Jimquisition: The Ugly Secret of Horror Games

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No, I am not scared of things that look like blocky brown turds that run at me groaning

I've got to disagree with the main argument that horror games need to be ugly. Nostalgia plays a big part with forming opinions of older games and frankly someone playing Friday 13th for the first time now, will not be frightened in the least. A lot of monsters rely on the 'uncanny valley' of incorporating human and inhuman aspects creating an unsettling whole, this can't be achieved if the game is a low-res mess.

That's not a case of nostalgia though. If a game was scary then to your average gamer, that game has the potential to be scary today to similar individuals. Thus the problem is not that the game is no longer scary, but rather that it's harder for a gamer to get immersed and invested in an older game like that. But if he/she can get into it, why wouldn't they be scared?

Shit graphics and shit controls are a barrier to immersion but they don't invalid the game's original intent.

"Refined isn't scary"


You see, bad controls make the game tense, but also frustrating. Frustration detracts from immersion, and it ruins it. At least, thats how it works for me. You don't have to make the controls shit. Just make the player feel weak in comparison. He said Dead Space had a lot of jump scares, but face it, Isaac Clarke isn't a soldier. He is, at best, an average man. Not powerful, not quick with his reflexes, weaker than his foes. He moves about as fast as I would expect a man in his position to. He isn't a deadly-accurate marksman (well, okay, he probably should be a bit less accurate). He feels slow and sluggish, because he is, but the camera doesn't change every thirty feet down a hallway, just making me dazed and unsure about whats going on. Its hard to be scared of a monster if I don't know its there. In Dead Space, I've had moments where I've run like a madman because I knew that something was behind me. I didn't see it, but a lot of thoughts went through my mind, not one of them being "Man I wish this camera was better". I've played the older Resident Evil games, and it hurt my experience, it truly did. It doesn't make players feel weak like a small inventory, and it doesn't make you feel out-of-control, because that implies you actually know what the hell is going on. And poor camera and poor, clunky controls don't. They just distract, and therefore detract. Or at least, thats my experience. I've played a fair amount of horror games, and that always seems to have been the worse mistake.

Other than that, great episode.

I don't think 'ugly equals scary' quite fits, as others have said it's more about creating a scary atmosphere which is to a degree independent from technical aspects. One of the most scary gaming experiences I had was the Ocean House Hotel segment in Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, which was (for it's day) a very pretty game, one of the first using Valve's Source Engine. Still, fumbling to the dark hotel, finding the clues to what happened, the lights failing occasionally, the ghost of the murderer/father appearing just around the corner, breaking through the stairs into the cellar... it scared the shit out of me.
Objectively speaking, the hotel ia a short, easy quest that can be finished in a few minutes. It's almost impossible to die in (unless you get crushed by a falling elevator), and there are no enemies to fight. But the experience is so well crafted through usage of sounds and lights that, especially on a first playthrough, you are scared of every dark corner, every stair, and even every piece of furniture.

This is a clear case of confusing correlation and causation.

For one thing, game graphics are relative to their time. Put Amnesia out in 1996 and people would have been blown away by the visuals. Would that have made it less effective than Resident Evil? I thought the graphics in Silent Hill 2 were awesome at the time and stand up fairly well even today, but the game totally nails the disconcerting enemy movement.

The other issue is that games like Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space are not trying to be the same as traditional 'survival horror'. For commercial reasons, they are more or less 3rd-person action shooters. This, more than their graphics, explains why they are not frightening in the way that survival horror games of past generations have been.

I thought Amnesia had great graphics. High enough production values that I didn't completely believe that it was really an indie game, honestly.

I like how Jim lauds as a feature the reason I hate the Resident Evil games. Why are these young, fit-looking characters less athletic and graceful than my fat ass? That just frustrated me, and that prevents me from feeling pretty much any other emotion when playing the game.

The suffering 1 and 2 along with dark corners of the earth are good examples of this
both the games are grimy as fuck

Amnesia, oh god, storage, oh god, so many un-nice flash backs....

OT: Jim once again has hit the nail on the head, I think everyone here agrees that Silent Hill 2 was piss pants scary because it look awful.

Good point.
They should remake Chiller then...
and have the protagonist in a wheelchair.

I think is saying "bad graphics" or "ugly games" out of spite, to troll people who would've not agreed with him the in the first place. I agree, though, with Jim. I think horror is all about infusing that feeling of dread, and it's not that pretty graphics are inherently the problem, it's that game designers use graphics to create immensely grotesque characters without the accompanying mood. Without the dark atmosphere or that feeling of helplessness, the monster is not scare, it's just ugly--something I can rectify with my 12 gauge shotgun.

