Why is it so hard to find games that are funny, scary or emotional in the true meaning of the words? When talking about emotions and reactions evoked by games, there are some emotions that are triggered in exaggeration. Stress, anger, happiness and amazement are some of the more common feelings we experience as gamers, but when it comes to feeling real fear or horror the selection of games is scarcer. That scarcity is also a fact for games that make you feel really emotional or for games that make you laugh out loud. As always with emotions it is very subjective what triggers them, different persons feel afraid or laugh at different things.
Let us start with horror, which is multi-facetted genre. I refer to horror both in the meaning of something that sends shivers down your spine, or something that make you jump in your seat or scream out a yelp, although I prefer the creeping type of horror and will try to focus on the lack of that kind of horror.
You are going down a dark stairway, into a pitch black basement and seeing almost nothing, your eyes working fruitlessly to give you a picture of what is around you. Your hands slowly grasping for something to hold on to and you find a wet and moldy wall. After following the wall for a while, you find a metallic door, which you push open. When you step in, a shrieking sound is heard, everything goes bright and you think you see a demonic shape, but you are not sure, since that kind of creation cannot exist, your mind tells you. The light only last for a fraction of a second, then everything goes pitch black again. This scenario is not uncommon in games, but they rarely create a feeling of true horror. In literature and movies there are a lot of examples of paragraphs, scenes and whole stories that have you gripped in a suspenseful type of horror. Why can’t this be transferred to games?
One reason might be that games often fail to provide the atmosphere needed to create suspense and fear. This does not depend on the graphic possibilities of the games, but instead some hard-to-describe overall feeling of the game, like how the “enemies” move, what sound and music is used and also how the player can interact and move. If the player’s character is restricted in movement it adds an ingredient of constraint, which in turn make you as the player think “if something evil turns up around this corner, there is no way I can run away from it”, consequently making you afraid of turning that corner.
One of the earlier games that I felt some suspense and horror in was Friday the 13th for the Commodore 64, but that was much likely due to my tender age at the time of playing it. But one thought still sticks from the game. The basic story was that you have to find a killer before he slays your friends, and this, together with the music, made this game an experience filled with fear, stress and panic.
Another game that has scared me, at least in the beginning, is Doom. I particularly remember the first time I met a Spectre (an invisible “pig”) in a narrow and dark corridor. It freaked me out a bit and remains one of the top scary moments for me. Keep in mind that this was one of the first FPS, I had no earlier experience of meeting invisible, growling monsters in cramped places that starts eating on you!
More recent games that has been quite scary is Resident Evil 4 (RE4) and Alan Wake. RE4 have many scenes where you get scared because of the sheer amount of resistance of hard-to-kill monsters, but it also have superb music, creepy scenery, high level of suspense (in some areas) and a character that is a little bit constrained in movement. Alan Wake is almost like a playable thriller/horror movie, but it also has some elements that put it among the games that can make players feel fear and horror. The playable character in Alan Wake is even slower and less powerful than the guy in RE4, making you feel afraid and horrified when meeting the dark and possessed opponents. The fight against the embodied darkness in Alan Wake borrows some features from H.P. Lovecraft’s horror universe. Lovecraft often avoids describing the “evil creatures” or just vaguely describes them; letting the reader create the image in their mind.
By hearing the title or the basic story of some games, you would suspect that they are scary or have some horror elements, but this is often not the case. Take the Castlevania games as an example. Before continuing I must say I really like the Castlevania games, but they are not scary at all even though most of them have Dracula as the main opponent. Why is not a walk through Dracula’s castle scarier? It is probably because the game’s atmosphere is too action oriented and you seldom get to feel really afraid of something.
I recently tried the second installment in the Left 4 Dead series, namely Left 4 Dead 2 (L4D2), and it didn’t trigger any horror or fear in me. My hypothesis is that L4D2’s problem, in concurrence with most other scary games, is that it relies too much on zombies, gore and action but too little on atmosphere and suspense.
To conclude this first part of “Please make me shiver, laugh or cry” article series, I probably have to say that I don’t get the horror part of today’s (or yesterday’s) games. The magazine Edge made an article about Left 4 Dead and they refer to it mostly as a horror game, but I don’t agree [Edge #230, pp 140-143]. For me it is more like a survival/action game with a lot of zombies as enemies. But, then again, I might hope for different features in horror games. I want creepy feelings, slow movement and limited super powers. Make me afraid of the dark!
Check back later for the next part in this discussion about why some emotions/feelings are missing in games.