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Keeping it Scary: The Problem With The Horror Franchise

Publishers aren't the main reason horror franchises are quick to lose the scares.

It’s hard to talk about games like Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 without having someone go off on a tangent on how the publishers “ruined” these series by trying to broaden the series fanbases – moving beloved franchises away from their horror roots and towards the more spectacle driven action genre.  There is an idiom of truth to this complaint.  Horror doesn’t generate Call of Duty sales volume.  It’s a niche genre where only the exceptional few break into the mainstream.  Action titles, counterparts of the money eating summer movie blockbusters, appeal to a much greater audience and are thus able to bring in much more cash.  So yes, it makes sense that the “big bad” publishers would be responsible for the taming of your favorite horror franchise.

But there is a problem with this argument because it ignores the fact that there is an inherent issue with horror franchising in general.  That issue is actually rather simple.  Horror doesn’t franchise well.

Take a moment to think of your favorite horror movies, I mean the ones that really scared you.  I’m betting they’re either stand alone films or the first in a franchise.  Alien, Night of the Living Dead, Jaws, Psycho, The Exorcist, Halloween, Hellraiser…I could go on and on and on.  The scariest movies in a franchise are almost always the original, and this is no coincidence.

One of the key elements of horror is the fear of the unknown.  Not knowing what you’re up against; not knowing how to prepare, or what’s going to happen to you; not knowing what’s going on outside of your immediate environment; not knowing whether help is coming; these are truly terrifying thoughts and a mind facing uncertainty will run wild.

Once you, the audience, gains greater understanding of the environment and your adversary, it ceases to be as scary as it once was.  When franchising a horror series the creators are forced to raise the stakes since simply replicating the original scenario is simply not that scary anymore.  A single xenomorph in Alien becomes a hive in Aliens.  A mansion full of zombies in Resident Evil becomes a city overrun in the sequel.

This is an issue that is not unique to the horror genre (action movies and games in particular tend to get more and more ridiculous as they go on), but it is only in the case of horror sequels that we see an actual change in the core genre.  What starts as a horror game with action elements becomes an action game with horror elements.

One of the writers of the original Dead Space said that the move to more action was a “necessary evil” – the result of trying to appeal to a greater audience.  He’s right that it was a necessary evil, but for the wrong reasons.  Dead Space was always doomed to become a more action oriented game, even if there was no drive to appeal to a larger audience. 

Isaac Clark, Dead Space’s main protagonist, is a constant throughout the series, as are the necromorphs.  The first game was scary as hell because both were new – players had no idea what to expect from the necromorphs and neither did their avatar, Isaac.  The unknown is scary, and the original was given more free reign to mess with the player’s mind.

When coming into the sequel, the player has a better idea of what to expect.  The player and Isaac are no longer shocked or frightened of the necromorphs because they are a known entity.  Isaac takes a character turn similar to that of Riply from the Alien movies.  He goes from the average Joe with ho-hum job to an experienced veteran of crazy shit.  You wouldn’t think his character believable if he acted otherwise.  As a result, much of the fear has been drained before the player even begins the game.  To combat this, the developers insert more “in your face” moments and bigger, more deadly necromorphs.  But this will never be enough to instill that original fear into the player. 

When the third made its debut it was criticized by fans and some critics for not being scary enough.  The problem is that there is no way it could ever be as scary as the original and thinking that it could somehow is foolish.  In fact, the only way would be to introduce a brand new protagonist, a new environment and a new antagonist.  But then fans would be upset that too much has changed.  Players don’t like their favorite franchises changed.

Players who want scary games shouldn’t be looking to old franchises to provide the goods.  Dead Space will never recapture the fear of the original.  Resident Evil hasn’t truly been terrifying since the beginning.  There are exceptions, like Silent Hill, but the scenarios and protagonists changed from game to game.  This allows for each entry to be a new experience, with the mutable town of Silent Hill being the only constant.  If you want to keep characters and continue story you’re out of luck.

Got any other ideas of how to keep horror franchises scary?  Add to the conversation in the comments section below! 




02/11/2013 at 06:22 PM

Editorials and J-Bone go well together.

