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The Horror Genre Needs Re-Animation

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I remember the first horror game I played back in the 90s. I was about nine years old and played Resident Evil on the Playstation, promptly shitting myself over the terror that the barrage of zombies and mutants unleashed at me by the game. Of course, they were easily defeated by stairs, but still. As a kid who had yet to even see an R-rated movie, it was a big deal. Games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil pushed the genre into a terrifying new world where the story was not just a horror movie on rails a la The 7th Guest and similar entries in the genre. Fast forward 15 years (um, holy shit I feel old) and the genre is on monster life support with a T-virus IV and the spirit of H.R Giger and H. P. Lovecraft’s works as attending physician trying to bring some of the magic back.

Horror needs a new lease on life. The genre has devolved into vast man shoots full of monsters that might as well be stand in for men with guns. The core of horror is a sense of futility against a great threat of some kind, be it the xenomorph from Alien or Jason in the myriad of movies where he terrorized generations of horny teens at summer camps. Horror, at its core, must be psychological and visceral in its depictions of the game world. Recent horror games have lost that, with some notable exceptions. The Amnesia series from The Chinese Room and recent entry Outlast bring something old to the table and sew on a few new parts. When you cannot fight the horrors pursuing you, it makes the struggle against them that more tense. Alien: Isolation is also taking this tack, looking to ensure that the protagonist feels genuinely vulnerable against the threat beating down the door. That’s the key to taking the genre back from the Dead Space 3‘s of the world. While Dead Space 3 was awesome, it wasn’t horror. It was an action survival game. Fear goes out the window when you have weapons that can handle a small army of skittering creepy crawlies in one shot.

Recently a number of indies have tried to pick up the torch of the once-great genre and run with it. These have been games from the likes of Project Zomboid and Seven Days To Die to experimental projects like the Slender games and Knock, Knock. The focus here is not to deliver triple-A graphics and talent, but to create a novel game world where things are truly something that can give the user nightmares, even if the graphics aren’t 100% immersive. However, the advent of the Oculus Rift could help change this, by providing a VR helmet actually capable to putting the world right in the user’s face and giving the nearest illusion of pure immersion yet.

If it seems like horror games have gotten safer with their choices, it’s because they have. With some rather ballsy choices aside (like the baby necromorphs in Dead Space), the genre has not made a lot of really envelope-shredding choices in the last few years. This seems to mostly be a result of bigger studios pushing for wider releases of games that hit the targeted 13-17 demographic: A demographic that tends to have notoriously finicky screens for their purchasing known as “parents”. The rest of us thus suffer a bit when the studios pull intense scenes to avoid the ire of the ESRB and that dreaded M-rating, which you can’t really even seem to avoid anymore.

So what does the horror genre need? A few things, including latitude to make more interesting design choices and the design chops to ensure that the execution is actually good quality. I would love to see a true open world horror game, but the design would have to be nearly flawless to make an actually terrifying experience and not “Oblivion with Pyramid Head”. Also along those lines, the studios involved need to get out of the business of lazy jump scares. Those stopped working around the time that Nightmare On Elm Street was a respected film series. These hungry, lurching masses yearn for horror that makes us question our world and the nature of existence. That’s what truly turns the wheels of terror in the mind of the player. When the world is so foreign and alienating that the player feels lost simply interacting with it then you can begin to toy with ideas and fears that go far beyond that of “ew, he disemboweled that dude.”

Just my two cents on how to make horror in games truly scary again. Now we just need our loving team of Dr. Frankenstein’s to get this monster back on his feet.

About Whiskey Ginger

Whiskey Ginger is a scientist by day and comedy writer by night. Other than his passions for the nerdier things in life, he also writes for comedy sites dedicated to fraternity and postgrad humor. His parents just wish he'd write less dick jokes.

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