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Comfortably scary - The future of horror in video games

It's a genre that has produced some true classics, but where is horror in games heading?

  • Text: Bengt Lemne

It's Halloween and with it comes the inevitable gaming horror tropes. Zombies and pumpkins. Jump scares and weird (often Japanese) psychological horror. But it also made us think of the genre and its place in interactive entertainment in broader terms.

Much of horror in video games is derived from making the player character weak and/or vulnerable. Famously the controls of early Resident Evil games were as much part of the horror as the subject matter portrayed in the game. Jump scares are often frowned upon, but they are an effective tool if used with caution. We're reminded of the elevators in Dead Space where the player was first lulled into a false sense of security, only for the developers to capitalise on that and later reaping the rewards in the shape of tension whenever an elevator was used.

Horror games finds themselves in a different sort of situation compared to horror films, yet there are naturally similarities as clearly video games have drawn from horror films for inspiration for decades. The main difference lies in the need for a satisfying interactive experience, something that creates a paradox as effective scares many times require control of the scene.

There has been a number of positive developments in recent years in the field of horror games. Most notably Resident Evil returned to its origins earlier this year, and the indie scene has provided many more innovative concepts. Frictional Games with the Penumbra series, Amnesia and Soma under their belts have carved out a niche of atmospheric horror games that do away with combat. There is Red Barrels and their Outlast trilogy. The Creative Assembly's Alien Isolation also showed that a strong core concept can carry an entire game.

The big disappointment was that Konami pulled the plug on their reboot Silent Hills, made famous via the eerie and atmosphere demo P.T., and one has to wonder if we'll ever see a new AAA Silent Hill title from the publisher - a sad thought given how inspirational the series has been over the years even if it lost steam during the last decade. At least there is a legacy left by P.T. that has already spawned indie projects inspired by what Guillermo del Toro and Hideo Kojima proposed. With Dead Space also on ice, no new Alan Wake in sight, and Alien Isolation unlikely to get a successor, we've now got Resident Evil and The Evil Within to rely on in terms of AAA scares and we might include Until Dawn in that space too.

It's not a big crowd at least if we're narrowing the field to atmospheric, narrative-focused experiences that aren't just zombie kill sprees.

Over the years we've also seen more mainstream concepts that aren't necessarily purely horror games dabble in horror themes. Games like Bioshock and The Last of Us executed this perfectly and even the original Gears of War featured some bits where the pace was slowed down and the atmosphere got a bit more creepy.

One thing that typically works well in films is when scary elements are introduced to what is otherwise familiar surroundings; the safety of a family home invaded by an evil doll, a psycho-killer, or the likes. This is something that video games typically struggle with as one of the main appeals of video games is to explore and experience fantastic worlds, but introducing familiar objects or scenarios does help ground the player in the experience.

Another thing that is an obstacle or that can be an obstacle is multiplayer. When Resident Evil opted for a co-operative experience it nearly ruined the franchise, but why is it that we can't get scared together in video games as easily as say in the cinema? There experiencing scares together can amplify things, whereas playing together tends to remove some of the tension and atmosphere in games. This is something that Swedish developer 10 Chambers Collective, made up of veterans from Payday and Payday 2 are exploring in their co-operative horror game GTFO that's still only been teased. As a concept though it intrigues us, if nothing else because it attempts something that's difficult to pull off. Of course, the potential reward if they manage to pull it off is massive.

This is where new technology may come in to help the genre evolve. It's easy to see that horror games are something that developers naturally gravitate towards as VR resurfaced a couple of years ago. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard was a surprisingly good fit on PSVR, and we've seen many other games attempt to scare us in VR. The medium allows for more control in some ways, while in other ways it must not wrestle control away from the player too often.

Another area that could really transform gaming in the next 5 years is advanced AI. Could it possibly be that in the future adaptative AI will replace the need for developers to control situations in order to create tension and surprises? Mixed reality, the ability to ground a horror experience in our world is something else that does seem like a natural evolution. In a way, it reminds us of that Psycho Mantis fight in the first Metal Gear Solid. Maybe it was easier at the time to freak us out, but there's tremendous potential in mixing our world with video games in terms of creating scares.

But it's not just technology that will drive the genre forward. New ideas, themes and scenarios need to be explored. One need only look towards American Horror Story on TV to see that there's much to explore outside of the familiar tropes we've grown used to. There's so much to pull from after all, but the one thing we have to ask ourselves is whether we genuinely want to be scared or if we're just looking to smash zombies...