For years people have been debating on how to make these franchises fresh again and scary again, and every time a new game comes out from any of the horror franchises it tends to disappoint at least in the freshness and scary areas, even if it's a fun and solid game. People critically analyze each new game and try to figure out how the developers can stitch together something that engaged them as much as the first game in the series, or whichever game it is that was the best in their eyes. People want to hold onto those memories of fresh scares, strange new worlds, and recreate them. People want Silent Hill 2, Resident Evil 1, and Dead Space 1 all over again but people don't want to admit the fact that it'll never happen again. The thing that people don't bring up often enough is the idea of just leaving the whole franchise behind, and trying not to franchise a horror game in the first place, which is what you brought up here.

Horror games, or any game that could eventually get franchised, can often start out as a very unique and artful endeavor. If it all goes well and people love it, the best thing you could possibly do as a creative might be to do the "scary" thing, do the more creatively taxing thing, and leave it all behind to try and make something fresh. Leave it as an artful and unique endeavor. Even if you poured years into making the universe and characters come to fruition so people could experience it, you should probably just start fresh once it's over. I don't think franchises are evil (most of the games I play and love are franchised), they can certainly be called a necessary evil, but they can still churn out good games.

It's all about choices you make as a creator.  There's nothing black and white or right and wrong about it, there's simply choices and either way you have to realize you can fail miserably. You can try and franchise a single horror universe and it could potentially make for a sustainable business allowing you and your fellow team members to put food on your tables and income to keep creating games. Or it could fail and you could all be out of jobs. Taking a different path, you could try to always keep pressing fresh content, stories, gameplay, and possibly even new universes with each new game even if it stretches you creatively and makes you uncertain of the future. It could lead to profits and a stable business, or it could fail and you could be out of jobs. There's choices to make, at least for an independent developer perspective. Developers with a strong publisher relationship may not often have such a freedom.

I listen to Irrational Games' podcasts Irrational Behavior as well as Irrational Interviews, and in their discussions Ken Levine has said that he's always kind of on that edge and not sure when or if the company and team will fail and spin out of control. He says even with all the critical acclaim they have he and his company still don't feel comfortable, they iterate a lot and get taxed creatively, and they don't want to make the same games time and again. He wants to keep the integrity of his games and stories at highest priority, but it's never been an easy road for him to go down, and hasn't always been successful for the company.

I guess when it comes to horror games I have independents on the mind, like Slender. People really liked Slender, it was terrifying, simple, yet mysterious. Right now there's another Slender game being made and it's supposedly the "full" game and Slender was suppose to be seen as more of a working concept or demo. Hypothetically, how many more Slender games do you think it would take until the beloved and somewhat lesser known PC horror darling would become a stale overdone franchise? The "full" game may already end up feeling stale for some people once they have a chance to play it, even if it turns out to be the well designed more ambitious project it's suppose to be. People may have to admit the possibility that there's nothing that new Slender games could do to recreate the feeling you got when you first had Slender Man scare the crap of you.

Most horror games shouldn't be franchised. I'm sure some have the potential to explore the same universe over and over and be great, but most don't. Action games, FPS, RPGs, strategy games, there's a lot of genres and types of games that can work well when franchised, but horror is different. Horror is so subjective and personal, it can be very artful, stressful, and challenge you emotionally and intellectually. Those small moments in some random horror game where you actually get terrified and engaged are something very cerebral and unique. It's not something you can franchise or mass produce over and over and expect to work the same way. If you're in the horror business, don't franchise, do the real scary thing go off in the dark and try to do something new every time. If you can't sustain that and you don't want to scare people anymore or you just can't scare people anymore and you're out of ideas, go to another genre and make something else. Be honest with yourself, be honest with your team, try to make the best games you can, and do it with at least a dash of integrity and you might have a chance at a good thing, or fail miserably.

I need to take more writing classes and read more, it takes too long for me to make a point or express thoughts. Ken Levine appreciates the quality of brevity in video game writing, I need to learn about that. There's so many good writers here on the site, hopefully some of your magics may rub off on me. On twitter one time I was giving Rob from Nerds Without Pants a hard time because he was explaining his hopes for the story of a game and I started basically saying that it won't be very great unless the systems and design are solid, which isn't always true. When making story driven games it isn't an either/or proposition, you should strive to have both great storytelling and great gameplay to allow you to interact with it, but in my comments to Rob I didn't say any of that. I said that any monkey can write a story, which isn't true at all. Lol so I pissed him off obviously, and I believe the reason why is because I want to learn to be a good writer. I'm an inferior writer and need to develop the skills and respect the craft more. Among all the skills in design I lean towards level building and system building but ultimately the games I want to make are epic story driven affairs, so I just need to be honest with myself and learn more about storytelling through both level design and character development instead of poking at Rob with a stick by calling writers monkeys. I'm actually envious of every writer I know.

