So we’re under a month away from Dead Space 3’s release, and I find myself asking a familiar question… It’s a question I last asked myself when F.E.A.R 3 (or F.3.A.R, which is undeniably a far stupider name) was on the verge of release. Will this be the game to PERFECT the horror genre?
Now sure, I bet a lot of you are thinking ‘but both Dead Space and the first F.E.A.R. game WERE great additions to the horror genre, while they’re action packed, co-op sequels seem to focus LESS on horror’. I would have to agree that yes, the original games WERE brilliant examples of horror games done right, but when I think back to my experiences with both those games, there is definitely something missing. I remember jumping and yelping my way through F.E.A.R.’s scares and psychological brain jabs and I remember downright clutching my controller in terror during the final confrontation with Alma. Similarly, my first encounter with Dead Space involved several, 20 minute blocks of sheer terror, with 30 minute intervals of shaking and sweating just to recover enough nerve to pick up the controller again.
But straight after these experiences, in some cases during them, I was texting, calling or messaging friends to share my experience. “HEY DUDE, I’M SHITTING MYSELF. FEAR IS SO FREAKIN’ SCARY!”. My first instinct was to spread and share the emotional reaction this game caused in me. To me, this was indicative of how I (and I think many others) experience horror. We like to bounce our feelings of our friends. That’s why, as kids, we would tell horror stories at sleep over parties. Because we FEED off each others emotions. We see how scared our friends are and in turn it makes US more scared. Or if we’re scared, we need to let it spread, like a virus, because somehow seeing those close to us just as scared as we are gives us validation.
So this is why I was excited at the prospect of F.E.A.R. 3. I thought the great, psychological frights from the first game would be back but this time be amplified with inclusion of co-op. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Whilst the game was fun, with some creative co-op implementation, there was a heavier emphasis on action than there was on horror.
My initial excitement for this ideal horror game though made me realise how perfect the co-op format is for a horror game, especially online co-op. There is so much you can do with it. After all, good horror takes familiar conventions and twists them, turns them on their head and in gaming there are so many conventions just waiting to be screwed with. For instance, something simple like knowing where your co-op partner is. How often do we see the hero of a horror movie get split up from his friends? In a co-op game, splitting up is generally just an excuse for two players to experience something different, but they’re still chatting over their headsets and nattering away. What if when two players split up, their party chat is disabled? All of a sudden they’re alone, no idea where their partner is. In that isolation, when the player feels the most vulnerable, that’s the prime place to insert fear into the players heart. But you can’t have that effect on the player without the co-op. It’s that balance between making the player comfortable and then stealing that comfort away that makes horror so effective. It’s like making a typewriter room in a Resident Evil game suddenly come under attack by zombies. You make a player never feel save.
Or alternatively, what if the visual information you get on screen doesn’t match the reality? What if the co-op partner you see beside you is actually an A.I. controlled enemy, just waiting to strike? Or if, after being split up, your waypoint leading you back to your team mate actually leads you back to a corpse? Or better yet, what if one you could die and the other kept playing, without knowing, only to stumble upon the hideously dismembered corpse of your friend, which then triggers the reload checkpoint. Wouldn’t that service the feeling of terror better than getting an arbitrary red screen because a partner has died? Woudn’t that perfectly recreate a scene we’ve seen in horror films so many times before?
This is why I have high hopes for Dead Space 3. Because despite people’s fear that it will become another action heavy sequel, it seems like they get what makes horror work. One of the features they’ve implemented is that the two co-op players will sometimes see different things. One player might be seeing hordes of Necromorphs attacking while the other doesn’t. Creating a rift between the players, adding to the unease is exactly what you need to do to make horror work within a game. The horror fan in me is already salivating at the prospect of such an experience. I want this game to screw with me. I want to have that control taken away from me and I want to experience it with a friend, like I have with movies before.
And with this games February release (and the demo on January 22nd) we can only hope it delivers.
Ben O’Brien hosts a weekly radio show on 2rrr 88.5fm called ‘Big Head Mode’. You can stream the show every friday, at 9pm on www.2rrr.org.au and you can follow the show on facebook for updates, news and gaming reviews at www.facebook.com/bigheadmode2rrr