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Will There Ever Be a True Horror Game?

I look at whether there will ever be a true horror game.

Dave Feltham, Blogger

October 27, 2010

6 Min Read

[This article first appeared on Dave's website on May 10, 2010: 

[edited name errors]

Now I'm the first to admit: I'm a horror snob. I don't like slasher films, and I don't like the overthetop Blood for no reason Fangoria films either. I like plot and character development, and I like horror movies that make us feel unsafe.
And I like monsters.

With the arrival of Alan Wake [ed. a game that had just come out at the time of this article], a game that claims to be deep in the horror genre,  'Horror Games' are once again on the tips of every gamers tongue.And while this game has yet to reach my hands, and I've yet to make a judgement, I've been thinking about, and investigating, the types of Horror Games that have been released over the last 2 decades. And while taking an in depth look at each of these games is beyond the scope of this article, a cursory glance and criticism of some of the more popular horror games begs to be written.

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Take Dead Space. On paper it should be the type of game made for me: mutated creatures, space, death by dismemberment. Silent Hill too. But these games fall to the same problems that so many horror films fall victim to: because they don't know what horror should be, they try to recreate the elements of what current pop-culture tells us what a horror movie (and game) should be.  They don't understand or know how to shock the psyche of the gamer, and because they are trapped by the very definitions of what a modern game is, they contrast their frightening jumps with a lack of anything happening at all.

In Dead Space you are alone, trapped on a space-ship infested by aliens that were once human. The ship is quiet, but occasionally monsters jump out at you. That's the premise, but here's the problem: what is horrific about humans turning into monsters, if you've never met these humans before. What's terrifying about a quiet spaceship if you've never seen it bustling with activity? What is at the core of good horror is context: the Dog Monster at the beginning of The Thing is terrifying not only because it is grotesque, bloody and just strange to the crew of Outpost #31, it is because it used to be the dog that we were introduced to at the beginning of the film. The Norris monster is absolutely terrifying because shit man, that was Norris not 3 minutes ago! In Dead Space there is nobody in the ship that I can connect with: every human I connect with is done through glass, or through communications and video recordings. Nobody is left in the ship and I have no context as to what this strange place was like before.

Ridley Scott's Alien introduces us to the Nostromo as a ship that is fully functional and we see it running in its day to day. So when an alien infiltrates the crew what was safe is now unsafe: it is the predatory grounds for something to which we the audience have never seen before: and it's in the area that the characters deemed safe.

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But it's not just about giving context. Alien, Jaws and The Thing and any H.P. Lovecraft story all have a deep-rooted theme that the situation is exploiting.Alien is the fear of the unknown; The Thing asks what would you do if you couldn't trust the  people you were trapped with; Jaws looks at our fear of sharks. What theme is Dead Space or Condemned trying to explore? Most of these games seem to be trying to mimic what was succesful about successful horror movies.

Dead Space and games like it also fall prey to what they think will heighten the fear of a game. In a movie you always fear for the survival of the main character - in Alien it's Ripley. In a game the point is to survive, so the player knows that there is never a danger of the main character permanently dying. Instead Visceral Games and developers like them relying on ammo and save point mechanics to heighten the fear: you will always be afraid of not having ammo and you'll have the fear of having to redo an entire section of a game because you cannot save your game except where the developer tells you to.

Unfortunately this goes against the root of all sound game design: never frustrate the player. And really it doesn't make any logical sense: if the player is conserving ammo, doesn't that defeat the purpose of having the player kill all creatures with the weapons you provided? And why on earth would you punish a player by having them repeat, sometimes over and over, a long section of gameplay that really, you only intended them to play once?

While a poor game in implementation, I think Alone in the Dark had the idea right when it comes to weapons: if you have the player create the weapons themselves then you elevate the fear not by running out of ammo with which to kill your enemies, you limit the player in what they can build by what parts are available to the player. Sorry, looks like you can only attack this creature with a can of spray and a lighter. Pretty brilliant when you think of it. And Dead Rising had the same idea: the entire mall is full of weapons you can utilize, so the fear doesn't come from will you have enough ammo to get rid of these monsters that you must kill, it's will this item I just picked up be enough to take out the zombies that are attacking me.

Unfortunately Dead Rising's mechanic and enjoyment was completely exorcised by it's horrible savepoint system; a system in which you must run to the bathroom to save over your only save point. For many it drove players away because the mechanic was taxing and drove you out of the gameplay.

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We've seen many attempts at getting horror right. And some fans of Silent Hill or Resident Evil might argue that I just don't get Survival horror. My counter-argument is that Survival horror, based on Japanese minimalist and psychological horror, doesn't have a place in games, especially in the current market where action reigns the dollar. The point of a game is to entertain, and you can't entertain if you don't have anything happen. And by no means do I think that the solution is to go with the current fad of slasher horror: Rockstar's Manhunt showed that the gaming community had no interest in that.

Instead we need to look where a player feels the safest and jump them there; we need to look at building up relationships with other digital actors, and literally rip them apart. We need to take those situations and make important thematic messages about environmental degradation, a collapsing economy, war, universal health care and poverty because the best horror movies -- Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, Jaws, Nightmare of Elm Street --  do just that.

Right now our industry is trying to find it's footing and discover what is a money maker and what is not, and until they do there won't be many publishers and developers willing to risk the money the way that George Romero, FW Murnau and John Carpenter did.

See more articles about Game Design by Dave at his website http://www.shutupandreadthis.com or follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DaveFeltham

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