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Explorations in Horror gaming

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  1. The first time I was ever frightened by a video game, I was 5 years old at my cousin's house playing Doom. It seems especially tame today, even to me, but at the time the demonic imagery, horrific monsters jumping out of nowhere, and various sound effects - whether any monsters were nearby or not - scared the crap out of me.

    Now, as a rule, I've never considered myself a fan of the horror genre in general. That was for sickos who got off on seeing the gore and whatnot. Also, I just didn't understand what entertainment value could really be gleaned from being frightened. It wasn't until much later that I came to the realization that, for some people at least, the scares aren't entertaining, but are a means to and end, the end being a heightened sense of identification with the player's avatar. Post-Doom, I never really played much in the way of horror games until recently, when a mostly disparate series of events and a strong helping of curiosity has lead me to go through a number of the classics of the genre. As a result, I now understand the genre much more, and would even consider myself somewhat of a fan. Go figure.

    It started with the Mondo games (Mondo Medicals and Mondo Agency), a 'series' of two freeware games I found by accident one time. They're very short, and their intention is, essentially, to as realistically as possible portray a semi-lucid nightmare. One of those that makes sense for the most part while you're asleep, but when you wake up you have no idea what was going on, or why you were so frightened. After becoming subsequently involved with the community that had sprung up around the games, a friend I met through it recommended the Chzo Mythos games by Yahtzee (of Zero Punctuation fame). This was really the turning point for me. These were brilliantly-written, wonderfully well thought-out adventure titles with a strong narrative pulling them all together and a fittingly ambiguous ending. Though my admiration for the series has lessened after playing many of the classics it borrows elements from, this was when I discovered that it really wasn't all about the gore. In fact, many times, disturbing imagery is the least disturbing part of a game of this ilk.

    Shortly afterwards, I finally caved to a friend who'd been trying to convince me to give Resident Evil 4 a try. He kept telling me "no, its not like the others at all. No zombies or anything. Its great, you've got to give it a spin." So, eventually, I did, and I freaking loved it. Still one of my top 10, ever, and arguably the greatest horror game ever made. Not as scary as most, but so exceedingly well-made that it more than makes up for that. So, as I'm wont to do when I discover a new series, I thought to myself "well, I liked this one so much. Surely the other ones would at least be worth playing?" and I was right. While I still have yet to track down Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and have yet to get a system to play Resident Evil 5 on, I found Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 to be thoroughly rewarding experiences, although oddly enough I found I enjoyed the puzzle aspects of these games more than anything else.

    Around this time I discovered a list of japanese-only SNES games that had received English fan translations. While I'm normally against emulation, I found this to be acceptable, and was soon enjoying Seiken Densetsu 3, Front Mission, and Front Mission: Gun Hazard immensely. But hidden amongst all that I downloaded was a little gem called Clock Tower. Now, I had vaguely heard of the series before, but I never paid it much mind. After all, I wasn't a horror fan. It took less than five minutes to hook me, and I played that game for hours and hours, because I knew that it would haunt me until I finally saw it through to the end and got one of the good endings. Never before or since has an 8-year-old with a pair of garden shears been so absolutely terrifying.

    There was one last holdout. The Silent Hill series is, of course, legendary. If Resident Evil was the type of game George A. Romero and Wes Craven would have made together, then Silent Hill would have been the deranged and malformed brainchild of Alfred Hitchcock and Clive Barker. It just wasn't an experience I ever thought I could find so much as tolerable, much less fulfilling and rewarding. It started with a friend of mine who's also a writer. He was working on a novel that, when he outlined it to me, sounded much too close to what I knew of Silent Hill's plot for comfort. He, of course, had heard of Silent Hill, but really knew nothing about it, save that it was a horror video game, and, since he wasn't a gamer himself, I agreed to track it down and play it for him, to help him keep his novel away from everyone's favorite foggy ghost town. I'm fairly early into it, but...while I could see how it definitely wouldn't be an experience for everyone, for anyone with the stomach for it, Silent Hill is an absolute masterpiece. The fear of what's out there has never been so tangible, nor so much stronger than the fear of what you can actually see. Never before, also, have I been afraid of a game's music. Akira Yamaoka's score is not what everyone would even call music, per se. It mostly consists of low electronic and percussive sounds used in odd, grating, mostly non-rhythmic patterns to put the player constantly on-edge. Now, mind you, I'm familiar with Goldsmith's scores to Alien and The Omen. I'm familiar with the score to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the good 70s version). I'm familiar with Hermann's Psycho score. From what I understand, these are considered to be some of the most frightening music ever composed. None of them hold's a candle to Silent Hill's score. I have literally run blindly through areas, ignoring both monsters and useful items in an area, just to get away from the music that plays in the area, because it upsets me so.

