To jump tardily onto the Halloween wagon, which is an incredibly embarrassing way to get into town, I’m going to take a look at horror.
Horror films have reached an odd point. Unlike almost any other genre, they’re able to (if they wish) trade off one specific reaction over and above every other element. There is a section of their audience that see them only for the rush of the jump scare, and so, in some cases, that’s their product. The acting, story, set design, cinematography are all just fancy vessels through which to deliver it, like washing down paracetamol with cava.
Except you don’t even need cava. You can use lambrini. That’s why you’ll often see a cast of completely new faces, a setting chosen by tacking the words ‘woods’, ‘camp’, ‘hospital’ and ‘main character’s new house’ to boxed gazelles near a panther, and a budget of around $5 million.
This isn’t always the case, obviously, as recent films like The Babadook and It Follows can testify. In fact, even films that tick all the above boxes can be good. It’s just that the language of modern horror film is mired in a swamp of quick-release endorphins, because, like in any language, the successful and repeated use of the same concept will ensure that concept common use for years to come.
And the problem with something repeatedly proving successful is that it makes unproven alternatives unappealing. Given the choice of three plates, do you take the thing that’s definitely a pork chop, the thing that’s definitely seasoned cabbage or the central grey mound of non-descript food product? It may be very good non-descript food product, but you know what pork is.
These issues are compounded by the fact that there are certain things that are almost categorically condemned in studio film. Horror films tend to involve a group of several or more people, for example, because a group of several or more people allows for things that only a group or several or more people can accomplish, like character conflict, arguing about the gravity of the situation and sex. Having one person won’t do, because one person can’t have a conversation and people tend to think of voice-over as being a lazy mode of storytelling. But groups make things less scary, because, as Jane Austen was apparently the first to say, there’s safety in numbers, which is probably where that whole ‘let’s split up’ cliché comes from. It’s having and eating your fear-related numerical cake.
This is one of two crucial differences between horror films and horror games. In the latter, there’s a definite tendency to leave the protagonist (and therefore the player) mostly isolated, shifting focus in two directions: onto the environment and, obviously, onto the protagonist themselves. The Silent Hill games, on top of being a compelling reason to scream the word ‘Cheryl!’ in thick fog, provide a great example. Secondary characters float airily in and out of the story, leaving you with unnerving hours of nothing but yourself, deserted buildings, and radio static.
Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation is another good example, as its title suggests. As Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda, players find themselves aboard the seemingly deserted Sevastopol station. Though they meet a survivor, Axel, early on, he is soon ‘aliened’, leaving the player to fend for themselves against less friendly survivors and a xenomorph. Again, the focus is on the player and the setting, and as the aesthetic borrows mostly from the first film, the setting is pretty perfect.
This isolation is prevalent: games like Amnesia, Kholat, Fatal Frame, Serena, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Layers of Fear all keep character-to-character interaction to a similar minimum, and this contributes to a facet of horror that films struggle to capture: the fear of being alone. Not being alone in the sense that your friends don’t return your calls and your cat’s dead, but alone in that childlike sense, that sense in which everything around you seems confusing and big and inhuman, and there’s no-one there to tell you it’s just a tree.
The second crucial difference is tangentially related in the sense that it relies heavily on the newly central environment to work: horror games tend to rely on uncovering a narrative that has already taken place. It’s part of the benefit of the newer medium. They can get away with fragmented stories, voiceovers, prolonged silences in a way that studio films really can’t. Of course, this doesn’t apply across the board, but put simply, horror films put a bunch of people in a horrific situation; horror games put one person in the horrific aftermath.
Horror in games is therefore a bit more revelatory. This is good. You’ve probably heard the idea that the scariest monsters are those you only see in glimpses, and that when you see the whole, undulating thing it tends to suck out some of the fear factor. Games often apply that logic to story, keeping players in the dark to keep them on edge. Almost all the aforementioned titles involve the player piecing together the story from snippets of voice-over, diaries, brief dialogue, the environment around them and so on, so the nature of what is happening to the protagonist, to the player, is never certain.
This allows for character and story revelations that cinematic horror can rarely match. In horror films, the more common scenario is one in which the viewer is aware what is happening but not necessarily why (films like The Thing, Psycho, The Strangers, The Exorcist are all good examples). In many horror games, players aren’t even given that luxury. The don’t know where they are, how they got there, why they’re there at all (Kholat, Amnesia, most Silent Hill games).
Rather than figuring out why a big man is stabbing their friends (blondes first), characters have to figure out the answers to more basic questions, questions with answers we all normally take for granted like ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is this place?’. Being deprived of such basic knowledge is part of the ‘horror’. It leaves you desperately searching everything around you for answers, and in the case of Silent Hill, ‘everything around you’ almost always reflects something awful buried in the character’s psyche.
In fact, in the cases of both Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON), it is revealed that the player character is essentially non-existent. In the former, you realise that you’ve been playing as your daughter’s perception of you, desperately searching for her against awful odds. She never really knew the real man, but she conjures an image of a determined father, searching for his lost daughter in horrific circumstances, for comfort. In the latter, you are the figment of a child’s imagination, playing out a story in his head.
Twists like this, twists that end in the phrase ‘…the whole time’, have been done in film a tonne, but what’s different in these games is the quality of the rug they’re pulling out from under you. For example, the ‘protagonist was the killer the whole time’ twist, a horse-corpse covered in flogmarks, relies on reversing the expectation an audience has of a character as well as that the character has of themselves.
Mark seems nice. We like Mark. Mark likes Mark. Mark is investigating some bad murders. But he’s having headaches, and seeing weird things. He’s lashing out more at his wife Sandra, and she doesn’t much care for that. Someone is leaving messages in blood on his parquet floor. He’s tearing his hair out. It’s raining outside. He’s drinking whisky. He finds the murder weapon. He knows where it must have been bought. He gets the security footage. He watches the security footage. His mouth hangs open if that’s actually a thing that happens to mouths. It’s him buying the murder weapon. Mark is horrified at Mark. We’re supposed to be horrified at Mark.
But we’re bored. We’re bored because this is grounded in the real world, and we have been told loads of things about Mark and where he works and his wife and his temperament, and now it seems like all these things are being rewritten to make the twist fit.
The beauty of the horror game approach is that we haven’t been told anything about our protagonist. We may know he’s a father. We may know she’s a journalist. But we don’t know who they are. The revelation is finding that out the first time, not the second. And by playing them we are made to feel more complicit in their actions: we are complicit in the Dyatlov Pass incident in Kholat, and in the euthanasia of James Sunderland’s wife in Silent Hill 2. That’s what’s so unnerving.
So, put simply, horror games outdo horror films by keeping you in the dark. And being in the dark is scary. That’s where sizeable chunk of the concept of horror comes from in the first place.