I ended my last post on modern horror games by talking about how they should try and strive for more unique scares instead of following trends made by other popular games. And as you might have guessed by the title of this post, I want to follow up on that by providing some examples that I’ve found. It was kind of unfair of me to say that game developers should try for unique scares without showing any examples, after all. So here are a few of my favorites from some more recent games!
Dead Space 3
Okay, hear me out! Yes. Dead Space 3 has a lot of problems. It’s focus on combat and microtransactions being the main things really holding it back. As well as the crafting and looting elements that feel like they were thrown in just to chase the trends of the time. Oh hey, look at that. Another example of a horror game being held back by chasing trends. But, despite all that, the game did offer a really unique kind of horror! And it did so with it’s co-op mode.
Now, normally, multiplayer isn’t really the first thing that comes to mind with horror games. Since it’s generally a lot harder to be scared when you have a buddy with you for the ride. But Dead Space 3 did something really interesting with this that I haven’t seen done very often. If you’ve never played much of the series, one of the big parts of Dead Space is the idea that not everything you are seeing is real. The games play a lot with hallucinations and Dead Space 3 takes this in a fantastic direction. It’s stated at the end of Dead Space 2, if I remember right, that Issac, the main character of the series, has basically become immune to the hallucinations, something that would normally take a lot away from Dead Space 3. But you aren’t just playing as Issac in it. If you want, you can have a buddy join up to play as John Carver. A character so unmemorable that I had to look him up just to make sure I was getting his name right. And while Issac has plenty of experience with the series horror, Carver doesn’t. This leads to co-op exclusive levels based on Carver’s hallucinations. Which might seem like treading familiar ground for the series, and it would be if the designers didn’t take it with a unique twist. As I said before after all, Issac is immune to the hallucinations at this point, meaning only Carver, and the person playing Carver, see the hallucinations! A brilliant idea as it basically creates a distrust between the two players.
I decided to play Dead Space 3 with my friend Ray. I played as Issac while he played as Carver. I still remember the first instance of the hallucinations that we ran into. It started with one cutscene in particular. How the cutscene plays out is that Carver sees a woman run off in a direction away from where the main objective is telling you to go. It’s a pretty brief moment though. So brief, in fact, that I happened to miss the moment when the woman actually runs off. Or that’s what I assumed. What actually happened was that I couldn’t see the woman at all as she was really just a hallucination! And since the game popped up an optional objective to follow her, we obviously went along with it as I assumed I really had just missed the moment Ray saw. This was just the beginning!
Another major moment I remember was a particular elevator ride. For me, it was just a rather long ride down an elevator. Nothing too odd in the PS3/360 era of long load times hidden behind long elevators, but still! Ray and I stayed silent through out most of the ride down. During it though, I noticed Ray aiming his gun around at the walls. I just assumed he was bored of waiting and wanted to do something to pass the time. But right as I was saying, “This is a really long ride…” he started shooting! And in a horror game where you are meant to conserve ammo, I had to speak up, no matter how bored he was of the ride. When I did tell him to stop, he shouted back “You didn’t see that?!” Turns out, during the whole ride Ray was seeing images of Carver’s dead family on the walls as they slowly turned more and more horrid while Carver’s wife talked to him. Of course, I just saw a boring elevator. However, the funny thing about all this was the fact that we didn’t believe each other at all! We both assumed the other was lying. It took us longer than I’d like to admit to catch on to what was happening. But as the hallucinations ramped up we eventually figured it out! It’s that kind of experience that is so unique. The game takes into consideration that it’s being played in co-op and uses that to it’s advantage when it comes to scaring the players. You don’t even really need to go with the hallucination angle for this to work. Just having different scares for each player adds so much. Co-op suddenly turns from an experience that should be more comforting into something that makes the game that much scarier!
While Dead Space 3 as a whole was not a stellar game, easily the worst in the series, I will still always treasure those moments playing through the game with Ray.
I touched briefly on Fatal Frame in my last post. I brought up how it was one of the few horror games that tried to make combat scary. And while you could consider the combat in Resident Evil scary as you wrestle with the controls and dread every missed shot, I’m talking about a more traditional form of scary.
