The horror genre seems to be making a comeback in these recent months after all but disappearing from the gaming industry from around 2005 to 2013, roughly the entire lifespan of the Xbox 360, PS3 and Nintendo Wii. While titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill used to be household brands. The popularity of these games sparked several other horror games such as the well-known Clock Tower series, and others that were deemed “Resident Evil Clones.”
However with the rise in popularity in games like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and other more action focused games, the triple-a industry seems to have shifted away from the tense atmospheres of survival-horror to more action focused games with horror elements. It’s not hard to look at games like Left 4 Dead, Dead Space or even Call of Duty’s “Nazi Zombies” and see where the market trends have brought survival horror. Even a name brand like Resident Evil tried to follow the trends with Resident Evil 6 which was poorly received amongst gamers and critics alike and failed to reach marketing goals.
Anders Ugland, creator of the smash indie horror title “Among the Sleep” says “It’s hard to say why they passed on doing horror games for a while, but I think it might be partially that horror games simply have been “out of style”. Before the huge indie wave changed the landscape of the video game scene, it seemed like everything was a lot less diverse, so the success of one game would shape a sense of “this is what’s popular now”. This combined with the lack of smash hit horror titles in that time period may have caused it.”
Most of us are not used to being scared or frightened, so there’s something exciting about seeking out these emotions, even though it’s a mixed experience.
While the triple-a industry decided that survival horror was dead and gone, indie developers saw a market crying out for content and decided to fill the gap. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Decent and Slender: The Eight Pages were low budget, true returns to form being genuinely scary and capitalizing on a market big developers left behind.
What is it about horror that gamers are so fascinated in? Unlike film which can mostly scare with gruesome images or sudden “jump-scares” games are interactive which changes the very nature of how people are scared. It’s generally accepted by most gamers that “P.T” is absolute nightmare-fuel, and for very good reason. The game being in first person creates a feeling of claustrophobia within the small confines of the hallway you are bound to. The slow build-up of tension in a seemingly normal environment as things subtly change. It’s a very quiet game and trades the fear of being chased by monsters shouting “boo” in favor of genuinely feeling stalked by something horrifying. All these things inspire incredibly negative feelings, and yet gamers (including myself) couldn’t get enough of it.
Professor of Psychology at York University, Robert Mar believes “the reason why people seek out mass media, including videogames, within the horror genre is that they are interested in experiencing extreme emotions that are relatively rare in reality. There is a thrill in experiencing true fear and dread, things that we so rarely get to experience in our daily lives.” Mar also says “in a scary movie once you commit to watching the film you aren’t so much in control of the experience unless you choose to pause the film or leave the theatre, but in a scary videogame you are much more in control. This control could mean that the experience of fear is greater because you feel more ‘there,’ more present in the situation.”
Ugland also shared a similar sentiment when designing “Among the Sleep” saying, “Horror is interesting, because it plays on a different part of the emotional spectrum of the audience…you need to be able to think slightly different, and to keep a horror mindset. There’s a lot of psychological aspects that has to go through your head when you’re designing the experience. I haven’t worked on many games, so it might not be absolutely correct – but it also feels like you are creating a very delicate experience when making a horror game.”
The landscape of gaming is changing intensely. Indie horror game “Five Nights at Freddy’s” was developed by a single person, and goes on Steam and mobile devices for around 5-10 dollars. The game’s sequel, has 2,646 positive reviews and even the 51 negative reviews are mostly about how scary the game is. At a total of 2,697, that checks in at roughly $35,061 dollars that Scott Cawthon made from the sequel to a game he made almost a month ago. If the triple-a market believed there’s no money to made off horror, they are sadly mistaken. As Ugland said “the indie wave has played a big role on the video game industry as a whole. Now, you’ll have smaller studios that can afford taking a risk by making something completely new and weird, and when these titles generates some sort of hype, it becomes much easier for the triple-a companies to dare venture into the same alleys.”
And this shifting of landscape may be exactly what big publishers needed to re-introduce horror into the triple-a market. Only a month ago Sega released the much anticipated “Alien: Isolation” which critics have praised for being a true survival horror. Well known company Bethesda, known for the titular Elder Scrolls Series, was also praised for being a return to survival horror with Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, who helped create the game stating he wanted to give fans a true return to horror. Even renowned game designer Hideo Kojima of the Metal Gear Solid franchise spoke about P.T saying “he wanted to make a game so scary you would shit your pants” and “if people don’t want to play the game because it is too scary, he doesn’t care” As more designers take the art of gaming back into the focus, as opposed to the business, forgotten genres like horror will find its way back into the fold.