There is a genre of game that I have a certain fondness for, and given that this is the Halloween issue I bet you can guess what genre that is. Indeed, horror games hold a spot close to my heart. The truly classic entries meld video, audio, interactivity, and the immersion that only video games can provide to give experiences that can imprint on you for life. Horror games have been around since the early days of video games in the 80s and those humble pixels evolved into the experiences we fondly remember in games like Alone in the Dark, Silent Hill, and Eternal Darkness.
The sub genre that most think of when it comes to these games are those labeled survival horror. As described in the title of the genre, the central focus of these games tends to be the survival of your character, and typically their psyche, as they face whatever monsters (physical or metaphorical as they may be) or situations put upon them.
I think I love these types of games so much because they are the reversal of “standard” game design. Instead of an outward facing power fantasy where you unload on whatever stands in your way, survival horror games tend to be inward facing introspections in which you merely hope to live — with a shred of sanity intact still hopefully. Entire design concepts for these games actively work to take power away from the player in their pursuit of urgency, instead of delivering more power as you advance.
This is all to say that most of the best of horror games tend to be these lovingly crafted menageries of grotesque body horror, explorations of emotion and psychosis, and/or mirrors held up to what can be the worst inside us — all while standing on the shoulders of authorial giants. Their creators tend to put a lot of thought and effort into these works, and even the ones that do not execute that well as a game tend to get a nod from me for the work involved at least.
That’s why it pains me to see so many lazy and uninspired “ZOMG SO SPOOPY” games littering the landscape of late.
Let me describe about a dozen games I’ve seen the past couple years:
You are behind a camera (sometimes a digital camera with VHS tape effect going on because of ignorant nostalgia pinging) as you explore a forest, then an insane asylum, and then an old church (or was it asylum, forest, then a factory?). You search for notes or trinkets that put together a stock story made up of mundane woe. Something is chasing you, and your UI freaks out when it’s close. If it gets too close then you die.
These games are like Asylum Productions made Enderman knock-offs, but without the charm. Their only claim to anything close to being a scary game is their penchant for lazy jump scares, and their choice of the appropriate Unity store assets.
That is the difference between a “scary” game and a “horror” game to me. These excessively shat out clones of Enderman encompass what I term “scary” games. No heart, no hope, no horror. They try to capture what makes games like Amnesia and Soma so engaging by putting together what feels like a tech demo and placing it on sale hoping some Pewdiepie wannabe will pick it up and scream at it on Youtube, or that people notice it has trading cards to hock.
And if it hasn’t been made clear by now, I do not like “scary” games.
A game like Soma will never leave my psyche. Aspects of my life are still filtered through the lens of experiencing Silent Hill 2. Even some of the earned jump scares in games like Resident Evil still pop in my mind with a smile at random times. Scary games endeavor not to such heights. They want to make a quick buck.
The Digital Homicide saga enriched all of our lives with the knowledge of how lazy but greedy developers pumping out Z‑Tier games grouped in $1 bundles can make residual incomes off items like trading cards bought and sold on Steam’s marketplace. If you don’t know how this works, take the time to check out this enlightening video. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here.
Steam also doesn’t help the situation with their out of control Greenlight program (a grand idea that has run amuck), and their Early Access program. Valve had two interesting ideas there that have evolved into monsters of their own, releasing craptstic games of all genres — not just flooding the “scary” market.
This isn’t to lay blame entirely on Valve and Steam for this glut of crap. There are the developers excreting it out, and the people who are buying these things (at times largely to just get trading cards and other digital junk to sell). It just makes me sad to see these shells of games taking up the same screen space as masterful horror games on Steam’s storefront when searching for horror games, instead of these “scary” games being relegated to places like IndieDB where they belong.
So this is a shout out to all the genuine effort that gets put into horror games big and small out there. To anyone working on them, keep at it knowing there is an adoring audience who appreciates what gets put into a truly unnerving experience. To anyone who loves these games like me, I hope you get prickly at those schlock games too. Always be sharing the best with people, because it’s a real niche at times.
I don’t have much of a solution here this time, sadly. This just isn’t that type of opinion piece. I only wanted to defend the honor of our humble little creepy genre this Halloween season.
Some more quality control on Steam would be great. You can find great curators out there, but I think that is only a band-aid for Steam’s flooded storefront. Some of these first time devs just need to be pushed to up their game, and higher standards on a platform could do just that. Not every first time Unity project needs to be a thing that is sold.