Sponsored By

Featured Blog | This community-written post highlights the best of what the game industry has to offer. Read more like it on the Game Developer Blogs.

Crafting a Monster: Guidelines for Survival Horror Combat

A dissection on what makes a good horror combat system using Fatal Frame, Condemned, and Alone in the Dark: Inferno ( yeah, not kidding) as examples.

Game Developer, Staff

April 26, 2012

9 Min Read

This is a successor to another article I wrote which analyzed the combat of Silent Hill Downpour, and how it was a good system that the player was trained on poorly. To dig even deeper at the issue in combat in survival horror, I’ve picked three games that excel at maintaining a scary atmosphere while giving the player adequate means of defense, to see if we can’t figure out how to create a system that’s both scary yet user friendly.

Keep in mind—Resident Evil and Silent Hill are not on this list. While I love both series (and Silent Hill 2 is still one of my favorites of all time) neither has ever had great combat, and when combat was tweaked in Resident Evil it lost the scare factor.

Anyway, let’s see if we can’t figure this out.

  1. Fatal Frame

Often considered the scariest of last-gen’s survival horror greats,  one complaint you never really hear about Fatal Frame is with its combat. It’s not sluggish, nor does it rely on poor controls to hamper you (it switches to a first-person set-up when you bring the camera to your face). So how does it manage to have a good combat system while remaining scary?

The answer lies in two things:

  1. The restrictive view of the camera enhances a feeling of claustrophobia. Meanwhile, the characters movement speed is slow, so you cannot react to attacks all that quickly. Enemies are unpredictable, sometimes rushing you, sometimes creeping through walls, making it hard to gauge how a fight will go.

  2. In order to adequately damage ghosts, you have to wait until they’re nearly RIGHT ON TOP OF YOU. In addition, your character can really only take a few hits before going down. This is where the genius of the combat lies.

The system is, quite frankly, brilliant. Because ghosts don’t really take damage if you snap a shot of them while they’re far away, you must wait for them to get closer to you. But at the same time, their erratic movements coupled with their tendency to phase in and out of existence makes it hard for you to zero in on them. Lastly, the slow reaction time of your character means that if you fail the shot, you’re going to take damage, because you can’t avoid ghosts at such a close range. All of these elements combine together to get your heartbeat racing, as combat in Fatal Frame is really more about timing and opportunity than anything. And as opportunity grows, so does the threat.  

So what can we take away from this system? Well, you shouldn’t be able to fight your enemies at a distance, for one. All that does is diminish the scare factor, as confrontation is only scary when you are at your most vulnerable. There should also be a bigger risk/reward to combat than running. Combat may eliminate a foe, but it will be much more difficult to do so. Conversely, leaving an area will get you past an enemy easier, but they can come back for you later. Lastly, you should be at your most vulnerable when fighting, and never have a position of strength.

     2. Condemned

For the purposes of this article, I’m only talking about the original, as I believe the sequel adds elements to the combat system that diminish the fear factor, in addition to being generally batshit crazy.

Seriously, remember when you gain the ability to scream people’s heads off?

Anyway, the first Condemned is a pretty scary game, with a combat system that is primarily based around hand-to-hand (or bat-to-wooden plank) beatdowns. How does it straddle the line between giving the player power while keeping them afraid?

  1. Every action has a weight to it. Different weapons take longer to “wind up” than others, leaving you vulnerable. In addition, the main character has a fairly slow turning radius, and his overall movements are sluggish. Your character’s lack of er…grace (for lack of a better word) keeps you on edge.

  2. You can sustain little damage, and your enemies are (generally) quicker than you. This puts you at a disadvantage, forcing you to take sections slower than you normally would in other action-heavy titles, as you’re much more vulnerable to a surprise attack.

  3. In going with the first bullet-point, your attacks are not complicated. You can’t really combo, you mainly just swing wildly with whatever happens to be in your hands at the time. Even when you control these motions, the lack of finesse helps given the combat an edge of uncertainly, adding to the feeling that you’re a weak man simply fighting to stay alive.

The simplicity of the combat is one of the reasons it’s scary. It’s you—a slow, fairly weak man—swinging wildly with whatever makeshift weapon you can find. The sequel added more combos and finishers, which strengthened your fighting ability, yet diminished the fear factor. In addition, there was significantly more gunplay in the second game, which only occurs in brief spurts in the original. And  because you have less control in the first, combat is a much more nerve-wracking situation.

