The slow beating of a drum, the crunch of leaves underfoot and heavy breathing fills my ears as a flickering beam of light illuminates the dark wood surrounding me. From behind one of the trees a tall, slender man appears, a loud clap of music suddenly breaking the repetitive sound, making me and my girlfriend jump momentarily. The more I look at the immobile figure, the more my screen blurs to static as I am ‘caught’ after finding only three pages. This is of course Slender, the indie, free-to-play horror game which has taken YouTube by storm. But why do some find these games so humorous to watch, and so terrifying to play? What features define the horror genre of gaming? Are large scale production horror games going out of fashion?
In my experience of horror games, I’ve noticed an array of similar techniques and features being used between development studios; a temperamental or lack of light source, the limited or absence of an ability to defend yourself, an unknown or inhuman monster and a series of cheap ‘jump-scares’; moments where obnoxiously loud audio plays seemingly at random, creatures bursting through doors as you’re just about to open them, or visual effects such as blurring or static in order to mask the true character model of the attacker/chaser.
Personally, as a cold-hearted, emotionless hollow of a human being, I very rarely find these tactics ‘scary’; sure I’ve jumped my fair share of times at unexpected and unexplainable happenings in horror games, but I’ve never felt unable to carry on because of pure fear. Looking again at Slender, the idea behind the game is fairly creepy but, if we take the game at face value, what do we have? Darkness, a randomly appearing digital model of a tall lanky man with no face wearing a suit in the woods, and an apparently broken flashlight and equally broken sprint button.
I would argue that larger scale gaming companies are also beginning to lose faith in the horror genre; fewer and fewer titles are being published which concentrate on pure horror as a genre. I’m not saying that games are abolishing horror from their work altogether, but there is always a more prominent genre which describes the game. The Resident Evil series began primarily as a survival-horror; one clip of ammo to last you an entire section, a multitude of flesh-hungry zombies around every corner, with exploration being a key factor to your survival and success. Resident Evil 6 presents notably different features; linear gameplay, too many Quick Time Events to count, and an abundance of ammunition and weaponry to choose from. Even Dead Space 3 looks to be radically different from it’s almost-scary predecessors, with co-op functionality, faster and fluid movement, and a heightened pace of gameplay. Upsettingly, we see the inclusion of aspects of action games akin to Call of Duty more often than not in newly released games for one key reason; it’s what people buy!
Why, then, do we enjoy watching others play through horror games such as Slender? I’m sure there’s a deeply psychological explanation, but I don’t have it, instead I’d like to suggest the simple concept of schadenfreude; a German word loosely meaning ‘taking pleasure out of the misfortune of others while secretly thankful that we aren’t in their position’. That’s my explanation to the watching of these games then, but playing them? In my opinion a good horror game is made more terrifying, and therefore more suited to its genre, when the player is immersed into the storyline, characters and atmosphere the game provides. Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent as an example here; the player awakens in a room at the offset of the game, where both player and character have no idea of previous events which have led to finding him or herself there. The natural curiosity of the story of Daniel, told through lore which is scattered throughout the game, keeps the player intrigued and immersed in the horror taking place. Horror succeeds as a genre because it captures audiences and tells stories and presents emotions which we find morbidly fascinating.
It’s a shame to see horror gradually weaned out of mainstream gaming. Maybe the future of this genre rests solely in the hands of indie developers?