The Frighteners

Warning: this post contains no mentions of Michael J. Fox.

Apart from this one.

This is going a little while back now, but Eurogamer have got a neat little guide to survival horror that’s worth a read. As a primer to the genre it’s pretty good, but what caught my eye was a quote from Sam Barlow, designer of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories – 

“What’s cool about horror games is that they are not out to reward players, and that’s why some of the more arty games fall into the horror category”

I think that’s an interesting point, so good one, Barlow (I’m sure with my praise your career will have reached its zenith and you can now happily retire). The claim that survival horror games are somehow more artistic or avant garde than others is pretty lofty, but it’s true that some survival horror games are more interesting than they reasonably have to be.

I would say the best example of this is the nightmarish Freudian depth of Silent Hill 2, which skilfully blends surprisingly rich psychosexual horror with the somewhat less cerebral pleasures of smacking monsters in the face with a plank of wood. The Dead Space franchise, similarly, has an uncommonly dense mythology, and one would have thought that a game premised upon the strategic removal of limbs with projectile blades would have got by perfectly well without a plot, characters, or even a name.

I’m sure it’d be pretty self-explanatory.

The criminally underappreciated Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem took a pretty standard hack-and-slasher and elevated it with strong characters and writing, as well as a tightly structured story. But it was the game’s gloriously demented sanity mechanic that made the game special, where constant exposure to enemies would cause weirdly meta moments like the game volume dropping as a fake volume bar appeared across the screen.

There are countless examples of horror games that have unique artistic strengths, be it the hauntingly desolate aesthetic of Limbo (a game I would challenge anyone who has played it to classify as anything but survival horror), or the visceral gothic nastiness of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The only exception to this rule is perhaps the unadulterated B-movie silliness of the Resident Evil series, but I think the games’ hammy sincerity is a damn sight better than the obnoxiously ironic pastiche in games like House of the Dead: Overkill.

Maybe I’m thinking of a different kind of limbo…

Bercow argues that horror games are capable of this kind of ambitious artistic vision because they’re not always necessarily trying to be rewarding or fun. I personally don’t think that games have to be fun to be successful or immersive, but I guess the point is that these games regularly subvert or deny us the pleasures of more traditional games, often punishing us with an uncomfortable playing experience. The deliberately cumbersome control mechanics of the early Resident Evil games, for example, made it frustratingly easy to die, and the protagonists in the Silent Hill series are particularly susceptible to swift and merciless maulings. Even the Dead Space franchise, which has quite a muscular control system and a hero in power armour, often swarms you with endless hordes of malformed beasts, and there are times where you exit a particularly frantic battle feeling a little bit violated.

With these kinds of games there’s not the kind of gleefully psychopathic frisson you get in Modern Warfare when you clear a room of Russian soldiers with a succession of balletic headshots. I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that I mentioned Limbo and Amnesia before, because I think both could be seen as a transposition of two familiar genres – the platformer and the first person shooter respectively – into forms and tones that rob them of all their straightforward joys and pleasures.

These look like straightforward pleasures to you?

But that’s what makes horror games unique, because the victory condition is survival rather than body count. And that allows these games to build a distinctive mood and tension. In these games you feel genuinely frail, and that makes the constant threat of a grotesque disembowelment so much more pressing and urgent and uncomfortable.

You could argue that’s perhaps the reason why survival horror proper has kind of fallen out of vogue over the past five or six years, why old stalwarts of the genre like Resident Evil have had to reinvent themselves as fast-paced blasters to remain relevant, and why survival horror in its purist form has become the charge of indie developers with more anarchic sensibilities. I don’t think gamers like to be made to feel uncomfortable by games so much now, preferring more the unadulterated escapism of modern FPS killfests. Which is a crying shame if you ask me, because escapist enjoyment is not the only thing art should seek to affect. Why limit yourself to just one point of the emotional spectrum when fear and discomfort are as equally legitimate and powerful emotions to experience whilst playing a videogame as pure cathartic thrill?

Oh well, at least we’ll have the memories.

The SHATTERED MEMORIES. Eh? Yeah? I’m here all week.

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