Elements of horror are, and have always been, pretty commonplace in the world of video gaming, but the evolution of fear as a working concept is something that’s pretty unique. While other genres have seen exponential improvement as better technology is churned out, horror’s progress in regard to creating scary experiences has been more like a bell curve. Why, I hear you ask? Well, I’ll tell you for why. Despite the hearing you ask part being utterly fictitious. I’ll be explaining what was scary, where it went, and how to get it back. Except not in that clear and enjoyable order, so you’ll just have to dig those topics out of this vernacular cemetery, like that woman buried alive in Hitchcock’s Final Escape, but in reverse. Basically, get ready to claw through mud.
Back in the era of text-based adventures, re-animated skeletons were stock scary enemies that you may have faced soon after typing pretty much anything, including, but not exhaustively, “please no more skeletons”. Throughout the NES, era the Castlevania games would regularly pit you against count Dracula. That is, providing you had persevered past a number of untrustworthy gem salesmen and woods with a lot of inexplicably square holes in the ground. While the adversaries in games like Altered Beast were certainly from the horror kiln, in terms of creating a scary experience for the player, games were off to an at best shambling start. However, despite the numerous enemies that were clearly horrific in nature, games such as these did not have a horror experience at their core, and utilized monsters and aberrations to further gameplay that focussed on fighting rather than fear. To a large degree, this sensible absence of any real attempt at a frightening horror experience could be attributed to the technological constraints of a 16bit, two-dimensional era. The dimensional space prevented a realistic experience by virtue of the choice between forwards and backwards only. The sound capabilities of the chips before the 32bit generation couldn’t create atmospheric and moody sound. It’s just not possible to scare someone with square waves and bleeps, unless you’re dropping a blaring commodore 128 from a roof. Sticking skeletons and werewolves into a platformer was an understandably clear delineation of whom you need to approach from the left and hit in the face before proceeding right.
Many of the mechanics that would influence great survival horrors were introduced in the Lovecraft-inspired Alone in the Dark. Clunky controls, silly music, and a resemblance to a cartoonier Resident Evil 1 all are to its credit. Still, scary it aint. Enemies will farcically emerge from almost stage-like places such as a window or square trap door, and watching Emily Hartwood kicking a zombie in a skirt and high heels while triggering a repeating ‘oh!’ sample is at best comical. The fusion of primitive “scary” music and cool jazz is definitely unsettling, but not in a frightening way.
The pc had a shot at scares in other genres, too. The 7th Guest’s camp blend of filmed sequences and puzzle-based investigating led it to sell extremely well and help launch CD-ROM drives commercially. Sanitarium was a point and click adventure that was pretty revered when it came out in 1998. It certainly was interesting, but despite claims by reviewers that the game was unsettling in content and plot, it looked like Diablo 2, and nuns with skipping ropes are more trite than they are genuinely disturbing. At least I hope they are, otherwise I’ll need a new Sunday best. A lot of the game goes on inside protagonists mind, which does create a good atmosphere, but there wasn’t a point playing it where I felt scared. No, it was on the new generation of consoles where Alone in the Dark’s primitive formula would be expanded and perfected into frightening and gripping games.
Go and get your old grey Playstation and play Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Dino Crisis or such like. Play it to a suitably late stage. Now go and play Resident Evil 4 or 5 and see how different the atmosphere feels. Alternatively, don’t do any of that and I’ll tell you precisely what to think: The former generation’s games were inherently more terrifying. But why is this? Why should the advancement of technology be to the detriment of what is a real and recognised psychological draw to video game consumers: being frightened? Well, I’ve decided that instead of doing any respectable research on the matter, I’ll just guess. Oh come on, it’s ok to have an opinion.
For a start, the lack of detailed textures and absence of layers would create a disconcerting image when contrasted with the crisp models of today, which lay everything on the table. Texturally, this lack of detail created an extra layer of fear. Your mind fills in the gaps in a way that’s scarier than what could actually be displayed. Every time I revisit a horror game from this golden era, I realise how much of the graphics processing was being done in my head and how little was being done by the machine. The multi platform Shadowman, which played like a clunky Ocarina of Time set in hell and Louisiana, is a good example of this. After several empty corridors in an oversized, brown and bloody play pen listening variously to babies crying and power drills whirring, coming up against the apron wearing and meathook wielding enemies was a decent payoff to the suspense, aided quite largely by the fact that the muddied textures still left you unclear as to what they actually looked like, as if you were squinting at a distant stranger, trying to work out if they were a school friend or someone you’d seen on university challenge. But a university challenge contestant with meathooks for hands and green skin. Probably unlikely, as the former polys don’t get very far.
