Horror Gaming’s Past is a Gold Mine, It’s Future is Uncertain
It seems like horror gaming has been having a bit of a renaissance ever since Capcom got their mojo back with the Resident Evil 2 Remake. But that’s just not true. For the last while horror games have been acting out or straight up rehashing past glories. Considering how young video games as a form of entertainment are it’s safe to say that games like Outlast or Amnesia: The Dark Descent can be considered classics of their form at this stage. Like anything popular in the last ten or so years these first person horror games were cloned by mercenary indie developers looking to make a quick buck or cannibalised by mainstream developers like Capcom looking to shake up an elder statesman franchise like Resident Evil.
These aren’t necessarily bad things. There will always be people willing to cater to the jump scare junkies and there will always be AAA developers looking to the indie scene for inspiration but it does show a lack of initiative at the top and illustrates the endless contest between creativity and capital at the bottom. The best work currently being done in the horror genre is by tiny low budget developers like Redact Games or by mid level companies like Bloober Team whose recent game The Medium has shot them into the big leagues. It goes to show that a once respected horror game developer like Konami is aware of having failed fans of Silent Hill in the last decade that they hired Bloober Team to fix the mess or just that they saw the financial potential of a remake and just didn’t want to bother doing it themselves.
Modern horror gaming, in the mainstream at least, has found success in pandering to nostalgia. The remakes of both Resident Evil 2 and 3 were great successes even if 3 was a let down in comparison to the twisting, branching original. Capcom’s triumphs have spurred them on to further reskin their legacy. A Resident Evil 4 VR game is due out soon and I’ve no doubt a non-VR version will follow later. Hell, remastered versions of the much maligned Resident Evil 5 and 6 aren’t completely off the table I’d bet. There’s only so far nostalgia goes however and while I’m looking forward to a fully overhauled Dead Space as much as the next guy it’s unclear how far they can keep going with this.
To put it bluntly there aren’t that many mainstream horror games and there are even fewer that would be considered all that popular outside of Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Dead Space. Deeper cuts like Clock Tower, Splatterhouse and Haunting Ground are unlikely to ever get the kind of treatment lavished on the more popular titles. Basically there are a finite number of popular horror games that are financially feasible to remaster on the scale of Resident Evil 2. Further complicating this is the fact that there isn’t a whole lot coming up the pipeline to pick up the slack in the long development time between these games.
A lot of horror games rely on specific aesthetics and forms to appeal to players. First person or over-the-shoulder cameras gradually replaced the fixed camera angles found in Resident Evil and Silent Hill but now with the likes of The Medium and the more under the radar Song of Horror we’re seeing a return to this kind of idiosyncratic (and cinematic) way of presenting gameplay. The thing with this mode of presentation is that it’s not for everyone. Some can’t handle the suspense of not being able to see what’s around the next corner. Others might find the layout confusing. Fuck them right? Wrong. This unique way of telling stories will stick around as evidenced by its resurgence but if public demand is anything to go by it’s the immediacy of first person or the slightly removed immediacy of the over-the-shoulder style that will remain popular for the next while. If it’s good enough for God of War it’s good enough for Resident Evil 3.
Horror was a singular experience for a long time. It’s only recently that multiplayer horror games have been able to compete with and sometimes even overtake their single player counterparts. Games like Dead By Deadlight, Friday the 13th the Game, Phasmophobia and Among Us are all horror themed although calling Among Us a horror game is a bit of a stretch. But it’s thanks to the popularity of Among Us that the other games have found both an audience and a community. Players no longer need to rely on a developer to scare them instead the developers give the players the ability to scare each other. What’s better than hunting each of your friends down and butchering them as horror icons like Pinhead, Pyramid Head or Jason Voorhees? Not much according to the numbers.
Still, new forms of gameplay are emerging all the time. While Until Dawn is not a new game by any means it’s gameplay format is underused focused as it is on responding to prompts that feel more like a choose-your-own-adventure or point-and-click game dragged screaming into the modern day. The Dark Pictures Anthology is one of the only game series to use this format and, more to the point, use it successfully to tell stories that feel both fresh and frightening. FMV games still have their fans and rightly so but there’s something about a CGI Will Poulter investigating witch trials that feels more frightening than it would in live action.
The future is always uncertain. Doubly so for a medium as fluid as horror gaming. Over the last ten years horror has shown its incredible ability to adapt within a specific form of art and entertainment. Early experiments like the Left 4 Dead games proved that a multiplayer experience could be possible in horror but it took a while for anyone to really take that ball and run with it. Until Dawn showed how old point-and-click games like Clock Tower could have their DNA updated for mass market appeal and smoothing out the rough edges that come with age. Fear is as timeless an emotion as any and it’s constantly evolving. The future of horror gaming may be uncertain but as long as we’re afraid they’ll be right there reflecting the fear back at us.