11 Horror Game Clichés that Need to Die
Horror is practically built on clichés. It’s the cat that’s always the fake-out jump scare in the first act. It’s the clueless protagonist reaching for the scary door while the audience screams at them not to. It’s the masked killers, the scream queens, the creepy cabins; the whole shebang.
But there’s a fine line between paying homage to the genre’s hallmarks and braindead repetition. Horror gaming is no stranger to this malady. If anything, it’s even more susceptible to it than other forms of media, given how aggressively trend-driven digital entertainment tends to be. So writing about how it’s time to drop the horror game clichés that have long (long) since ceased being original may be so much pissing in the wind, but damnit if I’m not going to load up on diuretics and give it my best shot (metaphorically, that is). What follows is a personal hitlist of the tired tropes that horror games collectively need to drop for 2022 and beyond.
This one’s going slap-bang at the top of the list. Sure, it’s unoriginal as all hell, but it’s worth shouting that there are just too many damn zombie games out there. When I play a horror game, I want to encounter an enemy that’s panic-inducing and frighteningly alien. ‘What the hell is this thing?!’ I want to ask. ‘How do I kill it? Can I even kill it?’ I don’t want to just lazily line up another headshot on a shambling corpse with all the excitement of a data entry clerk stamping their next form.
The genus Americus Genericus is a character described by the following traits. 1.) Is an in-shape, white American male aged somewhere in his thirties to early forties. 2.) Has an emotional range that consists only of grim determination and occasional disgusted surprise when encountering something gross or weird. 3.) Is probably voiced by Troy Baker. This type of protagonist has gotten so boring, and I want to see more games from different perspectives, in settings other than the USA. If you hanker for this as well, perhaps try either Devotion or Detention by Taiwanese studio Red Candle Games, or Fragile by Mongolian developer Beer Night Studio.
Putting a rag and a bottle of alcohol together to create a Molotov cocktail? Ok, that’s fair enough. Spending hours rifling through draws for gunpowder, nails and other assorted crap just to shave half a second off a pistol’s reload time? Yawn. Crafting was an immersive mechanic when it first cropped up, but now it’s become so ubiquitous that it feels like busywork. Just give us some bullets, a gun, and let us get on with it!
Games with no combat…
Speaking of which, there’s been a deluge of horror games with defenseless protagonists ever since Amnesia: The Dark Descent first popularized the idea. But that was over a decade now, and it turns out that ‘run or die’ is often a lot less fun than ‘fight or die’. There are only so many times you can sit behind a piece of furniture sucking your thumb while a monster shuffles past before the whole thing becomes real tedious, real fast.
… and clearly delineated combat
Conversely, nothing breaks the tension more than when a game railroads players between combat and non-combat segments. This usually happens in the first chapter or so, before a player has had a chance to pick up a weapon. It feels very artificial because you know that until the game gives you this tool, you’re absolutely safe. It also often happens during set-piece moments, when the game forces players into one course of action rather than letting them choose how to handle the danger. It’s far scarier when nothing feels staged.
Asymmetric multiplayer games
The 4 vs 1 horror multiplayer format is as ubiquitous now as Slender clones were a few years ago. But as well as being an oversaturated market, it’s hard to see where this genre can go. Take the upcoming Evil Dead game. I just don’t get the basic premise here. There’s nothing about the Evil Dead universe that naturally lends itself to a 4 vs 1 game style, or vice versa. If I’m hacking up deadites, I only want to be playing as Ash Williams, and in a structured campaign where everything makes me feel like a true boomstick-wielding badass. Maybe the game will be awesome, but as an indicator of trends, it’s telling me that the formula’s gotten stale and it’s time to move on.
Meaningless shocking imagery
‘Yo bro, look at this. It’s a monster made out of crucified nuns with a TV for a head.’ ‘Okay; how does it deepen the narrative and broader themes of the game?’ ‘Deepen the what? Nah, bro; it just looks cool.’
The macabre and grotesque are central features of good horror. But what games like Agony have taught us is that such things have zero impact unless there’s context behind them. Shove all the mutants and corpses you want at me; unless I know and care about who these people were prior to ending up like this, it’s just so much gory window dressing.
Creepy dolls (and creepy kids)
Boy is this one overused. Resident Evil: Village, Condemned 2: Bloodshot, Layers of Fear, Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly; the list goes on and on. We get it; a doll can be a creepy thing. It’s got that whole uncanny valley thing going, and it takes something that should be innocent and makes it anything but. Yet by now, they have to be the most clichéd piece of horror iconography out there. To this you can also add creepy little girls in Victorian clothing, creepy little girls that take liberal inspiration from that one in The Ring, and creepy little girls singing a song with weird lyrics or humming an out-of-tune melody. Oh, and that thing where you’ll come across a child’s drawing of something really sinister rendered in crayon. Man, that’s annoying.
Ah yes, the good old-fashioned insane asylum. Is it a gothic monstrosity that looks more like Dracula’s summer house than a medical facility? Yup. Are the halls filled with overturned wheelchairs, filthy gurneys, and messages scribbled in blood? You betcha. Are the doctors performing twisted experiments on the patients? Do you even have to ask?! There’s only one environment more clichéd than a mental institution in a horror game, and that’s…
Horror protagonists seem to spend more time wading through crap than content moderators on social media. That’s not to say there haven’t been some good uses of sewers. Silent Hill 3 and Lost in Vivo both managed to deliver memorable (and terrifying) experiences with them. But for every one of these, you get a Silent Hill: Homecoming or a Resident Evil 2: Remake, where sewers are just used as filler to pad out the game’s length. Come on, game devs; you can do better than this.
The Resident Evil Bioweapon plot
Yeesh, here’s an absolute stinker to finish this list off. While the Resident Evil series has successfully reinvented itself several times in the gameplay department over the years, story-wise it’s barely moved an inch since 1996. For there is only one Resident Evil plot, repeated ad nauseum; place becomes infected with a bioweapon, cartoonish villains strut about giving evil speeches, there’s an underground lab for the final level and a big explosion at the end. Rinse and repeat. Sure, ‘evil science gone wrong’ is a lazy setup that many horror games use, but Capcom’s near-religious sticking to formula deserves particular singling out. Give us a new horror theme, please! Ghosts, aliens, psychological horror; anything that doesn’t involve the Umbrella Corporation for once.