When I was in high-school, I can remember pulling all-nighters with my buddy playing Resident Evil on Gamecube. The graphics, compared to more recent iterations of the franchise, and the game may not have been the easiest to control, but I still remember it being one of the best scary games I have played. There are still moments from it that stick with me. There was a hallway that had a wall on one side, and windows on the other and as you walked down it, a zombified dog crashed through the window and attacked you. It scared the hell out of us when we played it the first time. But that’s what the older horror games did. They used small things to scare you. As the genre became more and more popular, and to fight against popular games like Halo or Call of Duty, developers moved away from this traditional gameplay style to something that I think ruined the games.
Developers moved towards the Dead Rising kind of gameplay where instead of small things scaring you, you were swarmed with enemies and your biggest fear was dying without having saved or reached a checkpoint. To me, this type of game was less scary and more annoying. Even the beloved Resident Evil franchise moved towards this with RE4, 5 and 6. Zombies changed from slow moving brain-eaters to weird, super zombies that could run, climb and jump and turned into strange creatures and monsters. I suppose these creatures themselves looked scary but gameplay itself was annoying, just running back and around corners and shooting as they came in hordes.
What I miss from the horror genre was what the original Resident Evil gave. Fixed cameras and the sense of, “what the hell was that?” A strange noise followed by one zombie coming around a blind corner. That was startling, that was scary. Adding to the survival aspect of the game, not only did you have to survive zombies and monsters, but the original RE made you find typewriter ink reels in order to save your game. This meant that saving was up to you and could either reward or punish, depending on how smartly you saved. Running out of ink reels was scary as hell, way more than seeing twenty zombies running at you.
Although it appeared that the horror genre was killing itself, some new games have come to rescue it, to pull that gun out of its own mouth and back at the enemies coming towards you. Some of these games include The Evil Within, Outlast, Dying Light, Alien Isolation and Silent Hills. These are games reverting back to the actual horror and scare tactics of the old generations.
Outlast found you moving through an asylum, coming across enemies randomly, but the key was that you had extremely limited combat meaning you would have to run like hell to escape an oncoming enemy rather than just blast it away with a shotgun. This is true survival and horror. Knowing you cannot defend yourself and must still carry onward to complete the game. The Evil Within has similar gameplay where you must decide between fight or flight in order to stay alive. You do not have endless ammo or powerful guns that can obliterate enemies.
Dying Light sticks with the zombie genre but gives you full first person action and gets you up close and personal with the zombies, traditional zombies, going after you. While fighting them off in the daytime while parkouring around the city is pretty calm, when night falls, the game gets eerie and creepy and adds a whole new scare to the experience. What was fine in the light an hour ago is now mysterious and haunting in the dark.
Alien Isolation takes us back to the 80’s aboard the space ship that brought us the first xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise. Here is what I like: there is one xenomorph and it is pretty much invincible. Yeah. So while you can acquire a gun or weapons of some sort in the game, that xenomorph is still scary as hell and forces you to play a hide and seek game with it every time you hear that creepy rattle and hiss.
These games prove it possible to scare the gamer without extravagant monsters and hordes of enemies. Sometimes it is just the vastness and lonliness that can scare you. Not knowing what might be ahead or knowing that there is one horrible thing waiting for you brings the most terror to the game.
Though that may seem a nice conclusion, I cannot refrain from at least mentioning Silent Hills which is a new game and reboot for the Silent Hill series. This one comes from director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid franchise), and the two have said that aim to make the scariest game possible no matter the consequence, even if nobody plays it. But let’s be real, with those two at the helm, people will play it. And people did when the playable demo hit the PS4 this summer. An L shaped hallway with a bathroom was all the level was and it was one of the scariest things I have watched. Perfectly creepy, startling, terrorizing and frightful. The full game can only get better and I cannot wait to play it…with the lights on in the middle of the day with 10 people around me.