Warning – contains spoilers in regards to Dead Space, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Silent Hill: Homecoming, the Penumbra series, and brief (non spoiler) mentions of Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
EDIT: While I shouldn’t have to explain that a two your old post might not be as accurate as it is now then when it was written, I have even reviewed more recent horror games – Calling, for example. However, my main point still stands – true horror, rather than a shooter or anything else with a horror skin, is sadly lacking atm.
The horror video game market has never been especially large or successful, but currently horror games – by which I mean something I would actually call a ‘horror game’ (‘survival horror’ can throw itself off a cliff, thanks) are so few and far between that there is barely any point. Anything with real money at the moment is too busy being a shooter, a mmorpg or a ‘retro’ style…thing. That is, put simply, where the money is. Horror games don’t sell as well as other genres, generally they’re mature rated games and not everyone necessarily likes horror. This is fair enough. My main concern is current video games (the few and far between) calling themselves horror games and not delivering on the genre. There have been arguably only three recent game series’ that have set out, for the most part, to be horror games. These being Dead Space, Silent Hill (the newest entries), and video games from the indie developer, Frictional Games. There are other video games that people may refer to as ‘horror’, something like Resident Evil 5 for example, but personally I view those as shooters skinned with zombies.
So, looking at these recent games, have they really lived up to being called horror games?
EA’s Dead Space had a promising beginning. It has great atmosphere and graphics – certainly in opposition to a popular myth about horror games, that ‘Horror just can’t be done in high definition!’ However, the high points pretty much end at the aesthetics. Instead of having time invested in developing the horror, we’re subjected to the same few cheap tricks. The ‘pretending to be dead monster, that suddenly jumps up’ trick catches you off guard the first few times but quickly goes sour as you realise…well, that’s pretty much it for monster scares. There are occasionally more ‘fast paced running from unseen monster’ parts, but again – these are overused. Leading to a vital and pretty straight forward point of making horror games. It can’t be repetitive.
There is a similar problem with the most recent Silent Hill. Climax Groups ‘re-imagining’ of the first game into Silent Hill: Shattered Memories also looked promising at first glance. I don’t know about you, but the idea of sitting in the dark, using a wiimote as a torch, and having to explore the creepy world of Silent Hill sounds, in a word, awesome. This same promising set up is, this time, ruined by being formulaic. Instead of carefully exploring an interesting (in the best sense, the creepy sense) world, terrified of what might be around the corner, we know when it changes to an ice world there will be monsters, and when it changes back – there will be no monsters. We know when we’re safe … and when we’re not. Are we really supposed to be scared by this?
Looking at another recent Silent Hill, Homecoming from Konami and Double Helix, we don’t, thankfully, see this formulaic problem in terms of exploration and combat. Silent Hill: Homecoming has, certainly, much more interesting monsters than Shattered Memories’ ‘mildly deformed but still clearly a person’ monster. One of my favourite monsters in Homecoming is the ‘Siam‘ – a man and a woman being fused and forced together with tape and god only knows what else. It doesn’t appear all the time. It’s fully realised in terms of movement and sound. It’s also laden with in game symbolism like any good monster should be. So where then does Silent Hill: Homecoming fail to deliver?
Beyond the great monsters, it’s just not that interesting a game. It relies very, very heavily on the reputation Silent Hill has. There’s no effort put into building the atmosphere or character development, it simply goes ‘Here is Silent Hill: be scared’ or ‘Here is Pyramid Head: wasn’t that awesome?’ While yes, Pyramid Head is awesome, why is he here? Stepping back from the Silent Hill name, it puts little effort into being scary beyond having a dull grey town and some infrequent gore-ified buildings. The characters are done in this same half arsed manner. Other than laying it on very thickly that Alex is a bit of a black sheep within the family, we’re not given much more to go on. There’s no attention to detail in terms of characterisation, so we aren’t really interested. This is reflected in the art of the game, the human character models are low detail and ugly compared to the effort put into the monster models. Alex is just a video game character – one of those ‘Everyman’ characters that doesn’t work (for me at least) as a good horror character. Contrast this with a man, searching for his wife, that clearly has something very wrong with him (wrong in a kind of watching monsters have ‘sex’ from a cupboard way, or jumping down huge unending holes, if you didn’t get the hint).
Finally, the last noteworthy developer in horror games I want to talk about is Frictional Games. Their Penumbra series first and then the more recent Amnesia: The Dark Descent. What these games lack in billion dollar game polish, they make up for in sheer effort put into being an interesting actual horror series. Their games have creepy exploration, with consequences if you go run off erratically. It doesn’t let you know what’s behind every door. They’re also not afraid to be really dark – you can’t see what is ahead of you, anything could be there. It’s this unpredictable side of the game that really adds to the creepy atmosphere.
I know, however, that more budget heavy games will want to show off their shiny graphics, so the temptation is to not go for really dark settings. Dark greys and browns, while they let you see your character model, just merge into each other becoming a literal brown/grey mush. You can make a dark game. What you need to achieve in a horror game is the sense of worry and dread of what could happen, a sense of atmosphere. Have occasional light sections to show off your graphics (if you really have to) – then lead the character to a dark corridor – far too dark to see down, that your player has to go through. As we’ve learnt from Shattered Memories – formulaic can kill any horror. So don’t attack your player in every corridor, keep them guessing.
