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On Horror Games: Part the third

We're back for another week of talking about scary games and what makes them great! This is part three of my five-part series aimed at getting more gamers to try horror games by explaining their appeal. If you missed any of the previous articles, you can find part one here, and part two here. Today, we're going to talk about innovation: what drives these games, how they use available technology, and the clever ways in which they surpass norms and standards. We all love technology, sure, but the sheer innovation that gets poured into horror games is just astonishing. Read on for all the nuts and bolts behind these pleasantly unpleasant surprises.

Horror and Innovation

Warning: a spoiler for The Lurking Horror. No plot points revealed, but you might miss out on some very unique jump scares.

Some PC gamers pride themselves on always having the latest and greatest hardware, and there’s always a “killer app” du jour out there that the hardware-obsessed aim to devastate with their souped-up rigs before moving on to the next test of semiconductor might.

We’ve been lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view) these past few years: because of the refusal of the current console generation to die out in a dignified way, we’ve been stuck with virtually the same tech for much longer than I’d like to think about now. There haven’t been many insanely demanding games that have come out in recent years, and I think Crysis is still considered some kind of e-peen benchmark by some enthusiasts out there.

I’m looking forward to the next generation, if only to see the leaps that horror games will take in terms of technology and presentation. One thing that really impresses me with horror games is the genre’s need for the creative utilization of current technology to present something unexpected, or unknown, or all too convincing in the scariest manner possible. Some other games may establish the benchmark, but the horror genre is forever nipping at that benchmark, surpassing it in the most surprising ways.

The Lurking Horror is one of the first true horror games to exist. It’s part of Infocom’s series of text adventures (think Zork), and unlike the rest of the catalog, which featured underground explorations into fantastic worlds, sci-fi adventure with a robotic sidekick, and other zany hijinks to get up to, The Lurking Horror is all about a hapless student at G.U.E. Tech -- you -- who gets stuck on campus during a raging snowstorm while trying to finish a school paper. Inevitably throughout the course of the game, you learn many things that Man was Not Meant to Know, and discover something ancient and evil brewing in the depths of the school complex.

The gameplay is standard Infocom fare, with the player typing in commands like “go north” and “examine monitor” to interact with the world. What was new, however -- and this game was the first to do this -- was the inclusion of sound effects. During key moments in the game’s narrative, the game would play an audio clip that appropriately fits the current situation. Being a horror game, most of the sounds that this game featured were not pleasant, to say the least. It’s genuinely terrifying to hear a loud, alien screech coming out of your pc speakers as you encounter an otherworldly flying creature at the campus greenhouse after hours of deathly silent exploration!

Horror games would continue to show this bold innovating spirit for years to come. The original Alone in the Dark pioneered the usage of cinematic camera angles in gameplay, and we suffered through a host of “cinematic” action games in the mid- and late-90s that blindly featured the same bad camera angles and weird controls because none of the developers of those games realized that it was forgivable for Alone in the Dark because it was a scary game that was meant to be alien and unfamiliar and terrifying -- a game that took the very discomfort of playing it and turned it to its advantage.

The schlocky monster-slaying title Nocturne featured some groundbreaking light and shadow technology for its time, and I couldn’t imagine the game any other way; the lighting was integral to setting the mood of the game. It even ran with slightly darker visuals than usual to encourage players to experience it with the room lights turned off. Today, realistic-looking soft shadows are a dime a dozen in games of various genres from shooters to sports, but back then, it was a revelatory experience. This was the game with a place named “The House on the Edge of Hell”, and it just won’t feel right without giant, looming shadows moving around everywhere to keep you on your toes.

There are still innovations happening today for the horror genre, both in the technology and in the vision. The developers of Condemned: Criminal Origins had to come up with a workable melee combat system to emphasize the brutal and desperate feel they wanted, and they succeeded brilliantly. The Dark Eye needed something otherworldly, and the deranged team behind it used the creepiest stop-motion ever devised for its visuals. Metro 2033 did well both technologically with its amazing lighting and visual effects, and creatively with its everything-is-finite concept that had the player scrambling and risking his neck for the chance to loot just one more out-of-the-way corpse. It’s brilliant. All of it is brilliant.

Now it's 2012, and technology has broken into the realm of what would have been considered magic as recently as half a century ago. Today, we have gadgets that you can talk to, and track your body's movements as an input method. We've got graphics and physics simulation technology that's approaching reality at an alarming rate. We can take our games anywhere. We can take everything everywhere. I hope some of the right minds are looking at all this technology, and I hope they're seeing some potential in utilizing it to scare us in even more surprising ways.

I'd rather not suffer through surprise insanity effects delivered via mobile -- no sudden texts from my dead grandmother, please -- but it makes me wonder what the 2012 equivalent of a bloodcurdling scream emanating from a text-only adventure game would be.


Thank you so much for reading. Be here again next week for a discussion about horror and its peculiarly reality-bending aspects. Are you really seeing in five dimensions all of a sudden, or is it all in your mind? See you then!

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