Why Modern Horror Games Are Not Scary
“They just don’t make them like they used to.”
You hear this a lot when you spend time with an older generation reminiscing about the past and the “good old days.” While the phrase is not always accurate, sometimes it has a fair amount of substance behind it.
Nowhere is this truer than the state of horror games. Horror in gaming has been subject to one of the most interesting and unique evolutions from its roots to its present state. Looking at a game like Haunted House on the Atari 2600, one would never imagine games such as The Evil Within and the Silent Hill series would be birthed from this type of game.
However, when I look at the state of modern horror games, I see a troubling trend: most of these games are not scary or even horror. Worse yet, some are blatant cash grabs made by cynical developers seeking a quick buck. Granted, there are exceptions, but it seems most games released nowadays labeled as “horror” are anything but and deserve those quotation marks. So what happened to our once-great genre? I am so glad you asked!
The Rise of Amnesia Imitators
Up until 2010, most gamers had not heard of Frictional Games. While some of us were enjoying their Penumbra series, many people still had no idea about this great studio. On September 8, 2010, this all changed. Amnesia: The Dark Descent was unleashed on an unsuspecting gaming population and proceeded to take the world and YouTube by storm. Hailed as one of the scariest games of all time, Amnesia soon led to a deluge of reaction videos, live streams, and Lets-Players screaming their heads off for the enjoyment of their viewers. This is where the trouble began.
With the success of Amnesia, imitators were inevitable. Whenever something is as remotely successful as Amnesia has been, imitators are drawn to the success like sharks to blood in the water. Like most facsimiles, the games trying to ape Amnesia missed what made the game work in the first place; hence why we now have a glut of horror games where we are unable to defend ourselves.
Many of the imitations simply removed combat from their game because that was all they saw in Amnesia: A game where players could not defend themselves.
In Amnesia, the mechanic fit with the world and the game was made with this design in mind. Many of the imitations simply removed combat from their game because that was all they saw in Amnesia: a game where players could not defend themselves.
But they missed the carefully cultivated atmosphere, the terrifying monsters, and the subtle things the game had which set it apart from others. Five years later, we are still seeing developers trying to copy the success of Amnesia and still failing to grasp why players gravitated towards the game. Instead of trying to make new games and explore new ideas, people are still trying to mimic a game which they do not even understand.
YouTube Fodder Attacks!
Another outcome of Amnesia’s success was the rise in popularity of YouTubers and horror games, specifically reaction videos and let’s plays. Just look at the views on these things, millions of people watched others be scared witless or act terrified as a result of this game. As a result, we have a new blight upon the gaming world, “YouTube fodder.”
Coined by Jim Sterling, this affectionate term is spot on in describing this new wave of greedy cynicism which has swept gaming. While the popularity of Goat Simulator and Surgeon Simulator videos contributed to this as well, most of this fodder is in the horror genre.
What is YouTube fodder you ask? Simply put, it is a greedy team cobbling together the barest minimum of what can be considered a game and releasing it through Steam with the intent of gaining sales through YouTube videos. (The fact these are even releasing on Steam and in general is a rant for another day.) These are not games. They are the products of developers with no sense of ethics releasing complete drivel.
These are not games. They are the products of developers with no sense of ethics releasing complete drivel.
Besides being morally questionable, this bunk is ruining horror gaming. It seems every day upon booting up Steam I am greeted by a new “horror” release. All of these releases being labeled as horror ensure quality horror games are harder to find for players who are less-informed. They also burn players out on the same experiences making players wearisome to try more games. Worse yet, these things seem to release nearly every day. No, seriously. Look at Jim Sterling’s channel. The amount of these releases is dumbfounding and terrifying. If these were paper, they would not be worth using to house break your puppy. We need a New Mexico landfill for these abominations.
Jump Scares ‘R’ Us
As I have mentioned before, I think what Scott Cawthon has done with Five Nights at Freddy’s is admirable, and I respect him for it. However, the series is another disturbing trend in the decline of quality horror: jump scares. As long as there has been horror, there have been jump scares. When used masterfully like in Alien, The Thing, or Resident Evil, they can be absolutely terrifying. The problem with FNAF is not the jump scare; it’s that the jump scare is all there is. Yes, the games do build tension and have some atmosphere, but every session of the game is essentially anticipating a jump scare.
See, the game relies on a simple pass/fail mechanic. You either survive the night or you don’t. If you do not, an animatronic eats your face off while screaming at you with the voice of a small child. The core of the game is built around the anticipation of this scare. Without the scare, there is nothing to the game. There is no escaping in a weakened state while trying to fend off monsters while tending to your wounds. No hiding in a nook while watching with bated breath as your pursuers attempt to surmise your location. There is nothing. Jump scares cannot be the foundation of the horror experience; they accentuate it.
