This article contains minor spoilers about Bioshock Infinite and Silent Hill 2.
It’s a disappointing time to be a fan of horror games. Those of use who grew up on frightening classics like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame and Dead Space have watched our beloved franchises languish, morphing into boring, action-oriented shooters or devolving into uninspired, mundane fan service and schlock.
It’s been a while since I played a game that’s genuinely frightened me. I was ready to give up the ghost (pun very intended) and be content to have seen the heyday of horror gaming come and go.
Then I played Bioshock Infinite. Within the first opening minutes of the game, protagonist Booker DeWitt, is unwitting entered into a raffle. The prize is the chance to take the first shot at stoning an interracial couple to death. The scene, to me, was more disturbing and horrifying than any one of the waves of necromorphs I mowed down in Dead Space 3.
In fact, the entire concept of Columbia-which pairs old-time Americana with vehement xenophobia and religious zealotry- disturbed me. Part of it was that I live in country where people like Zachary Comstock are very real, and hold a significant portion of the population in their sway, and where racism and hatred of immigrants not only exists, but is actually a strategy used by public servants and politicians to gain and keep power. It left me shaken in a way that very like few recent “horror” games ever had. It also made me rethink my own views on the future of the horror genre .
Let’s face it, at this point we have seen just about everything. We’ve fought vampires in castles. We’ve wandered through haunted mansions. We’ve seen dismemberment and gore and have taken on just about every variation of zombie anyone has ever thought of. We’ve seen every otherworldly monster, demon and boogeyman in high-definition. We know what the “monsters” look like and we have blasted them to smithereens so many times that even the most twisted grotesque aberrations have become mundane.
But what about the monsters who look like us? The world of Bioshock Infinite evokes the very real horrors in our own humanity and history. Characters like Comstock evoke real life counterparts like Jim Jones and David Koresh. The game directly references real-life atrocities including massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee. The game reflects the ugly, bloodstained history of America lurking just underneath the glossy veneer of how we present the country’s history to our children, and it is truly unsettling.
The bloodshed, the genocide, that wasn’t caused by some horror from another world. It was human beings just like you and me. The actions of everyday people and their leaders are horrific. The prophet Comstock, the people at the fair about to stone that couple: they weren’t mutants or ghosts. They were just people. Their actions are more frightening that the game’s own “monster”, the Songbird.
Bioshock 2 also featured a number of great horror elements like gore smeared hospital to the freakish splicers. However, I’d again argue that the really horror came from setting of the game itself. Wandering through the wreckage of a failed society points out the uncomfortable possibility of our own could crumble in much the same way.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent, also features its own monster, one which chases you around throughout the game. However, I felt the real horror in that title comes from feeling of helplessness and the ever-present danger that your character will go insane. The monster may make you jump, but to me, what is far scarier is how the game’s mechanics highlight just how easy and quickly our brains can go haywire and betray us. A few faulty receptors or a slight tweak to our brain’s chemistry can send a human being into their own personal hell.
Stephen King, one of my favorite horror writers and an expert in all things frightening once wrote:
“We may only feel really comfortable with horror as long as we can see the zipper running up the monster’s back, when we understand that we are not playing for keepsies.” King is right. A read though his first successful novel “Carrie” reveals that the titular character, despite having supernatural powers, is less a monster than her ultra-religious mother and the kids who tease her relentlessly throughout the book.
The best horror, in my opinion, uses the supernatural or grotesque as a more stand-in for the things we truly fear. Think about Silent Hill 2. What is really more frightening? Pyramid Head, or the realization that “everyman” character James Sunderland was capable of killing his own wife?
I think those of us looking for the next great horror game should keep that in mind. While we may spend our days lamenting the end of strict inventory management and tank controls, true horror in games will need to go beyond just serving us up the comfortable monster in a rubber suit, so to speak. The next generation of horror games should push us into unfamiliar places, and ask us questions we may not want to answer. If we want a better class of horror, we need to have the courage to hang up the rubber monster suit and, as Bioshock Infinite did, delve into the monsters within ourselves.