Horror Stories: A Maddening Lack Of Imagination

I didn't have to mock this image up to illustrate the article

Looking through the recent releases on Steam, a casual observer might believe that there’s a horror game renaissance underway. In the last few weeks, several games have appeared, with titles like Paranormal and The Orphanage. I’ve installed a few of them, heard them go bump in the night, and then moved on. Despite some quality releases, horror is in a rut. And it’s an unpleasant one.

Earlier today, I had a peculiar reaction to the footage of The Evil Within that oozed through the clogged pipes of the interweb from the Eurogamer Expo and directly onto my screen. As Craig pointed out, the spinny-blade room is so daft that it’s immediately rendered non-threatening. Finding such a machine in a mental institution raises logistical questions rather than the hairs on the back of my neck.

Oh, that’s the other thing. The spinny-blade deathtrap is in a mental institution. Of course it is. Mental institutions are full of things like that. Frightening, horrible unnatural things. There’s nothing more horrid than the people who are actually inside the institutions though. They’re the most terrifying things imaginable, whether they’re doctors carrying out sadistic experiments, or inmates with dangerous tendencies and animalistic qualities, or even the bureaucrats preserving the outward appearance of healing while actually taking funds from the army to create a new breed of super soldiers.

In games, people with mental illnesses are often monsters or victims, sometimes both, and they are intended to inspire feelings of disgust, fear and repulsion. These associations aren’t unique to gaming, of course, like many trappings of genre cul-de-sacs, they have long been a part of all manner of horror fiction. More than that, the threatening and contagious otherness of the mad has, over time, taken the place of other fears, in a way that Foucault recognised.

“Once leprosy had gone, and the figure of the leper was no more than a distant memory, these structures still remained. The game of exclusion would be played again, often in these same places, in an oddly similar fashion two or three centuries later. The role of the leper was to be played by the poor and by the vagrant, by prisoners and by the ‘alienated’.”

Yeah, I dropped some Madness and Civilization in there, but it’s not just my way of showing off how dry my bookshelves are, it’s also to show that when we see the scary crazy person in a game, or the darkened wards and rusted bedframes, we’re not looking at a new phenomenon. There is great sophistication in the best horror fiction, whether it deals with madness or not, and as I mentioned when I wrote my thoughts on A Machine For Pigs, the truly horrible stories usually involve introspection.

There’s a world of difference between Norman Bates’ defiant and yet sympathetic flirtatious confession – “we all go a little mad sometimes” – and the deranged bogeyman who will break down his cell door and eat you from the toes up to the chin because his madness (and his writer) demand nothing more of him. Unfortunate that Bates’ film and book are called Psycho, a true contraction of a complexity, but the character endures because we believe in him, as a man with a monstrous side rather than a monster that happens to resemble a man.

By compacting the mad into the monstrous, writers and designers fall back on clichés as tired as the term ‘tired clichés’. As soon as we enter the asylum, we have certain expectations. We’ve been there too many times and unless there’s an extraordinary – or perhaps ordinary (see Session 9) – alteration to the template, it’s difficult to surprise with anything other than loud noises, grotesque injuries and flickering lights. The Evil Within footage could be an excerpt from an alternate take on Outlast, with a gun instead of a camera and a dragging third-person limp instead of well-realised first-person body presence.

A man enters a creepy institution and everything about the place tells us that something is wrong. The darkness, the fact that it seems deserted, the physically impossible door hinges…it’s all wrong. There is nothing surprising, shocking or interesting about the scenario, particularly for those of us who did play Outlast a week or two ago, because as soon as we’re told there’s an asylum in a horror game, we expect the scenario to unfold exactly as it does here.

The spinning blades are no more nonsensical than the chainsaw wielding maniac. Neither belongs in a mental institution,but they do belong in a campy/creepy game environment. The fact that the place purports to be some kind of madhouse probably won’t matter very much to what little narrative there might be. It’s wallpaper to act as a backdrop for bludgeoning and butchery. It could as easily be a carnival full of insane clowns or an abandoned hotel full of insane bellboys, or an insurance office full of insane filing clerks.

When a place is so far removed from its real purpose, it loses meaning. The asylum as portrayed in Outlast is plucked directly from the horror genre. It no longer has a real world analogue, although the impressive fidelity of the graphics occasionally convinces otherwise by showing us objects and textures that we recognise, right down to the scuff marks and imperfections. The parts convey something sinister and familiar, but they’re soon splattered with too many strokes of false red and the whole picture becomes little more than another fairground funhouse.

A funhouse can be fun, but there can be elegance and intelligence in horror stories. A Machine for Pigs and Black Crown, which I’ve covered recently, both contain horrific elements but concern themselves with posing questions to the player and providing answers that evoke more than flinching flesh, causing thoughts to flinch as well, and connections to be made.

Much of Black Crown’s horror is, however, rooted in the flesh. Body horror of the Cronenberg school returns us to Foucault’s lepers, but now we have sympathy with the sick rather than shunning them, wanting to help but unable to act. It’s the terror of our own bodies collapsing, through impossible contaminations that are social, technological, psychic and hubristic. Contamination from a living source is not necessarily required and when it is, the act of transmission is not always aggressive.

Black Crown takes a different route. Sherman uses diseases and bodily aches to anchor the player. Pain and decay as the universal human experience, the thread that links us to Wonderland and allows us to gain some understanding of its inhabitants. No matter how far from home we are, the description of a stubbed toe or the uneasy pivot of a loose tooth can bring us back to our own bodies. It’s only when we’re there, hugging our skin tight around us, that we can really participate in the horror of it all. As long as we’re in somebody else’s shoes, fleeing from or fighting with alienated creatures that have less humanity than a desk drawer, every madhouse is a funhouse. Such places find few footholds in the imagination, even if they do scare us a little.

Great horror can use the threads of other pains, cutting into our emotional and mental confusions to remind us of the fragility of our understanding, and of the ways in which we are understood. Games can achieve this, of course, because images, sounds and words can, and games can be all of those things working together. But, at their best, games can implicate us in ways that traditionally observed media cannot and turn the screw an extra few degrees.

However, games can also fill their corridors and torture chambers with the mad, and make otherness and illness things to defeat or to hide from rather than to engage with. That’s much less imaginative, much less empathic and, most damning of all in a creative industry, much less interesting.

Now, go look at Asylum Jam.


  1. CookPassBabtridge says:

    If anyone ever makes anything as scary as The Exorcist in video game form, I will congratulate them. And then not play it. Ever.

    EDIT: Which actually raises a point. How scared do I actually want to be made to feel? Maybe there is something to be said for ‘silly’ horror in that it at least gives us some distance.

    • DantronLesotho says:

      There are plenty of games that can scare the bejesus out of anyone as long as they are willing to give them time. All the ones mentioned in this article, although having some tired tropes, still provide a decent amount of tension and fear depending on your tolerance.

