With each new year, it feels like I'm watching another horror series becomes less horrific. Resident Evil, Alien, and most recently, Dead Space. What started out as pure, hardcore horror becomes a fun, popcorn-munching good time.
But hey, that's okay. It's the natural way of things. Horror isn't mainstream.
Much has been made recently about the addition of co-op gameplay to Visceral Games' upcoming Dead Space 3. I remember a similar batch of complaints came up around the introduction of co-op to Resident Evil 5.
Up front: Broadly, I think Visceral has earned the benefit of the doubt. I remember lodging some similar complaints when they first showed Dead Space 2, and that game was fantastic. So, let's cut 'em some slack. However scary or not-scary it is, it's a fairly safe bet that Dead Space 3 will be a fun video game.
On to the co-op thing: It's true, co-op gaming hasn't traditionally proven to be all that scary. When I think of a horror video game, I don't think about playing it with friends. I think about being alone, in the dark. Sweating. In front of a door. You know:
I have to go through the door. I have to! But fuck, man, I do not want to. If I go through the door, that means I have to pass through the flooded basement. There's nowhere else to go. And yet I don't want to go through the door, I don't want to go fucking near that flooded basement, because there's SOMETHING HORRIBLE DOWN THERE, BREATHING.
It's the sick thrill of horror. I've felt the same way in nightmares. Actually, I've long been of the opinion that horror games channel nightmares even more effectively than horror films. You're really there, you know? You want to hide, but there's nowhere to hide. Nothing for it but to press onward and hope you wake up soon.
Picture that iconic Dead Space image with another dude standing next to Isaac. Yup, not as scary. Co-op undercuts tension to a significant degree.
Have you ever watched a horror movie with your friends? It's fun! But it's not as scary as watching one alone. But then again, it is really fun—and who's to say that making a good jump-scare co-op thriller isn't a great idea? That kind of thing could be really cool. It's not an accident that horror movies are so popular for couples on dates—there's something fun (and kind hot) about grabbing each other as blood sprays onscreen.
So, okay, Dead Space seems to be more Resident Evil 5 than Resident Evil 2. Put another way, it's more Gears of War 3 than Gears of War. Put yet another way, it's more Aliens than Alien. Which brings me to my second thought here: There's a pattern with horror, isn't there? The first in a given horror series is truly scary, and subsequent entries are less scary and more bombastic.
It doesn't happen with every series, but it still happens a lot—Evil Dead, Alien, Predator, the Resident Evil games and films… it would seem that the more popular something gets, the greater the chances it'll file down its teeth in pursuit of a bigger audience.
I asked Stacie Ponder, who runs the magnificent horror blog Final Girl and has seem way more horror films than I have, for her thoughts on the matter. She agreed with my basic idea that mainstream success and horror are incompatible, noting that the scariest films tend to be small-budget works made by a single (possibly deranged) director. "Every big budget has a fleet of executives behind it looking to earn back that money," she said. "They've all got a vested interest in the property and a say in what ends up on the screen. It becomes filmmaking by committee and it shows. Some of the greatest horror films of all time—The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, and so on—were made on shoestring budgets and were therefore solely the vision of the writers and directors."
On top of that deranged-auteur theory, there's something illicit about horror, something pornographic—it's outlandish to imagine a mainstream film being marketed in the way that some of the films in Ponder's splendid "Awesome Movie Poster Friday" series are marketed. It's so smutty! Historically, publishers haven't quite known how to market horror games either, from that strange, tonally inaccurate Dead Island trailer to EA's dumb and off-putting "Your mom will hate Dead Space 2" ads.
"John Carpenter once said that horror is viewed maybe a notch or two above pornography by the masses," said Ponder, "and I don't think that consensus has changed much since he made Halloween." The best horror takes us to a dark place, in which we must imagine ourselves in the place of the terrified, the powerless, the victims—and often, imagine ourselves in the place of their butchers, as well. Horror is exploitative by its very nature—it exploits our fears and desires in order to titillate and entertain us.
Just like in film, the scariest horror games will likely always exist at the fringes. But hey, the fringes of the video game scene have never been more buzzing with empowered talent! There are a good number of brilliant, terrifying indie horror games out right now, and more on the way.
Benjamin Rivers' Home is a creepy-as-hell exploration game. Jasper Byrne's Lone Survivor is a freaky low-res trip through a post-apocalyptic purgatory. The prototype for Slender, which is based on the terrifying 'Slenderman' internet legend, was truly terrifying despite being low-budget and unfinished. (Which reminds me: The scariest damned thing I've seen in ages is 'Marble Hornets', a super low-budget YouTube series starring the Slenderman. Go watch it. It'll freak you out more than any horror movie to hit theaters this year.)
Back to games: I'd be remiss not to mention the game that jump-started indie horror: Frictional's Amnesia: Dark Descent. That sucker was and remains balls-to-the-wall terrifying. The team behind that game appears to grasp horror on such a fundamental level (basically: hide in a cupboard while the thing you can't see hunts you) that I'd be surprised if the sequel, A Machine For Pigs, is any less of a frightfest. Ponder agrees that sequels themselves aren't always anathema to fear: "I think any sequel can be as scary as an original work if the creators can find new ways to utilize the essence of horror, which is what makes the originals work."
All of those games, including the Amnesia sequel, have something in common—they're not big-budget games from major publishers. It could even be argued that the essence of horror—vulnerability, panic, loss of control—runs counter to the things that make mainstream video games tick, things like power fantasy, mastery and progression. What's cool is that it's easy to be scary with limited resources—after all, it's what you don't see that's truly scary, and it's really cheap to not show people monsters.
We may still get the odd big-budget horror game that's truly scary (the Wii U's upcoming ZombiU seems like a candidate), but by and large, mainstream games aren't going to be the ones that really scare our pants off. And that's fine, really—fear is a dark, complicated thing, and it lives at the fringes by necessity. It's not the product of focus groups, or of user feedback.
Let the mainstream have their thrillers and their action-packed monster-fests. Let those games sell 5 million copies and spawn a dozen action-packed sequels. We'll find our scares someplace else—somewhere darker, off the beaten path. In the shadows.