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Feature: Why AR Horror Just Isn't Cutting It

Posted by Philip J Reed

In the case of the first core requirement of horror gaming, the atmosphere, it's compromised in these 3DS titles and exchanged for the novelty of bringing the game into the "real world" around you. Unfortunately we already know that the real world isn't infested with ghouls and hellbeasts, so it's difficult for a player to suspend disbelief. There's a reason that horror typically transports us to areas beyond the scope of our experience: it's the unknown that stirs up the greatest fears. Whether that location is Castle Dracula, The Village of the Damned, City 17 or even Silent Hill it's, to some variable extent, something different. It's an area we don't know with rules we might not understand, and we're unnerved immediately upon arrival. Playing a game that takes place in your living room, with your furniture, your possessions and your pets reminding you every second that there's really nothing to fear, the horror simply doesn't come.

Additionally, the technological limitations of the 3DS mean that you're expected to play these games with good lighting. The oldest and simplest source of fear is mere darkness. It's easy, it's effective, and it's cheap, which is why it's used as genre short-hand for "things are about to get bad." Spirit Camera in particular doesn't let you advance the plot unless you're playing in a well-lit area, which keeps any genuine atmosphere far beyond its reach. The Hidden is even worse as it requires you to leave your home in order to play later levels, meaning you'll find yourself in a coffee shop or a bus terminal where you'd be even less likely to find yourself embattled by the forces of darkness, and where others who are in those areas probably won’t be too respectful of the spooky atmosphere you're attempting to maintain.

It's not that these games couldn't have been capable of cultivating an evocative and frightening atmosphere, it's that they decided not to. Rather than create worlds, they decided to use the world that was already around you. We'll talk more about this later, but for this point, it's safe to say that unless you actually live in a haunted mansion yourself, it's unlikely that you'll be unnerved by the environments of either game.

It (The Hidden) might be a game about survival, but it sure isn't a game about survival horror.

Secondly, we need things that could actually scare us. Once again, these games fail to provide this, each by way of their particular gameplay quirks. In the case of The Hidden, the swarming beasties you need to defeat look like generic stuffed animals with silly faces. They simply aren't very frightening visually, and since their appearances are clearly telegraphed and you're rarely in any danger of being caught unaware by a mob of enemies, The Hidden can't even fall back on cheap scares. In most other games, you could make up for this by having enemies appear from behind unlikely objects, or to rain down upon you from behind a door you never should have opened. Since The Hidden wants to use your actual environments as its backdrop, and since it has no idea what those environments might be or how enemies could plausibly hide there, it doesn't bother. A character tells you to beware of onslaught, the onslaught comes, and you blast them silly. It might be a game about survival, but it sure isn't a game about survival horror.

Spirit Camera errs somewhat differently, mainly by requiring and frequently utilizing a pack-in pamphlet called the Diary of Faces. This real-world, physical object needs to be periodically inspected through the 3DS camera which, when it comes to immersing a player in horror, serves as more of an obstacle than a facilitator. The 3DS strains to recognize the pages sitting right in front of it, and you are sometimes asked to flip through the book at random until you find the page it's looking for. Being as the recognition of this object is so poor, that can take several complete run-throughs of the Diary, all while you're flipping back and forth, adjusting the angle of the 3DS, turning up the lights, and basically doing all manner of mundane, practical things that are not even slightly conducive to horror. By the time you find the correct page and a scary face grows out of it, or something, you're more relieved to see the game progressing again than you are frightened by whatever just happened.

This is another reason AR horror just isn't working; its scares, for technological reasons, need to be telegraphed. If a scary face is going to come out of a book, that can be scary. But when the game requires you to meticulously create a scenario in which that is possible, it's easy to guess what's coming, and the simple surprise — and subsequent scare — is lost before it ever comes. As mentioned in our Spirit Camera review, one of the game's most gruesome surprises is artlessly revealed before the game even begins, by requiring us to take a picture of our face and then informing us that the game's main villain is...running around stealing faces. If you can't see where this is headed long before you get there, you're probably not old enough to be playing these games to begin with.

Thirdly, we need detail. Without an adequate level of detail, the scary worlds these games attempt to build would, simply, fall apart. It's the same reason we laugh when we see things we aren't supposed to notice in bad films. We see a string holding up a flying saucer, or a hose poking in from off camera and spraying red paint that we're supposed to believe is blood. Every medium of entertainment requires a certain amount of artifice, of course, but we aren't supposed to be able to see the seams. In both The Hidden and Spirit Camera, practically all we see are seams.

Whether it's The Hidden informing us that we can't progress to stage 2 unless we travel to some other wireless hotspot or Spirit Camera informing us of yet another camera malfunction, we're reminded all too frequently that we're playing games. When we see these characters stumbling about our living rooms it might make for an interesting experience, but then we see them walk through solid objects, or jitter like mad because nobody can hold a 3DS perfectly steady for very long.

While the technology hasn't evolved to a point where any of this is possible, it does suggest that developers are jumping the gun with AR horror.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that these characters and creatures don't behave as though they’re in our homes. They're not knocking things over or interacting unexpectedly with our belongings. They don't comment on their surroundings because they're not aware of them. While the technology hasn't evolved to a point where any of this is possible, it does suggest that developers are jumping the gun with AR horror. Unless these characters can react to what's around them, what's the point of having them there? Far from making it seem like they're in our homes, it makes it seem more like they're passive creations that behave in ways completely independent of where they are. Instead of reacting to us, as they should, they react to nothing...which is far from compelling behaviour.

That's why these games fail in their levels of detail. They simply can't be very detailed, because they don't know anything about us, or where we live, or what they will find there. Because they don't know that, they're limited in what they can do, and so they often do nothing, either by having enemies swarm disinterestedly around our heads as in The Hidden, or by having them stand like cardboard cutouts and hope that'll scare you for some reason in Spirit Camera.

Interestingly, however, there is one glaring exception to the rule of inadequate horror available for the 3DS: Resident Evil Revelations.

Whether or not you find Revelations scary is going to be a matter of taste, but it's clearly the most effective at what it sets out to do. Its atmosphere is brilliantly realised and maintained, scares of both shock and disorientation abound, and the level of detail is simply stellar. The dialogue isn't great and the plot is as unnecessary and convoluted as ever, but escape from the Queen Zenobia feels both urgent and unlikely. The sense of such profound isolation at sea is perfect, and while you may not find yourself screaming in terror it's easy to be haunted by the game's more disturbing imagery and implications long after you've finished the game.

How does Revelations do this? Or, rather, why is Revelations able to do this when The Hidden and Spirit Camera cannot? Well, that's easy: it uses the technology of the 3DS to its advantage when it can, and disregards it entirely when it can't. In the former category we have the option for gyroscope aiming and vast rooms that make impressive use of the 3DS's impressive depth. In the latter we have everything else. No cameras, no real-world environments, no facial scanning. Some things worked for the atmosphere Revelations wished to create, and some things did not. Capcom was smart enough to dump everything that did not.

Horror is not — and was never — about grabbing everything within reach and tossing it together in the hopes that it would work. Horror is about limitation, about imagination, and about a sense of real and actual danger. Perhaps when AR horror stops trying to invade our world, it will discover the courage to create its own.

When it does, we'll be happy to come visit. Until then, well...we'll be playing some Revelations.

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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

Morpheel

#7

Morpheel 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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