A Late Little Diddy on Horror in Video Games

A few weeks ago was Halloween (oh geez, it’s been over a month, whoa, I put this off for so long), which, for many students on my school campus, means a full night of good music and over-excessive partying. I, not being the most outgoing of sorts, ended up avoiding the hubbub and raucous evening by spending my first weekend of light-schoolwork in the better part of a month at my parents home in Milwaukee. However, I didn’t miss out on the Halloween spirit entirely. Having learned that I would be in town for the weekend, a good friend of mine invited me over to his apartment to play a few Halloween themed video games– Double Fine’s recently released Costume Quest 2, the survival-horror game Outlast, and finally Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro’s playable teaser, or P.T. for the upcoming game, Silent Hills.

I would be hard pressed to say I found the latter two more enjoyable than the trick-or-treat-themed role-playing game. In total my friend and I spent about as much time if not more with Costume Quest 2 than we did with the other two games combined. Horror has never really been up my alley, and I’m not afraid to admit I’m lightweight enough to cringe my way through the first half of Cabin in the Woods, possibly the only thing close to a true horror film I’ve had any interest in watching. I’ve never really understood the attraction to scaring oneself.

That being said, in recent weeks I have started enjoying watching others get scared. In the video games space, we’ve seen this numerous times in the past few years with reaction videos to games like Slender, Amnesia, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and one of the three games we were playing Halloween night in P.T. There’s something about genuine fear in actual people– rather than actors in a horror film– that grabs my (and clearly many others) interest. It can bring a smile, even.

That being said, I have the same reaction when watching fans react to announcements at E3, or to Nintendo Direct announcements. This type of experience in some ways legitimizes the emotions I feel. I really like seeing that Nintendo is remaking a very great game in Majora’s Mask, and those watching the video agree. (Strangely, there are even times I’ll catch myself talking at a particular video, reprimanding the reaction-er for not having the same thoughts and opinions as I did at that point in the video.) The same idea applies to reaction videos to horror games: I feel a little better about being afraid of something by seeing someone else being afraid of it.

This isn’t a new and certainly not little-known idea. A horror film like Paranormal Activity was advertised by showing a crowd of people freaking out about what is happening on screen. Such reactions were repeated when advertising certain games. Alien: Isolation, very early in its advertising cycle, got different games writers to play the game in a dark room and filmed their reactions (if these videos aren’t on YouTube at this point, you’ll likely find them on a site whose writers took part, like IGN). Dead Space 2 made a slight turn on this advertising strategy with the “Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2” campaign, combining people being scared and disgusted with the idea that viewers would want to do what their mother do not like.

The biggest difference between the two mediums, one may note, is just the context in which the media is consumed. While horror films are generally advertised, and likely generally watched, in groups, horror games are advertised, and more than likely played, by a single player with no one else watching. Why that is the case is more likely traced to how either medium is generally accepted to be consumed– films in a multi-seat theatre and games on someone’s own couch. But there’s something even more interesting in the isolation of horror video games. Consider a generic horror film: in most cases, it’s considered a bad idea to split up. Horror films in general enforce the idea of strength in numbers, and watching a film in a theatre with a bunch of other people is, in many ways, exemplary of the idea.

But a generic horror video game is a very different beast. More often than not, a character in a horror game will be alone, exemplified by the two games my friend and I played in Outlast and P.T., and in other games, such as the aptly named Alien: Isolation. That isn’t to say there aren’t other characters in horror games, just that in most cases, you’re more than likely to be by yourself or leave those characters be through most of the game. Resident Evil 4 and even a game as highly populated as Deadly Premonition leave you by yourself whenever there’s any chance of danger showing up. There are exemptions to the rule, of course. Two similar games in The Last of Us and The Evil Within counter the idea surprisingly often, with several instances in each game (or virtually all of The Last of Us) having the player play alongside NPCs.

The Evil Within Daylight

That difference does bring up an interesting discussion about the subgenres within horror video games. A friend of mine the other day, while playing The Evil Within noted that he didn’t really feel scared while playing, and that the game was only ‘tense.’ It has been proposed before (though I don’t have the exact articles on me at the present moment) that adding some large means of survival to a horror game, such as a gun, eliminates much of the horror of being underpowered that you might have in a game like P.T.– a game, while not even thinking about this discussion, my friend who was playing The Evil Within found extremely scary (feelings towards both games of which I share). Because of these differences, there is more than enough room to differentiate the two into separate sub-genres.

The actual difference between the two is whether the game leaves you powerless or gives you means to fight back. Some might argue which term should be attributed to which type of game, but considering the long history of games like Resident Evil being commonly thought of as “survival-horror” games, I feel that term is best left with the games that allow you to fight back. Pure “Gothic-horror” then, would be the games that do not. The games that, while arguably putting more focus on plain survival than killing enemies, are centered on being in an unknown place, with unknown dangers, and with only the knowledge that you have nothing to deal with them. Games like P.T. would fit into this subgenre as well, which is an interesting deviant in its own right as there’s only a small section at the end of the game that can actually kill you– the rest plays off the genre so well that it scares the shit out of you anyway and you can’t tell the difference.

Alongside those two, there’s also a range of games that sit on the edge of “survival-horror” and possibly just branch out into what you could consider “games with gothic elements.” The problem with categorizing such games is how thinly the lines can be blurred. Is The Last of Us an action-adventure game with survival-horror elements or is it just a survival-horror game? There are many comparisons of that game I could make with games I would definitely include in the “survival-horror” genre, such as The Evil Within. But on the other hand, The Last of Us spends much more time and focus on the human interactions in the story with the infected as a backdrop that may serve as challenges in the game, who even at the end, are just lowly enemies which don’t iterate past the bloaters you run into early in the game.

