Jimquisition: The Ugly Secret of Horror Games

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The Ugly Secret of Horror Games

It's Halloween, the day that St. Spooky was born for our sins. On this haunted occassion, Jim Sterling discusses what truly makes a horror game scary, and decides that the worse a game looks, the better it is at frightening you. Oh Jim, there are no tricks when you're around. You are only ever a treat. And sexy.

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Jim looks fucking weird in that mask.

(no I did not watch the rest of the video so relax mods.)

Edit: wait a second, i thought amnesia had pretty good graphics. But overall I can definately see his point.

I have to agree, and I believe the same can be said for movies too.

Jim Carpenter's The Thing is truly disgusting, the puppetry and special effects are brilliant at creating that 'not quite real' feeling, and because of that, it creeps me out far more than CGI ever could.

I agree with your point Jim, but um... don't think I didn't notice that you spent 7 minutes essentially repeating yourself over and over.
We expect better from you sir.

Daystar Clarion:
I have to agree, and I believe the same can be said for movies too.

Jim Carpenter's The Thing is truly disgusting, the puppetry and special effects are brilliant at creating that 'not quite real' feeling, and because of that, it creeps me out far more than CGI ever could.

I came to talk about The Thing and then you came and beat me to it. I agree with this man.

Also The Thing is one of the best movies in my opinion.

Use_Imagination_here:
wait a second, i thought amnesia had pretty good graphics. But overall I can definately see his point.

Hell, I had to get a better graphics card before it ran well on my computer.... I thought the game was beautiful, and scary as hell. I must devote some time to play it today.

EDIT: The last 'Horror' movie I watched that creeped me out a bit was Session 9. No pretty CGI, just great atmosphere, characters, and sound.

This was the best one yet.

I didn't have to look at his ugly face!

Agreed also, the weirdness of stop motion has always freaked me out, even from a young age that scene in The Terminator where hes chasing Sarah and Kyle through the factory is still etched in the fear bank.

Also, thank you for bringing the Clocktower series back to the forefront of my memory, I'm gonna go see if I can find it.......or obtain through slightly questionable means.

This was a great episode! It seems to boil down to bad graphics = psychological, constant dreading fear and new graphics = "rollercoaster", haunted house scares. Both really have their place, but it serves well to keep both types very separate from each other and not confusing them.

This was a great episode! It seems to boil down to bad graphics = psychological, constant dreading fear and new graphics = "rollercoaster", haunted house scares. Both really have their place, but it serves well to keep both types very separate from each other and not confusing them.

Jim is on the right track, but he is dead wrong that a game needs to be ugly to be a great horror game. The games and things he pointed out were true, but I don't agree with his conclusion that a game needs to be ugly, in the sense that it needs to look like a piece of ass to do so.

What I do take away from it, is that current gens are not focused on the atmosphere so much as old horrors used to. That's why Amnesia is such a great game, it focused on the atmosphere rather then using game-play to scare the crap out of you. I think Yahtzee said it best when the best horror games are those that give you little to think about and let your mind fill in the blanks, because the brain will do a better job then any director or artist can to scare the shit out of you.

Hence why older games rock when it comes to scaring you. They didn't have many tools to work with and thus gave out that huge charm of scaring you while barely raising a finger to do it. Jim is off on a game ought to be ugly to work, it's an element, but I think that a good horror games pays great focus to the setting, pacing and shock factor. A horror game is supposed to be a virtual haunted house, with all the shocks and piss in the pants, that goes with it. Not ugliness, that comes naturally if you are doing it right.

A lot of good insights here. I found Quake 2 a lot more horrifying than the original Half-Life, even though Half-Life was widely recognized as having a more refined plot with better graphics.

I dunno if I agree.

I'd definitely say that, yes, psychological horror is better, and that having things too polished can make people lazy. Also, doing things "badly" can sometimes work very well.

But I wouldn't say that a game has to have strange inhuman monsters to be frightening, or that it can't be graphically well done. That would seem to imply that the real world just can't be frightening, which I'd dispute.

