I’m not the kind of person that likes to stick to a single game for extended periods of time. Or even short ones. I love to hop back and forth between every game I own in my library, depending on my mood, as well as depending on which of my friends are online. I’m no stranger to even leaping across genres. But if somebody had to ask me my favorite genre? It would have to be horror.
Survival horror, to be more specific. There’s just something about these games that give me a rush like no other, and it’s probably the one genre I’d immerse myself in regardless of my mood. I love the way they always keep me on edge. I love how they make me think, both over the course of the story and during the actual gameplay. I also love how bizarre and unconventional their stories tend to get, and how far they go off the deep end to give an experience that can’t be fathomed in any other genre. Maybe it’s crazy of me to want to sit through a dark, gory slog on a bright, sunny day. Maybe I need help? Well, that’s something that I’ll worry about another time. In the meantime, lets talk Survival Horror. Or, rather, what it tends to do wrong. Not objectively wrong, mind you! Just how I would like to see it handled, and, of course, how you guys want to see it handled. Please post your replies in the comments, I’d love to read them. And even if you have no criticism with the current trend in horror games, let me know what you love about them. That’s an equally good read, too.
So how would I handle survival horror games? Well, here are some ideas I’ve had running in my mind for a while now.
Combat is a Must
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. What is a must in the survival horror genre is options. Not just a few options. Heck, not even many options. I’m talking too many options, more than the player can even contemplate when put under pressure. That might seem a little weird. After all, games that provide the player with more options should be empowering, not belittling. But hear me out.
Most modern survival horror games suffer from being too basic. Either from having a dull combat system that just doesn’t feel right in order to give the illusion of a lack of control, or (and this is my least favorite approach), giving the player no other options other than run or hide. The inherent problem with both of these approaches is that they’re both predictable, which goes against the first rule of horror: fear of the unknown. When you boil combat down to whittling a monster’s health with whatever weapon you can find, you know exactly what it takes to survive in each scenario. The only question was how long would it take. Likewise, when you boil down monster encounters in a horror game in which you can only run and hide, you know exactly what to do then, too: run and hide. In each case, every single encounter would be handled the same throughout. Sure, you might find ways of distracting your enemies, and you might have access to different kinds of weapons to tackle different kinds of monsters. But the pressure that you have no idea what to do just isn’t there.
Now consider this: A horror game in which you’re presented with a plethora of options. You want to run from those monsters behind you? Here, grab a pedometer and head for that exit. Hide? How about those lockers over there? You want to use a shotgun? A sniper rifle? Just grab it from that display case over there. How about using environmental traps? Oh, hey, another exploding barrel conveniently placed exactly where you want it. I can see I lost your attention, allow me to reel you back in.
NOW, imagine none of those options being guaranteed to work. Imagine the monster you’re running from is simply too fast for the player to get away, but the option to run is still there, teasing you with the exit that’s just out of reach. Or a monster that can see you through walls, thus rendering any of the million hiding spots completely useless, something you only discover after it digs its claws, or hooks, or what have you, into your flesh. Or maybe, no matter how many bullets you have, no matter how many traps you lead the monster into, it just doesn’t stumble. Maybe you’re using the wrong gun, and the gun you need just isn’t there? Maybe you’re aiming at the wrong place, but how can you tell when you aimed at the right one? Or maybe you were just supposed to run all along, but the game lead you to believe that fighting it was an option? Worse, what if it just had too much health for you to take down on your limited inventory, leaving you officially screwed?
Now, in presenting more options to the player than they know what to do with, instead of being given an obvious hint by the game as to how to solve each problem they encounter, they start to wonder if it’s even an obstacle that can be overcome. Ironically, in giving the player extra power and options, you have taken something even more important to the player: Control and understanding.
Cut Out the Cutscenes
This is something that bothers me to no end.
The biggest draw of the survival horror genre is in how personal it tends to get to the player. After all, it’s about digging into the dark recesses of your mind and bringing out a sense of doubt that you can actually handle what you’re about to go up against. When you introduce a horror element via a cutscene, though, you wrench the player out of their avatar and put them behind a window, leaving them to watch the whole thing happen to a computer generated figure instead of themselves.
Just watch this clip of The Evil Within at 5:15:
Now, I’m not sure if this scene was in the official game, but my point still stands: this happens in horror games all the time, and it does two things to the experience. First, it shows you what you’re up against before you get a chance to tackle it yourself. The monster is pretty much introducing itself to you, letting you get to know it better, and thus ruin that sense of the unknown before you continue the game. The second thing the cutscene does is tell you how to deal with it. The way the whole scene is presented makes it abundantly clear that all you’re supposed to do in this scenario is run. And run. And run. And eventually, you’re guaranteed to survive the experience in doing exactly what the game had already told you to do (granted, the guy above didn’t manage to do so, but that was because he slowed down to look instead of run ahead like he was instructed).
Again, this happens all the time in survival horror, and it’s a practice that has to stop.
After watching this, I recommend you play Cry of Fear. Sure, it has its fair share of cutscenes, but when they’re around, the player was either subjected to the story, or introduces a monster in a way that isn’t intended to actually scare the player. In fact, the exact same scene that plays in the above clip is a playable portion in Cry of Fear. The only difference is how it introduces the horror to you: a rumbling noise, the sense of something coming your way. You can hear it edge closer, and closer. You have two options. Either run to an opening, or turn around and know what the thing that’s making that noise is. Pick the second option, and your character will be killed. Pick the first option, and you’ll have the sense of doubt at the back of your head whether or not you managed to escape. And to think, it actually took less development resources to create this riveting experience, which is exactly the same as the one shown in the Evil Within.
Similarly to the Above, Never Create a Scene in Which a Player Can Only Watch Others Get Killed
This is something that bugged me when I played through Dea Space. I’m sure many of you remember the countless times members of your crew got killed because there was a brick wall between you and the crew that was being attacked. The idea is supposed to be to generate fear and hopelessness for the player, a sense that there was nothing they could do to save them. Because they really couldn’t do anything, physically. And this is a bummer, primarily because if a scene has been predetermined by a developer, how is a player really supposed to feel a sense of guilt at their mistake, knowing this was going to happen anyway? It reminds you that this is just a game, and pulls you out of an organic experience. Imagine how much scarier and more dreadful it would would have been for a player to have been able to save his crew... but didn’t?
What if those scenes where you watched your character’s friends get killed were actually totally playable, excruciatingly difficult moments where you had just a sliver of a chance to save the people getting killed in that scene? And what if, in the end, you screwed up? What if you screwed up on a chance to actually save those characters important to you and the character you played as and had to live with the consequences? That’s a heck of a bigger, more personal blow, knowing that you, as the player, made a mistake, and not the character.
Well, that wraps up how I would handle survival horror games. Actually, I have a lot more ideas, but I don’t want to take up too much, since I wanna hear how you guys would handle this topic as well!
Image from: http://7-themes.com/6820238-reside…