Feature: Why AR Horror Just Isn't Cutting It

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.