First things first, I'd like to express my sincere appreciation for everybody who read and/or commented on my last post. I enjoy monologuing as much as the next pseudononymous internet commenter, but there is a singular satisfaction in having that monologue be read, understood and caused to bear fruit in the form of some interesting comments, so thank you muchly for that.
Well enough of that, and time to STFU and Just Blog Video Games.
Horror games have certainly been enjoying some time in the sun of late, even if their erstwhile stewards at the likes of Capcom and Konami remain reluctant to let them see the light of day. The low to mid-budget scene has picked up the slack and then some, plugging the gap in the market with a healthy influx of genre works. From more classically-styled adventure games like Amnesia to minimalist jumpscare delivery systems like Youtube darling Five Nights at Freddy’s, there are more well-crafted (whatever one may think of something like a FNAF game, its efficacy is plainly attestable) horror experiences available to gamers than ever before. And, of course, just as many poorly-crafted ones to go with them. Since it's December, which as everyone knows is the most suitable month for horror-themed talk, I decided I wanted to write something on the topic.
Horror games present us with a dizzying number of potentially interesting thinking points- much could be, and indeed has been, said about the challenges of harmonising gameplay systems with the unique needs of the genre, or about the interplay between unconditioned and conditioned stimuli to induce fear responses in the player. We could discuss the fact that horror is the only genre that commonly attempts to engender negative emotions in the player, or comment on its increasing convergence with the traditional stealth game. My original idea for this blog was inspired by an acquaintance of mine who was unable to get through the tutorial area of Skyrim because her arachnophobia made it impossible to get past the Frostbite Spiders- I was going to talk about how the only games that I have known to actually scare people enough that they can't finish them are decidedly non-horrific for almost everyone else. All these and more would doubtless be fine topics for a post.
What I’d like to talk about today, however, is what I consider to be the unsung hero underpinning the current appeal of horror games, namely their exceptionally broad thematic and narrative scope in comparison to the rest of the industry. The interactivity of videogames presents creators with a tremendous opportunity to engage their audience in a narrative. This is, in theory, a great advantage of the medium. That same interactivity also enables creators to bypass narrative entirely. This is also a great advantage of the medium. The problem is that most developers hedge their bets- rather than completely ignore the narrative aspects of their work, they ignore them only partially, attaching boiler-plate characters and storylines that do little to contribute to the experience, and, more importantly for this discussion, are all drawn from the same rather limited pool of ideas. I'm sure anybody reading this has played enough games that they've been led down the same, increasingly familiar paths by supposedly story-driven products countless times.
We have a situation in which mechanically engaging but thematically impoverished games far outnumber the reverse in almost every part of the medium. The most notable exception, as I'm sure you’ll have guessed, is in horror. Horror games, especially those of the current school, tend to be mechanically rather simple. Five Nights is basically a plate-spinning simulator if you look past its trappings. Even more conventional ‘survival horror’-styled games tend to keep their moving parts to a minimum. Whereas combat and development systems are the focal points of so many other games, they are perfunctory or non-existent across much of the horror genre. This is accommodated by the fact that horror games are willing to approach the player with themes and narrative methods that simply aren't seen elsewhere. Enough people are receptive to that kind of fresh air to put some serious momentum behind the horror genre. The fact that you can get drunk with your friends and scream at things probably also helps.
With all that in mind, I’d like to celebrate some of the underused approaches to narrative in games that have found a home in our current crop of horror titles. It should be noted that all of these things are growing in prevalence in the industry at large, to some extent, especially in the indie scene. They are not features specific to the horror genre- rather, they are features whose diffusion is being vanguarded by it.
1: Cryptic and Unconventional Storytelling
It’s a known feature of visual media that the best stories often involve a healthy dose of showing rather than telling. It’s also a known feature of the horror genre that sometimes the best approach is to neither show nor tell. I could sit here and hammer out some of the countless clichés about how what we don’t see is scarier than what we do, but I'm sure you’re all familiar with the concept. Horror games are willing to keep their players in the dark when others insist on spoon-feeding every narrative beat, and this element of mystery is tremendously appealing, even to those who have no interest in playing the games themselves. Horror games are willing to place the facts en scene and leave the player to it, or to give them only riddles and doodles with which to figure the story out. In too many games, the storyline is just something that happens to the player, a strictly passive experience. Franchises like FNAF and Silent Hill have shown the power of inviting the community to engage in active, intellectual pursuit of the narrative. Videos that extrapolate from FNAF’s extremely minimal narrative cues attract millions of views. It is clearly a myth that all good narrative design involves clarity and resolution- presenting the audience with an unsolvable mystery can be just as engaging as walking them through the process of one being solved.
2: "Taboo" Subject Matter
Quite aside from the manner of their presentation, the storylines in horror games are also refreshing in their subject matter. Whilst much of the games industry shies away from any serious thematic representation of things that are feared to be too volatile or unsavoury for the medium, horror titles seem to be far less tied down. This is the genre that is willing to have topics of mental illness, ethics, sexuality, suffering, human nature and many more be presented as core parts of the experience rather than as inconvenient truths to be swept under the rug. Regardless of one’s opinion on, say, Silent Hill: Downpour, or indeed Homecoming, they are games that go headlong into some very dark and troubled waters without an ounce of apology- and quite rightly so. The same can be said of any of the breakout horror franchises of the modern era, and very few of its other landmarks.
The modern consumer is a savvy individual. For all their fear of spoilers, the veteran gamer is genuinely surprised by a narrative turn with remarkable infrequency. Even in story-heavy games, we know basically what to expect- the joy is in watching the details unfold and seeing the picture complete itself, rather than in being caught flat-footed or kept in anticipation of the next piece of the puzzle. This is not necessarily so for horror- the combination of the previous two points and the genre’s lack of adherence to the strictures of character arcs and happy endings allows it to create an unstable and unpredictable narrative environment for the player. Somebody playing through an Uncharted game knows that Nathan Drake is going to prevail over the antagonists, regardless of where they are in the narrative. I would wager that somebody playing through Outlast genuinely doesn’t know whether or not the player character is set to survive the experience, nor are they likely to have foreseen the loss of some of their digits. Moreover, the genre’s facility for mystery as described above means that the player is not guaranteed answers. Narrative elements may be resolved as expected, resolved in an unexpected way, resolved in some opaque and difficult to interpret way, or never resolved at all.
And that's that. If you have anything interesting to say about the state of narrative in gaming and its prospects going forward, or about the strengths and weaknesses of the horror genre, I'd be glad to hear it. Likewise, you could tell me that I am an ignorant fool, and that Life is Strange did taboo subject matter better and Bioshock: Inifinite's plot twist blew the playerbase's collective socks off. It's all good.
Thanks for reading, and have a suitably spooky day.