The original aliens versus predator game was definitely a creepy game, with the randomly spawning psycho aliens.

While I think Jim's idea holds true for most movies, there are a few exceptions to point out. Let's just go with zombies, since he brought them up: 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead. Both look really good, while keeping that gritty feeling. 28 Days Later is like the zombie art house film. And The Walking Dead has the most tension I've seen anywhere outside of Breaking Bad.

As for games though, you don't need to look ugly. The problem that most games fuck up and Amnesia got right is the feeling of helplessness. You literaly can't fight back in Amnesia, and that goes a long way. Dead Space and Resident Evil's greatest moments were the ones where you knew you had to run and couldn't fight back. Modern games, and this carries into the newest Silent Hill's, love to empower the player to fight back, which kills all horror. Old Silent Hill was scary because it was psychological horror, which Homecoming tried to attempt as well. While not as brilliantly written as 2, it wasn't bad. But it never felt that scary. Why? Because your hero was trained in combat and had enough weapons to fight the demons off.

CpnChaos:
This was a great episode! It seems to boil down to bad graphics = psychological, constant dreading fear and new graphics = "rollercoaster", haunted house scares. Both really have their place, but it serves well to keep both types very separate from each other and not confusing them.

So help me, I actually like this episode and agree with the points.

Jim Sterling:
The Ugly Secret of Horror Games

It's Halloween, the day that St. Spooky was born for our sins. On this haunted occassion, Jim Sterling discusses what truly makes a horror game scary, and decides that the worse a game looks, the better it is at frightening you. Oh Jim, there are no tricks when you're around. You are only ever a treat. And sexy.

Watch Video

While oversimplified for appeal value, the core point is very sound -- when you're using less, you have to use it more wisely.

I think the most basic problem with modern horror (movies, games, etc.) is that they're too direct, though. They're trying to scare us by "being scary." Or, perhaps more accurately, by "telling us to be scared." Since there are very few things that are universally scary, they rely on gore and pop-scares, which have diminishing returns.

What they are failing to do is recognize what causes "scary things" to actually move us emotionally. They're failing to create tension. Fear is too high-key an emotion to sustain... but tension? You can keep that going for a long time. And the longer you keep it going, the more impact the eventual scare will have. And tension is entirely about unfulfilled expectation.

The good thing about the audience is that they want answers. That means withholding those answers has power. You can use that to pull them along to the next unanswered question, and the next... and because you're winding up all this tension, your small pay-off moments along the way have a lot more punch.

The bad thing about creators is that they want to show everything. They want the audience to know how much work went into creating this monster, or that special effect. They want to make sure you know how much thought they put into the backstory. And the more resources they have, the more able they are to show off all that hard work. So they want to put all of that into the product... and in doing so, they give up the power of those unanswered questions.

It's not the case that 'ugly' horror looks better, it's more that with less in terms of graphics to work with are forced to use other methods to convey scares. And saying that amnesia has bad graphics BUT has to use shadows to convey a foreboding atmosphere doesn't make sense - the graphics are what's giving it those shadows.

Also, a lot of horror comes from the uncanny - things that look close to us but aren't quite the same - doctor who does this a lot with creepy dolls etc, and that's pretty scary as well as having a high production value. This kind of horror isn't a cheap scare, AND it's not limited to 'ugly' movies - although, someone working with the limited resources could make an attempt at realism, which would look uncanny BECAUSE of the cheap production value.

So no, to say that 'ugly' horror looks better misses the point - a high production value can add to the sense of the uncanny, and it's more that 'pretty' horror CAN be used as an excuse to make bad horror.

I think there's a bigger thread here about Production and laziness.

I don't think its impossible to make a high budget scary game, its just all developers suck at it lol. No one is willing to make a game that doesn't disempower the player anymore. Dead Space could be scary if isacc was really an engineer and all he had was say a wrench and maybe some power tools as apposed to; giant rocket powered laser annihilation cannon, that is supposedly, a tool, of some kind, that blows anything it hits clean in half.