    Its been an interesting journey, learning about a genre I previously had no interest in. And, of course, its not over yet. There are a number of other excursions into Silent Hill, and untold other games worth checking out. I've heard good things about the early Alone in the Dark games, and just from a historian's standpoint, I intend to play through the English translation of Sweet Home at some point.

    NOTE: I started this as a blog entry, then decided to put it here, to engender further discussion on the topic. Thus the rather singular perspective.

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  3. I'm not a huge fan of the horror genre. This is mainly because the bulk of my experience with it has been excessive gore + crappy controls + jump scares. Excessive gore started lose its novelty about the time I turned 13 (Fully dead by about 15). Sometime around 23 it actually started to repulse me. Jump scares are cheap thrills. There's a time and place for them. Turning it into the crux of the entire experience are for Halloween fun houses. I expect more out of video games. Finally, if a game is supposed to frighten, make you nervous, and stress you out and that is the fun of it, the last thing I want happening is for the controls to be the biggest source of the fear. If a zombie is running after me trying to kill me I want to be thinking about a zombie running after me trying to kill me, not which direction I press on the control stick is actually going to movie me in the direction away from the zombie.

    Now, despite this wall of text I just typed concerning my dislike for the Horror genre, I can say there are a few diamonds in the rough that I've had the pleasure (not really, but you get the point ) of playing. Chiefly, Silent Hill is the finest example I've ever experienced. It seriously freaked me out. It did so with methodically designed paranoia inducing dread. I'm not sure I could play through the game again, but I have immense respect for it.

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  5. Whoa, how did I miss this bitchin' thread? Very nice write-up sir Domino, especially agree with everything you (and Nels) had to say about Silent Hill. Silent Hill 2 in particular is one of those games that I consider transcendental, the kind of thing Roger Ebert needs to play so he can have his mind blasted open and stop his whining about things. But any of the first three Team Silent titles are pure gold. Even if I know the ins and outs of Silent Hill 2 & Silent Hill 3, the atmosphere of the games remain absolutely overwhelming when played alone in a dark room. It's hard to handle more than a 2hour dose.

    You're dead on with the power of Yamaoka sounds as well, the man is a genius. The score to the original PSX title is the stuff of psychopathic nightmares, and yet there's just enough human subtext to resonate with us and evoke the darkness lying dormant in our minds. By the way, I just started playing SH1 recently and I thought I'd cope with it better due to its antiquated presentation. I was wrong, and I'm pretty sure that's half-due to Akira.

    I also enjoyed Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly during the late nights of my last college year. I'd probably rank it just a smidge below Silent Hill in how much I respect the game, but it's definitely brilliant in its own way. I've also been meaning to pick up Eternal Darkness for what seems to be forever, heard great things.

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  7. OMMFG I loved every second of Eternal Darkness. It was pretty creepy, but the historical settings were awesome.

    However, I'm not sure how well it will stand up in the face of modern games. If was, after all, developed for N64 and even paled as a GameCube game. I have a feeling that, after Resident Evil 4 and 5, Dead Space, etc. it may look kind of silly.

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  9. @Matt thanks for the heads-up, I'll definitely keep that in mind for whenever I do get around to bagging it. (Un)fortunately my experience with those snazzy new titles has been pretty limited!

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  11. Alright, time to drop my 2 cents.

