Of Monsters and Men: Thoughts On The Future of Horror Games

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.

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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.

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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.

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3 thoughts on “Of Monsters and Men: Thoughts On The Future of Horror Games

  1. starfyshlove says:

    This. All of this.
    Horror is my favorite genre, but I rarely ever see it done correctly.
    You hit the nail on the head here… true horror comes from within us.
    I’m more frightened by the twisted things people think but never reveal than the monster under the bed. At least the monster under the bed makes no pretense as to what their intentions are. People do, and people are more than capable of monstrous things.
    My only regret is that I only have one like to give to this post.

  2. N-Blackmore says:

    And soon, the monsters will return in a seemingly even more horrifying Amnesia a machine for pigs. The things that were leaked by the studios working on this deliciously terrifying “sequel” add to it, and I think its a smart choice to give a taste of the ambient atmosphere so that the players can already immerse themselves in what they’ll be facing. A facade of normality, under which lies something not so quite sane. Example:
    http://img202.imageshack.us/img202/4852/haxly.png the last line of this letter. Happy horror everyone

  3. aminugh says:

    I am finding horror games to be a funny department to wade through. I see FPS, Survival, Simple Shooters with Atmosphere Tactics, Puzzle Solving and many other approaches. I agree with this post in that the human element is probably the most horrific presentation of all, especially when you must make choices that go against your real world moral teachings. I would also argue that the real problem with horror gaming in general is that the big budget shooters and scyfys try to hog as much of the horror market share as they can get. Big reviews and coverage articles are given to games that rely heavily on action elements but offer only a helping of scary elements that really create a fleeting tense moment more than an actual scare, fright or dilemma. I thought Alan Wake was an excellent game deserving of horror recognition (even though it is modeled after shooters) because the atmosphere is so well delivered it keeps you worried and fearing for your survival throughout the entire game. The shooting is almost secondary at times as running for your life is the better option. The Penumbra series did not strike me as especially scary, it simply drives you mad and gets under your skin. There are many good games in the genre and I think many good ones slated for release but to define a full range of offerings by the typical BioShock/ResidentEvil/Dead Space level of offerings is to really cheat ones self of the many possibilities available to those who look deeper than the cover of main stream gaming and search for the little nuances that give each world a life of its own. Front line articles seem to focus hard on the larger commercial offerings as well which sheds a poor light on the mass that this genre truly has to offer. Horror games are not dead nor are they suffering irreparable damage, there are many new offering on the way…

    Routine
    Daylight
    Outlast
    The Evil Within
    Memory of a Broken Dream
    The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

    ..just to name a few. I enjoyed this article and just wanted to express my concerns with the root topic you deliver here. I agree with the general concerns surrounding horror games but I think it is up to us, the fans, to look deeper, pull out the guts and talk about the real currents underneath the flashing main stream lights.

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