Oh, the Horror!
Please enjoy our three part piece on gaming and Horror, written by the whole Ombra Team!
We all know that horror isn’t for everyone--some people dislike being scared, some can’t handle gore (me included, I’ll yell….loudly), and others have some deep-seated fears likely arising from some terrifying childhood experience involving a clown or an infestation of spiders. Horror has a pretty large following in the cinematic arena, with the most recent example being IT, which released this year to an opening weekend box office valued at $179 million. Equally popular is horror’s space in literature, with classics such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Dracula by Bram Stoker still occupying the modern psyche after over 100 years of being written. Less popular, I’d argue, but increasingly present, is horror’s spot in the video game industry. With popular releases like Dead Space, Alien: Isolation, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, all piling on in the last 8-9 years, horror in gaming is gaining speed. And yes, you can totally point to a lot of games pre-2008 that have horror elements, but I’d argue that as graphics and tech have evolved, the ability to make a scary game successfully has increased and thus, resulted in scarier games. Additionally, I’d argue that streaming platforms like Twitch have contributed to the rise of the horror genre in video games because watching people get scared is a lot more fun than being scared yourself.
But, for those of us that like being scared and like playing video games that scare us, the question remains as to why we like it. Is it the adrenaline rush that being afraid creates in us, is it the physical reaction our bodies have--the tingle down our spines and the goosebumps on our arms--or is it the emotional sense of dread dripping in the backs of our heads pushing us to go one more step, one more minute, one more level in playing a game. I’d posit that it’s probably some combination of all three for most people, but for me, it’s definitely that sense of impending doom--the notion that around the corner there is something waiting for me, ready to jump out or quietly stalk me as I make my way deeper into that stranded space station. Or perhaps what is even worse than wondering whether or not there is something waiting for me around the corner, is knowing that there is something waiting there, and having to confront this manifestation of my fear in the context of a video game. Noise-cancelling headphones, a quiet night, and a well-made horror game can equate to a next-level terrifying experience, one that’s especially well-suited for late October.
The horror genre has always been a staple in my life whether it comes to movies, television, or video games. When people ask me “what makes a great horror movie?” the answer is hardly an easy one. I’ve never had one specific taste when it comes to horror. Some people shy away from the gory style (cough Matt cough) while others immerse themselves in psychological thrillers. There has never been one particular style of horror that has stuck out to me. I’ll give just about every entry a chance as long as they put forth the effort to deliver a memorable experience. As I reference in detail on our upcoming podcast (check it out next Tuesday!) the Evil Dead movies are a favorite because of the way they incorporate multiple horror tropes well. There is a seamless blend of classic characters (the popular girl, the bookworm, the jock etc.), exaggerated gore that often elicits a laugh, and truly terrifying moments courtesy of a demonic presence summoned from the Necronomicon. This series is a perfect example of integrating multiple horror themes the correct way.
When it comes to horror games I look for an experience which would be similar to watching one of my favorite horror movies, such as the aforementioned Evil Dead series. I want characters that I can sympathize with, disagree with, question their motives, and even hate. I want the genuinely scary moments where I jump out of my seat and feel my heart racing. Most importantly I want a unique story that will leave a lasting impression on me long after the game is complete. No game has hit on all of these needs better than Until Dawn. Produced by Supermassive Games and released on Playstation 4 in August of 2014, Until Dawn puts you in control of an entire cast of characters where your choices determine who lives and dies by the game’s end. The premise starts off simple as the group of friends gather at a cabin owned by siblings Josh, Hannah, and Beth. While older brother Josh is passed out, seemingly drunk, the other friends play a prank on Hannah, who has a crush on resident hunk Mike. Once the prank is revealed Hannah runs into the woods, followed by Beth. The two fall of a cliff to their deaths which sets up the rest of the game. One year later the remaining friends return to the scene of the tragedy as Josh convinces them it’s necessary to help him get over losing both his sisters (for which he blames himself). It doesn’t take long for things to start going wrong leading the group to suspect they’re not alone on the mountain.
As the player you are given chances to play as every single character throughout the game. Not only are you given choices on which actions to take (such as take the long, safe route or take the quick, dangerous route) but your dialogue choices will affect the relationships the characters have with each other. Often times games attempt to give you these meaningful choices but by the end of the game you realize the decisions didn’t alter the end result all that much. That is not the case in Until Dawn. It’s possible to finish the game keeping everyone alive while there’s also a very real chance that you’re responsible for the death of every single character. The alternate outcomes give the game genuine replay value even after you’ve learned the ending of the unique and interesting story. Each character reminds you of the cliché characters of horror movies past but in the best way possible. There are comedic moments sprinkled throughout to break the tension that is present from start to finish. Add in the fact they knew exactly when to plug in some wonderfully terrifying jump scares and you have the recipe for a one of a kind, immersive horror experience. I have played through this game four times to witness the different ending scenarios and enjoyed every second of each play through. In the spirit of Halloween, I can’t recommend enough giving Until Dawn a shot.
The door to the village closes behind you, and you realize you’re in it. I’ve played enough games to know when my character has hit a point of no return; it was clear I had hit this point in Resident Evil 4. After only playing for about 10 minutes, I was faced with a new setting, into which I only have one path. Not really knowing what lie ahead, I pressed on.
This was the start of my attachment to the masterpiece that is Resident Evil 4, and I haven’t looked back since. This game had me clamoring to get back to my Gamecube every day, eager to tear through crowds of the undead, and anyone who has played Resident Evil 4 can probably relate. Every time I fired the game up, I became more deeply invested in the story, the characters, the gameplay - and in turn, the horror genre as a whole. RE4 grabbed me by the throat, and forced me to face some of the most intricately gruesome characters I had ever faced in my gaming experience. Sure, the character dialogue can be compared to an 80’s action movie, but that’s not what I was there for. I was there for the Regenerators wobbling towards me as I slowly figured out how to kill them. I was there for the fight on the lake with the Del Lago, smashing buttons as I swam back to my motorboat. I was there to be chased by wave after wave of Ganado, who would corner me in rooms and attack me with chainsaws. I was there to be scared shitless. Luckily for me, RE4 delivered the scares hand over fist.
I can’t talk about this game without mentioning the fact that it essentially revolutionized the industry. By sticking to the the directly-over-the-shoulder camera angle, RE4 set the standard for massively successful franchises like Gears of War, Arkham Asylum, and even The Evil Within (also directed by Shinji Mikami). I’ll go out on a limb and agree with Game Informer on this: it stands out as one of the most (if not the most) important third-person shooter to date.
Mechanics aside, it also redefined what a survival-horror game should be. A single zombie was almost as much of a threat as an entire horde, improvising when low on ammo was a lifesaver, and using your environment to gain an advantage could mean the difference between making it to the next stage - or getting a pickaxe to the head. How much more pure can the concept of “survival” be? Layered on top of this was some of the most gripping fear I’ve ever felt in a game. Between uncovering Salazar’s sinister motivations throughout the game, fighting Bitores Mendez in a burning building as his torso rips in two, and being chased through basement corridors by the Verdugo - RE4 whipped a unique flavor of tension and terror that was as fresh as splattered blood from a dead Plaga. Halloween is next week, and you can rest assured I’ll be spending it wiping the sweat off my palms as I gear up for another go in Resident Evil 4.
And so we find ourselves on this new eve of Halloween. What games will you be playing to spook you out? Do you enjoy horror games at all? Don’t look now, but there’s something behind you...