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Why atmospheric horror games fail at the register

(Please note that I will keep this as spoiler-free as humanly possible. Even though one of these games is 8 years old, any horror aficionado owes it to themselves to pick up a copy, and spoilers would be a disservice.)

I gripe a lot about modern horror games being as scary as The Haunted Mansion, but it occurs to me (as this is often the counter-argument I receive) that all of these games are huge hits or at the very least have decent sales numbers. But why? And more importantly, why are the games I consider to be scary not huge hits? As I have mentioned in the past, the games I find scary are the atmospheric horror games such as “Fatal Frame II,” “Silent Hill 2,” and “Clock Tower 3.” I’d like to note that I may now add “Amnesia” to that list. However, with the exception of “Silent Hill 2,” none of these games were huge sellers or hits — “Fatal Frame II” was probably the closest to a hit and even that is debatable. So why is that? Thanks to the lovely folks at Steam putting “Amnesia” on sale for $9.99, and the used marketplace on Amazon.com for a copy of “Clock Tower 3,” I was able to play and replay these games to come up with an answer, and it was surprisingly simpler than I had hoped. Bottom line: gameplay. (See? I’m not pulling the pissy elitist tone of “they’re just too scary, man!” Yeah, you’re welcome.)

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Hold still, there's a bee on your back...

The Clock Tower series started life during the horror game boom of the late ’90s, as a point-and-click affair for PC. It never really achieved much buzz until the late, legendary director Kinji Fukasaku, of “Battle Royale” (think “Lord of the Flies” with kung fu) and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” fame, partnered with designers to create the horrific story of Alyssa Hamilton. Released in 2003 for PS2, the game never peaked on any sales charts, and still remains fairly unknown, but it did meet with critical acclaim for its horror elements. Gameplay, not so much. So too with “Amnesia.”

Both games (and “Fatal Frame II,” as well), realized a crucial element to the horror genre: the feeling of helplessness. Part of what diminishes  games like the F.E.A.R. series and “Dead Space,” to me, is that while I may worry about conserving ammunition, I’m still packing a gun. Or a shotgun, or a damn rocket launcher. The challenge is “how am I going to kill this thing with my extensive arsenal of kickassery,” rather than “how do I survive this?” In A:TDD and CT3, the only weapons at your disposal, for the majority of the game, are your ability to run and hide. This adds a frightening dose of realism to the games because rather than playing Super Soldier of Fearlessness, you are playing Joe Everyguy who does not live in the world of left-behind shotguns and free ammo. Also, it answers the question of “how the hell do you shoot a ghost/shadow, anyway?”

For the first third of the game, this is wildly effective. You see something dart by your vision (more on that later), or something approaching and the only thought in your head is, “Saint Sabbat’s knickers! RUUUUUUUUN!! Gotta hide, gotta hide, please don’t kill me, please don’t kill meeeeeeee.” You hide, the danger passes and you tentatively take a step out to continue exploring. But eventually this mechanic becomes rinse-and-repeat in nature. Your thought process goes from panic to, “Aaaaaand we’re running, we’re hiding, we’re hiding, aaaaaand we’re out and exploring again.” Unfortunately, while this is initially terrifying, it means that the game doesn’t really evolve that much and can possibly fail to keep you hooked.

Until the last third. Once you start heading down the path towards end game, the stakes are raised and you are once again ripped back into the horror. In CT3, you face smarter baddies and have more obstacles to overcome. So too in A:TDD. Also, at this point, “the major plot reveal” has occurred, and you know it is fast approaching conclusion time. Now, as I mentioned earlier, I do not want to spoil these games by even hinting as to what they might be, ergo I will mention what they are not: they are not a version of you from the future, they are not Jimmy Hoffa in an oil drum, they are not your best friend turning out to be working with the bad guy the whole time. They are genuinely horrific reveals that either change the entire perspective of the antagonist, or rip the rug out from under universe of the game. Thus your fear is back to where it initially was.

Now on paper, this might sound good: two-thirds of the game is awesome, so who cares if a third begins to feel repetitive and slow? I completely agree and fully subscribe to this notion. BUT, when it’s that oh-so-crucial middle third, it becomes a huge problem. If you cannot get to the last portion of the game because you find the middle to be too slow, well, then, the game has dropped to a 30% of fun, and 10% of “Really? There’s nothing else? Screw this,” and the last 60% of the game remains unseen. “Silent Hill 2″ remains the only one of these games to not really suffer this middle visit to the doldrums.

If you can get past some of the wonky and less-than-imaginative gameplay mechanics, you’ll find some rather imaginative, original story and plot gems. The games rely on tension to build the horror element. Wandering around aimlessly, alone in a quiet building, when you first catch a glimpse of something dart down a hall or through a doorway, your expectations of what is to come are heightened. The reason the fog from “Silent Hill 2″ is so effective is that, more often than not, what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see. All of these games make excellent use of monsters darting just past your field of vision, or quickly across a room, thus leaving your imagination to run wild.

