A Lewton Bus walked into a bar…
I do love horror games.
It’s silly that someone on medication like Venlafaxine for Bipolar and Anxiety Disorder would admit to liking horror – but I do. There’s a therapy involved for me in horror games, it’s the expectation of an actual scare that keeps me from nervously expecting an unexpected and totally not-really-there scare in the real world. Replacing like for like is kind of important in such cases. The thing is, Dead Space 3, Resident Evil 6 and Silent Hill: Downpour have all disappointed, because truth is – they’re just not horror games. They’re not scary enough.
Horror for me is a balancing act, and it’s the balance between the monsters you see and the monsters you don’t. Dead Space, the original one that is, used light and shade enough to obscure the monsters – mostly because they weren’t that well designed, apparently, but the trade-off was that partly obscured, partly in shade, with lights flickering to give a sort of slow-motion effect on the eyes, you got a deeper sense of tension and mystery to the awful, horrible Necromorphs. It was clever, especially when Isaac himself was silent and handled heavily – he’s in a heavy-suit more designed for utility than for, you know, combat, and it felt heavy and lumpen and restrictive but it’s all we had. Dead Space 2 – within seconds, the game treats you to a full-frontal change of a man into a necromorph. In full light. Right in front of your eyes. The mystery and magic of the creatures, it… it’s gone. Once you’ve seen it, right up close that way, the real shock value is gone. It’s a one-time deal, and they spent it right at the very start of the second game.
Of course, titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent go the other way for me.
There’s a point where you have to deliver the monster otherwise you get too comfortable and relaxed to really appreciate the scare value. There’s actually a name for this; A Lewton Bus. The term derives from a 1942 film called The Cat People written by Val Lewton. At the time, he was assigned to write scripts for movie titles; they gave him a title and the scripts were written to specification. During this film, there are many scenes where you’re not quite given a view of the monster; but instead, given a quick, cheap scare. As a woman is being stalked, in the dead of night, she trots along nervous and looking around, knowing she’s being followed. It’s quiet, very quiet – and then; PSSHT! A bus turns up, opening it’s doors for her. It was one of the first real technical demonstrations of a cheap scare, and the term has kind of stuck. There’s a point where you have to stop giving the cheap scares, and need to deliver on the monster. Otherwise you’ve just created a series of cheap thrills that will only serve to underpin the lack of content, and the lack of a monster.
You’d think therefore that this was a hard balancing act; it is. But there are great examples of horror games out there.
There are fantastic examples; you have the likes of Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly – my go-to example for how to do a horror game perfectly. It holds up to scrutiny so well, not because the scares are measured and well-spaced, but because the whole premise is thrilling and mysterious. The narrative twists and turns generate emotive responses. The first ending is heartbreaking. By drawing the player in, by humanising the ghosts and spirits and even explaining how they died in a sense, it’s more terrifying; there’s a sense of tragedy and loss, and bitterness; which in turn leads to a sense of anger, which makes you feel very worried indeed. It’s a wicked demonstration of how to do it. The Thing – next weeks retrospective as I decided to grab the PC version – for me still holds up; proper writers doing proper stories, with proper intelligent scares to be had. Even Parasite Eve 2, on the PlayStation, holds up today; it’s smart enough to make the monsters interesting, but smart enough to also remind you that these things are dangerous; you’re supposed to be worried about them.
Resident Evil 6, I wasn’t worried. Indeed, I found I had surplus supplies of ammo in many cases because there was no need to use the guns; get up close, until you see the whites of their eyes (which is all they have left), then trigger a devastating melee attack that knocks packs of them down, whilst also instantly killing some of them. Say what you like about the old Resident Evil games, but the Hunters were a genius, genius bit of game design; whatever your health, these evil, nasty mutant lizards were capable of murdering you without a second thought; if they’re leaping through the air, you knew you could only hope they were going to miss, because if they connected, it would be a Queen of Hearts style “Off with his/her HEAD!” sort of deal. Even after you had become used to the zombies, and their own little curious ways, the hunters were things to be afraid of. You could sometimes hear them, but not always; they were the real villain for me of Resident Evil, and I adore them because of it. Not that I’d hug one or anything. Keep it behind the glass. It’s cool.
