When And Why Did Video Games Become Scary Again?

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.


Comments

    I blame modern computing power skipping ahead of our usual acceptance rate of what we can do. That and better story telling for higher budgets.

    People got sick of publishers forcing these horror games to be Call of Duty dudebro shooters.

      Your obsession over Call of Duty and the 'dudebros' continues to fascinate me, Kaiser.

      Last edited 07/10/14 9:49 pm

    Scary is the new shooter? I don't know. I'm playing Alien: Isolation and haaaaating the sweaty palms, but am proud of myself for doing it, haha. I've said before that I hate horror movies and read the synopsis to spoil the scares for myself, but it's harder to do with games! Even watching other people play them can be scary.

      I am no good at scary games so usually watch others play, and I found with PT that watching a twitch stream was probably almost as scary to me as playing the game, so I had to go find a youtube video because that at least had a definitive end (as opposed to when the player decided to stop for the night).

    Oh, also, the new Game Informer is all about scary games (and then Ori and the Blind Forest is nestled right in there, weird), but it has pictures and they are sooooo gross, I had to stop reading. Amnesia?! NOPE.

    Going to pick up Alien tonight, I'm very excited/dreading playing it. Motion tracker argghhh!

    I chickened out with Dead Space and got rid of it. Then I felt bad, bought it again and got rid of it without touching it. I've bought it for a third time, but I'm starting to think that maybe - just maybe - these kind of games aren't for me.

      Dead Space is also a really good piece of Science Fiction.

        Which is one of the main reasons I keep coming back to it!

        Last edited 07/10/14 12:36 pm

          I am like you its a game I want to play... but can't bring myself to. so I just bought it and gave it to my little brother to play. I could just sit there and watch the story happen.

            Play it but turn the brightness slider a bit higher than recommended, don't have the sound too loud and keep your blanky handy.

      Not that there's anything wrong with that!

      You monster! D: I sold my copy in 2009, and later wanted to play it again. It took me 12 months of asking after it every time I went into GAME or EB to find another copy...

        It's very nearly impossible to find a copy under $20 anywhere. I got lucky 2 out of 3 times :P

      Dead Space is the only game I've forced myself to complete on the hardest difficulty... I kinda felt that after a while on the lower difficulties you got so used to the common necromorph, so they had no impact anymore... On the hardest difficulty though? Holy carp! Every encounter is a heart pumping affair! So many fantastic (poop your pants) memories

      Nah I'm the same. Haven't even remotely played Dead Space, and couldn't get myself to play F.E.A.R. either.
      Barely managed to get through Alan Wake (which I loved), and only because you could drop flares at the press of a button and all the bad guys flee.

      The real trick to making Dead Space more scary? Don't crush those black xbox crates filled with ammo and supplies. I didn't discover that was possible until near the end of the game, and was astounded at how difficult the game was on "normal" difficulty.

      There were points where I had to beat enemies into submission because I had no ammo... or when being grabbed by a wall-hole tentacle, I had *just* enough ammo to break free... provided I didn't miss a shot.

    My 9yo son plays Minecraft on one half his laptop screen while watching a YouTube video of someone else playing a game (with the idiot in the video invariably screaming like a stuck pig) on the other half. I'd also like to mention the pants-browning that occured when I played Dreadhalls for a total of 90 seconds on the Rift. I died and did NOT want to go "back in there". When I hit level 20 in Destiny I'll be buying Alien: Isolation and some granny nappies.

    Last edited 07/10/14 12:18 pm

    Hell, even Minecraft features some elements of horror, with its Endermen and what not.Screw Endermen. Minecraft's horror is night time full stop. And/or the dark in general. Wandering around, ears twitching at the slightest of sounds. The dread of that zombie moaning that you can't see the source of, the terror of a spider's hissing coming up from behind you, even just turning the next corner of the cave you're exploring and finding that it opens out into a large cavern that you can't see the other side of and not the safe, controllable, narrow tunnel you were expecting.

    Also, shout out to ZombiU because I love it so much.

    Was I the only one who found Alan Wake scary (or am I just as pansy...)

      Oh right, yeah, I got a bit unnerved at that game and gave it up pretty quickly too. Great game, though, and a cool story!

        As per my reply to your other comment, I'm the same. But I found with Alan Wake, keep flares equipped and keep a finger on the button. Anytime you freak out, drop a flare and run for your life. Worked for me. Only reason I finished the game.

      Yeah, certainly one of the better horror themed games, music and audio plays a big part in making a game make your skin crawl (Fatal frame did this very well even if the graphics were a bit crap, "Call of Cthulhu, Dark Corners of the Earth" also worth a mention)

      The sound design in Alan Wake was impeccable too. It wasn't the sights, so much, but the sounds that got me the most.

    Maybe it's just me, but I've never been properly, genuinely scared by a video game, same with movies (once I was old enough, anyway).

