In what I hope will be one of the last times I talk about the Penumbra games (for a while at least), I would like to take a look at a couple European takes on horror game design juxtaposed with a few conventional western examples of horror game design. Before I get into any real analysis, without putting much thought into it the major difference between scary games that come out of the different regions would be how much they focus on the act either shooting things in the face or bludgeoning/stabbing them with whatever the player character can get his hands on.
In the first Penumbra game combat can be avoided if the player manages to sneak around or run away from all enemies. In the two subsequent Penumbra games and the spiritual successor to the series, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, although there are still enemies in the games, the player is not given any tools to fight back with. The video below features a perfect example of such a situation.
Fellow European indie game developer, Action Forms Ltd. from Ukraine, released a respectably creepy game of their own titled Cryostasis: The Sleep of Reason in April 2009. Unlike Penumbra, Cryostasis featured not only hand-to-hand combat and melee weaponry but it also had a fair selection of guns. Cryostasis’ combat was not designed with complex mechanics or large firefights in mind, so as a result when the player chooses to resort of fire arms to take care of their current combat scenario he/she had better be accurate and prudent with their ammo usage. Using up your ammo at the wrong time could leave you in a situation where you may not find more ammo for an hour or more of game time. If during that hour you encounter one of the game’s rare combat heavy sequences and cannot beat it without more ammo, then the player may have to resort to starting the game from a previous save, starting over entirely, or simply “ragequitting”, exiting the game in a fit of rage without intending to return to it, and giving up entirely.
Monolith Productions is based in the state of Washington and is currently a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Their games have never really been huge, but they receive consistently positive reviews and sell at least enough to keep the company afloat it seems. Monolith’s F.E.A.R., as a game intended to scare people, wins the award for being the most aptly named scary game, despite the silly acronym which stands for First Encounter Assault Recon. The mass market audience does not like to plod through their games and carefully manage their ammo supply. They want explosions, particle effects, the illusion of smart enemy artificial intelligence, crazy guns, dedicated grenade and melee buttons, and lots of dudes to shoot in the face. FEAR has all of these along with ever present slow motion or “bullet-time” powers to enhance the players enjoyment of all the aforementioned features and effects. I played FEAR around its time of release and I will not deny loving it, but the actual horror elements of the game ended up being nothing more than the kind of cheap scares you are subjected to in even the worst horror films. Doors open and close on their own. A creepy little girl in a blood red dress appears and disappears whenever there is no action going on. Gallons upon gallons of blood was spilled only to be scribbled on walls as messages for the player to read. Ultimately, these elements give FEAR a creepy atmosphere and manage to catch you off guard with a cheap scare here or there, but the actual gameplay of FEAR remains more or less equivalent to any other corridor-running, action packed, first person shooter.
Other modern examples of conventional games that attempt to be scary are games like Condemned, Dead Space, and the Japanese developed Resident Evil 5. Dead Space and Resident Evil 5 in particular advertise themselves as being some of the scariest gaming experiences you will ever take part of, but rely on many of the same old cheap scare tactics while empowering the player in every way they can with loads of guns and ammo to dispense of the horrors they will face.
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