The difference between games that are ‘fun’ and games that are ‘engaging, but definitely not fun’ is a fairly big one, but people don’t tend to really think about it. The quick and dirty explanation is that games can be engaging, without being fun, when they take us on an emotional thrill ride. In this instance, we’re talking about horror.
So why don’t we see more engaging-but-not-fun games in the market as it stands? Horror, as a genre, has been dying for a quite a long time. Not quite dead in the water, but certainly drowning. But why?
The Problem With Horror
Thanks to Triple A developers and the homogenization of games into an all-encompassing ‘action/adventure’ genre, horror has been left by the wayside. Simply put, action/adventure sells. It sells well. Horror games sell only to niche markets, and when games can cost nearly billions of dollars to develop (read that again, billions of dollars), so Triple A devs have absolutely no chance of recovering their costs.
Asides from this problem of uniformity, we’re faced with the fact that many Triple A titles which bill themselves as horror (Dead Space, I’m looking at you) are nothing more than action/adventure with dimly-lit environments and added jump-scares.
A lot of other factors contribute to games not being scary, though. Did you know graphical improvements have made games less scary? It’s true! Remember in the early Silent Hill games, you couldn’t see the monsters for all that fog and you were left in a world of blind terror? Well, that fog actually served a purpose (other than for making you poo your pants) – it was hiding the fact the Playstation couldn’t render more than a few feet in front of the character. Now we’ve advanced, we don’t need all that fog – so developers simply don’t put it in. You can see everything from a mile away, and suddenly those surprise monsters are less of a threat.
However, that horror niche is still there.
Enter: The Indie Market
You know those limitations I was just talking about? Well, now we have them again! Indie devs, whilst packed full of enthusiasm, tend to have very little cash. Unable to afford all the pixels that bigger studios can, we’re back to dimly-lit rooms to avoid the rendering costs and hideous looking monsters simply because we can’t do much better (and I say that with all the love in the world; these limitations are a good thing for the horror market!).
The joy of the indie market is also that we can now, once again, afford to cater for niche tastes – such as horror. Indie devs frequently base their products around small niches they know will pay up, and horror fans will buy buy buy in order to get their thrills, as well as the fact that focusing on a smaller product, catering to a small audience (a small audience with cash), allows indie devs to deliver great products because their scope is not as wide – unlike Triple A titles, who have to cater to everyone in order to even stand a chance of making their money back.
A Bubble to Burst?
Everyone with a PC has probably heard of Steam, and the notorious Steam Greenlight service – a project which allows indie devs to pitch their game ideas to voters, who then vote on which products they would like to see on Steam. Fine in theory, but Greenlight has a lot of problems in practice. With the advent of pre-built engines such as Unity, games are suddenly a lot easier for your Average Joe to make; and unfortunately, Average Joe generally doesn’t have any idea what a good game is. The expectation of Greenlight is, now, that the games that get ‘greenlit’ won’t be very good.
Genuinely good indie horror titles, then, have to fight past the waves of crap that clutter up their market sector in order to get recognised. This is an added cost for devs, since they often have to pay for better marketing and send out free copies of their games to reviewers in order to get the favourable press they need and deserve, and it’s an added cost most devs can’t afford. So good games get swallowed up. This, coupled with the fact that people will assume that anything on Greenlight is probably a cheap, asset-recycling knock-off, will mean that people eventually stop buying greenlit games. And thus, the horror genre suffers again.
But what about breakthrough horror hits, such as Five Nights at Freddy’s? Surely they’re the perfect of example of the indie market working for the horror genre? Well, yes, but FNAF has done some things pretty wrong in its quest for greatness – namely, sequels. I can’t really blame them for creating innovation-free sequels that recycle the same work done previously, since it’s the quickest way to make money in this industry (hey, even Big Devs do it, and pretty shamelessly at that), but it does mean that people will associate indie sequels with this kind of behaviour.
To bring us back around to the title, you might assume from this article that the horror genre is dead no matter which way you look at it. Unfortunately that might be true. But, if we – as horror fans – take the time to sift through the indie market for the true horror gems that exist there, then perhaps we just might save this genre before it’s too late.