When did horror games become team sports?
By the time you read this, I’ll be playing Back 4 Blood, slaughtering hordes of undead until the viscera and blood spoil my player’s clothes, and my eyes become endless pools of horror that have seen more than enough death for a lifetime. Or maybe I’ll crawl into a haunted house in Phasmophobia, my smear stick in hand and a cavalcade of petrified friends moaning into their mics. Maybe I’ll run away from Pyramid Head in Dead By Daylight with my buddies in tow. A thought has been germinating in the cold corners of my mind for a while now, and it’s just this: When did horror become a team game?
The lonely, isolationist terror felt when playing horror alone seemingly gives way to something that promotes group interaction, collaboration, and people coming together against greater evil. Not in all cases, of course, but there is certainly a change happening. And look, that’s not a criticism of this new trend. I enjoy the games above, and others, including the hidden gem that is Devour, but even games that were previously single-player horror have fallen prey to the multiplayer philosophy. The upcoming Red Barrels Outlast Trials are billed as a multiplayer horror experience, in which players will work together to… well… survive the nightmare that is the Murkoff Corporation. It still has a single player campaign, but the latest trailer emphasizes a collaborative effort on the part of the players. The slogan even says “we are in the same boat”.
It’s not entirely new, of course (Back 4 Blood is, after all, standing on Left 4 Dead’s shoulders), but there has been a marked increase recently. Multiplayer games are all the rage right now, but I think a lot of this is because, technologically, the game has advanced several times over the years. Online servers have become more powerful and reliable, and with the introduction of games as a service, although they have not yet fully taken off, games that function as multiplayer titles are in demand today. This improved technology is part of the reason that multiplayer is even the thing in the first place.
It’s also no coincidence that games like Phasmophobia and Dead by Daylight rose to prominence almost as soon as people found themselves isolated at home. PC sales have also increased, so it makes sense that playing online with friends, even in a horror setting, is the way to go right now.
But there is a loss in that, I think; it’s kind of a Faustian marketplace where playing horror games with friends, live or off, is fun as hell, but it loses that deeper connection that horror has with the human psyche. . Playing online with others is all about the fun, teamwork, skill, and who’s going to be scared the most, but horror isn’t just about how much something can make you jump.
As a genre, horror can often be characterized by what it does more than what it is, but fear comes in many forms. We have a strange desire to be challenged by things that can be horrible, disgusting, or that pounce on our sense of comfort and normalcy. Good horror is more of a psychological challenge than a physical one, and multiplayer games tend to focus on the latter. Playing horror games with friends is often an exercise in quick decisions, frenzied mechanics, and the stamina challenge of not being the first to die. A good single player horror game offers something much more haunting, often at a slower pace, with the scares coming from the plot as well as the enemies.
We already know the overwhelming effect that a slow build can have when a game is played solo. It’s time for terror to take shape and its disturbing tendrils to take hold. Look at Silent Hill 2 as a classic example. Guilt is used as a dominant theme with a lot of effect, and it’s reinforced by the fact that the player doesn’t have teammates to support them when the horror gets too real, too scary. They are alone, and they have time to lounge there. The work of studios like Frictional Games with titles like Soma or the Amnesia series explores deep fears related to identity and individuality.
But Outlast games provide a perfect comparative example: games that worked because they were single-player, now bringing multiplayer into the mix. Being alone in the Mount Massive Asylum in Game 1, or the rural backwaters of northern Arizona in the 2017 sequel, is scary in large part because of your isolation. Trekking through each region, with no defensive objects and no real means of escape, is the stuff of nightmares. While the past might scare you, there’s an added lack of security that comes from being alone that you just don’t get when playing with others no matter how scary the surroundings are. . As a series, Outlast pits players against impossible obstacles: men, science, and supernatural monsters all much stronger than the protagonist. Will this work in a multiplayer experience? It remains to be seen. I have my doubts.
Ever since Phasmophobia hit Steam last year, the developers have looked to get into the act of team-based horror. It’s a winning formula that continues to inspire other titles, like the all new Forewarned. While not all of the games that come out are about a multiplayer experience, it’s these that distract from single-player titles like Visage or Lost in Vivo which I think both testify to the power of fear. Not to mention the new Resident Evil games. They might not be as much fun playing with friends on a Friday night, but what they lack in cheerfulness, they make up for the abject horror that only comes when you’re really alone with the game.