Good Bad Games: The Paradox of Horror Gaming

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on May 2, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Horror games have it hard, tasked with producing something worthy amidst a sea of seemingly contradictory values: to create for general consumption that plays upon the very personal nature of fear; to define an unknowable experience; to merge player agency with protagonist hindrance; and to make a good game that will treat its players poorly throughout, expecting to be thanked for the pleasure.

It is, then, of no surprise that the software in this generation’s hardware have seen the decline of this tricky genre and its difficult to please fans.

The biggest trick is in realizing where to focus.

Off the top of my head, one of the biggest attributes of horror is that of the unknown. This lack of information encompasses many things. It’s not being able to see the threats you’re expected to face. It’s in not knowing how an encounter will play out, in not trusting the game to either supply necessary tools or even allow you the chance to use those tools. That creepy feeling that comes from only vaguely being able to describe the scariest things you’ve encountered counts too.

So you can see where the move to high-definition graphics and tighter gameplay has resulted in poorer horror games.

The betters of the horror genre relied either on severe graphical and technical limitations (as in the PSX era) or an aesthetic sense death gripping the lighting and graphics (that still more or less relied upon graphical limitations).

Silent Hill. That special game. The first actually offered fairly detailed environments and characters in a (more or less) open world. It’s technical Heimlich maneuver (to prevent the PSX from choking) was in a viewing distance three inches short of the character’s nose, presented to players as fog and darkness. This necessitated the use of sound effects to let you know when monsters were near, allowing the player to believe things were somewhat fair, when in practice you began to manifest a Pavlovian dread of radio static.

The camera didn’t help things either.

The result was a game filled with creatures fans could discuss — the skinless dogs, weird bat things, small childlike things with knives — but couldn’t actually describe. The dog thing, for example, looked enough like a dog for the word to apply, but also looked weird enough, even discounting the skin, to double the disconcertion. But we never got a good look at it, since it was always moving and the camera never cooperated with us. The child things were small and always appeared in dark areas, and due to the camera’s movements you rarely saw them at a good angle — usually from behind or the side.

I cannot, to this day, tell you if those things had a face.

To sum this up, the best of Silent Hill created things that were unknowable. Today’s horror games create unknowns that we eventually can leisurely fill in.

So you can see where it’s but one step to withhold information. It’s another altogether more essential step to keep players guessing. Games are software, made of numbers that people thought up and assigned. They are mechanical and need to work to get away from that. It’s hard to keep all of that from bubbling to the surface.

The death knell of any horror game (nay, series) is in offering recognizable patterns, granting insight into what should be unknowable. It’s when you see a row of sheet-covered cadavers and you know for a fact that they won’t rise up, grab your ankle or be anything other than a background feature. It’s when you reliably know when the game gives you supplies and when it doesn’t. It’s in knowing how many shots it takes to kill a creature, when to dodge it reliably, and when to heal to maximize your supplies.

Randomizing when you get supplies (and rounding way down), making the protagonist a lousy shot that misses a lot, making creatures that move erratically, and giving only a vague idea as to how much damage you take and what you’re current health is — all of these are good steps towards making the game suitably unreliable to maintain that unknowable nature.

And, of course, if you keep something from being known, players will personalize and internalize the fear for you.

However, at this point, it might startle some to realize that I’ve basically described how to make a game that under any other light would be considered bad.

Imagine, if you will, a first-person shooter where you couldn’t see anyone and your player randomly shot areas that were only somewhat near the aiming reticule. A game where you never knew how much health you had and you seemed to take random damage from attacks so you’d never know when you could survive and when you couldn’t afford to even risk running. A game that was artificially difficult because it made you use more ammo and health packs than you knew it would give.

People would hate that game! But if it was a horror game, it might just be bad enough to become a good horror game.

  1. Some of this is what I was getting at in my three weeks of Silent Hill deliberation- that bad mechanics don’t necessarily equate to a bad game, something which I think many modern player and reviewers alike don’t necessarily realize. Horror games should be somehow unfair when considering the main character is basically a victim of ugly, ugly circumstance.

    The recent Silent Hill games have certainly toyed with this- I don’t think any of the Western developers have simply “failed to get the series” outright, but that they simply picked it up at a bad time and have had to struggle with carrying it forward without alienating the fans. Similarly, Dead Space tried to be a true horror game, marrying old and new ideas (the soundless zero-g segments really were pretty inspired), but the sci-fi setting was ultimately too alienating (no pun intended) and the sequel ultimately chose to play the horror more over the top.

    I’m hoping survival horror will make a come back eventually, perhaps the way fighting games did a few years ago. I think it’ll just be a balancing act of getting the bad mechanics just right- but it’ll need an audience that is willing to take the “survival” along with the “horror.”

