Mapping Horror Games

One of the things that running this site has taught me is that people absolutely love to argue about categorization, especially on the internet. So often the discussion centers around whether a particular game should be sorted into this bucket or that, and the definition of the buckets themselves is often the source of intense debate. What bugs me most about this entire topic is that while we’re so busy arguing about categorization, we rarely spend any time talking about the games themselves.

Which games do you like? Why do you like them? Have you really thought about what it is exactly that you enjoyed? It’s not always easy to identify the aspects of a game that really hook us; sometimes we don’t realize how much we enjoyed something until it turns up absent. Furthermore, personal preference is entirely that: inherently subjective and individual. It’s a lot easier to apply a label to a game, or an entire genre of games, and then just decide that everything under that banner is ok with you. And while that approach might help you make a purchasing decision, it doesn’t really tell us much about the games. It’s not a high resolution way to determine why some games work and some do not.

So here’s an experiment. I’m going to try to identify gross traits of a bunch of horror games absent any concept of “genre.” I don’t care if these games are “survival horror” or “action horror” or “psychological horror” or “curse horror” or “naked cartwheel horror,”–those are just labels. I’d rather understand how these games work, or how the game industry that produces them works. I’ve argued on this site that difficulty is one of the core traits of many successful horror games. I’ve also argued that games can generally be described as “mechanical” or “cognitive”: most of the challenge is either in doing things, or thinking about what to do next. I’m going to use these two ideas to try to find relationships between games a different way.

So, without further ado, I present a horror game map:

I’ve plotted a bunch of horror games upon an axis based on my personal feelings about them. I just got done complaining about the subjectivity of personal preferences and the futility of debating labels online, so please, let’s not debate the placement of individual games. If you don’t agree, make your own map! It might teach you something about what you like. Anyway, for the sake of discussion, let’s take a look at where these games fall out without worrying too much about accuracy. Oh yeah, and this is hardly an exhaustive list, either, so don’t even think of complaining about that.

OK, so let’s get down to business. There are two axes, Easy to Hard and Thinking to Doing. Games that are easy are, well, easy (we can assume we’re always talking about “normal” game modes). Hard games are hard. Games closer to the Thinking extreme are about the challenge of deciding how to proceed rather than actually performing the actions required to do it. “Doing” games place emphasis on performing the actions required to progress. Since the axes are orthogonal we can express each game in terms of both its challenge format and the degree of challenge. Dead Space is a fairly challenging game that’s all about its mechanics–there’s not a lot of thought required. D, on the other hand, is very easy and is almost entirely a puzzle game; performing actions is simple, but the challenge comes from deciding which actions to perform. The center of the plot is the “average” point–the point at which games are equally balanced in terms of thinking vs doing and are of absolute median difficulty.

OK, great, we can plot these games on a graph. Hooray. But what does this tell us about the games themselves? To tell you the truth, not much. We can infer that certain games are similar to other games by their grouping (the games near the lower-right of the graph are what people usually refer to when they say “action horror”), but on its own this mapping isn’t very useful. It gets a lot more interesting when we apply color.

By Development Country By Release Date By Critical Reception

These are sort of ad-hoc heat maps. By coloring regions around each game we can more easily see trends and groupings.

The first image here is colored by the country of the game’s developer. We can see that the Thinking/Easy quadrant, which is home to Silent Hill and many other story-driven horror games, is dominated by Japanese developers. The Doing/Hard quadrant is almost entirely Western developers. We can also see that there are lots of Western games around the center, whereas the Japanese games tend to reach all the way to the extremes.

The middle map is about release date. This one is interesting because so much of it is the same color: the majority of games on this plot shipped between 2001 and 2005. It’s also interesting to see the big yellow splotch in the middle that extends a little bit into Thinking/Hard. That suggests that there have been more action-light horror games recently than we sometimes remember. With the exception of Ju-on: The Grudge way over there on the left and Catherine way on the right, it also suggests that newer games are generally a little bit harder than games used to be.

The last plot is colored by critical reception. It clearly shows that Easy/Doing games score poorly almost across the board, which makes sense when you think about it: if there’s no thinking involved and the actions to perform are super easy, why play? Easy/Thinking does a lot better, perhaps because a good story is enough to carry a relatively easy game (see my previous posts about “interestingness”). The Hard side of the graph scores better almost across the board, though it looks like games that are hard but do not clearly choose between Thinking or Doing get rated lower. That might be because balancing the two is difficult, or it might be that people generally want one or the other and are unhappy with a mix, especially when there’s a little challenge involved.

I think these maps are most interesting when taken together. By looking at the three plots above, we can pretty clearly see a shift in the development of horror games over the last decade. Prior to 2005, Japan ruled the horror space. Its games tended to be mechanically simple with a focus on puzzles and story, and it produced a lot of critically acclaimed games. After 2005 power shifted to Western developers, who tend to make harder games and tend to focus much more strongly on mechanics. There are several well-received games produced by the West after 2005, but a bunch of mediocre ones too–games that didn’t go far enough in any one direction to leave a lasting impression.

