Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Big Studios Can't Produce Good Horror Games

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 24 Apr 2012 16:00
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My main problems with it were a general lack of focus and its inability to make me cack my pants appropriately. While it is difficult to pin down exactly what makes things scary, it's not that difficult. Amnesia: The Dark Descent did it. Limbo has the right kind of atmosphere. I was playing I Am Alive on the XBLA and was struck by how at times with its eerie silence and dust-shrouded streets it feels more like a Silent Hill game than any actual Silent Hill game has lately. And these aren't even big-time triple-A releases with full-on resources and veteran designers behind them, these are all indie (or at least downloadable).

There we reach the nub of the matter, do we not. Perhaps this is, in truth, a case of "because" rather than "in spite of". The standard machinery through which triple-A games are developed ensures that the final product is incapable of subtlety. For example, I have never been in favour of the process introduced in the Silent Hill movie (and repeated in all Silent Hill games since) wherein the real world transitions visibly into the dark, symbolic Otherworld by way of decay spreading out or paint flaking off from a single starting point. In the earlier Silent Hills it tended to happen when your back was turned, between room transitions or after the protagonist suddenly succumbed to an unscheduled naptime. It gave it a greater sense of mystery, placed firmer question marks over whether you were imagining it all, a sense of "Wait, was this like this before?". Yeah, maybe sometimes you'd shine your torch past rusty grating X or Y and get the impression that the gantries go on forever but it's too dark to tell. There was nothing like the massive cathedrals of madness Homecoming and Downpour demonstrate. Silent Hill 2's Otherworld wasn't even that crazy, there are times when you could think that the filthy run-down Otherworld is reality and it's the clean, welcoming original world that you're conjuring from your imagination.

No one in triple-A development knows how to embrace their limitations anymore because they no longer have any limitations. No one put in that overblown world transition sequence or those giant rotating rooms because they thought they'd be really scary and atmospheric, they're in there to look good. In an age when the marketing for a game starts when the programmers are still defining the first few constants, you've got to have amazing spectacles to put in the announcement trailer and the first few leaked screenshots for the fans to dissect exhaustively on the blogs.

And then there's all the hundreds of people working on a triple-A game, every single one of whom wants to have their own visible mark. So the environment artist who's building his portfolio puts all his effort into an extravagant set piece concept and everyone's all like "ZOMG Get that shit modelled sharpish!" and responsibility is so divided that no one wants to argue that it doesn't suit the tone. Maintaining an eerie mysterious silence is unheard of because the sound guys needed shit to do.

So I guess I'm resigned to always being disappointed by triple-A horror because horror demands subtlety and triple-A development utterly precludes it. It's not so tragic a situation, 'cos there'll always be indie development. Failing that I could always start that murder spree I've been thinking about.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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