It sucks to be really into horror and really into board games given all the crap that comes out with various zombies, vampires, and other horror images slapped across cardboard surfaces.
The horror genre in board gaming is a graveyard of half-assed, poorly designed titles that traffic more in sophomoric jokiness and crude mechanics than in the atmosphere and frisson that the genre offers in other mediums such as film and literature. Every time a new horror-themed game arrives I feel compelled to try it even though I realize that it’s just going to be another disappointment, having weathered abominations such as THE TESTIMONY OF JACOB HOLLOW and WHEN DARKNESS COMES. This weekend at Atlanta Gamefest 11 I got to try White Wolf’s new game MONSTER MAYHEM with a full group including Frank and Sandi Branham (two of the biggest horror junkies I know) and although we had fun as a group the game itself was a complete disaster of clichéd, overused, and amateurish mechanics dressed up in faux-Famous Monsters artwork. Some novel concepts such as each player’s monster requiring a different type of sustenance (zombies eat brains, vampires drink blood- you get the picture) and a city full of scurrying victims seemed like a great setup for a fun game but it boils down to stat numbers and die rolls with little or nothing interesting to do. The clunky gameplay- it’s one of those games that relies on 8-sentence paragraphs of text to tell you what your fundamentally basic special power is- immediately relegated this disaster to the pile of failed horror themed games. But it could have been great- the concept of classic monsters running amuck could have been great, and who doesn’t want to see a mummy fight a zombie?
It strikes me that horror games like MONSTER MAYHEM have a few key points where they fail, and one of the primary ones is that it seems that designers of these games (such as Twilight Creations) depend on the theme perhaps a little too much to carry the game- I mean, if you’re into George Romero pictures you’re going to want ZOMBIES, right? And sure, ZOMBIES is a fun enough game with the right crowd but mechanically it’s pretty dull stuff- not to mention the fact that the game is usually twice as long as it ought to be. Horror is such a broad and rich theme with the potential for countless interesting game applications- zombie games are practically a genre unto themselves these days but there’s also haunted houses, possession, werewolves, witchcraft, vampires of several different persuasions, and any number of other possible material for games to cover. However, simply dressing up a game in horror drag doesn’t really cut it with me and I think there are far too many games that reek of this approach. Even though BETRAYAL AT THE HOUSE ON THE HILL collapses under the combined weight of boring gameplay and “buggy” execution it at least had an interesting concept wherein the villain or other horror-causing agent was unknown until halfway through the game- a fun mechanic that rendered the first 50% of the game useless. And of course, BLACK MORN MANOR did pretty much the same thing years earlier also couched in a fairly routine and uninteresting structure.
I believe that another reason that horror in games fails so often is that the game medium simply doesn’t lend itself to the psychological, emotional, and sometimes deeply personal reasons that horror film and literature work on us. Games strike me as a much more egalitarian medium wherein the audience is able to largely shape the tone, direction, and outcome of a narrative or situation. Films and literature are much more dictatorial and there is also a lot more control over what is given to the audience on a very discreet level. One of my favorite scenes in any horror film is in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, when a girl looks out a window into the night and the night responds by opening its eyes. It’s an incredible scene that works on a deep psychological level (that sublimated fear we all have walking by a window at night) and there’s a conjunction of visual, audio, and compositional elements that work in concert to create a near-perfect instance of horror. The things I find really scary in films are things that create a sense of almost surreal displacement, like the scene in Werner Herzog’s 1979 NOSFERATU where Dracula attacks Johnathan Harker. It’s very subtle, but you can see that the set was built with a smaller-than-average door so as to make Klaus Kinski look out of place and supernatural in a very subtle way. These are examples of things in horror that games just can’t reach or likely even begin to approach because the mediums are just so different. I also suspect that real horror, terror, or fear is impossible in gaming largely because the medium simply works on a more logical, processional level than a film or piece of literature does.
Could it be too, then, that horror games can’t be very horrific because we’re playing and interacting with friends as much as we are interacting with the medium? Sure, we can see a film in a group of people and comment and cajole throughout but we aren’t directly involved in how it unfolds, in the act of recreating it. In a book or story, the author gives us a verbal framework with which we generate imagery. With film, there is a complete package of light, sound, image, and word that is essentially reproduced for us by mechanical or electronic means. Even in video games like RESIDENT EVIL or SILENT HILL where there is a level of interaction and control over outcome it is possible to experience fear and terror (of course I’m thinking of the “dog scene” at this point). Regardless of setting, we still experience those mediums on a personal, intimate level. Yet gaming is more communal, social, and interactive. I think this was one area where MALL OF HORROR was _almost_ great- the zombies were very much a sideshow to the actual drama and horror generated by human nature and greedily trying to survive whilst resigning your fellow humans to die at the hands of the undead. I think the designers really captured the social element of films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD extremely well while also incorporating them into a social game.
