“Planted the fingernails in flowerpots all along the river when it’s dark, so the sun could hatch them. All the world is an egg, he reasoned. We will grow hands now.”
-Loading screen, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
When I was reaching double digits of age and owned an original Playstation, God’s gift to my gaming experience was the majesty of monthly magazines which came packed with a disc of game demos. It meant new games to try out every month and introduced me to a wide range of genres and franchises which defined my gaming tastes to this day. Lurking deep within one of these innocent-looking silver discs like a hungry spider, fangs ready to suck the innocent juices from my ten-year-old mind, was a demo for the very first Silent Hill. Before that, the scariest gaming experience I’d had was the drowning music from Sonic the Hedgehog, which while legitimately terrifying, certainly didn’t prepare me for the kind of horror that ambushed my poor little self.
Everyone who’s played Silent Hill remembers the alley scene. The demo’s first part picked up directly after the game’s intro, where laughably-voiced protagonist Harry has crashed his car and is chasing after his inexplicably fleeing daughter down the foggy streets of an abandoned town. The player could only see a few feet ahead, the fog masking the fact that nobody had any idea how to efficiently create big, 3d environments yet but also becoming a trademark of the series. The chase leads into a long alleyway, and then through a creaky gate. It suddenly turns to night, forcing Harry to navigate via lighter, there are creepy wheelchairs and weird industrial noise and air raid sirens in place of a soundtrack, and basically shit’s really just fucked.
Playing that, as my little self, I felt genuine terror like I’d never felt before. I was really there, in the game, walking forward into that nightmare despite my better judgement, and I could have stopped at any time. But I just had to keep going, keep pushing on and experiencing that fear unlike any other. The segment ends with a horrifying part where you’re cornered and unarmed, leaving you no choice but to just get stabbed to death by monstrosities, only to wake up in a nearby diner. It was all a dream – or WAS it? The feeling of dread and helplessness couldn’t have been greater even if I was actually being stabbed by faceless demon children at the time.
The first Silent Hill looks like crap today, with ugly textures and really silly animations, but its use of darkness and sound to create fear rather than just monsters and gore really popularized the idea of a genuinely frightening game. The enemies in Silent Hill aren’t even very scary. Sure, they can damage you, but you shoot them, they go down, and you move on. The real terror is in navigating those creepy, twisted environments barely able to see, surrounded by strange, noisy ambience like a malfunctioning machine. As a kid, the game felt “alive”. It knew I was playing it. It was watching. And at any moment, it would do something terrible and horrifying beyond what the fairly simple technology at the time could manage.
The medium of video games holds the potential to be the most frightening form of entertainment possible for this very reason. In a book or a movie, the story has already been created, and either the protagonists make it or they don’t. While there are plenty of wonderful horror movies or books, the experience of them will always be the same each time through. In a game, the protagonist won’t make it to the end without your help. Whatever he or she has to go through, so do you. If something jumps out, you’re the one who has to run away. If something sounds like it’s following you, you’re the one who has to keep looking behind you. The best horror games becomes a living experience, and for those with the right amount of suspension of disbelief, can invoke feelings of danger and dread that you just won’t get anywhere else.
The mainstream horror game has had bursts of popularity but for the most part remains a rare breed, and probably for good reason. The more a horror game starts to resemble a “real” game, the less frightening they tend to be. Naturally, they can seem like a risky investment for major publishers, which results more often in action games with horror elements rather than more subtle experiences. Resident Evil 4 might be partly to blame for such a trend, moving away from the slow plod of previous games and turning it into more of a shooter. While it was excellent, since then we’ve seen far fewer major horror releases that don’t feature lots of monsters and lots of shooting.
In fact, the best horror games probably aren’t even really very good games, from a purist’s stance. If you’re enjoying a horror game because it’s fun, something’s wrong. Looking forward to the next encounter so you can shoot more things and indulge in more action might be good from a game design point of view, but it’s not scary. If we’re really going to be scared, we have to dread even starting up the game, we have to genuinely not want to play, and the temptation to just quit out needs to be a constant one. We’re supposed to be miserable, and a particularly diehard horror fan is willing to overlook a great deal of design flaws in order to focus on the “experience”.
Not that a good horror game should be a bad game. And here’s where it gets pretty confusing. Everything should flow smoothly and organically, everything should feel like a threat, and a sense of dread and misery should be ever present, yet we should never be thinking of the game as a game. We shouldn’t be frustrated, and while we should be challenged, a horror game that’s oppressively difficult is going to lose its effectiveness once repetition sets in. If the creaking gears beneath the elaborate set start to show, if we get hung up on “game stuff” rather than constantly pushing forward, then the experience is broken and we’re no longer scared, just playing a game with horror elements.
