With Alan Wake — quite possibly my most anticipated game of this year — hitting stores in just over two weeks, I got to wondering: what makes a game scary?
Is it the music? The atmosphere? Monster closets? Clunky controls? A feeling of helplessness (sometimes due to clunky controls)? With so much to ponder, I decided to jump back and take a look at a few of my favorite horror titles/series and see why I enjoyed them, and whether or not they effectively cashed in on being a “horror” game.
Note: I’m going to stick with the core games of a series whenever possible.
Of course I’m going to start with Resident Evil; RE 2 was the first game I picked up when I finally bought my PlayStation 2. The series has obviously evolved over the years, and many would say it’s not even survival horror anymore. While I don’t completely agree with that sentiment, it’s not far from the mark. To me, the first three Resident Evils are more akin to Ridley Scott’s Alien, while RE 4 and 5 are more in line with Cameron’s Aliens; sure, Cameron kept the tension up, but having space marines packing some serious firepower made the sequel — still a fabulous film — more action than horror. But I digress.
The original games placed you in confined corridors and other tight spaces, and gave you very limited mobility (i.e. tank controls) and vision. Add in a haunting score and ominous sound effects, and the RE games managed to raise some neck hair. One could argue that, even from the beginning, Resident Evil had the makings of an action-oriented series. Possibly, but I still feel it was way more terrifying than anything.
A lot of people have tried to go back and just can’t get into the originals because they can’t get past the horrid controls, let alone get creeped out by the extremely polygonal graphics. Maybe it’s just nostalgia and an extremely geeky love for zombies and the rest, but I still enjoy playing Resident Evil: Director’s Cut, and yes, I still at least get an ominous vibe from the atmosphere of the Spence Estate or the Raccoon City Police Department.
I stumbled on the original Silent Hill about a year after it was released, and by then Capcom had already released Resident Evil: Nemesis. Konami took a slightly different approach than Capcom, what with foregoing the fixed camera angles and opening up the environments. Also, Silent Hill was even less about the action. Your characters were basically worthless when it came to fighting, and half of the time you couldn’t even see what was threatening you. It was all about psychology, atmoshpere. It was mood, mood, mood. And damn if it wasn’t effective.
Akira Yamaoka’s haunting, ethereal melodies were, paradoxically, almost as soothing as they were terrifying. The fog, initally creepy for its ability to conceal the enemy, was welcomed back with open arms after a trip to the rusted, industrial hell-world. Disturbing creations like the faceless nurses, patient demons, and the infamous Pyramid Head affected players on levels I’d never even considered. I remember some friends showing up while I was enthralled in Silent Hill 4: The Room, and when I went to turn it off so we could do something as a group, they insisted I keep playing; the twisted imagery immediately grabbed them, and, much like watching a car wreck, even though it was horrifying, they couldn’t look away — and that was one of the more panned Silent Hills.
Much like Resident Evil 4 and 5, the most recent Silent Hill — Homecoming — took a more action-oriented approach, and, consequently, it received some harsh criticisms. I still enjoyed it, although it was far from my favorite. Staying on-topic, the Silent Hill series has managed to, overall, achieve its goal of being horrifying. They have some striking differences, but as far as old-school horror gaming goes, Resident Evil and Silent Hill are both masters of their elements, and, if I were asked for a favorite, I would be hard pressed to choose one over the other.
I know I titled this section Doom, but I’m going to specifically be talking about Doom 3 because, lets face it, the original PC games were a little too, ah, primitive — shall we say? — to be anything more than a straight-forward FPS.
Although I loved it, Doom 3 was on the fence as far as horror games go. It managed to pull in some great atmosphere, but ultimately, it relied a little too much on jump scares and monster closets. This game is slightly harder to talk about. As I said, the originals were straight up First Person Shooters; there wasn’t much in the way of story, and atmosphere was non-existant. So, when you look at the jump from Doom 2 to Doom 3, the difference is like night and day. The problem is, even though they made some amazing leaps forward, it wasn’t enough; Doom 3 looked amazing and it had its creepy moments, but it was still trailing behind the horror games that were made a generation before.
