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Feature: Why AR Horror Just Isn't Cutting It

Posted by Philip J Reed

We're not scared

Horror, when it works, sticks with us. Bumps in the night, shadows in the dark, branches scraping against the windows...these are the things that keep us up at night when horror has correctly done its job. Whether it's a scary movie, a chilling ghost story or even a horror-themed video game, the best experiences are the ones we cannot shake, the ones that haunt our dreams, and the ones that keep us impressively unnerved for years to come.

Recently, the 3DS has seen two high profile retail titles that aim to provide players with exactly this sort of experience, or, perhaps, even a heightened one. These titles use the handheld's AR capabilities to blur the line between fantasy and reality, inviting the monstrous out from behind the screen and into our homes: they fail to hit the mark, however. We are speaking of The Hidden, and Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir, but we could easily be speaking about any future horror games as well, if they don't learn from the shortcomings of these two releases.

In order to discuss exactly what went wrong — and to raise for discussion the topic of how AR horror might improve in the future — we're going to need to take a trip backward in time, to the very origins of scary video games. While these early games obviously suffered from comparatively severe technical limitations, they actually worked within those limitations — respecting and understanding them — in order to create effective gaming experiences. The Hidden and Spirit Camera may have infinitely superior technology on their side, but a reliance on this technology has created a misguided approach wherein the developers expect the gimmicks to create and sustain the atmosphere for them, and it misleads them into believing they can create horror merely by virtue of intent, without necessarily having an understanding of how or why that genre works.

The Hidden and Spirit Camera may have infinitely superior technology on their side, but a reliance on this technology has created a misguided approach.

The Atari 2600 was never renowned as a particularly powerful system, but it saw a great deal of popular games released throughout its lifetime, largely due to their addictive nature and a strong focus on family gaming. Graphics were primitive and in-game music was almost non-existent. Input was restricted to a joystick and a single button, but these limitations required developers to use their resources both efficiently and creatively, and the Atari era is still regarded as one of the most important in gaming.

Gamers absolutely required active imaginations to get the most of the 2600's games, as primitive sounds and visuals could not hope to realistically simulate the situations meant to be playing out on-screen. It was the developer's job to craft an engaging experience, but the gamer's job to fill in the blanks. Nevertheless, it was a popular console that saw at least one of the most famous scary games of all: Haunted House.

Released in 1982, Haunted House was a simple game that found you maneuvering a character — cleverly represented by a pair of cartoonish eyeballs in the dark — through a spooky and treacherous mansion. While relatively tame by today's standards, it used the minimalistic graphic capabilities of the 2600 to its advantage, building darkness in as a necessary component of the game that not only explained the lack of detail, but delivered a cold and consistent atmosphere. Konami's Silent Hill would similarly mask the limitations of the original PlayStation by layering its own world with easy-to-render fog seventeen years later. That's the first thing horror needs in order to be effective: atmosphere.

One year later, a company known as Wizard Video released an Atari 2600 game called Halloween, based on the film of the same name. In the game you need to protect children from the murderous Michael Myers. It's far from a classic, but it's another example of early developers of horror games testing their boundaries and discovering effective ways to work within them. In this case, the game's effectiveness has mainly to do with its sound design. Strict system resource limitations meant that very few Atari games featured in-game soundtracks. Players didn't expect them, and developers weren't working particularly hard to provide them. Halloween taps into that understanding and undercuts it, by providing a blast of the film's theme music every time Michael Myers appears. The sudden rush of chilling music accompanying a scare is one of the oldest tricks of Hollywood horror, and it's employed to great effect here. This is another thing horror must provide in order to be effective: genuine scares.

Meanwhile, on the Commodore 64, text-based games were quite popular. While it may be difficult for gamers to imagine this today, even the simplest graphics were not a given in gaming's early days. One of these most popular forerunners of text-based horror gaming was Dracula, based on the Bram Stoker novel of the same name and released in 1986. Gameplay consisted of reading descriptions of rooms and events, and then responding to them through a text prompt. By typing commands you could tell your character where to go, what to do, what to say, and anything else you could imagine. It's almost unfair to think of text-based gaming as having "limitations," as there is a long and rich heritage of literary horror that long predates gaming itself, including H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade, all of whom and more served as inspirations for the type of writing and description that formed the backbone of these games. These men and these games were well versed in a third thing horror must provide in order to be effective: attention to detail.

These are the basic things that we need in order for horror to worm its way deeply enough into us that it has any impact. We need an atmosphere conducive to scares, we need those scares to actually come, and we need the piece to be detailed and consistent enough that it doesn't fall apart around us. Three basic conceits, and three things that both The Hidden and Spirit Camera fail to provide.

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User Comments (31)

Malkeor

#1

Malkeor said:

I'd imagine it COULD be done right with higher quality hardware...oh and surround sound.

madgear

#2

madgear said:

I have never found a game scary - ever. How can you be scared when you know your advesaries can be defeated, usually with just a single short or a slash of a knife? The only game that even comes close is Silent Hill Shattered Memories, and that's more to do with atmosphere than anything else. I mean look at Alien and Aliens - which one is scarier there? The one with a small crew of unarmed workers or the one with an army full of trained marines?

