Saturday, 29 September 2012

Mechanics and Narrative: Horror

Horror games face a tricky conundrum: how do you make the player feel vulnerable and scared - and how do you do it without making the game seem unfair?

The most obvious method is to use darkness. Most people are scared of the dark at some point in their life, and for many people that fear takes a long time to fade. For some, it never does. The reason is simple: we can't see in the dark. Our intelligence and imagination are a weakness here: when we can't see what's there, anything we imagine could be there. For this reason, most horror games put you in the dark and give you a limited source of light - a flashlight or lantern, for example. 

Of course, just because everyone does it doesn't mean that everyone does it well.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent does it well. You have a lantern with a limited fuel supply. You have tinderboxes with which to light candles, torches, or fires in the environment, but again, they're limited. This is perfectly normal. What isn't, though, is that Amnesia has a sanity system. You lose sanity by looking at monsters, and by being in scary places or in the dark, and regain it in the light, with the tradeoff being that monsters can see you in the light. As you lose sanity, your vision begins to distort, you start hearing and seeing things that aren't really there, and your cursor becomes sluggish. Going insane heightens the horror by making you uncertain as to which sounds you're actually hearing, and by making you less capable of defending yourself if you're attacked.

Speaking of defending yourself, combat is another challenge for horror games. Many games are designed to empower the player. In a horror game, though, you don't want to empower the player too much, because then your game stops being scary. 

The Dead Space series, for example, is frequently called survival horror by people who don't know any better. While technically you do want to survive and the game features plenty of horror, Dead Space slaps an arsenal on your back and tells you to kill anything that looks at you the wrong way. When you can mow down a horde of monsters with high explosives, the feeling of vulnerability is dampened somewhat.

It is possible, though, to craft a combat system in a horror game that allows the player to vanquish enemies but still imparts a feeling of vulnerability. This is actually something Dead Space does fairly well at the beginning: your enemies can only be defeated by dismemberment, which means you have to keep calm and aim precisely and methodically - a bit of a challenge when ten screaming undead mutants are charging you head-on. However, later on, Dead Space offers a selection of weapons that don't require any precision at all - the force gun, flamethrower, and several explosives. In my mind, the heavy focus on combat and good selection of non-precision weapons make Dead Space a horror-themed action game, rather than a pure horror game.

Alan Wake takes a more balanced approach. The shadow-infused Taken are completely invulnerable until you burn the darkness off of them with your flashlight. Once the darkness is gone, you can gun them down. I quite like this system - you have to hold your flashlight steady on an enemy to burn away the darkness, which takes a few seconds and is therefore difficult and dangerous when you're being swarmed. And until you neutralize the darkness, all you can do is dodge - shooting is useless. It's like Dead Space's system turned up to eleven.

Of course, you could just ditch combat entirely, which is what Amnesia does - all you can do is run and hide and hope the monster doesn't see you.

Another game that follows the no-combat philosophy is a small, relatively crude indie game called Slender, which has really taken off and spawned sequels/remakes. In Slender, you're alone in a dark forest trying to find journal pages as the mysterious Slender Man follows you. You have a flashlight which will run out of batteries eventually, but there's no meter - it can just run out with no warning. But to me, Slender's most interesting mechanic is stamina. You can run, but doing so permanently lessens your ability to run. So you can sprint to escape the Slender Man, but doing so makes you less and less able to escape him in the future.

Of course there are ways to do things badly as well. While I enjoyed F.E.A.R. 3, making it competitive and arcadey by awarding points for combat shifts the focus of the game and makes it less scary. My favourite segment was one where there was no combat - the initial part of the electronics warehouse.

Some games are better than others at making you feel scared. What are your best and worst examples?

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