The immensely successful PlayStation 2 was coming into the Autumn of its glory days, and the flagging horror genre was given a major kick up the jacksy when Capcom moved the gory goalposts once again with the release of Resident Evil 4. Yet it would mark the biggest decline in the series to date as overblown action nonsense stripped away the horror roots with each new iteration. Elsewhere, video game horror was in a mess as big names continued to either fail at reinvention or get it completely wrong. There was hope though, as a new generation of PlayStation brought with it a new generation of horror.
Resident Evil 4 is a landmark title. It’s easily one of the best games of its generation,there is no doubting that. It gave the flagging Resi series a big shot in the arm and popularised the over-the-shoulder third-person camera for boatloads of games to come. There are plenty of memorable moments too, from the sights (and sounds) of your first encounter with the chainsaw-wielding Ganado, to the heart-stopping meeting with the Regenerators, it remains a tour-de-force of tense action. As a horror though? Well, it had its moments as I’ve mentioned, but the tone changed dramatically enough that it was now as much an action title as a horror one. This really wouldn’t have been a problem if Capcom had taken the right message from it going forward. Instead, it would fall into the same trap as other horror franchises, missing the core point of what made it so popular to begin with, and it wasn’t because Leon could do a spin kick. Before we get there though, we’ll look at where other horror games were getting it wrong, while other games were embracing it into their design.
In the last part of this feature, I touched upon the controversy surrounding the sequel to Rockstar Games’ Manhunt, also reflecting briefly on how it strayed too far from the original’s theme. You see, in the original Manhunt there was graphic violence, sure, but Rockstar built a situation around the murdering that at least gave protagonist James Earl Cash a reason for participating in it. Manhunt 2 did not. The new protagonist was Danny Lamb, and he begins the game escaping from a psychiatric facility and goes on a killing spree due to voices in his head. Done right it could have been an interesting, if controversial take on mental health. What we got however, was a shallow, uninspired procession of needless, meaningless violence. The wonderfully dark and ominous mood of the original was missing too, and the game’s troubled development cycle undeniably couldn’t have helped matters. Rather than feeling like a Rockstar game, it felt more like one of the cheap knock-offs that follow a successful game’s release. A rare misstep, but one that seems to happen whenever Rockstar has publicised development issues.
The generation’s horror scene had ended on a sour note. Silent Hill was also struggling to remember what once made it great. Silent Hill’s fourth installment; The Room, changed up the concept and moved the action to a new setting. Not exactly crimes, but the gameplay wasn’t updated to match, with some critics noting the game design felt backwards compared to the concept. PlayStation Portable got the fifth installment first with the traditional but aimless Origins (a prequel to the original game) before it released on PlayStation 2 well into the PS3’s cycle. The first PS3 installment (Homecoming) wouldn’t do the series any favours either, as the Silent Hill brand sank into mediocrity as the generation went on. In the meantime, the lack of decent all out horror stuck out in the early days of the PS3.
The closest thing to it was a selection of first person titles that may not have been full on horror, but contained enough of it to be of note. Take the setting of BioShock. The underwater city of Rapture held the same air of menace as the Spencer Mansion once did, telling its own story through the way it had been left. Being full of insane folk hopped up on drugs helped capture the gloomy oppression surrounding the place too. Similarly SEGA’s Condemned 2: Bloodshot presented horror elements from a first-person view, with its protagonist suffering hallucinations. It was almost like the spiritual successor to Manhunt, with the same use of contextual kills, brutal violence and in its grimy, dark visual style. Then there were two PC ports that arrived late in the day on PS3, both using creeping dread to great effect.
One was F.E.A.R; a traditional shooter in many ways, but your squadron of military special ops men had the job of containing a supernatural phenomena. What followed was a brave, if haphazard, blend of intense shooting, ghost story and gory violence. The series became something of a cult hit over the years, and the Big Bad of the game, a little girl called Alma, entered the lexicon of terrifying video game characters. The other PC port was contained in Valve’s compilation pack The Orange Box. A little game called Half-Life 2 had one of gaming’s most memorable horror sections when mute hero Gordon Freeman enters Ravenholm, a dark, creepy town that features an unsettling amount of headcrab zombies and a handy collection of saw blades. These first-person titles likely served as the basis for the new influx of indie horror titles many years later. Even as early as Doom there was mileage in first-person viewing making for a more personal brand of scares.
