Run, Hide, Die. What is the Future of Horror Games Without Combat?

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thehideousshrew

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Edited By thehideousshrew

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.

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Brackstone

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Run and hide horror games are generally just bad stealth games (in a strictly mechanical sense) with a spooky theme, and bad stealth games always wear thin fast since they ultimately have binary fail and success states. You beat the encounter or you die and restart, that's it.

Combat based horror games have more variety possible, and more variety in how the player feels upon finishing an encounter, strict win or lose states exist but aren't the only possibilities. Maybe you beat a tough enemy but are low on health and ammo. Maybe you encounter an enemy that can't be killed, or one you can't run or hide from. More variety is possible when every encounter isn't just "walk into room, look for hiding spots on the way to the exit while an enemy dawdles around in plain sight. Variety is what keeps a game spooky over longer run times, and a lot of these run and hide horror games run out of ideas long before the credits roll.

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bigsocrates

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One thing that's important to realize is that a lot of these games are made by small studios, and combat is really hard to do well on a budget. It's all well and good for Resident Evil to have robust combat, but it has the budget to program AI and weapons and all combat-appropriate environments and all the rest of the stuff you need to make combat work well. Combat on the cheap is often very bad.

I do think that more horror games could figure out things to do other than bad stealth though. The Walking Dead forced you to make choices and that could be very horrifying because there were times that you couldn't save someone from dying. There can be puzzles and other gameplay types that can introduce stakes and tension without being combat or stealth. I think that people think of stealth as a horror game thing both because it's a natural evolution from the disempowerment of survival horror and because hiding from g g g ghosts seems natural, but at this point they need to find more variety. I don't think combat is the answer for these smaller games, though.

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LapsarianGiraff

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Horror games are in an interesting tipping point right now.

I think it's telling that the original popularizers of "run, don't fight" horror, Frictional Games, have released a genuine dud in the form of Amnesia: Rebirth. It's not scary, its atmosphere isn't nearly as oppressive as The Dark Descent, and its clear they're much better at narrative in games than horror at this point. This echoes how creaky the conventions of the last decade of horror games have gotten.

That being said, I also remember Silent Hill: Downpour (ugh), which had the most shoehorned in combat I can recall in a survival horror game. It's a little tiring, but I'd prefer a couple of hiding sections (which are just puzzles with a different aesthetic, really,) than a whole new mechanic that drags the rest of the experience down.

In the case of The Medium, I found the hiding/running sections to be pretty painless. Very short bursts, probably like 10% of the game at most, or just completely self explanatory with those "run forward in a straight line" bits.

It's clear horror games need a new evolution. Resident Evil 7/8/2 Remake point an interesting way forward for teams with truckloads of money. For indie studios, though? We'll have to see.

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ShaggE

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I love the subgenre, but the vast majority lose their potency the first time you die. (not all of them, mind) Once you've seen the extent of the capabilities of what you're hiding from, the fear tends to go away and "how do I take advantage of the AI?" kicks in. Outlast is my goto example: Once I realized that the beefy-boi zombie guy (it's been a while, I don't remember anyone's names) can't kill you fast enough to present a danger and that you can just run past him whenever he's around, the game stopped being An Experience and became A Video Game, if that makes sense.

It's also hard to shake the knowledge that the AI "knows" where you are at all times and is basically making a big show out of pretending not to. (extremely simplified, but still) Not a big deal in a normal stealth game, but when you're supposed to be afraid... kinda kills the vibe.

Making a horror game that stays fun and scary time and time again has to be a monumental effort, and I can't even begin to imagine going about it. The obvious tact that comes to mind is randomization a la Phasmaphobia, but even then, routine eventually sets in and you know that the worst the ghosts can do to you is put their hands over your eyes until you ragdoll. Alien: Isolation does a good job of staying scary due to the good AI and the design making every move as tense as possible, but even that becomes routine.

It's a tough nut to crack, but I think we're overdue for a gamechanging horror title with a truly fresh idea that takes the genre by storm the way Amnesia did.

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development

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It's a tough nut to crack. There's definitely something effective in knowing Mr. X is hunting you in RE2, or that he might show up at some point in the story regardless of how far ahead of him you get. I also think just that inherent concept of knowing, at some point, something is coming for you is something that will continue to work in horror games for the foreseeable future. RE2 succeeded by not requiring you to cower and wait for Mr. X to walk by you, and, even though ammo was plentiful, you knew you couldn't just blast him forever because ammo was still a finite resource.

