I've always been a big fan of horror in all it's gaming forms. For me the start of this was Resident Evil 2, probably the first really terrifying game for me as a kid; the height of it probably the slew of Japanese horror games of the early 00's on the PS2 like Project Zero (Fatal Frame in the US), Silent Hill 2 and Forbidden Siren; and it's end? Probably about now really.
That's not to say I don't believe anyone will ever make another good horror game or that there haven't been any proper horror games recently Amnesia: Dark Descent being an excellent example of the contrary; no, it's not that, it's just the sense that once there was a real sense that in making a horror game developers put their all into actually trying to make the game as scary as possible, and though it's true developers do still try to make games scary, they don't try as much as they used to.
It's not so much that people don't like horror anymore, or that developers have decided not to make anything horror-oriented, it's more that the mechanics of a good horror game have been watered down and spliced with the mechanics of a good action game to such a degree that it's impossible to call most modern horror games 'true' horror games anymore, because developers know that enjoyable gameplay mechanics tend to conflict with good horror mechanics.
The Resident Evil series is an excellent example of this shift away from horror to action-horror; Resident Evil 4 saw the departure of series regular features such as tank-like character controls, limited overall ammo, low health, and the constant possibility of sudden death (all against the backdrop of tight corridors and spooky settings) in favour of fast-action, constant scene changes, ease of play mechanics and open-plan levels. It was an excellent game no mistake about it - with great level design, interesting settings and fun mechanics, aswell as a few hair-raising moments along the way, but nowhere near truly scary. There were moments of fear, and occasional dread but nowhere near the fear that the earlier games could instill.
Part of what made the original Resident Evil game scary was the helplessness, sure you were a member of a special police unit who was well-trained in firearm use and even had access to some heavy weaponry during the later parts of the game, but you started off with limited weapons in Jill's case just a handgun, and in Chris's only a knife. You also had limited ammo for the big guns, and even as you were given those heavier guns more dangerous adversaries would pop up. So there was a sort of trade-off between the action and the horror.
Equally famous for it's good use of horror is the Silent Hill series, the early ones atleast. Silent Hill 2 was a veritable masterpiece of audio-visual horror; with the player forced to use scrounged or improvised weapons like a board with nails in or a rent pipe as he traipsed through the abandoned town of Silent Hill, trying to avoid the numerous creatures. For the most part you were on your own, the game didn't hold your hand and if you used too much ammo up or didn't explore enough to collect more supplies there was a good chance you weren't going to make it out alive. The game really didn't hold your hand at all.
Part of what made Silent Hill 2 such a good piece of horror (and an audio-visual masterpiece) was it's use of sights and sounds. More often than not even the briefest of glimpses of a creature through a fog bank was terrifying, and combat quite tense even in the simplest of scuffles - despite the fact most adversaries were relatively easy to beat. It was the sounds they made, and the sound your radio made in most cases even before you'd seen them, that made them so scary. You knew you were weak, that all you had to rely on was a few weapons and limited recovery items and that made you afraid. You also knew, as in Resident Evil, that there was no rescue team, no safety, except to get through the madness yourself, and that meant facing the horror - that meant going out.
Project Zero (or Fatal Frame if you're American) took this concept of weakness to it's logical extreme, with the protagonist being a rather fragile Japanese girl, who couldn't even run properly, let alone get in a fight. Looking for her brother, she went to investigate a spooky mansion in the dead of night all alone (always a good idea) and found a plethora of spiritual adversaries to fight. In a sense Project Zero took the pre-established fighting mechanic of the survival horror genre but replaced the simple revolver or pipe ...with a camera. Not even a weapon, just a camera. Like Silent Hill 2 it did this whilst bombarding you with constant sights and sounds, not to mention harmless, random ghosts who could easily spook you into thinking you were about to suffer surprise attack. Project Zero's strength was it's excellent combination of gameplay mechanics with a strong narrative, drawn both from fiction and the rich mythos of Japanese cultural heritage.
I want to mention System Shock 2 aswell, briefly, because it's one of the few games that really terrifies me even to this day. I think this is mainly a mixture of the style of gameplay and audio-visual design in terms of gameplay the protagonist was specifically designed to be weak, succumbing to even a few attacks, it also doesn't help that most of the time enemies will spawn spontaneously, usually behind you, and attack from nowhere. What's so interesting about the way the atmosphere and environment are designed is the constant sense that the starship you're on is falling apart around you as you go along - from the robots going haywire and attacking you, to the ship's AI still announcing poetry contests even though most of the crew are dead; It's about the little things with System Shock 2, little things that add to the overall creepiness of the game the way for example that the hybrid humans (the main antagonists for much of the game) will ask for help or tell you to run just before they bash your skull in with a pipe.
