If you heard the words “asymmetrical horror” a decade ago, chances are you’d likely have no idea what it was, or think it was some sort of niche avant-garde indie genre you’re not cool enough to know about. Nowadays, asymmetrical horror is one of the most thriving and streamed genres in gaming, popularized by titles like Behaviour Interactive’s Dead by Daylight and Gun Media’s Friday the 13th: The Game. From the recent release of popular horror IP adaptations such as The Evil Dead to the upcoming release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to the explosion of interest in indie titles like Hellbent Games’ VHS through social media, I chatted with a handful of developers about how 2022 will be the biggest year yet for the genre.
“Games like Friday the 13th: The Game and Dead by Daylight created a mold,” says Wes Keltner, CEO/Art and Audio Director of Gun Media. “If you’re a game developer wanting to make asymmetrical horror, we’ve provided the baseline.” Gun Media released Friday the 13th: The Game in 2017, pitting seven players as helpless campers against one all-powerful Jason Voorhees. The asymmetrical gameplay paradigm it focused on was fairly unique at the time and seamlessly blended the formula of iconic 80s slasher movies into a cohesive gaming experience. The addition of a horror character as iconic as Jason Voorhees also helped spur notoriety–an addition that infamously stirred up some legal drama that also brought many fans to the game. “There’s a powertrip in being the killer,” says Keltner. “There aren’t many games that put you in that seat and give you the tools to completely wreck other players.”
Behaviour Interactive had taken a similar route a year prior in 2016 with Dead by Daylight, pitting four survivors against one killer. “Asymmetry has been tried a few different ways, but I think what has made the horror genre work is that it almost demands absolute asymmetry,” says Mathieu Cote, Game Director at Behaviour Interactive. “In horror, you immediately accept that there is a side with absolute, untouchable power, and a side with very little hope. It sets the stage for great storytelling.”
Dead by Daylight, which is celebrating its 6th anniversary this year and recently integrated its new Ringu chapter, steadily remains in the top 20 most streamed video games on Twitch. This is partly the result of the cast of characters that Behaviour affectionately dubs its “Horror Hall of Fame”–what other game can you play where Resident Evil’s Nemesis hunts down Halloween’s Laurie Strode?–but also its replayability factor. Similar to Fortnite, it’s possible to start a match and immediately die within the first couple minutes. But the allure of winning the next match is what causes players to keep telling themselves, “One more match!” until their gaming session becomes an all-nighter.
The human-element and the allure of playing “The Bad Guy” were both sentiments also shared by Jesus Iglesias and Tim Willits, the Studio Head of Saber Madrid and Chief Creative Officer of Saber Interactive respectively–the team behind this year’s Evil Dead: The Game. “People love being scared,” says Willits. “You get scared when you watch a show or movie, but you get even more scared when your actions and decisions affect what actually happens to you.” Evil Dead: The Game features a trending innovative game element to the asymmetrical horror genre: the ability for survivors to fight back, or as Ash Williams puts it, “Tear evil a new one.”
“Many teams are trying to create an engaging experience and are finding it’s incredibly difficult to maintain,” says Iglesias. “It’s really not an easy genre to find success in, and that’s why we took a different approach.” Rather than being at the complete mercy of The Bad Guy, Evil Dead arms survivors with melee and ranged weapons to repel The Kandarian Demon as they complete objectives to fully defeat it. “There’s something unique about Evil Dead. It’s a challenge to take a well-known, beloved franchise and adapt it, and there’s always a risk of failing, but we felt strongly it could work well with our approach,” says Iglesias. VHS is taking a similar route, requiring survivors to craft special weapons to fight back against the killers in order to win.
Innovation seems to be the key takeaway of what’s keeping the genre fresh and what’s drawing so many people towards it. “Push the genre forward,” says Keltner. “That’s the only way to keep this genre alive. Rinsing and repeating won’t cut it. I think VHS is a great example of a team taking the baseline and building upon it.” Gun Media is taking lessons learned from the success of Friday the 13th: The Game and building upon them for their upcoming Texas Chain Saw Massacre game, taking the previous paradigm of one killer vs multiple survivors and switching it up to be three killers vs four survivors.
Additionally, all five developers I spoke to also believe that there’s an inevitable convergence of horror film fans and horror game fans occurring–after all, Gen Z’s top choice of entertainment is gaming. “The scarier and more interactive we can make games, the more players will be immersed in their own experience and fear. Ultimately, that level of immersion will bring in more fans,” says Willits. “For a long time, movies were the big brother to games,” says Mair. “These days, games look incredible, and TV shows are using game engines to help tell their stories.” Keltner echoed a similar opinion, saying, “I think gaming in general is more ubiquitous. As gamers age, they aren’t putting the controller down; they’re continuing to seek out an escape and additional methods of entertainment.” For a genre that blends film and game experience so much, the future is undoubtedly bright for asymmetrical horror this year and beyond.