The idea of stretching out a looming threat is something that has been cast aside in recent horror games, in favour of the Resident Evil 5 brand of muscled destruction and the techno-welding of Dead Space 2. This is a surprising move, as spending an hour running about in an empty police station and encountering nothing most of the time kept a huge amount of unsettling tension up in Resident Evil 2 while gently discordant music would flow in and out, and your own loud footsteps would be the predominant feedback. Making you scared of nothing is essentially survival horror’s greatest feat. Setting up a situation where any immediate threat is a perceived but unknown quantity is a vital cornerstone of tension and fear in games, and the longer it goes on, the better. It’s also a situation that’s less and less common. The non-stop onslaught of enemies to be easily dispatched is sadly an inevitable side effect of the modern consumers demand for more satisfying and visceral combat experiences. While this is great for Gears of War, it’s been bad news for horror. Skinny, semi-helpless protagonists such as James Sunderland or Leon S Kennedy used to find themselves trying to run past two stoic zombies in a corridor as the player would steel their nerves hoping not to be caught by the undead. Now, it seems the player would just empty a machine gun into a corridor repeatedly filling with a speedy horde. At one point in Resident Evil 5, you actually come face to face with a Harley Davidson forecourt’s-worth of motorbikes with zombies riding them at you. Really? REALLY? Duly, they’re all destroyed in the space of about five minutes, and therein lies the problem. All the cards are on the table for you to see, they’re not very frightening, and there are too many cards. The resultant experience is like a decaying Call of Duty. And Call of Duty famously has a zombie mode now, so what’s left? Truly, the charm of the series’ past, and the charm of many others (those mentioned and beyond), was actually managing to create fear.
The sense of isolation is another loss to modern games. It’s a fact that everything is scarier when you’re on your own. There might not be evidence I can be bothered to find, but it just is. The old school of brief encounters with non player characters and half encounters with adversaries or fleeting phantasms seems to be replaced largely with endless wittering NPC assistants, as most games seem to equip the main character with some kind of tactical communication device. Red Faction: Armageddon was a departure from the open world nature of its predecessor, and the developer cited, in part, the desire to create a frightening experience for the linear design choice. This was undermined by the endless amount of enemies frenetically jumping at you all the time and an AI bleating constant advice down a headset to the character, who would in turn make a stupid quip. Just leaving one long area empty at the beginning of the game before an endless frenetic onslaught isn’t a way to give your game genuine suspense or your gamers genuine fear. It might as well be a loading screen.
Horror finds itself in an odd situation in gaming. Creepiness is still something that’s aimed for and regularly hit, such as the lauded and semi-recent Limbo, but fear in horror gaming has reverted from being driver to passenger as the mechanics of a scary experience have fallen out of grace with developers. It doesn’t make sense to have a character move like that, to have cameras stuck like that pointing at a pre rendered backdrop from an absurd angle, or to have actual violent encounters as a rarity when there’s such great combat controls. Sadly, the inevitable march of progress has left the ability to create fear by the roadside. If game designers want that back, they need to be willing to bite the bullet and not make the main character a destructive whirlwind, but rather a fumbling and barely capable survivor. The combat mechanics must emphasise the difficulty the character has in the situation and instil a reluctance to actually confront the threats, not emphasise how happy he is that a chance to show off the result of all those protein drinks has finally reared its infected head. A head easily punched off. In a way, the horror elements in mainstream games have regressed to their position during the pre-32-bit era, where the horrific enemies filled a functional role as numerous punching bags rather than a veiled and threatening source of suspense. So who knows? Maybe fear is due to hit the upward curve again, though with the current attitude of technology and the industry in regard to horror, the prospect of any genuinely frightening experience in the future is grave. Sorry, I couldn’t help that one.
- Alex Hayes