Oh horror games. Why do I have such a love-hate relationship with you? Horror is my lifeblood to an extent; from a game design perspective I think trying to incite “horror” in a player is just so incredibly interesting. But it’s also due to this enamour that I find myself so at odds with the design choices of these games again and again. The biggest surge in the genre’s entries in the gaming world has been Slender: The Eight Pages (or just Slender) and the many ripples that have come from its explosion on the internet. Slender is a pretty well-designed horror game, plus it is free, so many people have got around to playing it. However, it has caused many amateur copycat attempts to pop up that claim to be the next Slender, when in fact they fail all around to capture anything that game might have. Problem is because there’s suddenly such a demand for these easy-to-produce horror experiences from players, they actually do pretty well and that will only continue to shape things to come.
Hopefully, then, we’ll one day be purged of games in which you wander around a forest with a flashlight and a gangly figure creeping up behind you with accompanying video distortion. Haunt is one of these titles, and the developers have long claimed that it’s the logical successor to the cheaper production values of Slender. The game’s title until recently was even Haunt: The Real Slender Game, so I think we can all understand where this one sits. The reason the name was changed all of a sudden is quite obvious; they didn’t want to be associated with Slender if possible (yeah, right) and that’s because the Slender mod Faceless was blocked on Steam Greenlight. The reasons for this were apparently due to copyright issues with the Slender name. This is a pretty ridiculous reason, though, as Slender was popularized via a story on the SomethingAwful forums and the developers of Faceless even have permissions from the original creator. So, despite being the number one voted game on Greenlight, Faceless was turned down by Valve for distribution on Steam. And I say good on them too.
“Your only hope is to collect all 8 pages before it catches you…”
Why? These games are living on a trend that’s seen a phenomenal rise to popularity on the internet – a widespread cult, even. The games are not original, they’re not particularly well-designed and soon the fad shall die out and next to no one will care about them. To be honest, I’m fed up of them as they instantly get a huge amount of support from the community simply for being dark and referencing Slender as an inspiration. The developers of these games think they are then on to something, but really all they’ve got is the Call of Duty of the survival horror genre. Sure, they could probably make some money, but if all we cared about was that, then we may as well strangle ourselves, right? For the record, The Intruder was Greenlighted and seems to be another of these games – I’m directing the same discontent towards this game as well.
Creeps Up On You
Slender wasn’t the game that initially tapped into the interests of this trend, I should probably point out. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is what really started it all as it ignited what made these games popular – witnessing a screaming player as they fumble around a horror game’s most frightening moments. The Dark Descent has become renown as a well designed survival horror title, and very deservingly so. It’s also infamous for being played and recorded by people who then slap their reactions up on YouTube for the millions of us out there to laugh at. I’m not going to lie; I was once well into watching these videos myself a couple of years ago. Now they just piss me off, mostly.
As always, when something becomes popular it eventually gets corrupted in some manner. It’s usually due to the pursuit of money and this trend is no exception. Well, money and popularity are the main pursuits, I do believe.
See that chart above? It’s taken from this page at the time of writing and, as you can see, it shows the amount of new subscribers that famous YouTuber Pewdiepie receives. For months now this has been the fastest growing YouTube channel and by a long shot. Pewdiepie, if you’re not familiar, has gained this popularity for being loud and over-the-top in his videos. It all started off with his reactions to playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you won’t be surprised to hear. He has hundreds of videos of himself playing the core game, as well as the many user-created levels that his fans make and send to him. They basically want him to act scared (whether he actually is or not is a moot point) – to jump out of his seat and scream for them on camera. Very much like the fat fetishism in which you have a “feeder” and a “gainer”, his fans (the feeders) create a level with lots of jump scares and such; then he’ll play it and react accordingly (the gainer).
Pewdiepie has since branched out to playing many other games, but his most popular videos remain to be ones of him playing horror titles, and unsurprisingly many of these are the Slender influenced games. As a lot of his popularity is based on this; you’ll find a lot of people trying to replicate his success by overreacting to horror games – trying to be the gainer themselves. Likewise, you also have a lot of people becoming amateur feeders. Or, as we know them, developers. Their games are these jump scare filled horror titles, released for free in the hopes that they can get some notoriety out of it themselves, but also serving their pleasure in watching people fall victim to their game’s supposedly frightening moments.
