Horror is a gamble, if it goes well it is incredibly profitable. If it does too good a job it doesn’t sell as well because pretty creepy sells better than genuinely disturbing or terrifying. And when it bombs, it bombs hard. This is why, historically, the best horror tends to come out of the independent sphere.
Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and more recently Saw, Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity had the freedom to try things so far outside of the box of conventional thinking because the investment into the project was small enough that the risks were worth taking.
The higher the budget the more the studio’s get involved to protect their investment aiming for the widest possible market and in turn diluting the product for mass appeal which is a terrible thing for horror.
AAA video games are very expensive to make, sometimes as much as a blockbuster movie and given the $50 + price tag on the game they sometimes need to sell in the millions just to break even. It is for this reason that series which began their life as horror titles are turning to action-horror; Resident Evil, Dead Space, Dead Island are all turning to big guns and jump scares in order to continue.
Even Silent Hill Downpour which tried its best to return to its physiological horror roots still gave us an escaped prisoner as our protagonist. In recent years the only big budget game to take any significant horror risk was Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and even then Joel was a badass killer of men long before his first act of in game violence.
Just as the best horror cinema comes from the fringes of the studio system so do does the best in horror gaming seem to be coming more and more from the independent world of game development. However with gaming it does come at a cost, production value and accessibility.
As a horror viewing audience we are used to low grade film stock, b-grade actors and practical SFX but modern gaming audiences can struggle if a game is all text with no voice over or if the graphics look last generation or god forbid sprite. But this is the price of admission for games that are free to truly frighten and disturb us.
Next week I will start a write up of indie horror games worth tracking down.