I've been playing a lot of horror games recently, with reviews in the past few weeks coming in fairly quick succession for Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within -- two very different games that approach horror gaming from two distinctly different perspectives. For me, at least, I find that one represents the future of the genre and where we're headed in terms of horror gaming, and the other is a testament to the classic foundations upon which horror gaming was built.
I love the classic Resident Evil games, and I still believe Resi 4 to be one of the finest games ever made let alone survival horror games, but I don't find them scary, and I'm not sure that I ever really did. They, much like Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami's latest game, are incredibly good at generating mechanical horror through scarce ammunition, oppressive enemies that require thought and skill to dispatch, and giving protagonists a palpable vulnerability. Knowing when to fight and when to run is crucial in these games, but having the option to fight is key to them as well. Mikami, certainly, is a creator who finds value in overcoming fear.
"Used at the right time and in the right way disempowerment can be the most powerful tool for the horror game creator," he said in an interview earlier this month, ahead of The Evil Within's release. "Sequels are a big problem in horror entertainment. As a horror game series continues you begin to know who the enemies are going to be. Just this knowledge naturally makes the game less scary. So to capture a wider audience designers add more action. That further reduces how frightening the game feels.
"That's one reason I'm making The Evil Within. Also, because the graphical quality of games has increased. This has the capacity to make the fear much closer to you. We can add in a far greater amount of animation and make it context based, so, for example, we can change how a character moves in a certain situation. Really, I'm making this game just because it's fun to scare people. Instead of trying to introduce new ideas I want to return to survival horror's roots. We've strayed from that. I want to explore fear again, and that sense of overcoming fear, one that's unique to games."
See, as a classic take on survival horror, The Evil Within is a clear success, and Mikami readily admits that he wasn't looking to push the genre forwards. But in a way, I must admit I find that stance rather disappointing -- a feeling that ultimately extended to the game as well. Games don't exist in a vacuum, and their merits are often weighed and judged in context. Mikami hadn't made a horror game since Resident Evil 4, but so much has changed since 2005. We've had the likes of Amnesia and Outlast and Condemned and Slender and Penumbra.
Now all of the games I've mentioned there have one main thing in common -- they're all first-person titles. I'm rather of the opinion that third-person horror is largely defunct because by the very nature of its perspective, it places an object (a shield if you will) between the player and the horrifying stuff. There is a delay, however slight, between the horror and our reactions as players, because it's not happening to us, it's happening to the character in the game, whom we can see and identify. There's a distancing involved that removes us as players from the experience. That's not to say that third-person horror games can't be effective, but they frequently largely leverage the same options available to film-makers because the camera perspective doesn't fully utilise the one-to-one control that games can provide. I'd so far as to say that third-person horror games can never be as effective as first-person ones.
For many years, Silent Hill 2 was my benchmark for horror (although Fatal Frame II came remarkably close to knocking it off of the top spot). But the Silent Hill experience is incredibly heavily predicated on psychological terror -- a source of fear that is far more powerful. External threats that can be killed or extinguished, or those that go away after you hide for a bit, are temporary. You can layer on grotesque imagery as much as possible, but ultimately it's just window dressing, and there's a difference between unpleasant and scary. Silent Hill's successes as a series have been exploratory in nature -- it lets you roam and find freaky, unnerving things for yourself, never allowing you to trust the world and your environment for a second, constantly flipping the script on how you see things, and rewriting rooms and sequences. I become afraid to go anywhere.
But fast-forwards to this year and the emergence of the P.T. teaser for Silent Hills, and all of that is distilled down into an L-shaped corridor with only a couple of rooms, with players stepping into a haunted gauntlet steeped in cinematic photorealism, with a first-person perspective that allows your attention no escape, and demands (as with other Silent Hill games) that you scrutinise your environment incredibly closely. It's a feedback loop of oppressive tension and psychological terror with no buffers, no distractions, and no defences. It's one of the most effective horror experiences I've ever played precisely because it blended the best features of the finest horror experiences in years past -- it leveraged the new preoccupation with first-person fumbling around in the dark with the powerful aesthetics available on new-gen consoles, tapping into the psychological horror upon which Silent Hill made its name. There are jump scares in P.T., sure, but it's the atmosphere and the familiarity and the level of detail that shifts around which gets you.
The past few years have seen the horror genre shift towards a greater focus on psychological terror, and that's exactly what you get in Alien: Isolation as well. Pacing, of course, is key. You need moments of reflection to catch your breath, and even the most terrifying experience can be lessened by over-familiarity. That's where deft plotting, intriguing narrative design, gameplay puzzles to navigate, and environmental design really come to the fore. The Evil Within's finest moments are the quieter, less linear moments. It was only when you stopped to give your close-to-exploding heart a rest that you could really take stock of the things that were happening in Silent Hill 2. Alien: Isolation didn't always get it right, but it gave you enough to want to see the story through to the end, to pick apart Sevastopol for more context and background plot. And as for P.T., well I rather liked the puzzles. It became something of an event the day it was released, with the game bleeding out into online forums and comment threads as gamers tried to determine the solutions to the rather abstract puzzles present in the teaser. Questioning your actions? Cultivating a near-obsessive pursuit of understanding and a hunt for some sane remedy to this psychologically-unhinged experience? That sounds a lot like Silent Hill to me.
Mechanical horror still has its place, but I fear that Mikami's brand of horror no longer rules the roost, and it certainly doesn't tap into the potential of the medium in the way that something like Amnesia does. I have a pretty low freak-out threshold. I found the first Dead Space title to be incredibly effective at scaring the hell out of me, and I'd play bits of it again when I came to review subsequent games in the series to see if the design held up, and to make sure that it wasn't just the nature of being a horror sequel that made games 2 and 3 feel less scary. Every time, the original stood the test. But I fired it up again over the weekend, in the wake of the Xenomorph-induced nightmares I've been having, and the game couldn't really compare to the insidious, creeping fear that a dynamic, shifting, overpowered killing machine hunting me could.
That doesn't spell doom for games that aren't P.T. or Alien: Isolation, it's simply indicative of the fact that the genre has progressed and expanded to allow for an even greater degree of terror than before. Variety is always something that we welcome, and all that the above really means is that there's never been a better time to be a horror fan. Of course, with the consumer Oculus Rift and Morpheus on the way, presenting even greater opportunities for immersion and underpants-ruining experiences, I almost dread to think how powerfully terrifying the cream of the genre will be in a couple of years' time.