Steel Nerves or Bad Design: Horror in Modern Console Games

With fast checkpoints and brutal weapons, how afraid can today's player be of the digital monsters on-screen?

Dead Space 2

Horror games are a dying breed. That sentence might seem a bit strange, given that March practically drowned gamers in Silent Hill games, with Silent Hill: Downpour and the Silent Hill HD Collection releasing in quick succession. Resident Evil 6 was just announced weeks ago, with Operation Raccoon City being instantly overshadowed by the news. Indie games are inundated by zombie games of all makes and models. The monsters that populate these games are weak and ineffective, though, hamstrung by fast checkpoints and predictable AI. Worse than that, they’re created by people who don’t seem to have any clue on what scares people any more.

Dead Space 2′s terrifying piles of mismatched flesh seem to beg to differ. Modern graphics make it possible to create some disgusting creatures, all fueled by the collective night terrors of their graphic designers. Ugly has never been able to look this good before. Just the same, how hard is it to take one of these creatures down? Does it take more than a handful of shots? Even if you fail to kill the creature before it gets to you, what is it going to do? Will it kill you in a few hits, or are you more likely going to get it before it finishes you off?

I doubt you’ll be all that troubled by the thing, to be honest. After startling you with its initial appearance, you’ll be able to kill the creature with a few well-placed shots. You might not even have to slow down on the way to wherever you were headed before the necromorph showed up. Even if it did manage to actually kill you, how long ago was your last save point? A room or two ago, tops? So, while that monster looks as good as a vile, disgusting mass can, how scared can you really be?

Fatal Frame used ghosts to keep you shaking, and they did an amazing job of it. The nature of a ghost allowed for some neat tricks, ones I haven’t seen repeated in many horror games since. A ghost could, and did, come from any direction. The walls, the floor; everything was fair game. It showed me how much I took for granted that the walls were a safe space. How often have you backed yourself  into a corner or set up a bottleneck in some long hallway? The walls have saved a lot of lives in video games, but this is the one instance in which the walls were a real hindrance. Tight corridors meant that a ghost could be coming from any part of the wall, and could also hide inside it. Now, those walls I’d counted on so many times to feel safe had become a danger.

Another nice touch was that the ghosts never bothered to really jump out at you. While they could come from anywhere, the developers weren’t cheap about it. The camera, your only way of fighting back, has a light that chimes and glows when a ghost is nearby, giving you all the warning you need to get yourself ready. The ghosts still did a really good job startling you, but it was more from how absolutely tense you were than from a quick-moving object just coming at your face.

Every fight is also an event. The game very, very rarely makes you fight more than one thing at a time, because every single enemy is difficult. There aren’t any throwaway enemies in the game, no canon fodder that you’ll feel superior to. If anything shows up at all, you know you’re in serious danger. Also, the easier ghosts you get used to at the start of the game aren’t left in it to help you build your confidence. You don’t get to see yourself get better over time, as the game just removes the enemies that were easier to beat and replaces them with steadily more vicious ones. You always feel like you’re just barely scraping by.

And your weapon? A camera. Have you ever tried to kill something by taking its picture before? Even insofar as people accept game logic, there’s always a nagging feeling that you’re doing something incredibly stupid by fighting ghosts with a camera. Your mind tells you that it won’t work; that you should run, even when you know for a fact that it’s just how the game plays. Worse still, you have to get close and keep a bead on the ghost in order to do more damage. You have to take risks with your life all the time if you want to get anywhere.

And save points? They’re not safe. The enemies in Fatal Frame can show up anywhere, and this includes the precious save room, a sacred place since the days of the first Resident Evil.  Enemies spawn based on a randomized timer in the game as well as in specific points, so there are no permanently safe places. You can clear a room and have it stay empty for hours, only to have something pop in on you during one unlucky pass. Also, in the second act, a ghost is added that will spawn if you make too much noise. If you run for any period of time, this ghost will ambush you.

So, you’re weak, your weapon feels ineffective, you can’t run without drawing more dangerous enemies, and you’re never safe. It goes against everything a modern horror game leans toward these days. They’re still trying to be frightening, but the frequent saves and powerful weapons all take away from the atmosphere good horror needs.

Bioshock came close, though. Despite its frequent checkpoints and powerful weapons, there were few times in that game that weren’t tense. With Big Daddies lumbering about and splicers around every corner, there was always danger. Without having hard save points, there were never any rooms where I could be absolutely sure that I wasn’t in trouble. The guns and powers had a lot of punch, but even then, it took a ton of effort to bring down some of the bigger groups of tough enemies. It almost managed to pull it off, if it weren’t for the stupid vita chambers.

Instant revives without lost progress is a terrible idea for a horror game. If your own death has no meaning or consequence, then how can you be afraid? Even in Fatal Frame, the worst thing that could realistically happen to you was a trip back to the title screen after you died. Still, if you die, you have to repeat some things over again, something that gets worse and worse as you beat more tough enemies without a save point. There is also something about dying, even in-game, that carries meaning. Even if it is only symbolized by a little lost progress and a death animation, it carries meaning. It drives home the point that you’ve failed, making the unfortunate demise of a digital avatar into something you actually want to avoid.  Bioshock makes your deaths mean nothing, turning you into a monster that the enemies should be afraid of, and not the other way around.

Strangely, though, I‘ve played some modern games that are really, really scary without meaning to be. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 probably doesn’t jump into anyone’s mind when I mention horror games, but on its highest difficulty, I was petrified. After all, non-horror games with high difficulty levels can be just as frightening as games that are supposed to scare you, since they hit all the right ideas. They provide you with that feeling of helplessness against superior enemies, that sensation that you’re right on the cusp of death. A viciously hard game carries all of the things that a good horror game needs in order to be scary, and it’s something that developers need to keep in mind when they’re working on their new games.

Scaring people is more difficult in modern games. The focus on making gruesome enemies is nice, but if the game is about making the player feel tough, it’s not going to succeed. Coaxing players along with quick checkpoints and making them feel empowered with ridiculous weapons isn’t helping either. If horror games are going to stick around for the next few years, their creators are going to have to work in the opposite direction. Don’t coddle the player. Make them sweat. Make them earn every shot. Make them limp to every checkpoint.

Most of all, make them afraid when nothing is going on. Make them distrust everything they ever felt was safe in the game. If you do it right, they won’t trust the world when the game’s off, either.

Bioshock and Fatal Frame images courtesy of

Joel Couture
Joel Couture
Joel Couture

MASH Veteran

A horror-obsessed gamer, Joel is still spending his days looking for something to scare himself as much as Fatal Frame. Even so, he has ridiculous action games and obscure gems to keep him happy in the meantime. A self-proclaimed aficionado of terrible retro games, he's always looking for a rotten game he hasn't played yet, and may be willing to exchange information for candy.

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