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Fear vs loathing – the importance of power in horror games

I recently watched Thomas Grip’s presentation at the 2011 GDC (cheers to tylersnell for the link) which, alongside playing through Amnesia: The Dark Descent, has me doing a lot of thinking about horror games and the way so much of what styles itself as horror these days should be looking long and hard at Frictional’s approach.

I strongly advise watching his talk in full – its a fascinating look at the thinking behind one of the more engaging and atmospheric games in recent memory. On the off chance you don’t have forty-odd minutes spare, I’ll amateurishly paraphrase one of his key points as I go, as its relevant to what I’m trying to say here.

I think a lot of the ‘big’ horror games of the recent generations (Resident Evil 5, the F.E.A.R. series, Condemned, Dead Space) have suffered to varying degrees from abuse of power – specifically, the amount of power given to the player character. Thomas makes an interesting point about how the tools you give to the player will define the way they look at and interact with your world – if you give them a gun, they will approach every situation looking for something to shoot. Taking this further, if you give them anything that could be a weapon, they presume it should be, and that wielding it makes them powerful. He relates an anecdote on the studio’s experiences developing the Penumbra games, where in testing they discovered that if the player was given any kind of weapon their first approach when faced with a threat was to attempt to kill it, no matter how ineffective the weapon, or how dangerous the foe.

Dead Space

Watch me take this guy down with a waffle iron.

This is telling, because it illustrates that people in a game scenario will attempt to make themselves a powerful force using whatever means they have at their disposal, and then exercise that power against any perceived threats. This is how games have been training us to play them since the first generation – you play, you remove threats and become powerful so you can you face bigger threats, and become more powerful. I would suggest that achieving power, even by slow degrees, erodes fear.

This point articulates something I’ve been trying to put my finger on for a while with horror games, which is that by and large, (and whatever their other qualities might be) they aren’t very good at being genuinely scary.

Before you leap ahead to the comments section to put the boot in, let me expand a little. The games I mentioned above are variously tense, atmospheric or unsettling, and some of them have the odd scary moment. I’m not suggesting they are a pleasant walk in the park to play – I myself am not the kind of person who enjoys being repeatedly startled – its that when playing them I’m nervous about the next monster closet moment, not scared as the character in the world I’m supposed to be inhabiting.

The kind of scares you see in a lot of the above games actually take you out of the game world, rather than drawing you in. For me, this is at the heart of the issue – games are more often about using cheap tricks (like monsters jumping from vents into your face with no warning) to startle the player, in place of creating an experience that is truly scary, around and between these moments. By truly scary, what I mean is an experience which is focused on being immersive and engagingly frightening and happens to be delivered in a game, rather than a game which is focused on fun gameplay and happens to have some scares mixed in.

After watching Thomas’s speech, I’m now convinced that this is because the experience and the ‘horror’ that these games are supposed to create in the player eventually play second fiddle to implementing mechanics that are ‘fun’ to play. Key to things being fun to play, as a general rule, are the ideas of gradual mastery and escalating challenge.

Dead Space actually encapsulates these points perfectly within its first level. The opening sequence is genuinely scary, and correspondingly isn’t very fun. As the game progresses, the story gets more and more interesting, the encounters get bigger and crazier and the game is more enjoyable, but in correlation, the fear decreases. The atmosphere, the environment and the story are still there, all that changes is Isaac’s power – in the opening level, he has no idea what is happening around him, no objectives beyond surviving, and no tools or weapons to combat the threat with. The first time an alien is encountered, it results in a pants-soiling flight through a darkened corridor, where the desire to move as fast as you can is tempered only by the desire to turn around and see how fast the nightmare is gaining behind you – fighting and winning isn’t an option here, you are totally powerless.

After arming himself shortly afterwards, the encounters are slightly different – rather than turning and fleeing, you’re attacking head on, and the original fear is diluted by the familiarity of impending combat – you have a weapon, therefore you expect you have the power. The fear returns in force after four or five shots to the head or torso when you realise your weapon is having little effect, and the beast is bearing down on you with alarming speed. This is still scary – you go from feeling powerful (comparatively) to powerless so quickly that flight starts to once again seem like the preferable option.

