Tuesday, July 14, 2015

My Revised Stance on Horror Video Games

Let's talk about the horror genre of video games once more. I know. I can already hear the groans, fair readers. I've broached the subject before and haven't returned to it since I found the slew of games, at the time, lacking in any real "horror" aspect. In fact, I stated in 2013 that these games no longer exist. So few are produced that the genre no longer holds a candle to it's former flame. The few that have been labeled as horror are not scary, but a version of gross-out, FPS gaming. It's Saw meets Call of Duty with the Nazi Zombie DLC.

But something has happened over the past year that has altered the state of horror games in the industry. Even with the falling out of Silent Hills, there is an opportunity to be excited about the horror genre once more.

Let this be an open discussion about horror games. Let this by my revised stance on the horror genre.

I'll preface this topic by stating that horror is going to be the small fish in the big pond for most entertainment mediums. It's been like this for centuries, so don't expect it to change overnight. And with video games it's no different. Most of the horror games you'll find today are from smaller studios with direct to Steam/XBox Live/PSN downloads. Why? Because they are cheap to produce. It's not difficult to scare a person. Anything could be scary to someone: bugs, clowns, or maybe toilet paper. That's not to say that there isn't an art to the scare. There is a world of difference between Dawn of the Dead fear and Shawn of the Dead laughable fear. But in general, the horror genre doesn't require a lot of energy to produce. Fancy scripts, big name actors, expensive scenic locations? Nope. Get us a cabin in the woods and a lot of corn syrup and red food coloring, and we're good to go!

It's no different with video games where a pixilated creature doesn't have to be pretty. It takes more time to make realistic human face then to whip together a zombie (so I've been told by dozens of developer friends). And certain tactics from movies and television like the jump scare are very easy to replicate in games.

Which is why products like Resident Evil and Silent Hill stood out. Mainstream successes that didn't follow the horror cut and paste model. Sure they did a few things that were cliche, but as a whole they perfected the concept of what horror video games could be.

Unfortunately, we haven't seen many repeats of these hits since then. The horror genre for games has evolved into the likes of Left4Dead. Games that don't necessarily scare you, and they have some gross-out aspects, but they're more first person shooter style. Less about fear. More about gore. Like...Saw. Okay I really don't mean to bring everything back to that movie, but I blame it for a lot of the failings with scary movies right now.

To reiterate my initial post on L4D, the game is fun. Not scary to me. Maybe to someone else out there. But not me.

But there has been a noticeable shift over the past year in the way independent and triple-A developers are tackling horror games. And I look to Five Nights at Freddy's as such an example. It's one of the only video game based movies that I'm looking forward to. The premise is easy for anyone to grasp: you're a new nightwatchman for a kids entertainment place. Think of Chuck E Cheese. Apparently so weird things have been going on at the store during the nights, and previous guards have all quit or vanished. It's up to you to make it through the week and potentially find out what's going on. Or not. Your call. The game leaves it up to you to decide. The outcome of the game changes at each stage. You really could sit on your bum in the security office the whole time and nothing happens. Or you might get ganked in the first 5 minutes. The AI was developed to be unpredictable. It's just enough to make the user weary and enhance the fear through every step of the game.

Five Nights does focus a lot on the jump scare. You'll be lazily running through the security cameras, thinking all is well, and the second you close the screen, a pair of really creepy bear eyes will be staring you down.

What I think this game does well is provide us with an AI that is not intuitive. We can't decipher their moves. While we have a good idea of where the suited creatures more roam, we never really know. That is what makes Five Nights a challenge, and scary. You don't know what to expect. It's freaky.

Slenderman works in the same way. You can run and pick up all of the pages without ever seeing him, and be perfectly fine. Or you run into him at every turn and can never get away fast enough. Slenderman also has an interesting visual style that is very reminiscent of early horror movies, and the shaky camera from The Blair Witch Project, but it's not as obnoxious.

Aliens: Isolation is also proving to be a horror winner, though Sega claims it's sales were lackluster. 2.2 million is still great given it's production size, but we're in a world where everything coming out of a top tier studio is expected to appeal to broad interests for more money. But we're not talking about numbers. We're talking about scaring the crap out of gamers. Isolation does just that, really embracing the name to ensure gamers receive an experience that feels authentic and creepy. You feel the claustrophobia in rooms, in air vents, and through the character as you see her hands become clammy and leaving sweaty prints along walls. The game mechanics are unforgiving, giving the players that are weak of heart the run of their lives. It's unrelenting when the xenomorphs know where you are. I can't describe this game without getting chills up my spine. The fear placed in the game really comes back on the gamer. You have to conquer your own dread before you can successfully navigate Isolation.

And then you have The Walking Dead game episodes that provide a more human touch to a world littered with the undead. This is a new type of fear - not in your character surviving nor in the wave of zombies. But in the choices you make. Will doing X result in Y. Your actions hold more weight then anything else in the game, and that's frightening. To know that if you don't kill this character sitting in front of you, a family member, a loved one, your best friend, they're going to be infected and turn into a zombie. It's emotional fear, and horror games have never truly dove down that path before.

These games are gleaming hopes that horror may come back into style. I was disappointed that Silent Hills was cancelled. It had the makings to be everything we want horror games to be. But seeing what the independent studios are producing, we may have a new wave on our hands. Maybe horror games are no longer being tossed aside and forgotten. Games can be scary once again, and I'm looking forward to what the future has to offer.

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