Understanding Horror In Gaming, Why Slender: The Arrival Does It Right
I hope you saw our Slender: The Arrival review yesterday, as it was one of the earliest reviews around the globe. After giving the game a full play-through and being very happy by what I experienced, I began thinking about the horror genre in general while I read the feedback and responses to The Arrival, most of which has been positive so far. What sparked me to write this was two things, with the first being that I wanted to do an extended analysis of aspects of the game that I couldn’t say in the review, and secondly I wanted to address some of the misconceptions that people appear to have about the horror genre and what it’s all about. And I’m going to start off with the biggest error in thinking of them all. Prepare yourselves, I’m opening the controversial can. Not really.
I’ve seen many complain about Slender since the original game by Parsec Productions, throwing out the statement that it’s not “scary” at all, and it’s way over-hyped and overrated. Fair play, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you definitely shouldn’t have the liberty to be willfully wrong about certain aspects. I’m going to say it straight. Horror is not about being “scary”, and it never has been. Getting you to be scared is just a bonus, the desired outcome that horror would like to have. That may sound outrageous, but hear me out before you react. The reason is because being scared is, and will always be, an entirely subjective element. It’s an identical thing to having fun. Examples work best, so let me say that I know many gamers who had the time of their lives playing Assassin’s Creed III last year, yet I found it to be one of the most boring games of the entire year. Likewise, I know many who were reduced to weeping babies while watching the film Paranormal Activity – that’s the first one mind you – yet I had a blast and laughed throughout the whole movie. I loved it, but I wasn’t scared at all.
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It riled me up when many criticized Slender and said it’s absolutely not scary, despite many cowering in fear while playing it. Alright, tough guys. Hear this. Almost nothing scares me. Seriously. I could sit through any horror movie, I can sit alone in complete darkness with my headphones on max volume and play horror games (which I often do) and never feel frightened, and I could probably laugh off anything you ever found scary. Hell, the time I almost got robbed in real life I didn’t find myself scared. I just acted. The point I’m making is that fear is subjective. Just because you’re a “tough guy” it doesn’t diminish the fact that others will find things scary and frightening, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Again, it’s identical to the idea of having fun. But, the single most important fact is that where fun and fear are subjective elements, quality can be measured. The mechanics behind how something works can be evaluated. The degree to which something excels can be analysed. And as a result of all of these factors, we’re able to determine whether the execution is good or bad. That’s what matters.
You’re not better than anyone else, or even remotely right, if you don’t find something scary, when countless others do, and thus declare it to be not scary. It’s not scary to you. But more to the point, if the tendency to scare you is the biggest thing you judge a successful horror game on, then I’m afraid there are many aspects of the horror genre you don’t understand, or don’t think about. Consider this though. You’re judging a horror game based entirely on a subjective element. Imagine a world where games were critically judged solely based on how much fun they were in the eye of the player. Objectivity, or at the very least quality evaluation, wouldn’t exist. Understand that I’m not saying that finding something to be devoid of scares won’t diminish its value for you. Not at all, I can respect that, the same way I can understand how the value of a game can be diminished if you’re not having fun with it. But what I have a problem with is declaring a horror game to be bad because you didn’t find it scary, or talking down others who found it terrifying. That isn’t right, and it’s unfair to the game and its players.
Before I bring Slender: The Arrival into it, let’s talk about what actually makes a good horror game. Most importantly, one of my favourite sayings is that atmosphere is the heart of horror. It’s everything. Without atmosphere in a horror game, there can be no immersion, no build up and no real tension. Atmosphere is very difficult to create, and even more so to maintain. It’s not just about dark corridors, blood stains and flickering lights, but about making the player feel oppressed, and apprehensive. Truly good atmosphere has to be meticulously crafted with effective sound, suspense, reasons for the player to be tense, an air of danger or threat, and of course deception, a very powerful tool that is employed to make players hesitate and second guess, worrying about what’s around the next corner and becoming suspicious or even paranoid of their surroundings. Effectively, truly good atmosphere with deception basically results in players scaring themselves. That feeling you get when you know something is going to jump out at you, or when you feel completely vulnerable, weak and alone.
