Does this make you uncomfortable? If you play a lot of horror games, it might. Horror games love to make you use old, weird, anachronistic technology like this. Typewriters, tape recorders, this poorly designed heap of scrap metal. But there’s one technology I want to talk about because it’s making a big comeback: Cameras! Cameras have been iconic in horror games from the earliest generation. Fatal Frame’s core concept is “what if instead of bullets, you shoot… pictures.
” You get this 1910 Eastman Kodak, a camera so old that if you found it in a vintage store today, it would definitely already have a roll of ghost film IN IT. Fatal Frame removed anything that we would consider a weapon to increase the feeling of powerlessness, but the camera does essentially act like a gun; You take pictures of ghosts to damage them. Like in Silent Hill and Resident Evil, you have limited ammo i.e. film stock, so you can’t just shoot enemies into oblivion. Your main defense in the game is being able to see in third-person, thanks to the fixed camera angles. A ghost can’t sneak up on you when you’ve got eyes in the back of your head! But when you narrow your vision down to the first-person view of the camera, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable. Ultimately it’s a trade-off between defense and offense. Plus you’re setting yourself up for a heck of a jump scare every time.
This era of horror had to make technological compromises, like the fixed angle viewpoints, and that accounts for the less action-heavy gameplay. They were just puzzle games. With action elements. And horror aesthetics, and the occasional jump scare to keep you on your toes, but really, honestly, just puzzle games. And then… the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Leon: My assignment is to search for the president’s missing daughter. Guard: What? Horror games of the 2000s – or “horror games,” if you’re cynical – were mostly just action-shooters with horror aesthetics. These are your Resident Evil 4 and your Left 4 Dead’s. Outside of Bioshock, these games didn’t really do anything interesting with cameras – neither the POV nor the in-game cameras. But they had a lot of guns. And they had a lot of bullets. And they had a lot of enemies to sink those bullets into.
Leon: Looks like they’re backing off. Luis: So what do we do now? In the 2010s, cameras snuck back into into horror games, alongside the quiet tread of stealth mechanics. Monsters were to be avoided or distracted, but not killed. In games like Outlast, the camera becomes a tool for evasion, showing you secrets and helping you navigate. But it can’t damage the monsters. Taking a selfie with your enemy is a great souvenir, but it’s not gonna save you from disembowelment, And that’s just good life advice. And stealth is… fine. I mean, it was fine for a few games and then every horror game did it, and it kind of became tedious, even when those games were otherwise really good. So it’s great to see horror games circle back to puzzles, and to more interesting camera use. Like Five Nights at Freddy’s, where sometimes the jump scare is about what suddenly isn’t on screen.
Or 2019’s Observation, from the same team behind the criminally undervalued Stories Untold. Like the name suggests, you are an observer– to disaster. Specifically you’re the Windows-97-ass AI of a retro space station, experiencing a Gravity-level catastrophe. You’re not using the camera–you ARE the camera. You bounce between fixed viewpoints, trying to repair whatever parts of the ship you can see. Eventually you get to possess these little eyeball orbs that allow you greater freedom of movement, but honestly that just makes the game more claustrophobic. The space station looks very small compared to freaking Saturn. Emma: How did we get here? Blair Witch, the new game from the team that made Layers of Fear, of course needed a handheld camera- what else would make it a Blair Witch game? But the game doesn’t just take the easy way out by using the camera to expose secrets. It’s a problem-solving mechanic.
You use found tapes to change your environment, by pausing at just the right moment to, say, open that door to the next area. Despite the broad difference in how all of these games use cameras, they have a common thread: They all use really old shitty technology. It’s no coincidence that both Observation and Stories Untold use retro technology, or that Alien: Isolation and Blair Witch use their source materials’ era as a reference point. The mansion and Resident Evil sits atop a super-advanced secret facility, but they’re still using manual typewriters. Resident Evil 7 still has VHS tapes. Fatal Frame’s camera was already 80 years old in the 90s.
Five Nights at Freddy’s whole thesis is ‘old technology is terrifying’ and Outlast uses a handheld camera- sir, it is 2013 in here. Retro technology is familiar but it’s also WEIRD. And we kind-of know how to use it but not competently. [Heart bursts pop!] Sometimes it’s just goofy as hell… until you’re relying on it for your very life. Then the slowness, the junkiness, the overall frustration of using it becomes a point of tension and fear. The flip side of this is that we perceive the newest, brightest technology as powerful, and empowering. Which can also be terrifying, if somebody else controls that technology. Lucius Fox: This is wrong. That’s why so many modern action movies feature low-key science fiction elements. Ultimately, the modern is mundane, the past is decrepit, and the future is terrifying. As we spend more time behindor in front of cameras, we should look forward to seeing more cameras in games – even… if it is just this monstrosity.