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What Is Scary in Horror Games?

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Tuesday, Mar 1, 2011
Horror can be atmospheric rather than situational. Are abandoned tombs, inky black catacombs in which echo the shuffling, dragging footsteps of fleshy horrors, and the occasional giant mass of flesh, eyeballs, and tentacles glaring balefully at the player scary enough for you?

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: I have a soft spot for horror games.  As a rule, I do not have a soft spot for horror films (although I’ve got a soft spot for movies with zombies in).  I am fairly certain that the reason for this differing feelings about the genre lies directly in the lack of control that one has when watching a horror movie—I am totally okay with stomping around a mansion infested with zombies, because at least I’m smart enough to know that if something starts eating me alive and I don’t have any bullets left, it was my fault for being foolish with my ammunition.  My problem with horror films is that I tend to spend a lot of time shouting at the characters for acting as if they are characters in a horror movie.  Horror games don’t have that same baggage (except in cutscenes, at which point all bets on my shouting at the television are off), because if anyone is making a bad decision, it is probably me.


I got to thinking about horror games after reading a bunch of reviews about Dead Space 2 that complained that the Dead Space series just hasn’t been that frightening because you generally have the ammunition required to survive a situation.  This, apparently, goes against the survival part of survival horror, which in turn means that to call Dead Space a horror game at all is a misnomer—except that there are other types of horror games out there.  Or maybe there aren’t, and the problem is merely a definition of “survival horror” that is just too strict.  I decided that the best thing to do would be to take three games, all of which I consider to be “horror games”, and see on what each relies to drive its horror element.  Deciding on the three games was a bit of a trick, and I know that I will catch hell for not including a Silent Hill game in this analysis, but to be honest, I’ve yet to play any of them (I swear it’s on my list of things to play).  So instead, the three games that I’ve selected are: Resident Evil, Eternal Darkness, and the game which got me thinking about this in the first place, Dead Space.
  


The common zombie in its natural habitat.

The common zombie in its natural habitat.


Let’s talk about Resident Evil first.  It’s one of those games that invariably spring to mind when someone says “survival horror”.  Run through the mansion, fight the zombies, solve the puzzles, save the day, etc.  What made the game difficult was not its (admittedly vexing) controls but scarcity.  Nothing comes easy in the game, not ammunition, not health, not even the ability to save the game.  It has its traditional jump scares, of course (the dogs coming through the window, for example), but what makes the dogs’ sudden appearance frightening is not that they come crashing through the window and startle the player but the knowledge that here are enemies that probably can run fast enough to catch a fleeing Jill or Chris.  Similarly, the first appearance of the red zombies carries that same shock, because while before the zombies were dealt with by either a few well placed bullets or the more noble plan of running away screaming, the red zombies are harder to escape from and harder to kill.  So do you lose out on ammunition or on precious green herbs?  There’s a greater “survival” aspect to the game and that element is the source of tension and fear for the player.  This feeling is maintained throughout most of the game, although by the end of it a good player can have a fairly impressive arsenal to take on the final stages. 


Resident Evil is for many the template from which all other survival horror games are made (I myself referred to Dead Space as Resident Evil in space, although I was talking about RE4 at the time.  Nevertheless, a similar mentality is still a big part of that description.).  The “horror” part of the game is inextricably linked to the “survival” part.  If the player has lots of ammunition, then there’s no challenge to it.  See, for example, Resident Evil 5, which failed to be scary on every level apart from maybe the initial contact with the infected.  Not that I disliked RE5, I whiled away many a happy hour playing the co-op, but it tried to sell itself as a survival horror game when it didn’t quite fit the bill.  No survival horror game will ever involve mounted turrets with unlimited ammunition—of that, I feel pretty confident in saying.  Yet scarcity of resources is just one way to make a horror game scary—there’s more than one way to skin a cat or make creeping horrors scary . . . or whatever.  Eternal Darkness chooses to take a different route with its horror, abandoning the familiar “survival” element almost entirely.


Make your own Army of Darkness joke here.

Insert your own Army of Darkness joke here.


Indeed, at one point in Eternal Darkness, you play as a character who is literally unable to die because of a curse that strikes him instead of Charlemagne.  Ammunition, while not exactly plentiful, is far easier to come by than in say, Resident Evil.  If guns fail to satisfy, there is almost always something sharp to cleave enemies into little bits (courtesy of the “part specific” targeting system, which is the sort of thing that Dead Space might have drawn a little inspiration from).  Additionally, once you learn the healing spell, death becomes a rarity.  Eternal Darkness does not ask “will you survive?” because the answer in the end always seems to be a resounding “no”, right up until the final showdown.  The horror element of Eternal Darkness is atmospheric rather than situational—abandoned tombs, inky black catacombs in which echo the shuffling, dragging footsteps of fleshy horrors, and the occasional giant mass of flesh, eyeballs, and tentacles glaring balefully at the player.  The deserted mansion that serves as the hub world has its share of “jump out of your chair” moments (the first time that you enter the bathroom remains one of my fondest memories of being scared witless as a younger man) but also subtle maneuvers like shadows that don’t quite fall in the right place and move a little more than they should or a statue that follows your movements curiously or a wall that quietly and unobtrusively bleeds at you


