Are Horror Games Becoming Less Scary?

September 23, 2009 by Alex Beech  
Filed under Articles

In many ways the first “game worlds” would have been terrifying places, with no end to the oncoming alien ships, asteroids or ghosts and death being your only release. Games back then though were, of course, about the game mechanic; simply playing. Yet still the designers felt the need to infuse some familiar symbolism to their tiny sprites to help people understand the world presented to them. I guess these games were scary in the same way books are, leaving so much up to the readers/players imagination that what is experienced varies wildly from person to person.

I am not suggesting that Pacman was the source of any nightmares, even from the most highly-strung children. However by choosing ghosts as Pacman’s antagonists I am sure Namco helped people understand the games concepts of evasion, and also added extra tension to the chase. The symbolism of the ghost catalysed the player’s imagination in way graphics of the time could not.

As games have evolved so too has the world and characters they are able to produce allowing complex stories to be told. Game developers are now free to tell the stories they want. Now developers have the liberty to create something scary by design as opposed to by “happenstance”.

It was during the first generation of Playstation that many of the traits we now associate with survival horror genre were established. While games such as ‘Alone in the Dark’ pre-dated this era and paved the way, it was Capcom’s Resident Evil that marked the first true milestone in the genre. It borrowed heavily from movie conventions, even using live action scenes for the opening and closing sections of the game. The success of this cinematic presentation was in no small part thanks to the inception of optical media with its higher storage capacity enabling the speech, music and FMV. These extra tools gave designers the opportunity to create more involving, less abstract worlds.

resident-evil-1While Resident Evil had technological advancements to thank for its cinematic style it owed just as much to its technical limitations. Capcom’s drive to make the game visually striking combined with the restrictions of the hardware resulted in them using a static camera style that frequently resulted in a very constrained view of what could be seen. Having committed to the static point of view the designers were able to ‘mount’ the camera at positions though out the rooms of the mansion to add tension of highlight key objects in a cinematic fashion that was more concerned with creating atmosphere than game play.

It was unfortunate that in most gaming respects this static camera was denigrating to the game play. For every graphical flourish the style allowed it would rob players of control or visibility. Quick cuts between angles served to confuse the player and necessitated the now infamous ‘tank’ turning mechanic associated with the series. The cumbersomeness and pace this introduced served to add to the tension as you constantly wrested with the game for control of your character.

Many of the limitations seen in Resident Evil were replicated in another horror classic of the PSone generation, Silent Hill (and its sequels). Controls were similarly difficult to master, which became exacerbated by an emphasis on hand-to-hand combat. Fixed points of view still made an appearance, but the engine allowed for more dynamism in the camera, allowing it to pivot and in open areas even adopt an over the shoulder perspective. In order to facilitate this flexibility in the camera it was necessary to limit draw distance. They did this by use of fog and darkness, both of which contributed greatly to constant unnerving world of Silent Hill.

silent-hill-1Sequels to the original Silent Hill came to PS2 some years later, yet retained much of the games original traits; movement remained clunky and vision obscured. Despite the fact the technology had progressed allowing for greater draw distance and more was known about 3D control schemes, they made a conscious choice that these elements of the original title added to the experience they were trying to sculpt, even if some of the original reasons for their implementation had become redundant.

The increased power of the PS2 also allowed more detail in the game characters though they remained somewhat indistinct and otherworldly. Textures for the models remained waxy and camera angles limited visibility making the twisted forms of the shambling monsters that inhabited the game indistinct enough that there was always something left up to the imagination. Reminiscent of the first arcade games, a lot of the emotion created was down to what the player brought to the experience.

This console cycle is seeing the horror genre develop significantly more rapidly than in previous generations, and not always for the best. Siren: Blood Curse (PS3), is an updated of a 2003 PS2 game Siren. In its translation it bought with it many of its previous incarnations foibles as the developers still struggled to master the PS3 platform hardware. Strange controls (due to special abilities not camera angles), limited visibility due to a variety of effect filters and character models that moved in a wooden fashion despite their greater graphic fidelity.

siren_blood_curse-may20Siren remained scary due how much it had carried through from the PS2. These were decision based on the assumption that the majority of the audience had high degree of gaming literacy. This assumed knowledge allowed the creators to regularly make the players impotent in the face of danger. There were levels that removed all weapons and offensive abilities from the player forcing stealth in an environment filled with instant death.

