In an interview with Edge Magazine not too long ago, Gabe Newell talked about getting back to what makes gamers scared. Newell thinks this has changed quite a bit over the years, because when pressed he told Edge what he thinks gamers are most afraid of is "The death of their children [and] the fading of their own abilities."
I don't think anyone would have said this ten years ago. But according to my favorite mind-blowing statistic from the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of a gamer is now 35 years old.
Considering how old video games are as a medium, that should make perfect sense, but it's surpassing because it challenges a common stereotype that many people have about video games; namely, that people stop playing them.
Contrary to popular belief, the average gamer doesn't just get "too old" to play video games, so we have a generation of gamers that keep getting older. And that means they change.
The 35 year old gamer is a long way from being scared of Cyberdemons. Most are no longer scared even of the sort of image Newell talked about evoking for the original Half-Life, which focused on adolescent sexual fears (mentioned in Half-Life: Raising the Bar).
The quote about fading abilities and children only makes sense if the target audience is no longer composed mainly of adolescents. These are adult fears, and visceral ones at that.
The game that has best dealt with these themes is probably the original Silent Hill. The furtive search for her is really powerful, especially with how her presence is everywhere but she's frustratingly out of reach and who knows what's happening to her.
This classic "save the princess" plotline is underscored by the fact that Cheryl could die at any moment, or worse, and the player would be helpless to stop it. I don't know how Half-Life could engage the same sort of fear.
Although I would love to see where Gabe Newell would take this thought, I really hope that other designers, as they grow older themselves, start recognizing that these issues will speak to the heart of their audience. I'm only twenty-four, but I'm getting older and Newell's talking about the sort of things that are more and more often in the back of my mind.