I originally titled this post "Why Horror Gaming Sucks," but that title was kind of a lie. I actually quite like horror games in general, and just saying a game is horror themed is a decent way to get me interested.

I'm just frustrated that some things seem to be lost on modern developers, not always just the bigwigs either--sometimes indies are stupid too.

the Splatterhouse remake from 2009 or so

So one of my favorite horror game trilogies is Splatterhouse--the original arcade game (and its TG16 port) and its two Sega Genesis sequels.

Now, I've heard mixed opinions on the X-Box 360/PS3 reboot in terms of gameplay. However, what always bothered me about it was two things: the tone and the story.

My friend George described it best: "They went all Evil Dead on it." What he means is this: Evil Dead 1 was a serious horror movie, but the series gradually became more of a comedy over time (to the point where the third and final movie, Army of Darkness, was a shlock action flick).

It's easy to see what he means. The Terror Mask, the ancient Mayan relic that is supposed to be mysterious and vaguely sinister, is now a crass dudebro who comments on how good Rick's girlfriend smells. This isn't the dialogue of a paranormal entity. The original games were perfect: the Mask was encouragement but somehow just a tinge sinister, and you never really knew what it was all about, and when it spoke it had business.

Even putting that aside, one big reason the original trilogy worked for me is because you get the vaguest of explanations--that a guy named Dr. West did experiments in the eponymous Splatterhouse. Did Dr. West somehow cause all the creepy stuff, or was it already present? Who knows--just, its there, its got your girl, this mask wants to help you, you gotta punch beasties.

The new story in the reboot commits the dual sin of explaining too much, and the explanation is kind of lame. Dr. West is now an immortal servant of an evil force called "the Corrupted" which is your generic evil demon race that wants to take over the world because Generic Evil. Like, how am I supposed to be scared of this? I mean, your evil race is called "The Corrupted." They might as well be called "The Evilbads."

The original Splatterhouse was capable of giving me nightmares (as a kid I remember being freaked out by the water monsters). I have no comment on the reboot.

On that note...

Games, Either Get Lovecraft Right Or Stop Doing Lovecraft

Lovecraft is always sort of done wrong by video games. At best, they get the vaguest aspects of his work right, but miss a lot of major themological things.

Here's a big recurring one: sanity. Video games for some reason always reduce Lovecraft's monsters to big beasties with a magical power to mess with people's sanity. This comes from a recurring thing in Lovecraft's fiction where the protagonists often wind up going a bit nuts because of their experiences... what's missed by games (and to be honest, most of the literary fanbase) is that usually either A) the people who lose their sanity usually had weak or already-damaged minds, or B) the things they experienced were just that fucked up (I don't blame anyone for being a little messed up after the events of "Beyond the Wall of Sleep.") Sanity Loss was not some supernatural power the monsters inherently had.

In fact part of the point of the Cthulhu Mythos is supposed to be the monsters didn't even care about us, if they even knew of us to begin with. There were occasional groups of humans who thought they could contact the beings who they took as gods, but whether they actually had any sway at all was up to question.

This leads me to another thing: Lovecraft-themed games often commit the same sin as Splatterhouse 360, where they over-explain things and, in doing so, make it lame. In Lovecraft's actual work, his explanations (when he provided them) tended to be the type that--as Grim once put it--"answered one question, but raised so many others," plus were put in a way where you could have a field day trying to separate factual statement from exaggerated reaction or mythic prose (especially since two stories could have radically different perspectives on the same creatures--the ghouls in "Pickman's Model" versus the ghouls in "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" for example, which are explicitly the same ghouls since Pickman is with them). So even when you got an explanation, it was just a part of a much larger story which gave you a feeling that there was more going on in this world...

...Which I'll admit, this is why I liked shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings growing up, because the UFO or Bigfoot or whatever stories had a similar sort of vibe, feeling like they were covering disparate parts of a hidden world that one day would all be tied together, or probably already has but we weren't there to witness it.

But getting back to video games... whenever you see Cthulhu, he's turned into basically just a kaiju. This big, dark, mysterious creature... and he's lame. Then there's things like Azathoth, who in the original fiction its unclear if Azathoth is a real being or just a metaphor for the bazillions of random atoms and particles that make up a universe... but in games Azathoth is always a literal entity who you can summon and have tea and cookies with, who loves long walks on the beach and reruns of Dancing With the Stars.