  2. That your three articles were bouncing around in my head is the likely cause of me writing this. As SH is something we more or less experienced within the same diaspora, I found myself at the comment box kinda going “Ah-yup” each time :p

    There have been a few notable horror games on the PC as of late, but it is like one every four years. Then you’ve got some very, very sleeper hits like Condemned. Yeah. I’d like the genre to come to the forefront, but there’s no big RE-like behemoth to fan the flames anymore.

  3. “The death knell of any horror game (nay, series) is in offering recognizable patterns, granting insight into what should be unknowable.”

    The knifes edge, however, is determining what should or should not be knowable. You should write an article about that; I’ll contribute with my knowledge of the field.

    Necessity is the mother of innovation; limitations are therefore it’s father. Horror games of the past played well because they played poorly, but they still did the best they could at the time. As time moves forward games become too tempted to offer the player too much.

    Indeed, fighting games arose in popularity for the opposite reason; mechanics were allowed to become more complex as technology and game engines grew more advanced.

    In the modern gaming age, where technology allows for neither limitations nor necessity, how can a new generation of survival horror arise?

  4. Well, Trod, I’m glad my time spent mulling over the Hill didn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth. :-)

    The problem, I think, with using fighting games as an analog to horror (okay, so I started it) is that while fighting games function and flourish in complexity, they are superficially easier to construct and tend to have more time spent with play-balancing and the like, owing to their competitive and tournament style gameplay (which is of course further playtested once players figure out how to break things… in a week).

    Horror involves building a fully world, so to address Brendan’s question, at least in my own interpretation… the best scenario would be a major company taking a risk and other developers playing follow-the-leader. Which is generally what happened anytime something becomes/re-becomes successful.

    Capcom would be a great lead… except they’re not going to. Street Fighter resuscitated the genre in the mainstream eye by playing things somewhat safe while being stylish, which is likely the opposite of what horror needs. Someone (I forget who) in charge of Resident Evil has basically said that they’re keeping the series more action oriented because that’s what sells (and considering how much money Capcom puts into development on the recent games, that’s what they’re going to stick with). They might still experiment with atmosphere on the side- the 3DS game was a great throwback while using modern innovations- but those are exactly the games that will never enjoy mainstream attention.

    Unfortunately, the only other leader in the genre is Silent Hill, which I don’t see breaking out anytime soon unless Konami suddenly finds a mystical way to get the original band back together, most of whom (if not all) have left Konami for greener pastures. This leaves us with a series of western developers whose interpretations of the series may not be altogether wrong (liberal usage of the word “fuck” not withstanding). Even if someone does something really good, odds are the fanbase will tear it apart with arguments about how it betrays the spirit of the original games or how it’s not canon because the original developers weren’t involved.


    The other problem I see facing the survival horror genre are the game players of today, the ones that dictate what constitute vast sales numbers. Many major games are made to appeal to the average Call of Duty/Gears of War/Shooter Du Jour that’s out, and many of these are exactly the kind of people who didn’t play games even as recently as PSX because the graphics weren’t realistic enough or they were just too young. I think the average player is not going to “get” survival horror, understanding that you’re meant to conserve ammo and that hiding behind cover isn’t going to regen your health (the epitaph “gay” might be used before they return to killing people online and swearing like sailors).

    We are left with original endeavors like Amnesia: Dark Descent which are (from what I’ve observed) both very effective and philosophically sound, but not what the genre needs to rise from its figurative grave (being PC exclusive probably doesn’t help at the moment).

    Still, with Capcom and Konami stuck in some quagmire of accessibility or inconsistency, an original entry is probably our best bet… and something atmospheric would likely cost decent money to make and demand the attention of people talented enough and dedicated enough to express real horror with the right balance of accessibility and challenge. They’d have to be willing to kill us for wanting to defend ourselves, they’d have to be willing to make us run without making us feel like our only choice is running…

    It’d be kinda tricky. I’d actually love to approach the idea of doing a horror game down the line, but I’m trying to get the prototype for my RPG built so, you know, one thing at a time.

  5. If there is ever one statement I say that you truly take in: stop talking about the players of shooters (or the shooters themselves) as some kind of tumor. Not every problem can be attributed to shooters, nor are the players of shooters somehow ruining the industry.

    And I say that even with a strong dislike for COD and COD kiddies.


    I think you’re right in that the genre needs a big hit so people toss a few more games in there, take a few risks, see it as lucrative, that sort of thing. RE did it before (remember some reviews calling SH an RE clone? Yeah), but I can’t even imagine who will step up to the plate for this now. It’s a tall order.

