How do you solve a problem like the Horror game?
Almost two weeks after the fact, and EA’s decision to shutter Visceral Games is still causing repercussions in the industry. Staff members who played a hand in the unnamed Star Wars game’s troubled development have slowly started to come out from the woodwork. Each chiming in with their own personal experiences to help us form a better tapestry of what exactly went wrong.
A particular piece by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier is by far the most in-depth so far, but what’s also come to light is just how difficult it is to make a horror-centric game. Understandably, for several reasons. Ex-Visceral level designer Zach Wilson expressed, “Survival horror is hard,”. Wilson cites the reason for such as being that it’s tricky to sell people games they know will largely be a tense experience. He elaborated, “People would give us the feedback that they love Dead Space but don’t buy it cause it’s too scary.”
This begs the question: How do you solve a problem like the Horror game?
When thinking about it in this context, this marketing issue makes a lot of sense. After all, when developing a survival horror game, you know that you’re catering towards a certain sector of the gaming audience, but it will almost always be a niche one. For the same reason some movie-goers find the act of being scared at the cinema thrilling, it’s exciting to not know what’s around the next corner in a game like Dead Space or Resident Evil.
For my money, this problem can be easily solved by actively leaning into this surprise element, as it’s one that few other video game genres not only struggle to implement, but almost always guarantee. Instead the big studio publishers like EA and Activision would simply see the solution as to broaden such an experience as much as possible in the hope of making the game more mainstream, when in actual fact, it’d be better to minimise the development budget in favour of creating a focused experience for the thrill-seeking audience that want it.
It’s the same tact used my many first-time directors, to stick with the filmmaking analogy. Movies like Get Out, Paranormal Activity, and The Purge might have gone on to garner critical acclaim since their release, but the reason they are deemed as such is because of their “low-risk, high-reward” nature. Distributors are willing to experiment with a lot less money, and this could seemingly be footsteps to follow in how the video game industry treats horror games.
Already we’re seeing indies on Steam inundate the platform with a glut of first-person horror games week after week. The problem with these however, is that only a small portion of them are actually any good. And few even come close to the tense, well-crafted experience offered by Visceral’s original Dead Space. Sometimes less is more, and the sooner big publishers apply this style of thinking to their horror games, the better.