I’m a big horror fan.
That’s a meaningless statement really. You might reasonably think that I have seen all the Saw films, beaten a path to anything Wes Craven and have a stack of Stephen King novels on the bookshelves. Only one of those is actually the case (King – what a writer!).
Instead, I went through the obligatory video nasty phase as a teenager/early 20-something, got caught up on Japanese and Korean horror films and have fallen in love with more recent(ish) efforts like Kill List and The Babadook. The horror genre is a varied thing, with much to offer. Including games.
I’ve tried my hand at a couple of horror games of late, and I’m not sure what to think. Not because I didn’t find them scary. Quite the opposite, actually. Possibly they’re too scary. Or is it something else?
The only film I have ever left because I was too scared was Return To Oz. I was 4. Jesus, that scared me. I finally watched the whole thing just a couple of years ago, and was pleased to find that it’s still creepy as all hell. But since then, I’ve never left a horror film unfinished, be it Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead (though I should have left part way through the turgid remake) or A Tale Of Two Sisters. But the two games I’ve played recently? I don’t think I can finish them.
Which games am I actually talking about? Alien Isolation and Soma. Both sci-fi horror, both high production values, both really high on my must-play list last year. And I really like both of them, to a point.
Warning – there are some spoilers ahead, more for Alien Isolation as I really haven’t got that far in Soma
Alien Isolation looks great. It sounds great. And for a long time it’s a fun horror experience. Being stalked through a (sort of) empty space station by a seldom-glimpsed iconic monster is a real thrill. It’s pretty much exactly what I hoped for, even if a lot of my playing time was spent looking out from cupboards.
But, as in the film Alien, there are androids. Not one bumbling-then-oh-shit-he’s-evil android, but a whole load of them. And the hero, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, starts to pick up a few weapons to deal with them. Never much ammo though. And that’s when things started to go downhill.
The alien isn’t killable. Not with the weapons, at least. You can drive it off with a flamethrower, but it’ll keep coming back. Fine. The androids though, them you can kill. It takes a bit of off effort, but they go down eventually. And so the grind began. Sometimes I killed the androids, sometimes they killed me. And suddenly all sense of fear has gone, replaced with something different: stress.
By the time I’d stop-started and died-killed my way through a room full of androids and dropped down into an alien hive I felt exasperated rather than exhilarated. And now here’s something new – killable little facehuggers. And the grind continues. I’d trade all my weapons for a good cupboard to hide in…
So far in Soma it’s a similar-ish experience to early Alien: Isolation. No weapons whatsoever and unknowable beasties patrolling desolate corridors. I’m in. I’m hooked. And then suddenly I’m more stressed than scared and the illusion gently crumbles. My character is perhaps forever stuck hiding around a corner as a monster traipses back and forth ahead. My character isn’t too scared to move, he just can’t be bothered. He’ll stay listening to the creepy sound effects and having a good time that way.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s something about being able to die and retry that spoils horror games for me. In a film you’re stuck. It’s going to carry on no matter how scared you get, it has a momentum that you can’t stop.
The last chunk of Kill List for example, down in the tunnels in the dark, disoriented and being chased by people neither the audience or main characters quite understand, is thrilling. What about Pulse? There’s a ghost woman walking in ghastly slow motion towards the main character, stumbling in slow-mo. It’s weird and horrible and unnerving as holy hell. But what if the character bungled their escape, and instead of the film ending they had to try it again. And again. And again. The fear would dissipate. It would become stressful. Then annoying.
There are alternatives though. Bioshock managed its horrors brilliantly – there are moments of the first game that I remember as clearly as any great film scare. It’s certainly more action-centric than Alien or Soma, so a slightly different vibe I suppose. I enjoyed Until Dawn recently – the idea that there was no do-over, no reloading if a character dies worked well, adding to in-the-moment tension without becoming merely stressful.
So what horror games can you recommend that don’t trade fear for stress? Layers of Fear looks intriguing…
Maybe I should just get better at games. That’s probably the best answer.