Even if you could kill the beast, the knowledge that a perfect predator is constantly tailing you ensures when a jump scare transpires, you jump.
Think about Alien: Isolation. There were times when the xenomorph makes a surprise visit in an attempt to give you a passionate lover’s kiss. These moments are terrifying because you know the monster is constantly hunting you, and you can never truly conquer it. Even if you could kill the beast, the knowledge a perfect predator is constantly tailing you ensures when a jump scare transpires, you jump. Jump scares go hand in hand with other elements of horror to deliver a horrifying experience. Without the rest of the elements, you are left with an incomplete picture; a shadow of what could be.
All Filler, No Substance
While all of the above are serious issues with the horror genre, there is one matter which lies at the core of the problem. Most modern horror games reduce horror to bare scare-tactics and end up being anything but horror. This applies to the AAA and indie scene alike. Now there are exceptions, 2014 saw the release of Alien: Isolation, The Evil Within, and P.T. All of these games were a fine return for horror in the AAA market. While not perfect by any means, each game pursued horror in a unique manner.
As a whole though, the AAA market has all but abandoned true horror and has instead pursued some bizarre action/horror hybrid abomination. The Dead Space series started out with two solid entries, but the third entry devolved into a nonsensical action co-op shooter. With an exception for the recent Resident Evil: Revelations 2, Resident Evil has gone completely down the Michael Bay rabbit hole. Both series started out as tense, atmospheric experiences where survival was paramount and empowerment was scarce. Now they are the complete opposite.
Sadly, this mostly applies to the indie market as well.
Going hand in hand with the YouTube fodder and jump scare trend, most of the recent indie games forgo horror altogether to make the most unintentionally hilarious things this side of The Room and Birdemic. Seriously, go watch some of these things in action. Most of the games even fail to grasp a fundamental understanding of atmosphere, content to have the player wander aimlessly for thirty minutes while throwing random noises and poorly paced jump scares.
Most of the games even fail to grasp a fundamental understanding of atmosphere, content to have the player wander aimlessly for thirty minutes while throwing random noises and poorly paced jump scares.
In Silent Hill 2, you encounter the town and your first enemy within the first thirty minutes of the game, and by that point, the game has already established a fantastic sense of atmosphere.
The first thirty minutes of The Thing (the original 1982 film, not the poor prequel) has the first major alien encounter and gross out scene, but it also establishes place, characters, and atmosphere with incredible mastery. Most of these newer horror games are not even sure of their identity nor their goal at the thirty-minute mark. Strange noises and plodding around locations with no sense of tension or context does not equal atmosphere.
While I sound cynical in this post, I am hopeful for the future of horror games. The year ahead holds several promising games for us horror devotees. Perhaps even more encouraging though, is to see players and some prominent personas and pundits in games media speaking out against some of the more malicious of these practices.
We can expose these games for the shams they are, and we can refuse to give poor horror the money and attention they demand. People are calling out developers and spreading the word about these blatant pandering products, and that is a start.
The future for horror is bright, but we players need to do our part as well.
We need to speak up when we see cynical fodder littering Steam and point out YouTubers who play some of these strictly for the pandering. We need to support the good horror games that do get released, like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and The Cat Lady.
As consumers and players, we hold an extreme amount of power in our hands. The trick is to responsibly harness this power to better the gaming landscape and the horror genre. Until then, watch your backs. You never know what lurks in the darkness.
Stan RezaeeMarch 26, 2015, 3:18 amFeatured ContributorI would agree that the horror genre is suffering but jump scares are the least of the problem. The issue is the failure in leadership among genre icons that have abandoned the concept of horror in the hopes of pandering to the casual and CoD demographic. By genre icon, I mean Resident Evil. Prior to Alien: Isolation, I would consider Dead Space to be the last good horror game that came out. Everything else has tried to be action orientated like Resident Evil or have been milking the zombie genre.
The Soapbox LordMarch 29, 2015, 3:34 amFeatured ContributorJump scare obsessed games are only one of the problems I identified in this article though.
The main issue with jump scares is the fact there is now an entire genre based around this flimsy idea. Most of these games have no substace and are only built around the jump scares.
The horror leaders have been lacking, but we have had several indie horror titles to tide us over in the meantime.
The transition to more action is disheartening, but there are some releases which still try to deliver a more survival-oriented focus.
Ashley ShankleMarch 25, 2015, 12:05 pmAssociate EditorI used to be a big fan of horror games, particular console ones. To name a few:
Silent Hill series
Resident Evil series
Fatal Frame series
These all had really good atmosphere, bizarre stories, specific graphical limitations based on the hardware they were on, and most importantly generally unwiedy controls.
