Tag Archives: Horror

Horror Movies VS. Horror Games

So it’s the Halloween season, and things are gettin’ spooky up in here, so I wanted to take this time of the year to talk about some horror.  I don’t like horror much, but I find it interesting to talk about.  It’s a rare and impressive work that manages to get under people’s skin, and I think anything which can pull it off is worth talking about.  The strange thing is that horror movies are the bottom of the barrel in the film industry, whereas horror games tend to be pretty well-revered.

I admit this isn’t a site about movies, but I’m nevertheless a huge movie fan.  I spend about as much time in front of the big screen as the CRT screen.  Although they’re two completely different beasts, I think comparing movies to games has a lot of value.  They’re two opposite sides of the same coin: both are entertainment, but one is passive while the other is active.  The two have completely different approaches to horror as a genre, and I think they can shed light on each other.

The first thing we have to ask is, what is the essence of horror as entertainment?  The answer is subjective, of course.  My personal idea of horror is anything intimate and deeply unsettling.  Horror doesn’t just give you a quick scare and pump of adrenaline, it stays with you well after the fact.  But if you’re trying to actively give someone these feelings, it’s easier said than done.

Part of the issue is that horror is even a genre at all.  If someone goes to a scary movie or downloads a scary game, they go in with certain expectations.  Horror movies have trouble getting through to people these days because they’ve existed since the beginning of film.  Since games are a younger medium, they have the advantage of more uncharted territory.  Horror film, on the other hand, is plagued by tropes, cash-ins, and dead-end ideas.  Nevertheless, there are some movies that still manage to surprise people such as MotherSplit, and Get Out to name a recent few.  To me, that means there are reliable ways to freak people out.

I’m going to go out on a limb and  boil down the essence of good horror to a single word: investment.  The instinct of fear is rooted in survival, most often survival of something mysterious or powerful.    With an emotion like this, it becomes much more pronounced when the stakes are personal, and someone is directly involved.  Horror games therefore have a clear advantage as an interactive medium, because the player has agency and responsibility in this dangerous situation.  In a detached medium like film, the filmmakers have to use cinematography, character and world building, and intricate pacing to achieve the same effect.  It’s not as easy to make someone feel afraid of the unknown when the unknown is affecting someone else.  In his review of The Gallows in 2015, A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club gave the film a D+, saying, “Making audiences care about the characters is always a more effective fear-generating strategy than just knocking off a bunch of dimwits in the dark.”  That statement alone captures the point perfectly.

As far as pitfalls go, games and movies run into the same problems.  And that’s important.

If you look at widely discredited horror games and horror movies, a lot of the same problems turn up.  For example, some common gripes are linearity, predictability, and cheap scares.  These things make horror feel manufactured and dull.  A lot of poorly-made Unity games do this, and Five Nights at Freddy’s has taken heat for it.  As movies go, look no further than virtually any horror sequel to see what recycling a formula can do.

Conversely, the best horror typically takes normal characters and puts them through hell.  It also helps if that hell could theoretically exist in the real world.  I like to think of this as the “what-if” template.  Amnesia asks, “What if you woke up in a castle of nightmares?”  Carrie asks, “What if the invisible bullied girl in your high school took unholy revenge?” Silent Hill asks, “What if you had to confront a world of your own fears?” while IT asks, “What if you had to fight fear itself?”

A fundamental difference between excellent horror in games and movies, meanwhile, is that they use fairly unique methods.  Horror games use gameplay mechanics like sanity meters and limited resources to build tension.  Horror movies use compelling character development.  Horror protagonists aren’t particularly remarkable, which is intended to make them easier for viewers to project themselves onto.  The viewer feels along with the character.  All that remains is to manipulate characters to elicit genuine fear, as they slowly break down and change.  In the climax of The Shining, we feel fear as a once-sane Johnny tries to kill his own family, not only because of Johnny’s downfall, but because this fear is easy to understand.  We become invested in their survival as we imagine what it would be like to have this happen to us.