There are the insanity effects as well, which divide their time between tormenting the player’s avatar and tormenting the player more directly.  Fake game crashes, wiped saves, a sudden and entirely believable loss of picture fidelity, these are not “horror” in a classic sense—yet the cold sense of fear that grips the heart when one believes that he really has accidentally hit the delete button, losing the last ten hours of gameplay is no less real than the fear that comes from the sudden realization that the loud thumps coming from outside the room are getting closer [And really, much moreso—Ed.].  As for the game’s story itself, it is a classic Lovecraftian romp, full of its own special kind of horror evoked by the things that lurk in the dark that man cannot know about.  I was absolutely in love with the game from the first trailer and remain so today.  Ironically, it also happens to be the sort of game that I’d hoped Dead Space would be, which it isn’t—not at all. 


Something like this grew in the back of my fridge once.

Something like this grew in the back of my fridge once.


Dead Space walks a delicate line between the sort of atmospheric horror of Eternal Darkness and the survival horror of Resident Evil.  The difference is that in Dead Space it is very rarely a lack of ammunition that puts your survival in doubt but the suspicion that, despite all of the ammunition that you have accumulated, there are just too damned many necromorphs to take down quickly enough.  Not just that, but their annoying habit of appearing behind Isaac, while his attention is focused elsewhere, ratchets up the tension nicely.  The best example of this is one of the first upgrade benches that you discover.  As Isaac goes through the business of putting together an upgrade for his gun, a necromorph suddenly and violently distracts him.  This gives the player using any bench from that point forward a vaguely tense feeling.  Does it ever happen again?  No, or at least not in my experience.  But the threat is always there—much like the threat of any vent.  It was pointed out in the Zero Punctuation review of Dead Space 2 that once one monster has jumped out of the vent then such an event ceases being scary.  This is true on one level—jumping out of a vent is not going to startle someone who is expecting it to happen (because, say, it has happened for the last twenty vents)—but it also serves to make any vent cover a potential enemy source.  There are corridors in Dead Space that seem to have an overabundance of air vents and that makes them stressful to walk down because there are going to be necromorphs and you know it.  It’s not a fear of “where could they come from?” that gets you in Dead Space, it’s the dread of when they are going to come out. 


Approaching a door and opening it becomes an exercise in gritting one’s teeth and saying that there are monsters behind this door.  There may be a lot of monsters behind this door.  If there are air vents, I am going to be hip deep in mutant undead aliens trying to “show me their stabs”.  Then, once you’ve convinced yourself that, yes, there are going to be monsters and you are just going to have to deal with it, the room is empty . Nothing comes out to grab you, the air vents remain unoccupied, and most importantly, there’s even some ammunition and maybe even health to grab.  Oh, and another door—of course.  Which is going to probably have monsters behind it.  Oh God, why did the game just give you all that ammunition?  How many monsters are we talking here?  What if it’s those baby monsters or one of those bloated ones that spit the little crawly guys all over me?  And so on.  For me, the act of going through all of this means that my nerves are frazzled—and the fact that the Ishimura doesn’t exactly seem like it was a nice place to live in the first place certainly doesn’t help matters, nor do the frantic pleas for help scrawled on the walls, or the fact that nothing on the ship seems to work properly or the blood that’s seemingly everywhere and all those corpses that are one flying thing away from becoming yet another monster that is going to try to kill you.  It’s the knowledge of what’s waiting behind the door that generates the fear in Dead Space, even when there’s plenty of ammunition (I have an unfortunate tendency to miss my shots when there are more than four necromorphs, which means that unlike everyone else who has ever played the game, I occasionally run out of ammunition), and it’s that dread that makes Dead Space a horror game—just not a survival horror game. 


There are lots of other horror games out there.  II keep meaning to get my hands on Amnesia, which evokes horror by skipping the fighting part and just going directly to the RUN FOR YOUR LIFE THERE IS AN INVISIBLE MONSTER AFTER YOU part or even The Path with its growling wolf in Grandmother’s house.  Not all of them are survival horror and that is a good thing!  It is always nice to see game designers coming up with new ways to cause me to grip my controller in fear and take those few hesitating steps forward before losing my nerve for the night and deciding that, really, five minutes is enough time spent in zombie infested mansions for today, right?

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This is basically who I always imagine myself to be in horror games.
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