If games are unique due to their interactive nature, no genre better underscores how this changes the dynamic between the creator and the consumer than horror.
In a book, you flip the page and the story moves forward. In a movie, you can cover your eyes and everything keeps going. Jason will continue to march down the hallway, whoever is next on the chopping block will die, and the credits will inevitably roll. That’s not the case with a horror game, though, and the ability to see what’s around the corner relies on the player to literally see what’s around the corner and press on.
For some people, that’s a line they’re unwilling to cross.
There’s some great stuff happening in horror cinema right now--James Wan has been a refreshing push on the glut of CGI-infused crap--but games are where I’m having most of my most terrifying moments. It’s why I wrote about how the Oculus Rift may be too much for some people. But based on my own time streaming horror games on Giant Bomb, so many of these games are already too much for people.
Just because people don’t want to play horror games, though, isn’t to suggest they don’t want to experience horror games. This is a key difference, one only more profound recently, as the genre has experienced a surprising bump in popularity that has nothing to do with players wanting to play. Instead, horror gaming’s continued relevance has much to owe to streaming. It’s enormous YouTube personalities streaming their scream-filled experiences on the Internet, and racking up lots of views (and dollars) along the way.
Take PewDiePie, for instance. You might not care for his shriekish nature (I don’t), but he’s also the most popular personality on YouTube, with more than 14 million people currently following him. Some of his most popular videos are reacting to horror games like Slender and Amnesia and complications of those reactions.
This doesn't really surprise me. Of anything I’ve done on the site, streaming horror games under the Spookin’ With Scoops moniker has generated the most passionate response from the community. Even though it only appeals to a niche audience--we probably max out at around 1,000 people watching at once--the people who tune in for Spookin’ With Scoops don’t just like the feature, they love the feature.
The response has caused me to pause on more than one occasion, too. I’ve written about how some horror prompts a “this is no longer fun, why am I doing this?” reaction. Amnesia did that, and several Oculus Rift experiments had me looking for the off button, as well. But I’ve been getting just as much out of streaming horror games as the people who enjoy watching me do it, too. Even though it’s just a number in a corner, knowing there are hundreds of people watching me play (perform?) is its own form of encouragement. These people need me! If I don’t play this game, who will? Even though my setup for playing horror games on my own is remarkably similar to the setup for streaming on Spookin’ With Scoops, it’s an entirely different experience. My nerves are calmer, and I take a certain sense of pride in being able to finish one of the games we set out to play. I didn’t just finish that game, we finished that game, and reading messages from users later who tell me they wouldn’t have played a game without watching me struggle through--that’s cool. It feels good.
The original concept for Spookin’ With Scoops was born out of last year’s Big Live Live Show Live. One of the reasons for that annual day-long nonsense was forcing ourselves to come up with new subscriber video ideas. We need to fill time between the bigger segments, so we were encouraged to come up with some ideas, even if it didn’t go anywhere after the show was over. Around this time, I had a sneaking suspicion I’d be moving back to Chicago at some point. I didn’t know when, but the passing of my father made the move a question of when, not if. So it made sense to start learning what this whole live streaming thing was about. But what the hell would people want to watch? The most successful material on Giant Bomb is what’s born out of our individual strengths, and besides Ryan, I was the only one who genuinely loved the horror genre.
It makes me wonder about the future of the genre, though.
A couple of people told me they’d purchased Outlast after watching me stream roughly half of the game, knowing full well they had no intention of playing it themselves. Good horror--games, movies, literature, haunted houses--are built on surprise. When the surprise is removed, much of the reason it’s enjoyable is stripped away. If people are increasingly looking towards playthroughs of horror games as a way to enjoy them, could it begin hurting the bottom line?
“In our case, the goal was to make the scariest game ever! [laughs]” said Outlast designer David Châteauneuf in our recent interview. “Without really thinking it could affect the sales. I don’t think it will affect the sales that much, but it’s definitely something--I was on a panel at PAX Prime and there was a guy [who said] “I love horror games, I wish I could play them but I’m too chicken. Is there a trick? Is there something you guys can tell me so I can play those games?” I had no answer for the guy, except to crank up the volume and turn on all the lights. You might enjoy it a little bit. There’s no way I can explain how to play horror games without shitting in your pants.”
More than two million people watched (most of) PewDiePie’s videos playing through all of Outlast. I know that Outlast hasn’t sold more than two million copies, not even close. When I asked about the prospects of an Outlast sequel, Châteauneuf admitted the sales weren’t there yet.
“For sure, everybody that play Outlast wants Outlast 2,” he said. “That might be something that we have to take into consideration. At the same time, we know that there’s a lot of players cracking the game, so we’re losing sales at some point. If we don’t have enough money, we might also try to adjust on what’s going to be the next title.”
The volume of interest in horror games on YouTube, Twitch, and other places show a growing demand for horror, but it’s also demand for watching people playing horror games, not playing. Everyone wants to ride the rollercoaster, but not everyone wants to be the one sitting in front.