Opinion: The Art Of Horror Games

Great horror games can be atmospheric, intense and downright terrifying, but Mark Butler argues that their highly-sophisticated qualities also prove that video games are a genuine and powerful artform. 

In recent times, a great debate has raged among cultural commentators over whether video games can be considered art. Those who claim they can, and should, have been quick to cite the powerful storytelling and visual design of BioShock, the laugh-out-loud comedy and ingenious craft of the Portal games and the tear-jerking power of Final Fantasy VII as evidence for the potency and creativity of gaming. But while these are all great examples, I’d rather go with spine-chilling masterpieces Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Silent Hill 2 as my Exhibit A for the gaming defence.

Video games do horror exceptionally well. So well in fact, that the medium’s achievements in this regard are worthy of genuine acclaim and celebration. The best horror games are infinitely more terrifying than anything cinema or literature can offer – putting the individual at the heart of a nightmarish scenario rather than having them simply observe or read about others in peril – and this is something that is rarely acknowledged or publicised.

Moreover, the emotive impact, immersive power and extraordinary, carefully-crafted atmosphere of great horror games reflects the potential of video games as a whole to aspire and attain the very qualities of art. The Oxford English Dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination… producing works to be appreciated primarily for their emotional power”. When we think of such sublime masterpieces of terror and suspense as Silent Hill 2 and Amnesia, resplendent as they are with inspired visual design, sophisticated psychological subtext and visceral emotional impact, are these games not the very epitome of the term?

The truth is that gaming has been producing unforgettable dark art for more than a decade now. Survival-horror became a popular and influential new genre on the gaming landscape following the huge success of zombie thriller Resident Evil in 1996, but it was around the turn-of-the-millennium that a new breed of extraordinary and sophisticated titles emerged, placing psychology and atmosphere at the forefront of the experience and pushing the boundaries of fear in new and unprecedented ways.

The Silent Treatment: An ordinary man plunged into a nightmarish scenario

Konami’s Silent Hill was groundbreaking and influential. It ploughed into deep, raw primeval fears, plunging the player into pitch-black environments lit only by the dim glow of a pocket torch, where horrific, twisted creatures came lurching out of the darkness. The game cast you as an ordinary, everyday Joe Shmoe, a humble writer by the name of Harry Mason, and by plunging this everyman into a terrifying situation, it emphasized vulnerability and powerlessness above all else.

Its great skill was in generating a pervading sense of nightmarish dread, its gameworld filled with surreal, paranormal touches that lent the experience the kind of warped, otherworldly irrationality that makes bad dreams so very fearful. Remember the radio that spat static when monsters were near? It was never explained why this was, and it was all the more unnerving for it.

Silent Hill 2, released in 2001, built upon these qualities to be an even more terrifying and accomplished experience, adding extra depth and sophistication to proceedings with its remarkable use of Freudian subtext throughout. The female grotesques protagonist James Sunderland encountered appeared to be a projection of his repressed sexual desires; hulking, destructive antagonist Pyramid Head was both a manifestation of Sunderland’s violent masculinity and his twisted desire to be punished for past sins. And that’s before we even get onto sex abuse victim Angela and the creature she called ‘daddy’…

There are other horror games that strongly demonstrate gaming’s potential as an artform, of course. Ken Levine’s celebrated System Shock 2 laid the groundwork for BioShock with its interactive, cut-scene free method of storytelling and innovative FPS-RPG gameplay, but it also boasted remarkable craft in developing a genuinely horrific aesthetic and tone. Rarely has any kind of entertainment experience been so immersive: its combination of an uneasy alliance with a crazed, murderous AI, encounters with horrific, hostile mutants, and the chilling, poetic taunting of the hive-minded ‘Many’ adding up to an almost unbearably tense journey that really did take hold of your imagination and subconscious.

Shocking Encounter: A mutant 'midwife' in Ken Levine's System Shock 2

If ingenuity can be said to be one of art’s key traits, then cult classic Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem just might be one of the great post-modern creations. Ostensibly a third-person action-adventure with strong horror elements, it was so much more than it first appeared, breaking the fourth wall in a way that was audacious, amusing and terrifying all at the same time.

The game made use of a sanity metre, which would be depleted in response to frightening encounters and unpleasant scenes. When fully emptied, there would be bizarre shifts in the in-game graphics and physics (you might enter a room to find that everything had literally turned upside down, for example), but the most jaw-dropping effects involved the game reaching out to directly mess with the mind of the player. The sound might cut out for no apparent reason, with a ‘MUTE’ display appearing in the top corner of the screen. Or you might suddenly be met with a message telling you that you had successfully deleted all your saved games, when you had made to do no such thing. In effect, Eternal Darkness made more people think they had a poltergeist in their house or were losing their own mind than any other piece of entertainment in living memory, and if that’s not artistic genius I don’t know what is.

Post-Modern Adventure: Eternal Darkness broke the fourth wall in inspired and unnerving ways

There may have been a notable and dominant shift to combat-orientated, FPS and third-person shooter led action-horror since Doom 3 and Resident Evil 4 made their indelible mark six or seven years ago, but psychological horror has remained incredibly powerful on the occasions that it has been harnessed and utlised effectively.