For those unaware, Fatal Frame is all about ghosts and fighting them with your magic camera, the Camera Obscura. How combat works is kind of like a first person shooter a bit. While the games use fixed camera angles for when you move around, combat is all done from the view of the camera. You snap pictures of the ghosts to harm them but there’s a little more to it than that. If you want to do the most damage you can with a single shot, you have to let the ghosts get in close. Specifically, you have to wait for the moment they are about to strike! As you can imagine this raises the tension quite a bit. Not only for the fact that if you mess up the shot you are most certainly getting hurt, but also for the fact that you have to stare the ghosts in the eye from up close the whole time. That combined with the great design for said ghosts, an aspect that’s consistent through every game in the series, it really makes fighting them a frightening experience. It adds a sense of dread and tension other horror games don’t really provide. While first person horror games are very common now, most of them don’t have any combat to speak of. Something else I discussed in my last post on horror games as well. It’s rather odd honestly. Being in first person means you have to confront any danger head on so forcing the player to fight spooky enemies like this will obviously be pretty scary! But only Fatal Frame really has tried this…
Although the counter argument to all this is that the point system for the photos as well as trying to time the perfect shot and such, it can take you out of the horror experience. Which is a fair point! But, for me at least, the combat was still able to get plenty of scares out of me! Especially in Fatal Frame 5 which has particular great designs for the ghosts. And is a game you should really, really check out so that the series can get the attention it deserves!
Even with that very valid counter argument though, it’s hard to deny the fact that Fatal Frame is one of the only series that is at least trying to make combat scary for it’s game. And doing it in a different way from Resident Evil or Silent Hill. And at the very least it isn’t trying to remove combat all together like most modern horror games…
Doki Doki Literature Club
If you’ve never heard of this game and the image provided above is your first time seeing anything from it, you’re probably wondering why exactly it’s being brought up in a discussion about horror games with unique scares. And that’s what makes Doki Doki Literature Club one of the most unique horror games in general!
Doki Doki Literature Club, or DDLC, is a game that presents itself as another visual novel set in high school where you play a faceless guy surrounded by cute girls who you can chat up and most likely date in the end. But this isn’t really the case at all. The game ends up being a very meta horror game!
Now while horror game visual novels aren’t exactly new, DDLC goes about it in a very unique way. And it starts with just the way it presents itself. This game was not mentioned to be a horror game. Like, at all. It was meant to be seen as just another visual novel. It actually takes a bit of playing before the horror elements really kick in! And as much as I enjoy subverting expectations, I normally would say that this was taking things too far. But given the fact that the game is free on Steam, anyone who was upset by the sudden shift into horror could stop playing and not have to worry about wasting any money on it. So it gets a pass!
I’m going to try and not get too detailed about the game beyond this point though. Mainly because, unlike with Dead Space 3 and Fatal Frame, I feel like going too in depth with the unique scares of this game could ruin some of it. But I will say that the game goes beyond just the sudden genre switch. It really goes in depths with the scares and how it relates to the fact that the game is a visual novel. Meta scares like this are so awesome and can cut deep! It can feel like the horror of the game is escaping out into real life.
This is another aspect DDLC should be commended on. Acknowledging the ‘game’ aspect of a horror game can be very hit or miss. Sometimes it can take players completely out of the experience. It can ruin the immersion of it all. Just look back at what I was saying in regards to Fatal Frame‘s combat. But on the flip side, if done well, it can be one of the most terrifying experiences. A great example of this actually comes from Metal Gear Solid 2. Game that is very much not a horror game. Towards the end though, the game begins messing with the 4th wall. The game begins telling you to literally turn it off!
This terrified me when I first played it! I wasn’t sure what to do. It’s a moment that will sit with me forever. Now imagine stuff like that but in a game that is actually meant to be scary the whole way through. This meta horror is extremely hard to pull off but as DDLC shows us, when done well, it’s a lasting experience.
As I said before, this kind of horror can take you out of the experience as a whole if done wrong. Normally that’s because the game won’t really go far enough with it. In Fatal Frame‘s case, the game acknowledges the fact that you are using a camera to fight ghosts, but because it never brings up the crazy point system and ZERO SHOT or SHUTTER CHANCE that flash on screen when you take a good damaging photo, it feels very disconnected. DDLC avoids this problem but leaning in hard on the fact that it knows it’s a game. It establishes a connection not with the character the player is controlling but with the player themselves! Making for a far more intimate horror experience.
And it’s these unique scares that made Doki Doki Literature Club a smash hit! Easily one of the biggest horror games in recent years along side the new Resident Evil games. And while it’s bait and switch on the genre is certainly something that will be hard to replicate, as people are now going to be looking out for that as they play any cute looking game, it’s use of meta horror is very much something others can learn from. And hopefully they do!
But those are just my thoughts! What are some of yours? What horror games can you think of with unique scares? Are there any horror games that you’re looking forward to playing? Do you think I’m using these discussions so I can keep telling people to play Fatal Frame? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so don’t be shy!
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