How to make better horror

Leigh Alexander:

Fortunately for horror game fans, today’s changing business models on PC mean adventure and storytelling games have an opportunity for resurgence. Downloadable and independent games are serious forces in the industry, quality ratchets up ever more quickly and creatives are hungry to explore new kinds of experiences – or to revisit and reappropriate bits and pieces of design from game forms that we might have once been overly-eager to throw out whole.

The result is a thriving indie horror game scene that’s going less and less under the radar; recently Home, a creepy little homage to what we used to love about story-based horror, got praise and attention from a broad array of consumer outlets. The terrifying Slender emerged from internet “creepypasta” lore and is free to play (that one in particular is fascinating, because it suggests new figures of fear can emerge not from history or old film monsters, but from modern digital folklore).

I’ve oft lamented the Hollywood’s take on horror, which has little to do with being scared—except of eating, for fear of vomiting out of disgust in the movie theatre—and I am guilty of worrying that more or less the same thing will become the norm in in mainstream video games.[1]

So yes, that horror is still alive and writhing in a corner somewhere is heartening. But really I’m not surprised that it’s become an indie thing; fear is a very personal thing, and I think it takes some very concentrated effort to induce it via video game—something that a big studio can’t accomplish without significant effort. Besides the fact that big developer studios can’t work agilely or experiment as easily (to the detriment of games everywhere!), they also run the risk of designing by committee, trying to appeal universally, and neutering the whole thing in the process.

  1. The best horror game being, in recent memory, Dark Souls, and that game isn’t even really a horror game. For that matter, it’s not even scary in the traditional sense, really, as much as chokingly atmospheric and oppressive. Which is really great—but not scary.

    Don’t talk to me about Dead Space. ↩