Around this time the game introduces you to the ‘strategic dismemberment’ mechanic – the only effective way to defeat the Necromorphs is by shooting off their legs, and then removing any remaining limbs from the now slower-moving and much, much less scary remains.

Dead Space

'This seems easy enough' - famous last words from the Dead Space universe.

From this point Dead Space is a continual game of brinkmanship – Isaac acquires more and more powerful weapons, and is matched against more and more powerful monsters. By and large, what made the first encounters frightening is now abandoned for the more familiar (and easier) method of periodically having a monster leap out of a vent without warning, or making sure one enemy always spawns behind you in a room, so that your confidence in despatching the one in front of you leads to a moment of panic when you’re hit from behind. The interesting thing about this is that somewhere along the way, the creation of genuine fear became less important than the mechanics of being able to shoot the limbs off undead space insects. We know this is the case due to the sheer number of weapons Isaac collects that have been specifically designed for exactly this function. (Honestly, if you aren’t expecting to get boarded by multi-limbed alien horrors, why can I buy gravity-defying circular-saw guns from the vending machines?).

Later encounters with ever-bigger aliens don’t have the impact of the first ones, because the dynamic is well and truly set – you (through your weapons) have the power here.

All this is a long winded way of saying that true fear gets harder to create as you make the player character more and more powerful – (in the case of the F.E.A.R. series, giving the player time-slowing abilities and a Doom-like arsenal at the outset totally precluded it) – its difficult to be scared of something when you’ve dismantled and then curb-stomped several dozen others just like it.

This is where Amnesia shines – without any kind of combat mechanics, the player’s influence on the world is restricted to playing with light and manipulating everyday objects, neither of which can be used to inflict harm on the prowling monsters that serve as your enemies. Reduced to running and hiding, where the light you wield helps your hunters as much as you creates an atmosphere of dread that needs no sudden, nerve-jangling noises or stacked mob spawns to sustain it.

To be fair to Dead Space, I think its in a middle ground here – it does do a great job of creating atmosphere and a very lonely sense of foreboding as you wander the slaughter filled halls of the Ishimura – it even uses a few opportunities to strip Isaac of his death dealing power and setup some frightening encounters, but its nowhere near Amnesia’s league.


Here's a scenario I'm not looking forward to finding out more about.

Of course, at the opposite end of the spectrum there are a litany of things that get in the way of genuine scares in Resident Evil 5. Once again a notable example can be made of one that shows how desirable mechanics were prioritised over genre experience during development. Not content with making the player character the kind of superhero to whom the enemies of the game are a tasty breakfast treat, RE5 adds a partner character – convenient for multiplayer, (and possibly made extremely capable in response to the community trashing of Ashley, the semi comatose wet blanket from RE4) but having an ass-kicking, wise-cracking comrade along for the ride is as much an enemy of fear-building as setting the majority of your levels in brightly lit, open areas (especially when this is one of her uniforms). In this case the desire for the game to be a fun two player experience, and for players to be in awe of how badass this duo are was stronger than the desire for it to be a truly scary experience – game mechanics overrode the ‘message’.

From nothing more than the way the characters are defined, RE5 leaves the player no choice about how the way in which to approach the game – as the kind of badass hero who only pauses in their orgy of zombie ‘majini’ slaughtering to reload, or mutter a witty quip to their equally unstoppable backup. For the most part, FEAR and its sequels suffered from the same issue – the various player characters were powerful enough to gun down groups of enemies without raising a sweat, so there isn’t a lot of inherent risk about being ‘alone in the dark’ here – the game repeatedly teaches you that the monsters should be more afraid of you than you are of them.

Resident Evil 5

The look of terror on his face is infectious.

Given that paradigm, players are more engaged by the power of their own player character than that of their enemies. Every threat is instinctively approached as something which can, and must, be destroyed. The closest you come to fear in these circumstances is the mild panic when reloading at an inopportune moment, or the tense apprehension waiting for yet another ‘dog and window’ moment. Neither is truly representative of the horror genre, or the kind of atmosphere it should be capable of creating.