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Everything is a-okay here. Situation normal.

Horror games, by and large, seem to have entered “The Phantom Tollbooth” doldrums — a colorless place where thinking is not allowed. Most horror games borrow heavily from Hollywood, and have decided that loud noises and monsters with multiple arms and eyes are frightening. Can they be? Yes. But not when we’ve seen them a hundred times — and don’t get me started on the evil super mutant soldiers. Even worse when they’re tap-dancing in the limelight, begging you to come play with them. One of the reasons Pyramid Head was so scary was that he appears, does something horrific, looks directly at you hiding in the closet, and then leaves. He’s not for you to play with yet, but you know damn well that he’s out there. What kind of a head-trip is that? Most modern horror games reveal their hands too soon, and continually recycle bad guys and tactics.  Even the Silent Hill series fell victim to this. With nonsensical plots ala “Dallas,” and continued recycling of the nurses, I wonder if they even knew what made SH2 so scary to begin with.

I’m not saying that all modern horror games lack horror elements. I have admitted that “Dead Space” and “Dead Space 2″ made good use of sound and had some portions which were genuinely scary, namely the scenes in which Isaac’s girlfriend chased him down in DS2. But, overall, the horror level was cheapened by lousy scare tactics, lack of mood, pacing or atmosphere and an overwhelming sense of the developers trying just a little too hard. Same with the F.E.A.R. series, “Alan Wake” (which walked a little too close to the meta line for me), and the drivel “Silent Hill” has dissolved into.

At the end of the day, I feel like the  majority of games have instilled within us a desire to shoot at something, anything, as often as we can. We want to run around with a wicked cool weapon and plow through as many enemies as we can. If we’re not shooting or slashing, we’re not buying. Are there exceptions? Yes, of course. But overall, it feels like the post “Call of Duty,” “Gears of War” mentality has left a void for less action-filled, story-driven games.

About Jen Bosier

Jen lives with her husband, daughter and super-villain cats. If she's not reading comics or engrossed in a WH40k novel, she's probably telling you which horror games you should be playing. She's a recovering member of the PC Master Race, and a reluctant Xbox fangirl. You can also find her on the Furious Fourcast.

Comments

  1. best line: “more often than not, what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see”

    games have become so very centered on the visual aspect of the presentation that this lesson is either ignored or very difficult to implement. Same as hollywood– Michael Myers in Halloween was scary because he could literally be anywhere. he was not scary when you could see him. It seems that with interactive cameras and complex level design capabilities this could be exploited really well in a horror game, but I’ve not seen it done well, recently.

    I think the best example i can think of this was actually in an FPS: the original PC Aliens vs Predator back in ~1998. Playing as the marine, with limited vision, complex 3D maps where aliens and facehuggers could hide anywhere, and the ominous beeping of the motion sensor really combined to make for a tense and scary atmosphere even though you were armed to the teeth.

  2. Such a well-written article; my friend was just telling me about A:TDD the other day and how it’s probably a lot scarier than Dead Space because you don’t have weapons.

  3. Chewy2nd says:

    Silent Hill Shattered Memories shook the SH series back into shape though, eliminating the recognised traits of the series and taking the leap, Downpour looks to follow on in the footsteps of it

  4. Anne Lee says:

    I know this article is a month old and my comment might just get lost in your inbox, but I would really like to hear from you, Jen, about what survival horror game for the PS1/2/3 you would recommend someone who hasn’t really played any to start with. It’s a genre I’m very interested in, but I haven’t played much either than a bit of Silent Hill and don’t know where I should start! (Fatal Frame, Clock Tower, Rule of Rose…?)

  5. Anonymous says:

    (Jen here) Anne — Thanks for the awesome question! We take comment moderation pretty seriously here, so please rest assured your comments will never be lost in a mailbox!

    If you can get your hands on a copy of Fatal Frame 2 or Silent Hill 2 on PS2, those are great starting points. Clocktower 3 is a phenomenal game, but it is NOT for everyone. I think FF2 and SH2 are great points to discover whether or not you are a atmospheric horror fan, or a jump-out-and-grab you person. Also, while I love CT3, it’s very dated. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a perfectly acceptable substitute. You can generally find those games used on eBay or at GameStop pretty darn cheap. (Also, I recommend Silent Hill 2 with Silent Hill 3 as a close second, but NONE of the others. For the love all things holy and clean, avoid 4, The Room and Homecoming!)

    Good hybrids of monster-closet and atmospheric are “Bioshock,” “Resident Evil 4,” and “Resident Evil: Nemesis.” If plan ol’ monster-closet is your style, then “Dead Space,” “F.E.A.R.,” and “Silent Hill Shattered Memories” are pretty good starting points.

    I hope that helps! Also, be sure to check out this week’s podcast, as we answered your question from Facebook. We greatly appreciate your feedback, and look forward to hearing more from you. :)

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