Why the shift? My guess is that 2005 was the turning point because it was the year that the Xbox 360 was released. The cost of development went way up and niche genres (e.g. Thinking/Easy) were dropped in favor of mass market genres (apparently Doing/Hard). The Wii is home to a couple of exceptions to this trend (e.g. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories), but the Xbox 360 and PS3 titles are almost exclusively “doing” games that are hard. You can see why Capcom has done what it has done to the Resident Evil series; years ago they saw where the train was headed and decided to hop on. The Silent Hill series has been more experimental, touching three different quadrants over the years, perhaps as a result of the sequels being developed by different teams.

So which games do you like? I’m a fan of Thinking games, generally, and I like stuff on both the Easy and Hard sides. I can enjoy Doing games too, but they have to be really good; my problem with Dead Space and F.E.A.R. was that the Doing is fun but sort of purposeless–there isn’t enough Thinking to give me reason to progress. Resident Evil 4 is only slightly higher on the Thinking axis but it has so much variety that I was never bored. Alan Wake got caught in the middle–there was a lot to think about but the information was ultimately inconsequential, and the actual game mechanics were a little too simple for the format. I also found out that I generally enjoy Japanese games more than Western ones, at least in this genre.

To reiterate, this is entirely subjective and these plots (and my conclusions) are not intended to represent some immutable truth. This exercise is a way to force us to look at these games a different way, to think about what we like and what we do not like. It’s designed to avoid the categorization trap, and to expose groupings of games that we might not have noticed otherwise. The experiment can be further improved by finding more ways to plot these games (different axes?) and more ways to group them. The goal is not to define what these games are, but to discover why we feel the way we feel about them, and to expose overall trends. Hopefully that will inspire a discussion more interesting than simple genre assignment.

18 thoughts on “Mapping Horror Games

  1. Fascinating read, as always. It’s especially interesting to see how the Japanese vs. Western games are plotted out, and how things have shifted over time.

    I suppose my taste in horror games is pretty similar to yours, though my favorites (Fatal Frame, Siren, Catherine, Silent Hill 4) tend to skew closer to the middle of the thinking/doing axis. If I were to look at how things fall along the graph, then it stands to reason that I’d -love- Alan Wake. I just might give it a try when it comes to the PC.

  2. I like this idea. Did you ever play Dino Crisis? I understand that it might not fall into your typical survival horror concept, but I’m curious as to where you would fit it on this graph.

    I always thought of Carrier, Dino Crisis, and Resident Evil as roughly the same, with difficulty being the only major difference between them. Kinda wondering if you’d place Dino Crisis at a midpoint between the other two, as that’s about how I’ve felt about those two games, as well. 😛

  3. I haven’t played enough of Dino Crisis to plot it here accurately.

    But it’s true that Carrier’s basic game system is generally a copy of Resident Evil’s. Even so, they are pretty different games because Carrier is extremely easy and boring and Resident Evil is good. This has a lot to do with the map design, the weapons, the level of challenge, things like that. In a more traditional grouping we might put them close together because one is clearly a copy of the other, but with this plot they appear separated because they actually play very differently.

  4. I really enjoy your rational, honest, almost academic inquiries on the nature of horror in games. They clearly go beyond just gaming. To be honest, I don’t see any trend in your graphs, but the concept is so clean and the searching so honest, it’s inspiring. This blog is great. Thank you.

  5. This sort of mapping somehow reminds me of
    I think this approach of categorizing games on a two-axis system is far superior than categorizing games in loosely defined genres.
    Catherine has caught my interest, but haven’t played it yet as it will finally be released in Europe in a few days. That the game is placed so close to Siren makes me even more interested in the game.

    One interesting pattern I noticed is that most Japanese games are either in a big spot on the “easy/doing” part of the map or spread as a “V” shape on the “thinking” part.
    If you now look at the critical reception map you can see two nearly identical shapes: the spot of “easy/doing” games which have a lower critical appraisal and the “V” shape of “thinking” games which tend to be rated higher.
    It seems Japanese developers have nailed the concept of making good “thinking” games and struggle to make good “easy/doing” games.

    It would be interesting to add a new map “by scare value” or a third axis of “scare value”. This is certainly an even more subjective categorization than “mechanical/cognitive” and “difficulty”, but it would give a hint which gameplay schemes are more successful in scaring the player.

  6. Good article, as always.

    It seems to me that I (and many others) share your tastes in horror games. Many of us tend to prefer Thinking over Doing and prefer Japanese games a little better than Western games. That’s probably why so many are desperate to classify what they like into a genre. We want to be able to say “this” is survival horror, and we want more of “this” and less of “that.” I don’t really get into debates about classification, but I think a lot of it comes from the desire to be able to succintly sum up what we like so we can tell a developer to make more of it.

    Just noticing, my favorite games (Haunting Ground, Deadly Premonition, Catherine, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Shattered Memories, and Rule of Rose) all seem to fall on the Thinking side of things. That could be because my earliest gaming memories were from old text adventures (Hitchhiker’s Guide) and point and click adventures (monkey island, zack mcracken). Those are 100% thinking as there is no skill required in the doing. I’ve moved a little more toward doing as I’ve gotten older, but I still like a lot of thinking in my games.