I mentioned Condemned above because although its guilty of the same issue, it takes a while to really manifest it. In addition to a superbly crafted atmosphere and environment, by largely restricting the player to melee combat with everyday items (rather than a Frost Sword of Doom, or similar), you feel as if every encounter could go either way. Each new enemy is a frantic battle for survival, rather than a fresh set of targets in the shooting gallery.

Of course, by the closing stages of the sequel, the dynamic is exactly that – armed with an M16 and an interest-withering ‘magic shout power’ (which is nowhere near as cool as it was in Skyrim, despite being exactly the same), you parade confidently through the environment, hoping desperately to see a monster leaping from its closet so you have an excuse to use your many toys. Again, this is not what horror could be. Fear was left by the wayside on the road to power, and the game suffers greatly for it.

The most important point that Grip presents is encapsulated in his final thought – “if we want to advance our medium, we must allow it to be expressive – we must not think about how games are supposed to be, but we must think about the kind of meaning we want them to carry”. This sums up what, in my eyes, is the issue with a lot of whats currently called horror – first thinking about what kind of gameplay mechanics will sell, and then coating them in a thin veneer of atmosphere, sprinkling the result with scripted ‘startle’ moments, and calling the result horror.

The gauntlet’s been thrown down by Frictional with Amnesia, and smart money is on their recently announced A Machine for Pigs having a similar intent behind it. Are there any contenders out there likely to answer this challenge? Or alternatively, have I totally missed the point?

If you’ve got any great examples of genuinely scary games that had powerful protagonists, let me know in the comments.

  1. Liam Brokas
    March 6, 2012 at 1:17 am

    I have a love/hate relationship with survival/horror games. I love the thrill and opportunities they give me to be sneaky and tactical about how I approach obstacles, but they also tend to concentrate so hard on not being spotted and evading the enemies that the game starts to hurt to play after a very short while. This is probgably a fault of my own, but it happens regardless.
    I don’t know how much it fits, but for me the FPS/RPG hybrid System Shock 2 was one of the most horrific games in terms of atmosphere. Late at night on my computer, sneaking through the Hydroponics deck on this abandoned ship, hiding around a corner as a Cyborg Midwife stalked me through the corridors, eerily screeching out a ‘Babies need fresh meat’ or ‘I will tear out your spine’, was truly terrifying for a stealth based hacker character. And the taunting by the antagonist/s (no spoilers, just in case no-one has played this gem yet) just added to the atmosphere for me. Sure, the game is old now, but back in the early 2000’s, it was a real nail biter.

    • March 6, 2012 at 7:01 pm

      Right with you on the short play sessions – being constantly tense gets draining pretty quickly! Its the mark of a good game when you end up picking it up again almost immediately after putting it down though (only to realise straight away the weight that made you take a break in the first place).

      System shock is an interesting one. I agree its definitely scarier than a lot of the games billed as horror out there, although i think a lot of that stems from execution rather than concept. The power balance is tougher to get right when you’re giving the player some freedom in choosing which game elements they want to be powerful at (I can rarely resist the lure of combat prowess, especially if in a scary atmosphere), although SS succeeds at it.

      It would be interesting to go back and try and build a ‘tank’ style character to see if it makes the cyber midwives less scary. Maybe i’ll see if I can locate a copy 🙂

  2. March 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Great post! Yeah I think the problem with the more mainstream “survival horror” games is that they’re really action-horror games. But I think that’s why FEAR was so successful; instead of pretending it was just a horror game, it realized it was half action and embraced that. I really wish that they had taken away your power at some of the horror parts though, like the bleeding hallway sequences. Once they started throwing ghouls at you which die from a pistol shot or two, they completely lost all the great atmosphere they had at first. Instead of becoming powerless, you were just even more powerful.

    I really want to like Dead Space, love the concept and everything, but I always get bored after about a half hour in both 1 and 2. From what I’ve played, neither have any building up of suspense after the beginning. The beginning of 1 was great, but then after that it’s just constantly fighting monsters that pop out of vents. I think that’s another problem with a lot of AAA games in general, they like to throw everything at you up front, so after the initial introduction there’s just variations on the same thing. Amnesia is a good example of building up that tension, it’s quite a while until the first monster even appears. I thought the first grunt and first brute encounters were some of the most frightening parts of the game. Especially the first brute, I assumed it was just another grunt, then I realized it sounded totally different.
    A little off topic, but Braid is a perfect example of changing things up throughout the game beyond just having bigger obstacles and better means to overcome them with. I’d love to see a horror game embrace something like that, to really keep you on edge.