    I wouldn’t say it’s easier to make a fighting game, but it’s easier to succeed with one. Comparing it to horror games is like saying math tests are easier than literary discussions. As in: one has a very well defined result, while the other relies on there being no answer.

    I think people are more than willing to buy and play horror games. I think the problem is that the people making the decisions think like you do: that people want more COD and wouldn’t touch the stuff.

  6. Poe, I was unaware you had the software/game development background to make a claims over what is easier or not to develop. Care to share?

    The ‘average’ gamer’s age is 37 (Median), according to recent demographic studies. Something like 40% of gamers are over the age of 25… As such, I’d be cautious in supposing reasons for the drop in interest in Survival Horror and Adventure games. Further, I’d definitely avoid attributing it to “COD/FPS kiddies” – research shows kids aren’t the ones buying the majority of games these days.

    One thing you two really need to think hard on is market evolution. Graphics didn’t matter as much 10 years ago because the difference between really good graphics and just OK graphics wasn’t that noticeable. Today it’s inexcusable to not include good graphics and hope your title sells on faith in a good story.

    The challenge for developers isn’t getting people interested in a dead genre; it’s in adapting their IP to a new genre, or creating a compelling new genre that will garner interest.

  7. It wasn’t my intent to regard the FPS player as a “tumor,” but rather as an observed majority. There’s no denying that gaming has become more accessible and commonplace than it was a couple generations ago, and shooters certainly seem to be the genre of the generation, with the CoD series apparently boasting being some of the best selling games EVER.

    As for the fighting games statement, perhaps I overstepped my bounds a little with the matter. It was mainly based on what I’ve read and observed, and while I was writing this, I’d recalled the fact that Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 (I believe by word of the producer) being effectively done a year before it came out, with the additional time being spent on playbalancing and adding new characters. However, this may apply more to 3D specifically, with sprite based fighters likely demanding a different degree of focus.

    I’m otherwise considering the scale of work involved in plotting and building a full 3D world compared to a set of arenas. It was not my intent to diminish the effort required to build a fighter (considering Soul Calibur V’s shortcomings owing to time and budget, it’s not as if they can just slap the things together).

    My own experience is on the small scale at the moment and, to be frank, I’m always trying to learn more. I’ve been organizing and directing an effort for the last couple years, learning things I didn’t know, applying things I do and in some cases finding out that people who were onboard at one point knew less than I thought they did.

    Moving past that, I do agree that graphics, and how we perceive good and bad, has changed pretty drastically in the last decade. But as for the inexcusability- by whose standards? Are the same people who deem what are and aren’t good graphics necessarily the same kind of people who are going to look for an enriching experience as opposed to a visceral one, and what is the scaled definition of good determined by? Is it realism, style or just consistency? One person’s good is likely to be another’s bad and, well, I find the term to be murky.

  8. Speaking from a development standpoint, there are many, many tools in the toolbox (so to speak) that make good looking graphics easier for developers to implement in their games. Lacking good graphics generally means time and effort was either not put into the game.

    Graphics can also positively and negatively impact gameplay, controls, and the narrative the game is trying to produce, so it’s not just an aesthetic aspect either.

    And here I define good as “making full use of the technologies and tools available.” The same definition can be applied to most other aspect of a game as well; Controls – does the game follow a consistent control scheme with the genre? Writing – is the writing high quality, well edited, and appropriate for the game? Etc.

    A game is more than the sum of its parts, to be sure, but each part of a game can be objectively analyzed, especially in areas where common analysis patterns have existed for decades.

    The end result, of course, isn’t guaranteed to be a best seller – several published authors I know are sitting on unpublished novels simply because the market segment for the novel is too small to justify the risk of publishing the book. Games have much the same problem… the downside is, they need to decide if a game is worth releasing before the game begins development whereas authors and artists and other such people can and will constantly churn out unpublished and unsold works of art, waiting for the time to be right.

    Tangentially, I’ll also say that difficulty in developing any game is partially (largely, in my opinion) due to the toolsets available. That alone can be mean the difference in months of development time… open up Valve’s Hammer Editor and you’ll see what I mean. This toolset has spawned entire franchises based on the source engine because it was so easy to develop for.

  9. To go along with the “tools are available” idea, there are actually a number of graphical APIs (speedtree, havok) that are used even in cutting edge engines (like Unreal 3.x). It isn’t instant graphics just add water or anything, but devs can spend less time reinventing the wheel on these things.

    Expense can be an issue as well, as I recall the Quake 1 engine licensing for 125,000 even after Doom 3 had come out (that’s four iterations of the engine). At the same time, companies like Valve and Epic do like to whore their engines out to startups and indie projects, so there are nice options available.