Jesse Miller Staff Writer

02/12/2013 at 09:24 AM

I agree that people don't bring up what I consider the central issue of horror franchising - in that it just shouldn't be done - enough.  But the problem is, sequels sell better than original IP (for the most part) and are considered safer bets by studios, so we won't be seeing this go away anytime soon.

As for improving as a writer, my advice is to just keep at it.  Get yourself in a workshop environment if possible.  And remember to read.  A writer who writes more than he reads will never be a great writer.


02/13/2013 at 05:31 PM

BrokenH (Ben)

It is sort of the nature of the beast. Protagonists are going to get more experienced and as an audience we're going to know more about the encroaching monsters with each progressing sequel.

Better pacing might be the way to go. Aka, perhaps the first game in a franchise can refrain from divulging any key information at all other than "freaky creepy shit" is going on somewhere. Aka, the player may briefly see the monsters,undead,or ghosts but even at the end of the game he or she doesn't know what was the cause.

The problem is with gamers is we're an entitled lot. If a horror game is too vague we feel cheated because we really do want to know "something". Yet it's at that moment of knowing much of the scares are diminished. Talk about a genre that's between a rock and a hard place!

Btw, great article! I really should drop by more often.


02/13/2013 at 05:59 PM

Ben thanks for stopping by, you're one of my favorite guys at 1UP and a good dude in general. Hope you can stop by more often as well, there's some folks here that have similar interests in anime, art, fighting games, jrpgs like Persona, and more. Your voice and personality would be nice to see around here more often, this is a unique place and I'd like to see more and more people experience it and make it their own.

Your idea of keeping things mysterious is good. Mystery and speculation tends to be more interesting than the truth in a lot of situations. That's how I am with Mass Effect. Back when the first game came out I was blown away by the scope of the universe and all the questions that I wanted to ask. Then Bioware did what everybody asked and started answering all the questions, and the truth is never as interesting as the mystery. The ME universe is still great and the characters that develop in it are great, but I'm no longer that doe eyed fanboy I was a few years ago when I thought Mass Effect was the greatest thing to ever happen to video games. Dark Souls is so great because the lore is one big mystery and everything in the game is there for a reason. If you come across some big randomly placed guy in a tower like Havel in the Undead Burg you won't have any idea if he's important or not. He doesn't seem to be, but if you dig into the lore of the game, read all the item descriptions, and explore the details you'll realize that all the most random people and places in Dark Souls have some notable place in the universe and something happened to them in the past which led them to be where they are.

If Dark Souls just came up with a Codex like Mass Effect, made tons of epic cutscenes, and just started answering every question I have I bet I would think a lot less of the game. All the clothes would be taken off, the tits would be out, and I'd be left with, "Well those are nice tits Dark Souls I guess, now show me something else I'm bored and need something new to learn or be intrigued by." The mystery is always more appealing.


02/13/2013 at 06:44 PM


Dark Souls proves it is possible to make a good game that leaves much up to interpretation. That's probably exactly what survival horror needs right now. Sure, maybe at some point everything will be figured out but it's better to drop little crumbs along the trail as opposed to whole loafs of bread.

When it comes to continuing franchises getting less scary, us becoming adults is also to blame. As we get older we get more desensitized to a lot of stuff.

However, it's not impossible to scare the elderly dog on the porch, it's just much more difficult!


02/25/2013 at 08:22 PM

What is a horror game really? I was playing through some classic Castlevania and every time a medusa head comes at me I feel a sense of panick. It has a horror type theme. I don't know that I would compare film to games that much. I felt that Nemesis was pretty scary in RE3 as were those villagers in RE4. I think you're quite right about sequels though. It's hard to recreate fear when you already know what's coming at you. RE6 just took it to such a ridiculous extreme that it was quite laughable. Less is more I think. 


02/27/2013 at 12:52 AM

Like you said its basically the unexpected or unknown that keeps the gamer on edge creating that fear. If a franchise can carry that mystery successfully through sequel after sequel while still satisfying the needs for it to be entertaining its possible. This seems simple enough but in todays day in age the fact of  the matter is that people want shock and awe now. I still remember going down to the game rental store, snagging RE 1, and rounding that first corridor in the mansion. Damn that zombie still is engraved in my brain. I was actually frantic and shaking trying to gather myself and dispatch the goul. 

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