The point about being chased really hit me as I just recently finished up the first Dead Space. I don't wanna spoil too much for anyone late to the party like I was, but the sequence about one third of the way through the game where my only option was to run, not stand and fight like I had been doing successfully up to that point, was absolutely terrifying. This combined with the atmosphere and how the story unfolded is what really made Dead Space stand out to me as a AAA horror experience.
Ever since I started thinking about video games more seriously, I have had to acknowledge the significant advantages media such as literature and film have over video games when it comes to such elements as storytelling, pacing and composition. The obligatory focus on gameplay in video games causes them to have a virtually unsurpassable disadvantage when it comes to the development of these secondary but still important aspects. However, this does not automatically condemn gaming to being an inferior form of entertainment. Due to the high level of interaction with the player, video games offer unique possibilities in terms of immersion and emotional involvement. The only catch is that video game developers do not always capitalise fully upon the potential.
Much like how horror films are seldom about the sensation of fear itself, horror games frequently focus on secondary elements such as gore and violence, relegating the nightmarish horror universe to a fancy backdrop rather than the centre of the experience. Even when the horror aspects do become the central focus, convenience dictates they take the form of short-lived jump scares rather than a more constant, suspenseful sense of dread. Many horror games give the impression the developers made the core game first and only then started creating the horror setting around it. This method leads to several fundamental errors finding their way into the design of even the most renowned horror titles of today.
Better bring a shopping list.
A major problem lies in the fact that many of the more traditional horror titles are, at their core, puzzle games. It is absolutely true that a well-designed puzzler can offer the same flow as the smoothest action titles, but lamentably, many developers lack the finesse to prevent the difficulty of their puzzles from hindering the overall pacing. Finding the right item or speaking to the right NPC in order to progress the game does not need to be complicated, but all too often, developers are too ambitious when they expect the player to come up with the far-fetched solution to the situation at hand. Swedish developer Frictional Games seemed to have realised this after it finished making the Penumbra series: its spiritual successor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, presented items and locations in a much more logical fashion, their purpose being more obvious off the bat and puzzles being less convoluted in general.
"Ironically, video game developers can learn from even the most cheesy, unscary horror flicks."
However, there is an even bigger obstacle on the way of horror games becoming truly scary. Ironically, video game developers can learn from even the most cheesy, unscary horror flicks in this department: things do not become scary until the protagonists (or victims, if you will) become vulnerable. You can put all the creepy noises and eerie locales you want in a game, but if you subsequently give the player the arsenal to overcome all these terrors, they will never feel truly threatened by the game world, reducing the moments of fear to jump scares. The latter have a very limited effect, because more intelligent players are likely to quickly familiarise themselves with the pattern enough to be able to roughly predict what is coming.
Time to soil some loins, perhaps?
Granting the player too much power resulted in a game such as F.E.A.R. being only mildly frightening during the first few levels, when the details of the story are still alien to the player. In more advanced stages of the game, though, the knowledge of the player about the context of his surroundings, as well as his rather excessive arsenal make it hard for the game world to feel as hostile and dangerous as it did in the first two hours of gameplay. By the time F.E.A.R. 2 came out, the mystery surrounding the story about the ghostlike girl Alma had been unveiled and the game barely managed to live up to its horror pretence any more.
"The feeling of being hunted creates a more genuine sensation of fear."
Fortunately, the indie scene has managed to revitalise the horror genre, to a point where outlook is bright for those who look for a new influx of truly terrifying video game experiences. The afore-mentioned PC hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent hit the sweet spot of terror when it stripped players of the possibility to fight the hideous monsters they encountered. The feeling of being hunted and not being able to do anything about it creates a more genuine sensation of fear, as players realise that the game world is essentially way more powerful than they are, and can strike them down at any given moment. The effectiveness of this method was further confirmed by the cult hit Slender. This primitive, home-made game proved that the simple concept of having the player be chased around a forest at night can make for an experience easily more terrifying than many AAA horror titles. The reaction videos will attest to that.
Granted, F.E.A.R. did have moments of absolute terror.
Still, the key to suspense is not only vulnerability, but also surprise. Slender in particular spawned tons of clones on Steam (aided by the fact that the Slenderman is an internet fabrication that does not seem to be copyrighted), and it is only a matter of time before the concept becomes obsolete - once players know what to expect, their anticipation may render numb any terror derived from it. Fortunately, recent developments in the genre have been promising, as developers all over the world finally seem to have realised that it takes more than just severed limbs and spooky faces to make the modern audience sweat. But they will have to innovate if they want to keep catching us off-guard.
I cannot wrap my head around why people think being chased around by an egg wearing a suit in a cheesy forest is scary. I also cannot comprehend how people think blasting monsters with a machine gun is scary. Oh well, no more horror for me. It was a good run.
By the way, why so many horror themed blogs lately?
@NeedarepairHorror was the latest Chalk Talk assignment http://www.gamespot.com/features/chalk-talk-horror-6404707/
@Needarepair It isn't the look of slenderman that is scary, it is the feeling of anticipation that builds up because you don't know when he will be there. It is a jump scare game. You really have to play it alone to understand.
@MasterOfSprites @Needarepair I dunno...I've been seeing a lot of that lately. "Play this game by yourself in the dark at 3 in the morning with headphones on" etc., etc. To me, that just feels like a crutch. Of course playing something even moderately creepy by yourself in the dark is going to be scary. Hell, going into the basement can be scary under those circumstances. Silent Hill never needed that, you could play it with friends around and that was STILL creepy.
"Many horror games give the impression the developers made the core game first and only then started creating the horror setting around it."
Although this is a commendable idea for game developers to follow (take an established game genre and add a twist to it); it pales in comparison to what movies and books do for horror. Horror movies don't make an action movie and then add scary parts for it; they make a horror story and they can choose to add action scenes if they want.
Games are about gameplay, and adding a horror theme to the gameplay probably doesn't really make it a horror game.
Good read, and agreed on the idea that horror games need you to be vulnerable to be effective.
I do however don't think FEAR is a lesser game because of its design decisions. At its heart it never stops being an action game, the horror aesthetic just gives it a more flavory presentation vs all the other FPS settings. It gives the action a bit more tension(see Resident Evil 4 for starters) than just your typical action game, and basic horror rules being followed sets up awesome scenarios.
Like in RE 4 you have an arsenal the size of mount olympous, but does that make that Cabin sequence with Luis any less tense? No because it works with very basic horror ideas: The look of the game, the audio, the way you board up the cabin, the constant pounding and build up before they finally break through. The overwhelming nature of the enemies also helps the cause.
I think the action/horror game has a place, but it's been ruined by modern game design where nothing is really built up as much as it's just thrown in your face.
@jg4xchamp Don't get me wrong, I love FEAR because it is a magnificent shooter/action game. But the horror aspect always felt as a bit of a gimmick to me.
@jg4xchamp Yeah, RE4 was all about panic. It had the same sort of scares an audience might get when watching Jason chase down a girl through the woods in Friday the 13th. The overwhelming number of enemies and chainsaw wielding guys gave the game a very "panicked" feel, rather than the tense, jumpy, dread you got from the first games. But the newer games don't have any of that. RE5 and RE6 were just all action, without any kind of horror at all.
What is with all the horror based game blogs all of a sudden. Did I miss something that happened in the news or something, or is it just a blogging fad where one guy started talking about it and others decided to follow along?
The blog was ok and all, but it felt similar to the other two or three already on the soapbox section.