      Personally for me I don’t see why anyone ever thought the exorcist was that scary, it just seemed kind of unsettling because of the loud and overbearing audio track. But then again I wasn’t old enough to see it when it came out so maybe that’s the difference.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        Lol yeah horses for courses and all that. I remember a friend of mine came round, big lad. 28 year old Northern English Rugby player. I threatened to put the Excorcist on. He threatened to leave. Like a proper, nearly-tearful-yet-really-angry threatened.

        We played a card game instead :)

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    • DantronLesotho says:

      Now Fatal Frame, THAT’s a scary ass game. Invisible ghosts that you can only detect because the vibrator in the controller acts like a heartbeat that gets nervous, does it to me every time :/

    • Blackcompany says:

      After several hours of State of Decay, this is precisely the question I ask myself every time I want to turn the game back on. How scared do I want to be in a game? How much tension and fear do I want to feel whilst gaming?

      I play games to relax, unwind, work off stress. Now and then even for the intellectual challenge – think strategy games – or even just to kill time. But to feel fear and build heavy loads of shoulder-collapsing tension? not so much. If it works for you, of course, then by all means enjoy yourself. But I ask myself this time and again.

    • AngusPrune says:

      The original Dead Space, while not especially scary per se, I found that the art direction and the soundtrack combined to create in me a continual sense of unease while I was playing the game that I actually found quite wearing. I couldn’t sit through anywhere near as much of it in one sitting as I could a regular shooter (e.g. Dead Space 2. 3 I couldn’t sit through because it was fricking terrible.)

      I wonder if being scared is something I actually want from a game. It’s fine in a 90 minute film, of which generally at least 30 minutes is non-scary setup. But is horror really a workable genre for a 10 hour plus game?

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        Yep – there’s a difference between the pleasant tension / release effect of a movie, and just flat out feeling stressed for 10 hours at a time. I still have not completed Amnesia DD, mainly because of that sense of stress (as opposed to fear).

    • GameCat says:

      Exorcist wasn’t scary at all. I hate when they turn this girl into person-possessed-with-devil-and-too-much-makeup cliche. It would be much more scary when all these obscenities and secrets she speaks at certain point of movie was done while she looks just like herself and without that “BUUHUUU I AM A SCARY DEMON GRAAUUU” voice.

      The problem with horror genre is that it’s often too exaggerated. Throwing dead bodies, piles of blood and flesh in desolated asylum isn’t scary. But throw one or two weird details in perfectly normal situation and then boo! You’ve created horror. And that kind of horror that will stuck in your mind and scare you as hell.
      That’s why FOR ME the best horror movie is Picninc at Hanging Rock. Sadly, no game reached that level of subtle horror.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        Perhaps, but let’s not put the cart before the horse here. If it is a cliche, The Exorcist was the movie that invented it. It can be criticised for being silly, maybe even for not being scary by modern standards, but you can’t accuse it of recycling a trope.

        “The plotline of The Exorcist is based on an alleged true story about a young boy in the late 1940’s who was said to have been possessed. The author of the original novel, William Peter Blatty heard the story as he himself had been going through a crisis of faith and it helped to restore some of that faith within him.”

        The idea was original and highly controversial then, and the Raegan character was intended as a centrepiece for a commentary on religion and the then-changes in attitudes to female sexuality in society. Film makers thereafter just thought “Oh cool, demon girls are a useful shorthand for scary”. So whilst your cynicism towards the genre now is warranted, Blatty / Friedkin’s movie deserves a little more leeway. It is necessary to understand its reputation within the context of the culture and time it was released, before the desensitisation of over-exposure blunted much of its impact.

        That does then illustrate a big challenge with horror. We know from psychology that exposure to a feared event or object, without negative consequence, can often lead to the extinction of the fear attached to that object or event. The more we see it, the less afraid we are. So horror writers and game developers face a truly creative challenge – how to invent something NEW, and that means finding out what we are afraid of without us even being collectively aware of it yet.

        • waltC says:

          The most frightening thing about The Exorcist (I first saw it in a theater at its original release aeons ago) is you’re not quite sure about what’s based on fact and truth and what’s not. The movie is terrifying to some and humorous to others for just that reason. The Catholic church is most often invoked by directors and writers because of its obsession with religious icons and earthly imagery–stuff that translates well to the screen. But, in reality, a Protestant denomination would serve as well, just not as ornate and flashy for the camera–which means the story itself has to be better.

          I loved zombies long before it was fashionable…;) I’d invite very serious, literate people over for a “movie” and then throw on Dawn of the Dead just to watch their reactions! What fun! Some would cringe, others would gag, and some would excuse themselves and leave shaking their heads–but every once in awhile I’d find someone who could see the uproarious humor in it–and laugh and delight along with me at the sheer camp of it all. Zombies are not scary–they are fun. Gore is not scary, it is merely sickening when it is convincing, and boring when it’s not.

          True horror lies in the mind. Scare–really scare–an intelligent, educated person, and you will have accomplished something significant. Zombies are far too much fun to be frightening.

      • GameCat says:

        Hmm, you’re right, but I have similiar problems with LotR for example. I know this book somewhat created whole genre, but everytime I see fantasy with humans, dwarfs, elves and orcs I cringe from boredom, even if we’re talking about LotR itself.

        But even if Exorcist wasn’t cliched in year it was released it doesn’t change that it would be much better movie (for me) if they keep Regan look unchanged. It would add more spice to whole thing. Is she really posessed with demons? With all that “scary” makeup it’s obvious.
        You’ve seen monster, but it’s allright. I mean, he could be 10 times bigger and more powerful, right? He isn’t THAT scary. Poof, horror’s gone.

        • Kittim says:

          Oooh! Oooh! You forgot The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rücker Eddison. It came out in 1922; both J.R.R. Tolkin and C.S. Lewis were fans. It’s written in sixteenth-century English.
          An example:

          “Behold, wonder, and lament”, said the martlet, “that the innocent eye of day should be enforced still to look upon the children of night everlasting: Corund of Witchland and his cursed sons.”
          Lessingham thought, “A most fiery politician is my little martlet: damned fiends and angels and nothing betwixt for her. But I’ll dance to none of their tunes, but wait for these things’ unfolding.”

          Kind of understandable why Tolkin and Lewis were more popular, but The Worm Ouroboros is worth a read and a little perseverance if you like fantasy. About as challenging as Feersum Endjinn by Ian M Banks (RIP).

          Err, sorry about going way off topic there.

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    • ScorpionWasp says:

      I don’t get this notion that The Exorcist is scary at all; I guess you have to be religious to enjoy it. All I see is some broad masturbating with a crucifix while shouting “Jesus deflowers me!” and a deluge of other forced, misplaced vulgarities (because demons CURSE and steal your lunch money too, so evil and edgy!). I find myself just shaking my head in disbelief at how preposterous it is.

