How to Horror Games by the Numbers – Think Piece

Tis the season for horror games, isn’t it gov’na’? Halloween has adopted a strange pre-and-post wake in the video game industry that goes about a month in either direction. You see it online through streams and most social media branches to where the anticipation for one of America’s goofiest holidays spreads quickly and deeply through gaming groups.

At the time of writing this, it’s still September (I think, maybe). With the pre-horror game wake in full effect, I can go on Twitch and…yep, 9 of the top 100 games are horror. Not an overwhelming total, but still pretty amazing considering a) companies consider this a “niche” genre and b) we haven’t even seen a big spooky game release yet.

Horror games are yearly traditions, and the genre itself seems far more popular now than ever. That’s not to say that it’s always been the case that you can find quality when you drop by this yearly destination. There was actually one hell of a dark period not too long ago for horror, and not the good kind of dark. This generation of consoles has brought with it a lot of fresh properties to redress some ideas that, while I’m not a huge fan of, are nonetheless proving popular draws.

One of the arisen arguments that I’ve had in my head for a long time is which of the many, many disparate mechanics of horror games have had more of an impact over time. Especially when dealing with mechanics I disagree with, I’ve wanted to have something even semi-concrete to back-up my opinion beyond my mind-numbing monologues.

So, of course, I now turn to numbers to marginalize, overly-reduce, and throw bullets onto my belt for what aspects of horror games have had the greatest impact.

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The overall objective here is two-fold. Firstly, I want to see what aspects have seemed to lend themselves to critical acclaim from reviewers. Second-half-ly, I want to run that by how well the games sold overall. That should give us a decent picture of what aspects really shine from each iteration and/or series.

I’m also going to wrangle this little study in just slightly by saying only about 9 games/series will be looked at. I want to have a good slice of old and new, series and one-offs to paint as full a picture as possible. Because I’m the Bob Ross of game number gathering.

To the beginning we start, the first popularized horror games genre was survival horror from the first Alone in the Dark. Unfortunately for the first game, the only real review I could find was a poorly-written IGN retrospective. The days of digital archival projects, sadly, didn’t begin until much later, leaving those old magazine-only reviews in landfills. As a middle-ground, we’ll take the PC-only Alone in the Dark Trilogy’s information to heart first.

The original Alone in the Dark presented a blueprint for survival horror. This includes inventory management, monsters to avoid or shoot, puzzles to navigate, a creepy backing track of lore, and a claustrophobic environment. Combat seemed secondary at all times and the developers seemed to push you into pacifism more times than not, highlighting the “survival” section in a clunky way. The second and third retained the bones, but went insane in a bad way with the stories. Still, these games seemed to age fairly well as the trilogy received respectable marks for retrospectives.

With that as the benchmark for survival horror as a section of horror games, we have a good idea moving forward into the next iteration of the the formula in Resident Evil. The original became a PlayStation One classic almost instantly. From a horror perspective, it added a certain in-universe sense to a ridiculous story as well as carrying over…basically everything from Alone in the Dark. Seriously, Resident Evil took ALL of the staples. That game was the whiteboard for Capcom.

What Resident Evil added were a lot of technical improvements on top of a few innovations such as the item boxes. More subtle changes gave players a more direct feeling of influence on the game world too, certainly helping Resident Evil keep its legs beneath it for longer distances.

Horror games were in for another shift in the 90s with Silent Hill taking the stage. The same blueprint was certainly in place for Konami, but with a heavier split towards the psychological horror. The foggy town also dealt with religious cultism which is worth noting as it’s one of the first horror games to tackle the subject, albeit in a fairly flimsy construct. Regardless, Silent Hill gave those looking for a more subtle horror experience a taste of what was to come from the series in early entries.

For a long time, these three series were the standards for other horror games to strive towards. There were, perhaps, hundreds of others such as Dino Crisis, D, Michigan: Report From Hell, Overblood, and far more that gave their own spins, but if you’re looking for a good baseline, these three are the bedrock.

From a sales perspective is where Alone in the Dark becomes a bit fuzzy. After emails and searching online, I’ve not been able to find a reliable number to post beneath any of the first five entries I’ve recorded scores against. Unfortunately, we’ll have to leave that section out for Alone in the Dark as we move forward.

Thankfully, Resident Evil and Silent Hill are far more giving in their figures.

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As you can see, bars and lines.

This data represents the first main five entries in either series alongside their scores and sales figures. The disparity doesn’t affect our data here as there are too many other factors in play in determining popularity. What I’m interested in disecting is the second game for either series where the scores nearly overlap.

Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill 2 are long-standing parties in any discussion over the best horror games of all time. What was introduced in either is what sets their series apart on the rest of our visual trajectory. Silent Hill 2 brought in the concept of multiple endings due to subtle changes and actions. You have to look at your wife’s picture at a certain frequency to attain one ending, and you have to jump through hoops to attain a joke ending. This added a certain level of consequence that played with your mind to a much more involved state than the first game.

On the other side is Resident Evil 2, which was, in many ways, the quintessential sequel. It’s everything about the first game made better, bigger, and bolder. The largest difference stands as the separate-but-together gameplay mechanic that has Leon and Claire overlapping their games at certain sections – one hand washing, or flipping off, the other. Upon a second playthrough, either survivor could unlock even more cross-game horrors. This was a change in the stakes as you had to choose to think about someone else’s survival.

Both series declined slightly in their subsequent entries, Silent Hill moving towards what would be a greater eventual slide and Resident Evil beginning to feel familiar. Resident Evil 3 (Game 3 above) sold a fascinatingly low amount comparatively, despite it being famous for sensationalizing the “stalker” character, Nemesis. It scored lower too as reviewers all seemed to echo a certain stagnation that Nemesis just couldn’t hold back by itself.