    About how long is System Shock 2? I always hear great things about it and I’ve been wanting to play it for a while, but I don’t have the time to get sucked into a really long game.

    • Liam Brokas
      March 9, 2012 at 2:21 am

      SS2 is about 6-10 hours long, if you play it as a straight shooter. If you choose other playstyles (for instance, a Psi-Ops character), you could extend it out to a good 12-16 hours. You could knock it out in a weekend I reckon.
      It’s in the same sort of vein as the first Deus Ex was (albeit MUCH shorter, since the game wasn’t designed the same way. For instance, AI in SS2 is very simplistic and doesn’t “remember” like DX did, and levels are much more linear, with very little in the way of alternate pathways) but the atmosphere is what carried it IMO. If you do seek out a copy, I highly recommend searching out the mods that have been made over the years, including a full HD Texture upgrade, bigger poly models and some slight bugfixes.
      It could also be a real pain to get running on modern systems (pitfall of the era sadly) but I’m sure someone out there has managed it. If worst comes to worst, and your hardware supports virtualisation, grab XP Mode from Microsoft, and install the game inside the virtual XP.
      Also, bear in mind it’s very old now, so it goes without saying that you won’t get the same experience as modern games. You’ll also notice the endgame feeling very linear (moreso than the rest of the game) due to the devs time constraints, so levels will feel very short and pathetic in contrast to the rest of the game, but the difficulty ramps up enormously (Ah, the days before patches and DLC).
      Overall, SS2 still tops my list of must play games, alongside Planescape: Torment and the original Fallout games.
      [Tip: headphones or surround sound for the best experience ;). And the wrench is your friend.]

      • March 9, 2012 at 3:59 pm

        Oh good, 6-10 hours is perfect. Good thing I just installed XP Mode so I could play Myst. Heh that’ll probably take me about a month, though. I try not to spend more than 2 hours a week playing.

        I’ve been meaning to play Planescape: Torment for a long time now, too. And that reminds me.. Thief 3 as well. Might have to go on a gaming binge after the semester ends..

  3. March 9, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Dead Space is a funny one – I know a lot of people who couldn’t really get interested in it, some who loved it (like me, despite my whining about it above) but not really anyone in the middle ground.

    I haven’t picked up the second one, figuring I’d wait for a rainy day, and then got consumed by other things, although I understand from what I’ve read that its more of the same, except bigger and crazier from the get go, which I suspect might be detrimental to the slow build of suspense I’d want out of it. I agree with your comment on the first one though, once all the game mechanics are introduced (slow time, strategic dismemberment, zero g) quite early on, its a bit ‘more of the same-y’ for the majority of the game, with the exception of a couple of sequences with ‘unkillable’ enemies that are actually reasonably tense.

    On Amnesia, its funny you say you only realised the difference by listening to the sound – a huge part of what worked so well out of the game is how quickly it trains you to listen very, very hard to whats going on around you. Definitely one to play with a decent sound setup (or headphones). I probably should have touched on that above. Next time…

    SS2 is all about the atmosphere – as Liam pointed out, mechanics have definitely moved on a bit since then, so it will definitely feel retro-ish, but I definitely preferred it to DX for the atmosphere and concept. Funnily enough, I also preferred Bioshock to DX:HR, and the much greater atmosphere in Bioshock is one of the reasons. The rest are more things I didn’t like about Human Revolution, but thats probably another post in itself.