To conclude, if investment is the key to horror, then I’d say the greatest virtue to practice in any form of horror is patience.  You need to really work over the audience to make them feel unsettled.  Viewers want to understand the threat, to understand the unknown.  Knowing this, let them make certain discoveries while withholding others.  Make the initial sense of danger something relatively ordinary.  Let the consumer scare themselves a little bit first as they go down a frightening rabbit hole.  The slow burn of discovery will create something unforgettable.

 

Top 6 Horror Games of All Time

The coming and going of Halloween has left me in a bit of a spooky-scary mood, and then I realized something: I’d never touched horror games on this blog before.  This is something I immediately need to fix.  The horror genre is one of the most interesting genres of video game to me.  Horror games are able to reach out to the player unlike any other kind of game.  A genre that takes advantage of aesthetics, sound, and human psychology to deliver a gripping experience the way other kinds of media can’t.

And so I thought it might be fun to list the six best and/or most influential horror games (in my opinion).  Full disclosure, I have NOT played all of the games on this list, so that may slightly color my opinions on the experience of playing them.  But rest assured, I wouldn’t put something on this list without being thoroughly exposed to it.  That being said, on with the list!

6:     FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S

To call Five Nights at Freddy’s one of the best horror franchises is controversial, I know.  The thing is, when I thought about making this list, it was important to me to come up with a list that wasn’t based solely on gameplay mechanics.  Particularly for a genre like horror, good atmosphere and world-building are important.  Motivation and context are a big part of the horror experience.

Based on narrative alone, I just had to put FNaF on my own personal list.  The amount of red herrings, hidden messages, and complexity in the overall timeline of this series is extraordinary.  It’s been successful enough to catapult the franchise into film and print forms as well.  The huge amount of theory videos about FNaF made by the YouTube channel The Game Theorists is a testament to its depth.  In my opinion, this series is the best example out there of the animatronic horror trope done right.

Plus, just because my favorite thing about these games is the story doesn’t mean the gameplay isn’t compelling.  From the first time I saw the first Five Nights at Freddy’s, I admired the way it tampered with the power of the player.  In most of these games, you start out feeling firmly in control of the situation, but you have no real way of fighting the threats you’re confronted with.  The best you can do is ward them off, hide from them, or some combination thereof.  Completing the hardest challenges FNaF has in store takes nerves of steel.  It also requires a lot of skill to manage each situation, and even then, failure can come at any moment.

Above all, the sheer impact this series has had on the online gaming community over the past few years is incredible.  It may be the first time a horror game has become iconic outside of gaming, and for that I think it deserves at least some respect.

5:     CONDEMNED: CRIMINAL ORIGINS

Compelling horror isn’t just about creating a scary situation.  It’s also about making the player feel like they’re really there, in the belly of the beast.  Condemned: Criminal Origins straddles the line between reality and supernatural horror.  Its setting is not entirely mysterious — you play the role of a detective protagonist named Ethan Thomas in a broken down city called Metro.  Ethan finds himself framed for murder by Serial Killer X, whom he must track down by following evidence into the seediest parts of the city.

Meanwhile, some kind of dark force is twisting the people of Metro into horrifying, twisted creatures that Ethan has to fight past in his investigation.  The player has weapons, but in the same spirit as Resident Evil, guns play a special role.  Ammo is hard to come by, and the focus is usually more on first-person melee combat.  But even melee weapons wear down after a lot of use.  Combat is no simple task, either.  Enemies are intelligent and savage — they’re quick, they often counterattack right after being hit, and they even use cover.  Each enemy encounter leaves the heart pounding, and the game’s minimal sound design combined with its eerily realistic city environments create an atmosphere of constant tension.

Overall, this game is a great return to true survival horror, and it mixes intense gameplay with a to create a fantastic experience.

4:     FATAL FRAME

Fatal Frame is not a game everybody would know immediately, but it’s a classic.   Over the years, it’s become regarded as one of the smartest horror games of all time.  A staple of Japanese horror games, many place it in the league of Resident Evil and Silent Hill.  The game strayed away from the obvious route of making the protagonist’s main tool a gun.  Instead, it arms the player with a camera of all things.  But not just any camera — a camera that can weaken and capture ghosts by snapping pictures of them.

