How Video Games Do Horror All Wrong

Horror games may look and sound great, but that’s all they have to offer

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Graphic: Alinna Boonklun/ SAC.Media

I very much enjoy the horror genre; always have, most likely always will. From an early age, I’ve had a fondness for things that go bump in the night. Growing up in the 90s, I had the great fortune of playing iconic horror games like ‘Resident Evil’ and ‘Silent Hill’ among others, and I cherish those experiences. I can’t quite explain why I like horror; I just know that I like that uneasy, frightened feeling when playing it. Unfortunately, the scariest, most unsettling thing about most horror games these days is how bad they are. With virtually every aspect of game design seeing unprecedented production values, one would think that horror games today would be truly astounding. They are not.

Developers in modern times take a lazy approach to designing horror games. There seems to be this philosophy of tell, don’t show that pervades the genre; in other words, there’s often a distinct lack of subtlety. What I mean by this is that developers just cram things that are traditionally considered horror into their games in an attempt to instill a sense of fear and dread. Instead, it creates a sense of gaudiness, like the developers whipped out the horror-by-numbers playbook. Modern horror games often are excessively dirty and grimy and have almost comical amounts of viscera splattered in every possible nook and cranny. It feels like the game is trying to tell the player, “Look at all this horror! Scary, right?”

The answer is no, it’s not.

When you go into a game that is strenuously designed to look like all is not right with the world, you know what to expect. Ambiguity goes straight out the window. Two games come to mind: ‘Outlast’ and ‘Resident Evil.’ I recall ‘Outlast’ having quite a bit of blood and guts strewn about everywhere, and it had plenty of griminess, but I remember being wholly unaffected by it. ‘Resident Evil,’ on the other hand, took place in an unassuming mansion. The mansion, for the most part, was not designed in such a way as to overtly convey that something was off, and anyone who knows the game knows that just about everything was off. This created an air of uncertainty, and that uncertainty is what gave rise to unease, a pillar of horror. I find it a tad difficult to feel uneasy when I know exactly what’s coming my way.

While on the topic of pillars of horror, dread is something every good horror game needs to have. The best horror games employ a cycle of building dread and releasing tension. Take ‘Silent Hill’ for example. In ‘Silent Hill,’ the player finds a radio early in the game that does nothing but play static. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the static and it won’t stop, and then a winged monstrosity bursts into the diner the player is in. When the monster dies, the static stops. That moment is when the player makes the connection that when the radio goes off, there’s something lurking nearby. This creates the cycle of dread. Hearing the static instills dread, and tension is only released when the player either kills the monster or runs away. This cycle also helps establish unease, because there’s no telling when the cycle will start again.

Today’s horror games fail miserably to produce this cycle. Based on my experiences, horror games these days overuse dread by maintaining it as opposed to regularly releasing tension. At first glance, this may actually seem like a good way to scare people, but it isn’t. Overusing dread is not an effective horror technique because it rather easily and quickly devolves into stress and frustration. It might sound a little odd to say that stress in a horror game is bad, but I’m talking about sustained stress.

Stress is to be expected in any horror game and, when kept to the confines of short bouts, can up the entertainment factor. When there’s too much stress, the game just stops being fun. I can’t think of a better example of overused dread than ‘Alien: Isolation.’ The alien, also known as the xenomorph, is faster than the demon offspring of a cheetah and a falcon, and the player is largely defenseless in the earlier portions of the game. This means that if the xenomorph sees or hears you, you die and get to redo the entire encounter. As if that’s not irritating enough, these encounters are not limited to one little room. Every time you run into the xenomorph, it sticks around for a while, following you from one area to the next. For me, this game went from dread to sheer frustration in about 15 minutes. I stopped being afraid of the xenomorph after about the sixth attempt to escape the first encounter. At that point, getting spotted went from being an “Oh God, it saw me!” moment, to “For the love of God, it saw me again.” The game was all dread, and that got old real fast. I ended up having to force myself to finish the game.

Another common theme in today’s horror games is isolation. This means there are no friendly non-playable characters, or NPCs, in the game. From a horror standpoint, isolation sounds like it should be a logical and effective choice, but it tends to fall flat. The problem here is that when there are no other characters, the player has no emotional connections to the world. Friendly NPCs provide the player with crucial moments of respite and solace, often inspiring thoughts like, “Oh good, they’re safe, I’m safe, everything is fine.” The ideal outcome is to make the player care for these characters because that’s when horror works its magic. When those moments of comfort are forcibly ripped away, it can be frightening, shocking, or at the very least, upsetting. Even if nothing happens to the characters, players will most likely grow increasingly concerned about whether a certain character is going to survive or not as the game goes on.

‘Silent Hill 2’ made brilliant use of an NPC as a torture device for the protagonist, James Sunderland. Spoiler warning. While James is searching for his wife, who is supposed to be dead, he finds a woman named Maria who looks almost identical to his wife and even bears some memories that only James and his wife should have. Maria appears multiple times throughout the game, and James sees her die multiple times. It’s a genius piece of psychological horror that only exists because of the presence of an NPC. Moments like the one described are what make the argument for isolation being a counterintuitive choice for horror.

Most modern horror games also center around running away from danger. This design philosophy entails stripping the player of any methods of self-defense, thus forcing upon them the one option of running away. This is seen in many games, including ‘Outlast,’ ‘Amnesia,’ ‘Soma,’ and to a lesser extent, ‘Alien: Isolation.’ This is another thing that, on the surface, seems like a no-brainer in the context of horror. However, facing your fears is scarier than running away from them. This type of horror game suffers from its lack of weaponry and focus on escaping because nine times out of ten, they end up becoming glorified hiding simulators. That’s not fun or scary; it’s tedious and frustrating.

Games like ‘Fatal Frame’ and ‘PT’ go the opposite direction. These games force you to face the horror. In the case of ‘Fatal Frame,’ the player is frequently assaulted by hostile ghosts, and the only way to get rid of them is to fight back with a special camera that can capture spirits. You have to face the ghosts and even let them get close enough to you that you are staring right at their face. ‘PT’ was a teaser for the now cancelled game ‘Silent Hills,’ which took place in a single hallway that looped back to itself. This teaser did a better job of crafting a genuinely unsettling and frightening experience than most fully developed horror games. The player is defenseless in ‘PT,’ but there’s no running away. Whatever it is that’s scaring you in ‘PT,’ it’s in that hallway, and you have no choice but to walk through it. This is much scarier than hiding in a locker for several minutes waiting for a chance to slink away.

Being a horror fan is rough; it’s an itch that’s getting increasingly difficult to scratch. Considering how far video games have come, horror games should be better than they’ve ever been, and they’re just not. I shouldn’t have to resort to my older games or remakes of older games when I’m looking for a horror fix, but sadly, that’s exactly what ends up happening. Hopefully, with the next generation of consoles, we’ll see better horror games coming out, but I’m not holding my breath. It pains me to say this, but right now, the only thing the horror genre makes me want to run away from is the genre itself.