During his console generation there has been a noted shift to make games more accessible in an attempted to attacked higher sales from a less experienced market. In the world of survival horror Dead Space sits at the forefront of this evolution. Dead Space retained many traits of the genre but moved the perspective of the game to an over the shoulder camera instead of the fixed perspective (in a similar way to RE4). By placing the camera behind the player the EA Redwood Shores development team were able to gift the player significantly more flexibility of movement that removed the sense of claustrophobia that existed in it forefathers. The environment did a good job putting players on edge by being dark and oppressive while making fantastic use of sounds and horrific imagery, the game even managed to create tension through its economy of items, but the sense of being trapped and constrained was never felt.

deadspace

The other trouble with Dead Space was that you always had enough – Enough manoeuvrability, enough firepower, enough time, enough help to succeed. Things could be scary on the first pass but every situation fast became routine. After a death you could be plunged back in a situation and your sense of dread would dissipate and you formulated a tactic. The gruesome horrors the game threw at you were so clear that you fast became desensitizes to their imagery and they just became something to kill. By making everything clear and accessible they ensured players always felt they had a chance, removing the fear and tension.

It is in this that the problems arise. As graphical power increases so to does the temptation to show everything. If the design team spends a year perfecting the creatures you are to fight, you will be seeing them clearly. The lack of abstraction leaves nothing to the imagination, yes they are scary but they are exactly as scary as the designer intended, no more. I think back to the Silent Hill 2 and the armless black bodies that wriggled indistinctly out from under cars, how unnerving their movement was, and how hard they were to kill with my metal bar. I remember my theories and ideas about what these creatures where and where they came from, information the game never deemed appropriate to tell me. Compared to this the ‘Necromorphs’ of Dead Space are just overgrown insects to gunned down by my arsenal of weaponry.

Of course with the cost of creating a current gen game being so high companies know that they have cater to a broader audience. Standardized, familiar controls that are play tested for usability (not atmosphere) remove the palpable tension of the survival horror titles. It is perverse because this means by making a better game you are making survival horror worse.

Perhaps the problem is that I am looking in the wrong place for my horror games. With the mainstream becoming more diluted it is in the indie space where the more experimental games are to be found, titles that are willing to sacrifice usability for atmosphere. One such game is The Path on PC and Mac from Tale of Tales.

pathThe Path feels more like an interactive narrative piece than what would conventionally be thought of as a game. It offers minimal options in terms of controls, offering only basic movement to players by means of the WSDA keys. The concept is a simple retelling of Little Red Riding Hood with you as the heroine. You walk the along the path to grandma’s house and can explore the woods where occasionally you will be stalked by ‘wolves’ which proves unsettling as all you can do is run, never really seeing your stalker. If on you journey certain prerequisites are achieved then you find your self in a twisted version of grandmothers house at the end of your journey. In grandma’s house your only option is to progress forward. You have no agency in your actions, just hammering the forward button as it walks you through Little Red’s nightmares. Simple and powerful it manages to be equal parts tranquil and horrific, it is an experience that proves interactive horror can still scare.

Broader markets will always lead to a dilution of the core. By focus testing the QA teams will reveal poor design and polish it out, while at the same time removing quirks that create atmosphere. It is probably a safe assumption that future ‘triple A’ survival horror games will be leaning heavily on the action adventure genre creating a new breed of atmospheric action games, the ‘Alien’ to ‘Aliens’ evolution of gaming. But as with everything that has proven popular there will always be someone continuing to cater for the niche audience. These titles may come from indie development teams in the downloadable space (like Tales of Tales), or from companies willing to experiment on systems such as Wii with its lower production cost. While the budget and recourses may not match those of their piers, the experience will still be out there for dedicated survival horror fans.

Dead Space

August 20, 2009 by Colin Ward  
Filed under Playstation 3, Reviews, Xbox 360

Overview

Title: Dead Space
Release Date: October 14, 2008 (US) October 24, 2008 (EU) October 23, 2008 (AU)
Developer/Publisher: EA Redwood Shores Studio/Electronic Arts
Genre: Survival Horror
Platform[s]: Pc, Playstation 3, Xbox360

Storyline

Set many hundreds of years into the future Dead Space, the new survival horror game for EA Redwood Shores, it’s a time in which the earth has run out of all of it’s own resources. To stop the human race from dying out completely companies were formed to find these much needed supplies, and the only place left to find these minerals and metals, is in deep space,  rather than use old time mining,  they do it by ripping planets apart and mining the remaining chunks of ex planet. This is were the USG Ishimura fits in, which will be your new home for the length of the game, it is nick named a ‘planet cracker’.

