The horror genre has had a long, chequered, and often troubled history, constantly putting out some of the very best and the very worst in any respective media. For every Hellraiser there’s ten Hellraiser sequels, every Friday the 13th ten Jason Takes Manhattans. Horror video games are no exception to this rule, and the industry struggles to make anything beyond the generic scares and sloppy storytelling that seem to plague the cinema. While there are occasional standout games it seems that more than any other industry the video game industry just can’t get a foothold on effective, interesting horror.
Considering the history behind the genre as a whole, it’s hardly a surprise to see a large amount of dull, uninspired works flooding the market, and anyone familiar with American cinema in the 80s for slasher flicks, or the 2000s for torture-porn movies and found-footage horror, knows that companies are more than eager to exploit the genre because of the low-brow standards ascribed to it. Video games are no exception – especially in the past decade horror games have become almost entirely focus-tested checklists of conventions, after the exploding popularity of Amnesia: The Dark Descent in Youtube Lets Plays circa 2010. Many games have shallowly copied the form and style of Amnesia to generate a steady pace of things to pretend to be scared of to try and get that next big Youtube hit – Outlast, Layers of Fear, Daylight, Slender: The Arrival, Bendy and the Ink Machine, Husk, etc. etc. – let’s not even get into the long list of no-budget attempted cash-ins on Slender, Limbo, or Five Nights at Freddies.
Many of these titles also bear more than striking resemblances to bad “exploitation” films of the ’70s and ’80s, either content-wise or market-wise. Possibly the most tiringly shallow horror game I have ever experienced would be Outlast, a game that attempts to get by on nothing more than shock horror and being as offensive as possible, with the exact same loud-noise-sudden-movement approach to every other tedious horror game. Featuring a homicidal outbreak in an asylum with plenty of maltreated patients to jump out at you, numerous rape plots that exist solely because rape is awful and “that might be scary”, an intensely homophobic, transphobic villain that chases you around threatening to cut your genitals off and make you his “bride” – Outlast is a substanceless, joyless, cynical splatter exploitation game that explores taboo content at surface value like an edgy teenager. And yet despite this, the game reviewed favourably in many publications, praising its effectiveness at delivering horror. Did we play the same game?
Similarly, video games all too often rely on one trick and hope that will carry it to success. Doki Doki Literature Club attempts to be a “haunted” visual novel, utilising meta elements to try and provide horror, but flounders on its premise completely by taking almost half the game to reach even the first instance of this, which then manifests as lazy, offensive shock horror. There’s nothing scary about seeing your friends commit suicide or talk about self-harm, and wrapping this all in “someone bad made them do it” is a pretty big fuck-you to just about anyone who is familiar with these issues – the game even features a sudden, incredibly hackneyed attempt at redemption for its main antagonist five seconds from the end of the game. But, again, due to this one gimmick of metafiction, the game became massively popular online, with almost all the focus on how “clever” its conceit was and how it “subverted visual novels” (overwhelmingly from people with zero experience with visual novels, it should be added). Both Outlast and Doki Doki represent the overall issues video games have with the horror genre – awful writing slapped onto cheap, offensive attempts to surprise the player, which fall apart at even the slightest scrutiny.
Contrary to what these games believe, horror is not a one-way street, where the genre attempts to scare the audience while they passively play along. You can’t make an effective horror by exploiting the audience and tricking them over and over – eventually they’ll grow tired of being jumped at and having loud noises blasted at them. Sloppy writing or lazy premises, or endless breaks in the action to read boring, irrelevant backstory, only hurt the experience. It’s not like horror has to be “intelligent” or “serious” – Silent Hill 2‘s melancholic assessment of its main character happily sits alongside Resident Evil‘s gleeful celebration of B-movie schlock – but the important thing is that the experience is one that is willing to engage with the audience, rather than antagonise them. There’s nothing worse than a horror game that hates its audience.