Penumbra also invests in game play mechanics that try and draw you into the story. You’re very involved in slowly opening a door to see if there’s anything behind it, it adds to the tension as you peer out into the dark. You’re also heavily isolated in the first game. You travel, in terms of story, to a deserted mine in Greenland. The outer area is a stark white wasteland. No one lives anywhere near by, we can’t hear anything for the howling wind. We’re all alone, and more likely than not, no one knows our character is here. Once we find our way inside, the stark white snow-scape is traded in for pitch black mine. How we choose to light this dark mine also adds to the atmosphere. We’re given a few options, there’s a flash light – but this relies on difficult to find batteries, a limited resource that could go out on us at a vital moment. You also have a glow stick – it lights a much smaller area in a dim almost sickly glow, making getting around even more creepy.
The second instalment in the Penumbra series, Black Plague, starts to play a lot more with things like insanity effects. We experience deja vu on more than one occasion, while we brush this off the first time as either a game glitch or not important, it becomes more and more apparent that this means something is wrong with our character. We might not be able to trust what he sees all the time. He’s not a reliable character to play, but we don’t have any choice. This is developed further when we’re introduced to Clarence, a weird and mean alter ego – trapped in our characters’ head. While Clarence initially only seems to want to talk to our character, he starts to affect the in game world soon enough. He makes it so that we can’t see certain things, or hallucinate in certain ways so we do what he wants, killing the only person helping us. This really adds to the helplessness of the horror situation, we aren’t in control of everything – we may not even really be doing what we think we’re doing. We don’t know.
Frictional Games most recent title, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, has all these great things in spades, and more on top. Not to delve too deeply, because it’s just come out, and anyone who can stand horror should really really go and play it for themselves. It really pushes the ‘being a dark game’ envelope, parts can be so dark that you literally can’t see, goes even more with insanity effects, and is just generally really scary and great – with much more polish too.
Beyond good horror game mechanics, another invaluable aid to creating horror is the use of sound. Not just the musical set pieces, but the use of sound effects, voice and silence itself. The Silent Hill series is a great demonstration of how to do sound in a horror game. It has a wide variety of music pieces – from loud thundering tracks to more haunting piano pieces. These play for the most part in specific locations. It’s pretty straight forward, something loud and uncomfortable for a monster area, something creeping and haunting for exploration. A wealth of sound effects, creaking doors and bangs are also a must. No sound at all can instil dread just as well as a creepy sound. The same as an unexpected and strange sound can make you feel just as uncomfortable as the loud musical set piece that plays when a monster approaches. For example, in Silent Hill 1 you come across a room that does not have it’s own piece of music, all you can hear is the sound of something made of glass breaking again and again. There’s nothing to the room other than that, but it’s very strange and uncomfortable. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has a very impressive sound selection too, the haunting and terrifying music is great, as well as having some really creepy sound effects. In contrast, Dead Space has what could be described as a ‘Cinematic’ soundtrack. It has a number of big musical set pieces, that occur every so often. It doesn’t really do anything impressive or try to impress feelings on the player using sound alone. You could describe it quite simply as ‘just a game soundtrack’ compared to the Silent Hill sounds and music which make you recall what was happening in the game.
Beyond the game play and sound mechanics, there is also the plot to consider. Both Dead Space and Silent Hill: Homecoming are leading to a big reveal at the end, a hidden dark truth about their characters. At the end of Dead Space, we find out that Isaac knows his wife is already dead – he’s just gone crazy. This is a good surprise in a lot of ways – Isaac has been a strange and silent character for a lot of the game, but it doesn’t hint at it too heavily while you’re playing. Silent Hill: Homecoming on the other hand, doesn’t handle it as well – its final reveal is that Alex did in fact kill his own brother. However, it’s laid on so thick throughout the whole game that Alex isn’t welcome in the family that we figure it out quickly. It’s not just that he isn’t in any photos – the game persists in telling us every time that ‘it’s really weird that he’s not in those photos, isn’t it’? Silent Hill: Homecoming also suffers from trying to tell way too many stories at the same time. Alex is crazy and punishing himself for killing his brother by chasing him around Silent Hill, but never being able to find him. Alex is punishing his parents (or are his parents punishing themselves?) for not being better parents. The other people of the town are also caught in their own horror. Everyone is punishing themselves. Silent Hills have worked much better, it has been pointed out to me, when it uses simpler stories. Either the town is crazy and we’re sane and stuck in it – a la Silent Hill 1, or we’re crazy and the town is just helping us punish ourselves, as in Silent Hill 2.
While the games from Frictional Games do not follow this same ‘character revelation’ type plot, it has other interesting story mechanics. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent (and I assume this isn’t too big a spoiler) your character, Daniel, has amnesia – he doesn’t know what’s going on, just like you. It really puts you on a level playing field in terms of the story. You’re discovering the ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ right alongside Daniel. You’re following an interesting and story driven plot, without using an ‘Everyman’ that still lets your character grow.
A good starting point for a horror story can be ‘what is wrong with the main character?’ Flawed and human individuals make for much more interesting characters. Horror works much better if we think or know we’re the only crazy person in the room. So how can we really represent a flawed individual? How do we show the person playing the game that their character is crazy? Or has some strange psychological tick? Beyond being able to use a particular tick to make the game play different and interesting, a character flaw is also a great way to add depth to a character.