F.E.A.R. Itself

A big part of why I saved the original F.E.A.R. for last post-wise is that it's difficult to talk about it in a non-misleading way. The game is great! The game is terrible! It does X well! It does X awfully!

That's not me being ridiculous: F.E.A.R. is a fairly lacking game in a lot of ways, and yet also one that's really really good at certain things, and yet the things it does well/terribly come with major caveats that complicate the discussion.

Probably the apex example is...

Endgame Spook Rush

Throughout F.E.A.R., you've been getting to see spooky events happen, but they've been pretty consistently harmless. Even when a spooking sequence involves potential danger, the danger is rarely unambiguously from the spooking elements -for example, one of the first times you spot Little Girl Alma, you need to flee to a window or else you will die, but what's going on is that the corridor is on fire and the fire is following you. Alma's presence is likely intended to be the cause of the fire, but in real terms there's a clear physical explanation for why this would kill you that has nothing to do with spookiness.

At the end of the game, though, that finally ends. You free Alma, and suddenly you're routinely being attacked by corpse-ghost things, Alma will occasionally appear and approach you with her touch equaling death, etc. It's fairly effective at conveying that the rules have changed on you and what was safe no longer is -previously, you alternated between combat sequences where death could come fast and easily and spooking sequences where you are completely safe outside of like fall damage. Spooking sequences now being dangerous is a huge reversal, and there's something effective about that.

But for the hours of play leading up to that point, it's harmful to the game experience. Spooking sequences are boring -technologically impressive, but boring- and as far as gameplay that actually matters goes many of them could be removed with little impact. They're only moderately purposeful when they're being used to hide weapons, grenades, medkits, armor, and the occasional health or reflex booster, and there's plenty of spooking sequences that don't really do that at all. The actual spooking is ineffectual, being so obviously incapable of harming you, and there's often issues with inconsistency.

That is, when I talked about Extraction Point I touched on how Alma's behavior in that campaign was clear and purposeful on a character level in a way that the original F.E.A.R. campaign fails at. What I didn't touch on, though, is that the original F.E.A.R. isn't even very good at consistently employing meta-signaling: not only does Alma not behave in a manner consistent with what we ultimately learn about her backstory, goals, etc, but her actions and appearances are not used to consistently signal certain ideas, which is a problem because the game behaves as if it does.

Specific example: late in the game you're riding an elevator with an NPC you're supposed to be protecting. Spooky stuff eventually happens, you leave the elevator, and when you come back you see Little Girl Alma in the elevator approaching the NPC, and the elevator closes up before you can see any consequences.

The first time I saw this sequence, I rolled my eyes at incredibly generic ominous-ness. It was only on my second time through that I realized that the game intended for Alma approaching the girl to be specifically ominous: several times throughout the game where you come across people having been gruesomely killed, Little Girl Alma was seen heading in their direction beforehand. I'm pretty sure the intent is you're supposed to be thinking Alma is going to kill the NPC.

But that didn't cross my mind the first time, because Alma so routinely shows up to be Generically Spooky with absolutely no meaning or consequence to it, and certainly not any dead people resulting, that the meta-signaling wasn't there. The game had not actually taught me that Alma approaching someone means they're going to die, or even that something terrible is going to happen to them. Most of the time nothing happens when she appears: the game is just trying to mess with you, very ineffectually.

Indeed, the only reason I tried to shoot Adult Alma in the 'she's approaching and you'll die if she touches you' sequence was because it's a shooter (ie my methods of interacting with the world primarily revolve around shooting things), the sequence wasn't ending, and the game had never actually punished me for shooting things beforehand. I honestly was quite surprised when she did kill me because I'd taken too long to turn around and notice she was coming; it takes a lot of bullets to actually drive her off, and I just didn't have the time to get out that many.

So on the one hand, the lack of danger in the majority of the spooking sequences is an important element to building up to how alarming the dangerous spooking sequence at the end is.

On the other hand, there's still a lot of problems with earlier spooking sequences -their primary goal is, in fact, to frighten and upset you, and they're very bad at that. What they should have been doing was focusing more on being pieces of the puzzle that is the story. I'm not particularly critical of the spooking sequences that are serving that purpose -the glimpses of a baby being taken from a mother, for example- because whether or not they succeed at upsetting the player is a secondary benefit, not the sole and exclusive goal of them.

