The purpose of horror is to unsettle people, to make them feel afraid, disgusted or dirty, to make them stare in the face of the very worst aspects of the human psyche, all within an ultimately safe and controllable environment. The screen, or the page, is the barrier between unspeakable terror and relative safety. It is a barrier, through which we should be able to experience things that we would be unable to face in the real world for any number of reasons.
However, even within the realms of darkness that is the horror genre of games (and to some extent also, of films and literature) there remain certain subjects, certain taboo content that is forced to remain under the surface, slowly circling in the depths. Everybody knows that they’re down there, but very, very few choose to acknowledge them. As the title suggests, two candidates for these lurking topics are child killing, or infanticide, and bestiality, but there are many others. Just about any perverse or depraved sexual or necrotic act one could imagine is likely to be on the very list that horror is almost too scared to show you.
But you can imagine it. We all know that these awful things happen in the real world - in that regard, what we hear on the evening news is infinitely more horrific than any horror game, film or book. Murder, rape, imprisonment and torture are all frequently discussed on prime time evening broadcasting, yet are shunned by the very media that is supposed to portray that content in a way that is safe and more readily approachable.
In games, we all know that many of the well known horror franchises are betraying their roots, moving further and further into action and shooter territory than traditional slower-paced horror. However, even those games that have resisted the urge to follow this path rely on very much a core set of subjects from which they derive their horror. Moreover, even of those titles, there is still a fundamental misunderstanding of how horror is actually portrayed. True horror, real fear of something, does not come from enemies jumping out of dark corners, nor does it come from exaggerated violence or from excessive amounts of blood and gore cascading over the screen. The most effective horror is that which co-opts some of the most base of human fears, and some of the most base of human psychological processes. The Freudian approach to psychosexual emotions and associated neuroses may well seem outdated, even comical to some, but fears that revolve around sex, relationships and parental responsibility are common to just about all.
So, why then does horror, and specifically game horror, seem so reluctant to broach any topic considered even mildly taboo? Is it because of the way, perhaps, that games are created by large development teams and overseen by an often primarily financially driven publisher? Or maybe it is because of the current position of games and the industry as a convenient scapegoat when it comes to matters of violence or depravity amongst the younger generations? Maybe it is simply the case that games serve a different purpose to film or literature - they are active, rather than passive. Does the passivity of other media allow more time to dwell on the disturbing images conjured up than games do? Is it perhaps impossible in the current climate and current market, to produce horror within the medium of games that is able to tackle some of the more delicate subjects that literature and film is more able to? Are players unwilling to accept a certain level of passivity in their games in order to heighten the horror factor?
I don’t think that is true.
Certainly, there are those that will argue a case that games cannot possibly offer enough narrative depth to convey the subtlety and detail required for good horror. There are those that may approach such topics with all the sensitivity of a ravenous Necromorph, which of course, do not help the case for the deeper horror game. However, given the correct framing and context, and given a high quality of engaging, approachable and understanding writing, games are every bit as capable of addressing such taboo subjects as mentioned at the start of this article. As was the case however with slasher horror or exploitation cinema, it is the smaller, independent side of the games industry that is making the biggest strides.
The Binding of Isaac is an excellent example, focused entirely around the torture and killing of a child, and including imagery that, if dwelled upon, is actually very disturbing despite the game’s 16-bit graphical style. Limbo once again portrays a child as the main character, lost in a horrific, dark and lonely world with traps that can kill and dismember him in a variety of gruesome ways.
This is very different in its portrayal of children suffering than one may find in larger triple-A releases, such as Dead Space 2. Yes, this game also features child enemies, but they have been mutated so much by the Necromorph infection that they are, essentially, just slightly smaller and significantly more explosive zombies. This is something we see even when children are portrayed in horror films, which is far more common. They are almost always stripped of the innocent image that would otherwise make their demise much more uncomfortable. In films such as The Exorcist, or The Grudge, or The Ring, the children in question have all been wronged or subjected to evil forces, making them far enough removed from the ‘innocent child’ image that they become comfortable, or at least, comfortable enough viewing.
What the independent games succeed in doing is portraying children as just that. Children. That is why, even though you may first and foremost see a game to be played, there is significantly more underlying discomfort coming from the likes of Limbo or Isaac. If games that approach taboo subjects such as this can exist and succeed, is this not reason enough for larger budget titles to make some progress towards also tackling them? Perhaps as a medium, games remains still that little bit too young and not widely enough accepted to be able to get away with it on as wide a scale?
But then, horror is not for everyone. It takes a particularly broken mind to imagine some of the more disgusting concepts and an equally broken one to consume them. I for example, physically couldn’t watch The Human Centipede all the way through, but as a piece of horror, I appreciated just how incredibly effective it was - I can still see certain scenes of that film in my head, they’ve been burned into my brain forever because they were just that utterly disturbing. That is a sign of a truly effective piece of horror, and I don’t think any game has ever been able to replicate that for me.
Perhaps it is because a game, even a small independent title, is often being developed by a reasonably sized team, often with more than one person having some sort of design influence. Now, it is unlikely that, for example, you will find a situation where two individuals as fundamentally twisted as each other are working together, so more often than not, the original horrific vision of the Lead Designer may have to be distilled, or balanced out by some other parts of the development team. In literature, of course, the work is that of one lone individual. In film, whilst not a steadfast rule, it is far far more likely to find an auteur-like director who takes full responsibility for the film, even though the production of it may include a large team. There are a very small handful of games that perhaps have some of the trappings of 'Auteurship’, such as those coming from developer Grasshopper Manufacture. In development currently, Among the Sleep from Krillbite Studios is looking particularly interesting, and has the potential to do some of the very things this article discusses, by placing the player in the role of a baby in a fully 3D environment, surrounded by monsters, shadows and otherworldly happenings. How this very different type of protagonist is portrayed will be vital in determining whether this game is an intriguing curio, or whether it can stand tall as something truly terrifyingly rule-breaking and taboo quashing.
Whatever the reason may be for the lack of advancement in games in terms of tackling these types of subject matter, I hope that independent games are able to change the trend for what passes as 'horror’ within the genre at the moment, as there is so much more room, so much more scope and so much more potential in taking some more risks and tackling some more taboos. With this, perhaps those with the bigger budgets will sit up and take a little bit more notice. Perhaps we will eventually reach a turning point where the horror and revulsion of the likes of The Human Centipede, or the depravity of DeadGirl, can combine with the gameplay of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the subtle beauty of The Path, and the budgets of Dead Space or Resident Evil.
A man can dream, no?
Well actually, they’re usually more nightmares than dreams.
About the Author
I am a Senior Lecturer in Games Design at the University of Portsmouth, where I also lead the Advanced Games Research Group. I also design, develop, and write about games, some of which finds its way onto this blog!
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