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The Common Mistakes of Horror Games

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 8 Jun 2010 16:00
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You'd think there'd be more horror game titles. Horror in videogames is easy. In a film or a book you have to spend time characterizing the hero so the viewers relate when a big hairy monster gives him a purple nurple, but in a game the audience automatically has a stake in the hero's safety. Half the work's been done for you.

I'll be fairer to Alan Wake than I was in the actual video and say it's probably been the first horror game in a long time that I'd be prepared to actually call "horror." The atmosphere is truly chilling, especially when the forest itself seems to come alive with the churning dark mist. I found the game to be a challenge - shatteringly over-generous with ammo and batteries, but I was playing on "normal" difficulty, as is my usual policy, and by the time I realized I should have moved up to "hard" I didn't have time to start from the beginning. Games not letting you switch difficulty mid-way is a rant for a whole other time.

But Alan Wake had problems, and most of its problems stem from a common game design philosophy that I've been grinding a particularly big and unwieldy axe for for a while now.

It's the term "cinematic." It's usually used as praise that a game reviewer with obligations to publishers uses when they can't come up with anything more enthusiastic. But I submit that it shouldn't be considered praise. I've said this before: Why do games try to be like films? Whenever a film has been adapted from a game, it has, without exception, resulted in something so hideous that only rampant fun-haters from the planet Puritan could tolerate it to exist. This is because storytelling in linear entertainment and storytelling in non-linear entertainment are incompatible. This is something many people, including game developers, claim to be well aware of. So why do games keep doing the equivalent and taking cues from filmmakers?

Here are some cinematic techniques that blight Alan Wake and many other games. Here is why they need to stop.

Music that gets more exciting when enemies are around and calms down when they're all dead.

Christ, I can't even begin to speculate when games started doing this. The first time I remember noticing it was in the original Serious Sam, which was a hectic kill-em-all arena shooter where the music thing admittedly served the useful purpose of indicating when you'd cleared up the last few stragglers. But in horror games like Alan Wake, when the experience is ostensibly based around tension, all it does is undermine that tension by signposting it. While you still can't see the wood for the gnarled mist-covered trees, you do know for sure there won't be any murderers in it because the music is telling you so. The tensest moments of Alan Wake come when the scary music is still playing but you can't see the remaining monsters. You know how you could have made the whole game that tense? Just keep playing the fucking scary music.

The worst example of this for me is still Dead Space. Yeah, a movie soundtrack might have a violin shriek when a monster appears, but that's a properly paced and directed linear story. Automatically programming the game to make a violin shriek whenever a monster appears on screen just starts to get silly. You could cover and uncover your eyes in a carefully arranged sequence and conduct them like a string quartet.

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