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30 October 2015

Scare tactics: how horror videogames are changing

Creepy atmospheres are replacing tense action, and the monsters are more unbeatable than ever. 

By Phil Hartup

Horror videogames have changed rapidly over the last decade or so. It is almost as if Resident Evil 4’s transition towards the third person action genre triggered some sort of regime shift in the ecology of the genre; the isometric dinosaurs lumbering morosely off into the nearest tar pit while all manner of new species evolved and multiplied to fill the gaps. As such the horror landscape has changed dramatically and the old stalwarts don’t seem to be around to fill it.

One direction that horror games have been going lately is exemplified by Alien: Isolation. Alien: Isolation marries the trend for games built around evading enemies with the emphasis on a creepy atmosphere and tension over action and sudden scares. It has recently been joined by SOMA, which comes from the developers of the Amnesia games and which operates along similar lines.

The defining quality of this kind of game is that the monsters are either invincible or prohibitively difficult to confront directly. The titular Alien, for example, is not an enemy to be dispatched but a fast moving fail-state waiting to happen. Where some games offer the option to flee, or to fight, or to inch your way through the game and save your progress constantly, Alien: Isolation pares these options back. If the Alien detects you, then it’s going to kill you, and if you try to flee it’s just going to kill you a second later. The game pulls no punches with the capabilities of the creature – this is Ridley Scott’s Alien, not some of James Cameron’s squealing cannon fodder.

Fighting is minimal, you can force the Alien to flee with fire, and there are some denizens of the game world that can be killed by conventional means, but the emphasis is on avoiding confrontation. As for saving the game, this is done manually at checkpoints that can be agonisingly far apart if not in distance then in time spent sneaking.

SOMA takes this non-confrontational approach to the next logical step which is to simply not give the player character the means to fight. This is an understandable design decision, although given the life or death nature of encounters in games of this type losing the ability to fight always feels like a substantial omission. While it doesn’t seem to hurt it, bouncing a few shots off the face of the Alien right before feeding time provides some spiritual comfort.

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Alien: Isolation is the best of the recent crop of horror games but it is not without its flaws. The greatest of which is that as the product of a thirty five year old franchise it suffers from diminishing returns. We know what the creature is, we know how it acts, we know what happens to its prey and we know the legendary indifference of the game universes corporations. The horrors that the game has for us are familiar right from the outset, even if they are rendered more vividly than we’ve seen them before. The game is pitched at fans of the movie series but its adoring attention to detail means few surprises.

By contrast SOMA has the element of surprise very much in its favour with its story, setting and monsters. While this counts for a lot the rules of the game, that all monsters must be avoided, feels limiting in its own way, we know how our foes must be dealt with even before we know that they are.

Another direction that horror games have evolved in recently is that of taking the fundamentals of a traditional survival horror game and ramping up the action. Such games tend to favour a shooting-friendly third or first person view rather than the traditional isometric perspective. The Evil Within falls into this category, as does Dead Space 3 and even, if you want to stretch the definition further, Vermintide and Zombie Army Trilogy. In these games while there may be all sorts of horrors around you’re still expected to confront them and defeat them. You are positioned not as a survivor but as a combatant against evil.

It is arguable that such action packed horror games aren’t really trying to be creepy or scary, especially ones like Vermintide which are intrinsically team based. Having a group of friends with you when facing a horde of zombies or, in the case of Vermintide, giant humanoid rats, trades solitary unease for collective panic.

As different as these two approaches might seem they blend together effectively in Dying Light, which is an open world game that plays like a combination of Mirror’s Edge and Far Cry in a setting not unlike that of Left 4 Dead. Dying Light has the need to flee, the need to manage resources and the need to fight, and it even embraces multiplayer. The result is a game that has its fingers in many pies, like a victim of Sweeney Todd.

Horror games are definitely enjoying a phase of experimentation, and this can only be a good thing in the long term. We might not be getting another Silent Hill any time soon and the Resident Evil series is all sorts of a mess these days, but as game developers around the world continue to delve into the dark recesses of imagination and game design it’s a safe bet that sooner or later, somebody will release some ungodly and unforeseen horror upon us all. But in a nice way.

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