Why Do We Love Horror? – (*Hint – We Don’t)

Why do we love horror? Why does our society pay money in order to get frightened by imagined horrors? These are questions I’ve heard raised many time, usually followed by a detailed answer. You get chemical incentives, there is a giddy thrill that comes from putting yourself in real or imagined danger, and so forth. I’ve heard all of the reasons, and I’m here to tell you that the answer to ‘why do we love horror,’ is that we don’t. I personally love horror games and movies, but that doesn’t mean society as a whole does. We don’t value horror in any way, shape, or form. It’s a niche market plain and simple. Fans of horror are passionate, and vocal, but isn’t that the case with all niche interests? This is why horror is only profitable at a low budget. Whether Halloween, Paranormal Activity, or Resident Evil 1-3, pure horror movies and games are always kept cheap because the cold and simple truth is that very few people will buy or see them compared to larger blockbuster movies or games. That’s not an indictment of the genre. I personally find the best horror movies and games are built with a shoestring budget. It forces directors and developers to be creative. However, it does tell you a lot about the valuation of the genre, which is important to note as we proceed forward in the games industry. Because, in the games industry, we don’t have surprise hits like the Conjuring. Instead, we have failure after failure for horror games to make any impact, and this may lead to the genre wilting away.

Above: Everything wrong with the horror game industry
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This article was inspired by an interview from famed developer Shinji Mikami, the creator of such mega hits as Resident Evil and Devil May Cry. In the interview, he discussed the change in focus of the Resident Evil series from horror to action in the development of Resident Evil 4. The primary reason he cited was the fact that the Resident Evil Remake (“REmake”) was a massive commercial failure. The REmake is what every old school Resident Evil fan wanted. It’s scary as hell, dark, hard, and has tons of great ideas packed into a lengthy campaign that is great for speed runners who know exactly what they’re doing. It is, in all honesty, a masterpiece. However, it failed miserably. There are many factors involved in its failure including being a Game Cube exclusive in a PS2 dominated generation, but the fact of the matter is that its failure led to Capcom turning away from horror in order to grab a bigger market. Resident Evil 6 was being developed to be more like Call of Duty (Capcom’s words) because there is a bigger market for big action blockbusters, and, if they’re going to sink so much into development costs, there has to be a big enough market to pay off.

This is a Game Cube game, and it’s glorious.
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This isn’t just Resident Evil though. Dead Space was everything horror junkies wanted with its Event Horizon-meets-Alien tale of enclosed spaces and the horrifying boogeymen who live there. But the sequel started trimming away the horror elements and upping the action. Then the third game came out, and I would hesitate to call the series a horror series now. Why did EA do this? It’s simple: Dead Space was good and had a fanbase, but there is a bigger audience to reach if you can break into the action market. The carrots of Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto impact the industry more than most people will ever know. There is a good reason that first person military shooters have taken over this generation, and that a huge number of next gen games are going to be open world. Even in different genres, the influence is felt and the quest for more profit inevitably leads developers down the dark road of de-horrorfication.

Maybe in the fourth game we’ll find out this one was all an illusion. I’d even pay microtransactions for it.
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This leaves us with the true great horror games of this generation. Slender, as I’ve mentioned before is everything you need in a horror game. It’s tense, powerful, but simple. More importantly, it was so cheap to make that it was free to all. Cheap games don’t have to worry as much about profit generation as the bigger blockbusters, which is why great horror games such as the Amnesia series don’t have to compromise their horror principles. However, don’t think for one moment that, if any of the indie horror greats got big enough, they wouldn’t start to cut corners. Money demands a return. The less you spend, the less return you need to keep doing what you’re doing. This is why series like Silent Hill are floundering. They’re trying to work that magical balance between appealing to the tiny horror crowd, which is their main audience, and the action/adventure crowd, which is the audience they need to stay afloat. This is especially hard because, by appealing to the bigger audience, they risk alienating their base.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is the cure for the horror blues
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What will happen in the industry is determined by the next batch of big budget horror games. Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within is set to be a true survival horror game. If it fails to make much of a splash, we may be at the end of the big budget horror game. If it comes out of left field and makes a massive profit, it could end up revitalizing the genre in the same way Dark Souls did for the brutally hard hack and slash adventure. The same is true for the next Resident Evil which is said to go back to its survival horror roots, although, I’ll have to see that before I take Capcom’s word for it. These games will determine the commercial viability of the genre in the industry. Costs to develop are only increasing as we jump to next gen and if these games cannot turn a profit then horror fans will be left with indie games, and the big horror developers will either have to downscale their projects or bleed out until the publisher kills them out of mercy. There has been a major change in the market. With the jump to the current generation, cost of development hit a new high, which has barred a lot of genres including JRPGs from being commercially viable. Horror seems to have fallen into this pit, and I cannot imagine what will happen to it when costs go up further in the next generation.

If any game can save the genre, it’s this one.
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So we don’t love horror games, and by we I mean the public at large. If we did. If we valued horror as much as the rabid horror fan then none of these problems would exist. There would be a viable and powerful market incentive present in order to drive the development of huge big budget horror games. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that, like Hollywood, big budget horror games are simply not viable, and it is the smaller scale indie games that are going to emerge out of the wreckage. I hope The Evil Within turns this misfortune around, but at this point it looks like big budget horror could be on its last legs. Maybe it’s a blessing though. Niche games developed by small teams often have the biggest impact. But I will still mourn the passing of a previously viable genre, which might get kicked out of the big leagues.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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