Take away his guns, make him have to RUN to survive the monsters and bam, you have a scary high budget game.

Totally agree. I'll never forget that moment in Silent Hill 2... most utterly terrified I've ever felt playing a game, made even more scary by the lo-fi, muddy sound effects in the distance.

image

I seriously cannot understand if you're being sarcrastic with this or not, no, I cannot. Obviously that C64 game isn't scary, but the whole review is trying to make the point "Ugly=Scary". And no, the first Resident Evil isn't scary, and certainly not because it looks like shit. When something looks like shit, it doesn't look real and breaks down our immersion. Immersion is what makes a game scary, and good graphics increases that feeling, about the "pretty" thing, that's just purely aethetics, nothing to do with uglyness.

If you're being sarcastic, well done I guess, if not...you're completly wrong. People are more scared of things that look real than things that look fake. If what you're saying is true, than one pixel, just a square, would be the most terrifying thing ever in games, and an obvious handpuppet would scare you to death. What matters is immersion and atmosphere, not quality in graphics.

I'm always more scared at pixalated weird looking monster, than "realistic" textured monster. Because the pixalated monster is usualy also poorly animated thus it looks really inhuman! And you can't expect how it might behave (mostly because of poor animations).

Funny thing. Hm!

SecretNegative:

If you're being sarcastic, well done I guess, if not...you're completly wrong. People are more scared of things that look real than things that look fake. If what you're saying is true, than one pixel, just a square, would be the most terrifying thing ever in games, and an obvious handpuppet would scare you to death. What matters is immersion and atmosphere, not quality in graphics.

You're totally missing the point here.

The point is that things are often more frightening to us on a base level when they look alien or strange, or nestle themselves in the uncanny valley. Hence why stop motion's jerky movement is more scary to a lot of people than modern 'real' looking CGI.

Here's a wonderful example:

To me the old Medusa is a million times scarier than the new one.

I can see the argument with films, but I'm afraid I don't with games. Low budget films looking more gritty and realistic because of having to use prosthetic and whatever else makes sense.

Shit looking games just look shit. Whereas the film looks closer to something almost-real-but-slightly-off, the game looks nowhere near real, or just too "off".

If a (good) horror game was almost photo-realistic then it would wipe the floor with a (good) horror game from a decade ago. Which is why I was a little surprised when you brought up Amnesia, since I'd consider that a good-looking game even from a technical standpoint.

I disagree with the assertion that bad graphics = scary. More likely, memories of graphics seen as a kid (which now look bad) = scary. I remember being far too young and playing the demo for Resident Evil on the PS1- absolutely shat myself. Horror games are scarier when you're young, and that memory (with it's associations) has stuck around.

I do however agree that that the art direction, the use of shadows and tension etc. make a truly scary game, and that Dead Space fails at this because the developers seem to have spent more time prettifying everything than scarifying it. My main issue with modern horror games is that they give the player too much power. Fighting 3 monsters when you only have 2 bullets is scary. Fighting three monsters when you have practically unlimited arc-welder ammo is not.

Part of me still thinks that in the future people will look back at this generation's games and say, 'Man, games were scarier when they looked like shit (compared with the awesome-wizzo graphics we have today)' and be just as mistaken as Jim is here - they're just misremembering from their youth.

I think I disagree with Jim on this one. The important thing with horror is provide atmosphere which most games today skip on the way to providing action thrills.

The tension and fear in Resident Evil don't result from it looking ugly but from the fact that you only have 4 bullets and you can't aim for shit.

The tension an fear in System Shock doesn't arise from low polygon count but from the fact that your gun breaks all the time and monsters keep reappearing and the environment keeps making noises that make you scared to open any doors.

Doom3 fear results because you can't shoot and see at the same time.

Amnesia is terrify because monsters sneak up on you and all you can do is run and hide.