Similarities between this and Fatal Frame?  A few. The most obvious is that both games require you to get extremely close to your enemies in order to kill them, thus ratcheting up the risk/tension.  The next is that your character isn’t particularly adept at dodging, and can easily be taken by surprise. Lastly, both games contain relatively simple combat systems. In Fatal Frame, you point and shoot, merely saving up more damage film stock for harder foes. In Condemned, you wack at enemies, grabbing the most powerful weapon you can find in your current environment. And once again, enemy behavior is hard to predict—sometimes they’ll rush, sometimes they’ll sneak up on you, and sometimes they’ll wait for you to come to them.

It’s this simplicity that really aids in scaring players. When you make a combat system too complex—dodges, counters, myriads of attacks—it gives the player too much control, diminishing their fear.  

     3. Alone in the Dark: Inferno

Yes, this is definitely a controversial choice. Keep in mind I’m talking about the PS3 version, which had significant improvements made in nearly all areas of the game from the abysmal 360 release. While still not a masterpiece, it’s a fun ride filled with some fascinating game ideas that could be put to good use. While not truly scary, the combat was generally frantic and tense, and it goes about creating this tension in a completely different way than the previous two examples.

  1. Normal weapons do not kill your enemies. They are nigh-impervious to bullets and any other sort of physical weaponry. The only thing that destroys them is fire.

  2. Because of this, the combat is focused around creating/using sources of fire, and leaves it up for you to decide how to do this. However, much of your time is spent gathering materials to make fire—rags, bottles of alcohol, spray cans, lighters, etc.

  3. You have a limited inventory, and can only carry what you can fit in your coat. As such, you are always traveling pretty lightly, and can run out of supplies quickly. To combat this, many items have different functions. For instance, your health spray can be combined with a lighter to create a small flame, at the expense of losing a medical item.

Alone in the Dark’s combat is not close-quarters, but designed far more around item management and player creativity while having to deal with large groups. Most horror games only allow you to either fight or run from your enemies, but with Alone in the Dark’s system, you can set up barricades of fire, distract them, or  use their own groupings against them. In limiting the player’s arsenal, he’s forced to come up with unique ways of eliminating enemies, and under time pressure.

An example of my own playthrough is I reached a point where the only things I had on me were a lighter, a knife, and a flashlight. I hi-jacked a car to get to my next destination, and when I arrived I could see a group of 6 enemies scattered all along the outside of the building. I looked around—no rags, no bottles, nothing. How was I going to get past them?

Wait…could I…? No, there’s no way it would let me do that…

I walked over to the gas tank, pulled out my knife, then stabbed it. A trail of gas began to leak.

You’re kidding?

I got back in the car and floored it, diving out at the last second. It crashed into the building, knocking over 2 baddies. I ran over to the line of gasoline and used my lighter. The trail of fire went straight to the car and blew it up, killing every enemy outside.

There are certain things to note in this combat system. As it’s mainly designed for long range fighting, you’re vulnerable when enemies get up close. However, fighting enemies at a distance isn’t scary, so to balance the equation, you have a very limited amount of supplies and are never sure if you’re going to run out in the middle of a fight and have to haul ass out of there.  More surprising is the fact that even with all of these options, combat is not complex. You don’t have multiple guns, weapon types, enemy varieties, etc—you merely need to make fire for every enemy, and how you do that is up to you.

From these three games, there are several basic horror design rules that can be discerned.

  1. Combat should be up close and personal—where there is the most chance of the character getting hurt.

  2. Combat should not be complex. This does not mean creating poor controls, merely that the amount of player inputs are minimal. The more control over the situation, the less frightening it becomes.

  3. The character should always be weaker than their opponents—either in sustainable damage, or movement speed.

  4. When it comes to distance fighting, limit supplies. If you give the player a gun, he better have to fight to hold onto every bullet. If you can take enemies out from a distance easily, you cannot create fear.

  5. Enemy behavior MUST be hard to predict. This is more important to horror than any other genre. The second a player figures out an enemies “pattern”, they are no longer afraid. This is a holdover from the action genre that needs to go. Mankind fears what it doesn’t understand.

  6. Lastly, evasion should ALWAYS be an option. Without evasion combat becomes rote.  

Why did I add that last point? Well, I just finished “I Am Alive” the other day, and even though it uses many of these rules, it fails to have scary combat because you can never actually avoid it. In fact, there’s a lot I’d like to discuss about that game, but I’ll save that for next week.

In the meantime,  what do you think about these principles?   

Read more about:

Featured Blogs
Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like