If you’ve been reading our headlines recently, you probably noticed our horror game reviews, Neverending Nightmares and Alien: Isolation. On the surface, the core focus on a lonely protagonist trying to navigate an unfamiliar and ever-twisting nightmare seems to be a familiar core between the two games. Both games also did manage to get under my skin (and Kim‘s as well), but there’s something that keeps nagging at me, ever since I had the chance to talk with the former game’s lead developer.
We discussed the ideas behind Neverending Nightmares and about the horror genre, and I was just left a bit perplexed by something that was brought up, and is something I’ve heard from many horror fans. Of recent years, it hasn’t been the Silent Hill or Resident Evil games that have been horror fan favorites, but instead games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender. Coming into the horror genre rather late, I stumbled into the middle of this shifting genre where progressively games were either more “action horror” or “survival horror” under a heavily divergent direction.
Yet, despite playing these new “survival horror” games and even more recent examples like Outlast, I can’t help but feel a bit doubtful of this supposed salvation of the genre. It seems horror fans are so eager to face greater challenges and be even weaker before their terrifying foes that they’re willing to sacrifice almost everything that makes a horror game a game, and I’m not sure that’s actually the best way the genre can evolve. In such a desperate bid to cut off the Resident Evil 5‘s and Dead Space 2‘s from even being considered horror, the genre might actually lose a lot of what makes it terrifying. At least, I felt this way until I played Alien: Isolation.
In Isolation, you’re up against a single omnipresent, unkillable threat like in Amnesia and several first person horror games. The Alien continually pursues you for the majority of the campaign, singling you out as its prime target along the backdrop of a station gone mad with psychotic androids and unhinged human survivors. It sounds like all hope is lost and that you’ll barely survive, but then Alien: Isolation turns around and hands you a revolver. At first, you’d think “ugh, so this is gonna just be a shooter”. Yet, it’s not. Ellen Ripley’s a horrible shot by comparison to most shooter protagonists, especially with this starting gun. She’s at home with industrial equipment and crafting makeshift supplies, not firing off headshots. Over the course of the entire campaign, I found, at most, sixty or so revolver rounds. Even less for the shotgun and remaining weapons available.
Now, did having these weapons make the Alien any less scary? For so long as I actually was scared of the Alien, and not just playing strategically, no. In fact, I would often hide away the gun and prefer to stay in the shadows. I’d whip it out while exploring to make sure no humans or androids would get their hands on me, but I knew even then, that the Alien could pop up at any point. The game gave me the choice to diverge from its core focus as a horror game and treat it like a shooter, but it never encouraged me to do so. At one point in the game, I was maxed out in nearly every single item and had a fair amount of ammo for every weapon. I didn’t feel more than a slight bit safer than if I had nothing but my wrench and a few smoke bombs.
Regardless of what you have in your arsenal, the Alien always finds a way or comes back. Even the Working Joe androids become incredibly hard to kill, requiring a great deal more careful item management later on than even taking down some Necromorphs in Dead Space. It never even starts you off with a power fantasy, but instead emphasizes just how barely useful anything you have is. You are fighting so hard, using everything you have, but it can still not be enough. You have to think fast, be smart, and not make mistakes. That is what makes Alien: Isolation such a good horror game, and why I’m more inclined to consider it horror over something like Outlast.
Speaking of which, to Outlast‘s credit, it does an acceptable job as a thriller game (even if it’s built on a cliche). You’re constantly running and trying to escape, solving dangerous puzzles just like Alien: Isolation, with even a twinge of Mirror’s Edge thrown in. Except there’s one major difference. In Alien: Isolation, you have to judge your situation with the supplies you have available. Maybe the Alien’s being focused on vents so you can just stock up. Maybe it’s around every corner, so you need a noisemaker and to move swiftly rather than loot everything. You can never truly know what to do every time you play through the game.
By contrast, Outlast is a game of simple trial and error. Did you die? Well, no worries, the latest checkpoint will revive you and the monsters will be exactly where you saw them appear last time. There’s no need to try and find alternate strategies to any given scenario because all you can do is run, use night vision, and hide. There is no risk, there is no danger, and there is no uncertainty unless you break under the slightest grain of pressure. It’s like if the family in Funny Games were the ones who could reverse events; it just breaks any chance for real tension.
In fact, as far as a horror game goes, Outlast is built more for shooter fans than most other games. It follows the exact same style of gameplay loop as something like Call of Duty, right down to finding “cover” (hiding) and regenerating your health. If you die, it rarely sets you back far and you already have seen the jump scares. It goes from any chance at being a terrifying nightmare to a “house of horror” theme park attraction.
