No Weapons, No Hope: In Defense of Defenselessness in Horror Gaming
That camera is no help against those raving backwoods cultists. Your lantern will not help you against an encroaching tide of acidic mould and lurching mutants. That flimsy Zippo can do nothing in the face of the demon that lurks in the places the light cannot reach. Your legs and your sanity are your only defenses against this tide of antediluvian horrors threatening to shred your body and flay your mind but even then they can’t always be trusted. It’s not the blood-crazed asylum patients or the things that live in the black space between stars that are the real horrors here. It’s the fact that there is no real defense against them that’s truly terrifying.
There has often been a push-and-pull factor in horror gaming just as there is in real life horror. It’s our most basic, lizard brain function: fight or flight? While many horror games like Resident Evil or Dead Space strike a fine balance between the two others like F.E.A.R or Amnesia: The Dark Descent fall on one side or the other. One is liberally defined as action horror and the other as a kind of hardcore survival horror. Whereas the likes of DOOM or F.E.A.R try to place survival horror on some kind of even ground the extreme nature of Outlast, Layers of Fear or the Amnesia series smashes that ground out from under your feet.
Horror is a genre prone to extremes. If you’re into the genre then it’s middle-ground can start to feel boring after a while. Eventually you start to want to expand your horizons beyond Stephen King novels and The Conjuring series. And so the various extremes make themselves known from the traditionalist, conservative nightmares of folk horror to the sanity-shattering sprawl of the cosmic and Lovecraftian modes.
Eventually these extremes reach a nadir. A point where the ever-increasing nature of their horrors overcome the story it’s trying to tell. It happened with novels in the 90s as a fascination with extreme physical and sexual violence became known as splatterpunk. A similar fad occurred with films in the mid to late 2000s when Saw and Hostel singlehandedly invented the torture porn genre. Games were different however as they relied on their mechanics to bring these extremes to players. With this new version of survival horror you were no longer watching someone flee the axe murderer rather you were fleeing the axe murderer.
Admittedly in a lot of these games you often played an average white man usually a journalist or workman or student. Someone with little combat experience but the legs of an Olympian runner and the arm muscles of a veteran BBC cameraman. Still they were all in first person and unlike Dead Space or the Resident Evil series these characters felt more like blank slates that players could project onto as opposed to well-written trauma banks like Isaac Clarke or good looking dumb asses such as Leon Kennedy. The best of them were genuinely scary as well. The Outlast, Penumbra and Amnesia series had their imitators, some better than others, but well designed AI combined with exceptional graphical fidelity made them the Kings of their new sub-genre.
Unlike torture porn or splatterpunk this extreme sub-genre of survival horror never really died. It has certainly foundered in the last few years but by-proxy scares thanks to streaming and some well-written stories have kept it alive, if on the back burner, of horror gaming. While the Resident Evils and Silent Hills will likely always commercially if not critically dominate horror gaming it’s indie games like Outlast, Amnesia, Layers of Fear and Visage whose influence bleeds into the mainstream.
It’s hard to imagine Resident Evil 7, especially that ghoulish opening, existing in the form that it did without the games listed above. Others like Alien: Isolation brought a much-loved IP back into the horror gaming world by adapting the singular monster of the franchise as well as its other features like androids and motion trackers into an Outlast-style game. It was the originality of these games, however, that made them special. Stories about institutional abuse, personal trauma, corporate corruption and state-sanctioned violence manifested themselves through invisible forces, diseased death cults, haunted paintings and mutilated child ghosts.
H. P. Lovecraft once said “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” and while naming something can take away the fear of it in a novel or a film the same cannot be said of a game. In a horror game the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of what’s beyond the next door. It’s one thing all horror games share, regardless of style or story.
We know that it could be a necromorph, a zombie or a Deep One just in the next room but that’s not going to change the fact that if they spot us they will chase and, if caught, rip us limb-from-limb. Games that provide you with weapons to fight the monsters allow you the opportunity of overcoming your fear by blowing it apart. A game like Outlast II never gives you that opportunity constantly placing you on the back foot and eliminating threats through scripted happenstance and acts of God.
Blake Langermann is part of a freelance investigative journalism team comprised of himself and his wife, Lynn. After their helicopter crashes in the Arizona mountains Blake is left searching for his wife who has been kidnapped by the depraved cultists of Temple Gate led by the bloodthirsty rapist Papa Knoth. Interspersed with Blake’s rescue mission and his recording of the residents’ fundamentalist atrocities are his nightmares of the death of his friend Jessica during their time together in Catholic School.
As the game goes on it’s revealed that Jessica was sexually abused by a priest at their school ultimately leading to her death after Fr. Loutermilch – the devil in a cassock in question – pushed her down some stairs. Although the play style of Outlast II and its contemporaries in this horror gaming sub-genre was rapidly falling from grace its story that connected the theme of the long-ranging effects of sexual abuse across time and space and how those in power connive to hide it was effective and horrifying.
The sub-genre’s effectiveness was tied not as much to the horror of playing it in a dark room alone but in watching someone else like YouTubers PewDiePie or Markiplier play it in a video or on stream. Amnesia: The Dark Descent was where horror gaming videos on YouTube broke new ground. People who didn’t play video games, let alone horror games, could now comfortably watch a Swedish man scream himself hoarse from the safety of their phone or laptop.
It was a symbiotic relationship as the personalities playing these games exponentially boosted the sales of these games. If it wasn’t for the brave gamers of YouTube willing to scare themselves shitless over a game than it’s easy to see how these POV, often extremely violent games could have gone the way of splatterpunk or torture porn. Instead they found a niche within horror gaming thanks to this consistent exposure but it’s time to see if they can maintain the originality they were best known for and then accused of losing in the middle of the last decade.
Announced within the last six months alone there has been a spin-off to the main Outlast series – The Outlast Trials – and the third title in the Amnesia series, Amnesia: Rebirth, is due out this autumn. Coupled with the recent critical success of Layers of Fear 2 it may be safe to say that the sub-genre of defenseless survival horror games is having its Renaissance after several years in the Dark Ages. To paraphrase Sinister screenwriter and novelist C. Robert Cargill: The proliferation of jump scares in mainstream horror will often bore those who are blinded to everything else but the scare.
To be fair there are many other kinds of scares outside of the ones that go bang but jump scares are far and away the most popular kind. It’s easy to see why games like Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs or Visage are largely ignored by the horror gaming community but by looking past its occasionally repetitive run-and-hide gameplay and more closely at the stories they tell it becomes clear there’s a lot more to appreciate than the things that go bump in night vision mode.