Are Horror Games Becoming Less Scary?

September 23, 2009 by Alex Beech  
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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.


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.