I am a horror junkie, always have been and always will be. The pure adrenaline rush of anticipation and dread eventually culminating in a barrage of frights is enough to get me to buy tickets to even the worst horror movies (Stepfather anyone?). Recently my wife and I viewed the movie Mama which had a solid first two acts but ended so poorly that we were in hysterics while leaving the theater. We were both laughing so hard in the parking lot we actually ended up painfully hyperventilating the whole way home. Now, I have never directed a horror movie but I am pretty sure this was not the intended reaction that Andres Muschietti was hoping his audience would have. I really wanted to love Mama but I could not shake the feeling that something with it was very, very wrong.
What was wrong had nothing to do with the quality of the film, but everything to do with how the horror was presented to us. The antagonist of Mama- a spirit of a woman seeking her dead child- is supposed to scare us because she can go anywhere she wants and will kill for no reason. The problem with how she is represented is that in the final act of the movie she is onscreen for way too long, letting the viewer see just how poorly she was animated. When you can see what scares you for a long period of time it will eventually stop scaring you, or even become comical. Watching Mama’s hair crawl over the ground as she floated below it was supposed to horrify, but instead came across as incredibly funny.
Mama also had… face issues. I will not say what kind because I do not want to seem insensitive… just watch it. You will understand.
Modern horror gaming is a dying art, and the reason for this death is the complete lack of subtlety. Instead of creaks in the dark and enemies we barely ever see we are presented with huge explosive set pieces, weapon customization and a dependency on co-op (more on that later). Once classic series like Resident Evil, Dead Space and even Silent Hill have all fallen short of our horror expectations, and their receptions are getting colder and colder with audiences. Resident Evil is a shell of what it used to be, Dead Space is adding micro-transactions to its weapon inventory and Silent Hill is a joke. You know what though?
I could not be happier.
My wife and I discussed beer the other night and she made a very good point: mass-produced beer is a good thing. Without the poorly produced, overly advertised and soulless macro beer companies putting out horrible swill we would not be able to appreciate craft beer like we do today. The same idea applies to video games. If it were not for F.E.A.R. 2 having a robot walker segment and a rape scene (not kidding) I would probably not like Amnesia’s subtly as much as I do. If Silent Hill was not a festering shell of a series I used to love I probably would not find myself loving Slender and pushing all of my friends to play it. The downfall of big-name horror has made it easier for indie horror to be recognized and helps us realize how much better true horror really is.
In my Amnesia review (dear god my writing was terrible back then) I mentioned how the lack of weaponry made the game so much more tense. Having your only means of defense be a broom closet or carefully stacked chairs gave the game not only a sense of fear, but true dread. You had no way to fight back, all you could do was hide and pray you were not found. I recently played the demo for Dead Space 3 and I was able to construct a weapon that was half flamethrower and half machine gun. Yea… subtly is no longer something Dead Space can claim to produce. Dread has been replaced with heavy ordnance and collectibles. And a second player.
I mentioned earlier that co-op is becoming a big feature in horror games, and honestly when researching this article I did not even realize how much the modern horror genre uses co-op as a selling point. F.E.A.R., Resident Evil, Dead Space, Lost Planet, hell even Silent Hill all now have co-op, either as the focus of the game or a separate mode. Fans of Resident Evil did their best to embrace the cooperative experience in the 5th iteration of the series, but if the reviews of RE6 are anything to believe (Metacritic average score: 67/100) the series has suffered greatly because of it. Dead Space 3 and F.E.A.R. 3 are all about the co-op, and the recently released Silent Hill: Book of Memories is a top-down co-op shooter. Sure it is great to extend the life of the game with additional multiplayer modes, but the horror of these titles go right out the window when you play with another person.
This is what makes indie horror games so great though: they are single-player focused and are meant to be experienced alone, in a dark room and with headphones set to “high”. The absolute dread experienced in Lone Survivor or Slender is meant for a singular person and with this single player focus the horror truly shines. Horror is at its most effective when it comes from within, something that simply is too difficult to recreate with more than one player. What is scary to you might not be scary to someone else.
Modern horror may be dead in the water, but I do not feel the industry or the genre has suffered because of it. Sure we may never have a Silent Hill game as good as the second one (but honestly how can one re-create perfection?) and Resident Evil will never have the “dogs jumping through the window” moments again, but do we honestly need those things? If we are to move gaming forward as an art medium we can not rely on sequels to do the job. All sequels promise is more of the same with a few added twists. The loss of horror in mainstream games is not a loss at all. Indie developers who are tired of the sub-par scares brought on by once scary series can not fill the gap with true horror experiences. The indie horror scene is not only the best place to find a good scare, but to find innovation as well.
So, in the end, thank you indie developers. Thank you for making games like Amnesia, The Path,Slender and Lone Survivor. Thank you for making truly unique and innovative experiences that tickle our need to be scared. Please continue filling the gap left behind by the bigger companies. Their missteps are your opportunities, and our favorite form of art is better because of it.
Oh, and companies like Capcom, EA and Activision? Keep making your watered-down interpretation of horror. Keep giving us unnecessary multiplayer and six-hour campaigns. Continue on your quest to make your “scary” games as mass-market appealing as possible. You are the gateway drug to amazing experiences, and you are in no way bad because of it.
Author: Ryan Burke
Follow on Twitter: @bbyouasking