Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Special: Horror Games!

Tonight, while the forces of evil and the damned walk the streets, I've decided to stay in. It's not that I'm scared, or that I'm too old to go door to door for candy. Most days, I could probably pass for an age where it's still acceptable.

I haven't dressed up or anything, but if it helps, I'm keeping the lights dim and playing some scary music. It's time to talk about horror games!

Horror games, much like the movie genre that helped to inspire them, come in a lot of different types. It's not easy to pin down the specific qualities of a horror game, and they're definitely subject to a lot of variations depending on the kind of horror game we're looking at.

My "unholy grail" of horror games is Silent Hill 2, Konami's unsettling, darkly psychological game that still feels like a nightmare I've had. Sure, the game had some issues - the control isn't great, and the English voice acting is pretty cheesy.

Forget all that stuff for now - the atmosphere of the game and the story it tells are both incredibly well done, and draw you into a thick fog that keeps you disturbed and uncomfortable. Coupled with the music, wonderfully put together by Akira Yamaoka, Silent Hill 2 pulls at you from so many directions. It has poignant moments of near-clarity that lapse into that thick fog, and the music is always there to set the scene.

To me, the set up of the plot is the ideal way to do a horror game.

Simply put, Silent Hill 2 starts off by letting you know what it wants you to, and it's not a lot of info. The main character, James, is in Silent Hill because he got a letter from his dead wife, telling him to meet her there. We don't get a lot of information, rather, we start in the midst of a kind of mystery.

That's really how I like my horror games to present themselves, and thankfully, it's a common setup. We're often thrown into odd situations that expand as we get further in, and if you're playing a well written game, you're not going to see the next step coming.

Another thing I see as a key element to horror games is tension. Part of tension is the actual difficulty of the game. Horror games shouldn't be too easy. The other way I consider tension is the thought that plot-wise, dangerous or unexpected things can happen whenever they damn well please. In a horror game, nothing should be sacred.

Earlier this year, I played Deadly Premonition - known fairly commonly as the most divisive horror game ever made. What I played is the director's cut, which updated the controls, the graphics, and some other stuff.

The interesting aspects of Deadly Premonition are its open world, and just how insanely wacky the whole damn game is. It's really difficult to describe the weirdness of the game - the characters are just strange, their interactions make very little sense, and by the end of the game, the big mystery is answered... sort of.

The best part of Deadly Premonition is how the game only takes itself seriously when it has to, which is during the murder parts (and even the murders are oddly comedic with the right set of eyes). Otherwise, the game feels so bubbly, somehow so 'light' that it makes itself more unsettling.

It's as if the moral center of the world collapsed, and good luck making sense of any of it. Every time something terrible happens in Deadly Premonition, something equally weird is on the way, ready to change the tone and put you through emotional whiplash.

If Deadly Premonition suffers anywhere, it's the combat. It's repetitive and pretty much dreadful, with the melee weapons being nearly useless in most cases and the guns hardly feel interesting. Early on, it's possible to do extra missions in the open world to obtain infinite ammo versions of the good guns, and trust me - you'll want them, because reloading takes too long.

There isn't much for tension caused by difficulty in Deadly Premonition, which is unfortunate. Luckily, there's a lot of tension caused by the plot and the depths of its dark comedy.

Now that I've mentioned action and combat in the terms of a horror game, it's only fair to examine that type of horror game a bit. I'll admit a bit of personal bias here; I'm more inclined to go with horror games that focus on the "psychological" aspects. I like my games disturbing and creepy, with a focus on what's not 'happening' rather than what is.

However, one of my favourite games of all time, regardless of genre, is Resident Evil 4. I spent a lot of time playing that game during my high school years, and even today, I find it holds up extremely well. It's an incredibly fun game with great weapons and even better situations in which to use them. And once you beat the game, that's when it gets excellent.

Unlocking Professional mode is where Resident Evil 4 takes off, because it ramps the difficulty up extremely. Remember what I said about tension? On Professional mode, Resident Evil 4 has tension in spades (if you're playing it without a New Game +, and if you've never done this, go do it, trust me!). Every situation is a few inches away from death.

In order to get through it, you need to be smart, and you need to be good. Even though the creepiest parts of the game come incredibly late, there isn't any need for that kind of thing at this point - the Professional mode has already provided us with one of the most nerve-wracking games in existence (although I admit part of this might be that I'm probably not very good at the game, although my hours and hours in Professional mode should have made me a master).

It's hard to strike a perfect balance between gameplay tension and atmosphere. I'm really not sure if any game has pulled it off. Even in the realm of horror games, you can't make a game blindingly difficult and expect it to sell, especially nowadays. Horror games have another commonality with horror movies - they became very popular, so they have a wide (potential) audience.

So, what happens to the horror game now? What are developers aiming for?

Frictional Games did horror justice with Amnesia: The Dark Descent in 2010. Played from a first person perspective, they did an amazing job balancing the two types of tension. By taking away access to weapons, the player is forced into a "flight" reaction whenever enemies appear. There is no fight, so you need to get the hell away - but monsters are fast once they spot you, and Daniel's sanity starts to wane.

Keeping your sanity up is crucial, because you don't want Daniel hallucinating and drawing attention to himself. Sanity has been played with in other horror games, like the wonderful Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (a game that I've played far too little of), but I really like how The Dark Descent dealt with it.

I haven't gotten around to playing A Machine For Pigs yet, but I've heard good things about it, keeping in line with the previous Amnesia game. I'd love to give it a try soon.

I feel like the evolution of horror games is heading in the direction of increasing the action more and making them more playable. While I agree that making a game fun is important, horror games may not need to be as fun as others - they should be restricting.

They're built unlike other games: the amount of connection to the player should be high, and frustrating the player should be crucial. Scaring the player depends a lot on the player, but horror games can do it, and I've seen it done. Whether it's a jump scare, or just a downright sense of dread, I've seen it, and I've been there. The horror games I enjoy get much more of a rise out of me than other genres, and I like that.

In closing, I know there's so many more games I could analyze or talk about. If I left out a game, it's not a completely conscious choice - there's a ton of games I haven't gotten around to playing that I know would fit into this discussion. But for now, this is my take on some horror games and what makes them work.

Have fun with your tricks, and maybe your treats, everybody. Happy Halloween!

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