To be fair, id probably achieved exactly what they wanted with Doom 3 — I doubt it was ever meant to be a horror-over-action game — but they did still try for horror, and that makes it fair game (no pun intended) to be critiqued for its successes or lack thereof. And, to be clear, by no means is Doom 3 a bad game; quite the contrary, in my opinion.
FEAR, or First Encounter Assault Recon, was, like Doom 3, a bit of a mixed bag; it was, to quote my favorite film and make a fitting analogy, “a predator posing as a house pet.” Also a FPS, it was a sci-fi/horror story wrapped around an action game.
Again, they managed to create some creepy atmosphere and some even creepier imagery, but their budget went to big, Matrix-esque shootout sequences. Lighting and sounds (or a lack thereof), really work in this game’s favor when it’s going for the scares, but those are kind of few and far between in the grand scheme of things. Really, this is what it comes down to: the scenes, although occasionally scary, ultimately feel out of place in this game. They do an adequate job of tying everything together via the story, but it never feels quite right.
With a lot of excellent action sequences and a few creepy moments, FEAR isn’t a bad game, but it isn’t all that great as a horror game.
Dead Space, if you don’t count FEAR 2 and Resident Evil 5, is the newest game on the list, and, by far, the newest IP (intellectual property). And that’s the most amazing thing: EA took a chance on a new — not a sequel — a new game, and it turned out to be, quite possibly the scariest game of the past five years.
Honestly, it made pretty much all of the right improvements in all of the right places. It builds tension, it has atmosphere, the music and environments are creepy. It doesn’t deal in tank controls, and you’ve got some pretty impressive weaponry (which, for the most part, aren’t weapons at all), but anything less and the baddies would tear you to pieces — which they’re apt to do, regardless. There are the occasional jump scares, but it’s really just good about making you paranoid…and then making that paranoia justified. The enemies are vicious and twisted and they’re cunning, too. They play possum until you’re standing on top of them. They hide in the ventilation system. They remain out of sight, making unnerving noises, teasing the possibility of making an appearance, only to remain hidden, just to throw you off your game (again, no pun intended).
Dead Space has a fascinating story, but it’s also a great game, and by that I mean the mechanics of it are way beyond competent. You’re mobile, you locked and loaded, and yet you’re still scared, and you’ll still die. But it isn’t ever a fault of the game, it’s just because you got careless and screwed up. Everything Resident Evil and Silent Hill did right — it’s here. Everything Doom 3 and FEAR did right — it’s here. Everything (or damn near it) those four games/series did wrong was left at the wayside. It’s not a perfect game, horror or otherwise, but what is? The point is that Dead Space has paid attention to the past and learned from it. EA went in knowing what kind of game they wanted to create and they made it happen. With Dead Space, EA proved that horror games can still be made, it just takes the knowhow.
And there we have it. Some games hit the mark, others fell short. But what seems to be the overarching factor is focus. Game designers need to know what they want going into a game and they need to think it through. Nowadays, everyone seems to think a game, even one that’s supposed to be horror themed, can’t have downtime, so they throw in action sequences. In reality, fans of a horror game like pacing, they like story, they like atmosphere.
There doesn’t always have to be something happening, as long as the game makes us believe something could happen at any time. Tension goes a long way — probably just as far as an action sequence. If gamers are constantly going to be in intense firefights, they’re never going to find the opportunity to be scared.
So now we reach the logical conclusion to this article. In the spectrum of horror games — some being straight horror, others being more action than horror, and some just being action trying to pass as horror — where will Alan Wake fall? I guess we’ll know for sure in two weeks’ time. Until then, here’s my initial impressions: Alan Wake looks like it’ll fall somewhere around Silent Hill and Dead Space — psychological horror and atmosphere appear to play a major role, and, if this article has taught us anything, those are both very good things.
But, keep in mind, this is just my take on horror games. I’d like to think I’m a fairly indicative of this group of gamers, being a fan of all things horror since I was a wee one, but some of you may disagree, so take everything I’ve said with a grain of salt. And yes, I’m well aware that I’ve skipped over some fairly major games. There’s always the Fatal Frame, Condemned, Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, Left 4 Dead, etc., but eventually I’d just be splitting hairs.