Jim (dunno why I'm addressing you, I doubt you're reading this) let me open up by saying that I have become a big fan of your show, and I do agree with what you've said here. I'll take Army of Darkness horror over modern horror any day.

But I felt like this episode dragged on a bit too long and got sort of repetitive. It was one of your longest episodes to date and half of it was you repeating the emphasis on "ugly is scary, beautiful is not."

His understanding of horror seems quite shallow to me. Horror is not really all about aesthetics. It's about creating an atmosphere by preying on our primal instincts like fear of isolation, fear of the unknown and what we can't understand. This is why in Silent Hill 2 monsters could freeze to blend into scenery, why in System Shock 2 monsters spawned randomly and could be heard from far distances - so that the player would know that they're around and he can't let his guard down at any time so that he doesn't get caught by surprise. This is why ALL true horror games are set up by isolating the player character from civilization and give no hope of outside help coming. His point is further invalidated by games like Silent Hill, System Shock, the first AvP and - hell - even Half-Life, all of which had superb graphics for their time. So what that now they're ugly? Today's games will be ugly in a few years too, does it mean they'll get more scary then? I really don't dig this. For me horror was always about psychology.


I must say, this is becoming my favorite show on the Escapist, by far.

For another example, JENOVA scenes were fucking terrifying in FF7, as was the Shinra Mansion, and things of that ilk. Need I remind you of some of the crap you faced in the submarine!?


There's one thing that needs to be said here.

Yes, I have to agree that with a lower graphical quality you have to focus a lot more on art direction to get the visuals you want, but that doesn't mean that you can't put the same amount of effort in the art direction of games that use cutting-edge graphical technology. The fact that a game developer has yet to do that (although I think that the guys who made Dead Space really tried in some areas, at least in the first game) doesn't mean it can't be done.

Or to put it more simply; don't blame the tools, blame the users of those tools.

Ika Mudlaff:
Horror is not really all about aesthetics. It's about creating an atmosphere by preying on our primal instincts like fear of isolation, fear of the unknown and what we can't understand.

Those things you describe are made (partially, together with other tools) with visual aesthetics. Aesthetics is more than just graphical quality as Jim points out, it's also about art direction.

Sure graphics and aesthetics have some part in it, quite major I suppose (it's be hard to make a horror game with Mario characters without fiddling with aesthetics), but it's not all. Feeling of isolation is best achieved with plot devices. For example, System Shock 2 is set on a ship 63 trillion light years from Earth (if I remember the numbers right) so even outside communication is out of question. You instantly get the feeling that no one can help you because no one even knows that the ship's crew is in peril. In Silent Hill 2 this was achieved by making the player go on foot for roughly first 30 minutes of the game (which proves my point) and by making monsters look and sound like they're not even living beings (which proves your point). Still the message I got from Jim's video is that aesthetics are everything or at least the most important thing in horror and I still tend to disagree with that.

The issue I have with the idea of ugly games = scary, the graphics of their time, in this case Resident Evil 1 & 2, were the best of that time.

So basically if you go by this concept, in 10 or 15 years when our graphics look like crap compared to the future, then will our games now days become ugly enough to scare you?

That is the major flaw in this episode. I feel this is just another cry out for fanboyism that older games = better than now games, which I have to say is a horrible lie.

Yes indie games are great and I love them, but lets face it, the music and lighting and graphics, and story (in general) are far better for the Horror genre than going back to the past.

This reminds me of the episode of Extra Credits when they discussed the music of games and the claim that older games have better music, which was a flat out lie. Back then, the amount of data which could be put on a game, also the type of recording was far below what we have today. If I remember correctly, the past had some 8-10 type of noise/tone and was used over and over. Now days we have entire orchestras to play for us. This is why I disagree with this episode, to claim that the past or lower budget games have a higher possibility to produce the real fear or horror isn't correct.

Back before the days of CGI, filmakers had two ways to create things that didn't exist outside putting in a 2D animated thing in there: 1) Stop motion, and 2) Practical Effects. The latter is very important to horror films. When you must fool the audience into thinking what's on screen is really real, and be able move it around and stuff, the director has to get creative. He has to be very good at staging and framing shots so the effects and do their job without exposing the fact that they're fake. Before the days of CGI, a director had to be good at cinematography.

Nowadays, CGI makes it so they can just slap something onto the screen anywhere. That means the directors can get away with not working on creative use of lighting or frames. CGI, in short, breeds cinematic laziness.

Hey, you should do a Final Fantasy IX video. You seem to be well versed in its OST.