Before the planet crack can be ‘cracked’ a planet a small team of miners are sent to the planet in advance of the ships arrival to prepare the planet, and to see if they find life signs, normally there’s nothing of note on these dead planets. But this time… both the mining team on the planet and the crew of the USG Ishimura fail to report in, and a repair crew is sent to investigate the communications blackout

If you want an insight as to just what happens on the planet and what was found – watching the Dead Space Animated comics on the Xbox Market Place will fill you in on the details (believe me, they are well worth a watch).

When you first start the game – you play the part of Isaac Clarke, just a normal run of the mill Engineer, on a repair mission, simply there to repair a radio array and a few lights… turns out you also hope  meet up with your girlfriend Nicole who was a crew member on the USG Ishimura. You have with you a small team including  Kendra Daniels, a technology expert and Zach Hammond, the senior security officer.

After coming out of hyper-space you find the planet has already been ‘Cracked’ -  and the USG Ishimura is running dark – no signs of lights or life, apart from a few garbled radio messages, after you finally make it on board you find there is something much worse than a few faulty lights…

It appears when the planet was ‘Cracked’ something got loose… some kind of Alien virus capable of re-animating dead tissue, these are the Nero-Morphs who you will come into very close contact with onboard the USG Ishimura!

DS-Screen

Gameplay

From the outset it’s familiar territory for anyone who has played the Resident Evil series, more so  number 4, the over the shoulder view point works well for this type of game, making aiming and more importantly running easy to do in the confines of the mining ship.

You main duties in the game are to repair and restart the various ship systems, some are easy – just flicking a switch will do it, others have simple puzzles to solve and all are to try and get the USG Ishimura back online and get home in one piece. This along with the combat is the core of the game, and as such does get a little predicable, since you know if you fix one system, something else will brake – but you are an engineer, so like Bob the Builder in space – you have to fix it!,

There’s also a lot of backtracking through the same areas,  however these do look slightly different depending on when you do it, and new hazards can and do get placed in your way. Both lack of Air and Zero-G in certain areas not only add to the urgency but also add some mini puzzles into the game, the lack of air can be combated  either by using a can of air, either found or brought from the store, or using Air recharge points that are scattered in some areas. The Zero-G areas are great fun to navigate and add new gameplay dynamics to the normal steady walking, or running found in other areas of the game.

The Necro-Morphs, which you will have to fight from the outset of the game come in many shapes and sizes and all have one thing in common, they all want you dead. To stop this from happening, you will need to ‘kill’ them first, I say kill, but since they are already dead, seems a little confusing… you can either waste ammo by simply shooting them repeatedly or  by using the games ’Strategic Dismemberment’ system – which is a more effective way of dealing with them, you can  remove various limbs and appendages’ to stop them in their tracks, but don’t think that just cutting their legs off will stop them, it wont.  They also have a nack of using the ships ventilation duct system to great effect, darting into to one in front of you, only to re-appear sometime later when you least expect it.

To help combat these monsters you have the tools of the trade, be that a simple curb stomp move, melee or choosing from a range of simple, yet effective tools, plasma cutter – to force guns, and even a few military weapons,  like the pulse rifle and flame thrower. Weapons are not picked up, apart from the starting tool the plasma cutter, you buy weapons from the stores that are scattered around the ship, after finding the schematic for it first, so you can’t simply buy the most powerful weapons, you have to find the schematic as well. The weapons / tools and your suit can all be upgraded – but only a ‘benches’ – work stationed in certain areas on the ships levels, you also need to  find the upgrade nodes to action the upgrades… so the hunt for those should be a major concern.

You will also get a few ’tricks of the trade’ as you progress though the first few levels – Stasis which will allow you to freeze items in space and time, also works very well on the Nero-Morphs allowing you to pick the part of it you wish to remove but it does have a limited amount of ’ammo’, which has to be carefully monitored. The other ability is Kinetic which allows you to pick up items and move them from a distance, Kinetic also doubles as puzzle solver and a weapon, since you can pick up items and fire them at the approaching monsters.

