The War on Terror: What killed survival-horror games?

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Posted on: April 7th, 2012

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“Silent Hill: Downpour” was unleashed onto the uncaring gaming masses last week in an attempt to bring Konami’s once groundbreaking survival-horror series back into the limelight.  The attempt has not been met with success.  That may just be because it’s a terrible game (oh boy is it terrible) but more likely it’s because the whole horror genre was brutally murdered a few years ago and no one has actually cared enough to notice.  Well I noticed, and I’m going to get to the bottom of this heinous crime and point the smelly finger of justice at those responsible.

Rest assured justice will be swift and not proportionate to the crime.

Now, perhaps it’s because I’m a desensitised and soulless shadow only tethered to reality due to each of my crippling psychological issues being in perfect balance but I find that even though I do enjoy a lot of different genre of games they rarely make me feel anything about anything.  Most of the time they’re really just an enjoyable way to pass the time but they don’t often inspire anything deeper than that.

That is why I like horror games.  When done right horror games can actually make you feel something, even if that something is the sensation akin to having your grandmother reveal that she is your father by showing you her penis.  They can provoke an emotional response stronger than a simple lack of boredom and in the right circumstance leave you feeling that emotion for a fair while after you turn the game off.  I call that “The Silent Hill effect.”

Like the Lynx Effect but, well, not.

Psycho-Sexual Undervibes

I personally find the best “Silent Hill” games deeply uncomfortable experiences that manage to convince me that the creaking noise upstairs is not my bedroom door but a psycho-sexual manifestation of my psyche come to laugh at my small…er…feet.  They’re lonely and oppressive and seem to know exactly how to make me feel ill-at-ease and frightened when literally nothing more exciting is happening than wandering through a deserted hallway.

A large part of that is because nothing is happening but the game puts me in a mental state where I continuously think something dreadful is about to happen.  Quite often it doesn’t but occasionally, very occasionally, it does.  And that’s enough.  The tease of the upcoming torment is enough to allow my mind to do all the tormenting by itself, in the same way the anticipation of getting an injection is always worse than the feeling when it’s actually happening.

So with such a unique experience to offer, what heartless monster would take the life of a genre with so much left to give?

“Don’t look at me.  I was washing my hair that night.”

The Big Question

It really doesn’t take much to answer that question though.  Listing a few of the big ‘horror’ titles of recent years we can solve this conundrum faster than Pyramid Head goes through wooly hats.  Let’s see, we have:

“Dead Space 1/2”;  “Resident Evil 5”;  “Alan Wake”;  “F.E.A.R”;   “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories”;  “Condemned”;  “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”;  “Dementium: The Ward”,  the “Decay” series and er…anything else?  Anybody?  Hello?

Okay I was stretching it a bit there describing all those as ‘big’ horror titles because if you’ve even heard of “Dementium: The Ward” then you’re in mortal danger of slipping into the arcane void that I exist in where any and all empty space is filled with laughing clown heads.

I, just…no, there’s nothing to say.  I hate clowns.

Taking the actual ‘big’ franchises on the list there (i.e. the first four-ish) a common theme quickly emerges like an unwanted erection on the bus ride to school – guns, guns and even bigger budget guns.  The most high profile horror games of recent years are all packed to the rafters with exciting set pieces, gratifying action and, well, horror?  Not in any sense I would describe.  Now I’m no psychologist (apparently regularly advising group suicide is not acceptable medical treatment) but it takes two main things to scare, and I mean really scare, a human being while playing a game – helplessness and fear of the unknown.

If we’re helpless and unable to effectively defend ourselves when indistinct threats lumber out of the corner of our eyes towards us they instill panic and this leads to the gratifying rush of unbridled fear.  If we’re unsure that we can fight something off and we’re unsure that we can run away then that kicks our ‘fight or flight’ response straight in the spine and leaves us a spluttering, terrified mess.  Even better is if we can’t fully explain or comprehend what the ghastly horror mincing towards us is then the part of our tiny monkey brains that tries to classify threats ends up mired in panic and this again leads to lots of wholesome terror.

“So, do you party?”

Fear Of The Unknown 

So with these two criteria in mind let’s apply them to, say, “Dead Space”.

1 .  Helplessness – the protagonist Issac not only has a snazzy suit of armour that has all kinds of helpful technology built in but he has access to the most improbably large arsenal of lethal mining tools this side of an African blood diamond operation.

2.  Fear of the unknown – the Necromorphs are an alien parasite the regenerate the dead tissue of their hosts and turn them into spindle-limbed monsters and that’s…er…it.  There’s nothing more to them, they’re just aliens.  Aliens that can be killed by any of the aforementioned mega-weapons at Issac’s disposal.

Not even half of what Issac has in Dead Space.

Yes in “Dead Space” the lights do flicker a lot and the monsters have an uncanny flair for dramatic timing but jump-scares and sudden loud noises are amateurish ways of provoking fear that only last for a moment and then skip off into the sunset on rainbow-coloured unicorns.  Lasting fear reaches into the deepest part of our mind and fiddles with the knobs in the way that one time your sweaty uncle tried to while your parents were in the living room smashed off their heads on ecstasy pipes.

“Resident Evil 5” is the same.  You play a beefcake hero so rippling that all he needs to do is flex his muscles and any nearby zombies burst into patriotic red, white and blue flames.  Not exactly the stuff of nightmares.

“My nipples are sunburnt and in incredible pain.”