But yeah, I'm very weak in the horror realm; anything that was and wasn't meant to be horrifying in any game that even dips it's fingernail into the genre will easily scare me. So I'd never check out Amnesia. I'll take everyone else's word for it. :P

I'd say I mostly agree. I think lower budget/indie horror is generally where you'll find the true gems.... because the lower budget require people to be more creative with their scares.

BUT... I'd say the great John Carpenter proves that Jim's theory is not always right:

Halloween - Indie film with a low budget of ~$300,000
The Thing - Carpenter's first big Hollywood movie with a whopping $15 million budget... and I believe he had about a year's worth of production time.

Both films are often considered his best and scariest. But I do believe the practical effects of The Thing weigh heavily on the scare factor rather than if they were able to use CGI. My point is... big production isn't always bad... it also depends on the people making it.

Also... the American version of The Ring scared the shit out of me when it came out, Jim.

I agree.

However when it came out, Silent Hill 2 had some of the best graphics around especially the cgi. Silent Hill 1 just had the cgi, the in game graphics were quite bad. Which again ratifies the Jimquisition theory.

Heck, Diablo one, with it's dark, pitch black dungeons scared the crap out of me the first time I played it. Granted I was kid then but still.
When I entered Leoric's Tomb the first time, this big red skeleton coming at me "The warmth of life has entered my tomb" I freaked out so bad I reflexively shut off the computer.

Jim makes a very good point but in my opinion another key aspect to horror is is it believable? The more I believe a certain "horror scenario" is actually possible or even plausible, the more effective and ultimately the more scary it is.

the problem with a lot of games have is that its a lot easier to go for fright and shocks. yes its got its place, but having the game based on that techqiue means the player gets used to them. on the other hand you have fear.. thats far more difficult to build up. its the true basis of horror. its why the thing is such a great movie as the atmosphere is so oppressive thanks in large part by the isolation of the characters and especially the music.

That we always be truth, games with bad graphics are scary as hell, but not necessarily, especially these days where is a lot of games trying to scary gamers to the point of dead... i believe that someday will be some game that will tear me apart! o.O :DDD

i agree with you in general, but Friday the 13th? that has gameplay so bad it is used to teach people how NOT to make games. you could have easily picked a better example.

also, "these days they cant get away with [shitty controls]"
yes they can. silent hill 5 proved that they can make profit by making game hard just because it dont do what you tell it to.

P.S. am i the only one who can load only every second video? every other seems to be bugged soemehow, maybe it will get fixed.

I think horror in games is about 2 things:
1. How freaky something looks. This is why bad graphics help horror, they make things look more inhuman and unfamiliar which makes things more scary. However, this doesn't mean you can't make a horror game with excellent graphics, you just need to make the features of the game freaky at the same time, which leads me to...
2. Atmosphere. There are a lot of parts to this, every part of the game should scare you in some way regardless of what's happening. The best horror games have always been the ones that keep you in suspense the entire game, if you think that something bad is going to happen at any second constantly thoughout the game yet are completely unprepared when that bad thing does happen you are all the more frightened than you would be if something just jumped out at you while you're lesiurely walking around. Music or the lack thereof is a big part of suspense, if the music scares you everything else is just icing on the cake. Both the monsters and the world around you should be familiar enough that you have a frame of reference for them yet are different enough from that to seem alien. Flesh on the walls, rivers of blood, humanoid creatures that move erratically in ways that would hurt or even kill a normal person are old standbys, but they work. Darkness above all is the thing that even people that never were scared of always helps build the suspense.

Horror is changing, becoming more and more realistic, but this is not a bad thing. What is bad is horror game developers are relying on boo scares far too much these days, the far more effective use of suspense is quickly becoming a lost art.

I know I'm very late to the party but I just had to post this:

All these games Jim points out as being scary because they're ugly (except for Friday the 13th, obviously that was a joke... or at least I hope it was) are not scary because they're ugly, but because they leave a lot to the imagination.

This is proven when he pulls out Amnesia: That game looks gorgeous... I don't really get how you can say it looks ugly while showing gameplay footage... anyhow: Amnesia leaves most things to the imagination. You don't get to see the monsters for quite a while and if you see them, you're pretty screwed. After a while, when you get the hang of things and get the rules of how the monsters work etc, the game loses its scariness. Oh, and on top of not knowing a thing, you're completely defenseless.
Same things can be said about Penumbra, the game Amnesia's devs did before that: It's scariest at the beginning, when you know very little and the shadows are most foreboding.

Resident Evil 1 was scarier because it was actual survival horror and it got the genre's main ingredient: Lack of resources. That's also why Dead Space isn't really scary or horror IMO: It shoves the threat in your face a few minutes after the game starts and you get plenty of resources to fight back.

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