The Multiplex Multiplayer Horror Extravaganza!
At Gamescom’s Opening Night Live there was a genuine horror surprise, and for once it wasn’t the sinister shit* Geoff Keighley says under his breath when nobody reacts to his cheerleading (he means it, he sees all, and all shall be judged). No, it was a Killer Klowns From Outer Space game! Well, that’s pleasant news indeed! I wonder what kind of game it i…oh, it’s another multiplayer licensed horror game. Just show it to that room over there. You know the one where we keep the Predator, Ghostbusters, Friday the 13th, Texas Chain Saw, Aliens, and Evil Dead ones that are sitting at the feet of Dead By Daylight’s horror franchise hydra.
Mass media likes to chase a good trend, and why not? If you can do what the prime example did to even a fraction of the quality then it’ll probably be a good time for whatever iteration of it you’ve made is. Hey, if you can improve upon that winning formula, you might even become the new benchmark!
The problem with that is that everyone thinks like that, just like they all think that a certain time will be the quietest to go shopping for the holidays. They are all funneling themselves down the same miserable tunnel, and only a handful of them have a decent chance of coming out the other side.
It’s not a knock on the great things you can make from this formula. I had plenty of fun with Evil Dead: The Game, and the team behind the Texas Chain Saw Massacre game absolutely knows what it is doing with a horror franchise because Friday the 13th: The Game was, despite technical issues, an absolute hoot. My issue is simply that it feels like a waste of a golden time for licensed horror games when most of them are playing the same card instead of doing what horror does better than most genres; challenging expectations.
Live service-style multiplayer games are a gamble, no matter what license you have backing it. Justabout ask The Avengers game. To truly stand out and gain a steady enough audience to sustain the player base for years to come is incredibly hard, especially when you have to try and drag smaller chunks of colossal audiences away from their daily dopamine fix that is their go-to online game. I suspect for a lot of these developers making licensed horror multiplayer titles it might be a compromise in order to get their hands on something they love and cherish. I feel the love for the source material in all of them, and that’s the key takeaway here, it’s not that I think it’s bad these games are being made, I just want them to have the kind of longevity that the source material has.
I look at a license like Killer Klowns From Outer Space and end up in two minds about the direction the game is taking. On the one hand, if it’s successful then it exposes a whole new audience to a film that deserves wider recognition, which is a really fucking good thing no matter how you spin it. On the other, it’s such a cult classic that it feels a little odd to have a game based on it appearing at Geoff Keighley’s latest sermon and served up as something to be played by an audience that primarily hasn’t got a clue what it is.
I look at the stuff getting made on a smaller scale that captures the spirit of so many horror classics and wish the license holders of horror cult classics were bold enough to hand over the keys to these small studios to make something that feels as deliciously lo-fi as some of these films were. Puppet Combo has made a career off encapsulating that 80s VHS horror aesthetic. On that developer’s very label Torture Star video, Jordan King is making a homage to Italian zombie horror films with Night At The Gates Of Hell.
Short experiences also get a taste of horror films over in very simple, but effective ways. You Vs Cannibal Clowns by FredRichi only recently used the Killer Klowns style to craft a retro shooter. DirigioGames’ fantastic Stowaway is a superb reinterpretation of Alien. Fears To Fathom: Home Alone nailed the dosed dread of home invasion films. Even The Catacombs, which I covered here recently, got the claustrophobic vibe of something more modern in As Above, So Below.
I don’t want the licensed horror game bubble to pop because everyone’s trudging up the same online hill. Yes, it’d be great to get a video game based on Suspiria, Halloween, Deep Blue Sea, or maybe even Martyrs, but there’s nothing stopping them from being puzzle games, strategy games, short PS1-style experiences, or even dating sims. Christ, could you imagine a Martyrs dating sim?
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*I have no actual proof Geoff Keighley says sinister things under his breath because you didn’t whoop for him asking, ‘does anyone remember Croc?’