Silent Hill’s 2 and 3 delivered some truly mesmerising enemies; based on the feelings and fears of the protagonists, the sexy nurses in Silent Hill 2 were freaky but that scene of Pyramid Head ‘dealing with’ the Mannequin Leg creature was frankly in equal measure fascinating to watch and yet also physically repulsive; you got the idea of what exactly was going on. In Silent Hill 3, the most terrific line by Vincent to Heather also delivers the cruellest, most wicked twist and leaves you thinking long after about the ramifications of his words. Everything was imaginative, had a point and was brilliantly used. The problem I had with Downpour is, up close, the enemies looked cartoon-like and almost amateurish in nature; like they were knocked up in a day, rather than someone having to argue with the director of the game for its inclusion because it might offend or upset. Downpour was terribly boring, again because there wasn’t really much to scare, but also because the monsters it offers up aren’t really that scary. Enemies that scream at you? We’ve had them before. Monsters based on criminals? The Suffering did it, and I think did it better.
Cliff Bleszinski feels we may be in a position where horror games don’t sell, but truthfully, I don’t think we’ve had a proper horror game for a while now. Amnesia was a horror game – for all I mock it’s Lewton Bus aspirations, it’s really a great horror game. But we just haven’t had a smart, intelligent, well-designed horror in the AAA-market for a while now. I’d suggest the last one I really felt was trying was Silent Hill: Shattered Memories on the Wii/PSP. That was great. But to sell to people, Cliff Bleszinski is right when he states the issue is people don’t want to be scared, they want to “F*** S*** Up!” And the market, in its eagerness the last few years to expand, gives it to them at the expense of the horror component.
I will say I think the horror market is smaller than perhaps we’d like it to be; but there can be good full-priced horror games; we had them in the PS2 era and we had lots of examples. From Haunting Ground to The Thing, from Kuon to Echo Night and Gregory Horror Show to Michigan and so many more including Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly, there were lots and lots of them. Will we see that kind of experimental thing again? I’m not sure. I’d like to think so. Hopefully budgets will settle and things will get back to how they were.
Because whilst companies may need to make money, they can’t afford to squander the goodwill of their customers; horror gaming fans have been left short-changed and it takes one company to swing back in and suddenly the likes of Konami, Capcom and EA are left in the cold once more. Like Bayonetta, it only takes one game to upturn the status quo and leave others trying to get into it with an impossibly high mountain to climb. Will this be Nintendo this year? The recent renewal of Eternal Darkness as a trademark as well as a few filings suggesting a sequel is in the works could be interesting enough – narratively, the first Eternal Darkness was a gem. Not always so slick in its monsters, but it totally got the freaky sanity effects and the tale it was telling spot on. You just don’t really know.
Or maybe horror is expanding. Survival Horror as it was back in the PS1/PS2 era was that way out of technical necessity; now we have all the power, now we have all the tools that the industry could ever want, it’s about evolving from the classic formula enough without forgetting the principles that underpinned it all. The balancing act. Not enough monster to generate the tension, and just enough monster to scare. With a real sense of ownership and involvement, getting to know the world and the story of what is wrong. “S*** hit the fan!” isn’t always enough. Dead Space 1 got off because it added some betrayal and insanity into the mix. When they repeated it for Dead Space 2, it didn’t work. Especially after the full-frontal Necromorph. You can’t always retread old ground, unfortunately.
Still, the thing is, there are still good PS2 and PS1 horror games out there, as well as Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube and a few for the Wii as well. We might not be getting many good new horror games, but there are plenty of great classic horrors out there for us to enjoy and surely that’s kind of the point, no? Movie buffs constantly tell us to go and watch classic versions of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing; really, in the gaming world, we need to do the same. As long as fans can accept that they are old games, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had out there. Some games are pricer than others but y’know, that’s the price you pay for classics unfortunately.
Horror isn’t really dead; it’s just the art of it has been a little forgotten. One day someone in the industry will revisit the classics and be reminded how to do it, and do it well. Until then, enjoy games for what they are and if you really want decent horror games, try out some classics. You can pick up The Thing on PC for a couple of pounds. PS2 games are relatively cheap, so The Suffering is an essential buy for those who missed it first time around. Cold Fear is a good one too. There are lots of great examples out there.
In the meantime, let EA, Konami and Capcom struggle with it. The industry is changing – it has to change, with a next-gen coming. Things will always change. But there is plenty enough to enjoy without pushing the industry to revive and prettify these older greats; unfortunately, that way HD remakes lie. And Konami and Capcom have proven utterly incapable of doing a good job on that front, so don’t hold your breath.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show said, “Don’t Dream It, Be It.” We can dream of a revival… or we can make old horror games popular again because we’re creating a decent market for them.
Dead Space 3 isn’t the horror we were looking for, but meh, it’s alright. Hopefully, the likes of Zombi-U demonstrate there is a future. We just need to give it time. It’s not like the movie market is much better for this sort of thing…