I still personally am only "scared" by horror games when you have very little agency in dealing with the threat, even if it means the gameplay takes a bit of a hit. If I want a fun game, I'll play RE2; if I want a scary game, I'll play RE7 in PSVR and try not to rip the headset off my face when those motherfuckers grab me. They're different types of experiences, and I don't necessarily think the end-all-be-all destination is to perfectly merge the two experiences while preserving both the fun and the fright. Perhaps they aren't compatible, really?

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FRANZlSKA

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I feel like there's a weird conundrum, because all three approaches feel like they start to get long in the tooth at a certain point. Take for example horror games with a stronger combat focus, like RE7/2. Their environments and atmospheres are absolutely well-made, tense, scary, and so on, but when it comes to combat it usually just feels like a way to pad the space between point A and point B. There's not much scary about running through a hall full of zombies when you're holding a revolver, a shotgun, and three grenades, and in occasions where ammunition dries up it sort of just ends up feeling frustrating that ammunition dried up, rather than suddenly bringing back the scares.

But at the same time, stealth-based ones can absolutely get old fast, especially when the AI isn't quite up to snuff, or the level design isn't quite there. Alien: Isolation is a shining example of doing this right, but even then I was ready to wrap it up about 3/4 of the way through, because it was starting to wear a little thin. The flamethrower is sort of a double-edged sword in this game's case because it allowed me to skip some of the more inopportune stealth moments the game presented, but also I quickly realized that puffing just enough fire in the xenomorph's face would get it to piss off, at which point it became glaringly obvious where the AI's routines start to fall apart.

Walk-around approaches can be really amazingly done, but also they feel inherently limited to smaller experiences. Sure, walking around a house can be tense and interesting for a few hours, but for longer experiences I think it would start to drag even faster than the previous two.

I feel like the most possibility lies in either a combination of two of the above three, or in some major overhaul of one of the above, such as a combat approach where you can fight, but are constantly fighting an uphill battle. But at the same time, I'm not sure if those overhauls would be a new path or just a one-off gimmick, if they would even be good approaches. It's possible that the future of horror games mostly lies in shorter experiences that start and finish before the player can really map out the boundaries of the game and its AI.

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bigsocrates

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Horror games don't have to be scary. I'm not saying they shouldn't be, but they don't have to be. Call of the Sea is a straight up adventure game in the classic sense that isn't scary at all but I would say qualifies as a horror game. The Walking Dead is another example. Definitely a horror game, not scary. I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is a classic horror game that's not scary in the least but was still well regarded.

I'm not saying they shouldn't be scary, but a lot of these games would be better served focusing on their strengths (a sense of dread and good horror narrative/themes/etc...) and getting away from their weaknesses (trying to scare people.)

Nobody here has mentioned Fatal Frame, but that's a series that had unique mechanics that worked well and just like there's a new Pokemon Snap coming a new Fatal Frame game could work well. There was one for Wii U but people didn't seem to think that one was made well.

Anything intended to be "scary" is going to lose impact over time, not just within a given game but across the genre. There are only so many times you can hide in any game before it's not scary anymore. Movies have the advantage of being able to scare you by brute force (basically forcing you into tense situations where you can't look away and then jump scaring you) but games can't really do that.

I think focusing on being "scary" is fine for what it is, but more games should just explore horror as a theme and play to their strengths.

Pretty much everyone would rather play a fun game with creepy horror themes and good mechanics than a game that tries to be scary but ends up repetitive and boring.

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LapsarianGiraff

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@bigsocrates: Totally. Dread has just as much of a place in horror games as outright terror or scares. One of my favorite moments from Silent Hill 2 is when Pyramid Head is just staring at you from behind some bars. It's really unsettling despite not being outright terrifying.

Side note: why is it always so hard to find this Pyramid Head appearance? All Silent Hill clips are quick to show him assaulting other monsters or the boss fight, but this scene always gets short shrift. Eh, I digress.

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MrCropes

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I think the Crash Bandicoot chase sequences in The Medium really throw off the pacing of the game and I found them to be rather unenjoyable. The first one, I died about three times and restarted the prior checkpoint thinking I was doing something wrong; instead, I just wasn't turning at the exact point the game deemed acceptable. Another instance has you run, and then pull something to block out the chaser. I "confused" the game here but pulling it too slowly but still had performed the action, so I got the death screen where the attacker grabs Marianne, but after only a second of that, I looped back into the game. My wife and I just kind of shook our heads at this. The Medium has a lot to enjoy in it, but the stealth or running sequences are not in that lot.

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JeedyJay

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Shout-out to the "defense points" in Clock Tower games where the heroine can pull over a bookcase or something onto her pursuer.