The State of Modern Horror Games
A discussion on both promising (and questionable) design trends
I have recently been going back through my collection of PS2 horror games. In a way, I’d say the PS2 represents something of a golden age of survival horror. I often find myself comparing modern horror games to titles of this past generation — and I’ve come to realize that in many cases, modern horror titles just don’t resonate with me nearly as much as the classics. In fact, I’d argue that some modern horror games outright betray core principles of horror design. Let’s explore further.
As a video game genre, horror fell out of favor among AAA developers around the end of the '00s. The case can be made that financial duds like Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 played a significant role here — even though both of these franchises were (and remain) highly popular. In my view, another part of the problem was that these games increasingly focused on action horror as opposed to survival horror. Just to clarify: action horror games typically lean towards combat rather than adventure or puzzle-solving. I’d argue that many of these action horror games wore out their welcome for players well before the credits rolled.
What’s interesting is that as AAA developers began to drop the ball on the genre, the indie space rapidly stepped into the breach (something similar also happened with 2D games, especially platformers).
A clear example — and one of the earliest in this group of indie horror titles — was Amnesia: The Dark Descent, released in 2010 by Frictional Games. Frictional’s design team have, in the past, discussed the reasoning behind removing combat from their games and focusing on story and atmosphere. They felt that combat itself removed the terror and dread experienced by the player and that it was really removed from the core spirit of horror (this is a point I disagree with, and plan to write about further in the future).
What’s clear is that actionless horror games became a popular genre for indie developers. Besides Amnesia, notable examples included the slew of Slenderman-inspired games, the Outlast series, and Five Nights at Freddy’s. All of these franchises have something in common with each other: both the removal of combat and a heavy focus on story and lore. Five Nights at Freddy’s has grown into a larger phenomenon in part due to fan theories surrounding the core experience, as well as the connections between the various games.
So far I have attempted to provide some brief context around modern horror. There’s a definite history here that matters, and that gives rise to various trends that we still see playing out now. I’ve already indicated my disagreement with at least one major current trend — so I think it’s time to take a closer look at the things that concern me about modern horror design.
There’s no question that producing truly great horror isn’t easy. I’d argue that the very best examples — video game and otherwise — understand psychology. A big component of this is all about drawing the player into the world (and the unfolding moment-to-moment situation in the game itself).
Let me pause on that last sentence for a moment because there’s a lot to unpack. Think about what a developer must do in the context of both a game and a horror experience. There’s a fine balance to be struck around keeping the player invested in the actual mechanics while also ensuring they remain engaged with the horror elements. I suspect that this difficulty may explain, at least in part, why many modern horror titles simply ignore that balance and instead focus on the experience of a passive audience (who are watching and not playing) rather than focusing on the active participation of the player. It’s not just that developers are avoiding a difficult design challenge, though; it is also true that the landscape around games — and the way they are being consumed — has changed radically in recent years. Indie horror games became something of a craze at least in part thanks to the rise of major YouTuber and streamer personalities filming their reaction to these titles (big examples include people like PewDiePie and Markplier).
My hypothesis here is that horror games have become increasingly about the reaction of the person playing rather than the experience of play itself. This has led to an increased focus on jump scares and aesthetic design while gameplay itself has been neglected. In my view, many modern horror games look pretty but their gameplay is lacking. As the player, the core gameplay becomes highly repetitive and uninteresting in only a few minutes — but the game continues to deliver for the audience who are watching thanks to great audiovisual design and aforementioned jump scares.
So, in summary, when it comes to many modern horror games, I’d argue that many titles are far more interesting to watch than to play. But this phenomenon isn’t just borne out from the examples I’ve mentioned so far — it also surfaces when examining progression and pacing.
When I talk about problems with pacing, I’m referring specifically to the idea of horror experiences being built almost entirely around major set-pieces where the focus is only on the big moments, with all of the pieces in between acting in their service. This can lead to pacing feeling fragmented.
In practice, this means you can essentially split any horror game into “non-scary” and “scary” sections that don’t feel connected to each other. This has also given rise to many forced and fixed jump scares that quickly lose their impact. What’s worse is that it creates a noticeable mechanical layer that the player can see and feel — it’s more like being in a haunted house rather than a horror game.
