(This is another installment of .exe, a weekly PC-gaming focused opinion column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
People who try and determine an objective victor in the “console versus PC” debate are, to be quite fair, morons. The fact of the matter is, while consoles are certainly resembling shitty PCs more and more, they still have their uses, and I believe that a true winner is able to recognize that consoles are good for some types of games, while computers are better for others. A smart gamer exploits the strengths of all machines in order to 0btain the most rounded interactive experience possible. For example, if I want to play something big, loud, explosive, and altogether more “Hollywood,” then I’m going to do it on a PS3 or Xbox 360. My console’s hooked up to the big TV, with the big sound system, in a big room. My PC, on the other hand, is nestled securely in the corner of my office. It’s not so good for huge games with massive explosions. However, its intimacy is what makes it perfect for slower, more psychological adventures. It has easily become the home of horror gaming.
It’s quite funny that Microsoft once tried to claim that Alan Wake wouldn’t work on PC because it was scarier on a huge television in the main room. It was an ignorant statement, and one that Remedy would later go on to deny entirely, because the opposite is almost universally true. If I want a game to scare the shit out of me, I am going to want it on my PC, every single time. The typical environment of the PC is uniquely perfect for scarier titles. PCs usually boast smaller screens than the average modern television, but the user is situated far closer to it. When coupled with the generally solitary nature of computer use, the player is in an optimum position to be frightened. When comfortable sat on a couch, any number of feet away from the television, in a big room where people can just wander in and talk to your face, the atmosphere becomes considerably less effective. There’s a special kind of claustrophobia that comes from PC gaming, one that is far more intimate and personal. That’s what makes it so damn effective.
The more experimental nature of PC game development also allows for experiences that just wouldn’t fly on console. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a fairly obvious example of a game that’s succeeded very well on PC, despite not having a shit’s chance in Hell of finding a home on the Xbox 360. Its focus on sneaking about while being chased by terrifying monstrosities is almost universally accepted as one of the most successful horror formulas in history, and it was able to wonderfully exploit the personal, excluding relationship between the PC gamer and his or her monitor. More recently, we’ve also had Cry of Fear, an atmospheric Half-Life mod that, while suffering from a number of major design flaws, is still incredibly good at what it does best — making you squeal like a pathetic baby.
I’ve praised the PC market before due its acceptance of games that don’t look very pretty. So long as a game is good and gets viral attention, it doesn’t have to be a Crysis or an Uncharted in order to become a hit. This special element of the market also contributes to the effectiveness of horror games. In an episode of my Web show, Jimquisition, I once argued that the best horror games are those that don’t look pretty. A part of what makes any horror work effective is its ability to visually repulse. It’s why low-budget horror movies are almost always more atmospheric, authentic, and scary than their polished, glistening, Hollywood counterparts. Seeing pretty people in pretty environments being chased by pretty CGI monsters is never going to be as spooky as a shaky camera with believable people being chased through a dirty corridor by hideously designed monsters. It’s why “found footage” movies have become so popular. Low quality makes something more believable, ergo, more frightening.
Nowadays, most videogames aren’t considered scary, even those calling themselves horror games. Dead Space is a fantastic title, and its jump scares are good for quick thrills, but it’s been designed to look more “cool” than “scary.” Later Resident Evil games may have their intense moments, but the focus on explosions, gunfire, and pretty graphics makes them less successful as horror games than the original PlayStation installments. Few zombies have been as scary as those found in the original Resident Evil. Sure, they were a little silly — but their stilted, inhuman animations and glaring, dead, pixellated eyes are enough to give anyone nightmares.
Enter the PC, where ugly games are still considered worthwhile endeavors. Again, we can consider both Amnesia and Cry of Fear as relatively unattractive games that have nonetheless gotten a lot of attention, and owe their scariness in part to how graphically unappealing they are. After all, that’s what horror should be — unpleasant to look at. And with less time spent making everything look beautiful, the developers can focus on what really matters — nailing that sense of atmosphere and pacing that makes a game truly intimidating.
PC gaming offers a perfect storm for horror games. A typically more intimate playing environment, the freedom to make more experimental games, and the lack of pressure to have everything looking gorgeous. This is why, when asked if horror gaming can survive another generation, I remain confident that it can. The PC keeps horror alive and well, and while some console games can be quite scary, I know that I’ll always prefer to be horrified with a mouse and keyboard at my hand. PC gaming is the true home of horror these days, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
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