The horror genre for videogames has been up and down over recent years, with games like The Evil Within not quite living up to the hype, while Amnesia: The Dark Decent still remains as one of the scariest games of the last 5 years by a lot of people’s standards. It really seems like it’s a genre led by the indie and small developers.
Over the last 5 years, the horror genre has been absolutely dominated by games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast, and Five Nights at Freddy’s. Full price, major releases have done well but they haven’t left the impact that these games from smaller developers have. This is for a number of reasons, most of which I believe are heavily linked to what the major developers like to pander to.
Firstly, horror is a genre, much like sci-fi, that has a huge emphasis on originality and creativity. A unique idea is what can propel a mediocre horror game to a fantastic one. The horror games of this decade from these big developers haven’t touched on unique ideas nearly as much as they should. The Evil Within used survival horror ideas and tried to bring them to a modern standard, attempting to evolve the genre. However, it wasn’t anything new. Alien: Isolation used the Alien themes which we all know, and while it was great, it didn’t leave the impression that the original film left on so many people. The new idea was gone. Dead Space 3…well was the third game. While its hallucinations were interesting, overall it was everything you’ve already seen.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent, however, took the themes that made Penumbra great and took them in a new direction. The water monster is, essentially, a horrifying ‘the floor is lava’ game but it’s just fantastically done. Combined with the creepy atmosphere with human experimentation, it made for an interesting story with scary gameplay to match. To be honest, I think the Justine campaign was even scarier. Five Nights at Freddy’s is a simple concept executed phenomenally well. Forcing the player to look at the screen, heightening the anxiety the game forces on you, then removing the only thing keeping you safe in the second is a great idea. Slender: The Arrival takes the basic concept from the original Slender prototype game, creates an interesting story (without just abusing the ‘mythology’) and then turns the mechanics on their head. The choice to abuse Slenderman’s trope of being behind you by creating a monster who chases you but needs to be looked at was fantastic, something people didn’t expect.
I feel like another aspect of why these major releases didn’t have as big an impact as the games by smaller developers is that survival horror has changed massively. The modern gaming community prefers the survival of games like DayZ over the style you’d find in Resident Evil (heck, the door animations have been removed by modders from the recent remastered edition, showing the tense atmosphere isn’t what people really want). Alien: Isolation, The Evil Within and The Last of Us all use mechanics and ideas from the survival horror genre of long ago.
DayZ is what has evolved the survival horror genre, with MMO aspects and the permadeath mechanics. It was a bold move to try and really create a survival horror experience for a player on their own in The Evil Within, however it just doesn’t resonate. The exploration and use of oil in Amnesia: The Dark Descent felt like it was inspired by survival horror that was popular with Resident Evil, but it was really on the side, you typically had enough oil just the threat of running out kept you moving.
The final aspect that all of these top horror games from smaller developers have is a surprising level of depth. Even Five Nights at Freddy’s, the most simple horror game of recent years, features lore and a rather deep mystery, forcing the player to pay attention if they want to understand (which makes the game even more difficult). Outlast led on to the DLC, and alluded to a much more grand scheme, something which left the player pondering. Amnesia: The Dark Descent had tonnes of lore embedded in notes and diary entries.
Alien: Isolation expanded upon ideas in the Alien series, with the shady Weyland-Yutani Corp, but it didn’t especially surprise anyone. The Last of Us is the best example of a horror game that features a strong story, but in a strange way the story outshines the horror aspects, as does the gameplay. They don’t leave the seed that Five Nights at Freddy’s and Amnesia: The Dark Descent do.
Small developers have taken the horror genre for themselves through ingenuity and creativity. While PT is promising, and the major releases have been good, nothing has come close to the games from smaller developers. Unique ideas really make for something that resonates with players, it’s fantastic to see small developers really doing well and outperforming the bigger developers in some ways. I can’t wait to see how this builds new competition in the horror genre, and how developers improve ideas with new, unique directions.