Call into darkness
So some game makers have heard the call and followed it into the darkness. One of them is: Philippe Morin, former designer of series like Assassin’s Creed, co-founded Red Barrels and is the creative mind behind the shocker Outlast for PC and Playstation 4. “We tried for years to convince Ubisoft to make a horror game,” says Morin. – But they didn’t want to. According to the developer, some executives fear that a horror game will not only not pay off, but will also be poorly promoted and advertised. “The player here is not a superhero, but instead should feel powerless, inferior and threatened,” Morin explains his idea. “We want to scare him so much that he’d rather turn the game off. A lot of people don’t seem to understand why anyone would like something like that.”
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But Outlast likes it. Canadian Red Barrels throws the player, in the person of journalist Miles Upsher, into an abandoned mental hospital. Of course, as it turns out all too quickly, this is not the case – the story mixes belief in the supernatural with the real horror of unethical science. As in Amnesia, the game character is defenceless against malicious and disturbing looking assailants because they are unarmed. “A hero armed to the teeth against huge hordes of monsters is not survival horror, it’s just action,” says Morin, creator of Outlast. “We didn’t want that. We didn’t want him to have a chance in a direct confrontation. He shouldn’t have understood what was really going on at first.
In Outlast, players flinch at the slightest sound, flee from silhouettes shrouded in darkness, slide across bloody tiled floors and crawl under beds, tables and cabinets. “We thought that’s how we would react,” assesses the Canadian developer. “Few will celebrate the hero when it comes to simple survival.”
The player is also repeatedly confronted with disturbing sightings that show what can be expected: mutilated corpses, amputated body parts, dirty scalpels and bone saws. “We had a test run of the finished game. Literally half an hour later, a girl came out of the room crying, completely lost,” Maureen explains embarrassed but also a little proud. “The tension was too much for her.”
Miles’ only weapon is, if you will, a night-vision video camera, which of course also hints at found footage from films like The Blair Witch or the Rec type. “It was our idea. Instead of just seeing the horror captured on film, you film it yourself,” explains Maureen. “You often wonder why people in films make such stupid decisions. In Outlast you do the same thing because in a split second and under stress you just act without thinking.” That’s also part of the horror experience: confronting impending death, your own decisions, and their devastating consequences.
At least for Red Barrels, the consequences were anything but horrific. Outlast paid off creatively and financially. Here too, the developers dispensed with a classic sales partner in the ranks of Activision or Electronic Arts for the release, and released their game as a pure downloadable game themselves. First for the PC and then for the Sony Playstation 4. As Morin says, it was easy, uncomplicated and without much cost to them. “I think that’s one of the reasons why the internet works so well for horror games,” explains the former Ubisoft designer. There, game makers with a weakness and passion for the genre can find those who love these games but have been neglected for years by big names in the gaming industry, with no workarounds or bureaucratic hurdles.
Experiments of horror
In fact, indie game catalogues such as Indie DB or the Desura download platform now have a number of more or less professional projects, some of which are also moving to consoles. Their developers are trying, not least with wit, intelligence and a love of experimentation, to disrupt the genre that was once so firmly rooted and reinvent it. The best example of this is Among The Sleep, released in May 2014 by Norwegian eleven-person team Killbite Studio. Almost a year earlier, the student troupe had requested $200,000 in seed funding on donation platform Kickstarter to turn their horror idea, which already existed in prototype form, into a finished game. Thanks to a lot of media attention, they even raised $248,358.
As Tingstad Husby continues, the team saw in Among the Dreams an opportunity to explore children’s fears hidden in metaphorical imagery; those fears that are actually hard for adults to understand. “We wanted to be innovative and show how varied the genre can be, if you really want it to be. And how and what stories the medium of video games can tell,” the Norwegian explains. “It’s incredible how close the unknown is sometimes. We were all children once!”
The creators of One Late Night probably had a similar but different idea. The short but free PC horror game tells the story of a graphic designer who has to work the night shift alone in an open-plan office. A situation that many people have already encountered. Noises that were never heard before are now loud and clear to the ears, the flicker of lights cannot be ignored. And walking alone through the busy corridors in the dark is something inhospitable. You know what. But what the nameless graphic designer soon experiences goes beyond that…
Otherwise, Dark’s fresh work isn’t afraid to be unconventional and daring either. The Forest for PC takes players to an island inhabited by mutant cannibals at night. In their open world, you have to survive by gathering resources, building weapons, setting traps and building a camp. On the other hand, Daylight, released for Playstation 4, combines ego-horror, as in Outlast, with an automatically generated maze of hospital corridors that change each time. On the other hand, the Home experiment for iOS and PC takes horror and puzzles into a charming pixelated 2D world. And with the utterly surreal but addictive computer horror game SCP Containment Breach, the only thing that really helps is to give it a try!