This concept of fighting ghosts with a camera is brilliantly executed in Fatal Frame.  Fighting the ghosts requires maneuvering around them, looking them head-on in a first-person perspective, and taking pictures to damage them.  The closer the ghosts are to the screen, the more damage each shot does.  This means that the player is essentially rewarded by staying calm but being more risky.

The series gets even better from sequel to sequel, with future installments like Crimson Butterfly doubling down on horror and appealing to the imagination.  That’s why I think that as a series, Fatal Frame is the best Japanese horror game franchise.

3:     RESIDENT EVIL

One can’t make a list of the best survival horror games without including the godfather of the survival horror genre, the 1996 game Resident Evil.  This game broke conventions left and right: it’s an action game that takes place in one major location, with set camera angles, gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds, slow movement, and limited access to weapons.

Resident Evil brought the zombie horror theme into the real world.   In this game, it’s impossible to mow down zombies in a wide-open area.  Every item that gives the player health, ammunition, and so on feels like a gift because of its rarity.  Enemies will even get back up unless the player burns their bodies, and most enemies are easy to waste ammo on.  The game focuses not only on being cinematically terrifying, but on making every encounter significant.  It’s difficult, stressful, and insanely rewarding.

Over the years, the Resident Evil series has lost its way, but the early games undeniably set an amazing precedent for horror games to come.

2:     AMNESIA: THE DARK DESCENT

Amnesia was a breakout horror classic a few years ago, and for good reason.  Like any good horror game, it mixes strong mechanics with a tense atmosphere.  The core of the game is first-person puzzle solving, piecing together information to make it through a maze-like series of dungeons.  Resources are limited, and the early 19th-century setting means that the player is given very basic pieces to work with.  The story plays out mostly through bits of information found throughout the game’s various rooms, making the story very dynamic.

This game also has an interesting sanity mechanic.  Sanity meters in video games are not actually new; Eternal Darkness did something similar.  But Amnesia sets itself apart by having a mechanic where doing things like wandering through the darkness without a light source or looking at enemies lowers the player’s sanity.  As the sanity meter gets lower, it gets easier for enemies to spot the player.  Hallucinations begin to affect gameplay.

The trade-off of not looking at the unknown in exchange for staying sane is brilliant design.  It forces the player to sacrifice their own grasp on the situation to stay sane.  The game only becomes more intense as the player learns more details about the enemies and story.  The game’s short expansion, Justine, is even more atmospheric and creepy in these areas.  Both plotlines tell great stories to add on to engaging gameplay.  If you ask me, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is not only the best indie horror game, it’s one of the best horror games ever, and I think it will stand the test of time.

1:      SILENT HILL

I just had to put Silent Hill at the top, not only for its incredible story and atmosphere, but for its pioneering design.  It shares a lot of survival horror features in common with Resident Evil: limited ammo for guns, persistent enemies, and out-of-control camera angles.

The rest of the game, however, is unique in how unsettling it is.  The game lets you loose on a fairly open area, which already gives you a very weak sense of where to go.  It also has an extremely low render distance that shows only the immediate area around the player.  In theory this sounds ridiculous, but in practice, it’s a brilliant move.  Poor render distance creates a perfect fog that deepens the suspense.  It also freed up more resources to use on other parts of the game.

Compared to Resident Evil, the dialogue and story of this game are also more disturbing.  The constant theme of Silent Hill is psychological trauma.  It’s full of dream-like states and nightmare scenarios that imitate the confusion of dreams.  It all oozes with a kind of David Lynch style of drama.  The player isn’t exactly powerless, but takes control of an very human character.  The protagonist and the player experience every beat of the story at the same pace.  Every one of the many, many dangers he faces is therefore relatable to the player.

What’s more, Silent Hill created a dynasty of several more excellent games.  As a series, these games expanded psychological horror to even greater heights.  Silent Hill represents what I think all horror games should strive for: fear of the unknown.  It was so far ahead of its time that to place it anywhere but the top just wouldn’t feel right.