Tag Archives: Movies

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.


Movies, Video Games, and Bridging Different Media

Video games have a sad-but-true record of mixing terribly with the movies.  Even those that manage to be entertaining are objectively pretty bad.  There’s a lot of people who want to see their favorite games treated with the cinematic majesty of film.  So far, there isn’t much hope.

EA has recently announced that wants to give Call of Duty not only its own movie, but its own cinematic universe.  This made my blood boil a little bit.  Admittedly I hate CoD, so that’s a big part of it.  But more importantly, this is a perfect example of why video game movies shoot themselves in the foot before they have a chance.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one to cover this topic.  The Game Theorists (whom I love dearly) made a video a while back that does a great job laying out the obstacles that game spinoff movies face.

TL;DR, one of the big faults of video game movies has to do with active involvement vs. passive involvement.  Cutting out the in-between experiences that normally rope the player in makes a normally engrossing story feel tame.  Admittedly, though, I have seen good examples of game universes making the leap to TV and film.  One such example, ironically, is the TV show Sonic Boom.  I say ironically because critics and fans severely panned the actual games that tied in with the show.  But that didn’t stop OuiDo! Productions from making a good show.  I’ll lay out the number of smart things this show does, but I can summarize the bulk of this manifesto in one word: caring.

Let me explain in the context of Sonic Boom – what I see is a combination of knowing source material and applying proper standards for the medium.  OuiDo! was tasked with making a cartoon based on modern Sonic games, and so they did what you’d reasonably expect – they emulated the relationships between their main characters as demonstrated in the games.

They then used these relationships to create smart and entertaining scenarios.  Every joke in this show feels well thought out.  I never felt like the writers phoned it in.  The dialogue isn’t just funny, it also makes sense considering existing content.  It’s full of instances of “oh, of course Sonic would say this,” or “of course Amy would do that,” without being blatantly predictable.  Basically, it’s a decent cartoon regardless of association, but it’s great for those who are fans of the series already.

Sonic Boom
Poster for the Sonic Boom TV show! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

This rule applies to just about any medium outside of games.  Respect for the source material is just as important in adapting games as adapting anything.  But then the issue arises of the transition specifically from games, an interactive medium, to passive media like movies.  In a way, games are a hard experience to compete with.  Even narrative-driven games are different from movies, because they lack the immersive quality of games.  But that’s not to say a video game movie can’t have value — it just needs to strike a critical balance.

On one hand, it’s important to remain true to any given series, and give loyal fans something familiar.  On the other, though there has to be a certain level of separation between, say, game and film.  A retreading of what the game has already done is going to bore fans and leave potential fans uninterested.  They might as well play the game instead.  One of the worst offenders is the new Ratchet & Clank tie-in movie.  Not only does it pull cutscenes directly from the remake, it fails to level up from cutscene writing to animated movie writing.  Again, money was the whole motivation for the project, and no caring went into it.  That’s a shame considering the fact that Ratchet & Clank has huge potential as an animated movie.

Although this statement may draw some criticism, I thought the 2006 movie Final Fantasy: Advent Children did this fairly well.  Sure, it’s a silly movie.   But its different art style and story compared to the source sets it apart, even as it maintains the personalities and narrative throughline of the original game.  It even treats the viewer to fluid action scenes that the game was missing.  After watching that movie, the game honestly became more appealing to me.

Final Fantasy Advent Children promotional art
Final Fantasy Advent Children promotional art. (Photo: p50310p via Flickr)


Plenty of video game movies might be great with just a dose of creative professionalism.  But another major component of this process, I think, is to consult the fans constantly.  Take things like art, details, concepts, even teaser trailers and put them out there to see what people think.  Generally, fans will know when a movie has strayed too far from the game they love, and even people who aren’t fans can probably pick up on the difference.  If nothing else, involving the fans will build brand loyalty, and it will likely result in a better movie.

Ultimately, I think even though making a movie or show out of a game is tough, it’s far from impossible.  In fact, as game narratives have evolved, I think movies and games overlap much better than they did even just a few years ago.  It’s all a matter of caring.  Of all the failed attempts at making visual entertainment out of video games, I get the sense that few of them really try.  In fact, some made them specifically as part of scams.  Making a full cinematic universe out of Call of Duty is not the way to do it.  Instead, companies should treat their movies as professional projects, and look to their loyal fans for input.  If done right, this can make the series stronger than ever before.