There were two houses in the neighborhood I would most often trick ‘r treat in growing up that I’ll never forget. One was occupied by a man who loved to scare children. He would dress up like a scarecrow and stay perfectly still on the porch until he was ready to introduce kids to the concept of mortality. He would hide in bushes when young candy seekers figured out the porch trick, and he would even just wait to jump from the other side of the door when you were busy gawking at the assortment of sweets that Mrs. Jump Scare handed out. I always loved getting scared every time I visited that house.
The other house I’ll never forget was memorable for entirely different reasons. Every year, the sweet old lady who owned it would decorate her front porch with cobwebs, pumpkins, smiling spiders, haystacks, and these other items that screamed horror without making you scream. When that sweet old lady opened the door in her standard witch outfit with a grin from ear to ear, you felt this sense of welcome and comfort that many of us who grew up with horror find in the solace of a dark and stormy night.
It was a feeling I experienced again the first time that I played Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare DLC.
Undead Nightmare was not a scary game. That doesn’t mean that someone somewhere didn’t get a little spooked by the sight of an undead horde pouring out of the woods as they rode by, but it never felt like a game that was meant to be scary. That will no doubt strike some as a criticism against one of the most beloved pieces of DLC/expansions ever released. However, the idea that every horror game has to be scary is this fallacy that gaming and gamers picked up somewhere along the way that has only been bolstered by the fact that most horror games you hear about are, in fact, truly scary.
Just look at Resident Evil. Like few games before or since, Resident Evil drew this clear line for the horror genre. Either you were a horror game released before Resident Evil, or you were a horror game released after. The difference between the two is the standard for pure terror that Resident Evil set. That’s not to say it was a game devoid of ridiculousness, but above all, it was a title designed to terrify you. The moment that zombie slowly turned towards the player in glorious CG (for its time) or the moment that damn dog crashed through that window, people discovered that games could scare them more than just about anything else.
That’s great and all, but what followed was a little disappointing. The message that most of the gaming industry received well and clear is that horror games needed to be scarier than the scariest game what came before. Resident Evil was bested by Silent Hill. Silent Hill was sent home by Fatal Frame. Fatal Frame was made tame by Dead Space, and so on and so forth well into the era of Five Nights at Freddy’s, Outlast, and other games made notorious due, in part, to their reputation for scaring the hell out of anyone who plays them.
You’ll never hear me or any other right-minded horror fan try to blast a work of horror for trying to be scary, but the quick jump from “games aren’t that scary” to “we want you to make the scariest game ever” meant that there was very little room left for one of the best horror subgenres: the fun horror story.
I’m talking about Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Shaun of the Dead, Army of Darkness, Beetlejuice, Young Frankenstein, Horrorstör, How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend, and a legion of other horror (or horror-inspired) works that are beloved, clever, and loaded with horror elements, but aren’t necessarily designed to scare you. Instead, they’re the kind of pieces of entertainment that you dive into when you want to bathe in horror atmosphere without having to look for the knife-wielding maniac in the shadows.
There are far too few games out there that belong in the group of titles mentioned above. They exist here and there for those willing to look for them – the Hunter: The Reckoning series and Dead Rising are good examples – but for a medium whose horror collection boasts some of the scariest experiences you’ll ever find, the lack of many truly memorable fun horror titles is an oversight that goes from intriguing to depressing when you realize that there are few signs that we’re going to get any such games anytime soon.
However, it’s not the fact that Undead Nightmare is such a rare example of the fun horror genre in gaming that makes it special. No, what makes Undead Nightmare special is the way that Rockstar found the fun in horror gaming via this strange game.
It’s an approach that is evident right from the start of the game. Undead Nightmare’s opening sees John Marston return home as a ‘50s style horror film narrator informs us of Marston’s situation and the thoughts that plague him. It’s a style of opening that film fans will instantly recognize as a throwback to many Vincent Price movies (or perhaps just the opening to the “Thriller” music video). Through this simple storytelling device – as well as the dark and stormy night that John Marston rides through on his way home – gamers are immediately immersed in a throwback kind of horror experience that harkens back to the days of film producers making patrons sign liability waivers before they saw the studio’s latest creature feature.