I'm not at all believing this is some inherent weakness of video games, I mean if stories that were nothing more than text on paper could create these kinds of worlds, then video games should be able to bring them to brilliant life. The problem is the creators just keep taking the cheap and easy routes.

Character Drama

Okay, so... this is where I'm in a minority, but honestly, I don't give a crap about character drama. Like when I play a game and it starts off telling me the hero has a lost son or whatever, it just sends alarm bells. I don't wanna play Dude Guy's Angst Quest.

I'm a concept man. Horror interests me because its a vehicle for ideas that can raise questions about our own universe, and explore philosophical grounds we might not always be kosher with. To use Lovecraft again, the idea that humanity isn't all that important, some sort of cosmic accident, and any number of beings easily outclass us and we survive only because we're beneath their notice. On a more prosaic level, common stories of ghosts and poltergeists get us to think about the nature of life after death and what lies beyond. On some level I actually suspect the Lovecraft mythos is reality and our puny human minds just had to reduce it to a story with a "canon" in order to make sense of it all.

When I have to hear about Dude Guy's Lost Son, I tend to be more annoyed than anything. Yes yes you got a bad hand once, screw you, one of my IRL best friends committed suicide and nobody made a game about me, so suck it up you whiner. Besides your dead son is nowhere near as interesting as the ghosts which, if they're real and not a Scooby hoax, means you could actually still contact the kid somehow and get your closure. Which is likely what's gonna happen.

Really, that's the biggest problem: I've just heard that story so many times, all the emotional manipulation you can wring out of me with a dead child or whatever, it's already used up. I just don't care anymore.

It's really kind of strange to me that these days character drama of this sort is seen as "must have," when for most of human history it wasn't. Most horror protagonists from the 1910s to the 1980s didn't even have names, and they were only interesting insofar as "here's a weird thing that happened to me," again the exact same quality as an episode of Unsolved Mysteries about a haunted hotel might have.

So there's a new Call of Cthulhu game for the Nintendo Switch, which I almost bought... but the box had the damning phrase "his own troubled past" on it, which makes me feel like the actual interesting part--the mythos stuff--is gonna take a back seat to his lost son or his gambling debt or that time he misplaced the remote or whatever his issue is. Again, Lovecraft's protagonists usually didn't even have names. If you're gonna call that a condemnation of Lovecraft, then why is this game titled after one of Lovecraft's short stories and based on his lore, and not (say) an adaptation of one of Stephen King's novels (all of which are character-heavy to the point where the actual horror element gets lost in the shuffle)? In fact, almost nobody talks about Stephen King these days...

(For what it's worth, King himself considered Lovecraft the superior writer).

Look, I know we all liked [title redacted to avoid spoiler] but...


I am sooooo freaking tired of horror games where the big twist at the end is "the game was entirely in this one guy's head and everything you saw was an analogy or metaphor for his personal demons."

I always feel so ripped off when a game does this. It combines the "character drama" flaw with the "explanation that makes the entire game lame" theme.

There was this one game (which I won't name but I will describe) which dealt with various periods in the player character's life, and weird stuff happened and you constantly got told you had committed some grave betrayal. At certain points you're doing research on alien stuff, at another point you're in an arctic outpost... it turns out your "big sin" was you once managed to pin a drunk driving charge on someone else, and all the alien stuff was just you hallucinating while in a coma during which you somehow saw some horror movies.

Facepalm facepalm facepalm.

Like, seriously, I thought the twist was gonna be that he had somehow sold the Earth out to aliens or was a sleeper agent or something... which might've actually been awesome. But instead no, the whole thing was a dream and a guilt complex with an unconvincing explanation. I don't give a crap about personal drama, I want REAL aliens.

This is actually why I don't bother with modern horror, because it seems nowadays horror writers (at least in the gamesphere) are way too intent on shortchanging you with this "its all in your head" bollocks. I don't wanna play a game or experience a story where its all in your head. If there's not an actual thing happening, then the experience is stupid and pointless. Very often the thing the person did to be torturing himself over is pathetically trite and in no way makes up for shortchanging us like that.

I get the feeling writers like this for two reasons. First is its an easy cop-out--found a plot hole or inconsistent explanation? Well, it's a hallucination anyway so there's your answer! Second, because they have this misconception that they're somehow being "deep." Third, it means they don't have to rack their brains finding a real thread to tie everything together--finding a reason ghosts are haunting this one place is hard, but if its all a hallucination then there ya go, there were no ghosts.

