I have been a long-time, unabashed horror game fan. I cannot pretend to have played every horror game made, but I thoroughly enjoy them, whether they be gore-filled slashers or the more subtle creeping terror that works on your slowly. I got my start in the late 90’s with the Resident Evil series (and I’ve got a tattoo to prove it). When I was ten years old I watched my brother playing Resident Evil 2, whilst I cowered in the corner, clutching a pillow as though it contained what tiny strands of my sanity remained every time some crows broke through the windows or Mr. X crashed through a wall. I even tried it myself one day when the system was unoccupied. Spoiler: I failed miserably at maintaining any semblance of composure and didn’t make it more than ten or so minutes in before I had to turn it off. I settled for Dino Crisis soon afterward. In my mind, the fact that the corpses strewn about the facilities weren’t following me around trying to eat me made the whole thing tolerable, and I can, with fair confidence, say that that was the first horror game I finished.
But the state of the horror game is different these days. In more ways than one: both the nature of those games and the people playing them (at least en masse) has undergone a large shift. I suppose the same could be said of the majority of games, but horror (or more specifically survival-horror) games as we know it has undergone what I might consider to be one of the more controversial set of changes than, say, your more common action and shooter games.
Certainly, some tendrils of what defined the classics of the series still remain: limited resources, often stunted input, creepy-crawlies, overwhelming odds, and the exaggerated sense of loneliness. When you compare the control schemes of, say, classic Resident Evil to something more akin to Dead Space 3, you start to see some rather prominent discrepancies. The player has been granted a more severe sense of control over their avatar. The ability to pick shots and aim to maximize effectiveness. Much less focus on problem solving, more on fight-or-flight scenarios. I understand the ways that the modern horror game can appeal to the younger, more instant-gratification inclined gamer on the less…intense end of the spectrum, but where a clunky interface could at one time have been argued to mirror the difficulties embodied in the series of events surrounding the protagonist (see also: no better interface had been discovered yet), now games are ridiculed for removing any sense of control from the player. The cause of all the horror has often moved from something invisible and terrifying (a microorganism, for instance) to something obtuse and literally symbolic (the Marker). Please don’t misunderstand, I thoroughly enjoyed Dead Space, but I’m more curious about what these changes say about the state of horror in this media form these days.
Let me give you some more modern, less triple-A examples. I recently acquired two indie horror games on what, in some ways, I would consider opposites, though they share many qualities. The trick is that where one generally fails, the other manages to be unusually effective. I’ll take them one at a time:
Enter Knock-Knock, a more artistic and introspective horror game, developed and published by Ice Pick Studios. It begins with a notice and a disclaimer: 1) The game was apparently developed based on several files sent by an anonymous donor, and must adhere to a particular set of principles within the framework given in those files. 2) Play this game alone, in the dark. It was meant to be experienced that way. Now, outside of the occasional tutorial message that says things along the lines of “Press X to jump” or “Run away from the monster with the teeth longer than your arms!” I have been historically put off by games that make demands, as though the game is somehow diminished in the daylight. That being said, I acknowledge that it is a horror game, and surrounding yourself with silence and darkness certainly enhances the scary experience, so I went for it. I closed everything, shut the door, killed the lights and booted the game up. I was summarily so underwhelmed that I think I pulled something.
You play as the Lodger, an ambiguously-aged, tired-as-hell looking guy who speaks in garbled tongues and spends the entire game scowling at a candle (or maybe a lantern) and changing lightbulbs. The game opens with a barrage of cryptic language; the Lodger is a very tired man/boy who lives in a large house that never seems to be the way he left it. The rooms constantly shuffle, and there is an obvious (and acknowledged) presence outside the house that seems obsessed with getting in. All around him there are whispers and noises, filling each of the dark rooms as he enters. In a game with such a strong focus on the supernatural, it feels natural to try to turn on the lights. Lo and behold, one of the first tutorial messages you get instructs you on how to repair the lights in a room (literally all of which are burned out. Always.). From there, things got really confusing. The game gave an overall goal: survive until dawn, but neglected to give much information on the process. It seemed to me like I should turn on all the lights. The Lodger sort of cryptically told me to do so. Then I turned on a light and saw some kind of…box monster in my room, which did have a rather unnerving look to it, I suppose. And then the game told me not to leave the lights on. But then told me that the light is safe. Wait.
