Not scary anymore
I like to be scared. I’m not some kind of dark-obsessed weirdo, though. I just really enjoy the feeling of being tense or terrified, so much so that I used to think that there was something wrong with me. Maybe there is.
A few years back, after a nearly year-long kick of reading freaky books, watching horror movies, and replaying some of my favorite survival horror videogames, I decided to do some digging into why I like to be scared. It turns out that the typical reasons are fairly tame; some folks like the huge pile of satisfaction feels they get from being able to work through tense or scary moments. It’s a break. An escape. Something new and different.
Being armed with the knowledge behind these feelings out doesn’t change that I’m still drawn to them. And I’ve found that survival horror games are still the best way to get that high. I regularly replay the classics. I chomp at the bit for new ones and devour them when they’re finally released. I’m hooked.
But I’m starting to feel a bit old-fashioned in my love of these games.
Survival horror games aren’t that old. I did enjoy several of the early graphical adventures that had scary themes. Clicking around haunted houses wasn’t nearly as interactive as, say, Resident Evil, but the chance for creepiness was still there and that was worthy of a play for this thrill seeker. Alone in the Dark still holds up, I’d say.
Back in the PlayStation/Saturn era, the genre was still shaping up. Resident Evil got us rolling, Silent Hill started a sick craving, and games like Clock Tower and D served as a sort of bridge between games that gave us the creeps and ones that would actually make us jump out of our seats. The scares were there, but some of the stronger hooks that were soon to draw so many fans in were still budding.
When we really got going, back in the early 2000s, you could find legitimate scares in games. I look back at those times fondly. Between the prior console generation’s titles I missed and the new ones coming out, I had a steady IV drip of freaky experiences to work through. I played them all, too. The big ones like Clock Tower and Resident Evil weren’t any more important to me than the less popular ones, like Dreamcast games Carrier and the not-so-hot Blue Stinger. Remember Haunting Ground? Rule of Rose? Both the Fatal Frame and Silent Hill franchises had my heart. And, oh man, Siren.
Recent talk about how survival horror is dying and giving way to scary action games scares me. Yes, tastes change, gamers change, and sales results speak. But I’d love to believe that there’s a number of fans out there that still crave checking fifty doors to eventually find that one that has gruel-covered, multi-limbed baddies behind it. I’d love to believe that there is a group of fans that think that we need to get back to basics. That being helplessly lost in the fog is a million times better than shooting aliens with an overgrown nail gun.
I blame Resident Evil 4. But before you come after me with your “muerte” chants and sharp implements, know that I love this game as much as you do. I don’t need to tell you how well it balanced the scares and combat equally, or how it launched a thousand memes. Hell of a game. But the problem was that it sold so well that Capcom began chasing sales numbers over scares. And then, like a flashlight flipped on in the dark, all the other game-making ghouls came out for a juicy hunk of their own. The genre hasn’t been the same since. I’m not out to write the same piece Jim Sterling shared some years back as he did a fine job then. But has the situation continued to decline since then?
Fatal Frame—the first game—hasn’t aged well, I’ve just found. Neither have its early sequels, actually. Not on a technical level. Not to this games professional that has spent most of the last year with his face in shiny, polished, high-definition games. But nostalgia goes a long way, as do dark, gritty textures. The low-res murk of the earlier survival games are my puffy Nintendo clouds and dancing trees. Good feels. Great memories.
So I’ve been screaming at night this past week during my replaying of these games, waiting for The Evil Within to come out. I’m usually playing late at night when everything is quiet and dark. It doesn’t matter that these games are old and haven’t aged well or that I’ve played them many times before. I’m still quietly giggling at myself when I get wrapped up in exploring the too-dark hallways or when the echo-y sound effects catch me off guard. I’ve wondered on several occasions this past week if I’m going to enjoy The Evil Within as much as I’m enjoying replaying these old PS2 games.
You can blame the market, or lazy developers, or disconnected management, but we’ve also changed. It feels like gamers are less open to being freaked out these days. I guess it’s hard to ask players to come off their super powers, air strikes, and unlimited ammo and start playing something where your only defense is a camera. Or running away. I felt like the only person who liked Silent Hill: Shattered Memories back in 2009. While I was singing its praises, others were downplaying it for having no combat, or worse, for being on the Wii. Who cares?! I have fond memories of sweating, running (virtually) scared for my life. For me, that makes for an outstanding survival horror.
I feel like a few bad eggs have people writing off modern-day horror games. Not-scary games, or scary-for-the-wrong-reasons re-releases. Resident Evil 5 was one of the biggest disappointments of the genre for me. Fun game? I guess. But not even close to scary. Nothing’s scary about a co-op buddyfest. And that probably bummed out a lot of fellow survival horror fans off expecting another Resident Evil 4. But this doesn’t make Silent Hill: Homecoming a bad game, does it? Amnesia: The Dark Descent is still brilliant, right?
It’s a mindset thing, too. That inverted movement system from the older top-down games would be called broken or at least cumbersome by today’s gamer. For me, the challenging movement added to the tension. And it’s the same for the slushy and slow combat systems of some of the PS2 survival horror games. Some may have hated it. I thought that it made perfect sense that these grotesque horrors from the underworld would be that difficult to take down. That low-res grit? That’s an asset, not a tech problem!
I sometimes worry that our reviews and feedback from those old games we loved served as nails in the classic survival horror games coffin.
Aside from the change in focus or mechanics, maybe it’s just that current-day horror games are less scary. There are lots of reasons why, too. Remember how every room in Fatal Frame 2 had its own camera angle? What you couldn’t see made you just as nervous as any monster would. It just felt lovingly crafted. Regardless of how you felt about Silent Hill 4: The Room, you had to at least give it that they went above and beyond in making it feel really fucked up. Even now, this many years later, that game had some of the most disturbing imagery I’ve seen in a game.
There was a nice bunch of independent horror games that hit recently that give this old-fashioned gamer hope. Outlast and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs filled voids that those action-y games didn’t. Even Slender did something for me.
This year hasn’t been the worst. If Alien: Isolation doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to piss yourself, I don’t know what will. The jury is mixed on brand new Mikami release The Evil Within (review coming soon!), but it’s something, right?
But I’m holding out for something a lot like the survival horror classics. The next Silent Hill 2, if you will. Something with the spirit of Fatal Frame 2. Something that’s not scared to go weaponless/powerless. Maybe we can revisit Japanese horror a bit more. How about way less action and way more fucked-up storylines about horrible orphanages. Try an openness to there being gamers out there who loved walking down a seemingly endless staircase for five minutes. Have some faith, game makers. Ditch the guns and the HUDs. Get with the wiggly mannequins.
Don’t let me down, P.T. I got more out of that “interactive trailer” than I have with any other full horror game as of late.
Until then, I’ll go on with the late night replays of all of my favorites, continuing to milk them for all their scares until another good fix comes along. It’s less about being stuck in the past and more about just needing more of what I love so much.
Scare me, someone. Please.