Scared Stiff: Amnesia and the evolution of the modern horror game

Colette Bennett
C. Bennett|06.18.12

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Scared Stiff: Amnesia and the evolution of the modern horror game
If it's horror, Colette Bennett knows it. This column is dedicated to everything frightening gaming has to offer, from ghostly little Japanese girls to flesh eating zombie dogs.

You fumble through the darkness, your feet slopping in the rain. You have no idea where you are or how you even got here. An unfamiliar sound reverberates in the distance, its tinny undertones stinging your ears and furthering your sense of confusion. You're alone and have nothing to defend yourself with. And the only sound you can hear is that of your breathing, ragged with panic.

There's no mistaking it – this is survival horror.

Unlike the basic action and platform genre, the evolution of horror titles has followed a slow, twisty path. By the mid-nineties, it was known for its signature talent: the ability to reel you into a dark, unknown world like a helpless fish. Titles like Silent Hill and Resident Evil acted as some of the first passports into the journey we now refer to as "psychological horror." System Shock, Parasite Eve, Fatal Frame, and Siren were memorable trips into less-than-reassuring territory. Throw in some unexplained, mysterious figures, watch the world spin out of control, and you've got one hell of a recipe for an addictive genre. Who would have thought that fog-choked towns and shambling creatures who greet you with a spray of vomit could be so appealing?
%Gallery-148212%Any genre has its tropes, and horror has become known for them to the point where they can feel stale if used clumsily. Silent Hill: Downpour, the eighth game in the franchise, earned a mere 68 on Metacritic as opposed to much higher scores for earlier games. Survival horror fans often complain that the genre has become so formulaic that it is no longer frightening. More zombies? No problem. Possessed townspeople? Great. An enchanted hellhound wearing the face of my three-year-old daughter? Super.

Does horror gaming need something new, a way to re-establish that bone-chilling touch of past years?

Thomas Grip of Frictional Games thinks it just might. The studio is known for subconsciously disturbing titles such as Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which forego the run-and-gun approach for something a little bit more thoughtful, and perhaps that much more insidious as well. Frictional recently partnered with UK-based developer thechineseroom, maker of the indie hit Dear Esther, to create a sequel to Amnesia called A Machine for Pigs. Despite revealing the game to Joystiq in February, details on the Amnesia follow-up are being kept to a minimum for now; however, based on the game's first trailer, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs sports the same moody look as its predecessor.

Grip says that when it comes to developing an effective horror game, a vision of what kind of meaning will be communicated to the audience is key.

"To start, you have some high-level idea of the kind of experience you want to achieve, and then the focus lies on expressing that experience in the best way possible. Horror entails a wide spectrum of possible experiences, so what kind of elements will be important depends a lot on the path chosen."

Grip believes part of the genre's current fumbles is that that traditional game mechanics and effective horror tactics don't always make for a harmonious marriage.

"Games need to be seen as challenges," he explained. "This often dulls the horror a lot because it forces the player to repeat events over and to learn the underlying system. A horror [game] needs to make sure the player is not overexposed to the scary elements, because that quickly dulls their impact. Horror also thrives on players using their imagination, and this is counteracted when the system needs to be figured out."

So there's a delicate balance when it comes to the scares. However, most games feature some sort repetition of action. With this in mind, should horror games be shorter in order to achieve maximum impact? Grip's take is that a game should last as long as needed, whether that time frame is one hour or 20.

Games need to be seen as challenges. This often dulls the horror a lot because it forces the player to repeat events over and to learn the underlying system.- Thomas Grip, Frictional Games

"Many games are designed to be as long as possible and from the get-go aim at a certain play-time length. This can only lead to bad things in terms of building a good holistic experience. In the horror genre, many of the best works come in the shorter variety, so we are missing out a lot of interesting videogames if the minimum length is eight hours. And trying to extend a two hour experience to a eight hour one often completely removes the impact that it could have had."

When it comes to creating a horror gaming experience, as with any other gaming experience, one of the key goals is to create a product that will sell. By adding a list of features to prove to potential buyers that the game has a lot to offer, you can afford to put a high price tag on it. But in the case of great horror games, these requirements can also dull the experience by forcing it to fit onto a mold it was never intended for.

"It is because of the need to create a product that we have upgrade systems, costumes, strangely placed shops, RPG elements, and all kind of features that are just thrown in without thinking about their impact on the intended experience," Grip said.

Dan Pinchbeck, creative director at thechineseroom, believes that while horror games should be effective experiences, it's also important to recognize the value of their disposability.

"Games don't need to say anything or extend beyond the play experience to have a value. If it happens, it's often a very personal thing, and that's okay. But at the end of the day, it's still entertainment, and that should be the focus. It's really important that people have these completely separate spaces for experience that are disposable, distinct, that don't have any particular meaning outside the playing session. If we start requiring our fiction to be valued only by what it achieves outside of being fiction, that's a really bad thing. A good story, a good experience, a good game – that should be enough."

While the hybridization of action and horror themes has dismayed many a purist from time to time, it's safe to say that the indie horror scene is thriving, and offering a very different kind of experience than bigger budget horror titles. It may be partially due to the fact that there is less drive to create that product that must drum up enough presence to occupy the coveted space on a GameStop shelf, when so many forms of digital distribution allow game creators to not only make exactly the game they want, but at the price they want as well. It's for this reason that we're seeing new blossoms within a genre that's bravely exploring distinctly different landscapes.

The most exciting times in gaming history are those in which we cast the molds aside. As horror gaming turns away from what we've come to expect and towards that which we couldn't even dream of, we approach one of those great moments where the ground is unsteady under our feet. Just when we least expect to be frightened, we may find ourselves taken by surprise in a whole new way.

And that's just what we're hoping for.

Colette Bennett is based out of New Orleans. She has written for outlets such as Kotaku, Destructoid, Gamasutra, Touch Arcade, GamesRadar, and GameRanx. She currently runs a weekly column for CNN Geek Out! You can catch her writing about less scary situations at @ColetteBennett or at her website.
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