These days, it is mainly indie developers who are demonstrating the true art that horror games have to offer. Last year, Amnesia: The Dark Descent – the twisted brain-child of Sweden’s Frictional Games – gave many a player sleepless nights, impressing with its mastery of Lovecraftian story-telling and, more importantly, scaring us all witless with its sheer nerve-shredding atmosphere of dread and foreboding.

Prior to the beginning of Amnesia, Frictional present a beautiful and rather telling message: “Amnesia should not be played to win. Instead, focus on immersing yourself in the game’s world and story.” This simple statement sums up the developer’s laudable approach perfectly. They aim to create a truly memorable work where the player is encouraged not to look for simple and hollow victories, but to lose themselves in a unique, immersive experience. Again, this is surely an aim that transcends entertainment and enters into the realm of art. And you could never really call Amnesia ‘entertaining’ anyway.

Like Eternal Darkness before it, the game has a ‘sanity’ feature whereby the protagonist can suffer anything from a slight headache to a full on black-out depending on how frightened he is. Given you have no way of fighting back against monsters, the developers capitalize on this with a sadistically clever Catch 22: you need to hide in the darkness to avoid enemies, but the longer you stay in darkness, the more crazy you get  – and going insane leaves you much more vulnerable to the creatures.

Duality of light and dark features heavily in Amnesia, and the inspired nuance of its execution leaves the cheap theatrics of most horror movies quivering in the corner. You have a lamp which you can use to ease your progression and state of mind, but doing so telegraphs your position to the mutilated grotesques who prowl the castle in which you are trapped, meaning you all too often have to grope agonizingly in the dark, the sounds of your pursuers’ shuffling footfalls and hot, musty breath horribly clear in the painfully quiet environment.

The sound-design is monumentally effective, with every last door creak, chain-rattle or sharp grunt ringing out like a startling gunshot in the deafening silence that pervades. The game mixes effective ‘jumps’ with a general atmosphere of grim foreboding, utilizing long, slow build-ups of breathtaking tension, before unleashing sudden, jolting outbursts of horror.

The monsters here are at their most frightening when simply overheard, or briefly glimpsed through an open doorway. Your mind conjures up terrible possibilities when they’re prowling in the shadows – and these possibilities are far more unbearable than anything the finest game artist could design and bring to life. The developers succeed in using the players’ own imaginations against them, and as such Frictional are really working at the pinnacle of the horror experience.

Rotten Luck: A typically welcoming scene from Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Another independent Scandinavian developer to really come up with the goods recently, Danish outfit Playdead mustered something truly special with Limbo, a beautiful yet disturbing creation that satisfies all the purest qualities of art. As well as being visually distinctive and astonishing, it is also emotionally evocative: inducing feelings of fear and unease but also sadness, amusement, excitement, curiosity, anger, awe and, ultimately, at the game’s deeply touching and poignant conclusion, hope.

A 2D puzzler set amidst a backdrop of eerie, desolate landscapes and dominated by a constant sense of macabre atmosphere and fiendish threat, Limbo is a simultaneously disquieting and awe-inspiring experience; one that evokes unease and wonder in equal measure. Definably a horror game in setting, execution and mood, it oozes subtlety, intelligence and power, ultimately illustrating the boundless possibility for new and original takes on the genre.

Even though the mainstream horror gaming landscape is now largely dominated by titles which emphasise balls-out action and don’t aspire to the level of psychological excellence crafted by the likes of Amnesia, there are encouraging signs that the future may be bright (or dark, depending on which way you look at it).

Senscape’s moody-looking chiller Asylum looks like it may well be a worthy successor to Amnesia’s near-unbearable mental anguish, while the forthcoming Silent Hill: Downpour looks set to take the series back to its masterful, terrifying psychological roots, following the disappointment of Homecoming and its finishing-move wielding soldier protagonist.

Returning Horror: Silent Hill: Downpour looks set to resurrect the series' psychological roots

And needless to say, the next time someone tells you they doubt the artistic merits of gaming, and asserts that video games will never match the emotional impact and intelligent sophistication of a really great film or novel, get them to sit down with a really great horror game. They’ll quiver, they’ll squirm, they’ll howl like a wounded beast – and finally they’ll concede that gaming really is a powerful and exciting artform, one that has the potential to reach out and grab the audience in a way that other entertainment mediums simply cannot match.

Mark Butler’s book, Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror, is out now to download for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android

Get it for just $3.44 from Amazon.com:

Get it for just £2.13 from Amazon.co.uk:

Get it for just €2.99 from Amazon.de:

3 Responses to “Opinion: The Art Of Horror Games”
  1. Mauro Eisdrache says:

    I am making my Master thesis about horror games and I am really interested in your work and books, but I cannot find formal publications in journals and your book is only for Kindle, is there a Paper version of it?
    Thank you very much.

  2. Mark Butler says:

    Hi Mauro. I’m afraid there’s not a physical copy of the book as it’s available only as an eBook through Amazon, but if you download a Kindle Reader App for your PC, iPad, iPhone etc. you can then download the book from Amazon and read it through that. You don’t have to have a Kindle, as I understand it.

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