Sunday, December 12, 2010

Afraid of the dark? From Silent Hill to Bright Falls

Whatever happened to Survival Horror? Games that dragged you out of your psychological comfort zone rather than arming you to the teeth and sending you on your merry way to wreak havoc. What about atmosphere? Disconcerting surroundings? Tension? A sense of dread, foreboding, and above all, genuine heart pounding fear?

Even Resident Evil went gung ho. Chris Redfield’s latest excursion was certainly a far cry from the series’ eerie roots - an altogether subtler approach to horror. No QTE events, exploding barrels, or generic cover based sections; just one sinister mansion and a virulent flesh eating disease.

Although it sounds crude, perhaps ‘scary’ games these days are in fact victims of the medium’s growing popularity and success. With bigger budgets and consequentially added pressure for developers to deliver the goods, its rare that a supposed horror game will sacrifice all out action for a more minimalist approach. With games becoming ever more cinematic, the tendency to venture down the more profitable ‘Hollywood Blockbuster’ route, is one that in a business sense is wholly understandable.

As a result however, survival horror (whether the genre actually still really exists, at least within a mainstream context is debatable) games seem to have become increasingly devoid of substance. It’s like comparing the latter Saw films with The Shining for example. The former may have cringe worthy torture scenes and buckets of blood, but for all the agonizing screams and mutilation depicted, it couldn’t put a scratch on the disturbing insanity of Kubrick’s classic film adaptation.

When was the last time a game genuinely sacred you? Would it even be current-gen?
We’ve dusted off the decrepit PS2 and a copy of Silent Hill 2, and played it in conjunction with Remedy’s Alan Wake to see what’s changed in the last decade(ish), and if games still have the ability to terrify us…

First let’s just clarify that Alan Wake is an enjoyable game; it certainly doesn’t massively innovate in terms of gameplay, but it’s a suitably gripping title that rightly deserves its decent critical reception. However, bar the occasional jumpy moment or panic inducing slog to the nearest Safe Haven, Alan Wake fails to ever really actuate a sense of fear.

Effectively - and this is symptomatic of the majority of modern games - it’s a title that holds your hand throughout. Your constantly prodded in the right direction via blips on your radar, and encounters with the taken are proceeded by slow motion camera panning (although arguably for cinematic effect) revealing their locations. Everything is too obviously force fed to the player to genuinely frighten in any way. You are constantly being reminded that you are playing a video game with Alan Wake.

As well rendered and realised as the forests of Bright Falls are, you never become drawn into the world to such an extent that fear has a chance to gain a prevalent hold. Sure, the dark foliaged setting follows conventional norms of what we might define as ‘scary’, but this attempt to build atmosphere feels rather artificial. Silent Hill 2 works so much more efficiently at building tension because everything about the game is essentially less obvious.

The omission of a HUD is an excellent way to more effectively draw us into the game world. Dead Space would be an example of a relatively modern game employing this technique commendably. Free of a HUD, on screen icons don’t distract, or detract from your surroundings, meaning that if the game is attempting to do so, a greater sense of isolation is achieved.

Starting off in SH2 with nothing but a photograph, a map and no glaring pointer instructing where to go, instantly evokes a sense of foreboding seclusion - a notion that is expertly maintained throughout.

Without a radar, GPS or goal marker, it's far easier to suspend disbelief. Couple this with the density of the surrounding fog, and disconcertion works in perfect parallel with the isolated feel of the town. Silent Hill 2 is continually a deeply atmospheric game from beginning to end. Yes, controls are unwieldy and clunky, and combat by modern standards is glaringly unresponsive and dated. Gameplay can often resort to a trial and error process of door to door X pressing and meticulous map checking, interspersed with the occasional cryptic riddle.

Despite these repetitions however, it is permanently compelling. Although each location is unsettling, they remain absorbing, as you’re drip fed plot elements along the way. The visuals are undeniably ropey nine years on, especially as we now bask in the razor sharp glory of high definition, but this never becomes an issue with SH2. In contrast, Mr Wake’s exploits look stunning at times, especially the mountainous landscape views of the brief daylight sections, yet from start to finish it feels like an altogether shallower experience.

Because SH2 is so atmospherically rich, it doesn’t have to try so hard to scare. Alan Wake attempts to force fear upon you rather than maintaining an underlying sense of uneasiness throughout. Subtly building tension has a more profound psychological effect, than the generic ‘jumping out from behind a tree’ moment, which although startling is still fundamentally predictable. Perhaps that’s the key term here - psychological.

