Editorial

Why Are Horror Games Stagnating?

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Alone in the Dark: Illuminations, horror, video game

Before we get started, let me just say, I am a huge fan of horror movies and survival horror games. Since I was three years-old, I was raised on a steady diet of horror flicks, good, bad, it didn’t matter. Those Saturday matinees at the movie theater are actually my fondest memories of my late mother. I will admit that as a kid video games were still fairly new, but I did have a copy of Haunted House for my Atari 2600. Once I played the first Resident Evil, Parasite Eve and Silent Hill, I was really hooked. I can’t even count how many Japanese survival-horror and horror themed games I’ve played over the years.

However, just because it’s horror themed doesn’t mean that it’s a survival-horror video game. That’s especially confusing considering what’s happened to the main Resident Evil series. As great a game Resident Evil 4 was, it marked a significant change in gameplay, moving the series away from its survival-horror roots into a horror themed third-person shooter. Since then, the floodgates have been opened, and all kinds of shooters have introduced various horror elements into their gameplay formulas. Considering the continuing popularity of television shows like The Walking Dead, that’s really no surprise.

Maybe the move to shooter mechanics is just an evolution of gameplay, or maybe it’s really the death of a genre. The original survival-horror games focused less on combat, purposefully putting players at a disadvantage. Being able to react and solve puzzles under pressure was a primary focus of the early games. Part of that design can be blamed on the lack of processing power early machines possessed. Early computers and consoles could only render a couple of character models on screen at a time. Thus, the only way to create any tension was to put the player at a severe disadvantage.

A helpless protagonist runs counter to the typical fantasy fulfillment psychology of most video games. Tank controls, and the scarcity of weapons and ammunition are both used to force the player into flight over fight. Typically, video games give the players atypical abilities, futuristic weapons, and amazing vehicles. The main characters are usually some combination of James Bond and Rambo. All together it gives gamers the ability to escape their ordinary life, and be the superhero they wish they could be. All of the tenets of classic survival-horror run counter to this maxim.

Resident Evil 4, horror games
Despite the popularity of all things zombie, the original survival-horror game formula isn’t for everyone. First and third-person shooters that give players inhuman abilities and powerful weapons are easier to sell than a game that makes you run away from your enemies. Honestly, it’s also easier to design a game that uses an existing formula, than to try to come up with new ways to integrate suspense with gameplay mechanics. As seen with popularity of Call of Duty’s “Zombies,” sometimes just changing out a few character models and animations is all you need. That being said, I doubt Activision could get away with selling “Zombies” as a $60 game.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some really good games that have been able to integrate horror elements into other genres. It’s easy to point at games like Bioshock, Dead Space and The Last of Us that have masterfully integrated a horror theme. Even Microsoft’s Gears of War found a way to spice up what would otherwise be a standard shooter, albeit a masterful one, with dark themes. The problem is, that for every The Last of Us, there are at least twenty Alone in the Dark: Illuminations. Ironically, Alone in the Dark is one of the original survival-horror franchises, though they’re not alone. Both the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises have struggled lately too.

As hit or miss as horror has been in gaming, it remains a favorite of developers. As I helped put together the OnlySP list of games for 2016, I was awe struck by how many of the games cited survival-horror in their descriptions. As big of a fan of the genre as I am, at some point even I started to roll my eyes at how derivative many of the concepts are. Unfortunately, that’s the root of the problem with horror games. It’s the same problem that horror movies have. Once a story has been told, whatever aspects of suspense it once held, have now been spent. So, where are the writers?

Anyone that knows anything about game development knows that narrative is very rarely the priority throughout the process. It doesn’t matter if Clive Barker is writing the story for your game, that narrative is going to be compromised. It could be gameplay mechanics, or budget. It doesn’t matter. At some point that narrative is going to be adapted into something else entirely. To be fair, when you’re making a shooter, essentially you’re just setting up the motivation for shooting a whole bunch of people or things. That’s not a lot of real estate to work with when you’re trying to create an original story.

Bioshock, horror games

Between producers, publishers, and marketing teams it is really tough to prioritize the storytelling. Even more so than film, for a narrative to stick in a video game, the whole project needs to work in a complimentary way. That means, not using an existing gameplay genre template and just plugging in a few horror elements. Unfortunately, that also means time and money. With the current economics of AAA game development, finding a publisher willing to invest in real innovation is becoming more and more difficult. Unless something changes good horror games are going to become even more scarce.

Which upcoming horror game are you looking forward to? Will the next great one come from an indie developer? Do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below, and make sure to follow us on Twitter (@Official_OnlySP) and Facebook where you can also sound off your opinions.

The opinions in this editorial are the author’s and do not represent OnlySP as an organization.

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Lance Roth
Writer, musician, and indie game developer in the Land of Enchantment.

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