Horror isn’t quite what it used to be. What was once an approach that enabled the human mind to cannibalize its own sense of safety, horror has become infected by a breed of protagonist far too adjusted to the situation they’re in. In brief: horror simply isn’t scary anymore.
Resident Evil captured – though inadvertently, some might argue – a player’s startling level of incompetency. Cumbersome controls, awkward camera angles and limited inventory made even the simplest affairs the most tiring. And whilst some may be quick to lambast these particular limitations, the difficulty they instilled reflected a person’s own inability and maladjustment to the situation at hand. There’s not a chance in Raccoon City that I’d be able to effortlessly fire a weapon or navigate a seemingly endless maze of corridors infested by the undead and I’d-like-them-to-be-dead alike.
This is what made Resident Evil truly horrific – it accurately reflected disabling shortcomings in dealing with such an ordeal. This, to me, is one of the staples of horror: its ability to make you doubt your own ability to survive. Imbue Jill Valentine with infinite health and ammo, and anything resembling ‘scary’ will dissipate faster than a zombies rotting flesh.
Chris Redfield, Sheva Alomar and Isaac Clarke – perhaps owed to their ‘second-person’ perspectives – manage to retain perfect aim in-spite of an immense pressure to survive. Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space are hosts to varieties of hulking colossi. Yet, during their respective encounters, our heroes never betrayed even a trace of fear. If, just for a second, they could convey a genuine sense of horror, it would be a significant step to help me understand why I should be scared, too.
It’s not necessarily about gigantically gruesome foes, either. Again, if you’re adequately equipped to defeat them – say, with a rocket launcher – they immediately cease to be a threat. In stark contrast, Amnesia: The Dark Descent was barely playable for minutes at a time. Its atmosphere handed my mind the tools it needed to scare itself. Despite not seeing a single creature in the game’s opening moments, to continue felt like a genuine ordeal.
A third-person “action-shooter” perspective doesn’t take away from a sense of horror anymore than a character’s inability to simultaneously move and shoot contributes to it. Horror, in my experience, is about exploiting the physical, mental and emotional vulnerability of the story’s protagonist in respect to their desire to stay alive. Moreover, the moment they become physically infallible action heroes, it immediately removes them from this human vulnerability.
And the second a protagonist’s ability to survive becomes a given, it becomes difficult to be scared of something that provides little threat. Horror, then, isn’t quite what it used to be.