For Silent Hill, the second game in the series stands as the critical and consumer-based highpoint, displaying a certain lean towards the psychological aspect that could use subtilty to push the player to care for the people within their hellscapes. Resident Evil 2 and 4, serving as high points in the data, point to elements of interconnectivity with other characters in the universe baked into the gameplay as well as a tension-filled action lean.

The landscape of horror games has shifted to an almost primordial fashion that games initially skipped over entirely. Today’s dominate sub-genre deals primarily with jump scares as well as what I like to call “hide or die” gameplay. These games seem to be coming out at a remarkable pace and with mirroring similarities, but that is in part due to the ease of making games today versus the 90s. Regardless, here’s how the some of the most notable horror games today stand.

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For those in the series above that have multiple entries, only the first game was taken into account for the data.

The horror games shift for this console generation has, from a topsoil view, a very perplexing array of trends. First-person terror-mongers like Outlast and Amnesia sold better than horror love letters like Until Dawn, all of which sold worse – but scored better than – multiplayer-only asymmetrical title Dead By Daylight. Oh, and then you have an old-fashioned Resident Evil remix with Evil Within. If nothing else, you can color these numbers confusing as they stand alone.

On the other hand, these wildly varying numbers do bring about an interesting point: lots of design teams seem to be looking for new combinations of horror. Let’s take that theory to the numbers again.

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With these sequels came a radical mixture of approaches. Outlast 2 stayed the closest to the preceding formula, adding a different setting and monsters that hit quite well with critics, if not yet audiences at the level of the original. Both A Machine for Pigs and Evil Within 2 dealt more in differences by degrees, keeping the initial bones bleached white while rearranging some pieces.

Then you have Rush of Blood, which is about as loosely connected to the first game as you possibly can be without falling off that flagpole. You’re looking at a first-person on-rails shooter for the sequel, which is landlocked to PlayStation VR, making the barrier for entry extremely high compared to the rest of the games here. Despite being hailed as one of the better experiences on the PSVR at release, the lack of discernible matching characteristics make this one tough to put meaning into with the given numbers.

Regardless, with our study of horror games at an apex, I think we have a decent idea of what can (and should) make any horror game pop. The following are in order from more influential to least influential as per our data here, and all should be seen as touchstones for positive or negative trends.

Environment/Creature Design
– Positive Influencers: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Outlast, Amnesia, Evil Within
– Negative Influencers: Dead By Daylight, Until Dawn

Not to be confused with graphical power, no other aspect is so positively impacted in all of horror games. Reviews from all of these games mention the atmospheres, environments, and creatures as huge talking points and sales for most showed their success or failures. Each of these games and series seemed influenced most by this aspect to an overwhelming degree while sales dips and climbs seemed to accompany the environment or creature design’s perceived quality.

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Dead By Daylight seemed to perform adequately enough at first that reviewers didn’t mention the characters or environments as heavily as others in the data.

Both Dead By Daylight and the Until Dawn series didn’t have quite as many mentions in this category, lending their successes to other aspects that will come up later. So, while they were negative influences here, that is not to say there’s wasn’t a successful journey.

Gameplay Mechanics
– Positive Influencers: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Until Dawn, Dead By Daylight, Evil Within
– Negative Influencers: Amnesia, Outlast

This category was split as all hell, but boiled down to simplicity, even in the most varied of gameplay types. No matter if you have a camera, a meter, a flashlight, or a whole army to monitor, there’s no mistake that those that trended upwards or remained stable had systems looked at as simple, intuitive, and capable of holding attention.

Both Amnesia and Outlast are series that seem to have more focus on their environments and characters than anything other aspects. A Machine for Pigs made too small an impact on the overall data despite some sustained backlash over gameplay changes from The Dark Descent.

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Atmosphere wins the day in games such as those from the Amnesia series, despite a lengthy disclaimer at the beginning of Dark Descent for gameplay mechanics.

Originality of Concept
– Positive Influencers: Resident Evil, Until Dawn, Dead By Daylight
– Negative Influencers: Silent Hill, Evil Within, Amnesia, Outlast

While not quite as split as gameplay mechanics, the notoriously finicky nature of what “works” in horror games bares its teeth most in this category.

Silent Hill is a surprising detractor for this category for me as I grew up in the midst of its battle with Resident Evil. A lot of people weren’t concerned with attaching originality to the concept as the series moved on, but at a lack of creativity in the character design and environments. In that sense, no other game rose or fell more than Silent Hill during its run.

The Evil Within seemed to be completely accepted from the same mind that made Resident Evil for what it was without much mention. For some dramatic irony, Resident Evil seemed to be under constant scrutiny in reviews at times for either too much originality or too little, the latter marching through to Resident Evil 7 as a huge talking point.

As to my original, sophomoric intention of breaking down action-centric games against the run-or-die style, it’s unfortunately a no contest for the former. Resident Evil, even before the fourth entry, was known for small fits of frantic action that included being able to fight back, gradually earning power as you went along, and every number skews in the favor of Capcom’s beloved. Outlast, Amnesia, and others have certainly had series success with numbers to match, which I can certainly respect to a greater extent after pulling all of this together. Their comparison is just a large hill against a mountain.

All in all, there’s a small window into how horror games should approach their design philosophies. A lot of gamers care about how their environments creak and unspeakable monsters moan more so than the size of the world or many other factors that the mainstream has in their benchmarking talons. Horror games are a different breed, perfectly suited for lower-budget, highly-creative teams to knock out of the park.

Now that you have a checklist, I urge any and all to create something that will knock our collective socks off.

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