I Live!

Sorry for the lack of recent updates, I’ve been balancing some end-of-the-summer travel and a few fast-approaching deadlines at work. In my absence, forums member Sadako has graciously posted her impressions of the recently-released (in Japan) Fatal Frame 3. Check it out.

Horror games mostly operate by mixing horrific content with simple game mechanics. Just looking at the combat systems in these games, we’ve got a few basic formulas: the pivot-aim-shoot Resident Evil system, Silent Hill‘s aim-charge-release system, Fatal Frame‘s aim-wait-shoot mechanic, etc. These game play systems are fun, but they are not intrinsically scary. One might argue that the way these systems generally prevent the player from moving while they attack adds to tension (especially because the player cannot easily deal with multiple assailants), but I think most of these systems are utilitarian: the game designers need the player to be able to attack enemies, and this is the method they have chosen. The fear part is then expected to come not from the mechanics themselves, but from the story, imagery, and character design of the game.

If you think about it, this utilitarian nature might be a deficiency of the survival horror genre. Many other genres are able to produce mechanics that are quite enjoyable without the assistance of context. Think about the delight that one feels when mastering the cape flying system in Super Mario World, or the despair that losing the ability of flight induces in NiGHTS. Driving the buggy in Halo is invigorating, and web-swinging in Spiderman 2 is awe-inspiring. These are games that use context only to sell the player on the setting, but rely on their mechanical rules to produce emotional responses.

Horror games are all about emotion, but the mechanics of most horror games are not in and of themselves scary (or even particularly interesting, usually). Notice that when the horror context was removed from the Resident Evil engine in order to produce Devil May Cry, Capcom spent a very long time on the mechanical end, building complex combos and upgradable weapons into the game. Why haven’t horror game designers figured out how to evoke feelings of fear, tension, and unease through game play systems yet?

I’m probably not being very fair. The use of force feedback in Silent Hill 2, even during non-interactive scenes (such as when James must stick his hand into a dark hole) are done extremely well, as is the force-feedback heart beat in that series. The autopsy sequence in The X-Files: Resist or Serve is a good attempt, but it’s muddled by an unclear input system and superfluous time limit. Siren‘s sight jacking system is used to very good effect, and that game is able to produce some excellent scares by forcing the player to worry about how much noise they are making (by running, walking, or crawling) when they sneak around. Finally, the visor system in Carrier had potential but failed because the game sucked so much.

Another thing to consider: frustration is the enemy of fun. Attempts to create a mechanics system that provokes a particular emotion has the potential to restrict the player’s ability to control the game, which is a recipe for instant frustration. Siren and Resident Evil (among others) have received a lot of criticism because some of their game mechanics, while designed with emotional impact in mind, are just too hard for some players to use.

So what might a scary game mechanic look like. If we remove the context (character, setting, enemy design, etc) from the game, how might we still build tension, fear, and unease in the player?

3 thoughts on “I Live!

  1. Master Chris you are cruel. Can I just try to
    take take the pebble from your hand instead?!
    Scary, fear inducing gameplay alone…Is that possible with a TV, controller, console
    set up? I doubt anyone could cause a scare with
    Atari 2600 level basics. I think horror games
    are more complex. I think they have to immerse
    the player in the setting, suspend their disbelief, create empathy with the protagonist(s) and only then will spooky stuff work on them. These games have to work just like a Stephen King novel or horror movie does. To
    load up the consumer’s imagination and then
    set it against them. It’s not the dark room
    that is scary, it is the things you can’t see
    in the room that are scary. Preconditioning
    is everything.
    I don’t think makers of racing games or platform
    games have to do all that to achieve the results
    the player desires. ie, I’m in a car. I can steer.
    I can go fast. I can lose control and crash.
    I can work the gas and brakes to do drifts and slides. I passed a car, I’m in 3rd place. I have
    to pass 1 more car then I’m in the lead. Passed
    that car. Must hold on. See Finish Line. Go-go!!
    I won. I’m cool. Yah for me.
    *yearns for an easier Quest so he can brand himself with the Tiger and Dragon stew pot*

  2. http://www.xeromusic.com
    I really liked/feared a few of the rooms in Silent Hill 3. The one with the mirror and another one in the school house that was totally black and had a few lumbering baddies in it. 16bitman has a point, NOT being able to see is key.

    As far as actual control, I think a much more basic attack system would be nice. More knee-jerk and less deliberate. If someting jumps, you can also jump and attack right away, maybe with a longer recovery time because of this. There could be a “panic button” that could unleash some sort of burst attack that wears you down very quickly and that you can only use after a long time of walking and searching around in dark corners.

  3. I would like to add my 2 cents in this 🙂
    I just played the fahrenheit demo, it’s not really horror-based but the mechanic is just awesome and stress you a lot. It’s all about making you do what you want to do.
    I would point at galerian too. If I remember well, it’s all about psychic stuff and you go crazy after some time. Worked well on me.
    Demento only allows you to escape, work well on the emotion factor.

    Now is an horror-only mechanic even possible? I really don’t know 😮
    If I put a character in a white room, I can’t think of a way for him to scare me while I control it.

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