This is an essay written in April/May of 2016 on the trajectory of horror video games in the AAA space. As such, some of the data in this essay may be outdated. If there is an interest, I will update with new data and revise my conclusions to reflect it.
“Games have inhabited the horror genre for as long they’ve been in existence” So writes Richard Rouse III in an essay for Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play (Perron et. Al., p.15). Many of the authors in this book talk about how video games is a more perfect medium for horror in that you get a deeper connection to the story than you would if you were, say, reading a book or watching a movie. In those flat mediums you lay witness to others getting chased by the big bad. The story relies on your empathy for characters to create a truly emotional connection to the people. However, in the game you are in direct control of everything that happens to the protagonist. “Indeed, this is a new type of horror, because death would no longer be something happening to someone else, but instead to you. Any chance of redemption and eventual success would involve you facing down death again and again and somehow, finally, emerging victorious.” (15) The horror genre, for a long time has been a cult affair, with those who admire it doing so to the point of obsession. But going to those forums or blogs that specialize in talking about the genre tend to look at the games of old like Resident Evil (Mikami) and Silent Hill (Toyama) reminiscing about how good the old days were. This presented a quandary; what was happening to the genre that there was rarely buzz about its future? The short lived Playstation demo PT (Kojima) sent a shiver through the entire gaming community, that helped spark a desire for more atmospheric horror games. And independent titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional) and Outlast (Red Barrels) changed the genre by leaving the player completely vulnerable, but those games were not triple A (AAA).
So where did the AAA horror genre go?
This paper seeks to investigate the possible reasons why there are so few AAA horror titles being released into the video game market in two ways. First it will look to the past and see what horror titles have come out that fall under the AAA and Indie areas. Then a survey and its participants will be analyzed in order to get a sense why people may or may not like horror games.
Horror Games: A History
Before diving into the data on the genre, a better picture needs to be painted. Horror in video games has always been a common staple, starting with the game Haunted House (Atari) where one player played detective while the other played a ghost trying not to get caught. This simplistic design would slowly evolve with the Atari, where the genre would take a “decidedly sci-fi feel.” So says Jon Newcombe in his Gamereactor article The History of Horror: A Video Game Retrospective (Oct. 2013). He notes several games where the main antagonist was an alien presence that must be avoided and eventually defeated in order to win the game.
Soon with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Master System came a slew of new horror titles. “This was the era of the licensed move tie-in that saw horror films like Friday The 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Bram Stoker’s Dracula get video game makeovers.” (Newcombe) the bit generations evolved with titles like Castlevania and soon gave way to Playstation and what is said to be the Golden-Era of Horror video games. While there will be other games that start the ball rolling, this all truly kicks off in 1996 with the release of Resident Evil where you are stuck in a mansion fighting off hordes of the undead with bad camera angles, stronger enemies by the room, and very limited ammo. “The formula resonated with players. It was dread-inducing in the best of ways—a thrill to explore this mansion, a fright to face those increasingly bizarre monsters, the best of challenges to do speed-runs and gather secrets. It appealed to players in different ways, from the unique atmosphere to the layered gameplay. Even its B-movie campiness, with a bad live-action intro and Engrish dialogue, only added to the overall charm.” Writes Bryan Cebulski on the golden era (“Horror”). With the game being such a huge success in several countries, it brought with it the desire for large companies to get some of the profit. Games started to come out that were seen as hits. This time brought with it Silent Hill, Parasite Eve (Squaresoft), Dino Crisis (Capcom) and Clock Tower (Agetec). All games that are, to this day considered classics in not only the genre but video games as a whole.
However, the magic started to slow down and the genre again experienced a shift. In the AAA space the genre slowly moved to a more action style of play, with games like Dead Space (Electronic Arts) and F.E.A.R. (Monolith) allowing the player to shoot their problems away with bullets to spare. The indie space became the place for horror fans to go to get the horror experience the sought. Amnesia: The Dark Descent became the new way for horror to be played, and more and more interesting indie games became the way for people to experience fear. As the indie space continued to grow, the AAA space began to move towards a more action oriented horror game.