Today's modern 'horror' games tend to be a lot more faster-paced perhaps because older games tended to have less in-game assets (because of the time it took to make them all), and thus had to reuse backgrounds and settings more; whereas games today have the ability to change scenes a lot quicker and thus give the player a 'faster ride'. A good example of this I've already mentioned is the change of style between the early Resident Evil games and Resident Evil 4. Early Resident Evil games tended to be split into three main areas, with the setting of the game being the basis for the first two the mansion of the first, or the police station of the second and third - and an underground laboratory the third. With each environment usually made up of tight corridors and cramped rooms; most of these areas would need to be navigated multiple times before you could move on and in some instances you'd have to come back to the first or second area again after reaching the second or third in order to progress, sometimes with harder enemies now in place. RE4 meanwhile consisted of a series of scenes leading on from one another, usually with limited back-tracking, giving you the sense that you were always progressing.
I'd use FEAR as a good example of how most modern games integrate horror today. RE4 is a good example of how series' have shifted dynamics but FEAR is an excellent example of how a game combines the desire to scare you with solid action mechanics in this case First-Person Shooter mechanics. Basically what FEAR does to combine the two is in fact to split them in half during the course of the game with sequences of high-action and shootouts with very real and heavily armed clone soldiers interconnected with narrative-driven dream sequences and nightmares, aswell as audio logs and frequent 'Alma' sightings. Fear does it very well, and indeed it can be quite a terrifying game at times with some truly scary moments.
I also want to touch on Bioshock, mainly because as the spiritual successor to System Shock 2 I think it shows the delineation of changing thought between the generations in terms of what makes for good gameplay mechanics. Like with System Shock 2 Bioshock pays a lot of attention to painting an incredibly deep and rich in-game world, one you could almost reach out and touch. The lives of the people you come across leave you with a feeling of unease and give you a strong sense of the horror that's befallen the residents of Rapture.
However it also includes a lot of the 'corner-cutting' aspects of modern-gaming, that is the aspects that have been introduced by developers over the years to make games easier and less confusing for new players. Usually in games this takes the form of hints or tips or markers, it could also be the simplification of actions for example shortened reloading times for guns or easier aiming. For Bioshock this takes the form of hints, a navigation system but also simpler gameplay mechanics gone is the system of character creation from System Shock 2 which allowed the player to take particular routes and in it's place is a system where the player can intuitively solve any puzzle, hack anything they like and shoot any weapon without the need to be trained in it's use.
So in a sense what Bioshock does is to smooth over the difficulties of the original System Shock 2's mechanics, to make the game more easily playable. This has two effects: first, as already mentioned it makes the game easier, it makes it simpler so it's more intuitive and less daunting for new players, but secondly it also makes the game less of a challenge. Part of what made System Shock 2 such a good horror game was the difficulty, and (as already mentioned) the weakness of your character, like with Resident Evil if in System Shock 2 you'd started with all the best weapons and all the best skills you probably wouldn't be half as scared as you are when you play it. Good horror games rely on difficulty, weakness, but also the possibility of imminent death. For a game to be relatively fun though, it has to be relatively easy to get into and simple, and here's the problem: the contrasting needs of the two.
Games have to sell well to make money (so developers have money to invest in future games) so they have to be playable and fun, but part of what horror relies on is the more subtle aspects of game design, it's the sights and sounds, and the absence of both that create the necessary atmosphere. It's also about difficulty, it's not so much that horror games must have crappy gameplay mechanics in order to be horror games but more that in order for a horror game to be good the player's sense of weakness must be real, they must feel as though they're actually in some sort of danger.
So what does provoke a sense of danger, what gets us afraid? What makes a truly scary game?
First and foremost, atmosphere like the plot of any good horror novel or horror film, part of the reason why we're scared is because we doubt our safety, we start to wonder whether we'll survive. Imagine you walk into two different rooms that are similar in design one brightly lit with nice, blank, white walls, fully upholstered with a good view of the city... your mostly likely impression would be one of ease, it'd just be a room; but imagine a similar room but where the walls are covered in mould, the lights blown and glass spread across the exposed floorboards, the furniture rotted and eaten away by mites, imagine coming across this in the middle of the night, how would you feel? Probably uneasy, uncomfortable, you most definitely wouldn't want to set up home there. And that's atmosphere, even though the rooms may be similar in design practically the way it appears to you is unsettling, because it lacks the things that make us feel comfortable. It's dirty, it's filthy and it's full of decay.
