Horror games: Taking out the gore in horror.
Once in a while, we all want a good scare. Sometimes the size of the scare depends on our personal tastes, while others will become horror experts. We have an equally big selection in horror video games as we do in horror movies. However, when I gaze at today’s video game market I feel as if we cannot be in some remote way terrified, if there is a lack of gore. In games like F.E.A.R., Resident Evil or Doom 3 gore became an essential element of keeping our nerve high. Is it really necessary?
A trip to the Movies
I am no Horror Movie expert, but having watched numerous different titles I can honestly say what does and does not “move me”. When I watched the recent Woman in Black during certain scenes I had to go as far as to covering my eyes, waiting for something horrid to happen. The movie touched on death heavily, but it was not blood soaked. The psychological effect was powerful, making the spectator piece the puzzle together as the movie progressed, toward what some consider an unsatisfactory ending. By contrast, I could take the Hills have Eyes, and say without doubt that in the second installment I laughed harder than I cried.
Zombie movies have also been numerous, with different types of undead chasing the survivors. The problem was always to present the undead as a dangerous force, or create a parody out of them. The different Romero movies (remakes and originals) blend a lot of ideas together (politics, humanity, etc.), and rather than focusing just on one thing you receive a three course dinner, rather than a hamburger alone. In most Video Games, zombies are zombies. This has slightly changed in some titles, such as Left4Dead or Project Zomboid, where you find something else than a mindless slaughter.
It is tempting to look at Sci-Fi Horror, but in today’s cinema Sci-Fi Horror is more Action based than Horror based. The Dead Space Series and Doom 3 did manage to bring out an adequate amount of horror, while keeping it fast-paced. I was tempted to say that Video Games have outmatched the Movie industry when it comes to Sci-Fi Horror, but The Thing and some of the Alien movies keep the balance equal.
The guts of the Horror genre
What is “Horror“? Let’s take the simple route and say, that something that is considered “Horror” must strike horror in its audience. Realistically speaking, if every single movie did that a lot of people would become nervous wrecks, but we still aim at surprising the audience. There are numerous sub-genres in Horror which perform this task in specific ways. What of Video Games? Just like in the case of movies, video games have a mix of different horror genres. However, the emphasis is usually much more heavily pressed on action, rather than horror.
What of Gore?
The use of gore in video games and movies has sometimes sparked criticism. In some cases, the use of gore is unavoidable, since you might be using a psychopathic butcher or zombies. On the other hand, we enjoy overdoing it. Walking knees high in pools of blood, listening to over-emphasized screams of agony and pain, or presenting an overly zoomed-in “draw and quarter” scene. I was never easily scared of gore scenes, more often than not I was simply disgusted. “Silly gore” is what I consider the F.E.A.R. series to have done. Although the scenes with blood offer a bit of a scare, it is mostly how they appear, rather than the blood alone, that causes the effect.
Putting in too much gore into a scene or a game does not scare me off, but brings about the assumption that the director had no idea how to approach the subject of horror differently. There have been both games and movies which used a subtle amount of blood and suggestion, playing with our minds, rather than giving everything straight to us.
Imagine the following: you are a survivor of a zombie apocalypse, hiding in the attic of some house. You recall how you at first met with the zombies and how you could hear the calls for help of your wife, while you were forced to abandon her to save yourself. You never saw her die, but the thought would keep returning to you. Focusing on anything else is impossible, because the branches of the tree outside keep scratching on the attic’s window, reminding you of the undead outside. The character might had seen others being killed by the zombies, but since he does not know whether his wife died, and the constant scratching does not allow him to forget, his imagination can reach different terrifying conclusions.
Target the mind, don’t ruin my taste
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is an excellent example of how everything works against you. You cannot fight the monsters, and any noise in your surroundings makes you wait in the corner. The nervous music starts playing on your nerves and as you try to turn away, you cannot help yourself, you look. When you eventually find the different torture devices used by [Spoiler] the crude medieval drawings associated with each device do not show the entire procedure, but your imagination fills in the blanks.
Of course, in more action oriented horror we could say that gore is in part necessary. How could you play Aliens if you could not decapitate your opponents? Would Dead Space be as much fun if you did not have to disembowel every single opponent? The fact is, the moment the enemy is revealed any surprise is gone. You immediately know how to fight them, and how to defeat them. This I find to be a design flaw, because you still have the option of terrifying the player.
Let us take The Hidden HL2 Mod as an example. On one side you have a squad of fully equipped players, with shotguns, assault rifles, detectors, and other useful equipment. One the other side you have a lone “Hidden”, a naked human-experiment, with a knife and some home-made grenades. The thing about the “Hidden” is that he is invisible, can cling to walls and feed on his opponents. As such, while the squad is setting up a trap, the “Hidden” could be already above them, waiting patiently to strike. The paranoia strikes when you see the bodies of your mates being dragged away, stabbed firmly into walls and ceilings, and the “Hidden” teasing you from somewhere above… or is he behind you right now? Noise in the “Hidden” plays a big role. Every clutter, step or opening door could be a tip, and a trap. You are well aware of the “Hidden’s” abilities, but each time you feel creeped out.
What to do in Horror Games?
Horror games always fascinated me, yet often turned out to be a disappointment, save for a few exceptions. When adding scary or unnatural opponents you cannot simply rely on their brutality or the gore they “produce”. Horror elements have often appeared more clearly in games which do not associate themselves purely with horror. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. the first bloodsucker you meet is hidden underground, with plenty of squeaking and hissing coming from the nearby pipes. When it does finally come your way after a loud roar and you prepare your weapon, at first you dismiss its silhouette in the dense smoke, thinking it’s just a distortion. Much later on, when you find their lairs in the ruins you sit tightly in a corner, because even with all your armor and firepower you would not dare face a group of them in the open. Their every step, heavy breathing and the sad remains of people around you make you realise just how messed up things are.
In Metro 2033 you find plenty of proof of the brutality of the “mutants” that live underground, listen to the stories, and together with other panic-stricken survivors try to fight for your life. As hardy or disciplined that you may be, whenever your gun goes *click* that short moment of panic might grip you. You never have to see the brutality of your foes. The spoken word or after-math speaks volumes to you.
You do not have to follow the theory of Shock Sites to deliver an effect. The more you trick the person, play with his mind, and force him into very dubious situations (going into a dark room without a flashlight, for example) the better. I might not sleep that night, but at least I will get to eat a half decent meal.
Alex “WriterX” Bielski