Modern horror remakes don't fail because they have pretty CGI quite the opposite. The CGI is ugly and cheap while 80s horror plasticine effects were state of the art. It's the CGI that looks unreal and unconvincing while the man in the Xenomorph suit is terror inducing because he casts believable shadows by virtue of his real physical presence. Additionally actors in horror knock off's are all so young and attractive that

I think a HD game could be truly terrifying. Imagine if the developers of the Aliens vs Predator series switched gears and made Alien the game. A game with the mutiple threats of the Alien, the Android and the Company computer. A game where you, Riply have to get as many of the crew off alive as possible. All in HD. Scared?

I think it's more a matter of aesthetics then graphic power, take the first Resident Evil game the characters didn't scare even though they had the same blocky look.

MiracleOfSound:
Totally agree. I'll never forget that moment in Silent Hill 2... most utterly terrified I've ever felt playing a game, made even more scary by the lo-fi, muddy sound effects in the distance.

image

Oh God... was that the near-endless staircase descent in the Silent Hill history society? Brrrr... and once you get to the bottom... you jump down hole after hole, seemingly right into the bowels of your own personal hell. -.-

Anyway, yes, older horror games seemed to be scarier... and I know this is technically an anachronism, but they cheated their way to uber-scariness. The very first Silent Hill, for example, was from that era when not only did everything rendered in 3D still lool like total arse, there were also other graphical limitations, like that weird fog effect in the distance. So what did SH1 do? Incorporated that very shortcoming into its lore! Brilliant! Awkward controls and crappy combat? You're not a battle-hardened marine, you're some regular dude with no combat training, so tough luck for you!

Silent Hill 2 is being released in HD soon. Will this make it less scary?

I think not.

Sonicron:

Oh God... was that the near-endless staircase descent in the Silent Hill history society? Brrrr... and once you get to the bottom... you jump down hole after hole, seemingly right into the bowels of your own personal hell. -.-

Not to mention that to even begin your descent you had to venture through a Pyramid Head-shaped hole in the wall.

MiracleOfSound:

SecretNegative:

If you're being sarcastic, well done I guess, if not...you're completly wrong. People are more scared of things that look real than things that look fake. If what you're saying is true, than one pixel, just a square, would be the most terrifying thing ever in games, and an obvious handpuppet would scare you to death. What matters is immersion and atmosphere, not quality in graphics.

You're totally missing the point here.

The point is that things are often more frightening to us on a base level when they look alien or strange, or nestle themselves in the uncanny valley. Hence why stop motion's jerky movement is more scary to a lot of people than modern 'real' looking CGI.

Except when with stop-motion it just looks unreal, it takes you out of the immersion and makes you realise "Hey assholes! This is just a movie!" where as the better the monsters look, the more believable they look, as in "Hey! This could happen for real!", which makes it a lot more scary.

And the examples are really of, Clash of the Titans (2010) was a terrible movie, and it didn't even aim to be scary, the Medusa scene was just an attempt at a thrilling action-scene, not a scary scene. And for the AvP examples...the movie was PG-13, yeah, try to make that into a horror-movie. And plus, it was ridiculous and stupid whereas the priginal Alien was a much, much better film, even if they've had CGI.

Things we can't identify definitely are scarier. In Half Life 2 Episode 2 there's a part where a zombie is hiding behind a door, but it doesn't make the usual zombie sound. It makes this strange impish growling that was never once played until now. In the commentary they said that most play testers were too scared to approach the door and would even throw stuff at it to make the mystery monster come out.

Admittedly, this doesn't necessarily have to apply to just horror. Proper art design for any game in any genre makes the game better regardless of shiny graphics. A lot of modern games, not just horror, fall flat because they focus on making it look good than making a proper game with good aesthetics.

MiracleOfSound:

Sonicron:

Oh God... was that the near-endless staircase descent in the Silent Hill history society? Brrrr... and once you get to the bottom... you jump down hole after hole, seemingly right into the bowels of your own personal hell. -.-

Not to mention that to even begin your descent you had to venture through a Pyramid Head-shaped hole in the wall.

.... ...

...

...aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! The memories, make them stop! Can't deal with that kind of horror now!!
Dear God, the original Pyramid Head is one of the most frightening creations in the history of mainkind. o_o

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