Making a good horror game (or a good horror anything) is about the right ratio of unease to comfort, afterall you need some sort of contrast in order for the player to know what it is he's missing out on when he has to step out into the darkness to carry on. If you've been told there's a serial killer on the run in your area, and then hear footsteps behind you on your way home from work late one night your first instinct isn't going to be 'no worries, it's probably just a random nice person', you're going to presume the worst and start looking over your shoulder a lot because it's better to be safe than sorry. Making good horror is about knowing how to exploit this fear.
This brings me onto my next point/sub-point: Darkness/night, you don't necessarily need either for a game to be horrifying but having them in there does help. On a basic-level as human beings we're pre-programmed to be bloody scared of darkness which is why a street can seem completely normal during the day then unsettling at night. Just like with atmosphere it's about unease, when it's dark out it's hard to know what's coming so we're more afraid. Good horror games use this to their advantage infact you may not even need the player to face an adversary, aslong as he or she thinks they're in danger.
Good horror is also almost always about how the player perceives their character aswell as atmosphere. If you want to scare somebody you don't want them to feel they're powerful, they need to feel weak. You want them to feel weak and alone and as if they're against the odds all the time. So this means limited access to weaponry, and a sense that whatever is out there is going to be more powerful than whatever they've got with them just found a brand new shotgun in that cabinet? Well there's a giant man-eating snake outside the door with five heads; Finally found all your team mates from the introduction cutscene alive and well? Well they're all going to die in the next five minutes; Fought your way through zombie-infested sewers with no health to reach safety and heal up? Well guess what, the next set of sewers is full of zombie-tigers who haven't eaten for days.
It also means low health and quite easy deaths, and encouraging the player to avoid confrontation as much as possible. In terms of gameplay though this can be a point of frustration and difficulty as in the case of Forbidden Siren, if the player feels too weak or dies too easily then they're going to feel that the game is frustrating. Forbidden Siren took the survivalist elements of games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Project Zero to their logical extreme and had you play as a range of ordinary people (most of whom who would die after only one or two blows and usually didn't have weapons) who had to sneak or fight past intelligent zombie adversaries who even if 'killed' would come back to life in a few minutes. Essentially it did an excellent job of capturing just how difficult fighting through a zombie-infested village would be in real-life but it at the same time highlighted the problem with 'true' horror games that rely on difficulty and challenge to create fear.
'Good games' however rely on the realisation that at the end of the day there is no real danger, we call what children do 'play' because we know there is no physical risk or gamble for them - for example playing with a toy gun and pretending to be a soldier as opposed to giving them a real gun and sending them to war, because we know the play will involve none of the real hardship. Likewise the games we play as adults we play not because they mirror the difficulties or hardship of real-life with extreme accuracy but because they allow some imaginative exploration of the subject matter without the risk, danger or difficulty of the task involved, and they do it in an enjoyable manner.
Part of what games like Resident Evil 4 do, as most big-budget action titles do, is to capture the sense of what it is we want on the whole from games we want fun, we want entertainment. Granted some of us like real horror and at times would prefer that over action, but for the most part what we want is the drama, is the action, is the excitement it's exactly the thing Hollywood has been doing for the last 20 odd years that sells so many tickets at the box-office. It's action AND the horror AND the romance AND excitement, all at once. But like with any mix you can't have too much of one without it changing the mixture completely, hence we get a lot of horror-ish games, instead of truly terrifying games.
It's unlikely we'll ever seen huge studios take on the task of making full-on horror games again, atleast not with the development teams the size of say those responsible for making Fallout 3 or Fear or Half-life 2; but even if we don't see those sorts of truly terrifying games coming out of the big studios anymore is there any hope for the future?
Well games like Amnesia: Dark Descent
and Project Zomboid
do give me hope for the future the games industry certainly isn't all explosions and boobies but big developers' appetites for making full-on horror games have reduced probably because they feel that a more horror-driven title with a fairly weak protagonist where say you're sat in cupboards most of the time hiding, won't sell the millions they need to ship to recoup their costs.
Here's hoping they're wrong.