Hold on a second. Hold on a good goddamn second. When did this happen? Did I miss a memo? Where was the bloody Calendar invite?
How was I supposed to prepare myself. How was I to steel myself against the possible noises I would make, the bodily fluids I might excrete? Had I known this day was going to come I would have at the very least invested in a solid pair of rubber pants.
How was I to know that video games would suddenly become scary again?
Once upon a time video games were scary. And by that I mean, mainstream video games were scary. I’ll never forget the moment in Resident Evil 2 when Mr X blasted through a concrete wall in what was surely one of the all-time video game shock-scares. Seriously, that memory will be the last thing to go. Hours before the end of it all, shivering in a hospital bed, memories of my nearest and dearest evaporating into the ether as I silently mouth the words Mr X… Mr X… Mr X over and over until death.
Surely that is my fate.
Point being: once upon a time games with AAA ambitions were unafraid to scare the living shit out of its players: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame. These were large scale productions intended to terrify players. Last generation -- on consoles at least -- no-one really did that. Dead Space? Yeah… the first one was good. BioShock? I wouldn’t necessarily call that a ‘scary’ game, unless you’re deathly afraid of Randian objectivism (and you probably should be). Those are the two games that spring to mind; games featuring elements of genuine horror, not ‘actual’ horror.
Now? Pure horror appears to be back in vogue and I’m not quite sure how or why that happened.
Perhaps it was the success of smaller, more niche PC games that convinced major developers to dip their toes in. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Slenderman: The Eight Pages -- a game that was downloaded over 2 million times. Hell, even Minecraft features some elements of horror, with its Endermen and what not.
The end result it seems, is that major publishers have decided that there’s money to be made in scaring us shitless.
On this currently burgeoning set of consoles we’ve already had Outlast -- a game set in an asylum populated by dozens of groaning, heaving Tony Abbotts.
But more importantly we have P.T..
P.T. is (apparently) naught but a demo for the incoming Silent Hills, but it’s easily the most physically intense, brutalising game experience I’ve had in years. Its inventive looped structure creates an impending sense of surrealism and dread. It sets up scares, it provides an oppressive weight that is literally inescapable -- and it takes place (like all truly great horror experiences) in a familiar setting: the family home. Meaning that when you finally turn the PlayStation off, and the light from your television fades, you must stumble towards your bed in the darkness, twitching at every shadow.
P.T. is spectacularly terrifying. But it’s also clever. In a sense, video games are nothing but a series of mechanical loops pretending to be stories. P.T. embraces that by actually, literally becoming a loop from which you cannot escape. The game is the loop. The loop is the story. The loop is everything and it’s a nightmarish hell. In addition to being a successful horror experience, P.T. also manages to be an insightful commentary into the very nature of video games themselves. In video games we’re destined to do the same thing over and over again until oblivion. Only in P.T. is the horror of that inevitability fully explored and accepted. To progress you must move forward in this loop. There is no going backwards. In many ways P.T. is a work of genius.
Then we have Alien: Isolation.
I think it’s telling that just a few years back, video games based in the Alien universe were mostly about being fully empowered to mow down oodles of bad guys with various different assault rifles. Now Alien is about cowering in a dark corner waiting for the goddamn noises to go away so you can have space to actually just breathe and possibly move forward a few inches. Jesus Christ. In Alien: Isolation I guess you could try firing off a few rounds at the alien, but you’d have to be a goddamn idiot to try. Best to just cower in this air vent with your fingers in your ears, rocking in the fetal position.
Is it a sign that video games are changing? Is it a sign that we’re about to get some sort of variety in the AAA space? I’d like to think so, but that might be somewhat of a sweeping statement, a convenient conclusion to draw for this specific article, but hardly accurate in any real sense.
Is it a sign that video games are cyclical? That all genres have their time in the sun and horror games are simply back in fashion? I’d say that’s altogether more reasonable.
But I suspect that the ‘Let’s Play’ phenomenon might be to ‘blame’. Basically, it’s PewDiePie’s fault. People seem heavily invested in watching YouTube videos of other gamers being scared shitless by horror games, and there’s money to be made in creating fodder for this new generation of gamers addicted to scares.
And it’s telling: before a single review of Alien: Isolation had hit any video games outlet, PewDiePie had already streamed the game live on his YouTube channel. Squealing and squawking his way through the game for the pleasure of millions. Some saw that as a death knell for traditional games media, I saw it as smart marketing, I saw it as a move that made complete and perfect sense. Dear YouTubers, here is a game we made for you. Please enjoy watching someone else playing it.
If that’s the price we have to pay for more horror games, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.