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Analysis: The Thing That Wouldn't Die - Horror Games' Tonal Shift

Writer Jeffrey Matulef analyzes gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them, focusing primarily on horror games switching their focus from avoiding danger to completely destroying any and all obstacles.

Jeffrey Matulef, Blogger

July 22, 2010

5 Min Read

[In this Gamasutra analysis, writer Jeffrey Matulef analyzes gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them, focusing primarily on horror games switching their focus from avoidance to dominance.] "What are you suggesting, passive resistance? "No, I'm suggesting active fleeing." -Woody Allen from "Love and Death." While Woody was referring to the Napoleonic Wars, I find it's more applicable to survival-horror games. Any two-bit protagonist with a shotgun and hunting knife can go around slaughtering creatures, but it takes real courage to be a pacifist in the face of danger. Early survival-horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill were scary for a slew of reasons such as unwieldy controls, dim lighting, terrifying noises and disturbing subject matter, but the thing that got to me the most was that you never had the means to keep the opposition down for long. Perpetually low on ammo, you often had no choice but to run from whichever ghastly beast wanted to feast on your innards. These games were notorious (if frustrating) for their "find the key" puzzles, forcing the player to constantly run to-and-fro as they scoured the dreary environments hoping to stumble upon the key to their escape. It may not have been "fun" in the traditional sense of the word, but I'll be damned if it didn't make me panic on multiple occasions. That all changed around the time of Resident Evil 4, when the focus went from fleeing to destroying. While ammo was still something to keep tabs on, you generally had enough to lay every foe to rest. It was still somewhat scary, what with the blood-curdling groans of possessed villagers stalking your every move, but you knew once you heard a villain's death rattle that you'd need never worry about them bothering you again. This sense of dominance lead its way into later horror titles like Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space. Even Silent Hill: Homecoming strongly encouraged the player to kill anything that moved by placing fewer enemies along a narrow, more linear path. Once dead, these enemies would stay dead, making these games more exhilarating than tense or scary. A game that got around this problem well was Bioshock. By taking place in a living, breathing city Bioshock already had a great excuse to randomly respawn enemies. It only makes sense that more mutated denizens would stumble into Rapture's derelict bars and cafes, looking to cannibalize their brethren you just slaughtered. Even with that game's lack of a game-over state, Bioshock never allows for the player to get too comfortable because areas can't be cleared completely. And don't even get me started about those paper-mache'd spider splicers! Curiously, I found an unexpected horror experience in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. There are several gates to a hellish dimension of fire and brimstone where you need to scale a randomly generated demon infested tower until you find what for all intents and purpose is a self-destruct switch. Initially I found myself slowly but surely battling my way through these dungeons, but I wasn't getting on with the game's clunky first-person combat (or its even clunkier third-person equivalent). After quick-save I decided I'd take a chance- I'd run past every enemy and see if I could make it to the finish line. It took all of ten seconds before I had a gang of hellfolk nipping at my heels with their blood-curdling growls coming from scant inches behind me. I'd check my map roughly every three seconds to make sure I was headed in the right direction as the mob only increased in size behind me. It had turned into a force so large and that I no longer had the means to take them down, and had no choice but to press on. With my heart throbbing for several minutes I eventually reached my destination, hit the switch, and watched as I was magically transported back to the more inviting plains of Tamriel thinking, "so long, suckers!" Silent Hill eventually went in this direction as well by doing away with combat completely in their latest game, Shattered Memories. With no way to fight back, your only means of escape would be to run. Initially I was concerned about having to solve puzzles while being chased by monsters, but for better or worse, the designers kept puzzle solving completely separate from the terrifying chase sequences. This allowed for lengthy sequences of relative peace, though I personally appreciated not being bothered while trying to suss out the solution to a puzzle. The chase sequences, however, were as tense as anything I've come across in a videogame. They took what I loved about my death-defying runs in Oblivion, but removed the luxury of being able to pause while checking your map, making them all the more gut-wrenching. I don't mean to suggest that unstoppable enemies are always a good thing. Silent Hill 4: The Room had invincible ghosts that would drain your health merely by being in the same vicinity as you, often showing up while you were trying to run around collecting clues. Sure, they were horrifying and the mere thought of them made me run for the hills, but they were also such a nuisance that I found myself running due to irritation rather than terror and as a result never made it that far in that game. Sometimes you need a little respite between the scares. While this trend of being able to dispatch every threat is worrisome to thrill-seeking horror fans, I'd add that just because you can kill enemies in recent horror games doesn't mean you have to. Try playing Resident Evil 4 killing as few enemies as possible. It's grueling, terrifying stuff. Your worst enemy is often your best friend, so if you really want to put yourself on edge, let them live. You may hate them for that time they started chewing on your neck, dismembered you with a cleaver, or decapitated you with a chainsaw, but trust me, you'll miss them when they're gone. [Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer for G4TV.com and GamesAbyss, blogs about games at JumpingMoustache.com and is a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]

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