A major player in the developing indie horror scene was Amnesia: The Dark Descent. With a limited light source, no defensive capabilities beyond hiding and cowering, and a sanity meter that diminishes for even looking at the lurking horrors within the castle, it made a major impact in the horror scene and is frequently mentioned as one of the scariest games ever. This all despite how very simple the game actually is. Exploration, puzzle-solving, and evasion are the name of the game, with no combat to speak of. Monster encounters consist of running and finding a good closet to hide in or table to crawl under and cower. It used what simple means it had to convey a sense of helplessness and vulnerability that was terrifying and had never before quite been captured so well.
Nowadays, it’s practically the norm to give the player no means of fighting back against whatever horrors are after them. While effectively frightening, this is particularly limiting in terms of game design. There is only so much a developer can do with such a limited variety of encounters, and helplessness strikes a precarious balance between terrifying and just annoying. Vulnerability is a great, and the more empowered and confident the main character is, the less horror is being presented, but to totally give up on combat and complicated systems in favour of simple evasion is very hard to keep fresh over a longer period. There’s only so much time I can spent whimpering in a locker.
Everyone’s probably tired of talking about Dark Souls at this point, but I’ll bring it up one more time just as an antithesis to the above. While you’re never helpless in the game, always armed and more than capable of taking down the monsters that shamble around the levels, the series has always excelled in creating a sense of hostility and dread in the world. Every corner you explore can mean death, every encounter, even the easy ones, can mean major consequences if you screw up. While not exactly scary, this sense of misery, a sense of actively hating the player, makes for such a strong sense of tension that many actual horror games are missing.
The problem with games is that they are mostly played by gamers. Sure, they might be achieving some crossover appeal and drawing in a broader and broader market, for better or worse, but in almost every case, people come into a game having played other games before. Just as a veteran of horror movies will see cliches coming a mile away, once the player has experienced a few horror games then they start to get hardened to the usual tricks and traps that developers use. And as scary as the game may be, if the seams are visible, if the game plays like a game, we’re all going to notice.
That’s why it’s less important to focus on the physical aspects of the horror experience, less on the ahhh monsters are gonna kill me, and more on the mental. The best horror feels like it’s truly inside your head, that it shifts and adapts to the player as they move through its world, and the connection between player and developer gets blurred. Things get surreal, you start to wonder if this really is the game anymore, if you were even -meant- to see this. Horror classics like Amnesia and Silent Hill have scary monsters, sure. But it’s not like they were scary because there were monsters in them. Rather, the sense of unpredictable darkness, of not knowing just what might be waiting for you should you press any further, of wondering if anyone else playing this game is experiencing the same thing.
Which is probably why so many people, myself included, hold up Silent Hill 2 as one of the greatest horror games of all time. In terms of game, it’s not fantastic. Combat is awkward and overly easy, with most monsters providing minimal threat and easily evaded. Controls are notably slow and unresponsive. Voice-acting is pretty meh for the most part, though it has its good moments. All in all, it’s not a game that’s played for the sheer fun of it.
Yet I consider it a classic. Not for being fun, not for having scary monsters, but because it is such a layered and mysterious experience. There are so many things that make no sense, yet seem so important. So much of the game is confusing, subtle, and yet speak of very deliberate placement. Why is that dead guy dressed like me? What is that invisible thing in the prison cell? What are those little whispers saying when I stand in this one empty room for a few seconds? It’s a horror game with something to hide, with hidden secrets that speak of something deeper, something darker going on beneath the surface of “oh no monsters I gotta find my wife”. It feels living and organic, easy to forget that everything’s there because a designer put it there. No, the strange, unexplained scenery and happenings are there because of course they are.
This kind of living, organic horror experience is what I so greatly love about horror games. With mysteries and secrets lurking in the dark corners, every player’s experience is going to be a little different, going to be uniquely their own, and it’s all the more frightening for it. The best horror isn’t about adrenaline, it’s about worry, it’s about doubt. Was that really supposed to happen? Should I be going this way? What happens if it finds me? It’s the kind of experience which erodes with the usual piece-by-piece deconstruction that many gamers tend to give games, but with the right mind, and the right willingness to be scared, horror games can become so much more than the sum of their sometimes-awkward parts.
With the genuinely scary mainstream horror game just a dream for the most part these days (Alien: Isolation notwithstanding), the spotlight is on the indie scene. Limitations on technology and budget are what gave us some of the greatest horror movies of all time, and embracing those limits has given has some great indie horror as well. Whereas big-budget development is all about wearing money on its sleeve, showing off its fancy monster design and next-gen gore effects, a small developer needs to work around its own limits in new and creative ways. That forced subtlety, if nothing else, is bound to eventually birth a new monstrosity, maybe even not entirely on purpose. I look forward to feeling like my ten-year-old self walking down that alley again.