Incest, Bestiality & Infanticide: Why is Game Horror Often Afraid of Taboos?

The purpose of horror is to unsettle people, to make them feel afraid, disgusted or dirty, to make them stare in the face of the very worst aspects of the human psyche, all within an ultimately safe and controllable environment. The screen, or the page, is the barrier between unspeakable terror and relative safety. It is a barrier, through which we should be able to experience things that we would be unable to face in the real world for any number of reasons.

However, even within the realms of darkness that is the horror genre of games (and to some extent also, of films and literature) there remain certain subjects, certain taboo content that is forced to remain under the surface, slowly circling in the depths. Everybody knows that they’re down there, but very, very few choose to acknowledge them. As the title suggests, two candidates for these lurking topics are child killing, or infanticide, and bestiality, but there are many others. Just about any perverse or depraved sexual or necrotic act one could imagine is likely to be on the very list that horror is almost too scared to show you.

But you can imagine it. We all know that these awful things happen in the real world – in that regard, what we hear on the evening news is infinitely more horrific than any horror game, film or book. Murder, rape, imprisonment and torture are all frequently discussed on prime time evening broadcasting, yet are shunned by the very media that is supposed to portray that content in a way that is safe and more readily approachable.

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Flap Off: Creative Conservatism and the App Market

It’s been a while since my last post, dwelling as I currently am in the depths of thesis-writing purgatory. However, on a recent excursion to the surface to obtain coffee and sunlight, I had the pleasure of observing the Flappy Bird saga (no, King. No.) and considering how well it epitomises one of the most consistent issues within the games industry. I’m going to focus in particular in this article on the mobile app marketplace, but this applies to console titles too, although possibly in a slightly different way.

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Single-Player Games are not a ‘Gimmick’

Anybody that knows me will tell you I tend to dislike people.

This isn’t personal. It’s not the person I dislike, usually at least – it’s the dominant discourse within today’s culture that says I have to talk to them. The one that says I should share stuff with them, and invite them to do otherwise. Frequently I am bemoaned by my friends for not answering my phone, or letting it run out of battery, or burying it in a small pile of clothes in the bedroom. But this is my prerogative is it not? I don’t need to be accessible for idle conversation all the time surely? Is society really going to break down into anarchy because I let my email go unanswered for an entire 24-hour period?

This extends to my attitude towards games as well. Gaming time is sacred, relaxing, chill out time, to be shared with others on the rare occasion a game has a worthwhile co-op mode. Other than that, I want to sit down and immerse myself in something that isn’t real life, from a twisting and turning plot through to a rich, deep fantasy world.

I recently stumbled upon an interview with the CEO of developer Gogogic, Jonas Antonsson, with the somewhat inflammatory title “Single-Player is a gimmick, says mid-core developer”. Ignoring the issue of the term “mid-core”, which is frankly, utterly redundant when the use of ‘hardcore’, ‘core’ and ‘casual’ as demographic-defining terms feels fundamentally base and outdated, this title poses quite a bold claim.

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Can Innovation Truly Coexist with the Triple-A Model?

Quite possibly one of my more controversial post titles, but I’m going to run with it.

I’ve just finished the first phase of game play testing on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and, along with a wealth of massively interesting data for my PhD that I now have the job of writing up into meaningful prose, some very intriguing conversations were spawned from a range of different players.

In terms of the general data gathered, there was a very clear, almost entirely polarised divide between the positive and negative responses to various aspects of the game (none of which I am going to specifically mention, of course, so if you’re looking for tidbits of information here you’re out of luck I’m afraid). The divide was between those players with a lot of experience either with horror games in general, or specifically with Frictional Games’ past work, and those coming to the franchise for the first time. What one group of players liked, the other almost always detested, and vice-versa. Now, that is to be expected in some cases, as the Amnesia franchise’s style of play is not for everyone – as is the case with every type of game, after all. But the extent to which this division existed was very surprising, even extending to things which were on the list of intended changes because they didn’t seem to be working.

So, this, coupled with some conversations over alcohol later on, got me thinking, can truly different, innovative or uniquely challenging gameplay ever comfortably co-exist with the established Triple-A model of development? Don’t get me wrong of course – I enjoy games where I don’t need to think too much – I do enough of that in my job, I often want to switch off when I’m playing a game, and BulletShoot XVI and its brethren fill this need very well. But, why does it have to be up to the independent sector to step away from the established, to step away from the expected, and to do something – anything – different. The independent sector is often viewed by its detractors as providing experimental, academically intriguing, but ultimately less than amazing games – which of course, is a ridiculous and outdated point of view. However, two words do still ring true there; experimental, and intriguing.

I can’t remember the last ‘big’ game that genuinely intrigued me. Thrilled me? Yes, perhaps. Satisfied my rampant blood lust? Of course. Made me sit back in awe of its overall spectacle? Occasionally. But actually intrigued me to such an extent that I was left itching to know more of what was going on in the designer’s or writer’s heads? That is rare. But it shouldn’t be. These are the people, the developers, with the power, resources and know-how to deliver experiences like this in abundance.

The argument that there isn’t a big enough market for it to be a profitable way of doing business is flawed. Of course it is profitable. Perhaps it is profitable over a longer period of time, but it is certainly profitable. There are more demographics within gamer culture than ‘those that play Call of Duty and ‘those that play anything else’. ‘Those that play anything else’ is such a richly varied demographic with multiple facets within it, each one as potentially lucrative as the CoD audience. After all, only so many big developers are required to satiate that group of players. Why is there no rush to be the first big developer to tap into one of the underestimated demographics hidden elsewhere in the industry?

I’m going to be very confrontational here – but, it does appear to me that the big players in the industry are scared. All business, big or small, has risk associated with it, and rewards attached to that risk for those willing to take the plunge. Are you all quite happy to sit back, guard your ever decreasing portion of the demographic pie, and wait until the independent sector comes along with a whole new, far tastier pie? Or are you going to do your bit to drive the industry forward, to drive the medium forward, and to create different types of gaming experience and gaming challenge for all of the eager players?

That which indie games are often very successful in achieving in terms of fresh experiences or types of play can be brought to so many more players if the industry as a whole sees risk not as an incentive to hide under a hat made of sequels, but rather as an incentive to start making lots of new hats for itself. Yes my metaphors are strange today. Shut up.