    I'm not the type to really enjoy that many games in this particular genre but I will say that Resident Evil, Resident Evil 4 and Eternal Darkness blew my mind, especially RE4 (I mean those regenerators are just horrifying and the means necessary to kill them is just UGH). I've played some of Silent Hill and I must say that it's also quite brooding with atmosphere and whatnot but after a decades worth of games in this particular genre, there seems to be a certain criteria that must be met when making a survival horror game that really annoys me:

    1. The game must consist of a certain amount of gore in order for it to be appropriately categorized.
    1. Most of the entities attacking you are either zombies or supernatural monsters/aliens etc.

    I think this is something Nels touched on a little bit here in this thread but I'm gonna go a little further with it. I don't think that the above features are necessarily bad but merely overdone, if we look at the actual phrase "survival horror" and it's definition:


    the act or fact of surviving, esp. under adverse or unusual circumstances.


    an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear: to shrink back from a mutilated corpse in horror.

    ..we can see that video games could take it much further without resorting to the supernatural or hyper violence. n-Space had a really sweet demonstration for their survival horror game tentatively titled Winter and I think they were onto something there. Sure if you watch the clip, there is a supernatural monster at the end so it's not the best example for my argument but the battle with the wolf near the start of the demo is a fine example of what I'm arguing for. There is a level of realism and empathy we can all take from that interactive experience, purely because we know it's tangible in the real world. We COULD end up in a situation like that and there for it invokes horror in and of itself, but I digress.

    Where Winter fails (supernatural monster near the end of the clip) it succeeds handsomely at the start. I saw this film recently

    and it got me thinking. This film helps illustrate what I would love to see in a survival horror game. Here's the plot summary:

    Billionaire Charles Morse accompanies his supermodel wife Mickey to photo shoot at Alaska. The shoot is to be made by fashion photographer Robert Green. To find specific Indian for the shoot, they fly to even more distant location, where their small plane crashes into a lake. To survive in the woods full of man-killing bears they need each other, but the smarter of the men - Charles is suspicious that Robert is having an affair with his wife.

    It turns out that Robert ends up trying to sabotage Charles but ends up failing, this happens while they're trying to seek rescue.

    Now I'm not proposing that survival horror games should follow or copy this film but I think it definitely inspires a lot of potential possibilities in the genre itself. I mean if you look at all the wRPGS out now with their dialogue tree mechanics etc, it seems very possible that we could have a survival horror game in the most literal sense: 3 guys are strandard in the alps of Alaska. Their ultimate goal is to survive but with bears and other ghastly creatures lurking in the forest. The player must also be strategic as to how they can fend themselves from such things. You could have multiple pathways for reaching certain destinations but choosing one will have certain consequences. You could have dialogue trees between each survivor and how their personality (regarding desperation etc) will change in time. You could have it where the player must USE the environment to micromanage certain items that are imperative to your survival etc. You could have natural predators like bears etc where one of the survivors has to stay awake at night to keep a watch out for their over all safety. And so on..

    I could keep going with the possibilities but I think you get the idea. I'm not saying that current survival horror games should be abolished but I wouldn't mind playing a game based on the above. Still, I'm looking forward to Mikami x Suda 51 survival horror project and I'm sure it's going to be as far removed from reality than anything we've seen on the market out there right now.


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  13. @Pugz Excellent post. A less fantastical approach to survival horror could certainly spice up the genre. Have you ever played D2 (not Diablo II)? What I can recall of the previews for the game (it's for the Dreamcast) makes it sound very similar to Winter. I didn't get to play it and though reviews were so-so I thought it still looked promising at the time. You might want to check it out if you can find somebody with a Dreamcast.

    D2 wiki

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  15. @Nels Ah yea the sequel to Enemy Zero! I definitely need to check both of those games out. On a side note, did you know Famito Ueda worked on EZ as an animator before boarding Sony's camp of designers? Pretty interesting stuff.

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  17. @Pugz

    I've been wanting to play Enemy Zero for some time now, ever since you posted about the soundtrack (which was excellent), and then I read about it on wikipedia and all the various people that either worked on or were influenced by it - one of the more important games that's been completely forgotten in the ongoing march of time.

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    • Sun January 16, 2022
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