An Indie Horror Renaissance
There’s been an unsettling presence within big budget survival horror game development of late and it’s not a bile spewing monster, a zombified horde, nor a creepy young child. No, it’s something much more sinister than any of those, a rotting issue running deep within the veins of the genre – dilution.
Many AAA horror franchises of yore can be characterised during this generation by their diversification into other genres, with the diminishment of pure horror design practically traceable.
Take the once terrifying Resident Evil franchise for example. Where there used to be shambling shufflers, there now resides spritely sprinters. And where a claustrophobic atmosphere of loneliness defined the first few games – all lingering shots of creaking doors and awkward angles of groaning corridors – roundhouses to the face and acrobatic attacks with your co-op partner define the latest. It’s a move toward action gameplay that series creator Shinji Mikami reflected upon in a recent CVG interview, where he stated that a Resident Evil 6 trailer looked “more like a Hollywood action film than a zombie game.”
This same transition from lonely horror to co-operative action has infected the Dead Space franchise, as its third instalment looks more Gears of War-ified with every trailer. Even Alan Wake, a game designed around cultivating mood and tension, has become something of a popcorn action arcade affair in his latest outing, American Nightmare.
There are exceptions of course: The once mighty Silent Hill is one of the few to have stayed true to its survival horror roots, and yet even this has fallen from grace, with two of the latest franchise entries, Downpour and Homecoming, suffering from clumsy combat and technical issues as they strain under the weight of the franchise’s legacy.
It’s not that there aren’t scares to be had with these games; the fight for survival against a necromorph or a zombie will always bring about a panic induced sense of distress. It’s just that those scares are becoming weaker and weaker from a pure horror gaming perspective, as they diversify into more action orientated experiences. And there’s a simple driving factor behind this, the same one that dictates most industry trends: Money.
The economic realities of the modern industry have forced an undeniable, unrelenting march toward making big budget games more palatable for the mass market. The result of ever increasing risks associated with bloating developmental budgets, and it appears that action is a more palatable genre than horror.
Resident Evil series producer Masachika Kawata recently told Gamasutra that the series’ design has become more action orientated because marketing data indicated that the action genre sells more. Likewise, research conducted by EA alongside Dead Space 1 and 2, aimed at determining how to increase its consumer appeal, prompted them to include co-op in Dead Space 3, in order to make people feel more comfortable whilst playing. Maybe I’m strange, but I can’t ever remember wanting to feel ‘more comfortable’ whilst playing a horror game.
And when was the last time we saw one of the big developers really invest in a fresh horror IP? Sure, Dead Space was a risk for EA, but even that 2008 release’s scares were designed around a shooters core. It would seem that expensive experiments like Condemned or Eternal Darkness are a thing of the past.
But fear not antipathy aficionados, because there remains a bastion of bile within the industry, a sector carrying the torch for all things sick and macabre: The indie game.
You need only look at the fervour with which indie horror title Slender spread around the internet to see what a talking point it’s become, and with good reason too – Slender is bloody terrifying. The game’s premise is based upon a popular meme of a lanky suited faceless figure, lurking in the shadows with unknown intent. This namesake nemesis moves like a Boo from Super Mario, approaching whilst your gaze is absent and halting when you turn and face it.
Slender is the first game I’ve played in a long time that made me squeal like a little girl, in broad daylight, in a room full of people. And yet in terms of production values, Slender is the equivalent of a kinder egg toy – cheap and a little tacky. It doesn’t have the luxury of financial backing, but it doesn’t need it to create atmosphere, tension and an underpants-soiling sense of helplessness. The fact that it is a 15 minute chase sequence based on a singular mechanic makes it all the more potent an experience, which is exactly what horror games have been missing. And it was made by one man.
Likewise, Jasper Byrne’s indie horror, Lone Survivor, is a solo effort, forgoing graphical complexity for pure atmosphere, and embellishing itself with the kind of discomfort usually found in a David Lynch movie (a point I made in a previous article looking at the games’ design). Lone Survivor is unsettling retro styled pixel gore at its finest, and is, in many ways, a more worthy successor to Silent Hill 2’s atmosphere crown than that own franchise’s sequels.
The indie horror movement is one that began with the introduction of games like Amnesia and Limbo in 2010. Lacking the backing of a AAA level budget, both of these titles managed to carve out a niche for themselves by relying upon pure survival horror gaming design aspects.
Ever since then there’s been an abundance of creativity within indie horror titles: Just look at this trailer for first person horror through the eyes of a child game, Among the Sleep. This haunted house simulator, Paranormal, which recently took off on Kickstarter. This simple Unity game, SCP-087, based around an unnerving descent into a pitch black staircase. Or the debut effort from indie developers Dreampainters, Anna, which received a mixed critical reception, but provided a fresh twist on the genre, adapting its scares to individual player’s interactions with the world.
As the ballooning budgets of AAA games force them to become more action-orientated and less about atmosphere and tension, it’s the smaller productions that are thinking up creative ways to scare us, calling back to the elements of gaming horror that forged the genre in the first place – player weakness and an atmosphere of pure oppressive dread.
The purity of genre development at the large scale has been diluted, but is that really a bad thing? Indie gaming has taken up the mantle and re-kindled a flame with more innovation than ever before, and maybe that’s the way it works best.
I’m a believer in Jim Sterling’s theory that horror is scarier when it’s cheaper, dirtier and grittier, and that comes hand in hand with the indie territory. It may just be that big budgets and big scares occupy opposite ends of the same magnet.
So whilst there’s a push toward ‘mass-appeal’ within the survival horror franchises that I grew up on, which means fewer scares and more guns, I think it’s safe to say that true horror gaming isn’t dead. It might have been for a while, but it has been resurrected from the grave, as an undead terror, a paranormal malevolence, a creeping shadow, a humble indie game.