But not, F.E.A.R. wants you to keep getting glimpses of Alma and so on purely in an attempt to make you feel... stalked? I dunno. Whatever it's going for, it doesn't work.

Another great-yet-terrible thing is...

Super Point Man

When you're in combat, you're a superhuman killing machine, your psychically enhanced superhuman reflexes allowing you to kill entire squads of Replicants without taking any damage quite consistently if you're decent at the game. More than that though, the Replicants react appropriately: they freak out at your impossible reflexes, remark with no small amount of worry 'he wiped out the whole squad', and just generally behave the way you'd expect people to react to a superhuman killing machine. This can be contrasted with many other FPSes, where you're still a single soldier scything through dozens to hundreds of supposed peers, but your enemies continuously hurl themselves to their deaths against you with no sign of fear and no awareness that your performance is exceptional.

So that's actually really well-done but.

It's fighting against several other elements of the game.

First of all, it directly undermines the spooking sequences attempting to unsettle you. Your experience of the game isn't that you need to be cautious and careful and scared or else you might die. Your experience is that you can literally be spotted by a hostile, trigger slow-mo, dodge around them trying to bring their rifle to bear, and then shotgun them right in the face having taken no damage. Spooking sequences have little sting to them when you know you're a nearly-invincible killing machine. (For all that you can actually die rather quickly in F.E.A.R. if you're careless, nearly-invincible remains an adequately accurate descriptor)

Second of all, while your enemies' combat dialogue reacts appropriately to you being a superhuman killing machine, the rest of the world ignores it. You're in fairly constant contact with your boss and some other people, but none of them ever says anything suggesting the slightest awareness that you've mowed down dozens of squads of Replicants by the end of the game. In fact, your boss repeatedly warns you that you're going to be passing through areas heavy on Replicants and talks like he's expecting you to evade patrols rather than kill everything that moves. And no, the gameplay is not designed for you to be able to sneak past such squads: in fact, there are several times in the game where the path forward is not physically existent until you've killed everything in the area, because the way forward is generated by a powered armor or mecha enemy bashing its way through a wall once you've killed enough enemies.

This is particularly striking since your introduction is 'this guy is newly-added to our squad, and he's a newbie who just happens to have reflexes "off the charts", and he's going to act as our point man'. The game could have made it clear that you have an established history of superhuman performance with appropriate expectations for how well you will perform in F.E.A.R.-the-organization. That would have neatly sidestepped the second issue -but of course the game didn't do that, because it still wants you to feel scared in spooking sequences.

So the game does a pretty fantastic job of embracing the 'superhuman killing machine protagonist' end of things in combat, but it simultaneously wants to take the contradictory position that you're a mere mortal who doesn't really know how to cope with the supernatural. It wants both these things at once in the same game. The sad thing is, the game could've taken a bit of a cue from eg the Alien and Predator series; a big part of what makes the Aliens movie work so well is that the Colonial Marines are experienced soldiers and yet they're completely out of their depth, allowing the movie to both have hardened and experienced soldiers and yet also have a horror atmosphere. The original Predator movie does much the same thing, with super-elite commandos who utterly stomp human foes still ending up with a horror situation because they find themselves hunted by an alien who's been doing this kind of thing for apparently-centuries.

So 'elite warrior faces the supernatural and thus is badass and yet there's still a horror atmosphere' is totally doable, but F.E.A.R. instead tries to isolate the two: in combat, you're a superhuman killing machine, out of combat you're a mere mortal. The dissonance hurts rather than helps.

Of course, this ties into a broader problem.

This Is Literally Our Entire Job

First Encounter Assault Recon is explicitly meant to be an organization that routinely is the first team in to deal with paranormal threats. We don't really get details, but it's quite explicit that F.E.A.R. is supposed to have a track record of successfully dealing with weird, probably-frightening things. The beginning of the game more-or-less supports this, in that the briefing is very matter-of-fact about covering a psychic commander in control of a horde of clone soldiers expressly made to be controlled by a psychic commander, and there's a handful of other moments like this in the game, such as when you link up with some other F.E.A.R. personnel in a room where Alma has psychically murdered some people and the reaction is 'okay, let's figure out how this happened and why' and not 'oh my god how did this even happen' like it would be in stock horror stories dealing with the paranormal.

