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How Horror Games Can Get Their Groove Back
With all of the recent buzz around P.T., I’ve been thinking a lot more about horror games. I’ve watched my share of Twitch, Youtube and various Let’s Play videos on the game and I’m genuinely excited for what the final product will have to offer. There’s some strong creative talent working on the project and the demo showcases some interesting and genuinely eerie content. As excited as I am for P.T, or Silent Hills if you prefer, seeing the playable trailer in action and watching all the reactions from gamers everywhere has had me considering an important question.
What it is that makes an effective horror game?
It seems like with each new leap in consoles, the genre seems more focused on shifting towards action-oriented games with horror elements, relying more on jump scares and creepy looking monsters than genuine horror. We’ve seen the likes of genre staples like Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark and Dead Space take more cues from action games and big budget shooters rather than stick to the things that made them big names in the industry. Elements like co-op are added, ammo and weapons abound, and any sense of tension or dread that these once beloved titles brought to the table has been undercut by elements from other genres that don’t really fit the mold of true horror game.
On the other hand, we’ve seen a slew of PC titles hit Steam that show the genre is still capable of creating pants-shittingly terrifying and genuinely unnerving experiences. Amnesia, Slender, and Five Nights at Freddy’s are all fairly low budget games that capture the spirit of what makes the genre and do so by being tense, nerve-inducing, and atmospheric. Sure, there are some jump scares here and there but all of the aforementioned make use of effective timing, placement, and tension to make the scares all the more memorable. None of them need huge budgets, cutting edge graphics or a metric ton of guns and gore. They’re all great horror games because they place the player in role where they become immersed in the situation. All of them put us in a scenario where we have to survive using the limited tools we’re given. All of them envelop the player in an atmosphere steeped in nervous, panicked and disconcerting scenarios.
With that in mind, I’d argue that atmosphere, tension, and immersion are the three key elements that are required to make an effective horror game.
As a player, I need to feel like the scenario I’m placed in feels genuinely creepy and unnerving. I want the things I hear to draw me further into the game, to make me cringe at an awkward or out of place tone or wayward cry. There needs to be cause for me to be afraid and a sense that I need to choose my moves and actions carefully or else I’ll suffer horrific consequences. I need to feel like I’m in the mind of the character I’m playing, to feel like I’m there in whatever abandoned town, derelict spacecraft, or horrific hell-scape I’m journeying through.
I’ve contested for a while that the WiiU would make an excellent platform for new horror games, be they original IPs or new entries in old favorites. We’ve already had ZombiU, which while not perfect, is certainly an underrated gem. While it still leans a bit on the action side, it does adhere to some of my aforementioned key elements. The game forces players to carefully choose and organize their supplies, and rather than give them a map with everything laid out for them, it encourages players to explore and build upon their surroundings, gradually filling out a map over time by scanning junction boxes. These elements help keep the player on their toes and constantly in search for things they need to help them survive. As a player, I become more immersed in the world and by limiting the supplies I have and making me avoid being bitten at all costs helps to create a good sense of tension.
Imagine if you will a game like the previously mentioned Five Night’s at Freddy’s, a title which has your avatar switching between a series of camera screens to keep an eye on a roving quartet of killer animatronic nightmares, as a WiiU title. The game forces you to find a careful balance between managing your limited power and finding ways to monitor the pizza parlor monstrosities that want you dead. The WiiU’s gamepad could make for an effective and immersive way to play this title, with the player using the gamepad to switch between cameras and hit the various buttons used to close the doors or flash the lights. The game already feels immersive in its original PC incarnation, but creating a scenario in which the player is frantically switching between a separate video screens, much like the game’s avatar, could make the tension and engagement all the more powerful.
We’ve seen glimpses of a new Fatal Frame game for the WiiU, something which I’ve already expressed an interest in seeing in a previous piece I wrote and something that my editor and I are both willing to throw money at to get an English release of. If a new game could replicate the kind of fear and unease of the franchise’s second entry Crimson Butterfly while creating a more immersive experience with the gamepad serving as the series famed Camera Obscura, Nintendo and Tecmo Koei could strike horror gold. The games in this series make you get rather up-close and personal with things that would terrify the daylights out of most people, so having those things literally staring you in the face, as if you were actually catching them in the lens of a camera could really add to the sense of tension and immersion. It could also lead to a handful of gamepads flung to the floor out of shock and terror, but sometimes sacrifices must be made in order to achieve the apropos level of nerve-shattering fear and discomfort.
It’s not like the Big N hasn’t tried its hand at horror before. Eternal Darkness found ways to screw with the player’s head like making them imagine enemies that weren’t actually there, causing parts of the room to bleed, having your character suddenly lose their head and even the greatest fear of all gamers; fooling them into thinking their save data has been erased. I know Nintendo tends to market their games with fun in mind, but you know what?
Being scared can be a lot of fun.