What in the biohazard happened to horror?

February 26, 2011 / 02:47 PM EDT / (@admeady)

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 1 (GC)

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.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

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.

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  • http://www.youtube.com/tezchi TezChi

    Interesting article. I too find that “action” horror is nowhere near as good, or as frightening, as the good old style atmopshere. I thought Amnesia was fantastic, as was Darkness Within 1&2 if you like that style of PC horror. They were scary, not because of jumping-out monsters, but because of atmosphere and a genuine sense of foreboding.

    Dead Space manages to be intense as hell for me, party due to the fact you never have any ammo or healing items, and always feel overhwlemed by the odds. And with Fatal Frame too, what made it scary for me was this constant idea of been helpless. The Japanese girls, whilst easy on the eye, were cumbersome and fragile and thus fealt genuinely in danger in the games’ locations.

    I dont mind a serving of shotgun to monster, but nothing in my opinon can beat a good, solid atmosphere.

    PS: “Chris Valentine” is actually part of the Redfield lineage!

    • Adam Meadows

      Whoops, thanks Tezchi. Should’ve known better!

  • Arsenic13

    On my site I’ve been doing an in-depth look at horror. I ask people from the industry about their take on the survival horror genre. It’s been a fun definition.

    http://helldescent.com/2011/02/22/defining-survival-horror/

    • Adam Meadows

      Thanks,

      I’m looking forward to reading that.

  • http://myanimelist.net/profile/PrinceHeir# PrinceHeir

    well currently im playing Resident Evil 3 now and let me tell you the atmosphere is sooo scary it beats the shit out of RE5 and RE4.

    limited inventory and isolation definitely makes this game enjoyable not to mention the constant Nemesis appearing out of nowhere. ahhh sooo good :P

    we need another RE 1-3 and PE 1 like games with the same atmosphere and creepiness. i just wish developers should stop making games to actiony and make them scary as they used to be :P

    • http://www.facebook.com/ryanfanus Ryan Fanus

      RE3 wasn’t just the best RE game. It was also by far the best survival horror game of all time.

      • PrinceHeir

        wow you replied to a 2 year comment O____O

        yeah RE3 is definitely a fave of mine :P

  • whiteferrero

    Stuff like Fatal Frame and Siren are the stuff of my horror in games. I actually gave up playing halfway both those games because I’m just scared stiff. Moreso Siren, especially playing as the kids, no weapons, no anything, just hide and seek. Brrrr….

  • smdjagex

    The Resident Evil games on the PS1 can not contend with Silent Hill 1. I only remember RE for the cheap scares, whereas Silent Hill has the atmosphere, a damn creepy story and the noises, which in my view play a big part in horror games. Just sayin’.

    • LordAlaster

      Silent hill and resident evil are to different games.

      Silent hill You couldn’t run forever, when you ran out of ammo you had a pole which you could walk in circles and beat the enemy down. In most cases

      In resident evil some enemies have instant death attacks, Don’t let a zombie bit you, they ambush you, no auto aim for the version I played and once you ran out of ammo for the game that was it and the knife… HA HA…Oh the knife….

      Silent hill is more of a psychological horror as you can always just run but with re if you have two hunters in front of you and your on danger good luck.

  • ZombieSandman

    I think the longer a horror series exists the more it has to change characters otherwise the fear will eventually vanish as the character would realistically be more capable due to the experiences for example Chris’s capabilities and attitude based on their experiences leave him less afraid of the situation which may reflect the player who has experienced and grown used to the type of horror that developer uses and the situations they place you in. The same goes for atmosphere as the attitude of the character and player changes since the first scares of earlier titles the atmosphere will also change to a more aggressive one rather than cautious and I that is backed up by Resident Evil’s later games being more action oriented due to them keeping characters through previous games.. While I haven’t played many silent hill games that may be why the atmosphere is more chilling and horror oriented as well as the fact that they stick more to psychological terror while Resident Evil is more physical which you can defend yourself, while there are physical threats in silent hill there is that psychological threat that you can’t defend against. I think that is why a horror title will find it difficult to remain scary for long, though I’m not saying impossible.