Through all this chaos in the horror game realm, Alone in the Dark was making a comeback. Sadly, like the other elder statesmen of terror, it did so while forgetting its origins completely. That the most memorable parts of the game years later are its fire physics and novel inventory system (you looked down at your body to open it). The clunky episodic-style mess peaked early on and faded in banality swiftly. The next time the franchise would resurface, it would be seven years later and receive an absolute critical kicking for being a rather rubbish game. A once respected series that has now likely fallen too far into the abyss to be saved.
Out and out horror games started to creep back into the public eye as 2008 went on. Forbidden Siren had been a fairly routine Japanese horror game series the previous generation, but during the summer of 2008, Sony and developer Project Siren released an interesting horror experiment. Siren: Blood Curse was split into episodic form and basically rejigged the original game to suit the new format. Each episode saw you dealing with the perils of the chosen character as they evaded strange, brutal zombies brought about by an ancient curse. The unique selling point was each character’s ability to jack into the sight of the zombies. This made for some terrifying moments as you watched through your enemy’s eyes as they zeroed in on your hiding spot. It was a brave attempt at something different in the genre, and the episodic legacy of Siren would end up being the basic formula for the current crop of episodic games.
The standout moment for horror that year. The moment where video game horror was truly revitalized once again, came from an internal studio at EA. Visceral Games married filmic influences such as Alien and Even Horizon to the core survival horror experience of Resident Evil to create something of a sleeper hit with Dead Space, a gory sci-fi horror. Following the story of Engineer Isaac Clarke as he becomes trapped in a nightmarish situation aboard the spaceship Ishimura thanks to a strange beacon that is bringing the dead back to life as grotesque abominations known as necromorphs; creatures that are all spindly limbs and razor sharp blades. Luckily for Isaac, he has his trusty Plasma Cutter handy. With it, he is able to take out individual limbs in order to slow down the scarily quick necromorphs before finishing them off with the sole of his very heavy space boots. Visceral’s use of sound made for some effective tension-building and jump scares as well.
That sound design would be Dead Space’s largest and most influential contribution to video game horror’s legacy. A natural evolution of the “what you can’t see is scarier” tactic employed from the earliest days of all forms of horror. A sequel would just over two years later, and while it began to lean more towards action, it kept up the creepy, oppressive dread vibe of the first game. If the original was the film Alien; a haunted house in space, then Dead Space 2 was clearly James Cameron’s gung ho Aliens, a sequel that moves at a quicker pace and throws more unpleasant creatures at you when you least expect it. Dead Space 2 remained in touch with its scary side while escalating the action ( the game’s finale was a massive misstep though). It certainly showed up Resident Evil 5.
Arriving the year after the original Dead Space showed us you could do action horror and still retain the scares, Resident Evil 5 was almost devoid of any real terror, favoring intense gunplay against revamped versions of Resi 4’s Las Plagas victims. Resident Evil 5 was a competent third-person shooter with a fantastic co-op that shared traces of the Outbreak series’ ethos, but didn’t include its paranoia-inducing moments. Unlike its predecessor—and many of the genre-mashing games of the time—Resi 5 further tipped the balance towards the shooter genre that had gained such popularity thanks to the boon created by Modern Warfare. It wouldn’t be the first game to awkwardly embrace the evolving shooter market in such a desperate and hamfisted manner, nor would it be the only horror series to fall into this trap and damage its reputation for the sake of a wider audience. Big companies would continue to struggle with the idea of producing a straight horror game as PS3’s time came to a close. Yet the end of that generation and the beginning of the next would see a fresh influx of horror, not just from big name companies either. The indie scene would begin to set the new standard, influenced by the very games that kickstarted the genre and adding new ways to terrify gamers.