Recently I played Alan Wake and Amnesia, both are billed as having horror elements to them and both couldn't be further from each other in terms of mechanics (which I'll save that for other entries). However what I wanted to talk about is a "horrific epiphany" I had about the genre and why most horror games don't scare me.
One of the key elements in my opinion of what makes horror is taking the user out of their natural element, which is why many players are easily scared at the start of the game. The problem is that once the rules of the world have been established the game loses its horror for me. In other words once the player has been exposed to the new environment they become accustomed to it and it no longer fazes them.
The problem with many horror titles is that they are built around a few mechanics or rules that for the remainder of the game it adheres to and once the player discovers that, you lost a lot of the tension of playing. Going back to my look at F.E.A.R once I discovered that during the scary sections I'm safe it basically ruined them for me and I was never scared from that point on.
Even if the rules of the world are supposed to induce fear being constantly exposed to it will eventually make it lose its meaning. The first time someone jumps me from a closet when I pick up an item is scary, the 25th time not so much. Playing Doom 3 instead of being scared I just became annoyed as I knew each time I walked into a room that something was going to pop up to try and scare me. Credit goes to Amnesia for not constantly assaulting the player with monsters and darkness and gives gamers enough time to calm down from the last event before trying to freak them out again.
As I look at the horror games I've played I've realized that the majority of them don't evolve after the first 15 minutes of play. I've seen more variety in other genres then I do with horror which is a shame as I think it should be on top. There are two games I've played that have actually had moments that unnerved me; one of them wasn't even a horror game.
Half Life 2 had one infamous section entitled “We don't go to Ravenholm", here Gordon finds out why as the city was carpet bombed with head crabs and turned into zombie town. There are several important details to mention here as to why this section was able to deliver horror.
First is the environment, the Ravenholm section takes place at night; up until that point in the game you were playing in afternoon or early evening. Ravenholm is the first part of the game that takes place where it's not bright and sunny. The city itself was different from what you were used to as well, City 17 was a bright sterile environment with the ominous citadel there .Ravenholm is dirty, destroyed and there are bodies all over the place. This brought the realization to the player that something different is going to happen here.
Next are the enemies, once again Ravenholm changes things up. Previously you were dealing with the Combine solders and very rarely did you fight the head crabs. Here you fight nothing but them and their zombie variations. This section also introduced two very dangerous foes, the dark head crab that reduces your health to one and the head crab carrier, a giant brute who tosses head crabs at you.
Third your tactics had to change to deal with the new situation. In the earlier sections the gravity gun was mainly a secondary weapon. In Ravenholm with ammo scarce you had to rely more on the gravity gun and real world physics to bash your enemies with objects. Who can forget the first time they used the buzz-saw to slice a zombie in two?
The key theme present in Ravenholm was mixing things up for the player. What they were asked to do and where they were doing it were changed and forced the player into a new situation. The section is long enough to keep the player on their toes but not too long that it would start to get repetitive.
Moving on we have one of my favorite horror titles Fatal Frame 3 for the PS2. For those that never played it, the FF series can be broken down to "Ghost Busters meets photography". The series is unnerving enough as it is with freaky ghosts to fight and strange rituals, but FF3 takes it up even further.
What I loved about FF 3 was how the game broke its own rules. The game throws the player into sections where they literally cannot fight the ghosts coming at them and they are forced to run and be stealthy or be killed. There's one excellent cut scene near the end that delivers the best "oh shit" moment in the game which I will not spoil for you because you really need to play the entire game to get that scene. There is one element however I want to talk about which I will have to spoil.
(WARNING: The following paragraph contains a massive spoiler for the game. If you have not played the game or are playing it now, don't read the following paragraph. In order to talk about the game I'm going to spoiler one of the more interesting events in the game and for first timers it can ruin a lot of the atmosphere for the game. I'll note when I'm done talking about it so that you can keep reading the entry.)
One of the rules the game establishes early on is that during the daytime sections the player is safe from everything and that nothing will scare them. Those moments are reserved for when the player goes to bed and enters the Manor of Sleep where the horror happens. As the game develops the player will start to notice weird events happening during the day, such as an object moving on its own. Later on they will start to hear noises and will start seeing ghosts or parts of ghosts as they moving around. Even though you can't be hurt, these events are random and have made me jump a few times when I turn around to find someone starring at me from out of nowhere.
Sometimes you can have a game establish a set of rules and stick to them, but never actually tell the player said rules. Silent Hill 2 in my opinion is the best one in the series and one of the main reasons why was that it made no attempt to explain to the player what is going on.
There is never a “a ha!" moment where the game breaks down everything that happened. Instead we see things done to mannequins that should never happen. The game also has multiple endings based on the player doing various actions in the game that once again we are not told about.
There are two elements I want to see introduced to the horror genre. First I want more game-play variety; the game should evolve over the course of the game. For example introduce enemies that cannot be defeated in the same way as previous enemies or cannot be defeated period. I know right there that people are going to bring up Haunting Ground or the Clock Tower series for that kind of mechanic, however what I want is a game that has that mechanic but is not completely built around it.
Dead Space was a good example of this, the majority of the game was built around action however there were several sections that had you dealing with an unstoppable enemy and your attacks would only slow it down, leaving you with the only option to run. Also let's not forget Resident Evil 3 that had Nemesis showing up to hunt down the player.
The more the game mixes things up the more it will keep the player on their toes. If you set ground rules up at the start, try to introduce mechanics that inherently break said rules to force the player to adapt. One mechanic I really want to see is having the character change as the game progresses.
For example starting out the person can barely fire a gun, however later on their accuracy will improve from firing so many times. Or make the character weaker, such as having a major accident and they can no longer wield two handed weapons like sledgehammers.
Next I would like to see open world design and horror together. Several of my game ideas are about open world horror titles. The player has a world to explore and must also deal with variety of creatures that can attack at any time. There should be safe zones or periods that the player is safe and of course areas where there is danger all around. I'm surprised that I haven't seen a game other then Minecraft built around a day/night cycle to define safety and danger (not counting tower defense style games).
When I first played Resident Evil 4 I remember loving the opening village section that has the player trying to keep away from a town of villagers by hopping from rooftop to rooftop and barricading doors. I would like to see more games give players a wide environment to explore and at the same time try to scare them.
It feels like more games are shying away from being pure horror and instead use mechanics to create tension. For example in Demon's Souls: die twice and you lose all experience/money that you are carrying, or with the Dead Rising series you are required to use save points to save your state. I think it's a good idea to challenge the player like this but I still want to see games that can truly scare the player.
This leads me to my challenge to those reading this, I want to play a game that will scare me and I'm looking for suggestions. I have not played the latest Silent Hill game or the Japanese only Fatal Frame Wii game, but I think I've played all the other major releases this past year.
Happy early Halloween,