  2. EPICTHEFAIL says:

    TL;DR version (or my interpretation of the article, whatever): can we please get a horror game that isn`t set in a fucking nuthouse?
    And yes, I agree. Horror has gotten mind-numbingly boring in recent times. The few who don`t spam jump scares are just aping Lovecraft instead to the point where the Mythos itself has become unbearably dull. Can we please get something original? Pretty please?

    • Shuck says:

      Plus, most of the Lovecraftian stuff completely fails to understand/has forgotten what the scary bits were in Lovecraft in the first place. It’s all Nth generation copies of copies of Lovecraft, so we get the equivalent of a photocopy that reads, “Smudge, smudge, Cthulhu, smudge, cultists, smudge, tentacles, smudge. And I think this word is ‘gibbous.'”

      • zbeeblebrox says:

        And then worst of all, none of those superficial rips even bother to USE Cthulhu! Like, hello this mythos is totally free. It’s like the Rat Pack coming back to life and wanting to be in some director’s movie free of charge, but the director refuses to include Sinatra at all, and only lets Dean Martin have a cameo.

      • Davie says:

        Man, a game that could actually make you feel the horror of being a pathetically tiny, insignificant creature in an incomprehensibly vast void full of things we can’t even begin to understand–which was of course the leading theme in Lovecraft’s stories–that would really be something. Even pushing that fear of the unknown, maybe with monsters that defy the usual conventions of video game monsters, and unsettling, unexplained setpieces and events, would be worlds ahead of video games’ usual interpretation of the mythos.

        Tentacle monsters and cultists and other dimensions are too played out to be scary anymore. It has to go further than that.

        • Snargelfargen says:

          In the really great horror movies, fear is used as a tool to get the audience emotionally invested in the story. Psycho, Session 9, The Descent… They all had a particular story to tell that didn’t need any horror elements, but adding that fear made them more effective. Most horror flicks and videogames are missing the point when they recycle traditional horror tropes, creating empty b-grade homages to the genre instead of something genuinely scary or meaningful. Most examples using Lovecraft’s mythos are particularly bad at this. You can’t just take those elements and throw them together, you need to do something genuinely interesting and new.

          I’ll nominate Silent Hill 1 and 2 as well as the first STALKER as good examples, it’s clear that the horror elements in those games were well considered.

  3. DantronLesotho says:

    Prediction: alien and demon games

  4. Jason Moyer says:

    The best insane asylum in a game is the one in the Darkness II, and it manages to be incredibly unsettling without resorting to the usual flickering lights/blood-splattering/inmate trying to kill you nonsense.

    Also, I think part of the reason Penumbra and Dark Descent are so great is because you could strip all of the horror elements out of them and they’d still be great games. There aren’t too many horror games where that’s true.

    • JR says:

      Second on Darkness 2. For a game that spent most of it’s time in the dark and gore, the asylum sections were incredibly unnerving frighting. I think that brings up a good point on how some good horror can be found in the contrast of an environment.

      Id list some examples but I think many are spoilers. I’ll just say Bioshock 2 was a good example of this.

      • Jason Moyer says:

        The perspective shift in Bioshock 2 was probably the highlight of the game (and imho the game had a lot of other highlights). If I were to design a horror game I think altering the player character’s perception would be a big focus. That and creating horror based on the context of the situation; for instance, while I love Shalebridge Cradle, would there be anything scarier in a Thief game than a mission with few/no shadows? I’m pretty sure the biggest ‘holy crap’ moment I had in the entire Thief series involved the motion-sensitive lights in the Lost City.

        I think the core of any good horror game should involve a.) unreliable narration/perception and b.) vulnerability. This is why games with guns aren’t scary. And if a player’s biggest tool is the ability to hide, you need to take it away from him sometimes.

    • Tjee says:

      Imo the scariest asylum ever is the Shalebridge Cradle level from Thief 3. That was the scariest thing I had ever experienced in my life.
      Of couse I was only 12 or something, but still.

      Check it out for yourself: link to youtube.com

      • jezcentral says:

        I’m surprised it took this long for someone to mention it. The Cradle is one of the most intense experiences in gaming. The amount of time I spent in it, hiding in shadows (a lot), freaking out (a LOT) is a testament to how great it is.

  5. Synesthesia says:

    Fantastic piece. Even if silent hill had its few Kitsch moments, it still payed its respects to the looking inside aspect of horror. Often it looked as different people were living different versions of silent hill, and that is exactly what was happenning.

    I’d like to see a good horror game in the Laundry universe. Maybe it can be done?

  6. MadTinkerer says:

    One of the best horror mods set in an asylum is Nightmare House 2. No patients-as-crazy-monsters. No hallucinations-because-you’re-crazy. You can’t always trust your senses, but there’s something else happening other than boo-you-were-crazy-all-along. It does tie back into Nightmare House (and NH effectively becomes a prologue for the events of NH2), but not always in ways you might guess. Pro tip: when scary monsters offer to genuinely help you against other… scary monsters, don’t betray their trust.

  7. Anthile says:

    It was only a a worryingly short time ago that mental institutions had often low ethical standards and sometimes even conducted experiments on inmates. It sounds like a clichee but it happened. It’s also something nobody likes to talk about. The state employs The Silence, victims are left alone and the culprits got off scot-free.
    Willowbrook State School is one of the more (in)famous examples. Who knows who many more of these exists that nobody will never know about.
    It seems only natural that such tragedies stimulate the fear and imagination of the people because fear stems from the unknown, and really, who can claim to know why people do these things?

    • Blackcompany says:

      You are absolutely correct. These horrible things did happen. In some places they likely still do. And as a student of psychology I can more than understand why the combination of these events and locales would stimulate fear and dread in our brains. This makes perfect sense.

      Unfortunately, it also reinforces a very ugly stereostype. Continuing to associate – or further the association of – mental illness and horror/monstrosity/evil only makes it that much harder to overcome the stigma of mental illness. And make no mistake, overcoming that stigma – whether following on the heels of diagnosis or in order to allow oneself much needed diagnosis and treatment in the beginning – is already a challenge of not-inconsiderable magnitude at present.

      There exist plenty of other locales which conjure dread in the human brain. Graveyards. Murky swamps. Deep, dark forests. We no longer need resort to the asylum/mental institution for this sort of thing, if we ever needed to do so at all.

      Furthermore, there are all manner of methods for inspiring terror in someone that having little to nothing to do with location. State of Decay does a decent job of filling me with dread. The game constantly forces me to face the tension of possible death whilst scavenging or seeking help, and the fact that the losses I suffer are both permanent and real furthers this goal in a way that no game featuring “save and reload” can ever match.

