Horror – It’s Still Alive!
Hooray! Scary times are most definitely NOT OVER!
There’s been much discussion about the supposed death of the Survival Horror genre in general in this years run up to Halloween.
And yes, I suppose to a casual observer, the horror genre hasn’t exactly been shipping out the top-grade meat that it used to; the likes of Silent Hill: Homecoming and Silent Hill: Downpour ruining a franchise by in both measures missing completely different points of what made the original games so wonderful (Downpour they had so little excuse to balls up, the thing practically writes itself!), Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 both ditching any pretence of horror in lieu of more guns, more explosions and generally more mediocre serious-serious action. With the only decent Project Zero in years being the Wii re-release of Crimson Butterfly, and Dead Space choosing to also ditch the horror in favour of running after the action-game dollar, even when aping The Thing so much that I’m shocked there was no lawsuit, it’s hard to accept that the once-powerful and diverse horror genre has been largely forgotten by the mainstream development crowd.
However; we have seen in the last couple of years some rather outside shots at horror gaming; outside shots that have scored big, and done some pretty spectacular things. If only we’d pay attention.
Take, for example, the Independent Scene. Dominated by Amnesia: The Dark Descent and it’s similarly messed-up A Machine For Pigs, there’s a wealth of interesting horror gaming doing the rounds; the likes of Lone Survivor, and it’s nod back to the good old SNES days of horror gaming, for example show that you don’t always need polygons and a three-dimensional world in order to fulfil a sense of impending dread and general fear. Then you have Slender, and SCP – Containment Breach, and the recent The 11th Hour. This is also just scratching the surface too; horror games in general are quite popular amongst those seeking a road into the industry, because it is a road they have largely left to rack and ruin; unguarded, unattended, empty and devoid of any major roadblocks, it’s an increasingly popular genre to take advantage of. And it seems most of them make money too; perhaps not GTAV or Pokémon levels of money, but a profit is a profit and not to be sneezed at, lest you wake the beasts.
If the horror genre is alive and well on the Indie scene, then a closer inspection reminds us that in the main market there are also hints towards horror making a successful comeback.
Part of this is down to Dark Souls; yes, we’re going there. And perhaps, in spite of its Metroidvania credentials, it also demonstrates a deep-seated understanding of how a horror game works; suspense, fear, terror, isolation. The success of it, and its predecessor Demon’s Souls, which was a little more situational but just as noteworthy, is oft overlooked as it is casually dismissed as some kind of hardcore RPG. To do so would be to miss the point of the layers of beauty within its design; how it utilises the situation to create a haunting landscape, and even when all challenges are accomplished there is always the fear of some invader from another realm to come and spoil your day. It’s far too clever to be happen-stance; it’s a clever and intelligent design decision that uses the multiplayer component of a game to actually deliver a strong, powerful sense of dread and worry, always concerned that some horrible phantom will arrive in your Lordran and shiv you without mercy, without care, because they want your humanity, they want to kill you. The deeper into the game you get, and the more the world around you becomes volatile and unpredictable, the more you fear an invader… not here, you tell yourself. Not NOW. Please. Not now. Any other time would be fine, but not now.
It’s a marketing spin that has created a loyal following; and horror fans are nothing if not loyal to their genre. And that’s part of why the genre has tailed off in recent years; EA, Capcom and Konami wanted to broaden their market and maybe attract other players to their game, but horror fans cannot abide deviation; they cannot accept when a series decides to abandon them, and as is so often the case the reality is that sales often suffer because they simply don’t buy into the changes. The loyalty they have is incredible; loyalty also breeds money if you know how to tap into it, know how to get them spending, but in trying to be all things to all men, the audience they originally catered to simply ignores them. The end result is games not reaching sales estimates; primarily through dedicated horror connoisseurs turning their noses up at it.
