July 3, 2022

Context Is Essential In Horror Games.


So, I was going to do a thing on The Suffering and how it’s an underrated classic of a survival horror game…

But yesterday, Sony did its showcase from the Paris Games Show and… well… it was mostly what you expected. Nothing really earth-shattering or revelatory, mostly hinging on big-name titles that we’ve known about for between six to eighteen months already. I mention that not to be derisory, but simply to put an observation there. Sony’s pool for what is coming does appear to be pretty much set in stone, and there’s nothing extremely noteworthy on its “big-budget” sphere aside the brands we’re already aware as coming.

Anyway, that said – there’s been a fair bit of criticism about the five minute scene they showed for The Last of Us: Part 2. It looks gorgeous, that much is undeniable, but it also made a lot of people very uncomfortable. Brutal, visceral and even cruel, it was a remarkable little snippet that seemed cut in just such a way to stoke the fires of controversy, edited in just the right way to ensure maximum shock-value. Axes to the face, a lynching, arrow to the head, breaking arms with a hammer… it was rather full-on with the violence and all of it was human-on-human, denoting that people are just as much a problem in this world as the hordes of victims infected with the Cordyceps Fungus.

Personally, I found it a little strange. Not because of its violence or tone – need I remind people that the original game had a huge chunk dedicated to Ellie trying to fight off a group of men who wanted to rape her (I know!). But rather because – until the Cordyceps infected showed up right at the end, this could easily have also been a clip from Days Gone. It wasn’t until the infected showed up to apply context to the world that we were like, “Oh, cool, The Last of Us…”. I think that says something really worrying about the lack of differentiation between the two games, but again, just throwing that out there.

The reason it wasn’t well-received, in my viewpoint, is context. Or rather, the complete absence of it. Here, we see a bunch of cultists calling a woman a heretic, lynching her up and about to disembowel her when a group of strange plucky upstarts swing in to save the day, starting with an otherwise unremarkable Asian lady getting her arm smashed in with a mallet. The violence is one thing, but in a horror game, the context is important – who are these cultists? Who is the woman they strung up? Who are these people? Where is this location? Why do it in the middle of the night in the full glare of a bonfire in the middle of a wooded area that clearly has a lot of the infected running around it? What’s the significance of the disemboweling thing? When in the game does this happen? Are any of these main characters? Should I care? Is this critical to the story?

… as is, the scene is just a shock-value CG clip and little more, and when promotion for the predecessor – and so far for this game – has been remarkably subtle and unsettling without the need to go over the top, it’s remarkably jarring. It recalls bad memories of Tomb Raider, where we were shown Lara being assaulted by men in the hopes we’d want to white-knight for her. There’s a reason why they chose women to dominate this scene, and that is because it’s more uneasy to watch women get hurt. Again, shock value. It says nothing about the game aside this is a horror game and they’re upping the ante a bit, even though in the original game the ante was raised considerably over many hours. In fact, it’s on par with the whole Zoe thing they’ve dropped for Resident Evil 7.

There’s a reason why I dislike Resident Evil 7 over, say, earlier Resident Evil games.

In previous titles, the characters seemed to have a reason to be there – Claire had come to visit her brother Chris, Leon was turning up for his first day on the RPD force, Jill and Chris and Barry and Wesker were all chased into a house by scary mutant dogs – but they were out in the woods late because their other team and friends had suffered a helicopter crash and you do tend to want to see if you can mount a rescue bid. Jill was fighting her way out of Raccoon City which was her home, Leon in #4 was on the job hunting down the daughter of the President, even 5 and 6 had solid context to the goings on and why people were there, and who they were.