    You needn’t backpeddle so, Poe. The broader points are there: some games are harder to get off the ground than others. I’m sure the SF and MVC devs will tell you horror stories about playtesting and the ridiculously extended QA cycle for fighting games, but Ryu being overpowered isn’t as a big an issue as a horror game not being scary (for example).

    The COD effect (there is an effect, I think we can all agree) is hard to pin down. I would wager that there’s more than a few people that have xboxes with nothing but COD titles on their shelf. Are these people gamers? Have they spent money on COD that they feasibly would have spent elsewhere? My instinct says no.

    You have people like my sister, a neophyte gamer if ever there were one, who isn’t terribly great at the finer points of playing games, but she’s pretty good at COD. She also players Silent Hill, Fallout, Dragon Age, Red Dead and Saints Row, among others, but I wouldn’t even really recommend Gears of War to her since I don’t think the game would treat her well.

    Then you have people like my brother that bought Modern Warfare 3 out of some bizarre momentum of its success, describing the experience like waking up in the park with sixty bucks missing out of your wallet and a bum licking your feet.

  10. Oh, I know roughly of what’s available to work with- I think it’s just part of my concern regarding the inexcusability of graphical presentation is more of a matter of how the work gets done.

    A problem plaguing many Japanese developers is that they’ve kept reinventing the wheel, and this is part of why they’ve begun to fall behind the west. Square spent years developing FFXIII’s engine, and it might not even end up being that useful in light of the SEPARATE one developed by Nomura’s team for versus XIII. Kojima’s team at Konami, meanwhile, has been touting their Fox engine… but they do tend to have things more under control, so imagine we’ll have to see where that goes.

    I’m looking at it more from a standpoint of time, investment and talent. If a game is hurried out to market before it’s done, obviously it’s going to suffer for it- I wonder how much better, let’s say Knights of the Old Republic 2 would have looked if Obsidian would have had more time to finish it. Or would it have merely been more complete while still looking unpolished? Alternately, I’m running through Silent Hill: Homecoming at the moment, to grab a piece of footage from it (as well as polish off the last few achievements) and I’m reminded how mediocre the character models look, as well as how washed out some of the colors seem to be. The game was pushed up from its original release date by a month ago, and I can’t help but wonder who decided if it was the best the game could handle or if Konami just decided it wasn’t worth putting money into anymore.

    That’s something that I’m looking into on my end (and hope to be moving on pretty soon)- basically trying to find people who can produce the quality of work we need within the amount of money we have. Time’s less of a factor since we don’t have a release date even for the prototype, though it is a factor regarding how much money I have to work with to pay the professionals I’m looking at hiring.

    Obviously something’s to be said about the talent of people producing said visuals, as well as the standards of the developers and whomever is providing the money. If the developers have the cash and settle, then it’s on them; if the publisher or investor keeps them under the same monthly stipend when they obviously need more time to polish the visuals, then they might be to blame. If the 3D modeler isn’t up to snuff, maybe they need to sack him, but that could upset the whole development cycle if engaged needlessly, and getting a new person and training them into the job could take time and money.

    What I’m getting at is that I’m not doubting that the work can get done, but I’m more concerned about the viability of getting it done, which I think is there less often.

    Also, it’s good to hear some examples from your end, Trod. I won’t deny, a bit of my opinion is informed by my time in the retail sector. Many people who do not know much about gaming don’t tend to want to take a chance, and will often favor something popular and familiar over something that might actually be good (this kinda meshes into licensed games and why they sell well) while others just seem to want gritty down to earth realism, and don’t tend to stray from military shooters. Obviously it’s not everyone but, well, it’s a lot of people, and usually my hope is that people who start there will eventually branch out into more fantastic (and thus less down to earth) things over time.

  11. “Then you have people like my brother that bought Modern Warfare 3 out of some bizarre momentum of its success, describing the experience like waking up in the park with sixty bucks missing out of your wallet and a bum licking your feet.”

    It happened exactly like that.

    There’s been a good amount of research since the ’70’s on the software development lifecycle. Such methods and processes are relatively young – building a house, for example, is a process that’s hundreds of years old so people generally know exactly how much time/effort/money it will take to get it done.
    That being said, many software companies lack the experience or desire to tackle a project from the top-down and say “this should take us 3 years.” And giving a solid timeline like that isn’t rushing the product or compromising on quality, it’s how software gets made.
    In my opinion, it’s how good software gets made. Not to be confused with true rush-jobs or truncated release cycles, but that’s another topic.

    I just like talking about software development.

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