    • Liam Brokas
      March 9, 2012 at 10:42 pm

      Oh, that’s a post I’d like to read. So far my DXHR experience has been very middling. 75% of the game is excellent, but the rest is shoddy as all hell. I love the atmosphere so far, and the tension is quite good, but there are segments that REALLY shouldn’t have been there. Even Eidos admits that.
      Anyway, I think games (and by default gamers too) have become too enamoured with how games look, and not enough with how they play. I may make a (possibly lengthy, rambling and incoherent) post about this, but I have always held the opinion that the story and the gameplay is all important, and how it looks is a minor factor. Sure, a nice looking game is great, but it shouldn’t take the place of gameplay. Ever.
      Anyway…ahem…yes, play SS2. 😉

  4. March 9, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    ‘Middling’ is the perfect word to describe it. I was in love for much of the early game, and then started to have my doubts. Even leaving aside the much despised boss battles, I really thought it lost its way in the l third quarter and never really found it again.

    A big chunk of it was that I just couldn’t get invested in the silent approach – I wanted to, I built my character that way, but it really didn’t seem to make a difference, and it was a lot more effort. So what started as ‘oh, just this once I’ll take the easy route and shoot the place up’ became my default approach, and it was all downhill from there.

    It was still a really good game, but not the timeless classic I was hoping for…

    In other, slightly more (I’m scraping) SS2 related news, the Bioshock Infinite video out today of the ‘Motorized Patriot’ is really cool – exactly the kind of thing I’m looking forward to with that game. That, and that giant bird-protector villain. He looks awesome.

  5. Liam Brokas
    March 9, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    I think it too suffers from the ‘graphical fidelity over gameplay’ problem.
    Don’t get me wrong, the game looks beautiful (some say it could look better, but I think there’s a graphics elitism involved there), but that beauty comes at a cost. I performed the following experiment: Playing through the first actual level of DX 1 with non-lethal tactics and no alarms raised, with 100% exploration took almost twice as long to do than in the first mission in DXHR with the same tactics, and that’s with me going all the way back through the level after completing the objectives and then going all the way back again to catch the chopper back to HQ. To me, that says there is something wrong. Perhaps they could have backed off the graphical fidelity a little to make room for some bigger and better level design.
    The boss fights…yeah, don’t get me started. All I can say is that when you need the ‘Spin to Win’ augmentation to beat the bosses, that’s flawed design.
    In terms of Bioshock, I’m going to go against the grain and say that I don’t think it’s a worthy successor to the SS2 franchise. The first one was amazingly fun, and looked gorgeous, but there was none of the RPG element to the game that SS2 had, and was simply a ‘strangle little girls’ simulator (cue boos and hisses now).

  6. thecollegegamer
    March 18, 2012 at 6:38 am

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, there are a lot of ‘horror’ games out there that have the horror elements, but don’t follow through as they empower the player into a sense of relative safety. I love Amnesia, its terrifying, but mostly it makes me the most emotive of any game I’ve played – it takes me right back to an almost primal emotive stage, where I really fear for my safety and sanity. That may not be the experience that everyone had, but it certainly convinced me to sleep with a night light haha. Condemned also did this very well, it was a fresh new horror idea that hadn’t been tried before, but I still have vivid memories of being truly scared by that game.

    Of course you have your hybrid games, seeing BioShock and System Shock up above in the comments section, that intertwine the horror survival genre with a bit more action and story-driven narrative, and Dead Space also delivers a great experience. What is common with these games is the character and skill development gets to such a point that the enemies are no longer menacing, they’re no longer deliver that fight/flight situation. I loved all 3 of those games, and there was a comfort in the weapons development that promoted replayability that made me want to keep going. But I don’t regard them as ‘true’ horror.

    What I like most about the new generation of horror is that the writing is proving itself to be evolving with the technology, Grip knows he’s got the formula right, and we need more developers and writers with his attitude and conviction to step up and deliver some truly scary experiences.

  7. March 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Yep, the evolution of writing and story telling in horror is definitely something I’d like to see mirrored elsewhere. Grip mentioned in that presentation that horror has typically been a genre more willing to experiment with mechanics, and move away from the tried and tested, and its certainly true of the things Frictional have turned out. Will be really interesting to see how A Machine for Pigs turns out, now that they’re more in an ‘oversight’ role than actual development, although I’m keen to see the results of the new engine project they’ve got going on while that happens.

  1. March 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm
  2. March 9, 2012 at 10:46 pm

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