The horror genre was once thought dead if the last generation of consoles is anything to go by. Resident Evil had abandoned it’s macabre atmosphere for a more multiplayer focused blockbuster image, Silent Hill had seen a string of mediocre releases that had lost the surreal charm of the original trilogy, and Dead Space managed to deliver brilliant body horror before quickly twisting it into yet another action packed co-operative experience. So it was left to the indie scene to make the intimate horror games that big studios were quickly becoming too scared to make. If the past year has proved anything though, it’s that horror is most definitely scaring it’s way back into the mainstream, but is history doomed to repeat itself for this precariously placed genre?
The first glimpse of horror’s downfall was instanced in Resident Evil 4, which many people, ironically enough, consider the pinnacle of horror. It was a game that showed how fear could be achieved in broad daylight, evidenced by the stunning first segment which pits Leon against an entire village. It crafted a horror icon through the chainsaw wielding maniac that caused many a heart attack as soon as you first heard that chainsaw being revved up. This was also a game that revolutionized shooting mechanics, something that would change gaming as a whole forever.
This is unfortunately what Capcom decided was the only thing to expand upon in further Resident Evil installments. Resident Evil 5 ditched any kind of attempt to frighten it’s fans and instead added a partner character to dispatch any kind of tense situations. In Resident Evil 6, the horror element was all but annihilated in a hail of bullets and superhuman acrobatics; a decision that represented Capcom’s unwillingness to invest in pure horror again. Although it should be noted that Resident Evil Revelations was a genuine attempt to bring this horror element back, even if the 3DS architecture stopped it from wholly succeeding in terms of sound and design. Capcom have also recently revealed that an HD remaster of the critically acclaimed Resident Evil “REmake”, originally released for the Gamecube, will be released sometime next year. If you’re after an example of horror perfection then definitely consider looking up the REmake; considered the perfect amalgamation of brooding visuals, stellar sound design, gruesome enemies, limited exploration and a genuine dread inducing atmosphere.
The other big franchise in horror, Silent Hill, also saw a sharp decline in quality after the fourth game, which is also when the original Japanese team terminated their involvement with the series. Silent Hill was once a journey into each character’s own personal hell, but this vision was later distorted, with enemies such as Pyramid Head turning up in any installment, purely because of the fact he was an iconic figure from Silent Hill 2. Silent Hill, much like the rest of the horror genre, was in a difficult position because of the nature of it’s gameplay. Being puzzle heavy and slow paced was starting to lose Konami the sales it craved for the series, which caused it to experiment with more action based gameplay and even going down a psychological route. None of these were working out though and Silent Hill was becoming increasingly irrelevant to gaming; it had no way to change with the times like Resident Evil and was eventually left in limbo (until recently).
This signaled the downfall of many horror franchises that were not doing enough satisfactory sales numbers. Horror slowly became less of a genre and more of an element being used in a variety of different games. Bioshock, much like System Shock before it, used sound and imagery to build an unbearable sense of dread at certain moments; Dead Space, whilst gradually turning more action based, had a truly gruesome creature design in the Necromorphs; and The Last of Us built up a strikingly bleak world and imaginative threat in it’s enemy, the “Clickers”. Horror could no longer achieve the sales numbers of blockbuster games, and so the genre was left to rot whilst action packed games ruled the roost.
The indie scene and PC market then took control of horror, forging effective experiences that ranged from short but brilliantly conceived free ideas to fully effective expansive games. Amnesia: The Dark Descent replaced the sight of a gun in hand with a simple lantern, the only tool you have to survive the events of the game. It tasked you with hiding from it’s frightening foes instead of killing them which in turn made them vastly more intimidating. This was something to be continued by the internet meme turned gaming phenomenon, Slenderman. The villainous entity received his own free to play game, Slender, in which players are tasked with navigating around a particular area in order to find 8 pages. Along the way, Slenderman will stalk the player and must be avoided at all costs or else the game will end abruptly. This led to many games exploiting the same mechanic, including two notable games, Outlast and Daylight, both of which revolved around very much the same mechanic, whilst including their own unique twists.
Horror was now gaining traction once again and the bigger studios were well aware of this. Capcom, after stating they wanted the Call of Duty audience with Resident Evil 6, were slowly backtracking on their comments and stated they were re-examining what Resident Evil meant to it’s fans. Bethesda then announced a new game by Shinji Mikami, the original Resident Evil creator entitled, The Evil Within. This was taking the gameplay of Resident Evil and placing it in a more twisted and dark universe with some truly evocative imagery. Sony then released The Last of Us, which sold in the millions, proving that gaming could tell bleak stories whilst still holding interest in the audience. It wasn’t until Gamescom this year that horror really showed that it was back with a vengeance.
Sony showed off a brand new trailer for it’s slasher inspired horror, Until Dawn, which takes the conventions of the genre allowing you to craft your own experience, with what is said to have hundreds of different outcomes. Then there was P.T, a brief mention in Sony’s conference that garnered a few scoffs when we saw the theatrical reactions of people screaming in the dark. Yet people logged and tried the free interactive teaser, only to be taken aback by the barrage of horrors and surprises that were in store for them; the biggest surprise being that it was actually a teaser for a new Silent Hill. Finally, Capcom may have also accidentally leaked information about a possible sequel to Resident Evil Revelations, which could be an excellent decision considering Revelations was a step in the right direction for the series.
All of this doesn’t change that horror is still the same genre, and the majority of gaming audiences are still the gun toting multiplayer obsessed players they always were. If P.T is anything to go by, horror is still a decisive genre as ever, with many people claiming that P.T starts off brilliantly but becomes increasingly more tedious by the end. It would appear that game players today are used to destinations that are sign posted and puzzles that can solved with a few simple taps of a button. P.T harkens back to the days of atmosphere and enclosed exploration, but it still remains to be seen whether audiences today will take to this more methodical approach in the final game.
The pieces are all in place and all of the big names are in play for the horror genre to become mainstream again. All we can really do is wait and see how it all unfolds but one thing is for sure, horror is definitely in the best position it has ever been. Do you think horror will make it big again, or do you think it’s better off in the hands of indie developers?