Yet you could probably make the argument the other way as well. Do the gothic elements take over the story? Arguably the toughest boss is a cannibal who you must fight by remaining stealthy at all times and thinking through how to trick him. Is there really much difference between that and the four-armed, longhaired demon you have to find a way to burn in The Evil Within? The cannibal may be human, but the fight is arguably as intense and adrenaline inducing as the latter fight.

TLoU Image 4

Remember this scene from The Last of Us? It probably isn’t because of the zombies.

Other games that could be taken in the same way are Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, whose supernatural elements take over the latter half of the game, and BioShock, which eerily blends sci-fi and gothic elements into a wholly unusual and unnerving setting. Whether they are or are not part of the genre is arguable, but it is quite clear that whether or not they are, they still borrow elements from each other. The Evil Within, especially, has a supply system that seems at times pulled straight out of The Last of Us.

But even with survival-horror elements seeping into mainstream action games, I would propose that it isn’t the survival-horror that is seeing the greatest rise in use, but the “gothic-horror” genre. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is probably the game I would point to as being influential over other more recent games in the genre. Since then, we’ve seen numerous plays on the powerlessness exemplary of the genre, such as a very similarly designed game in Outlast (which also appears to have influence from BioShock, both in a character’s arrival at a location just after its collapse, and in some of the first-person cut scenes that start showing up early in the game), and Five Nights at Freddy’s, which limits the player even further by not even allowing them to move. The seeping influences can even be seen in AAA games like Alien: Isolation, which intersperses normal “survival-horror” gameplay with a virtually unkillable alien, and P.T., which uses a “don’t look at it or it will kill you” mechanic that can be traced to Slender or the sanity mechanic in Amnesia.

And to me, the biggest shame in the explosion of all these new experiences is that I’m not likely to play any of them. Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t see these games as bad in any way. It’s just that I realized at a certain point that there isn’t the slightest chance of me ever completing one of these games. It is something I realized while playing Outlast at my friend’s on Halloween. The horror film influence that makes the genre focus on the victim, on the character without power, on flipping around the “safety-in-numbers” principle and taking away anyone else to offer you comfort… that elicits a specific kind of reaction from a player like me. Whenever I watch a horror film like that, I’m very liable to yelp, flinch, cringe, put an arm in between the screen and myself, or look away entirely. That is not something a player can ever afford to do in a game where their survival is only as guaranteed as their ability to remain focused on playing the game.

When I first started playing Outlast, I didn’t start playing Outlast. There was a little security booth at the entrance to the parking lot in front of the facility and I found the small space under a desk within the booth quite comfortable thank-you-very-much. My friend played through the next hour or so, weaving his way through a building in between sounds of me telling him, “Can we just not?” Well, at least I wasn’t the one screaming whenever anything remotely close to a jump scare showed up. For the life of me, I could not tell if my friend screaming was due to the fact we were recording our reactions or if that’s just how he is, but I’m leaning towards the latter– mainly because he ended up falling for the same issues I did at the start before we even got into danger. Whenever he panicked, he died. He made dumb decisions like hiding under a bed while in clear sight of someone trying to kill him. (I understand horror movie characters so much more now. You don’t think when you’re running and scared.) After a while we gave up. However, even all that beings said, the reason we stopped was not because we were too scared to continue.

This is one of the biggest issues with survival horror games that rely on the player’s fear to keep them in the story and keep the gameplay intense: if you keep dying because you’re scared, the game stops being scary. It becomes a chore. This isn’t even a problem limited to horror games. Any game focusing on story suffers from similar issues. Try dying in Uncharted or The Last of Us multiple times (preferably not on purpose) and see how well you can stay in the story world. In horror, in a much similar fashion, it can take away the crux of the game and reveal it for what it really is: a video game focused on mechanics. No matter how scary it gets, the world and characters follow certain rules. But in many ways that’s a good thing for the genre in general. Desensitization is a word people who follow gaming news– especially in the mainstream news– may not like, but that’s exactly what is happening in such a situation: you’re becoming desensitized to the fear induction in the game.

What this means is that you can play the game more, and that’s a good thing for horror games. If you just got too scared to continue, the genre would die out entirely. The only reason my friend and I were then able to go in and beat P.T. was precisely because we were both already familiar with virtually all of the game from watching a large variety of Let’s Players and gaming journalists play through the game, eventually reaching the final iteration of the hallway and looking up on IGN the variety of ways to cause the baby to laugh three times– all while exploiting the game mechanics of “DONT-LOOK-DONT-LOOK-DONT-LOOK” to not get ourselves killed. It was still scary even with that knowledge, and every time the hauntings started, I could feel my blood pumping even without playing the game.

P.T. Wall

We stared excessively at this tabletop for reasons other than the Skittles.

So it isn’t as if the game just stops being scary entirely if you get desensitized enough to focus on playing the game. Jump scares would still get us, obviously, but the key here is that the blood-pumping moments were themselves drawing off of the same adrenaline inducing moments mainstream twitch-action games cause all the time and added in the gothic-horror elements to take it in new directions. As long as that didn’t become frustrating, it worked.

I feel that’s going to be the key in horror games for years to come, and something P.T. does well (at least for some, apparently). Remain scary without the scare factor making the game become too frustrating for the player to even want to continue. If games can manage that, the genre will continue to evolve and find new life at every turn. If it doesn’t, well, it will probably still be fine. I’m not sure I’ll play them anyway…

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