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?