Ammo, money and first aid kits are either in glowing crates, boxes, and lockers or dropped by defeated Nerco-Morphs, since as you will find out from the various audio logs and vidio logs scattered about, the Necro-Morphs are what is left of the crew.  Ammo does get a little shot in supply depending how far into the game you get.

Save points are also scattered about the ship and levels, and thankfully these allow you to save as often as you like, something you will learn to do on the later levels is save, and save often!

Replay value could be a sticking point for some, the AI is very good and they never react the same, but since the puzzles remain the same, but the hunt for audio logs and upgrades could push you back into the game. One point to note, you can’t restart the game on a different difficulty level from the one you complete it in, and keep your weapons and upgrades. This is the only disappointment.

DS-Screen-2

Graphics

Right from the introduction, the graphics are upto the high standards already set by other games, such as Bioshock, and in some respects they are similar, but are also original at the same time. There’s a realness to the places and items you find and see, they are all built with outstanding attention to detail, from drinks cans to logos on dead crew members jackets, everything is there for a reason.

The over all design for the ship has it’s roots in gothic design, and also has hints of HR Geiger,  famous for the Alien Designs, and as such, the ship takes on it’s own personality one which is just as eerie and unsettling as the Nero-Morphs. There are also some very nice lighting effects, and strobes along with steam and haze effects in the many corridors and room that the game take place in, and  these remind you to keep checking the corners and vents for monsters. There are several moments that are really visually outstanding, and you do get a few seconds to take them in, before the action starts up again in earnest.

Speaking of monsters – the Necro – Morphs come in many types, and all are very well rendered, from the smaller ones to the largest, they all have a slimly look to them, and you can tell that some of these things were once the crew. You will catch sight of a human eye, as it comes racing towards you, but you still have to deal with them. When you dismember one, there’s a very graphic display of blood and gloop – and you will also catch sight of squirming tentacles from the wound, which shows there’s some thing inside driving them on. The animation on the creatures, is well done and to see them try and crawl there way towards you after you have removed their legs is quite amusing the first few time, after that – you learn to quickly finish them off.

Any pick up you find or stumble across will flash up on screen showing off the Hologram in game displays – this is a great addition to the game, since all the menus, video displays, maps, and even your ammo count hang in mid air in front of you,  and you still have complete control of the game,  so can still make a run for it at anytime!

The first time you rotate the camera and see the back of the menu system, or incoming video transmission you will wonder why it has took so long to integrate such a system, but that is yet another game play element that makes Dead Space unique.

Sound

Voice acting in this game are of a very high standard, even if the players character, has a lot in common with Gordon Freeman, in that he remains mute for the game, the other people you stumble across and the audio logs are also very well done, adding to the whole experience

The musical sound track to this game is really hard to describe, it does have music, but the environmental sounds, and other effects mix into a sound scape that’s completely original and eerie to say the least.

It uses the best Hollywood scare tricks from the outset, from jets of steam to disembodied whispers, the overall effect is never less than disturbing especially when you then mix in the sounds of the Necro-morphs and the tell tale audio ‘stings’ used to jar your senses when one attacks, the over all sound is quite similar to the TV series Lost – but not a direct copy. There is off key strings, screams and voices, which all mix into an outstanding sound track.

Weapons have a solid sound to them, the reload sounds also have a nice cluck to them and you always feel satisfied letting a few rounds off into a Necro-Morph and hearing them scream in pain, and death gurgle.

 This is one game you need to turn the 5.1 up and enjoy it

Overall Score & Replayability

I was expecting a great looking, scary game, and Dead Space delivered.  It’s hard for a new series to get a foot hold, after the classic RE series etc, but EA have done it.

It plays well, looks great and has amazingly atmospheric sounds and music. The only downside to me is the lack of any co-op or online play, and the fact you can’t play the game again on a higher difficulty level and keep your inventory.

The game as a whole plays like a mix of resident evil 4 meets doom 3 with hints of classic sci-fi horror films like the Alien series, in fact the fist time you hear the female computers voice, you get an uneasy sense of familiarity. The fixing the ship plot can seem a little mundane, but the journey is so exciting

From the first level to the last -  the plot expands with cut scenes and audio log into a very moving one, and one that I hope continues. The scares come fast and strong, even if you think your not easily scared, I would suggest you at least rent this game.