It comes down, really, to the simple suggestion that horror is something very personal and internalized- even if we vocalize how much something scares us or if we shout at a sudden shock. Horror is a genre defined by its shocks, its atmosphere, and its ability to function as both a psychological stimulus and analyzer. Yet are we ever really scared when we flip a tile or roll a die to prevent a character from dying? Do horror games really invite us to explore what disturbs us or why? As for atmosphere, how much is really possible when we’re sitting at a table engaging in small talk, shuffling pieces around, and reaching for the box of Crunch n’ Munch?
It would seem though that if we can read a really atmospheric and haunting story like the August Derleth/HP Lovecraft Pastiche _The Lurker at the Threshold_, with a tremendously horrifying vignette that finds the protagonists pursued by these milky, streaming white hands, then we ought to encounter a sensation of horror when we imagine the goings-on in a game like ARKHAM HORROR. I think the flavor text in that game is particularly well done and pretty evocative in its sometimes amusing vagary (“You look into the jeweled skull and realize that there is no point in life. Lose 2 sanity.”) but does it really scare us? Not really, even though the stakes in a film and a game are basically the same and there’s no real threat of danger. And of course, few are the people who would be bothered or disturbed by the art in such a game, let alone by what they might imagine as they play through it- I find myself laughing a lot more in a game of ARKHAM HORROR than feeling sensations of dread or doom. It’s not a negative mark on the game, since it is obviously intended for fun and amusement but so too are horror films and literature.
Games like ZOMBIES also fall into a common trap in horror game design of overdoing the humour element- no doubt, horror and humour can be great partners (witness the sublime SPIDER BABY or even SHAUN OF THE DEAD) but in gaming there have been so few attempts at serious horror that it’s disappointing to the potential of the theme diluted by designers who have seen too much ARMY OF DARKNESS and not enough Val Lewton. Getting back to MONSTER MAYHEM, I thought that the overwhelming coolness of having proper gothic horror monsters running amuck was practically ruined by the uncredited designer or designers’ insistence on incorporating “modern” or “urban” material like a “Crack Addled Whore” and a “Street Smart Pimp” as victims. Sorry, but I just don’t find a vampire hunting down a “Crack Addled Whore” to be very funny, and it certainly doesn’t speak to the things I love about horror. I love the trashiest of the trash horror films but I love “classy” horror much, much more. I’ll take the original HAUNTING over SAW, thank you very much.
So what of the “good” horror games? I’d rank FURY OF DRACULA and ARKHAM HORROR as the best in the genre, easily. Yet I think FURY OF DRACULA is much too epic and broad in scope to really bring out the discreet elements of horror that are so elusive to board games. In its favor, it has a system that generates mystery, suspense, and surprise and there is sufficient lip service to the same themes that make the novel the masterpiece that it is. ARKHAM HORROR, to me, isn’t really much of a horror game at all despite the Mythos elements- it’s much more of a two-fisted pulp adventure, which is completely fine with me. I do think the inevitable approach of the Great Old Ones adds a fun sense of dread and pending doom, but there again I never feel “scared” by it, let alone seriously threatened.
How could horror games be better? A couple of months ago, David Ausloos, a young Belgian designer sent me the rules for a zombie game that he had been working on called DARK, DARKER, DARKEST. Aside from the totally kick-ass title, the game actually sounded very intriguing and it really demonstrated that he understood where games like ZOMBIES and other horror titles went wrong- and where films like DAWN OF THE DEAD get it right. The game has three “acts”- an initial phase where the players must work together to break a zombie siege, a second part where the cure for the plague has to be found, and a third act where it was time to get the hell out of there. Throughout the game (I’m assuming as I haven’t played it), there are shifting alliances engendered by completely situational ethics in addition to non-stop zombie attacks. The story provides a tense, dramatic scenario. The possibility of death lingers throughout the game. But will it be scary? Will it be a true horror game? It definitely has potential, and I feel safe to say that it won’t be another MONSTER MAYHEM.
In terms of design, I think that for one thing, the designers of these games have got to stop leaning so hard on the theme as a selling point and deliver a better game, a full package to complement the themes and ideas of their material with mechanics that illustrate and give structure to the theme with thorough narrative. I believe that interaction that brings out the larger psychological themes is absolutely critical, like in MALL OF HORROR- you can’t rely on tiny plastic figures or flavor text to make the game “horror”. Narrative is an essential ingredient as are high stakes and the possibility of death, since all horror is ultimately about death in some form or another. The things that work in film and literature- suggestion, psychology, creation of atmosphere- _should_ work in games yet so far no game has really delivered on this potential. It may be that the game medium simply can not.