    Despite the fact that I do my best to really get into it...I turn the lights out, put my headphones on...totally in the zone...I just don't get scared, because there's that part of me that knows it's not real.

    I'm not talking about being startled...you know, the fake "jump scares". Like you open a door and there's a big scary monster there. Those happen. But that's not actually being truly scared.

    I still have fun playing these games, make no mistake. They just aren't truly scary. Not for me, anyway.

    Last edited 07/10/14 12:38 pm

      PT brah.

        I really don't know if a game like P.T. or Alien Isolation would really change my mind. There's always that part of me that says it's a game, and it's not real. And because that part of me keeps telling me that, I don't think I'll ever be truly scared by a video game (or a movie, or a TV show, for that matter), regardless of how well put together it is. It doesn't make these games any less enjoyable for me though.

        Even Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, with its very innovative sanity effects, didn't affect me. It was a creepy game, sure, but I was never actually scared by it...even when I got the blue screen of death or when it was supposedly deleting my save file.

        Even my wife thinks I'm weird. She's not a gamer, but will occasionally watch me as I play, and whenever I do play a supposedly scary game, she needs to leave the room before too long, and asks me to put the headphones on so she can't hear it. She often asks "How can that not affect you?" and I always reply "Because I know it's not real".

        I'd be willing to give them a go, but I don't think they'll make that "it's just a game" voice inside my head disappear.

        Last edited 07/10/14 2:03 pm

          For people like you.. there exists - Jigsaw... "Do you want to play alittle game?!"

      same with me, I really like horror games and movies but at the same time they don't really scare me or get a reaction from me. I have friends who jump around and get startled playing games/watching movies but it never gets me. Sometimes I wish it would

      Nah. I'm the same way. For a long time I'd see people get scared by games and I just assumed it was all just an act. How could anyone over ten be scared of PT? However I've come to realise that I'm just way more comfortable in games than other people and that comfort results in a sort of fearlessness. If something jumps out of the shadows at me I'll kick it to death, failing that I'll either find the item I need to kick it to death or if I'm forced to run I'll run so well it doesn't stand a chance of catching me.
      A lot of games try and make the player feel week by taking away your tools but they always give you a replacement toolset and it's usually more powerful. Ie, hiding in Outlast is way more over powered than any weapon in Dead Space. It's all dark but you get a camera that lights everything up without anyone else being able to see you.

      Almost everything that has ever tried to harm me in a game has died at my hands. No amount of atmospheric lighting is going to make me second guess that. =P

        That's why jumpscares don't affect me - they're either going to be cheap deaths, in which case I'll avoid them next time; non-lethal but still hurt, in which case I'll start running to a safe spot with full knowledge I can get away; or completely harmless, in which case they're ignorable. It's why I value atmosphere, good sound and imagery building tension over time, over the repeated sudden appearance of something vaguely menacing.

    A+ writing for a Tony Abbott comparison. Saw it as soon as it was pointed out. The game just became scarier and more exciting at the same time. Because who doesn't want the oppprtunity to smack that guy in the face?

    Another excellent article, Mr Serrels. Gracias. "Gamergate" can get fucked while you're still acing it.

      Oo, don't mention Gamergate. It's the calling sign of ignorance and entitlement.

    Well I just don't care about FPS' anymore, with Far Cry 4 being a notable exception. Still debating whether to get it or not though, it's quite cheap on ozgameshop

      Did you like Far Cry 3?

        I did, but I don't think my 2011 mid-range PC can handle the heat for much longer frankly.

          Ah, that's a pity. I keep hearing FC4 is going to be a lot like FC3 but with new characters, location and weapons, which is exactly what I want.

            Yeah and I don't really wanna upgrade GPU as I'm thinking of getting a PS4 after HSC if only for U4. Far Cry 3 was such a needed breath of fresh air after the excruciatingly long cycle of military shooters. As long as that guerilla style warfare is back I'll get it, especially as its cheap on ozgameshop if I remember.

              Yeah, do it, get yourself a PS4! It can be your "yay, high school is doooooone" present to yourself.

                Yes, well PAX AU's WAS that present but then my timetable came out and last exam on the 5th of Nov. :'( so having to sell my 3-day pass sucks, but a good cash inflow for PS4 buying me thinks.

                  Ahh, yeah. Well, you know PAX is only three days, but a PS4 can be forever*.

                  (*Or like, six years, I don't know.)

    Horror games, meh, if you really some good scares, then add scary elements in a pg game, then release it & make sure the company who has made the game has a history of putting scary elements into other games. Plus make sure that some of them are dreaded by their enemies due to the tactics that they use or use deciet to lure potential killers & brutally slaughter them. Added points to a character design that is dreaded & has a high body count under their belt. Plus make sure that the best scares are in pg rated games, for truely more nightmare worthy scares

    FEAR 2, anyone? I find myself yelling "Alma! Quit that!" and cowering in my TARDIS blankey.

