Monday, 20 February 2012

Editorial : A Brief History of Horror Gaming - Part 2



For many, Survival Horror's descent from prominence was the equal of its rise. After the tidal wave of hits that pushed gaming in such exciting new directions, came the inevitable calm. The purity of intent that led developers to embrace the influence of Horror remained, yet like in its cinematic counterparts, Horror gaming was to become a much less cerebral affair and take on a more action oriented guise. RESIDENT EVIL 4 (2005), ditched many of the elements that made its predecessors so powerful. Gone were the pre rendered back grounds and the sparse encounters with lurching zombies and while the game retained plenty of what fans cherished about the originals, (limited inventory, strong gore), its focus was moving more towards action rather than suspense. The game featured more weapons, a far more precise aiming system and, whereas the original saw the player take on one or two enemies at a time, RE4 featured large crowds of death dealing enemies at any given time. The game was praised for its visual design and its massive crossover appeal, yet remained divisive among the core Survival Horror fans. Today, RE4 represents, for many, the point where traditional Survival Horror morphed into some new, and just as SILENT HILL followed suite with the original RE's template, so would SILENT HILL : HOMECOMING follow in this new direction. It’s argued that the more action Horror based games featured, the more compromised the emphasis on terror and dread became. And although this is often a very easily defendable stance, there are games that have challenged this thought line.

FEAR (2005) combined the fast paced shootouts of the first person actioner, with the eerie discordance of J-Horror, to create a product both exciting and unsettling. Its depth of story and keenly felt Horror themes were perfectly balanced with tense gunplay, creating perhaps the first true hybrid of Horror and Action gaming. It was soon followed by Sega's CONDEMNED: CRIMINAL ORIGINS (2006), which launched on the shiny new X-BOX 360, and was an instant hit, worldwide. CONDEMNED followed the,‘FEAR’, template and put its own spin on things. As a homicide detective, the player was required to investigate scenes of murder, and the reliance on gunplay was replaced with melee combat, adding to the sense of threat that its dank, filthy environments elicited. Sure, there were guns, but ammo was extremely sparse, (the guns contents were all the ammo you could hold). The influence of Survival Horror was again very prominent. And very welcome.

 Another game of note that appeared the next year was Capcom's DEAD RISING, a title that raised a lot of eyebrows on release. For many it was a heaven sent work of art, and for many, it was symbolic of the direction Horror gaming was taking, and not in a good way. The game was set in a huge shopping mall during a zombie apocalypse, (sound familiar?) and placed the gamer amidst literally hundreds of our flesh eating pals at any one time. It looked beautiful, and there was never a game that featured more zombie slaughter and carnage. Almost every object in the mall could be used as a weapon to disembowel, behead and even ridicule your undead chums. Weapons ranged from the very effective, (chainsaws, mallets and lawnmowers), to completely useless, (bags of potato chips, magazines and plastic light sabers). It was a helluva lot of fun. Yet the games comic tone and lack of suspense was bemoaned by many. Fears abounded that the Survival Horror was becoming a parody of its once formidable self, but all fears that the genre was in freefall were soon cast aside, as the second golden age was soon to follow.

2008 saw the release of two titles that pushed the element of fear, tension and Survival back into the forefront of gamer’s minds. And while vastly different in content, both games have garnered acclaim for pushing the envelope in bold new directions. DEAD SPACE took RE4's immersive game play to its logical next step. The full 3D world was still there, as was the action, but the reliance on suspense and fear elevated the title far above what had come before. DEAD SPACE blended elements of science fiction with familiar cinematic influences, (including ‘THE THING’ and ’ALIEN’), and used stunning lighting, and innovative sound design to bolster its scares. Once more, weaponry was sparse, fight or flight became a deadly choice, the tone was serious and the sense of danger was ever present. There have been few games before or since that transported a player so vividly into the world of Horror. It became an instant classic and re-affirmed the huge appetite for atmosphere over bombast within the gaming community. In the same year, players were treated to what has become one of the most popular online gaming experiences before or since, LEFT4DEAD.

Online gaming had been around for a long time before L4D sunk its teeth into us. Net based Multiplayer warfare was the new black, and in this fast paced competitive world where a gamer could hook up with others worldwide for short sharp blasts of action, it looked like the Survival genre would be forever relegated to ‘single player campaigns’. Then along came VALVE with their new take on online gaming. L4D put four players together in a world overrun by the mutated undead, and left them simply to get from point A to point B. The genius here was that it was impossible to survive the game without player teamwork. On single player, the game was bland and repetitive, yet online, with three others horror hungry buds, it became a fierce co-operative struggle for survival. Players had to protect each other, heal each other, and act as one, communicating online constantly to get more than a few feet. The antagonists were of the '28 Days Later' variety, charging at the hapless survivors with murder on their minds, allowing for frentic battles without ever losing sight of the fear factor. In another stroke of genius, the game utilised hardware that essentially acted as a 'Director'. The action onscreen was constantly changing, offering huge replay value and a sense of unpredictability that no other game could muster. On one play through, a lonely car park would be just that, and on another play through, the same scene would see you swarmed by the undead. If you were playing too well, and things were looking too easy for you and your chums, the games in-built A.I would soon put you in your place, and throw hell at you. In short, it was, and remains, brilliance. A Horror fans wet dream.

The genre was alive and well, and not even RESIDENT EVIL 5 (2009), could dampen the enthusiasm for fear. It was a critical success, but its action based game play was a huge let down for the fans of its forebears. That same year, we were gifted with two sequels in FEAR 2 and CONDEMNED 2 : BLOODSHOT, both maintaining the high level of tension that were the trademark of their predecessors, while pushing the envelope to include more in depth game play, upgraded graphics and a furthering of their original concepts. LEFT4DEAD 2, while basically the same game as the original, offered more death dealing weaponry and new maps to keep us gore hounds smiling until the next great title came along to blow our minds.

That title was ALAN WAKE (2010). A game which for genre fans was a perfect storm of past, present and future. In ALAN WAKE, story and atmosphere was everything. Set in a world caught somewhere between TWIN PEAKS and Stephen King’s americana, the game was so immersive as to play out like an interactive Horror movie, (or series, as they game was played in the form of episodes of a Horror show, cliffhangers and all),  in which you were the star. The graphics were a huge leap forward, the characters and writing were second to none, and the whole thing felt like the future of Survival Horror, at least on a single player basis. It never sacrificed gameplay or action in its attempts to unsettle, and found a perfect balance between gameplay and cinematic flourish. With these more recent triumphs of the gaming world, the genre, despite its trip ups, continues to grow in popularity, and all is well in the Horror fans world.


And that brings us full circle to where we find ourselves today in 2012. THE DARKNESS 2 stands on the shelf alongside the incredible DEAD SPACE 2, and the John Carpenter directed FEAR 3, and the public are eating them up whole. Technology is advancing fast, and more and more artists from alternative media formats are jumping aboard for the ride. It’s a very exciting time to be a gamer, and an even MORE exciting time to be a Horror fan. The merging of formats to create new experiences in terror is a bold and enticing event. And while Horror has often had its peaks and valleys, both cinematically and in the gaming world, it holds on tight and refuses to go down. Where the next generation of Horror gaming takes us is anyone’s guess, but as long as there are artists and writers who believe in the genre as much as we do, and developers who are willing to bring us their twisted visions in vividly rendered form, the possibilities are truly endless...

For Part 1 Click Here...

Kyle Scott
Hotel Management

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