Luke Allen explains why the hidden success of independent horror games are the way forward for the gaming industry.
[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecently I’ve been re-playing the original Dead Space (2008) for the Xbox 360. Being a man who loves most things horror, I felt it time to revisit this little gem as, despite there being far more frightening games out there, one has to admire just how rare it is these days to find a full blown triple-A title nestled so comfortably within the horror genre. This, in turn, got me thinking: when exactly was the last triple-A horror title? My conclusion? Probably Dead Space.
This is not to say that there aren’t games that follow horror troupes. In fact, one could argue there’s a whole plethora of titles out there with big budgets and scares aplenty. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the growing trend in the mainstream gaming circuit is that, in order to justify that increasing budgets games entail, one must pander to the current trends of the market in order to recoup the highest possible profits, and with a market increasingly saturated with the likes of Call of Duty, Gears of War, Halo, Uncharted, etc, we have found the horror genre swapping its scares for heart pounding action with depressing regularity.
Look no further than the Dead Space series, which, in only three games, has turned in its tight, oppressive claustrophobia for rapid fire weapons and huge explosions. This is not to say that Dead Space 3 is bad – it does what it does quite well. Only re-playing the original reaffirms that the series works better as a balls to the walls fright fest. The F.E.A.R. series are also another series that’s jumped on the big-guns bandwagon.
One could go ahead and blame Resident Evil 4 for this shift to more action based antics. While undoubtedly a great game – one of the best ever made in fact – there were scant few moments of the series trademark terror. Capcom’s attempt to bring the series back to its roots with Resident Evil 6 were mixed, as only the Leon campaign demonstrating anything remotely creepy. Talk of the next Resident Evil being more along the lines of the original are welcome. In the interim, look out of The Evil Within this year, which aims to put the fear back into mainstream gaming.
In amongst all this, we have the indie titles, which have reacted against the mainstream in much the same way as horror directors did during the Hostel/Saw era. The Splat-Pack, as these directors were affectionately known, were a group of horror fans who objected wholesale to the dumbing down of horror and the saturation of PG-13 titles like Boogeyman and Darkness Falls. The result became known as torture porn – a moniker I don’t necessarily like but that’s another article’s worth of material there – effectively bringing the genre back to the no-holds-barred terror that horror should have – with mixed results.
Indie titles such as Slender, Outlast, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the upcoming Routine have all aimed to bring survival horror back to its routes, so much so, in fact, that Slender, Outlast and Amnesia forego any form of combat altogether.
The result is a feeling of such complete vulnerability – the only form of defence is to literally run and hide and, in the case of Outlast, you don’t even have a flashlight, just a camera with night-vision that chews up batteries like a beast – that leaves the player feeling utterly helpless. Games such as these can often leave the player feeling genuinely unsafe and, for my money, there is no purer feeling of terror than when one feels their very safety is at stake. The fact that the video game medium is interactive only adds to the fear, giving that extra element of immersion that movies just don’t have.
Just look at Slender: Made for next to no money, it exploited the player’s fear of the dark whilst keeping gameplay mechanics simple. There is no plot as such. As the player, you are asked to collect eight pages pertaining to the legend of the Slenderman. The catch? The Slenderman is hunting you and with each page collected, avoiding him becomes increasingly difficult.
If this weren’t bad enough, the in game environment is a pitch dark wood, in the dead of night, your only source of light a pithy little torch. The effect is, at times, completely nerve shattering and the completely random nature of the Slenderman’s appearances makes any number of play throughs as tense as the last – as of writing this, I’ve yet to collect all eight pages, that damn Slenderman gets me every freaking time. A sequel/remake, Slender: The Arrival, was released last year, with better graphics, larger environments and a full blown story but it only detracts from the sheer brilliant simplicity of the first outing.
But, as video game sales have proven, pure survival horror is fitting an increasingly niche market, and while the independent titles can easily recoup their costs purely from the die-hard horror geeks – like me – the mainstream market, frankly, just doesn’t want to be frightened.
I can only hope that The Evil Within can do a Dead Space and show that the big guns still have the balls to make something truly frightening. Until then, get a Steam account and try the indie games. For now, they’re the ones guaranteed to make you keep the lights on at night.