Opinion: Is The Mainstream Horror Game Dead?

The mainstream horror landscape is dominated by action-based titles such as FEAR 3 and Dead Island, the Resident Evil franchise is heading into all-out shooter mode and the survival-horror genre as a whole appears to have lost its fearsome bite. Mark Butler asks whether the mainstream horror game should be declared officially dead.

Can you remember the last time you were scared by a mainstream video game? I mean, really scared?

There’s no shortage of high-profile titles marketing themselves as ‘survival-horror’, or being labeled as such, but while newly-released zombie fests such as Dead Island and Rise Of Nightmares may feature gore and the recently undead – while occasionally startling the player with cheap jump-scares – it’s much harder to think of a modern mainstream horror game that boasts the masterful, oppressive atmosphere showcased by a bona fide chiller such as Silent Hill 2.

Even this year’s cause celebre Dead Space 2 is more of a nervy thrill-ride than a true horror experience. It excels as a big-budget action game but lacks the sophisticated fear-factor that comes with mood, pacing and the courage to imply rather than reveal. The same could largely be said of F.E.A.R 3, an action-driven FPS with a few creepy moments that sees another horror series pretty-much drift into all-out shooter territory.

Both F.E.A.R 3 and Dead Space 2 could be termed a perfect microcosm of modern mainstream horror, as the overriding story of the genre over the past five years or so has been the relentless shift from psychological chills and atmosphere to all-out action – a trend originally popularised by the monumentally successful Doom 3 and Resident Evil 4 and now ultimately pervasive.

Between 1999 and 2004 mainstream gaming saw the release of bold, innovative and downright terrifying psychological horrors as diverse as Silent Hill, System Shock 2, Fatal Frame, Forbidden Siren, Eternal Darkness and even large portions of Thief: Deadly Shadows. The landscape seems decidedly less impressive these days.

Only a decade on from the release of atmospheric triumph Silent Hill 2, the horror genre appears to be stuck in a gun-toting rut. We can’t move for games populated by zombies or demons – yet the tone has shifted ever further from petrified avoidance to active confrontation.

Kill 'Em All: Games like Dead Space 2 can be jumpy, and creepy, but they give you so much firepower it's hard to be frightened for long

The issue is one of tone and approach. Mood, pacing and atmosphere have been tossed aside in favour of gung-ho action, and the terrifying experiences of old have been usurped by a shrieking horde of no-nonsense shooters and gore-fests. They may be entertaining, sure, but many of the modern games marketed as ‘survival horror’ are actually nothing of the sort.

Zombie beat ‘em ups like Dead Island and mis-judged Kinect experiment Rise Of Nightmares, not to mention the Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising titles, are fun, tongue-in-cheek arcade pastiches based around gunning (or bludgeoning) and running. Alan Wake gave pride of place to its original light-based combat system, and even the much-lauded Dead Space series – itself a sci-fi spin on the well-worn premise of re-animated flesh – prizes strategic dismemberment and dramatic set-pieces above all else. The back of Dead Space 2’s box, tellingly, invites you to wield “devastating tools to dominate an alien outbreak”.

The essence of true horror is powerlessness and vulnerability; scenarios in which an everyman (or woman) is tormented, threatened and besieged by terrors which they can barely comprehend, let alone combat.

Modern mainstream horror games, by contrast, deal in an ass-kicking sense of empowerment. The focus is on firepower, with the protagonists actually taking the fight to the monstrosities – and winning. For further evidence of this, you need look no further than the latest descendant of survival-horror’s founding father.

Following on from the more action-orientated approach of Resident Evil’s 4 and 5, the recently released Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D is a challenge-based, arcade-style gun fest for the 3DS, while the forthcoming Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City also sends mainstream horror’s flagship franchise into all-out shooter mode, letting you play as a tooled-up commando and pitting you against veritable legions of undead.

Aaaaand Action!: The excellent Resident Evil 4 popularised an action-based appraoch to horror, which has now become all-pervasive

You’ll play as a no-nonsense special ops soldier tearing up the city as part of a crack squad – and you know they’re going to be a crack squad because they have names like Vector and Spectre. No doubt Blade, Lazer and Blazer will all be making an appearance too. It seems the zombies, as in many other recent games, will amount to nothing other than cannon-fodder, with director Yasuhiro Seto telling Eurogamer that they “should not even really be that scary”.

This news wouldn’t necessarily prove traumatic for fans of atmospheric horror if there were more unsettling, nightmarish experiences to be found elsewhere – but such things have become an all-too rare commodity in recent years. Major games companies have become increasingly risk averse due to rising development and marketing costs, and as such they want to maximize their potential audience above all else. Aware that balls-out action appears to have become the all-encompassing language of mainstream, Triple-A gaming – with the biggest-selling console franchises headed-up by the likes of COD and Gears Of War – the willingness to experiment with psychological horror appears to have been diluted. After all, if companies make their games too scary, there’s always the possibility they may put some people off.

Pure psychological horror seems to have become the preserve of indie developers in recent times, who appear more willing to try out fresh ideas and experiment with new methods of inducing fear. The best of these firms – including Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent creators Frictional – are now catering to the appetites of marginalized horror fans with some inspired, resourceful work.

Rich atmosphere: Full-on horrors like Amnesia have become the domain of indie devs

However, as remarkable as these intriguing independent creations are, they also tend to be fairly short in length and limited in production values, despite their artistic excellence. Only the major, Triple-A companies have the time, money and resources to create big-budget horror experiences, but they seem to want to plough their efforts into straightforward shooters and blockbuster shock-fests, rather than focusing on the cultivation of fear with original, pioneering projects. This doesn’t look like changing any time soon, and reflects the wider trend for big developers and publishers to stick with what sells, rather than take a risk. With the stakes being so high in today’s industry, that is understandable – but it is also highly regrettable.


This article is an edited extract from Mark Butler’s book, Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror, which is out now to download for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.

Get it for just $3.49 from Amazon.com

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3 Responses to “Opinion: Is The Mainstream Horror Game Dead?”
  1. Heather says:

    I could not agree more! One of the main reasons that was given as to why Fatal Frame 4 wasn’t published outside of Japan is that the recent trends in the gaming market here in the U.S. didn’t have a demand for a game like that. Which pissed me off to no end, being that it happens to be my favorite survival horror series.

    Thank god there’s an English patch out for the game, now. I can finally import it and actually be able to play it.

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