To me, a big part of the survival horror genre is having trouble surviving on all fronts. This includes not only intended gameplay factors, but also the inability to make out everything around you due to the visuals (because your imagination fills in the blanks), and controls being less than stellar. To me, you're not supposed to have an easy time with these games.
These very reasons are why I was so excited to see Kojima working on the first real Silent Hill game, and why I'm so down about Kojima leaving Konami after TPP is released.
It feels weird to say it in today's gaming market, but for me Japanese devs do horror best for the above reasons. Most of today's horror games are relatively simple from a story and atmosphere standpoint, and do their best to cater to the player instead of playing up to their instinctive fears.
The Soapbox LordMarch 28, 2015, 12:41 amFeatured ContributorJapanese devs have their finger on the pulse of fear. They also tend to gravitate more towards the cerebral, psychological horror instead of the more jump scare focused horror of American games.
Victor RenMarch 24, 2015, 8:13 pmColumnistWith the disappointing state of horror in the many forms of media, I think it some of it is because of how many people have become desensitized to being scared. After watching so much movies, and playing games, we all expect each experience to be scarier than the last. As Auverin expressed his less than impressed experience about The Evil Within, I was terrified when playing that game.
I really like the horror that tries to mess with your head though, and that is why I'm much more of a psych thriller fan than horror when it comes to movies. Sometimes those experiences are harder to create though without trying to confuse someone.
The Soapbox LordMarch 24, 2015, 10:11 pmFeatured ContributorDesensitization does play a role in the problem. But it seems lately when horror is attempted, it is a poor attempt at the genre.
Sometimes the best horror is not labeled as "horror." For example, Gone Girl was one of the best horror movies I have seen in some time, despite it being more of a thriller than a typical horror flick.
Psychological horror is great, but tricky to do well. Sometimes though, confusion is part of the experience until the pieces click into place.
Thanks for reading!
Amanda WallaceMarch 25, 2015, 12:42 pmFormer Staff EditorI think there's space for good horror movies (and games in the same vein) as long as we think outside traditional means -- the jump scares that Soapbox talks about, for example.
Think in terms of the horror of the film "the Babadook." That movie was one of the most uncomfortably scary I've seen in a while, and in part because it relied on different elements that traditional movies. We need our gaming Babadook (or at least more Alien Isolation)
GameSkinny StaffMarch 24, 2015, 2:35 pmContributorI have to agree - but I have hope! Like Auverin mentioned, many horror movies are so much better recently, but only after about three decades of straight crap (admittedly, there were a few diamonds in the rough). I assume, hope anyways, that horror games will take the same route: the exploitative, pandering horror will get old and tired, and then horror will phase out for a little bit, and then the genre will eventually return with a horror game equivalent of Cabin of in the Woods or Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.
Right now, horror games seem to be in the Saw 6 and Hostel 3 phase of iteration. The original Saw and Hostel were great, but they did permit the development of the 'torture porn' craze that plagued the horror genre for years by capitalizing off the gross-out factor of films that were originally more about providing nuanced allegory for post 9/11 Bush-era politics than about providing scares & gore. Fast forward to Saw 7 and all the fascinating concepts are replaced with excuses to throw 3D viscera around. Let's just hope that we can get past this phase and onto the good stuff quickly!
The Soapbox LordMarch 24, 2015, 7:13 pmFeatured ContributorA Tucker and Dale vs. Evil gaming equivalent would possibly be the greatest thing ever. I am not sure could handle the awesomeness of such a thing. We can hope though!
I do hope we get out of this phase soon too! Until then though, we have plenty of classics to make the wait more bearable.
Amanda WallaceMarch 25, 2015, 12:43 pmFormer Staff EditorCabin in the Woods would have been the perfect place for a game tie-in.
Auverin MorrowMarch 24, 2015, 1:36 pmFeatured ContributorThe horror genre across all media has really been suffering recently. But the horror movie scene is improving markedly - though there is still a lot of utter crap, the stand-out movies are pretty darn good - and I'm hoping we'll start to see the same kind of shift in gaming soon.
I'd placed a lot of faith in The Evil Within, but it just didn't deliver the way that I hoped it would. Alien: Isolation picked up a lot of the slack, but none of them have been the Amnesia-level innovation that the genre really needs to break out of this stagnant phase.
The Soapbox LordMarch 24, 2015, 7:09 pmFeatured ContributorAgreed. The last newer horror movies I can recall enjoying were Cabin in the Woods and the Evil Dead remake. I think having so much garbage helps the really great ones to further stand out and get attention. Like you said though, horror is suffering in all media. Just look at the trailer for the new movie "Unfriended." -_-
The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation both failed in areas, but they at least tried to deliver a more horror-focused experience compared to other recent games.
I am worried the next Amnesia will bring a whole new trend and imitators, and this cycle will begin anew.