Why indie horror holds a special place in the nightmares of gamers.
With Halloween approaching, many gamers are looking to their control pads to offer new scares and eye-widening heart palpitations. Video games are perfectly situated for horror. From the way a first-person perspective can uniquely draw you into the experience, to the sense of agency that bestows so much pressure on your ability to survive, the personal experience of a video game offers unparalleled access to the human limbic system. As we know, however, some experiences are far superior in their ability to genuinely scare us, and the tried and tested conventions of triple-A horror may just be turning on itself in this arena.
The scariest experiences are of the nuanced terror that creeps into your subconscious and reemerges in the dead of night, even when you’re far removed from the situation at hand. Nuance, though, is rarely achieved to its full effect in big budget productions more concerned with realistic graphics or online multiplayer abilities. Indies are able to focus their efforts on the specific techniques that elicit fear in a far more effective manner.
Triple-A horror titles tend to rely on historically successful formulae to create snap moments of panic. Indies, on the other hand, create their own terrifying situations, building on unique and often personal fears. The distinction here is that these big budget, tried and tested, conventions simply don’t scare us anymore – or if they do, only for a few missed heartbeats.
Take, for example, triple-A games that drop a player in the middle of a situation without a weapon. Being without a means of defence leaves the player helpless in a situation in which they have been primed to believe they have total agency. By itself, it’s a truly uncomfortable experience. The knowledge that you alone are responsible for staving off any lurking evils, yet being all too aware that you don’t possess the tools for the job, hits a primal fear within us.
But we know the convention now. We know when we step into the first scenes of Resident Evil that we are defenceless, and we know the game won’t throw anything at us that we can’t handle in that state. We know that once we reach the truly scary stuff we’ll be well equipped, if sparingly so in terms of ammunition. We know this because we’ve played through the journey so many times before, we even know exactly what types of weapons we’ll upgrade to and how we will get our hands on them.
Indie titles often do the same thing – that is, place a player in a potentially threatening situation with no means of defence. The difference here, however, is that the promise of a weapon later on isn’t always present. We know indies don’t follow the conventions we’re used to in triple-A so that initial feeling of helplessness spans much longer, and the threat in the dark is much more prominent.
Slenderman does precisely this. If we were roaming a lush forest in a Leon Kennedy-esque canter with only a torch to keep us safe, we wouldn’t feel the same dread as we do when we believe that our torch is the only thing that will ever keep us safe. There are no promises in indie games, no expectations, and no safety net.
Similarly, triple-A games don’t show us the big guys until the real heat of the game. An unknown enemy is perhaps the most terrifying one, and triple-A developers have long relied upon the fact that a player will likely fill in the gaps with far more terrifying prospects than their engines are capable of rendering. That’s how it worked in the beginning, however.
We know the format of what we’re up against. While we haven’t seen the real big guns yet, we know they will likely be horribly disfigured zombies, Frankenstein’s monsters of bio-nuclear degeneration, or a staple screaming ghost woman. We’re accustomed to the gore that these experiences rely on, so we already know in the back of our minds what we’re likely to be up against. Better the enemy you know – and at this stage, we know all of them.
So when we are finally introduced to these creatures, we are so desensitised to the gore they use to intimidate us that we aren’t even particularly scared of them anyway. We see them as concoctions of weak spots and movement patterns, rather than a directly threat. And even when we do break a sweat, it’s more over our own fear of losing weapons, progress, or XP should we succumb.
The diversity of indie games, however, leaves us with an open field of potential enemies. We fear what we can’t see in indie games because we genuinely don’t know what we’re about to come up against. We don’t have that comfort of a pre-existing understanding of the enemies lurking in the dark. While Firewatch isn’t exactly marketed as a horror game, the creepy foreboding and pulse-in-your-ears tension that accompanies many discoveries within the game is the result of a complete lack of expectations. We don’t know what kind of game this could turn out to be, and the open-ended nature of the experience we have encountered leaves us vulnerable.
Anatomy takes this concept of hidden enemies further. Rather than focusing on the enemies you can’t see, the game is designed to have the player fear the very design of the house they are exploring. The threat now goes beyond the fear of an external agent and becomes a more subtle dread surrounding the environment you’re constrained within.
Jump scares, highly detailed blood ‘n’ guts, and realistic visuals all combine to create a formula for fear that triple-A games regularly employ to evoke a quick reaction. The difficulty with this, however, lies in the fact that this fear only lasts a moment. A jump scare is, literally, a jolt of adrenaline engineered by anything. Shove a kitten in someone’s face and scream and you’ll get the same reaction.
As we’ve seen, then, indie games build on a far more nuanced fear – fears that creep in and settle in the dark recesses of the human experience. The easiest way this is achieved is through narrative and theme; Gone Home’s tale of abandonment and isolation taps into fears we’re rarely aware of when playing a video game, for example.
Indie developers can build these experiences because audiences aren’t expecting that big-budget thrill ride from them. They have a far more open landscape in which to create; the freedom of building an idea in a mind that isn’t already tainted by preconceived notions of a threat. The result is a terror far more intricate, far more subtle, and one that can leave the player experiencing far more discomfort. Ultimately, it comes down to the experimental nature of indie games. Different ways of achieving fear are explored far more in this landscape, giving rise of unique experiences like Bonbon, a horror exploration through the eyes of a small child, or IMSCARED, a meta title that installs creepy files on a user’s PC to continue to the story.
Leaving players without a means of defence, an unknown enemy, and big budget visuals all combine under the umbrella of corporate creation: an established formula that these triple-A companies trust to scare, and so continue to reuse. Zombies, biohazards, ancient monsters, all in high-fidelity with a jump scare every now and then, and only a small pistol for defence… the genre has become a collection of expected tropes.
The relief of the indie developer, then, comes from their freedom from the reliance of these tropes. Financially and creatively, indie developers can make a game about what scares them, and convey that fear in a way that they want to, whether that includes a metagame, unique player character perspectives, or simple human emotions further extrapolated. The overall effect of this is that the player feels far more connected to the experience itself. It’s this connection, experimentation, and lack of prior contexts that truly makes an indie horror game far scarier than its triple-A counterparts.