It isn’t just Dark Souls though; Zombi-U, by any account, sold 500,000 copies in the launch window of the Wii U. And for any launch game, that should be a rather resounding success; an incredible achievement, doubly so when you consider just how rooted in the Dark Souls methodology Zombi-U is. The fear of being killed, and restarting, losing all your kit is tangible and ever-present. There are no second chances for your individual heroes; each unique person with a name and special stats has but one chance. One bite, one fall, one mistake and you are infected. And the infection is rampant, immediate and irreversible. The game is perhaps shorter than you’d prefer; but then, some may also argue this helps it from becoming too frustrating. It’s an exciting and competitive experience, as you are linked to a world of others, and their own personal scores and messages dotted about the place. With most critics suggesting the Wii U is going to have a pretty good Winter season thanks to delays and general next-gen confusion, it wouldn’t surprise me that Zombi-U also enjoys a second wind over the holiday season either. It’s certainly one of the best uses of the gamepad so far, and UbiSoft may find itself regretting its hasty decision to cancel a sequel; especially as it turns out when Zombi-U was in reality also extremely profitable as well as being warmly received.
And then there’s The Last of Us; perhaps, if any evidence were needed this year, that the survival horror genre is still not only alive but in truth, thrives in the right hands. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Naughty Dog are to be commended, congratulated and indeed canonised for their superb horror experience, as mature and intelligent as it was often downright terrifying and tense. The game is a testament to an almost bygone era of the horror genre; a coming together of all of the ideas, as it were, into one sublime little experience. The rich narrative, the believable characters, not getting so hung up on trying to explain the story that you forget sometimes ignorance is bliss and the general horror of how people are in these situations. Its unflinching, unmitigated look into the human condition and the need for survival in so many ways is much welcomed in a year that saw EA not only bottle Dead Space 3, but turn it towards it’s The Thing inspiration and collide head-on in a horrible and messy crash that destroyed any notion of it having a future. The Last of Us is a reminder that horror can only ever be as good as the people who make it; and if the people who make it are fully invested in it emotionally, then you will see that love, passion and commitment in the end product.
And that’s perhaps the main point; horror didn’t so much die, as publishers tried very hard to convince themselves what they needed was diversity, to appeal to other genres, to tamper with the formula. And as is so often the case, as I stated before, the reality is many have come to claim the land since abandoned by Resident Evil, and Silent Hill. It was almost impossible to move in the PS2 era in horror without in some sense bumping into these two titles; but under their shade, if you looked closely, you would find Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly, you would find Haunting Ground, and Trapt and Phase Destiny and Shadow of Memories and many more. But admittedly, the genre struggled to get beyond two gigantic presences that dominated it; it was just impossible to do so. Now, of course, with Resident Evil and Silent Hill both having broken down somewhere and the old genre-landscape tidied up, the independent developers arrived first to set up a campsite and now FROM Software, Sony and Naughty Dog and even Nintendo and UbiSoft are building more serious amenities in the vicinity. As the old guard dies, new blood will invariably – and inevitably – come in to take its place. The Last of Us, Dark Souls and Zombi-U are the first big, serious titles to stake their plots in the area. Games that feel like they were made with a love for the genre; not because they needed to be something else.
With a new generation looming, and Dark Souls 2 on the horizon and even Nintendo working on some mysterious new horror title, there’s a buzz about horror again; there’s a buzz because the playing field is no longer dominated by a couple of big names. The giants have fallen and now there is a renewed interest it seems in the development world; as they identify a genre that is now once more open season. Perhaps now realising that trying to beat Call of Duty is a bit silly, more and more are attracted to this spooky place, with its long and messy history, because there’s money to be had; that is, if you have the balls to create something a little dangerous, a little extreme and very, very scary.
The truth is that much like any good horror movie, many who come to this place are going to die. The horror fans – The Crazies, as it were – will savage the weak, the limp, the uninitiated. Like any good plot, those who survive will invariably find themselves making a sequel, and right back in the thick of it. But this is what we want, after all. There’s no point doing a horror game if you’re not getting really involved in the genre and how it works. Like Dead Space 3, and the recent and hideous port of Resident Evil: Revelations, we can see when people are phoning it in. There is no mercy for those people. If you treat it like a joke, you’re the first to be torn apart.
Resident Evil and Silent Hill, and to a degree Dead Space, all forgot that horror fans are rarely placated; they are hungry, and if you go in with poor-quality meat, you are most likely on the menu as well. A lesson that many other companies will have to take to heart as they traverse a genre that seems to once again be making a revival; but only because the prior winners have been chewed up and spat out, humiliated and broken, by the gaming community. There is no mercy for the weak. So whilst the horror genre is still alive – don’t think for a second that its become easier and more forgiving.
Because it’s always when you let your guard down, that the monsters get you…