Playing The Medium over this last week, I experienced what I can only describe as Hiding Fatigue. To be honest, it mildly spoiled what I found to be an otherwise pretty compelling and well-made horror game, and made me think about my history with these mechanics.
Let’s take a short trip back to 2014, if you'll come with me.
The first time I played Outlast, I was immediately enamoured of it.
I had just got a tax rebate because it turned out I was too poor to be paying so much tax, so of course I took the day off, walked to the local GAME, and bought a PS4 (about six months after launch), with Assassin’s Creed 4 and Wolfenstein: The New Order.
When I got home and got everything set up, the first thing I did was purchase and download Outlast. At that point the only computer I had was a seven-year-old laptop, so I hadn’t been able to play Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The concept of a horror game that didn’t even give you the option to fight back was still very novel.
I spent the rest of the day murdering British Officers on Caribbean islands and shooting Nazi’s with futuristic weapons. Then the sun went down.
I shut the curtains, plugged my headphones into the controller and booted up Outlast, and got engrossed!
The aesthetic was immediately striking, emulating numerous Found Footage movies like The Blair Witch Project (Dir. Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez. 1999) and, much more specifically, the Spanish horror masterpiece REC (Dir. JaumeBalagueró, Paco Plaza. 2007).
I spend the next 12 hours or so of game time running, hiding and sneaking through this games’ pretty compelling story and creepy environment.
But even then, the rot was beginning to set in.
By the time I had gotten to the third or fourth encounter, I felt like I was going through the motions.
- Hide From enemy by crouch-walking slowly
- Pick up objects/activate switches needed to progress
- If spotted, hide under desk or allow myself to be killed and start again (whichever seemed less tedious)
- Repeat until exit of area is reached.
- Go back to enjoying games atmosphere and story until next encounter.
This soon became something of a trend for a lot of horror games, with a few twists here and there, most notably Alien: Isolation, which did manage to find something of a sweet spot by having an enemy you couldn’t kill, but could at least repel with carefully conserved resources.
But while playing The Medium recently, every time I came to an encounter wherein Marianne could be killed, I found myself saying, “Just let me get back to having fun.”
But that brings us to a bigger question. What’s the alternative?
Shoe horn in combat? Have the combat be deliberately awkward, Silent Hill style, so running is often the better option? Or maybe just rely on the atmosphere and don’t have things that can kill the player?
Can a game be scary if an enemy is never actively hunting you?
I suppose the response to that would vary from person to person. To my mind I can think of a few games that unnerved me and gave me that scary, spooky feeling without ever threatening me with a Game Over.
Dear Esther had oodles of atmosphere and a deeply personal story. It hinted at horror, both real and imagined, just putting a “what if” feeling on the edge of everything that increased the isolation, loneliness and helpless feeling, while never being actually directly threatening.
The same goes for Gone Home, a game that got a lot of people became weirdly angry about even being called a game, to the point where the phrase Walking Simulator was coined as a way of disparaging it, but was eventually worn proudly by other games as a new genre descriptor.
And even though I knew going in that Gone Home contained no real threats to the player (they are very up front about this from the games opening menu screen), I still found myself unnerved, tense, and even sometimes rattled during my exploration through the family home in which the game exclusively takes place.
I will say that once I finally got around to playing Amnesia, it was a really good time, and I had a thoroughly great experience with Outlast 2. I did still feel though, that the places these games where weakest where the parts that upset the pacing. And nothing upsets the pacing of a game more than dying over and over again to an unkillable monster when you are just trying to figure out where the exit is.
As far as The Medium goes, these sections didn’t really ruin the experience for me, but I was never excited when one began, and always relieved when they were over, but not just because the danger had passed.
Even with all this in mind, I still find myself excited to see what these developers do next.
These are some clever people, much smarter than I. They spend a lot of their time looking at these problems and trying to find solutions.
I am fascinated by what the multi-player aspect of the upcoming The Outlast Trials, could possibly be. Frictional have always found a way to compel me through everyoneof their games with strong story telling and art design. And the technical prowess and atmosphere on display in The Medium, Observer, and Layers of Fear, have certainly cemented Bloober Team as some real horror duders.
I’d just like them to know, they don’t always have to kill me to scare me.