Horror Game Design: Forewarning

One common failing of 'horror' games is that they tend to expect the player to murder everything that moves. Not simply provide it as an option, but make it the only 'correct' way to play the game.

In a good horror movie, hearing the monster or catching a glimpse of it is often a reason to get scared. Its attention is on our protagonists, it knows where they are or may soon discover them, and they need to hide, or flee, or otherwise prevent it from finding them and killing them. In a horror game, what's intended to be 'oh god no, it's a (scary thing)' is instead 'Alright, I need to break out my biggest guns for this upcoming fight', a heads-up for how the player needs to scale their practical response to the situation. It's not a signal to run or hide.

This substantially diminishes the fear/horror. I've done a post before about how the player in a horror game is frequently an invincible demigod mowing down hordes of enemies, but it's not even that a player can kill everything that moves in a horror game, it's that the game demands they do so, more or less. This feeds back in on itself: once you pick up on the fact that you're playing a game that's about successfully killing everything, the direct implication of this is that anytime the game throws a challenge at you, unless there's strong signaling otherwise? The game expects this to be a challenge you can take on at your current level of skill with your current tools.

(And if this is untrue, it's because the game is poorly-designed, just as an unreasonable challenge is in a more explicitly action-focused game)

Suddenly the entire mental framework the player is operating within isn't one that allows for fear. It's the standard skill loop of facing an increasingly difficult series of challenges you're expected to be able to rise to defeat as they arrive. The imagery and sound design, perhaps even the plot may successfully elicit fear, but the core gameplay is antithetical to this result.

This is a problem with Doom 3, for example, which tries very hard to be a 'scary game', and yet falls far flatter than Doom 1 and 2 ever did, because you're rolling through linear corridors, expected by the game to fight more or less everything in the game. Doom 1 and 2 place challenges on maps, and then design things so that in many cases it's possible to go around them. You'll end up staring at the game telling you that you didn't 100% the map, but you don't have to fight them. This flips the mental framework: suddenly there's room to wonder if you're even meant to fight a given enemy, if they're meant to be a reasonable challenge or one that's meant to kill you dead if you push for the fight.

Indeed, mechanically speaking, every fight in classic Doom is a negative. You're burning ammo, risking health and armor, and what do you get for killing an enemy? Nothing, in most cases. (You can get ammo off of the ex-human foes, and that's it... and they make up the majority of the low-end enemies, the ones that aren't meant to be a problem) I was actually exposed to Doom 3 before playing classic Doom, and I was quite surprised to realize that in classic Doom I genuinely got stressed at hearing upper-end enemies making noises, because even when I knew I could beat them I didn't actually want to fight them. It was just too costly, even if I won.

Eternal Darkness has a similar issue to Doom 3. I had a brief period in playing the game where I thought maybe the game intended for me to avoid the mind-destroying abominations Man Was Not Meant To Know, and... then I fairly quickly realized that the Sanity Gaze system is actually opposite of that! Prior to being able to just (literally) magically undo all lost Sanity for free, every single time an enemy spots you and you disengage is permanently lost Sanity. The only way to avoid your Sanity dipping down over time, given that the game provides zero support for sneaking past enemies, is to fight everything you encounter and perform a finishing blow on it to get the lost Sanity back. (In Eternal Darkness, enemies always give exactly as much Sanity as they take, unless they're one of the enemies that drains a little bit of Sanity every few seconds)

That made it extremely obvious, in conjunction with no stealth system and the extremely tight corridors that make up most of the game environment, that Eternal Darkness is Murder Everything Simulator 9000, with the attached design rule that anything the game throws at me is something it expects me to be able to beat when it gets thrown at me.

Of course, if a game is about trying to help people overcome their emotional difficulties in facing such disturbing content, this is fine, but generally horror games package themselves as... you know... scary.

And then they're built to be un-scary.


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