“Alan Wake” starts out better because he’s a fairly normal looking guy who doesn’t immediately give the impression he’s capable of suplexing an ancient, abstract evil with his wiry writer’s arms.  Unfortunately the game quickly shows Alan to be a fucking crack shot with pretty much any gun so instead he just head-shots the ancient, abstract evil quite often in gratuitous (and admittedly glorious) slow motion.

“Like all successful writers I spend 8 hours a day on the firing range.”

‘F.E.A.R.” can honestly only be classed as a horror franchise in about the same way that Super Mario World is a horror game because it has Boos in it.

The F.E.A.R. Effect

In F.E.A.R. you’re a super-soldier with access to all the usual manly testicle enhancers plus you have the ability to slow down time to make your enemies even less of a threat to your bulging high-powered assault rifle.  Occasionally a crazy psychic ghost-woman called Alma will chuck a chair at you or mess about with the dimmer switch but it’s really a stretch to say this series is even on the same planet as scary.  Being able to headshot your enemies in precision slow-mo from two hundred yards away completely euthanises the terror-boner I like to sport during these precious moments.

In all of these action-horrors the enemies are not mortal threats to your life and sanity but just target practise to hone your already considerable kill-machine skills.  The slow paced dread and fumbling of early survival-horrors has been replaced with assured balls-to-the-wall action and trifling aspects such as suspense, tension or mystery have been chucked straight down the nearest well.

Why? Probably because “Call of Duty” happened.

He’s hiding his face in shame.

I’m not going to take a swing at the “Call of Duty” franchise because it’s far too big and easy a target but the fact that it has attained giga-success has made all other game publishers look upon it with envious eyes.  More generally this point applies to any big name franchise that’s sales can be counted in the tens of millions.  Why release a slow paced survival-horror game (that takes a lot of money and creativity to get right) to at-most a few million sales when you can rip off that latest “Gears of War” (or “Call of Duty”) and increase the possible sales ceiling by 5 million?  You can add a few dodgy lighting fixtures and call it action-horror to give it a unique selling point for the back of the box.  So what if it’s not scary.  Who wants to be scared anyway?

Horror Mutation

Mainstream survival-horrors have mutated into straight-up action war games that have you carving up aliens or zombies or parasites instead of humans but the end result is still war.  Action has waged war on terror and terror has been shotgunned through a fortieth floor window into the scorching mushroom cloud of bombastic choreography.

So where have all the survival-horror games gone?  Well, I think big budget action games have plenty to answer for but it’s not really those games’ fault.  For better or worse big titles like “Call of Duty” and “Gears of War” are popular for a reason; they’re well made and people want to play them.  Those games set the template of non-stop action with virtually no down time and anyone who hopes to achieve that level of success is probably going to copy that formula rigidly.  And it’s perfectly natural for other game publishers to want to get a part of that success and replicate the current big thing.  The demographic for horror games has always been much narrower than for other genres and with the chasm between big and niche titles widening to biblical proportions why wouldn’t a publisher take the safe bet?

So where does that leave the struggling survival-horrors?  Well of all the games I listed earlier I think “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” points the way forward.  It’s an indie horror game released on PC that pretty much gets everything right.  You are a man with amnesia struggling to get the bottom of the mystery of how you lost your memory and why you’ve left yourself a note saying you need to murder the man in the basement of the large castle you’ve found yourself trapped in.

All I can say is that it’s scarier on the inside.

You’ve no real idea what’s going on but you quickly realise there are nastier things lurking in the shadows than trench coat wearing sex fiends (mental note:  groundbreaking game idea?).  But the core terror comes from the fact that a) if you physically look at the creatures hunting you it causes your character to go mad and b) you have absolutely no means to defend yourself so all you can do is flee as the horrible aberrations relentlessly chase you down.  (Horrible aberrations that you can’t even look at!)  Since for most of the game you’re completely in the dark, literally and figuratively,  about what is going on it allows your mind to wander to all kinds of worrying places, and the monster encounters are truly terrifying because you are completely helpless against their onslaught.

It’s a great game made on a modest budget that gets the scares just right.  That’s where I see the whole survival-horror genre ending up; as indie PC games or smartphone/tablet apps with great ideas and true horror made on small-ish budgets.  Realistically unless there is a seismic shift in the current popular trends there just isn’t a big enough market to make big budget horrors the way they’re supposed to be, free from action spectacle and quipping heroes.

Player Culpability

Publishers don’t want to fork out money on something that sells less than a billion copies and any developers lucky enough to get big funding are under pressure to make the horror widely accessible which good old fashioned horror like your mother used to make just isn’t.  It’s disturbing and off putting and not as instantly gratifying as nuking an orphanage or whatever else you do in Call of Duty these days but that’s the way people like me like it.

“You picked the wrong orphanage, motherfucker.”

So the culprit then – accused of the savage killing of a once thriving genre – is finally revealed to be none other than…gamers. Me, you and us.

Twenty five million people didn’t buy “Call of Duty: Black Ops” by accident (I know, I asked them all).  The market sells what the customer wants and people want identikit shooters and manly men doing violent and not-at-all-homoerotic-but-watch-me-pump-my-shotgun things.  Though with this new evidence come to light we see now that it wasn’t brutal murder after all but neglect that brought horror to its end.  Survival-horror was drowning in the bathtub all this time and you didn’t even notice.  In that case we have no choice but to declare a mistrial and set all the guilty parties free to continue their wanton disregard for niche games.

But as a final point of thought before you leave, ask yourselves this question: who are the real monsters?   The horrible demons that lurk in the dark places of the now forgotten survival-horror landscape, or us, the game-buying public for neglecting a once proud genre to death?

The answer is the demons.  Obviously.

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