Part of me also suspects it might be a statement on modern nerddom, so hidebound to science and technology that they won't even accept the concept of a ghost or an alien being in an otherwise realistic environment except as something people are just making up.

Which.... is kind of missing the point, since horror is supposed to be about tackling ideas you refuse to accept.

Again, a Lovecraft comparison... recently I was discussing the story "Herbert West: Reanimator" on Skype, and I mentioned that in the original short story, there's a part where West uses his reanimator fluid on a decapitated man, expecting only the body to start moving (since the head is cut off and on another table)... but the head also starts talking. I gave my interpretation, which was that Lovecraft was an atheist so to him, something like this happening would be confirmation of a soul or something like it, and thus everything he believed is wrong (or at least, deeply in question). Essentially Lovecraft was applying his own "what you believe is irrelevant to reality" philosophy to himself, not just everyone else.

Today, no writer would have a scene like this (hell, that scene was redone in the 1980s Reanimator movie so it is the potion that resurrects both head and body, with the result that instead of challenging anyone's beliefs, it just makes Herbert West look like an idiot) because their heads are so far up their hidebound science asses that even saying "in this fictional universe, ghosts exists" is too morally impugnating for them.

Lack of a sub-reality

So, let me mention Lovecraft one last time.

At the beginning of the short story "The Silver Key," Lovecraft broaches the idea that while people don't think much of dreams and imagination because they don't tangibly exist... well, they actually do, and real life is just as much an illusion. This story also kicks off a three-story cycle in which a guy named Randolph Carter tries using his dreams to go on a sort of quest, with an implication that the thing he wants is actually attainable--that his imagination can affect reality.

Right there, there's a lot you rarely see in video games. Video game storylines are always depressingly physical. Even when you have creatures who exist on different wavelengths or whatever, they're a big growley thing that slashes you with its claws.

The next story, Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, has this scene where a ship sails right off the edge of the world... and through outer space, landing on the freaking moon (which cats can get to just by jumping, apparently). Okay, so with all the amounts of fantasy genres like RPGs have indulged in, how come I've never played a Final Fantasy game where a ship has ramped itself off of flowing water and into the sky? Sure, those games have Airships, but those are again putting a material spin on a fantastic concept--they fly because they have propellers like a helicopter, of course!

This is where I'm sure some people are gonna mention The Evil Within, which is close to what I'm thinking about... and even that does it in a sci-fi-ish way (and really, I find the environments a little oddly prosaic for dreams. Seriously, a normal-ass police building? Not even gonna have a room with an inexplicably high ceiling and a logicless monorail where you're in a room one minute watching Rainbow Brite but then suddenly you're not really there but actually just remembering doing this... yeah I've had weird dreams). Actually, to be fair, the Half-Life mods Afraid of Monsters and Cry of Fear do get aspects of this down pat, as do some of the Silent Hills.

Too bad any game about dreams tends to also use the "none of this is real, its all just him torturing himself" thing I complained about earlier.

On a wider scale though (getting beyond horror games here), how come I never see an RPG villain whose master plan is to chip part of an eldritch entity's tomb and use the resulting psychic waves to get into people's dreams and grab certain concepts he likes to weave them into the cosmic chaos and... what the hell am I even talking about?

But no, its always some douche who wants to sic his soldiers on people out of good old power-hungriness. Even when the bad guy is a freaking sleeping wizard on the moon, he's just a really mad guy who hates Earthlings and wants to rule everything. They're all just masquerading as men with a reason, their charades are the event of the season. If they claim to be a wise man, it surely means that they don't know.

God I wish I knew how to program, maybe the kind of thing I want would be a good indie game.

(On that note, I'm shocked nobody used RPG Maker to make a game of Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows." Seriously that thing seems perfect for an RPG Maker horror game).

So, the short version

There needs to be another remake of Splatterhouse and this time, don't play it for camp.

The greatest sin a horror game can pull is "none of this actually happened, it was all in his head." Dreams are okay if there's an element of tangibility to them and NOT if they're used as a cop-out to avoid having actual supernatural elements.

Nobody cares about Joe Bob's Dead Son, we're here for the aliens.

Please involve concepts more complicated than something you'd hear in a child's campfire story.

If you're gonna do Lovecraft, please do him justice.

Carry on my wayward son. There'll be peace when you are done.