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Fight or flight in horror games.

Today I talk about why running should not be the only resort in horror titles.

What seems to be a never ending theme for me, I'm going to once again offer my opinion on the horror genre (I should consider grouping all my horror entries into one super post at some point).

Recently I played both Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, both titles remove the option to fight and instead force the player to run when facing any foes. Once again linking back to my previous entries on horror titles, I am an insane individual who no longer gets scared when playing games so the games I just mentioned did nothing for me. Personally I find this trend of removing combat is an overreaction to the poor combat mechanics of earlier horror titles. I can't help but feel that designers these days went overkill with this decision and I'm going to explain why using a basic psychological response.

"Fight or flight" refers to the basic survival response most animals have to a dangerous situation. They make a decision to either run away from the situation or fight their way out and the brain releases the corresponding chemical stimulants. My problem with horror titles these days that remove combat is that they effectively remove half of our available options when facing a dangerous situation.

What this means is that no matter what situation that the player runs into in a game their only option is to run. Removing the freedom of choice also removes the unpredictability of the situation. In Amnesia I knew that there were only two options whenever I was caught by a monster, run or die. Because of that I did not feel any tension when hiding in the dark nor did I get scared when I saw a monster.

By having combat as an option it forces the player to weigh the pros and cons of getting into a fight. Do they have enough ammo? Can they effectively stop the threat? Will they have enough ammo for the next fight? These are important questions that the player must answer and will add a layer of complexity to a game as opposed to just running away.

One challenge is to give the player enough power that they have the strength to fight back but not make them so powerful that it removes the horror. In Resident Evil 4 by the time the player has reached the half way point they will be loaded with upgraded weapons, items and ammo and won't need to worry about the next fight. What causes this is another stable of older horror games: the boss fight. For games about running away from foes, there are always parts that the player is locked in a room with a boss which requires all that ammo the player has been hoarding.

That last statement fits with the second challenge giving the player a reason to run. When you have sections that the player is forced to kill all enemies even if you are dealing with scary monsters it won't be scary in my opinion. The reason goes back to my comment on choice, if the only options available are to "fight" or "die" then that is just as bad as only having "run" or "die". An example of this was with Dead Space which the final level was made up of gauntlets of locked rooms with necromorphs to fight.

One game that came close to delivering "fight or flight" was Alan Wake. With most of the fights you have to weigh the decision to stand your ground or run away. The lack of enemy variety did hurt the game as even with having the options to run or fight you knew how most fights would play out.

Also I have to mention the opening of Resident Evil 4 where Leon is attacked by the entire village and must survive for X amount of minutes. I thought this was an excellent section and wish that there were more like it in the game.

In my opinion there are two types of enemy design that work best in a horror title. Either mobs of enemies who attack in groups or powerful larger enemies who attack one at a time. Both force the player to question if it is better to run or to try and fight them. A common pitfall in design is basing the fight or flight mechanics on the type of enemy, meaning the smaller enemies the player will always fight and the larger enemies the player will always run from. The more the designer mixes up these encounters the better as it will keep the player on their toes.

I've thought up three different game ideas in the past to go with my logic. The first one was something along the lines of Shadow of The Colossus but in a horror setting. You are trapped with several boss creatures and you must try to escape and at the same time deal with the creatures. Weapons can incapacitate them long enough to get away but supplies are limited. You must complete specific objectives which along the way will give you the tools needed to permanently stop them.

The next idea is based on one of the few IPs I would like to work on: Evil Dead, Something along the lines of Evil Dead 2 in which the player must fight off deadites while trying to complete objectives. They have to decide between running away from fights and using their limited supply of ammo to deal with them.

The final one which is the most complete one is a melting pot of several ideas I've had in the past. The player has been marked as a target for a demon in an open world setting. The goal is to find out who did this and how to stop it with the demon showing up at completely random times and different forms to attack the player. The player can either try to do enough damage to force the demon away or run and hide long enough for the demon to return to its dimension.

Since the game takes place in an open world the player must weigh the options of fighting or running away in regards to where they are, what weapons they have available and their current health situation. With the demon being immortal the player is never safe as it can show up at any time with longer intervals if the player managed to hurt it and shorter intervals if they run.

It seems like in my opinion that we moved from one design rut in horror titles with lousy combat, to another with this preoccupation of just running away. With the end of the year coming soon it will be interesting to see if any changes are made to the formula in 2011.


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