There is a distinction between Western and Eastern horror games: a subtle difference that can be easily felt, but at the same time is quite hard to define. However, ‘hard’ does not mean ‘impossible’. I’d argue that the Asian approach truly elevates the genre to the rank of art, and it’s because of four specific features of Asian horror.
1. Evil is a disease
In Western horror, monsters are just that: physical creatures. They are not exactly meant to represent evil, and even when they do, it’s evil manifested in a very tangible form. In some cases this is enough to make them truly scary, as it was in Alien: Isolation, but it’s the most primitive kind of fear. You face an aggressive creature that can tear you to shreds.
Evil is usually portrayed as a disease: it’s everywhere around you, but you can’t exactly see it.
For all intents and purposes your enemy is simply a wild animal, and if you actually replaced the monster’s 3D model with a lion or a tiger, it wouldn’t change a thing in the gameplay or the game’s atmosphere. This has been proven at least twice: in the terrifying bear attack sequence in Condemned 2: Bloodshot, and in Alien: Isolation’s development. According to one of the latter game’s creators, in order to come up with gaming mechanics, the designers tried to imagine how they’d act if there was a tiger in their office. Sure it added a layer of realism to the entire experience, but the Alien is ultimately just that: a hungry tiger.
Asian horror deals with themes that are much less palpable than loose animals. Evil is usually portrayed as a disease: it’s everywhere around you, but you can’t exactly see it. You can’t fight it off with guns. And most of all: it’s contagious.
You can see it in Silent Hill, where the entire town seems to be ravaged by a disease, and you can actually observe the process of the town’s „tissue” decaying. In Forbidden Siren, the townsfolk seem to be contaminated with evil and controlled by it, and while you can fight them, you cannot fight whatever turned them into monsters. Even the rather pedestrian horror of Resident Evil, heavily inspired by classic American movies, makes a literal virus the reason behind all the horrifying incidents.
This fascination with viruses, the act of making the infective agent aware and giving it a mysterious agenda, is a uniquely disturbing idea, much more bizarre and difficult to cope with than a wild beast roaming your neighbourhood.
2. You cannot understand evil
Western horrors usually have a scene – THE scene – where everything comes together and starts to make sense. „A-HA! So the mad doctor used the Seal of the Undead because he wanted to take over the family fortune!” There’s nothing like it in Asian horror.
In the book and the movie The Ring, the protagonists find the body of the little girl whose ghost has been haunting the unfortunate people who stumbled upon the cursed (infected!) video tape. Even though they ‘release’ the spirit from the suffering, it just keeps going. They did everything right… but it was not what the evil wanted. What did it want, then? What was its driving force, its ultimate goal? We will never know.
It’s pretty much the same in any Asian horror. In the graphic novel Uzumaki, the evil factor makes people fascinated with spirals, which leads them to destroy and rebuild the town in a spiral shape… and let’s not spoil anything else. The important thing is: there’s clearly a reason for it, a twisted but very solid logic. Something strange is striving to achieve its goal – but the author ultimately does not reveal it. In gaming, a similar thing happens in Silent Hill 2 – we never learn why the town affects people the way it does, although we can sense a deeper purpose. There have been countless interpretations of the game’s meanings and messages, but they’re still very much open for discussion.
The fact that evil is beyond human comprehension, while still keeping to some kind of logic, is perhaps the most crucial factor behind the scariness of the Eastern horror.
3. You cannot trust your surroundings
Western horror creators tend to set their stories in very clearly horror-ish environments, ones that scream „IT IS NOT SAFE HERE, WHY ARE YOU EVEN HERE?!”. It’s an artistic choice rooted in the tradition of the European gothic horror, which isn’t really grounded and aims to match substance with style. If there’s a mad scientist, he can’t simply work in a lab. He has to have his dark lair, or a castle, or at least a spooky mansion that no sane person would like to visit.
Thus, in Dead Space, the Ishimura spacecraft looks and feels like hell itself, and while it’s hard not to be impressed with the design, the environment doesn’t look like a place anyone would feel comfortable in, even in its prime. Outlast‘s insane asylum seems pretty realistic at first, but it doesn’t take 10 minutes to stumble upon shelves full of body parts and other egregiously overdone sets. Even when there are no corpses lying around, the lighting and the general design of the interiors itself delivers a clear message that something’s wrong: that evil has taken over. In this way, the environments are trustworthy: they look dangerous and they indeed are.
Silent Hill looks very non-threatening. It’s just a town, not some hellish landscape.
Asian horror is subtle in this regard. If you are willing to overlook the fog, which creates an eerie atmosphere but has been introduced primarily due to hardware limitations, Silent Hill looks very non-threatening. It’s just a town, not some hellish landscape. The same with the villages in Forgotten Siren or Ju-On. If not for the unseen evil, these environments wouldn’t differ at all from the places you can see around you. And that’s what makes them scary: the fact that you don’t know whether you are safe, because nothing looks out of the ordinary. You don’t feel disconnected from the world – it’s very much familiar, and the thought that this casual setting is where you could get your body shredded and soul annihilated is why Asian horrors are so good at creating tension. They don’t need jump scares. They rely on your fear of finally encountering something you know you’re not prepared for.
Resident Evil is an obvious exception, but, as I mentioned, it’s also strongly inspired by the American horror tradition – yet it still manages to introduce some down-to-earth environments. Especially the first entry in the series (and not its remake), where the mansion was mostly just a big house, well-lit, well-maintained and… silent. No scary music here. Just the ticking of the clock, a completely innocent sound, yet somehow so disturbing – because you know you can’t trust it. This deceptiveness is the difference between „You better not go there, and if you do, expect an attack” and „Maybe you’re safe, maybe not, you’ll never know.” And the latter is the foundation of an effective Asian horror.
4. You cannot win
In a video game you simply have to win – to be able to achieve some kind of a goal, to succeed in a test of your skills. However, story-wise, you will almost certainly fail.
It’s how Asian horror works – in manga, cinema or literature. Would it be a huge spoiler if I told you that in most cases everyone dies? You’ve probably seen The Ring or Ju-On. In the case of the former, its American remake had a bit more optimistic ending, but the originals were simply brutal in their hopelessness. The same with The Wailing, a masterful South Korean horror movie following all the rules we’ve been discussing. The same with Noroi. The same with One Missed Call. The same with Uzumaki. Pulse. Shutter. Asian writers simply don’t want you to feel that evil can be dealt with.
Asian writers simply don’t want you to feel that evil can be dealt with.
This notion persists in gaming. Despite the everpresent silliness and comedy, Deadly Premonition‘s ending includes a couple of shocking twists that make the player feel helpless, even defeated. In Silent Hill 2, the player is rewarded with either the protagonist’s suicide, him finding a replacement for his late wife just to discover her terminal illness, or him taking the body of his wife to the center of the nightmare in hope of reviving her. And we all know how it works in Silent Hill. There’s also an ending where James actually leaves the town after making peace with the ghosts of his past, but also being a changed and broken man. Hardly a great success – and you need to really work for it. Silent Hill 4’s good ending is more optimistic, but at the same time even harder to obtain. It’s unlikely for anyone to get it during the first playthrough. An regardless of how well you perform, bo game in the series lets you actually get rid of the evil force, kill it once and for all.
The real achievement is the fact that even though you won’t bring down the Umbrella Corporation; even though you certainly won’t escape your nightmares; even though at best you’ll barely postpone the coming of an ancient god, and you’ll eventually get cornered by an unstoppable demon – you’ll still somehow feel rewarded by an Asian horror game. Because it’s about the journey itself, and it’s an experience no other genre can provide.