Think of the scariest movie you’ve ever seen, the type that stuck with you for days, if not months, tugging at the mental strings that control fear. Do you have one? Great. Now think about the protagonist of that particular movie and the type of gun or martial art they used to finally destroy the unimaginable entity(s) that stalked their every move. What’s that you say? They didn’t have one? They ran around screaming and hiding the whole time without ever finding an equalizing force of some kind? Wow, that sounds like an absolutely horrifying scenario, I bet you‘re wondering why you haven’t found a game to match that kind of terror. I’m happy to report that such titles are out there, you’re just allowing way too much action to leak into your “horror” gaming.
Cousins maybe, but definitely not brothers
Horror games, like movies, suffer from the same stereotype that the horror genre is the same as having horror-like components, which is why the aforementioned hypothetical conversation has quite a bit of truth to its foundation. “Horror,” as a whole, is a pretty broad genre that more or less equates to subject matter that scares people. Because there isn’t any sort of universal fear that haunts the human psyche, the idea is somewhat subjective but if the intent is to create fear then there’s a good chance that it fits into the genre. This is where a distinction between the horror genre and horror components needs to be made.
Horror components, on the other hand, tend to be born from the horror genre but don’t necessarily make a medium “horror” just because they happen to be featured. For instance, there were zombies featured in Resident Evil and that was a horror game but there were also zombies in Dead Rising, which is the farthest from horror you can get while still featuring horror components. For those that are tired of hearing about zombies, look at the ghosts in World of Warcraft vs the ghosts in Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly, etc, etc.
Two games that I’ve played recently that pop into my head when making this comparison are Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. The first, an FPS adventure game, is arguably one of the scariest games ever made because the character you control is ill-equipped and has little to no knowledge of his surroundings and the obstacles that lay before him. The setting is dark, unsettling and moving from location to location is done with the type of tactical approach that has more to do with fear and less to do with finding the best position to fire from. Castlevania: LoS also has a dark, unsettling setting, horrifying monsters, and caution also needs to be taken when traversing the landscape. Castlevania, however is not a horror game despite boasting a plethora of horror-like components. The goal of the Castlevania is not to scare as musch as it is to entertain by placing players at the helm of a creature slaying badass. If that game scared you, please don’t play Amnesia, you’ll literally piss yourself and have a heart attack from fright.
I like you, Action, just not there
I’ll admit, my comparisons are a bit obvious considering that anyone who has played games understands that it’d be very difficult to confuse Castlevania’s action with the type of methodical creeping that highlights Amnesia, but there’s a reasoning behind these illustrations. The fact of the matter is too much action kills horror, no matter how intense or plentiful the horror components are.
I personally believe that to have horror, true horror, you need desperation and you need some sort of unknown threat lingering just out of sight. Having a gun, body armor or a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu tends to make “scary” situations lose their impact because once that threat reveals itself you have a way to potentially dispose of it. This is why putting Chuck Norris in a Friday the 13th movie would completely kill the tension.
This is not to say that to have horror you can’t have any guns or means of defending yourself, but those items should be limited because as soon as you’re able to confront an unknown threat and consistently defeat it then the unknown becomes known and desperation begins to fade, thus dulling the horror edge. Games like Penumbra and Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth achieved this by providing the necessary tools but still keeping the player more or less outmatched. There are games that seem to give you a bit more to work with, namely games that lie within the survival horror genre, but I definitely think that they tread the line. Games like Dead Space and Resident Evil scared the crap out of me in the beginning, but there came a point where I was either well armed or familiar enough with my foes that I went from being scared to being more cautious than anything. I still think of both of those games as horror games, but as the ability to consistently and effectively fight back increased, the horror decreased.
Let’s get excited about being a scaredy-pants again
I think this is important because, in all honesty, I think there is a bigger market for horror games out there. The action filled titles that supposedly fit into that genre aren’t true horror games and at times they give the impression that video games either can’t do horror or horror isn’t marketable enough. To me, the games with horror components are getting haphazardly lumped in with games in the horror genre and consumer confidence is fading because frankly, I think people get disappointed when they don’t get the scares they want. With confidence down, it makes sense that games like Resident Evil and Dead Space pump up the action to get more of an audience.
Just look at further iterations of those games, mainly Dead Space 2 and Resident Evil 4 and 5. I’m not saying that action ruined those games, but I can’t really say that they were horror games anymore either. Sure, scary stuff was going down but the desperation died when we were given a much larger toolbox to work with.
If gamers want to be scared like they were in movies like The Ring, The Exorcist or The Sixth Sense, they need to take a look at why those movies were so scary in the first place. Limited or no defensive capabilities + being left in the dark (both literally and physically) = wet pants. I think it’s dangerous to assume that just because you’re making a game you need to stick to standard or popular gameplay mechanics, like shooting guns in order to be on the safe side and sell your product. The aforementioned movies were extremely popular based solely on the fear they induced and I am 100% positive that games can equal that fear if not surpass it. You can at least hide your eyes during the scary parts in a movie, hiding your eyes in Amnesia would just make things much worse.
Giant Bomb (images)