Recently, I played Moons of Madness, which IGN regarded as “one of the scariest game we’ve seen”. But I felt the entire game was just an exercise in railroaded design and pacing. At one point you’re being chased by a monster, but then said monster abruptly stopped following me in order to move to the next event trigger. It felt like I could see the hydraulics exposed right through the monster’s skin.
In the end, there is a sense on the part of the player that they are being guided through an elaborate, choreographed experience, that the progression is somehow rote and by-the-numbers…soulless, perhaps. Truly great horror is all about hiding the smoke and mirrors from the player.
What does good look like, then? There are at least three recent examples that come to mind.
Nobody originally expected much from Resident Evil 7; especially after the failure of Resident Evil 6. When teasers started to appear that depicted a slower-paced game with a brand new first-person viewpoint, gamers started to get excited. And, while it wasn’t perfect, Resident Evil 7 was really the first game since Alien Isolation that represented a AAA developer’s return to the horror genre. The new first-person view, the VHS flashback sequences, and the focus on the uniquely terrifying Baker family helped to differentiate the experience from previous games in the genre.
Perhaps most importantly, this was a game that focused on the player’s experience as opposed to the audience. Playing through on Madhouse difficulty especially underscored the need to understand resource management and the ability to deal with enhanced enemies — both concepts that were conspicuously absent from horror games for some time.
King of the (silent) hill
It’s impossible to discuss survival horror without referencing the legendary Silent Hill franchise, especially the second game. The Silent Hill universe has always provided a rich background for compelling stories (despite Konami’s tendency not to focus on this as much in more recent entries). A town that shifts and transforms based on the perception and personality of its denizens is inherently interesting, and it leveraged to (mostly) great effect throughout the series.
Silent Hill 2 may not have had an alpha antagonist (bearing in mind that pyramid head didn’t actively chase the player) — but the overall structure was one of the best in the genre. The player was never fully out of danger (simply wandering around town presented a risk of enemy attack), and even when enemies weren’t around, players felt threatened by the claustrophobic nature of the interior spaces.
Here’s a title that also provides a different type of pacing compared to other horror games. Instead of trying to escape a desperate situation, you had actually arrived at the town to solve a mystery that continued to grow deeper the further the player progressed. Alan Wake adopted a similar style, though with a flatter and less nuanced mystery.
Perhaps the greatest shakeup of the horror genre in the last decade came in a form that would also become known as one of the greatest examples of the genre. In 2014, a mysterious demo from an apparently-unknown studio appeared mysteriously on the PS4 — it was titled, simply, P.T.
In essence, P.T. inserts the player into a never ending hallway in what seems, at first, like a fairly ordinary house. But each time you complete one loop of said hallway, something changes — progressively, the experience becomes more and more surreal, more and more terrifying. Embedded deep within the experience was a fascinating mystery involving a murder, a person being driven mad, and a threatening presence stalking your every step.
But P.T. wasn’t just about an intimidating atmosphere. It also presented unique puzzles, often involving the requirement to figure out a different solution to progress through each “cycle”. Bizarrely, the ultimate point of the experience was to solve all of the puzzles and reveal that P.T. was actually a playable teaser for the upcoming Silent Hills, a new entry in the famous Konami franchise directed by Hideo Kojima.
Of course, the relationship between Kojima and Konami didn’t work out. And although I don’t know if I’m going to be playing Death Stranding anytime soon, I would absolutely have played Silent Hills on day one.
Although P.T. features no combat whatsoever, the slower pace and focus on exploration was refreshing. P.T. did still make use of triggers and jump scares (just like the indie horror games I referenced above), but crucially, it also allowed the player to explore at their own pace and it genuinely challenged players with its puzzles.
Interestingly, too, the overall viewpoint and style of P.T. clearly inspired Resident Evil 7. This extended to the original demo of Resident Evil 7, which was also designed as its own self-contained mystery very similar to P.T.
Both Resident Evil 7 and the remake of Resident Evil 2 mark at least a small revival of the horror genre in terms of AAA studios. Notably, too, these games are markedly different from a design point of view than many of the popular recent indie horror titles. What this ultimately means for the genre in the coming years remains to be seen (although the obvious success of these titles — and the announcement of a Resident Evil 3 remake — definitely indicate that, at least for a while yet, there will continue to be some sort of AAA focus on the genre).
Whatever happens, if developers want to see horror continue as a genre — and if it’s to continue to evolve — it must diversify and outgrow the idea of simply hiding from overly-choreographed enemies.
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