In the end, I felt like the disclaimer I’d received at the beginning of the game was more of an excuse. Almost as though it said, “We got this weird message that said the game had to be this way,” and it turned out that many of those rules and requirements were totally bad ideas. Certainly part of the horror experience is the unknown, but the language of the game was laced with misplaced metaphors and while the argument could be made that we had an unreliable narrator in the Lodger, it didn’t make up for the perceived lack of direction or focus for the game. The game oozed style—it has a great art style, the dilapidated house had the right sense of being too large for just one tenant, while still feeling claustrophobic at times. The “creatures” that you occasionally encounter were certainly unsettling for a moment or two. But in the end, the creatures weren’t threatening because they were so dangerous to our survival or because of their sharp, scary claws, but because their spawning code was flawed and they had a tendency to appear so close to the player that there was no way to avoid them. There are two endings to the game, based on how you play, but there is very little motivation to get there. You can peel away some of the layers of psychosis and obvious fatigue on your protagonist, but in the end it was just difficult to get there, not because of the inexplicable evil force trying to keep you contained, but because the game just seemed to want to keep you down.
Contrast that with another fairly recent horror title (and one I only very recently acquired), Lone Survivor, developed by Jasper Byrne. The opening impressions and text of the game are oddly similar: you’re met with some cryptic language, a low-fidelity (more retro, in this case) art style, and the warning that you should play this game alone, in the dark, with no distractions. Upon receiving the warning, I was for another traipse behind the cover of darkness, a game that hid its flaws by making sure you played in an environment that enhanced it. I was pleasantly surprised. First and foremost: because that warning worked.
Where Knock-Knock told me to play in the dark and said that this was meant to be some kind of strange “experience,” before becoming a bogged-down mess, Lone Survivor immediately put me off (in the good, horror-type way). The game is sure to specify that sound is very important to the game, and to play with the speakers turned up, or headphones on. The art style doesn’t seem like it should be scary, but the backdrops ooze style and attention, and the sound design can lift hairs when something lurks nearby.
You play as “You”, a shoeless, masked man who insists that names are no longer important. The world was hit with some kind of infection, a plague that turned everyone into strange creatures that roam the streets. You are running out of supplies, and make the decision to brave the terrors outside your apartment to find any other survivors. What follows is a rather intriguing look into the effects of a large-scale traumatic experience on the human psyche. Certainly, like Knock-Knock, the game is filled with flighty, deliberately unclear language, meant to keep the player in the dark about particular details, but it is contrasted in unusual ways by other characters, who are capable of clear and concise thought. It serves to ground the narrative, taking it from a jumbled mess that requires far too much effort to sort out, and makes it a more inquisitive experience: you want to know why You and these people cannot speak plainly, since it’s clear that others can.
You can think of the game as an old Resident Evil game in two-dimensional form. You hunt down keys. You encounter “thinmen” (see: zombies) and a small smattering of other creatures, but with a distinctly Silent Hill-esque vibe in the gross tendrils that cover the walls and the strange, dark holes that lead to who-knows-where. You have a pistol, and some bullets (not a lot of bullets…not at all), and immediately find that you can either take risks to kill the monsters about, or utilize more cunning solutions to sneak by (placing rotting meat, for example, attracts thinmen, while you slink into the shadows behind them, or lighting flare to blind them). All the while you are tormented by a strange man in blue, who supplies you with ammunition in your worst of times, and a man who wears a box on his head, giving you batteries for your flashlight and food.
The game embraces the ideas of resource management in an old-school menu interface that would make the crappy interfaces of the past proud (it’s not a great system, but I suppose I’ve had worse). The menu doesn’t pause the game, so digging items out of your bag requires relative safety as you carefully place cheese slices on crackers while you’re hungry, or take pills that might incite strange dreams while you sleep. By the way, you need to eat and sleep regularly in the game, another aspect of survival that I find to be often woefully absent from other games. That being said, needing to munch on something every eight minutes can be a little overbearing, and your flashlight appears to be the most inefficient light produced by mankind (I think a fresh set of batteries lasts something akin to four minutes in it), but each of these niggling annoyances serves, in some way, to further the theme of the game.
Where Knock-Knock had me constantly wondering if I should click of the light or leave it on, and generally slumping sleepily in my seat, Lone Survivor had me pulling my Vita (Oh, I’m playing LS on my Vita. Forgot to mention) closer and closer to my face, my eyes scouring the floor for a stray bag of crackers as I slowly approached the next source of sonic distortion that would inevitably try to kill me.
These two games, I feel, embody the two ways that horror can go in the modern age. Both have a similar idea: a heavily symbolic journey that is supposed to explore the mind of someone placed in an extraordinary situation. But what Knock-Knock lacks, Lone Survivor has in spades, and it makes all the difference: Purpose. I suppose there’s a place somewhere for the horror-for-horror’s-sake aesthetic attempt at a scary game, but I haven’t found that place yet. Lone Survivor sought to tell a story, it had a place to go and something to say, and it made the journey harrowing because of it. It also stands as stark proof that photorealism does not equal an enhanced level of fear, but that’s a story for another day.