Disclaimer: The opinions and viewpoints expressed by the various authors (including me) do not necessarily reflect the opinions and viewpoints of Neoseeker.
Remember when mainstream horror games knew how to be scary? Yeah, I do too. Nowadays, you just hear horror fans lamenting the state of the genre, declaring it dead while looking to the indie scene as an alternative.
Well, that's all well and good, because indie game development is certainly something worth supporting, but not all hope is lost for the mainstream. Sure, the horror genre once dominated by Resident Evil and Silent Hill isn't what it used to be, but don't completely rule out big-budget games. Within the horror genre, Remedy Entertainment's 2010 thriller Alan Wake was a surprise hit. When we step a little further from the genre, unexpected alternatives begin popping up, from Crystal Dynamic's Tomb Raider to FromSoftware's Souls series.
The Art of Fear
"But these aren't horror games," you might protest. True, they weren't meant to fall into that genre, but they're prime examples of how important atmosphere is for a game, how an empty hall can be ten times more frightening than one teeming with zombies. Perhaps the saddest yet most telling little detail is that none of the games named try to be frightening, but maybe that's the advantage they have.
The developers behind both the new Tomb Raider and the Demon's Souls and Dark Souls games clearly put a lot thought into each game's atmosphere, the medium of any given place, the deciding factor behind how you're supposed to feel when standing in a room or a cave.
Remember walking down an empty hallway, and being frightened by the sight of a single enemy? Moments like that are ten times more meaningful than shooting down and curb-stomping waves of mindless undead. It's about atmosphere, and the tension that atmosphere creates. It's why exploring an abandoned public restroom in Dead Island was far more interesting than killing entire mobs with your bitchin' crowbar.
Enemies, in my mind, are hardly the most important element in any situation if all you're trying to do is scare the player. Yes, they can be, considering they're the entire reason you're peering around corners while clutching your weapons for dear life in Dark Souls. You don't walk around a dungeon with an arrow already nocked and ready because you're worried about what lives down there, but fear isn't about fighting for your life so much as being afraid for it. This, I feel, is something that developers behind some of the biggest and most long-lived horror series have forgotten. As a result, we get these games that cling to elements of their horror roots while moving increasingly further away from the genre, until we're stuck with these action shooters that just don't play very well. I'm looking at you, Dead Space.
By comparison, exploration-heavy first-person post-apocalyptic RPG Fallout provides a more enriching experience than any of the major horror titles can. While games such as those aren't aimed at being scary, it goes back to the importance of atmosphere, where setting the right ambience makes all the difference. Abandoned vaults hold remnants of the dead, and old journals hint at the untold horrors that seem to transpire in every damn vault. The trick is to play on our fear of the unknown.
Doing It Wrong
Resident Evil is probably the greatest example for the mainstream horror genre's shortcomings. Here, Capcom has shoved the franchise into a limbo, where we wind up with games that make for bad action and bad horror, while the owners still capitalize on re-releasing the classics to feed our nostalgia. As for new releases, they feel increasingly more like caricatures of their celebrated past.
This iconic series has been slow to adapt over the years but has recently been making a notable transition from horror to action. In Resident Evil 5 added co-op, and as of Resident Evil 6, players could move and shoot simultaneously, which would theoretically streamline a combat system initially designed with horror in mind. Incidentally, this also what I consider to be the series' lowest point -- because what the heck was Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City even supposed to be, Capcom?
Then there's Dead Space, a relatively new IP when you compare it to the likes of Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Alone in the Dark, and so forth. I won't rag on Dead Space 2 here, because I know that some fans have easily justified the tone shift by citing the slasher sub-genre. Dead Space 3, on the other hand, took things a step further and wound up pulling a Resident Evil.
Was it a bad game? Well, no. Visceral Games actually did a pretty good job overall and made a rather solid action shooter. Problem is, the whole thing is still advertised as being a scary game, like its predecessors.
I had a ton of fun with my buddy, as we tore down armies of Necromorphs while wearing our promotional Mass Effect N7 suits. Those monsters really didn't stand a chance against our shotgun-lightsaber-carbine-rifles!
And that, right there, should already explain why Dead Space stopped being scary. Sure, the third game was way more fun than a lot of action games out there, but don't try to package a co-op shooter with customizable weapons as a horror game and expect me to not care whether I was scared or not.
A problem with these major franchises, if you ask me, is a complete loss of focus. Capcom, EA, and maybe even Konami are all so concerned with reinventing something that already feels so established that the end result feels kind of wrong. I can compare their games to the likes of Valve's Left 4 Dead and Capcom's own Dead Rising, two successful franchises that carry out the zombie theme without trying to be scary. Both of those IPs have an identity that doesn't need to change, using scary themes without trying too hard to be scary.
Now, Resident Evil is starting to feel just as silly as Dead Rising in many respects, while Dead Space comes off as an attempt to cash in on the popularity of third-person shooters. In both instances, subtlety seem nonexistent. Rather than rely on the feeling of isolation, cooperative play was adopted. Impressive melee attacks and weapon customization eliminate the fear of being overrun and overpowered. Enemies have also lost their edge, usually designed to be weak and numerous (i.e. The Flood from Halo) or outrageously huge and often ridiculous. Remember the final boss in Dead Space 3? Yeah. I'm not even sure what that was about. I wasn't exactly scared, that's for sure.
So What's Next?
What Capcom, Konami, or anyone will do now is difficult to say. We know that a Resident Evil reboot isn't entirely implausible, especially with Resident Evil 6 selling below expectations. Similarly, while Dead Space 3 performed exceptionally upon release, its success was not enough to make up the cost of development. No doubt companies saw a need to change their games, or I wouldn't be having all these thoughts on the matter, but if performance is anything to go by, they may need to change again.
Clearly, there is a demand for the classics. Publishers wouldn't be releasing HD remakes and retro bundles otherwise. Whether they believe that's enough to warrant a return to the old formula remains to be seen. And hey, I'm not saying horror can't evolve. Let's just make sure they actually stay scary when they do, rather than end up chasing whatever genre happens to be popular right now.
For the time being, however, I'm content with getting my fix elsewhere. Next stop? Metro: Last Light, if what we've seen so far is any indication. Haunted post-apocalyptic Russia? I'm down with that.
Follow Lydia on Twitter @RabidChinaGirl or check out her news and reviews every day here on Neoseeker.