If you’ve nailed the atmosphere, then it’s highly likely that the immersion will do its work on players completely naturally. Behind every successfully created atmosphere, and resulting immersion, is a strong audio and visual experience. Classics like Silent Hill 2 or Amnesia: The Dark Descent would be nothing without their wonderfully crafted graphics and sound. The audio and visuals can mean everything for immersion. And the point of it all is that only once you’ve gotten players deeply engaged with the world, atmosphere and material can you then aspire to frighten or break them. Only once the atmosphere and immersion is there can horror elements like the fear of the unknown, the desperate need for survival or paranoia towards an overwhelming threat be truly powerful or meaningful. A great deal of horror really does take place in the viewer’s mind, and this makes it such a unique genre.
I’m sure you’ve now already got the idea as to why I consider Slender: The Arrival to be so good, and among the best horrors I’ve played. For starters, I was hooked right from the opening sequence. The music, the backstory, the visual quality and the game world all came together to deliver an enormous amount of immersion. Horror games have the potential to suck you in a lot more than many other genres, for the simple fact that you’re apprehensive about what lies ahead and begin to feel tense, which results in you concentrating a lot more on what’s going on. There’s no casually sitting back or going into autopilot, because that would be the fastest way to get caught off guard. There is no other genre of games that I played quite like The Arrival. I turned off all the lights, put my headphones on maximum volume, turned my air conditioner on to chill the room, and experienced the game. I was so engrossed in it, with all credit going to the game itself, that I lost all sense of everything else going on.
It was very easy to see from the early stages of the game that Parsec Productions and Blue Isle Studios knew exactly what they were doing when crafting the atmosphere of The Arrival. The game is so meticulous about every little sound, every change in tone and getting the right amount of silence in when it wants you to feel isolated. The pacing is excellent. This isn’t cheap horror. Things don’t just jump out at you every five minutes. It knows when to be subtle, when to shock you, when to just creep you out and when to tell you that you’re in deep trouble. Above all else, The Arrival does everything in its power to make you feel unnerved when playing it. Not necessarily scared, but tense. Stressed. Oppressed. Wrecked. It works so damn well that I didn’t even realise how stressed I was until I finished the game, walked out of my room and had my mother tell me that I looked like I had seen a ghost. That’s when I knew how well it really had done its job. I wasn’t overly scared, I didn’t wet my pants, but this game mentally exhausted me, and kept me compelled and highly strung for its entire duration.
That is the beauty of genuinely good horror. It’s not about jump scares. It’s not about gore. It’s not even about being scared. It’s about pure atmosphere and incredible immersion, and compelling you while leaving you a nervous wreck at the same time. You want to carry on and can’t stop yourself from doing so, and that’s going to be at the expense of your health and sanity. I didn’t play Slender: The Arrival. I experienced it, and it took its toll on me despite my fearless nature. And that all stems from the brilliant execution of the core atmosphere. It absolutely helps that The Arrival is an amazing audio and visual experience as well, with stunning graphics and top quality sound work which takes it to a whole other level of creepy and engaging. Particularly deserving of praise are the visual effects especially when Slender Man is near, and it really couldn’t have been done a whole lot better. It’s just top quality.
Slender: The Arrival ultimately works because it nailed the fundamentals of what it takes to make a genuinely good horror game, namely atmosphere and immersion. Of course it won’t please everyone out there, but for me, someone who has played dozens of horror games, this absolutely stands out as one of the best. The execution is just fantastic, and the experience even better. The horror genre may be in the spotlight in the indie scene right now, but there are very few truly great ones that just get what horror is all about. There’s certainly nothing in mainstream. That’s why I find it to be really important to praise games that do get it right, especially as a big fan of the genre. Hopefully, Slender: The Arrival can join the ranks of Amnesia: The Dark Descent in terms of being the go-to game for getting horror inspiration. It definitely has the quality for that honour, and I’d love to see more games like this.