      FEAR 2 honestly didn't scare me nearly as much as FEAR 1 did... That ladder scene (you know the one I'm talking about) bricks were shat!

        Yep... that ladder was pants wetting. The rest of the game not so much. I think I just got used to expecting to see the little girl everywhere.

    What game is that first image in the article from? It looks dope.

    Last edited 07/10/14 1:28 pm

      PT

        How do I get PT ? it doenst seem to be in the PSN store in Australia. I assume it is a PS4 game ?

          Yes, it's PS4 exclusive and you will probably find it under demos.

          It's not available on the Australia store. I got it through my secondary US account and play it through my primary.

          Let it be known that I've played about 10 minutes before going "nope" and putting the controller down.

    This raises the question, do I play Alien Isolation over the next few days or do I wait until the weekend where I'll be able to play it in one hit with a better atmosphere?

    Amnesia was the first time I'd been genuinely scared by a video game in a long time, and there's been some amazing examples since then.

    Amnesia's idea of health being sanity, and basically maneuvering the entire game without a single weapon and a finite light source was amazing. Deciding which torches to light to allow you to move around without leaving too much dark to drain your sanity, hiding in cupboards from christ-knows-what...

    I still remember getting stuck in a dead end hallway with some monster and nowhere to go. It wasn't chasing me, but standing 10 or so metres away while I stood in the corner facing the wall without light, unable to look at for fear of losing my sanity, but unable to look and check what the fuck it was doing.

    So much nope. Amazing.

    PT genuinely scared the crap out of me as well, but I quite enjoy it. So well done, an honest throwback to good horror. Not just cheap tense music then jump scares. My skin was crawling at many points. It's easy to make people jump, but making a person's skin say NOPE is a different feat entirely. To me, anyway.

    Last edited 07/10/14 1:39 pm

    i love scary games... have ever since the very first F.E.A.R when i was in my early teens. just played the evil within at EB Expo and squealed like a scared child in from of about 20 or so people in the booth... so im kinda looking forward to playing that where i can cry in private... haha.

      I liked FEAR and it did have a few creepy moments but I didn't find it overall "scary". The pace of the shooter really hurt the atmosphere for it to be scary.

        yeah i have played it recently and i can agree :) but when your 15 (as i was when it came out) it's scary as all hell. haha

      How was The Evil Within as a whole though? Were the tank controls and performance still questionable?

        there was some tearing / framerate issues when i played... they were infrequent and subtle but enough to ruin tension. being still in development i can see those being ironed out. not sure what you mean by tank controls though?

          Resident Evil 4 style seperated turn control and forwards backwards control

            ohh nah the movement controls were fine. think like most 1st/3rd person action or shooter. easy and fluid.

    I feel like the real scares are coming next week with "The Evil Within".
    Looks really creepy. That blood covered spider woman from the trailers freaks me out.

    Alan Wake was pretty good for scares.
    And before that Call of Cthulhu.

    I think maybe you simply missed out on some great horror because there were so many other games happening. There's nothing worth playing on PS4/XBone except Destiny, so perhaps you're branching out again.

    I'm usually not into horror much. I jump lots. Surprise scares just annoy me. Deep, immersive horror is pretty nifty, but I find it rare. Most things (movies and games) go for the cheap scares.
    I did quite like the Silent Hill movie but even that went too far down the blood and gore path to scare people.

    I remember my most terrifying moment in video games was playing Thief 3. There's a point at which (about 3/4 through the game) that you go through an old abandoned insane asylum that used to be an orphanage. I tried all manner of things (like playing with no sound or lights on etc..) to get through that bit but I couldn't do it. The insane guys, the darkness and flickering lights, the creepy shadows and ghosts and the sounds.... It was too much for me. I never finished Thief 3 but I'll always remember it.

    EDIT: I will be firing up Alien Isolation when I get home though.... should be interesting

    Last edited 07/10/14 4:39 pm

      Oh my god that asylum! Thank you for reminding me! That's like the creepiest and best level! When you decent those stairs! So damn good!

    Alien: Isolation and PT look to be getting horror on the right track, but the indie ''find the pages with no weapons'' games were every bit as cheap as the CoD Action ''horror'' titles. Having a very little amount of ammo and being forced to manage resources makes the horror feel real and genuine, as opposed to AAA dev's idea of blasting away enemies with ease or the indie scene's idea of having NO means of defense and just waiting for the next jump scare. Isolation's use of distractions is an excellent idea.

    This game, from an indie dev looks like an excellent attempt at horror and with a very passionate developer: http://au.ign.com/articles/2014/10/03/phantasmal-is-a-randomly-generated-horror-game-heading-to-pc#comment-1621099382 (Yea I know IGN isn't popular but it looks great!)

    Because it was a piece of decent journalism. Isn't that what Gamergate is supposed to be revelling against?

Join the discussion!