During Gamescom's Opening Night Live, the ever-present Geoff Keighley always has a quip or two in his pocket when introducing the games he's leading in one-by-one for our judgement. I usually let them wash over me, as I do with the Game Awards or the many other pies Keighley has his fingers in, but this time he said something that got my attention. When introducing a new horror title, he chuckled that its reveal was surprising as no one would have thought this film would become the basis for a game.
Enter stage right: Killer Klowns from Outer Space. I can't say I'm familiar with this film beyond seeing the name here and there on the internet. It's a 1988 comedy horror cult classic and, though not considered especially good, its name and legacy live on. Given this, and Keighley's bemusement before the reveal, I've got to wonder if there are any cult horror films safe from being made into videogames?
Horror films are now maybe the best genre of any art form to transform into a game. Or at least they seem to consistently be the adaptations developers are willing to make in recent years. You get the odd transformation from books and TV like The Witcher games and Telltale's Game of Thrones, but the only medium I think that rivals horror's popularity are comic book adaptations and, if I'm honest, I think much of that success comes from Hollywood's hero rush. Otherwise the horror film to game pipeline is outstripping every other adaptation out there.
These games aren't usually direct adaptations of specific movies, but there are countless games set in these horror universes full of movie monsters and unlikely heroes. Among the modern adaptations we've had Friday the 13th, Evil Dead, Blair Witch, Alien Isolation and the upcoming Texas Chainsaw Massacre game. And then we've also got Dead by Daylight, which has managed to turn itself into a Fortnite-like horror metaverse. It has collaborations with franchises like SAW, Scream, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Stranger Things, Hellraiser, and The Ring. It's collecting them all and providing an easy way for these films to get into games without committing to a full game themselves. There is even a flippin' The Exorcist VR game on Steam, I was surprised to discover.
Though I am not someone who enjoys horror in almost any form—game or film—I am impressed by the genre's aptness at traversing between mediums. And I think it's pretty simple to see exactly why they can make these jumps so easily whereas it's much tougher for everything else.
Classic horror relies on violence and tension. I say classic horror because I know there are all sorts of psychological horror films such as Midsommar or Possum or Get Out that wouldn't really make good games because their tension is based in dialogue and cinematography. I'm talking about the classic horror films like the ones included in Dead by Daylight, as well as more recent films like The Purge or maybe The Strangers. These films rely on immediate threats of violence and displays of that violence is what your protagonist sees and wants to avoid. And that's also what so many games are about.
Small space, big impact
Whether it be in FPSes or even card games like Inscryption, violence is a very consistent part of popular games even if it's not gory or gross. Violence is implied or carried out, and 'death' is a state we're used to encountering as failure. I mean, Among Us has an awful lot of murder in it for a kids game, right? But you wouldn't really call it a violent game or even a horror game in ordinary circumstances. But all this means is that making the jump from horror films into gaming is a smooth transition because of this common tension.
Other aspects help too, of course. Horror films have clear antagonist and protagonist dynamics, someone who will live and another will die, often with a team of good guys working together as a team. And importantly horror thrives on relatability. Horror, to be really scary, needs to make you feel as though you could be stuck in that situation. Small neighbourhoods, random acts of violence, haunted houses, car breakdowns are at the heart of a lot of classic horror films. The audience needs to feel as though you could have stumbled into these situations themselves, which is why they stick with you well after the film has ended.
Classic horror films use these smaller scale areas and relatable plots a lot. When low-budget films needed places to set their creations, they'd of course use whatever was local to them too, helping this trend along. And this smaller area has made it into gaming. Dead by Daylight's arenas are based on classic horror settings like cornfields, suburban housing, farms, and carnivals. And then you have games like Blair Witch which takes advantage of the woods and how terrifyingly lost someone can feel when surrounded by trees and darkness.
Even a space adventure like Alien Isolation traps you in small spaces with lots of doors and separated areas just like a real spaceship would require which conveniently help loading, as well as distinct levels and areas. The claustrophobic atmosphere of horror films coincidentally makes a very good area for games.
Horror also loves a close call. People surviving by the skin of their teeth is crucial to both horror and PvP games. We've all held our breath when the hero is within grabbing distance of the villain, or when we've been healing up during a multiplayer firefight. When we're watching a horror movie or playing a game, we're craving very similar experiences.
Horror films just fit gaming so well I thought it was quite amusing that Keighley was surprised by Killer Klowns from Outer Space's adaptation. Maybe I'm just used to old properties trying their luck with gaming collaborations here, there and everywhere these days. But I'm not sure any classic horror film is safe from adaptation, because let's face it, there is too much money and nostalgia in gaming for developers to not at least consider it.