zombies on the brain? Perhaps they perfectly fit the criteria for the large volumes of identikit adversaries with simple A.I. many developers are looking for? Perhaps they know Nolan North? Perhaps they know Nolan North’s agent?

Whatever the reason, while zombies have always been all about strength in numbers, their current ubiquity isn’t without its drawbacks. Not only has their success seen them become as generic a video game enemy as army-man-with-army-gun and alien-thing-with-alien-gun. But when the game you’re most famous for is a parodic cartoon caper that casts the player against you as a tactically minded Alan Titchmarsh, it’s clear you’ve lost something of your ability to inspire stomach-churning scares.

The fact that, of all horror characters, it’s the zombie, the very epitome of anarchy, who has become the establishment darling, is, however, just the clearest case of a far larger threat now facing the horror game: the real danger of its permanent demise.

While it’s true that we continue to be treated to a couple of decent schlock-buster horror games every year – Dead Space’s haunted house in the heavens, Alan Wake literally shining a light into the dark recesses of his soul. The problem is that, aside from odd exceptions such as the nightmarishly taut Amnesia: The Dark Descent or the insanity of Condemned 2, although the present smattering of nefarious offerings undoubtedly make for better games than the ones we’ve enjoyed in the past, they don’t necessarily make for better horror.

The twisted green shoots of promise cultivated by the burgeoning power of home consoles in the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 eras are withering at the roots from untapped potential.  Release lists over recent years have increasingly become a Necronomicon cataloguing the slow and painful death of slow and painful deaths. In fact, if you want to see easily the scariest thing I’ve seen all generation, just come round to my house and watch my friggin PS3 trying to run Skyrim.

While good horror always has the innate ability to shred your nerves, great horror scratches at your soul and cerebral cortex as well. Although superficially the genre may often seems to be solely about oppression, like science fiction, its detachment from reality allows it the freedom to consider themes through visceral metaphors – the social commentary of George A. Romero’s zombie movies, or Dracula, the most literal depiction of the aristocrats who lived by bleeding the peasants dry.

Horror even has the ability to be intensively self-reflexive, with films like Scream and The Cabin in the Woods smartly and gleefully dissecting its conventions with a Brechtian chainsaw and scalpel.

With all that in mind, despite the monstrous head start horror has had in other mediums, it still hard not to view video game output as derivative, repetitive and unimaginative by comparison. When you consider, for example, that perhaps the most memorable original horror game villain is the part man, part psychotic Toblerone bar, Pyramid Head, you can’t help feeling that surely the Devil can produce better marketing materials than the ones we’re currently getting.

Of course, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that making a horror game is an undeniably more complex process than creating other types of fright fiction. Across the broad church of gaming, developers constantly struggle to get narrative and gameplay to commune together, and deciding how much of each should be sacrificed on the altar of compromise remains an ongoing conundrum. So what can be done to help?

Well, horror has always made its living by pushing the boundaries and, in this spirit, new titles need to defy gaming conventions and challenge gamers’ hard coding. By their very nature, games are competitive endeavours, but horror needs to hack away at their classic approach to success and failure. Less disposability to death; less good/bad polarisation to multiple endings; less thermoses and other unnecessary crap to distract you; more immersion.

Games also need to be shorter, strongly resistant to the current trend to go action-oriented purely as a means to an end and avoid directionless serialisation. In horror the crescendo is only as effective as the tension that precedes it is well orchestrated. And there’s an atrophy to fear caused by a familiarity that grows each time you revisit something. Returning, yet again, to the alternative dimension of Silent Hill’s fog-bound purgatory, for example, now only sends shivers down my spine because it looks like Pinhead and Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen have opened an interior design company together.

Obviously, these are not easy obstacles to tackle, and, at the end of the day, lurking behind everything is the scariest thing of all: money. Making big games commonly involves big companies anticipating big returns by avoiding big risks. So maybe the answer lies with some of those visionary people in the industry who have broken free to set up independent studios stepping up to the plate. It’s worth considering that the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Kill List, Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity would all have been PSN/Xbox Live releases.

Previous generations consistently found new enlightenment and freedom by testing the limits of social acceptance. So perhaps it’s now the turn of the PlaySatan generation to really earn its title by incurring the wrath of the censors and right wing media. (The irony, of course, is that horror is, at heart, an extremely conservative genre, regularly demonising science and sanctifying religion, promoting abstinence and punishing indulgence.)

Like Father Karras in The Exorcist, in what seems like the darkest hour, I for one have rediscovered my faith. Faith that the combined creative powers of the video game industry can deliver more than just jump scares, an evil Ikea full of monster closets and simple shock and gore. Now, having just played some of Silent Hill: Downpour, I’m off to throw myself down a flight of stairs.

Subscribe to our mailing list

Get the latest game reviews, news, features, and more straight to your inbox

One Response

  1. Liam Pritchard May 13, 2012