That nostalgic style of horror serves dual purposes in Undead Nightmare. The first is obviously the chance to step back in time to a simpler era of horror and enjoy its charms. Undead Nightmare utilizes more modern forms of horror (zombies, obviously) but many of its genre elements harken back to the old days. A big part of the reason that era of horror has gone from scary to amusing is that we’ve seen a lot since then. Horror movies have become more intense and we’re more aware of various real-world dangers, too. It’s the same reason why gothic horror stories tend to be less effective; what chance do cobwebs, skeletons, and rainy nights have when weighed against what we know now?
Undead Nightmare doesn’t veer away from the outdated but rather steers into it. Much like how the base Red Dead game derives some entertainment from the fact that you are aware of the tropes of the old West, Undead Nightmare acknowledges the absurdity of its premise and invites you to join in on the fun.
Oh, and what fun it is. Undead Nightmare is filled with instances where the developers are trying to show you that they are very much aware of the absurdity of this whole thing but see no reason to stop having fun with the concept. The best example of this is a side mission involving the hunt for Bigfoot. Any long-time Rockstar fan will instantly recognize that this is a reference to the video game urban legend that says Bigfoot roams the woods of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. However, this mission is more than just the realization of a popular myth. It turns out that Bigfoot (or the sasquatch) was a mostly innocent creature and you have participated in the eradication of its entire family as part of your obsession with hunting it down.
More light-hearted instances of Rockstar’s overwhelmingly joyful take on this genre involve hunting down the four horses of the apocalypse (which can all be ridden), getting to brutally murder the “Uncle” character that most people wanted to kill in the base game (a moment similar to how casually the subject of killing Phil is discussed in Shawn of the Dead), and watching a racist shopkeeper who has no regard for humanity whatsoever get taken down by zombies while Marston casually watches. Moments such as these tap into the inherent fun of horror in order to produce something overtly amusing.
It’s the same logic employed by fun horror creators of the past. They understood that there is something inherently ridiculous about the horror genre that can offer a strange kind of solace if it is used as a kind of nightlight that reveals the absurdity of what scares us.
That solace is enhanced by the rather brilliant decision to make players feel empowered despite being in a horror setting. You are not the helpless victim in Undead Nightmare; you are the cowboy version of Van Helsing. You are the guy with enough weapons to bring the apocalypse to the zombies. There are very few points in Undead Nightmare where you are made to feel like the survivors in Night of the Living Dead. Why should you feel that way? Red Dead Redemption established John Marston as a man who will do what he feels he needs to do above all. If a scenario happens to include zombies, then that’s really just a detail to him.
However, the details in Undead Nightmare matter very much to the player because the details are all either a loving embrace of the horror genre or a snarky, Scream-like meta takedown of its tropes. We, the players, know to aim for a zombies head and take glee at the opportunity to lay down several perfectly placed slow-motion headshots in a row. We, unlike Marston, appreciate the commentary of the film director who sees this whole incident as the basis for one incredible movie. We can even appreciate Bonnie and John sharing a moment of love in the time of zombies.
With Undead Nightmare, Rockstar made the very aware players the master and commanders of a rich horror world. They gave them control over a genre that has historically removed it and, in the process, they turned a world of horror into a celebratory Halloween Town-style genre playground. That is the core of Undead Nightmare’s brilliance. It’s a game that, in many ways, presents itself as a deliverer of nightmares that can make you feel helpless at any second. What it really is, though, is that sweet old lady’s Halloween house. It’s a game that understands that creating awareness of the window dressing nature of a horror setting is only a bad thing if you’re expecting someone to still be scared by it all.
It’s a shame that there aren’t more fun horror games like Undead Nightmare, but just as Red Dead Redemption offered a western video game experience that was impossible for many developers to top, it seems increasingly possible that Undead Nightmare may have just set a standard for enjoyable horror gaming that few developers will ever surpass.