But then the game goes right on acting like a psychic ghost lady should be new ground with no procedures in place for how to deal with such a thing. People comment on their radios not working properly, but nobody suggests there might be paranormal interference. The Point Man keeps dropping off the radar, but nobody suggests paranormal interference. Paxton keeps jumping all over the place and dropping off the radar, and again nobody suggests paranormal interference, instead reacting completely mystified like the idea of a psychic commander having strange powers is literally unthinkable.

The result is very inconsistent and calls into question the premise of the game. Events honestly make far more sense, overall, if you assume First Encounter Assault Recon is merely a regular anti-terrorist unit or something of that sort, with this being the first time a F.E.A.R. unit has met encountered a paranormal event. Except then there are the scenes that demand that there's prior experience! It's a mess, and it makes me wonder exactly when the story's premise in this regard was invented, because it feels almost tacked-on, like the team wanted to do a horror shooter and only late in the process came up with First Encounter Assault Recon as this organization that handles paranormal situations on the regular.

But really, I find it more likely the developers had it in mind from the beginning and just kind of ignored the implications because their primary goal was a horror game and not an internally coherent world. Which is unfortunate, because the premise of the F.E.A.R. organization could make for a really fascinating game, and would've been a natural jumping-off point for sequels dealing with a variety of paranormal events, such as more conventional ghosts, wendigo, etc, all tied together by the F.E.A.R. organization being the one handling them. Instead the sequels all fixated on Alma in particular, with the F.E.A.R. organization all but entirely dropped as an idea -it gets name-dropped by both F.E.A.R. 2 and F.3.A.R., but eg in F.3.A.R. it only matters inasmuch as Point Man and Jin have prior familiarity with each other. The fact that she's an experienced F.E.A.R. operative who you'd think has dealt with this kind of thing before? Ignored. Same with F.E.A.R. 2's minimal touching on the organization.

Then there's more subtle missteps.

This Is Clearly Supernatural And In No Way A Product Of Science

The game has a pretty solid way of conveying that Alma has psychically murdered people and it's blatantly unnatural: all that's left behind is strangely-intact skeletons and blood. Lots of blood. That would be difficult to arrange even with lots of time and some actual tools, but Alma can do this in seconds, and with nothing but her mind. I actually really liked this touch!

Then I found the Particle Weapon.

What happens when you finish off an enemy with the Particle Weapon? They leave behind an ash-black strangely-intact skeleton.

That directly undermines the effectiveness of Alma's distinctive psychic murder method: no longer is that something that pretty much has to be Alma. Now it could be someone with a Particle Weapon carting around literal buckets of blood that they empty all over the skeletons and surrounded area. Which you could potentially arrange to get such buckets from a butcher or something!

I'm pretty sure I know how this came about, too: probably they made the skeleton model, and then someone had the bright idea that it would make for a cool effect if one weapon had the unusual behavior of swapping the live model with a skeleton model on death. It probably wasn't hugely difficult to implement on a technical level, and only required a slight modification to an existing art asset to get the art part handled. And honestly, I quite like the Particle Weapon's effect. It is cool.

But it still hurts the game's story.

Don't I Just Look Disturbing?

Our introduction to Paxton Fettel in F.E.A.R. is seeing him chewing on a human corpse. He's a cannibal, which is a pretty solid way of going 'this person is disturbing'.

The thing is, though, the game doesn't seem to intend for it to be a real trait of his.

Something I meant to touch on in Extraction Point is that it provides some actual context for Paxton's cannibalism: he implies one time that he actually psychically extracts peoples' memories from eating them. This creates a purposefulness to his behavior, an actual reason it exists, and opens up some interesting story possibilities to boot, though Extraction Point ultimately doesn't do much to take advantage of them.

The original F.E.A.R. has no such thing. I'm pretty sure Paxton being a cannibal is, in fact, working backwards from visual design: Paxton has a distinctive look in the original F.E.A.R. centered around the blood around his mouth. I suspect that this visual design was nailed down for the primary villain of the story, with the cannibalism being added in later to justify/explain why he's got blood around his mouth.

