Opinion: Chasing Amy – Why The Lack Of Major Horror Games Is A Tragedy
By now, you’ll no doubt have heard about the critical savaging meted out to high-profile downloadable horror game Amy – an eagerly-anticipated title from VectorCell that looked great on paper, but turned out to be anything but in practice.
Scathing reviews and jaw-droppingly low scores from the likes of IGN, Destructoid and Eurogamer set forums and article-sharing sites ablaze, and the game’s apparent failure has been one of the hottest topics of the past few days.
It’s no wonder. The very fact that Amy’s overwhelmingly negative reception has been such big news tells you all you need to know about the desperate state of the horror genre in modern gaming. We’ve become so starved of genuinely terrifying content in recent years – with only the occasional gem such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent breathing life into the genre’s luke-warm corpse – that the misfire of one low-price downloadable game has been enough to see horror fans visibly cursing with bitter disappointment, and queuing up to passionately express the intensity of that feeling.
As a huge horror fan myself, I admit that I was one of those people so desperate for a new, original terror fix that I pinned a monumental level of hope on Amy – getting myself excited at the prospect of tense, atmospheric exercises of hide-and-seek in subway tunnels, and hair-raising encounters with gruesome creatures, only to sigh with huge regret when it became apparent that the game was far from what I had longed for, and hoped it to be.
The simple truth is that many of us put far too great a weight of expectation on the shoulders of Amy, and we did so simply because it was the only original horror game we could see emerging from the gaming landscape at this time.
There are a few indie developers and innovative modders doing good work of course, but to see how scarce horror has become in the mainstream industry you need only look at the reader-selected nominations for Bloody Disgusting’s best horror games of 2011, which saw the likes of Mortal Kombat, Dark Souls and Gears Of War 3 among the picks – presumably because there weren’t enough actual horror games to fill out all the categories.
And before you start pointing to the likes of FEAR 3, Dead Rising 2, Dead Island, and even the excellent Dead Space 2, most of the games labelled as survival-horror these days are actually, if we’re honest, gung-ho action-based shooters and slashers dressed up in superficially scary trappings. Is fear and atmosphere their primary concern? No, it is not. And the search continues for games that actually put psychological-chills and outright terror at the top of the agenda.
Where can horror game fans look for their fix currently? Well, the old stalwarts of survival-horror, Resident Evil and Silent Hill, are still limping along – though we’re generally having to rely on HD re-releases of bygone classics for nostalgic thrills. Resident Evil 4 and Code Veronica X were made-over and resurrected last year, while the Silent Hill HD Collection is on its way in 2012. Of course, fresh installments in both series are on their way, including the promising-looking Silent Hill: Downpour, but RE: Operation Raccoon City will be an all-out shooter rather than a bona fide horror experience, and the series in general has adopted a much more action-oriented slant of late.
That’s also the case for many of the young upstarts to of course. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is being touted as an even-more shooter-based game than the original, with talk of uzi machine-guns and the like dominating the initial drip-drip of early information. So much for subtlety there.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written an article bemoaning the current lack of mainstream horror games, and it really is noticeable just how much the genre has declined in recent years. In the late 90s and early-to-mid noughties we couldn’t move for innovative, petrifying chillers that had gamers gripped with rich atmosphere. Yes, everyone remembers the early Resident Evil’s and Silent Hill’s, but what about Clock Tower, Fatal Frame, System Shock 2, Forbidden Siren, Eternal Darkness – and the first Condemned? These were groundbreaking exercises in psychological complexity, mood and emotive immersion, and yet there are very few creations today which could hold a candle to them.
It would be easy to accuse me of simply being petty and angry at not being provided with the kind of experiences I crave, but I would argue that my disappointment and frustration at the apparent decline of the horror genre goes far beyond mere selfishness. Because, ultimately, I believe that the lack of major horror titles is nothing short of tragic for the gaming medium as a whole. And there’s a very simple reason why.
The very best horror games are infinitely more powerful, profound and enduring in their ability to inspire a sense of panic and terror than anything the worlds of literature, film or television have ever produced. Video games can create horror which has infinitely more impact than that which can be created elsewhere, and as such they undeniably demonstrate the true power of the medium.
Fine horror games are a perfect illustratration of the immense emotional intensity, narrative immersion and atmospheric sophistication that games are capable of, and stand as testament to the ability of video games to connect with their audience in a tangibly affecting way. As such, they are – in my view – perhaps the medium’s most potent tool in arguing for its status as a genuine artform.
A really great horror game, like Silent Hill 2 or Amnesia, invariably combines emotional power, complex subtext and innovative design – and these are qualities generally lacking from the modern gaming landscape. A great horror game has to be novel, unpredictable and ingenious to find new ways in which to frighten the player (remember Eternal Darkness’s incredible fourth-wall breaking ‘insanity’ tactics?), and as such they often add a welcome dose of originality, and eye-widening surprise, to the experience. In an age when gaming is in thrall to the cheap thrills of superficial spectacle, we’ve generally lost the multi-layered drama that stems from deep-rooted tinkering with the psyche.
It is for these reasons, as well as my own stubborn desire for new and compelling horror tribulations, that I see the lack of current mainstream horror games as a tragedy. And it’s the exact same reason we’ll all keep ‘chasing Amy’ – even if it means us getting far too excited over the notion of an original new original horror game existing at all.
Mark Butler is the author of Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror, which is available to download for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.
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