I recently completed Alan Wake. I enjoyed my time tramping through the dark forests with a rather temperamental flash light and an assortment of conveniently placed weapons. However, it wasn't far into the game before I realised one very notable detail. Namely, that it isn't scary. Alan Wake is of course a 'thriller', but still, I was expecting to soil my couch at least a little.
Which leads me rather conveniently (imagine that?) to the subject of horror.
Now my knowledge of what is decent in horror films is based largely on what my more informed friends tell me (the French, apparently do the best), but there seems to be a huge distinction between the aims of a horror film and a horror game. Initially this would be obvious, as the interactivity of a games makes certain features more frightening and many techniques employed in films less effective.
A game like Dead Space for example, utilises the shock value of sudden attacks and generally the 'boo' factor. Though this can become repetitive at times, in the case of Dead Space some attempt is made to be as unconventional as possible. This works well in both film and games, as we all find ourselves anxiously expecting something to happen, and the longer this is drawn out the more effective the overall experience.
Alan Wake makes an admirable attempt at being unconventional, and succeeds in some cases, but the developers have made some odd choices that severely effect the 'horror' element of the game. The most notable is the time proceeding the appearance of enemies. Though many of us get what they were trying to do, having the wind pick up and the surrounding area get gradually more 'shadowy' does impact on the overall feeling of apprehension and fear that they clearly hope us to develop. If anything I found myself quickly getting tired of the tedium associated with the predictable appearance of enemies.
I think a large problem that faces films, but more notably games in regards to horror is that when the big scary evil is revealed as something tangible, it quickly loses much of the unknown qualities that originally frightened the audience. Films can get by not revealing the bad guy or monster and simply relying on our own imaginations to terrify us, however the interactivity of games requires a more complex approach. A horror game without enemies would quickly become dull, however the appearance of these enemies can gradually impact upon the general mystique that caused us to fear them in the first place.
It's even worse for jaded types like myself, and thanks largely to games like Condemned and Dead Space it takes more than a quiet corridor and an absence of light to creep me out.
Many of the scariest games I've played have in fact been non-horror titles with a 'horror level' thrown in. Not being a full horror game, and thus not needing the experience to last hours, these levels occasionally take a stab at the genre from a fresh angle.
In my case, the game that springs to mind is Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Though centred around vampires, the game is by no means a horror title, being more of a dark third/first-person RPG. A good six years old now, it was riddled with glitches and took me an incredibly long time to complete, mainly due to game-breaking bugs that made me rage-quit in frustration. However, it features for me one of the most unsettling levels I've ever played, that still makes me shiver regardless of how many times I run through it.
Spoiler alert, if you're intending to ever play the game.
The level in question is called the Ocean House, an Overlook Hotel (The Shining) inspired building that makes no attempt to distance itself from its inspiration. You are told beforehand that the hotel is haunted by a spirit, and your goal is to find an object belonging to the spirit so the quest-giver can exorcise the ghost.
No really. The hotel has been abandoned for years, so is in a suitably creepy degree of dilapidation, the lights don't work and the ambiance is full or creeks & groans. Now let me make two points very clear: you're an superhuman vampire (this is pre-the twilight era) and ultimately, nothing actually attacks you during the entire level.
To my knowledge.
And that's what makes this level so unsettling, the ghost is clearly there, you see glimpses of it from a distance and flashes of it suddenly when you round corners, but it never actually engages you. Bulbs pop, lampshades get tossed around and an elevator nearly crushes you. But no monsters, at least not ones you can fight.
You're helpless, and what's worse (or rather better) is that you never know how the ghost is going to try and stop you next.
What I love about this level even more is the little details that make it more unsettling each time. I've played it through several times and there are still surprises that genuinely make me jump. I once randomly walked up to window, turned around and had a sudden apparition with an axe run at me, then suddenly disappear. The fact that you're a vampire, and in essence you yourself should be the scary element, is forgotten.
I genuinely recommend playing it if you get the chance, as it will scare you, mainly because it's so unconventional.
I think what I'm attempting to convey here, is that it would be nice to see some more unexpected avenues for horror games to pursue. I respect the developers of Alan Wake for at least trying something new, even if it fell short of its goals. So far the only horror games I enjoy tend to go for the monster shock value, like Dead Space, and less for the unsettling vibe present in that Bloodlines level. It would be nice to see more of the latter.