The horror genre may be stalled on zombie games, but one modder has taken on the job of delivering truly creepy games.
With two Half-Life 2 mods, Dear Esther and Korsakovia, the team called "thechineseroom" has been pushing the boundaries of what kinds of horror is possible in games. Dear Esther is an investigation without combat or puzzles into what exactly happened on its island setting with an unsettling antagonist, while Korsakovia takes place in a seemingly abandoned mental institution. Lewis Denby spoke with the head of thechineseroom, Dr. Dan Pinchbeck, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth, U.K., and discovered what makes these games unique in Issue #247 of The Escapist:
"Unlike Korsakovia, which is self-consciously a horror game - an aggressive madness, a trawl through a disintegrating mind - Esther is about a slide into despair that we've all stood at the edge of one way or another," Pinchbeck explains of the mod, whose abstract, dual-stranded story details a fatal motorway accident parallel to the bleak history of the island. "Esther for me is very sad - maybe even properly tragic. And that in itself is quite scary, because it's about a situation that is horrible, rather than horror. It's desperate and lonely and random and I think it maybe taps into a deeper fear of loss and being unable to rationalize a bad thing that has happened."
Ultimately, Pinchbeck is attempting to deconstruct and analyze videogames by creating these mods. By not relying on combat, the player is free to wander and discover the story and genuinely creepiness that goes on in the setting. Pinchbeck hopes that other creators of horror games take a cue from his experiments into what makes a truly unsettling experience. Read the rest of A New Horror to find out more.