Even if that's not the case, it's still true that Paxton chewing on a body comes up one time and is otherwise ignored. This actually reduces the horror impact significantly: the first time you see Paxton nomming on a body, there's revulsion and horror because of the implications, the most likely things going on with Paxton this suggests. But then you get deeper into the game, and it stops being acknowledged, is never explained, and seems badly out of line with his actual goals. That would be fine if he was clearly presented as pretty off his rocker, but he's actually strangely rational for someone who's being driven by his dead mother's psychic influence. Why was he mugging for the camera with cannibalism one time, then? Instead of being a morbidly compelling mystery, it's just something frustrating, evidence the creators didn't care to make sure things make sense.

Which is consistent with the rest of the game...

I Want You Dead, My Beloved Child I Desperately Want To Hold

I touched on this with Extraction Point: in Extraction Point, Alma pretty consistently acts to guide or even protect you, her beloved child she was distressed over having taken away from her back in the day.

In F.E.A.R., she tries to kill you repeatedly, for no adequately explained reason.

This could have been rationalized, in a way that would have greatly benefited from actually having the F.E.A.R. organization behave as if it has prior familiarity with the paranormal: Jin could've, at some point, suggested that Alma is trying to kill Point Man because after all she's dead and she wants you to be with her so that means you need to die to.

But the game doesn't try, and both the Monolith F.E.A.R. games -the original and F.E.A.R. 2- seem to essentially ignore the idea of an afterlife. Strong enough psychics can apparently persist after death in some undefined manner, and there's ghost-corpse-looking things Alma sends after you, but neither game really seems to have an actual post-earthly-life place for the dead to go to. Alma trying to kill you is difficult to explain as 'Alma trying to bring you to her', especially since she's quite clearly persisting on an earthly plane regardless. Monolith even exacerbates this with F.E.A.R. 2 making Alma continue to persist and outright rape a man to make a baby somehow -it's not like Monolith intends that Alma just hasn't moved on because she's a stereotypical ghost bound by unfinished business etc. She's just a permanent psychic ghost-thing villain because the series has decided to be about Alma instead of any of the other aspect of the game that would actually make a great foundation for a series.

The trying-to-kill-her-son thing is one of the more egregious examples of a lack of clarity on what is going on with Alma, even though the story explicitly spells out what's going on with her.

In general, Alma's behavior seems to be driven more by horror tropes, particularly horror movie tropes, than by anything internally coherent to the story and her character in particular, and it does a lot to hurt the game on a number of levels. It's a big part of what undercuts the horror/fear factor, for one, as it's difficult to get immersed in the story and setting when they are so obviously artificial.


I like the fighting in F.E.A.R., and there's elements that are successful in some sense when it comes to the storytelling and so on. I've certainly seen worse, and some of the things it did right I've never seen another game do as competently, let alone more competently. Hence why I'm trying to emphasize there is positives there.

But there's also a lot of very deep problems, some of them directly intertwined with the positives, and not because tradeoffs are always going to exist, but because certain pieces were executed well and certain other pieces directly connected to the first part were executed poorly. Some of the goals have fundamental problems as goals in the context of a shooter game, like the desire to do relatively straight horror that focuses heavily on the physical immediacy of the threat of death: that works when a horror movie has a supernatural monster beyond mortal beings threatening a bunch of teens trapped in a mansion in the middle of nowhere. It doesn't work when a horror game centers itself around mowing through dozens to hundreds of enemies who are all trying to kill you. 

And, most frustrating of all, the game clearly has a fairly superficial understanding of the elements it's aping. It employs horror tropes because they're horror tropes, and not because they work in the context of the game itself. A big part of why the game is so great and yet so terrible all at the same time is because sometimes bits of what are being aped happen to line up with the game's design almost in spite of the developers' intentions, but a lot more often the elements being grabbed are so fundamentally contrary to a shooter game experience they just plain don't work and never could have worked no matter how much refinement and effort went into them.

And based on F.E.A.R. 2, unfortunately I don't think Monolith could tell the difference between what parts needed polish but were good ideas vs what parts were terrible ideas that would never work no matter what. There are people who want a 'proper' sequel to F.E.A.R., and in some sense I'm one of them, but I'm skeptical that even if Monolith had made F.3.A.R., or were to make some further sequel, that it would recapture the good parts and improve upon the problematic parts.

I'm just going to have to hope for a spiritual successor from a completely unrelated company from a whole other country, I suppose.


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