      When we assess the feelings arising within us whilst playing a so-called “horror” game I feel that we should ask ourselves whether these games inspire dread and fear – a real sense of foreboding – or whether they are simply resorting to what another poster here once so accurately described as mere “jump scares.” One of these emotions – or sensations if you like – is real fear: the fear of real loss; the dread of wondering what’s stalking us from just beyond the flashlight’s cone; the constant wonder at whether we really do hear those footsteps in the dark behind us, or whether we might truly be alone in this dark place. The other sensation – that “jump” we make when something leaps out from round the corner and screams “Boo” isn’t really fear at all. In all but the most well conditioned of individuals, it is, as that same person pointed out so eloquently months ago, a simple, biological reaction brought about by a game. Its a cheap last-resort tactic of scary media, and it feels cheap and uninspired.

      Dread, fear…these things are fine in a game. But if the only things you have to shock and horrify me are jump-scares and gore spattered rooms, I’ll pass.

      • Niko says:

        The night forest in Quest for Glory 4 was one of the scariest game experiences I had. Are there any recent games featuring scary dark forests?

        • GameCat says:

          Stalker: Clear Sky have some scary forests filled with anomalies and snarks. One of the most unpleasant levels in videogames ever.
          I remember walking into this forest at night (in game) when I was playing on my old low contrast CRT monitor, where nights was fucking dark that you just couldn’t see past your flashlight. Damn, I after maybe one minute I was running away as hell and never bothered to go here anymore (thank god it wasn’t necessary).

          • Talksintext says:

            I found SoC plenty scary. First time I met the controller in the sewer pipes – I think the game clued you in to the fact that you were going to meet this crazy thing down there, and then like 10-15 minutes of dark, corridor and flashlight gunfights (after so much time spent above ground) builds up all this tension that finally snaps as you get your mind sucked out of your skull and slammed into a wall. Oh hell, that game was horror because for so much of it, it’s another FPS shooter with very dark undertones (like distant, deep growling and wild howls at sunset), and at times actually quite serene and beautiful and almost warm, but then there are other moments where those undertones come to the foreground and it’s like you puncture the very thin wall separating this only somewhat abnormal reality from the darkness beneath, and this is what gives the moments their impact, because they’re not “normal” even in this wild game reality, but still you recognize that at any time they can become realized since they’re always just under the surface of that world.

            It makes those moments terrifying, because the game basically breaks its own rules in ways you can’t really expect or prepare for, and it leaves you running (usually literally) trying to find a way out before getting killed. It also makes the rest of the game an on-edge experience, since you’re always aware that you can fall through the floor at any moment, and there are all these unknowns in your path. That loss of consistency plus the afore-mentioned constant tension and build-up and sudden “gotcha” moments worked so perfectly.

            Also, the fact that the game tried hard to simulate a complex and convincing reality added a lot, and that it was loosely based on this actual horror story from our world made it all the more convincing and moving.

          • GameCat says:

            Yeah, horror is the best when you have only a little bit of it placed in right moment of normal situation.
            My fauvorite example of this is King’s “Pet Semetary”, where at least first half of the book is about typical american family moving into new house with one unsettling event in the middle to sow seeds for real horror that lies ahead.
            Then you have perfectly normal tragedy that can happen to everyone and it’s parallel to that unsettling event before and after that everything slowly goes nuts into pure horror.

            I’ve once read about idea of making detective game like L.A. Noire, but player can go very deep into investigation and if he do it, he will find traces leading to some lovecraftian cults etc.

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          zapatapon says:

          There’s Alan Wake. It has a lot of flaws (the repetitiveness, the parts were you have to retry 10 times to finally go through, and the ridiculous plot, tend to effectively replace fear by annoyance), but I still quite liked the setting of the dark woods in the mountains. The environment is beautiful and oppressive at the same time, at its best moments the game evokes an interesting mixture of dread and wonder, that is quite unlike anything else I’ve played.

          • Oozo says:

            Funny, I thought that the game utterly failed in everything but having a nice engine. I certainly thought that comparing it to “Twin Peaks” or everything by Stephen King spoke of a bad understanding of what made either one of those works as good as they are. “Alan Wake” could only do the “boo”-scares, which got vastly less interesting after repeating them 40 times in a row.

            There was, to speak with King, no terror whatsoever. The devs didn’t understand that anchoring the horror in the mundane is a necessary part of both what Frost/Lynch and King do so well. After a short while, I just wished that all those creatures would leave me alone, so that I could just explore the wilderness. (And a short while later, I had to stop, because I thought it to be so boring.)

            Your mileage may vary, though… there certainly is some beauty to “Alan Wake”, but not much horror, IMHO.

    • Zogtee says:

      As someone who actually has experience from mental institutions, I think there’s a wealth of material there and potential for great horror stories. However, it does require that you know your subject, treat it seriously, and not just use the cliches as a crutch to knock out yet another horror game.

      • Dozer says:

        There is a difference between making mental illness a subject of horror, and making mental institutions subjects of horror. Illness is illness and needs to be normalised and treated so everyone gets better lives, but the things which used to be done in the name of psychiatric medicine are horrifying.

        Watching the film Shutter Island, which is set in a mental institution (and it’s a great film) – there’s a point where an inmate is describing in great detail what happens in a frontal-lobe lobotomy. “They put an ice-pick up your nose and into your brain.” The character’s description is non-fiction, accurate – and these institutions used to lobotomise patients as a routine measure to make them easier to manage, not for any clinical reason or for the wellbeing of the patient. THAT’S horror. Abuse of power over the vulnerable.

        • Similar says:

          ow. Some twenty years ago I met a homeless guy on a train, the kind they like to use in movies, talking to himself, shouting unintelligibly at random and such. He asked for a cigarette and we talked a bit. He explained that ‘they’ kept wanting to stick ice-picks up his nose, something he was understandably utterly terrified about.
          It’s sort of haunted me since then, but maybe it wasn’t a completely random fear he had.

          • Dozer says:

            If you’d like to feel completely miserable for about a week, look up the Wikipedia articles on psychosurgery.

  8. DrScuttles says:

    Though not strictly a horror game, I recall Sanitarium losing a great deal of its effectiveness after the initial videogame madhouse section (with a major exception being the section set in the house, you all know that bit). But it was still very creative and while not every section worked (4 armed alien monster thing), I can forgive its use of the asylum trope due to either its age or personal nostalgia.
    I’d love to play a game steeped in Cronenbergian body horror. Using Outlast’s style of first person perspective with an actual in-world body, imagine looking down at your avatar and reaching inside a vaginal cavity in your chest to extract information on your next objectives, all the while unsure of the amorphous reality surrounding you.