While it’s lovely to see people able to give each other pleasure, I’m worried that horror games are going to be too affected by the popularity of this trend. And, sure, it may seem harmless otherwise, but YouTubers are making a living off it (and fair play to them), and the developers are asking and receiving donations from people despite releasing their games for free. Whether this frankly crude horror game design has a further reaching effect is something no one can predict, but it’s something I dread. My message is: get the Slender Man horror game stuff out of your system then use that effort to create something more interesting. Set the trends; don’t try to exploit them.
Sometimes Less Is More
This has all been a necessary preface to my thoughts on the latest ‘not-Slender’ horror title, Haunt. You can download it for free from this page. Lazy me would have just been terribly negative about it before having even played it. But worker bee me has tried to ensure that the angle I’m approaching Haunt from is clearly outlined. These free horror titles are experiencing an exhaustion as they clamber over each other trying to ride on a bit of a popular trend at the moment. And ultimately I don’t play into the loop they are serving. I’m neither a feeder nor a gainer, though, as I said previously, I did once enjoy watching the odd hilarious reaction to parts of The Dark Descent.
So what do I think of Haunt after having played it a little? Well, sure, it looks nice. But that’s not really something I’m looking for in a horror title. At times it even felt like the developers struggled to balance showing the game’s visuals off and bringing in the darkness they knew the game required. The premise itself is straightforward – head off around a large woodland at night, collect some bits of paper and explore the landmarks while avoiding the ghost that pops up every now and again. The monster is what I mainly want to talk about here, because they’ve got the wrong end of the stick entirely in designing it. And that was the one aspect of Slender that made it work.
“a flashlight, a forest and a fuzzy screen”
A number of people complained about the version of the Slender Man in Slender because it looked pretty lame – it’s just a few black shapes stuck together and a white head plopped on top. But it didn’t matter what it looked like because you weren’t supposed to look at it. The developer of Slender knew it didn’t look so good, and that played in their favor because they then designed the game around forcing the player to NOT look at it. Basically, in Slender, if you look at the monster for too long, then you’re instantly faced with the game over screen (his massive blank face). Also playing into the effectiveness of this monster was its lack of animations and therefore how it was forced to move. You never saw the monster in Slender move. It would only do so when you weren’t looking, which was horrible, I would add. This is also the technique used by the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who, which ultimately made their way into games through a Minecraft mod. The difference with the monster in Slender is that instead of staring at him, you’re supposed to look away, which works much better for gameplay.
The difference with Haunt is that you want to look at the monster because it’s detailed and animated in a way so as to feel alive. As the surrounding environment, you are led by curiosity and want to look at the landscapes and you want to find out the story behind this ghost that chases you. As is pretty much always the case with horror, the more you can leave to the imagination, the better the effect will be. For this reason, horror is often more effective when done cheaply or in an amateur way, because the developers can’t afford to bring the vision to life, so instead they have to rely on the audience or player filling in the gaps.
Don’t Look Back
I could go into further analysis of Haunt, but I feel that the main point has been extracted, and in doing so I’ve found the root as to why the developers have approached the game design wrong. But I did want to just go back to the subject of the trend in general and to outline the positives the community have brought around. Though I do sincerely hope all of the Slender rip-offs will scarper and sharpish, I want to acknowledge how they’ve incited people to make their own games, and for there to be a player base to play them and interact with them. Game development, no matter how big or small, is great at the end of the day, and the fact that these cheap horror games are being produced by so many people is just great.
If it means they have motivation to create games where they wouldn’t have had it before, then it can only be a positive thing in the long run. My hope is that this community interaction based around these games will plant some seeds into those making the games and encourage them to pursue the passion by making more games and hopefully ones with a more original base. Perhaps in the future, we’ll have a flurry of developers who don’t cite their roots in DOOM or Quake modding as has happened previously, but in making these Slender copycat titles. If that’s the case, then it’s worth tolerating the saturation of these games for now, but please, for my sanity, make a game that doesn’t involve a flashlight, a forest and a fuzzy screen.