Any emotion you have in a game is lost and released the second a player dies. Outside of something like Dark Souls that builds itself around death as a mechainc, you do not want the player to die. Near-death pulls at their heartstrings and makes them get MORE invested, especially when there is something they’ve put stock in that’s at risk.
What if the random loot generation gave me the blasting cap I need for my pipe bomb but the Alien is in my way for getting to the next save station, and it’s right in front of me hiding under a desk so I can’t throw a noisemaker? That is a tense scenario, not because of a creepy line said, not because some unsettling music played, but because something in the game is happening to me personally and my playthrough, and I’m stuck sitting there hoping I get out of it alright.
The second you rip away any shred of that to make it less “game-y” and more “realistic”, the more you have to account for that lack of risk. You have to make it easier to fail, you have to try to create new risks when perfectly decent ones existed to begin with. I’m not saying Outlast needed to have guns, but a simple melee system and/or other basic survival elements are downright necessities if you want to get someone unhinged.
It doesn’t take a lot to get someone befuddled by choices. I once had a friend complain simply because there were too many choices in plasmids in Bioshock 2. Imagine that kind of thinking but under the pressure of a game like Isolation, or even a game like Dark Souls where you can make literally thousands of different choices.
Horror games don’t need to become like action games, but to imply the genre needs to abandon combat and other “game-y” aspects is ignoring the genre’s very roots. Resident Evil and Silent Hill, even without the tank controls, were some of the tensest games in their day, and part of that was due to the very important survival aspect of survival horror. Inventory management, upgrade systems, enemies that could nearly drain you down to the very bottom but only just. Save systems that encouraged frequent but mindful saving.
There’s a reason that when you’re running from the Ubermorph in Dead Space, it’s more unsettling than the average fight. Up until now, everything’s played by the rules of dismember equals dead enemies. Suddenly now, dismemberment only means temporary reprieves at best. You were at a point in the game where you could have some substantial upgrades that toughened you up, and the game throws something harder at you than you’ve ever encountered. Instantly, any sense of empowerment is gone. The rug is pulled out from under you in the best way possible, and it would never have worked without all those “game-y” parts of Dead Space.
This isn’t to say you can’t do a game without combat or these kinds of risks, but then you need to approach it with new styles of unsettling players and new types of fail states. You cannot just kill the player, all that does is break the tension and/or annoy them. Neverending Nightmares did this to a certain extent thanks to its numerous fake out moments and a much more subtle save system that made it feel more like deaths were planned moments in the story rather than just a game over screen. A similar title, Knock-Knock, sometimes wouldn’t even have you technically die for failure, just change the circumstances of the scenarios.
Walking the fine line between these two styles of design is the Penumbra series, which has always let you try to defend yourself and manage certain stats such as your own sanity, while retaining that you are still a weak, average human and not some action hero or even a resourceful engineer. Here the weakness is even clearer, because of how pathetic your defenses are. By giving player their little hammer, they can desperately try to survive, but it is still just a measly hammer. It’s humiliating and makes you afraid to even bother using it.
This is something the more action oriented horror titles have forgotten. Even some of my all time favorites like Dead Space 2 forgot that you were supposed to be afraid to fire your gun, not with a more eager trigger finger than Nathan Drake while riding “it’s a Small World After All”. You need that reluctance to fire. That moment of hesitation is what will kill you the most and be the most terrifying.
Aiming that gun and keeping your finger ready on the trigger is much harder than running. It means you’re throwing everything on the line for a last minute gambit. Instead of just being a momentary thing, it feels like something that will impact the rest of your time playing. “What if I need this later?” well you’ll never know, especially if you can’t get past this point.It’s this kind of pressing tension that’s had my one friend at sixteen hours into Alien: Isolation, yet he’s barely passed maybe four missions in.
What we don’t need is for the horror genre to act like it doesn’t need certain things. We’re an infantile (in age) medium as it is, and we can’t pretend we know what is or isn’t the best for a genre. I’m sure there are plenty who would argue something else is more terrifying than either design styles presented. That’s what great about being such a newborn medium — we can try things and experiment. So if you think you have the solution to make there be something even more terrifying than what I described, then make it a reality.
We need more ideas in this headspace now that this relatively niche corner in the industry is growing popular again. It’s high time to try to break the rules and try something new. Learn from the past and the present, but never stop trying to take a new approach with the future. Don’t limit yourself because Slender is popular or because The Evil Within didn’t do very well. Do what makes sense to you, and learn how to make your horror game the best horror game it can be.