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The Unrealistic Solution of Klutzy Combat in Horror Games

A common belief in horror titles, is that the character must be horrible at combat to be considered realistic. I however have a few problems with that theory.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

April 20, 2012

4 Min Read

It's been awhile since my last horror game related post. Over the years I've covered a lot of areas relating to horror game design and I wish there were more titles out there for me to analyze. Today's topic goes into a little more detail about a point I mentioned in the post about making manly men cry. Combat is one of those tricky areas when designing horror titles. If it's too much of a focus, then the game becomes an action title, not enough and it comes off as poorly implemented.

On one end of the scale we have titles like Dead Space 2 where the player becomes a walking armory. On the other end, titles like Silent Hill or the recently failed horror title: Amy which featured tank like controls and awkward combat. For this post I'm going to ignore titles without combat like Amnesia: The Dark Decent as I talked about it in the post detailing fight or flight in horror game design.

The point of contention with combat is that designers want the player to feel like they're controlling an everyday person. This is how they rationalize poor control schemes that mostly get in the way. My issue with this is that they're still creating unrealistic characters by trying to impose their sense of realism.

Many horror games take place over the course of several days, I would expect if someone had nothing but a lead pipe to defend themselves with. They should get acclimated to the pipe and swing it better over time. Then you have characters that use the most grandiose and worse way to use a weapon. If someone is using a blunt weapon, swinging it from side to side is not as useful as an overhead swing. I know that I'm not the strongest or smartest guy around, but if I have a knife and there is a crazy, monstrous sob coming at me, I'm aiming for the effing head every chance I get.

Going back to the second paragraph, there needs to be a balance between how powerful the player should be. The challenge of getting it right is why in my opinion; a lot of developers like to create horror games without any combat. The problem is that without combat, you lose the notion of "fight or flight" neutering the design. Combat should be involved enough that the player feels like their input is having an effect, but at the same time it can't be the first, last and best answer to every situation.

I don't want a six button combo system in a horror game, nor do I want to just hit one button and watch the same animation play out each time. One of my favorite combat systems is still from the Condemned series. As they made the player feel powerful but still made combat chaotic. The challenge is that even if the designer makes a compelling combat system that can still get in the way of the horror.

If the player is made to be all powerful from the start, or get that way over the course of the game, it can marginalize the horror aspect. That's why you either want to mix up the types of enemies the player fights, or design situations where violence isn't the best answer.

While I was at GDC I attended the post mortem on Alone in the Dark. One area that the designer talked about was how he wanted puzzle solving and thinking to be on the forefront, while combat is the last ditch solution. Many fodder enemies existed which had to be dealt with by force, but there were more situations requiring puzzle solving instead of combat. Interestingly enough, while there were guns in the game.There was so little ammo that it made the weapons used more for emergency situations.

I've yet to play a really scary horror game in some time. Fatal Frame 3 basically scared the fear out of me and I haven't been bothered by horror games since. I keep hearing how so many people couldn't finish Amnesia because it scared them while I just breezed through it. I would like to see a horror game designed around randomization of events and enemies to see how terrifying that would make the experience. And I started thinking about a game idea on that very note.

While the heart of any good horror game is a combination of puzzle solving and exploration, there must be conflict and danger or all we have is a moody adventure game. On the flip side, too much action and we have an action game that slows down for light puzzle solving time after time. Balance and a specific design vision are required to create a game that will scare the hell out of people playing it.

Josh Bycer

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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