    • Notebooked says:

      There’s no way to say “oh that’s intriguing” to the phrase “vaginal cavity in your chest” without sounding like you just crawled out of the marshes, but what the heck. I’m intrigued. I can understand why something like that would be particularly effective for horror, since it removes the player from the player character, but it might be interesting in other genres too. (It explains the ever-present inventory fairly well.)

      • DrScuttles says:

        This is just riffing on the works of David Cronenberg (specifically in this case Videodrome, dated firmly in the VHS era yet sickeningly prescient, along with The Fly and Crash are required viewing of his oeuvre in my opinion). To refer to the youtube clip I linked, I can imagine a player observing their character toying at their ‘gash’ as one would involuntarily probe a bad tooth, possibly in an idle animation or something. It’s a kind of discomfort I’d like to see explored.

        • Azmodhan says:

          Two words: Naked Lunch.

        • Notebooked says:

          It’d definitely be off-putting, but in an interesting way. “Involuntarily probe a bad tooth” sums it up nicely–things like picking at skin that sheds and unravels, or having fingers that twitch and jerk when not controlled.

  9. Chaz says:

    Some one should make one where you play a desperate survivor in a world over run by zombies.

    • Zekiel says:

      To Kickstarter at once!

    • Jackablade says:

      How about a desperate zombie in a world overrun by survivors?

      • HadToLogin says:

        Isn’t that what Zombie Panic: Source and Contagion is about?

      • Chaz says:

        Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse

        • cpt_freakout says:

          Man I miss that game. Too bad it never got copied or something.

      • Notebooked says:

        A stealth zombie game. A crowd of overhyped zombie fans have gotten news that the infection has gotten out. As the original test subject, you have to hide from their bats, shotguns and lobotomizers, sneaking from hiding place to hiding place until you get close enough to bite key people in the crowd, who proceed to bite others until everyone is infected.

  10. Lagwolf says:

    Anyone here ever play Marathon: Evil back in the day? It scared the bejeezus out of me when I played? The devlins really got to me.

  11. Turkey says:

    I’d like to see someone take a crack at making a first-person horror game that throws any sense of logic out the window, and just lets you experience a nightmare. Basically In the Mouth of Madness, the video game.

  12. airmikee99 says:

    I used to get a kick out of scary video games.. Eternal Darkness and Resident Evil 4 used to terrify me to the point that I would have to turn on all the lights in the house and sit in the middle of a room. After one too many nights of shaky nerves, I quit playing scary video games. I sometimes get that same feeling when I’m playing RAGE or Metro 2033, which is probably why it’s taken me so long to get through those games.

  13. Severian says:

    I really enjoy pieces like this one – thank you! Reminded me a bit of S. King’s trichotomy: terror, horror, gross-out, with terror being the most challenging to write. I completely agree that games have so much potential to scare us, due to the inherent personal interaction, and yet have failed to live up to that potential.

    • Notebooked says:

      Being a terrible horror lightweight, I love stuff that makes you unsettled or uneasy–just enough to make your skin crawl, not leap off your bones and hide in the corner.

    • zbeeblebrox says:

      I love his description of terror as well: “Terror is when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.”

  14. Frank says:

    I was surprised at how readable that Foucault excerpt was. Maybe 20th (?) century philosophy wasn’t so bad.

    • cafeine says:

      Foucault is definitely readable, I’d even say entertaining on certain topics (and that’s coming from someone who usually hate that kind of stuff, reading a single sentence by Kant makes me want to feed my eyeballs to the cat).

    • cpt_freakout says:

      Lots of these ‘already classic’ texts by 20th century philosophers are very, very readable. I also think most contemporary philosophers are very accessible as well. :)

  15. realitysconcierge says:

    I wonder what a horror game by Adam Smith would look like

  16. Bostec says:

    The chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The more I read the more convinced they were really horror books. Not fantasy. Really conflicting characters.

    • Jake says:

      I was just thinking of those books, I utterly loved about 50% of the first one (the only one I read) and found the other half just too Tolkeinesque to really tolerate. I know that is sort of the point, but it was enough to put me off continuing the series. I can’t decide if I should read more.

    • jrodman says:

      I got 80 pages or so in, and decided I hated it. Not because I was overwhelmed by the character’s transgressions, but because they didn’t seem believable at all. I didn’t take any more recommendations from that person.

      • bill says:

        Those book SHOULD be really really awesome. I made it through the first trilogy, but I never managed to get past the first book of the second one.

        They are really hard to read, but they have some awesome ideas and epic set pieces and consequences.
        Every few years I think of them and maybe even try to start reading them again, but usually give up.

        If another writer simply re-wrote them all, keeping all the plot points but in their own style, they’d be awesome.
        I sometimes wonder if they’d make an amazing set of fantasy games/movies. But it would probably be a disaster.

    • iucounu says:

      Loved those when I was a kid, but these days I can’t quite get past the fact that the main character is a rapist who basically learns to get over his self-loathing at the fact that he raped someone and becomes Jesus. (The rape victim exists largely as a prop to facilitate this, it’s really unpleasant.) Then you get the Gap series, which contains some good SF ideas and deeply creepy alien body horror, but is *entirely* about rape, both literally and metaphorically, and there’s a limit to how much I want to read Stephen Donaldson writing about that subject. (Also, now I’m older, I can’t ignore the clunky prose any more.)

  17. Freud says:

    The problem with horror is that it has diminishing returns. What’s scary at first won’t be later. This means it’s a very hard genre to pull off. And I guess that’s why they like to fill the games with jump scares which provoke a physical more than a psychological reaction. That always works but it’s unsatisfying.

  18. MykulJaxin says:

    Speaking of asylums, as a kid I used to play this old point-n-click adventure game. It started in an asylum and you were tasked with getting outta there. There was all sorts of crazy stuff happening. Any guesses as to what it is? I can’t remember for the life of me and while my buddies and I were playing Outlast last week I was curious to find it again.

  19. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Outlast only frightened me until I realized I could just run circles around enemies. A Machine for Pigs kept me up at night; not because it was scary – I laughed out loud the first time I came face-to-face with an enemy – but because the story really stuck with me.

    I was pleasantly surprised of Outlast’s treatment of the mentally ill, however; some were merely victims, others were slightly off, and the truly deranged were few. It was refreshing to be attacked and tackled, only to realize the patient was running for their life, the player just happened to get in the way.

  20. TheGroovyMule says:

    Having recently played Outlast, I have to agree. Don’t get me wrong I really enjoyed my experience, and it was thoroughly terrifying and had great atmosphere. But the story I found to be very generic and bland… an issue which is never rectified. I think to some extent it is a matter of some settings are just tried and true. Getting horror correct is difficult enough without having to have a unique story as well.