  7. Interesting, I’ll have to check this out more later.

    Something that I could agree with: “the Doing is fun but sort of purposeless–there isn’t enough Thinking to give me reason to progress”

  8. Cool!

    It’s interesting that you made “story-driven” and “action-oriented” polar opposites. Although the point of having an axis is to show degrees between the two, it didn’t occur to me to consider these two as mutually exclusive.

    See, we’re learning something about our perspectives already. This is neat!

  9. I feel like this WOULD be really neat, but the problem is that I don’t know what most of these games are. What in the hell is “Deadly Premonition?” When was there a Ju-on game? Where the hell is the original AitD a.k.a. the only one that counts?

    So I’m kind of lost here. I think the disconnect comes from the purely commercial scope of the graph, since, other than Silent Hills, I don’t really play current commercial games anymore for a bunch of reasons. And when my concept of modern horror games is Ao Oni, Au Sable, Eversion, Yume Nikki, and maybe Don’t Look Back, I don’t really find comparing Silent Hill 2 to something like Dead Space to be very relevant.

    But them’s the breaks when doing something subjective like this. I do find it really neat, though, and kinda want to do one of my own! 😀

    Heck, a graph of just the SH or RE series alone would be interesting enough.

  10. I don’t really find comparing Silent Hill 2 to something like Dead Space to be very relevant.

    Why not? The games you named are all exceedingly minor compared to the ones I threw up on the list (and I included some pretty unknown titles, too, so that’s saying something), but are certainly worthy of the same comparison.

    How does a horror game work? Does it matter if it’s about shooting or about finding your dead wife? What are the core components that make, say, Eversion effective? The purpose of this kind of analysis is to separate the core elements form successful games (and identify what is missing in not-so-successful games). Even games that appear fairly dissimilar on the surface might share common traits–or we might find that they share no traits and are still effective for different reasons. That’s the purpose of this sort of mapping.

    By the way, you can read about all of these games on this site. Deadly Premonition is, in particular, a gem.

    This is really interesting to look into, I’ve never really thought of branching the games off like this.

    Just one little thing I thought I’d mention just to mix up your region chart a little 🙂 You placed Shattered Memories under Japanese development which it really wasn’t. Of course you could argue this to say that the core development was Climax and there was then some managerial direction from Konami, but I’d class it as a Western piece of development 🙂 And a good one at that, one of Climax’s best games they’ve developed to date.

    It would of course then make the blue feel slightly less in the center, although of course at heart it is the easiest approach as publishers at times are too afraid to take massive leaps to make things stand out.

    I think I’ll have a go at making my own chart too, as I feel I’d mix up the placement a little, especially as I feel Alan Wake is a lot more Doing than Thinking/A mix of both.

    Keep up the great work on the site! 🙂

  12. Didn’t Shattered Memories begin life as another game? I could have sworn I saw artwork of it years ago.

    Also SM is a outlier of sorts, I know the Homecoming team had a SH bible they had to adher to, while SM seemed to be Climax’s official SH fanfict…

  13. These charts are an interesting way of looking this. Another way of tracking this would be sales by region(I know that would be hard). But it would show which region likes what games.

    Chris, I see you placed Deadly Premonition almost in the middle of everything, where would place the JRPG “classic” Koudelka?

    It plays like a tradional JRPG of the time with the same graphics/overworld style of Parasite Eve. It also has a logical story once you get into which is kinda rare for that type of game. The game also clearly tries to be gothic horror without sacrificing any of it’s gameplay.

  14. Is anyone else of the opinion that there are different types of fear?

    For example Resident Evil and Silent Hill are both great series and are both scary but I feel like they offer two distinct flavors of fear.

    Resident Evil is scariest when you feel outnumbered/outgunned by your enemies or when something jumps out and gives you a “Boo!” or surprise scare. There’s no surprise to the enemies, themselves. They are zombies. One might be a little stronger or faster, one might be a dog but they’re still just enemies to kill. Two exceptions (and hallmarks, in my opinion) were the “Itchy//Tasty” memo and Lisa Trevor’s character in the RE1 remake.

    I have to run but I’ll happily delve into my opinions on how SH is different, if anyone out there is listening. :p

  15. I hate to be critical as I do so enjoy your site, but I feel that to me at least, this is all a little flawed as almost all doing games are relatively easy just repetitious in nature. All the more recent westernised games are made with a childish like difficulty setting and are more or less clones of one another. You can pick up virtually any game these days and finish it without to much thought, time or trouble. Which always makes me think longingly back to those days of reseting the original resident evil countless times to start from the very start again simply because you could not progress any further without ammo or health.
    Not having to think takes all the fun out of games for me. Aim, shoot, run, I will just finish tetris again for the countless time, it might be repetitive and not be survival horror, but it is always a very fun rewarding challenge (which is what a game should be?).

Comments are closed.