Psychological horror seems to be something that games rarely attempt nowadays, yet it if done well can be incomparable and immersive. One of the underlying factors as to why Silent Hill 2 succeeds in this area is the infamous Pyramid Head.

You continually get the feeling that you’re being stalked by him throughout the game. No orchestral score prompts his appearance, or ‘Achievement Unlocked - encountered Pyramid Head’ icon pops up on screen. He’ll just appear out of the shadows and take swipe at you with his gargantuan butcher's knife; instigating a terrified scramble down some god forsaken corridor whilst your nemesis scrapes the aforementioned knife unerringly across the ground in pursuit.

Although the name is somewhat comical, Pyramid Head truly is one of the most chilling adversaries in gaming. In fact, the encounters are relatively rare, yet the knowledge of his existence is enough to unease even the most self proclaimed of hard men.

Although the days of fixed camera angles in third person games are more or less extinct, the claustrophobic nature of them in conjunction with horror are an excellent way of inducing panic. Running head long into a fixed camera directly into Pyramid Head is brown trouser inducing stuff.

Above all, though, Pyramid Head is dementedly unique. The Taken in Alan Wake are effectively glorified zombies; nothing deranged or truly disturbing. ‘Chainsaw wielding man with a bag on his head’ was once the epitome of terror, now it’s a formulaic and generic attempt to scare. Being in a dark lumber mill with a maniac swinging a chainsaw is undeniably unpleasant, but being pursued around a disused underground prison by a machete wielding freak with a pyramid for a head takes it to new levels.

Audio can of course have unique scaring ability, and Silent Hill makes full use of its potential. The crackling of the radio alone (to coin a cliché) sends shivers up the spine, whilst the unhinged twangs and strings of the soundtrack are nightmarish in quality. It’s the sort of hellish reverberations you can imagine bouncing off the walls of a disused mental institution.

The macabre, disconcerting audio of SH2 perfectly captures the players mood. Alan Wake’s in comparison, though expertly orchestrated, fails to fully utilize sound as a powerful tool for instilling a sense of horror. It’s simply an added, essentially inconsequential layer on top of the gameplay, whereas in SH2 you are in fact emotionally connected with the extra-diegetic audio.

Of course it’s a valid argument to say “well that was then, this is now” and modern games have very different obligations to fill than they did ten years ago. If Silent Hill 2 was released as a new title in 2010 it would be panned for its dated simplicity, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the elements that made it fundamentally scary can not be employed in a modern context. The parallels between Silent Hill 2 and Alan Wake are pretty obvious. Third person (survival?) horror, a man searching for his missing wife, a remote, mysterious location, perpetual darkness, the blurred line between reality and nightmare etc, etc… However, the game that is nearly a decade older is head and shoulders above its counterpart in its ability to terrify.

Playing Silent Hill 2 again was a reminder of how brilliantly immersive survival horror can be, and it’s a real shame that the genre seems to have lost its way. However, perhaps there’s still life in survival horror beyond the mainstream that’s begging for more exposure. Until that happens though, it seems that the real essence of video game terror resides in previous generations. In which case, it’s well worth dusting off an old console and resurrecting some of the most fear inducing classics from time to time.


Great article, I really enjoyed it.

I often think that modern survival horror has forgotten that the fear comes not from feeling like your enemies are too strong, but from feeling like you're weak and vulnerable.

For all that the Necromorphs in Dead Space were tougher and more dangerous than Isaac, he was still carrying half a dozen weapons and wearing armour. For all that you knew you were weaker than your opponents, you never felt helpless to defend yourself.

A game like Resident Evil, on the other hand, pit you against comparatively feeble opponents but made sure you were surrounded, outnumbered and lacking in ammo and health.

Your opponent can be twice as tough as you, or a hundred times tougher than you, but if you're tough yourself, its doesn't matter that you're outclassed. But if you're not tough at all, if you're a feeble human in a bewildering situation? That's when you start to feel like dinner.

I think is a great article also, except I feel that the original SH was much more of scare than SH2, graphically it is really really dated. I feel that its more scarier than SH2 because of the sirens and the shift from the normal world to hell world, the background noises when you entered a room. SH actually scared me where as SH2 had some scares in it.

To me Resident Evil has lost its focus, now its an action game killing zombies, so its really a survival game not a survival horror game. Nothing in RE5 was scary. I really hope that capcpm would change it, but I dont think it will happen because RE 4&5 were big money makers and they wont change it when it pulls in big money.

I think that Dead Space was the last good scary game. It kinda was also an action game but at least you were in the dark and you would have things jump out at you. The necromorphs were scary just seeing them

Anonymous says:
13 December 2010 15:04
You should try Amnesia