    I found the mod, Korsakovia (From the creators of Dear Esther) to have one of the more unique concepts for a horror game. The execution left much to be desired but it took an interesting twist on the first person perspective in a horror game. Basically making you question your own reasoning or even what you see or hear. I believe Mr. Denby did a write up on it several years ago

  21. Jake says:

    Madness acting as just an excuse to include a chainsaw wielding monster is pretty lame. It’s not very interesting either. Once you get past the shocks and jumps and gore you’re left with a rather empty experience, and those things get old quickly. Far more effective is the horror that lingers even after you’ve stopped playing. Horror that means you don’t want to open the door, not because you are expecting something to jump out at you, but because on the other side of the door is something that you think will be too difficult to deal with for your fragile mind. And maybe you never open the door.

    It’s like, I hate spiders – the way they run at you suddenly is pretty scary. They live in dark corners of the earth and want to get into my hair. But as soon as I’ve got the slipper in hand and the action starts, it’s no big deal. The Evil Within looks like a spider/slipper game, and that’s exciting enough sometimes.

    Whales on the other hand fill me with a sort of existential dread,. I know I am unlikely to find one in my bed at 3am and I know they are unlikely to swallow me whole one day when I’m not expecting it, but the idea of them down there in the depths doing their whale-y things quite unsettles me. A Machine For Pigs was quite whale-esque. Silent Hill filled my head with that particular sort of dread.

    Sorry this comment went a bit surreal.

    • Niko says:

      Makes a lot of sense! Whales and deep sea creatures are quite fascinating. There’s also this stuff that you can usually only find in Japanese works, like Enigma of Amigara Fault.

  22. F3ck says:

    As a life-time lover of most things horror (King, Barker, Simmons, I’ve read them all…not to mention the countless films) I can’t understand why I cannot really get into horror games at all.

    At 7 years old I saw Dawn of the Dead in the theater – it scared the shit out of me, and I loved every minute of it…but I cannot play anything scarier than Dead Space or STALKER (the tip-toe-y bit through the basement of sleeping Bloodsuckers in Pripyat is about as tense as I can stand it).

    I’ve owned Dark Descent for two years and will likely never play it.

  23. dE says:

    The last semi horror game I really enjoyed was Undying. That game was full of creative ideas. The scrying spell was perhaps the best one. Giving the player the ability to occasionally look behind the curtains and see alternate realities was really quite interesting.
    But even the weapons helped in setting the atmosphere, especially the scythe and the Tibetan War Cannon. The latter being a living dragon forced into a cannon that breathes ice. And occasionally breathes. Just walking through empty corridors, really not expecting much and then hearing a loud snarling breath. Oh wait, it was the cannon. Haha. Funny. WAIT IT WAS NOT, DAMN IT, RUN.
    Also the dysfunctional family was interesting to me. Yeah it was full of tropes, basically just a rehash of “look at the shit rich people can do and get away with” and “isn’t it funny to occasionally have a bit of Karma?”. But their fates, what they did to others and most explicitely to themselves was horrifying.

  24. Lacero says:

    The article is good but I’m here to name-check The Cradle in the comments.

  25. Lemming says:

    I’ve had an idea for a ghost hunting game for a long while, and I thought it important that the thing that causes the scares, the main thing, is sound without visible cause. This is because, whatever you imagine is always going to be far scarier than anything that actually shows up (unless it’s a ‘shock scare’ like something appearing and screaming right in your face).

    An example of what I wanted: Hearing slow footsteps down a corridor ahead of you, when you make your character call out, the footsteps suddenly pause, then you hear them full pelt thundering towards you – all the time you don’t see a thing. That’s the kind of thing I want to see (no pun intended).

  26. Diatribe says:

    I would really like to see a horror game based on Warhammer 40k. Stuck in space, in the warp, Chaos trying to eat you both physically and psychically. It seems like a great setting for it.

    Dead Space/System Shock show there’s something eerie about the isolation of space, and 40K seems like a perfect fit.

  27. Inglourious Badger says:

    Curious to know what you think of the Bioshock games’ idea of “mad” enemies? They’re insane in the ‘spooky asylum’ tradition but I always found them a whole load scarier because the games steered clear of the “this is where we group the psychos” excuse and instead tried to show the path these people had taken from normal, albeit flawed, human beings to monsters. They always reminded me of JG Ballard novels in that way where, especially in Bioshock Infinite, you arrived mid-transition and watched helplessly as the population descended into traditional videogame “I’m gonna kill you!” madness. It’s a key ingredient that annoys me immensely when other games ignore explaining why or how everything’s gone to shit (and when gamers refute Bioshock’s brilliance because it’s ‘just another FPS’.) I mean, it’s still absolutely daft FPS nonsense once the shooting starts, but at least there’s an attempt to explain it.

    Secondly on scariness, I always thought one of the rules of horror was to unsettle the audience by setting it somewhere traditionally seen as familiar and safe, i.e. a family home, a hotel, a backgarden. I guess Asylums are reminiscent of hospitals but still they’re so obviously halloween fare they surely no longer have that power. Totally agree it’s tired usage, though I’m not sure who can be offended by them as nobody considers themselves an asylum inmate anymore, surely? The Victorian media’s version of a mental asylum inmate is just another stock baddie, like Nazis or zombies, crucially lacking any expensive copyright (unlike a Stormtrooper, say) so anyone can whack them in their game sans explanation or exposition because everyone knows stormtrooper suits, Nazi uniforms and/or straight-jackets equal badguys.

    Frictional are the masters of horror games. Amnesia, Penumbra. All brilliant games. All avoid the tropes you mention above. All are, as with the best of any genre, probably partly to blame for the recent ‘renaissance’. Don’t be fooled by shiny graphics, kids, go back to the source.

    • Inglourious Badger says:

      Ok, I’ve now read the Kotaku “Nobody Wins When Horror Games Stigmatize Mental Illness” article and kind of see where they’re coming from but…. It’s still, I mean, there’s a couple of issues here: We are assuming players can’t tell the difference between a caricature of an asylum inmate and real people with mental illness. There’s also a lot of talk of mental illness without explaining what they mean by the term. Are we grouping disabilities into this or focussing on disorders, traditionally referred to as mental illness? The term is only a step more up to date than the straight-jacketed caricature so it slightly undermines the otherwise good intentions. Certainly something worth discussing. I’m hoping to get shouted down into understanding now by the internet, as I’m still a little confused.

      • The Random One says:

        I don’t like the ‘players can surely tell the difference’ defense because if a player has no concept of what a real asylum looks like, how can they tell what parts of the fictionalized asylum are fiction? If your work is likely to be a person’s first introduction to whatever topic you have a modest responsability to research it well. And don’t call me Shirley.

