A conversation with a couple of friends recently brought up the topic of the horror genre in the video games industry, a genre that's become a bit of a personal joke, to say the least. We discussed how it feels like nothing new has been done in the last few years, and even the most visceral of experiences can easily be boiled down to a carnival ride: a few turns, some semi-predictable 'boo!' moments, and a lot of things jumping out at you. At the very worst, we have a series like Resident Evil, which has become an absolute far cry from what it used to be - even then, that wasn't very scary - and at best, we have the remnants of the Silent Hill series that is desperately attempting to relive its psychological glory days. Somewhere in between lay titles like Dead Space. It does a good job in promoting a few scares while at the same time staying close to the 'action shooter' genre that has taken an iron grip over the industry in the past few years. So where do fans of the horror genre have to go to get a decent scare? Apparently, like most things these days, the answer is the online Indie scene.
It doesn't really take a whole lot of searching either, just a little bit of understanding. The biggest hurdle that horror games have always needed to overcome is the entry into mainstream gaming and getting players to really appreciate the deeper themes to the game. Titles like Siren or Fatal Frame are met with mild success because they manage to have a few tense moments, but fall short for some fans due to weak storytelling elements or perhaps even just poor, gimmicky gameplay mechanics. What defines a horror game for many critics isn't simply a matter of how often it can scare a player, but how successfully the game manages to reflect upon the darker recesses of the human condition. It's the same sort of standard that most horror films are subject to, although games may naturally have a harder time meeting this expectation.
Regardless, a genre such as this can still thrive without being a mainstream hit. One pretty well known example would be Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a game that combines some very impressive pacing and puzzle solving, alongside incredibly tense action moments. It had absolutely everything that a horror game needed to be interesting and, despite the repetitive puzzles, the title itself could be deemed a pretty wild success. It's hard to say whether this success is due to the fact that there are fewer hoops to jump through, or if the creative process isn't stinted as much. After all, a digitally distributed only title doesn't have to worry so much about marketing. If the entire series is being developed under the radar, that would surely leave more time to focus on making a complete experience and less time spent being concerned about drawing in a bigger crowd.
Another lesser known example would be a title called Which, a completely independent title available for free and a game that is extremely simple. The player is given an objective that they must reach, a few short puzzles to solve, and two various endings depending on choices made. Although the entire experience can take up to half an hour at the most, it was still one of the most refreshing games I have had a chance to play to date. My only regret is that I failed to find such a game sooner. Most titles struggle to have gamers form a connection with a cast of characters, but in just a few moments, I was more interested in the very small, but moving, world of Which than I had been in any other game previously.
Word of mouth is a pretty powerful thing itself as well and, most of the time, yields greater results than a full-on marketing campaign. After all, most horror games find wild success based upon community reviews more than anything else, again, very much reflecting the same sort of support kept alive in the horror film market. It's not like the gaming industry doesn't have quite a few examples of successful independent games either, many of the past years' most popular titles have been Indy gems that have taken the world by storm.
Keeping all this in mind, and knowing what I know now, I would like to take back what I said before in regards to the Horror genre. It's far from a dead genre, only remembered in memorandum via games like Silent Hill 2. In fact as a whole it's very much alive, just as compelling as gamers feel it 'used to be'. Harder to keep in contact with perhaps, and most definitely more difficult to find information on in comparison to mainstream big budget titles, but they're most definitely there. It just takes a little bit of time and effort to maintain a view on these absolutely stellar titles in a genre many write off as forgotten, even though it's definitely time well spent.