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Scream in Your Hands: How To Evolve the Serial Killer Subgenre In Video Games

The release of the new Scream movie has me in the mood to play games where you’re trying to evade a slasher/serial killer. My personal favorites when it comes to this type of mayhem are that of Puppet Combo’s games; in gems like Babysitter Bloodbath and Murder House, you must run for your life as a mad killer tries to hunt you and butcher you. It’s very much in-tune with a slasher gem such as Scream. But though such games give me a rush, there is something more I long for from titles involving serial killers. 

For a long time now, I’ve been craving a serial killer narrative with greater depth. Something that doesn’t rely on just thrills, but conveys a story that disturbs and moves. I want a game to get under the skin much like how David Fincher’s Seven does in its serial killer story – presenting a narrative with grim, moral exploration. So, I wonder: What would a game like that involve? When it comes to mechanics and narrative, what would it take to elevate the serial killer subgenre of gaming?  

A Puzzle With All The Pieces Just Needing To Be Arranged 

Outside that of the Scream and Friday the 13th inspired slasher games, other titles have touched upon more of the Seven-like serial killer narrative. Heavy Rain and the Condemned games are the first to come to mind, each making for decent efforts to provide intense, emotional stories (to varying quality respectively). Mechanically, each game offers a strong quality that is essential in building an effective detective game where one hunts down a killer. 

The obvious is that of investigation mechanics; the main means of interaction is the player moving about environments and striving to piece clues together. Much like we’ve seen in titles like the Batman Arkham games, this provides an immersive form of play if the player is to take on the role of a detective; this gets them into the dirt and grime of crime scenes, forcing them to be up close and personal when it comes to horrific violence. I’d love to see a game further expand upon this type of mechanic in greater detail; make us dig for evidence that leads us to our next destination; create an array of puzzles that revolve around discovering clues. 

Another crucial element is creating a cinematic approach to gameplay exploration, much like that of Heavy Rain and Until Dawn. Providing investigative mechanics allow for players to engage with the world in an important manner – but besides that – I feel there needs to be a greater emphasis on plot outside of that, and not trying to layer on any other mechanics (i.e., combat). When you strip away fighting and only provide focus to exploration and investigation, one is left with a greater means to feel present in the story. There aren’t a bunch of enemies charging at them, no combos, or strategies to be mindful of, just the present in trying to find clues and absorb the atmosphere. 

Though these games include elements of combat – to varying degrees – L.A. Noire and Judgment are titles that display a decent balance in juggling both essential qualities. However, both games lack any sort of horror element, making for fun detective games without a doubt, but offering little to make for unnerving experiences. So then, what would it take to narratively craft such a game? 

Pain, Loss, And Anger – Feelings In Hunting Down A Killer 

The general setup to any “detective hunts serial killer story” is relatively simple – it’s just that. That premise is the foundation to the plot. But to have such an experience make an impact on the player, it should involve some form of emotionality. While I’ve seen different games portray violence and emotional depth differently, what I don’t think works well are when these types of games get too “gamey” (i.e., relying on overt combat in trailing a killer), and opt for more play than plot. Such levels of engagement can create a distance and attitude of, “I’m going to get the killer, but these dead characters are just NPCs, so whatever.”  

What would be a great countermeasure to such a mindset is creating a plot and gameplay experience where the player gets to take on multiple roles – such as that of the killer’s victims. Imagine a little side story where you are playing as a character you come to really like; you get to spend time in their shoes and see what their daily life is like. You develop a connection with them, only to find them in a situation where they are tortured and killed. This creates anger and a drive to push the player further into the story, making each action as the detective more important. 

While completing objectives is crucial to help push a story forward, there needs to be just as much focus provided to the story. Imagine what it would be like to play a game where you felt super invested in catching a killer – like the game was really drawing upon you emotionally. If you’ve seen the film, think about Clarice from The Silence of the Lambs and how much her efforts make us root for her; think about how upsetting it feels to across the victims of Buffalo Bill. Now imagine yourself in the midst of such a story where everything depends on your actions – and you feel an emotional weight in all you do. This also applies to any detective character we may play as. Perhaps there is a side mission where the detective character is trying to celebrate a family member’s birthday, only for his thoughts to be clouded by horrible visions of what he has seen. 

I also think it’s important for these types of games to pull us out of the heavier, more violent parts of the plot to (ironically), pull us deeper into the thick of things. These games could use moments of mundanity to emphasize the pain and suffering the killer has brought on. Think about the initial dinner scene in Seven where Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Gwyneth Paltrow are all sitting together; at this point in the film, Freeman, Pitt, and the audience have already seen some brutal stuff, but now we have a chill, friendly dinner gathering. The reason a moment like this works so well in the film is that – if the audience is to get constantly bombarded with violent imagery – there’s a chance they may grow distant from the characters and view the experience like torture porn. Having that dinner, having those quiet moments, allows us to connect and care more for characters, and that is a quality that serial killer video games could easily tap into.  

There is so much room to create rich characters we feel for in these haunting dramas. There are whole layers of dark intrigue and gripping character dynamics that not only engage with the player on an entertainment basis, but also draw upon sympathy and empathy. 

The Great Hunt To Come 

I think when it comes to games that revolve around serial killers and slashers, too many keep things safe in presenting stories that only touch upon the aesthetics of gore and violence; like, “Look how crazy this killer is because he rips people’s faces off.” That’s cool and all, but I don’t want to just play around the typical beats of a serial killer narrative – I want to be on edge, uncomfortable, like being in the midst of a manhunt. 

A lot of horror games have seen tremendous growth over the years, and such growth is possible for the serial killer/slasher subgenre. There’s plenty of room and need for more action-driven horror flair, but I hope we see developers craft narratives that lean towards somber exploration and uncomfortable emotional impact. Journeys of hell, vengeance, and revenge where we as the player feel sincere anger towards the monster we are trailing.  


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