Hope of the Great Old Ones
But wait, what’s moving out there in the dark? Yes, it’s the soft interest of a few big game developers in the new horror trend. They are tentatively fumbling their way forward, like scared teenagers in a haunted house full of demons. One of them is Shinji Mikami, of all people, the one who started the wave of survival horror games with the creation of the Resident Evil series, before leaving his continued business to his former breadwinner Capcom. After an eight-year hiatus from horror, during which time he engaged in bizarre action experiments like Vanquish and God Hand, he wants to bring back shock and sweaty hands with Bethesda’s support.
The Evil Within is a new horror game from Mikami, due out in October. In the role of Detective Sebastian Castellanos, the player is summoned to a mental institution, but soon finds himself in a parallel horror dimension of bloody violence. Like Mikami’s cult classic, the game will be playable. Nevertheless, the Japanese developer wants to ruthlessly terrorise his fans, taking the brutality and surrealism of modern horror directors such as Eli Roth, James Wan and Fede Alvarez: mutilated enemies, blood-soaked rooms, chainsaws… with crazy, violently shocking moments and some almost unstoppable opponents.
“The methods of instilling fear and terror in players haven’t changed,” Mikami says of his new foray into the genre. “However, they’ve internalised a lot of classic stylistic techniques that let them know what’s going to happen next, so really scaring someone has become a little more difficult than before.” Shinji Mikami doesn’t just want to scare with The Evil Within, he wants to shock and hurt. The Japanese are also on the same page with new talent, such as French horror specialist Alexandre Aja, who says: “Horror doesn’t have to be appealing or sexy. It has to hurt, it has to hurt, you have to want to look away. If the viewer prays for it to finally stop, then you’re doing it right.”
The horror-experiment Alien: Isolation, scheduled for 7 October, should instead offer less brutal torture and an atmosphere of tension and helplessness. For its part, it wants to follow Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien stylistically and in time, which, unlike the later installments, is still a pure science-fiction horror film. As Amanda, daughter of heroine Ellen Ripley, the player is taken to a Sebastopol space station that has brought aboard a black box from Ripley’s cargo ship Nostromo – but apparently also an alien causing death, mayhem and horror. “We want to make the alien game here that we’ve always wanted to have,” says lead designer Clive Lindop, “Not one that makes you feel as cool as the Marines in Alien, but as troubled and menacing as Ripley in Alien.”
The Creative Assembly studio is actually famous for the PC strategy series Total War, so they want to let the player as Amanda go through the same things that Ripley went through 35 years ago. To do so, the creators have openly taken Amnesia and Outlast as their basis. Most of the time Amanda has to hide from the invulnerable alien under plastic desks, behind clattering computer cascades and in metal cabinets – because meeting the beast almost immediately means death. An auxiliary device: a motion sensor that shows the approximate location of the alien, as well as all other moving objects, with its buzzer. “You can never be sure what, how far away and where exactly something is,” says Lindop. “Ambiguity, uncertainty and insinuation were important components of Alien. Alien: Isolation, therefore, is not a struggle, but simply survival. Weapons such as the gun and homemade bombs exist for destroying distraught androids, but against aliens they are useless. “We want the player to fear for Amanda’s life,” Lindop hopes, “because she’s prey, she’s inferior, and she’s being haunted by something she doesn’t understand. It’s a real terror.”
Tomb for all
Bethesda and Sega’s approach to the horror sector, which is considered dead, is not yet a completed sprint to the haunted house, but rather a look out the window. Checking whether a major horror project can be worthwhile outside the indie sector after all these years, up to what amount of investment is still possible and whether names like Shinji Mikami or Alien have a noticeable sales boosting effect. In fact: while independent developers can work at a profit, it doesn’t necessarily have to work for big projects today, but it can. Because even if the niche of horror games doesn’t equal the shooter market, it has and continues to grow slowly with new consoles, cheap PCs and the now ubiquitous internet. And the long-time fans of the cultivated digital scare? After all the bad years, they’re always looking for new and fresh material.
So horror is anything but deadly. It has always been hiding, changing and looking for new hosts. When the mainstream survival horror series drifted into a icy slumber or turned to action, small developers took up the dark seeds. They created horror games and bizarre experiments that, thanks to digital distribution, can now easily and quickly terrify people all over the world.
So now it seems that digital evil will no longer leave us so suddenly. As it turns out, horror offers a great playing field for developers who are keen to experiment and don’t let themselves be led in a fixed direction like survival horror makers once did in the 90s. The likes of Dr Frankenstein combine new horror titles with virtually inseparable elements, experimenting wildly with scenarios, graphic styles and locations. They don’t shy away from presenting players with unknown and alien material – after all, that’s part of the essence of horror.