As you say, it's a matter of taste, though. Some people may find AR horror titles to be scary - maybe it's the way their imagination works. As far as I'm concerned no game is scary so these are no different to anything else in my oppinion. You have to ask yourself if you've actually been scared by a game and then ask yourself why. I can only speak for myself, but some people seem to pass off being uprepared as a scare, when I think a successful horror has to have you feeling on edge before you've even encountered anything - and that's if you even do.

warioswoods

#4

warioswoods said:

There is potentially a way to avoid some of the AR limitations (lighting, familiar home surroundings), yet it takes some elements not offered by the game itself.

I've posted this video once before, but here you can see a player taking Spirit Camera into the woods, wandering through some abandoned buildings and otherwise frightening places in the second half. To solve the light problem, he simply carries a flashlight, which should work perfectly if you hold it with the 3DS so that just the area seen by the camera is always illuminated.

If I lived near a place like this, I would be a bit more inclined to pick up the game and give it a try.

Undead_terror

#6

Undead_terror said:

i would like the nintendo console only horror game dementium to make a return to the 3ds and make it scarier,since the graphics and system is stronger then ds

Moorpheel

#7

Moorpheel said:

An game where the game is set inside some computer generated gloomy dark mansion where you need to move your 3DS around to investigate and solve puzzles would be great. I wonder if some developer will do that.

Keaton

#10

Keaton said:

@madgear

True, games aren't usually scary, but do you remember the Polybius creepypasta? Also, screamers in the game can be kind of scary, but they don't usually stick with you.

Gilius

#13

Gilius said:

Huh, I knew this game wouldn't appeal to anyone. I don't get how these games aren't so scary...
(( Resident Evil made me jump sometimes, lol.))

Chris720

#14

Chris720 said:

I use to find some video games really scary, but not so much now. However I have to say even Resident Evil: The Mercenaries gives me the jumps when those guys with axes and chainsaws appear. It's that horrible sound you get when one's coming closer and it's always in the back of your head when your running away from one... creepy as heck.

I think its getting harder and harder to make a true horror game. You see most films, books and some games with horror and death, and I think overall this is numbing (if you wish) most people to the affects of horror titles. The only true horror games that I can find that would make my blood freeze are from past generations.

AR could work in the long run, but I think it'll have to mature a lot more before it becomes true horror quality. Angling the system right so you can read the card? No thanks, that takes me out of the horror zone and into the "oh, I'm in reality..."

skincoats

#15

skincoats said:

They could make a horror game for 3DS that uses the the camera to make sure you play in almost complete darkness, instead of using it for AR. Using the gyroscope controls (like Face Raiders), in first person you would shine a flashlight around to see in the darkness of Murderer Mansion or something like that. Character movement could be on a rail system or controlled by the analog stick, so that the player isn't at risk of tripping over things in the dark.
Although, making people play a movement based game in complete darkness probably raises some safety issues that game companies wouldn't want to deal with.

tl;dr? Concept for how horror could be done well on the 3DS.

Prof_Clayton

#16

Prof_Clayton said:

Simple 3ds horror lesson: don't center a game around AR. Instead, make most of the game regular, and add ar scenes for certain parts of the game. This way developers can focus on a few great scary ar ideas on top of a scary game.

ueI

#17

ueI said:

The Hidden is not a high profile title. I never heard it mentioned anywhere besides this website.

Ren

#18

Ren said:

I remember getting a good scare with the first R.E. when it came out way back. I lived in a scary dark attic and played it at night, not expecting it to be scary at all. The sound design really did wonders, though. The quiet spots and then a jump, and also those moments of moaning off screen, plus the cinematic angles.

totally a huge leap ahead for games at the time. I think it can still be done with simpler games now, but as stated above Nintendo is missing some more basic things about a classic scare. Even R.E. games now have lost a little of that simple suspense. Too bad. Part of the issue is game developers making the games, there needs to be more people with a film background directing these things.

mamp

#20

mamp said:

@warioswoods
Yeah but not everyone has access to places like those and if you have to walk to those places and carry a flashlight that's just a little too much for a game. IDK I've never played the fatal frame series but people say it's cool wish I could play it and also this spin off does not do those games justice.

MercifulLemon7

#21

MercifulLemon7 said:

Interesting article. It sucks that AR cards aren't doing so good with horror games for the 3DS, well for now, anyways.

Ren

#24

Ren said:

Ain't resident...
arguably rehashed...
another rental...
angular raisins...

AltDotNerd

#25

AltDotNerd said:

All Right...
America Rules...
Awesome Rabbits...
Augmented Reality...
Alien Rodents...
Assassin's Robe...

XDalleX

#28

XDalleX said:

The Media-Movie-kinda-Thing, that scared the Crap out of me was the original "The Time Machine"... from 1960.
Dude I had Morlocks under my bed for years!
Go make a game of this one... I swear I will never touch it!
Heavy traumatized....

MAB

#29

MAB said:

I don't think movie directors can save horror games especially when horror movies in the last 20 years have been crap. Maybe if David Lynch teamed up with the original Team Silent things might get crackin.

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