Resident Evil 7? Little is said about Ethan Winters – so no, we don’t know why he can glue a leg back on with TCP. And he shows up at a place after getting an email supposedly from his wife – who is missing, presumed dead, lost in a hurricane three years prior. So not only is Ethan still an unknown entity… why didn’t he check in with the local police? Even if they said “nope mate, not checking this out”, Ethan could then at least have an argument with one saying “Well, I’m going to check it out if you won’t!” (Note this could and would also give context to the disdain the Deputy shows him later – it only takes one additional line of dialogue to make this whole thing work, Capcom! Hell, three words even – “Oh, it’s you…”)

Why does this matter? Because horror works best when it’s messing with your head – and the more logical the course, the more it can get away with when it DOES go screwball.


The key is suspension of disbelief – the better the introduction and build-up, the more likely we are to be able to suspend our disbelief and become invested in the process. This is how horror scares you. This is the way it’s meant to work – Lewton’s Bus and all. You ramp up the tension, but keep it somewhat believable for as long as possible (Lewton’s Bus, as an aside here, is an old horror trope kicked off back in the 1942 horror movie Cat People, where a woman feels she’s being stalked in the dead of night… hurries up… stops and… a bus pulls up to surprise us. Today people call that ‘Cattle Prod’, but I like Lewton’s Bus better). So when you do drop the monster, it’s catharsis and shock and awe all wrapped up into one little bundle of joy.

Framing and context is a key part of this; meaning, reason, causality. This is why the first few Silent Hill games work so well – Silent Hill, Harry runs his car off the road and wakes to find his daughter missing so he goes off to find her. Framing. Context. Causality. Silent Hill 2 has James arrive in the town, lured by a letter supposedly from his wife – which is weird, because she’s meant to be dead. Framing. Context. Causality. The third game – Silent Hill 3 – Heather is trying to live her normal, run of the mill life but she’s tied to Silent Hill, and boy are there weird people out to make sure she knows it. This… slightly falls apart until you get key context later in the game but it still delivers critical information that ties up the story somewhat.

Or The Suffering, where Torque is about to be executed for murder. Then Hell breaks loose, and ghosts start appearing and pondering if Torque really is guilty. Torque is in a bad situation, which becomes a worse situation, but it then says – how do YOU think this story should play out? And by the by, this was before “moral choice” was a thing – The Suffering is a PS2-era game from 2002.

Point is, in a horror game the context is the stitching that keeps disparate parts from falling out; holding everything together. Without context, a violent scene is a violent scene. Violence for the sake of violence. Gore for the sake of gore. Context gives meaning, urgency and agency to a situation. Few games ever survive once you’ve removed context – the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. Jill Valentine dresses in skimpy clothing and is chased around a city by an eight-foot leather-clad mutant with a tentacle finger. How is that never not funny out of context?

… but let’s be charitable to end this.

Naughty Dog and Sony probably forgot we, as viewers, don’t have context right now. They of course do. This is their baby. They know how this story pans out and who these characters are. They know where in the story this happens. They perhaps even know why it happens. They have all the information – to them, this scene makes sense. Because -they- know the context. We do not. They forgot that we haven’t really seen much of anything of The Last of Us 2 yet, aside one clip with a more grown-up Ellie strumming a guitar. We’re supposed to be wowed by this scene – but without context, it just looks like a section cut out more for its shock value than its importance in the as-of-yet-unknown-to-us story.

This is why horror marketing is difficult – it’s important to have some context, but that’s actually sometimes hard to do without being… you know… overly spoiler-y. Getting the balance right is crucial – too much context and yes, you’re likely to give major plot points away (see; most Hollywood horror marketing). Too little, and you end up with this. Or the Manhunt marketing drive of old. Where taken at face value, it just looks like you’re doing it because you can do it and damned be the consequences. Even if the scene is absolutely critical to the story – without context, it’s just a scene.

I don’t think Sony or Naughty Dog were quite prepared for the… reaction, as it were. But it’s an easy mistake to make. Better horror directors over the years have been just as guilty.

Just make sure that any future clips have context – or don’t need context. And if context requires spoilers – just sell it on the strength of it being The Last of Us: Part 2.

I’m pretty sure at this point that’s all you need to sell this game to people.


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