  28. KDR_11k says:

    There’s a reason why, among all the gore and violence, the needle-in-the-eye is often considered one of the most unpleasant parts of Dead Space 2…

  29. Tsurugi says:

    I’ve always thought that the modern asylum archetype in Western culture was based off of Bedlam. Is this not the case?
    If it is based on Bedlam…then there is a lot more than just a tiny nugget of truth at the heart of that archetype. There are huge, fat veins of truth running all through it.

    • jrodman says:

      I think the more influential source for myself is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

  30. Kollega says:

    As someone who’s been to a psychiatric hospital a few times, i think i can contribute something to this discussion. On one hand, mental institutions that are actually focused on helping people and look like a hospital should are a relatively recent innovation, especially in the former Soviet states – but on the other, i can attest that today’s psychiatry is not deserving of the “Bedlam House” stereotype it’s been stuck with, because at this point it has actually gotten much better. So yeah… the whole “abandoned insane asylum” cliche shouldn’t be used with reckless abandon like it currently is. As the article justly states, why not replace it with a carnival full of monster clowns? I bet that’s just as scary, if nor more so.

  31. bill says:

    In general though, horror tends to be a very limited medium. Whether it’s games or movies or book there isn’t a lot of variation. There are always a couple of creative outliers, but overall it’s very ‘generic’.

    And games tend to have even more problems as they tend to be longer, more repetitive, have more player freedom and have no consequence. Monsters are scary until you see them. But in games it’s quite possible for the player to run right up to them, shine a light in their face, die, reload and then not be scared again.

    A horror movie might maintain it’s scares for 2 hours, but a game has to try it for 10 hours while a player kills 100s of monsters and reloads if they die. It’s a very tall order.

    I remember a few very scary games when I was young, but I think i’ve been exposed to most of the tricks now, so similar games tend not to be scary anymore… other than jump scares.

    I’d certainly support a call for less scary asylums, but i’d also support a call for less churches, warehouses, shipping yards, nightclubs full of strippers, and all the other generic game settings.

    • GameCat says:

      I’m glad someone else notice this. The solution is: make threats that do not want kill the player.

      Hell, make him invincible and then let him see his world (family, loved ones, money, everything) falling into one huge mess, one tiny bit at time.

      Or maybe make him facing creatures that want to eat him, also one tiny bit at time and then run to hide in shadows and laugh at him, while they’re chewing his middle fingers so he can’t even show them to fuck yourselves. All with Dark Souls autosave system.

      Also I want to say that while most of my The Walking Dead playthrough can be described with world TENSE, the tension was always ruined when I failed and had to reload last 30 seconds. No love for gameovers in horror videogames from me.

  32. ramirezfm says:

    Great piece Adam. Also I must say I am a bit surprised that so many people like scary video games. Back in the days it was only me… ;)
    It is rather hard to make a horror game that doesn’t use jump scares only. Horror as a genre is incredibly silly, either because there be monsters (and seriously, how many tentacle shaped two blocks high monsters have you seen irl) or because of tired cliches (every asylum is full of killer people/ghosts/monsters/whatever, every old house is haunted, etc.). It’s incredibly hard to come up with something original and real enough to make someone scared not using jump scares. Japanese do it well sometimes, the original Ju-On (the movie) gave me heebie jeebies. Fatal Frame and Siren were creepy/scary as hell for me, also amazing.
    Amnesia was also a great example how you can scare by not throwing anything substantial at the player. At the beginning I had goose bumps just by walking around the house and trying to see the monster that wasn’t there. I have yet to try Outlast and the second Amnesia… Hope both will be good.

  33. cpt_freakout says:

    Great read! I think you hit the nail on the head with your piece on A Machine for Pigs, in the sense that to renovate the genre we need scripts and stories about issues / settings wider and more thoughtful than “here’s a creepy background, now survive it!”. Most of these games are just like spook houses in faires and theme parks, in the sense that you get those 5-second adrenaline shots from sudden jumps but once you’re out of there you completely forget about it. If the stories, like that of AMFP, were much more thoughtful of what constitutes ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ (which means beyond atmosphere and mechanics), maybe we would be getting much better games. On one side, though, it’s good that there’s this saturation, because that also means that, like many here in the comments, gamers will start demanding something else, something new.

    • GameCat says:

      If you have access to PS2, PSP or Wii try Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. It’s probably one of the most underrated horror game ever (even many SH franchise fans dislike it).
      This is probably the only horror game where you see blood only maybe three times, which is enough for this game to be different. Next we have great plot and some smart parts like everything what happens in the main game is story told to psychiatrist (you can even lie to him by providing him false informations about you) by your hero, so you can slightly alter NPCs apperance and characters.

      Think of it as unpleasant dream that is just one step away from worst nightmare.

  34. Dave Tosser says:

    I’m reminded of something Harlan Ellison once said about how, when a genre reaches critical mass, it piles on the conventions until you end up with all the subtlety, craft and cleverness replaced with cheap slasher thrills and mindless, senseless violence, revisiting the same themes and locations until there’s simply nothing left to work with because it’s literally all been done before and to such extremes. To quote the man himself:

    “When a literary form begins to run out of ideas, the last stop before the abyss is the escalation of the elements, the coarsening of the themes, the amateur’s belief that simply to shock is enough.

    In medicine, they only use shock treatment when the patient is insane, cataleptic, or dead.

    Just as the horror genre is dead. Or insane. Or cataleptic.”
    -Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan. 1991

    It’s got a lot to do with how derivative and overwrought horror fiction in general is, but you also ought to factor in the effect those god-awful Youtube “Let’s Shrieks” with a face cam in the corner, where some twentysomething with a webcam profits off low-effort content by feeding a gibbering fanbase.

    Half of these are repurposing the same themes in the hopes that bandwagon internet folk might get them a runaway (heh) success. This isn’t a horror renaissance so much as it is a horror pile-up. With the technology available on PC, the funding available through any number of pledge sites and pre-order systems, and the talent consisting of the like who grew up on everything from Ant Attack to the Hills that Shall Not Speaketh, I don’t see why we can’t have a proper horror renaissance. Seeing as we’ve got Tangiers in the pipeline, why can’t we get The Naked Lunch?

    Edit: and whilst we’re at it, let’s point fingers at sci-fi and fantasy for managing to be so absolutely dull. Video games, people. You can do anything with them and all we get are fucking cover-based manshoots.

  35. iucounu says:

    Since we’re talking horror, can I recommend a horror writer? I haven’t read much in the genre, but I got back into it recently via some Cthulhu Mythos anthologies, and the best story in each one was generally by a guy called Laird Barron.

    Barron writes cosmic horror in the Lovecraft mode, though he has his own, unconnected mythos connecting his stories, and an entirely different (and much better, to be honest) style. I highly recommend stuff like his collections THE IMAGO SEQUENCE and OCCULTATION – it feels fresh and extremely scary.

    • Jake says:

      Laird Barron is good I agree, he writes contemporary mythos stories, although some are a little inconsistent. My favourite cosmic horror author is Thomas Ligotti, I think he could be regarded as a spiritual successor to Lovecraft because although his stories are not mythos based they feel like something totally new and original.

    • Hyoscine says:

      To my mind, the best modern horror writer is Thomas Ligotti. His work is a jumble of miserable absurdities, crushing bureaucracy, and the very bleakest of cosmic horror. He get’s favourably compared to Lovecraft a lot, but I feel he’s really more of a successor to Kafka.

      You can read one of his stories here… link to weirdfictionreview.com

      My favourite story of his is “Our Temporary Supervisor”; I couldn’t find it online, but perhaps you’ll have more luck.

      One of my favourite cosmic horror works is The House on The Borderland. It’s kind of a hundred-year-old Assault on Precinct 13, with elements of Poe-esque romance, and a breathtakingly lonely sequence detailing the end of the universe. I’ve never read anything like it. Guarantee it’ll stay with you. You can download it here… link to gutenberg.org

  36. fenriz says:

    I… I don’t understand, a whole article about “logic”?

    my degree was half philosophic, the only good thing about logic is that it has no ambitions to be important. Life isn’t logic at all, let alone mention mental institutions.

    Besides, videogames are about a challenge. Some pose a good challenge, some don’t, some are about brains(adventure puzzles), some are about primitive reflexes(action games and console), videogames don’t have to be logical, they have to challenge your brain.

    Logics. wtf, i hate maths, always have. Have your dreams, the truest part of you, ever been logical? I didn’t think so. C’mon i’m about to facepalm hard.

    for god sake, are those titles the writer mentions any good regarding their puzzles? Oh boy if i were a journalist…

    • DrollRemark says:

      It’s like you’ve read an entirely different article.

      • fenriz says:

        isn’t the whole article a critique on a spinny-blade machine that shouldn’t be in an institution because such a thing is not logically and typically found in such a place?

        • EPICTHEFAIL says:

          I refuse to take seriously anyone who mentions holding a degree and then, a few paragraphs later uses uncapitalized “WTF” and “cmon” utterly unironically. And yes, logic is important in horror. Though this is only my opinion, and by no means objective fact, the horror has to be realistic enough, or at least internally consistent enough, that a part of you takes it seriously. Otherwise you will eventually realise that the spinny blade-machine doesn`t belong in an asylum, that the necromorphs violate just about every law of conservation, that the zombies should have dropped dead from various natural processes ages ago (assuming we are talking about virus zombies here).

          As for dreams… They are logical. A dream is simply a screensaver that your brain runs while defragmenting the hard drive. They are shaped by your experiences and are basically a reflection of your personality. While they do not match up to physical causality, natural laws and so on, they do possess their own internal logic that varies from person to person, but is consistent for that person.

          Also, isn`t someone who holds a degree kind of supposed to be smart enough to realise how logic-dependent life is? Likewise videogames which, without logic, would be impossible in the first place. I am so glad that this vague “half philosophic” degree of yours was the result of an education that has clearly prepared you for life, as evidenced by your utter ignorance of the nature of logic and its importance to life as a whole, and videogames in particular. Sorry if I am getting a bit too aggressive, but you really should thought that post through a bit more.

    • wu wei says:

      It has nothing to do with logic; the issue is one of verisimilitude.

  37. tumbleworld says:

    TL;DR: Horror works best in non-scary settings.

    Fantastic post, Adam.

    As Ligotti said in his “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror” essays*, much horror comes from the subversion of the familiar. When things that are safe and normal gradually become monstrous, they take our entire worlds with them, and leave us without any mental footing to fall back on — and that is horrifying.

    Lovecraft’s work is one of the grandest demonstrations of that. His stories erode the most normal things of all — the self, community, everyday reality itself.

    Look at Innsmouth. Fish-people aren’t horror; they’re comedy, a parodic riff off disease. The horror comes from the familiar sense of being a stranger in a close-knit community, an outsider. A tiny hint of paranoia at being in that position is perfectly normal, but we know it’s safe. People are stand-offish, but normal. Except… here, it’s undermined, and gradually being a stranger becomes equated to being a victim. And then, at the end, the very self is turned against the protagonist, and the reader is left with nothing to fall back to.

    Unpronounceable Weakly God-Likes, eldritch tomes, and frothing cultists are not what horror is made of. Just the opposite; they’re just the personifications of hostility. Cultists are scary because anyone could be one. Lovecraft, terrified of the ill-educated, had most of them be the rural poor, but the real horror comes from the fact that they’re invisible and all around; the subversion of the sense of family and friendship. Cthulhu is just a name for the terror that comes when space and time become warped and impossible.

    That’s what so much horror — film, game, book — misses. The more peculiar the trappings, the weaker the impact. I had an editor once who wanted to move a scene of insane, murderous experiments** from domestic Montreal to a castle outside Prague, because that sort of thing doesn’t happen in normal places. Of course, the entire point was that it doesn’t happen in normal places.

    That’s why Gone Home worked so well. The setting is not a comedic “Ooo, scary!” parodies. We know Bad Things(tm) happen in insane asylums, in woods at night, in peculiar sprawling complexes. They’re outside normality, so all bets are off. That’s not horrifying; it’s darkly adventurous at the very worst.

    Horror needs to learn to come back to reality if it really wants to unsettle us.

    * The Professor Nobody lectures appear as occasional digressions in “Songs of a Dead Dreamer”. It’s an incredible collection, but I very strongly recommend you try to get the 1989 version of the book; the 2010 release, with “updated” stories, is significantly weaker, and the 1986 print far too collectible. Writers shouldn’t go back and rework things after 25 years; the person who wrote the story is long dead, and the result is almost always muddled.

    ** “Hunter: Apocrypha”, if you’re curious for some peculiar reason. I’m still pleased with how it came out :)

  38. Amante says:

    Kudos on a very well written and thought out article. As someone with a mental illness that is also a big fan of horror games, I’ve definitely noticed the genre’s over-reliance on stereotypical depictions of mental illness (especially as regards asylums). While it doesn’t particularly offend me, it does strike me as very lazy on a creative level.

    Still, we are experiencing a resurgence of the horror genre in video games right now and I’m glad to see that. I especially like that more are willing to go with the Amnesia style “no fighting back” gameplay, which I think is much more appropriate for the genre.

    On the subject of more inventive horror, have you checked out Among the Sleep? It’s only in alpha but what I’ve seen so far has blown me away. You play as a two year old child exploring your house at night while strange things are going on. It’s unclear how much of it is really happening and how much is just your childlike imagination, which is a really interesting idea conceptually. Visually, everything is bigger than you, so you have to figure out how to stack or climb up onto things just to open doors. The sound design is also exceptionally spooky and atmospheric — probably the best I’ve seen in the genre to date.