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[Mr. Namara is going to talk at you for a bit, and you’re going to listen. Why? Because dudeman is straight up dropping knowledge! Also, this is a fun blog, and it’s more than worth your time!
I hope everyone is having a great Halloween! Don’t get too drunk and eat so much candy that your teeth are hanging limp and lifeless from their hollowed-out gum sockets in the morning! (Kids these days…) Read a blog instead! It’s way safer, and much better for your health! – Kevin]
The hallway is dark, but you know you’re not alone. You can feel their eyes watching your every move. Their mouths hungry for your flesh. You can hear their sharp talons scraping against the wooden floor. The very same talons that fell Brett and C.J. and Cory.
Oh God! Poor, poor Cory!
You make a break for it, and you can hear their angry screeches as they chase after you. One of their claws snag the ends of your jeans, and you fall down hard. Bony hands grip your ankle and pull you towards your doom just as you spot a tipped-over fire extinguisher within arm’s reach. Desperate to survive, you kick and struggle and stretch your arm out just enough to grab the crimson canister in hopes of breaking free-
-only for the game to tell you that you can’t do that.
Horror games, just like horror movies and novels, are one of those things that are incredibly difficult to craft properly. That’s because the genre itself relies on several specific rules to invoke the feelings of dread or, at the very least, discomfort upon their intended audiences. Mess with any one of those rules like, say, putting a zombie in broad daylight with an irreverent caption and a picture of a mustachioed man with hairy legs in a field of flowers giving you the “come hither” look, and the dread and discomfort that drives the horror just falls off by the wayside.
Well, the ‘dread’ part at the very least.
One of those rules is the general feeling of disempowerment. The feeling of being way in over your head in whatever nefarious hellscape you found yourself stranded in. It’s exactly why the general horror game narrative can be counted upon to a) be set in a secluded location and/or isolated from the rest of the world, and b) feature a protagonist who is always hilariously outgunned by demons or zombies or ghouls or whatever evil flavor-of-the-week he or she was forced to come face to face against. It doesn’t matter if the hero of the story used to be a decorated marine with specializations in killing people with a pencil (who does that?!). The horror game protagonist will always be painted to be overwhelmed by the terrors that lurked in the shadows.
That is a good thing because without that general feeling of powerlessness you just won’t have a horror game. You’ll have an action game with cool monsters instead. Presumably with an absurdly hot and incredibly suave protagonist that makes your nether regions wetter than Drew Barrymore at a grunge club.
Horror game developers’ go-to choice for disempowering their players is to take away their ability to fight altogether. It makes sense in theory. What better way to underline the horror than by casting your players as John/Joan Q. Public, lover of cat videos and Instagram quilt photos, coming face to face with a hulking monstrosity armed with a pair of gigantic scissors blessed with the flaming urine of Satan who can eviscerate you sixteen ways ’til Sunday and still have free time on Mondays and Tuesdays for tea and crumpets? After all, if it worked for Halloween and Friday the 13th, then it certainly would work for video games as well, right?
There’s just one tiny detail that horror game developers overlooked: that theory is a crock of shit.
Play for full effect.
Try to remember the original Halloween for a second and recall that fateful encounter between the bleached Captain Kirk mask enthusiast, Nick Castle, and Jamie Lee Curtis right after she discovered her friends’ corpses. Yes, it’s true that she ran screaming from the nigh-unkillable bastard and hid in various places to save her life, but, lest we forget, she also tried to kill Michael Myers THREE TIMES: first with the knitting needle, next with a metal hanger, and finally with his own knife. None of those worked of course, but “fight, and if that fails, then flight the fuck out of there” is precisely what realistically should’ve happened when your life is on the line.
Well, either that situation or if the guy whom you had a heated internet argument with over who was the best Star Trek captain showed up in front of your door all of a sudden.
Because Trekkies don’t fuck around, man. Trekkies don’t fuck around.
“I’M SORRYYYY!! KIRK WAS BEST CAPTAIN, OKAY??! KIRK WAS BEST CAPTAIN!!!!”
The same can be said about the video game that caused a massive breakout of the “fuck this shit I’m out” survival subgenre of horror games: the very first Resident Evil. Zombies, undead dogs, freakishly long-tongued man things, and a giant sewer crocodile. All of whom wanted you for dinner. So, then what do you have to make sure you’re off the menu? Why, nothing but your wits about you and your incredibly-sharp puzzle-solving mind of course!
Oh, and a gun. And a knife. And an assault rifle. And a rocket launcher.
A whole slew of arsenal was entrusted to your care, but did that make the game any less scarier? Did your bang bang power in any shape, way, or form diminish the feeling of safety each time you first discovered a save room door and basked in the relaxing chill of the save room theme?
Show me a guy who didn’t jump even a little when that goddamn dog crashed through the window, and I will show you a goddamn liar!
“AAAAAAAAA PICARD WAS BEST CAPTAIN PICARD WAS BEST CAPTAIN”
So clearly RE and Silent Hill were shining examples that demonstrated that, no, having a full arsenal on your person does not make horror games any less scary. Then why, pray tell, did the latest batch of survival horrors become an endless parade of glorified walking simulators set in dimly lit corridors with the occasional jump scares tossed into the mix? Amnesia, Outlast, Soma, and White Day. All of them played like a mix between a deadly game of hide-and-seek with a deadly game of tag plus a strict “no fistfight” rule enforced with, ironically, an iron fist.
Outlast 2 was perhaps the most egregious (YES! Two for two!) of this fallacy. On top of the invisible walls of plant life that you can barely distinguish from the plant life that you can actually walk through, there is no discernible logic for our plucky protagonist Blake to not ditch his camera in favor of a pitchfork or, at the very least, a hand trowel outside of “Well, the first game didn’t!” Blake, matey, your crew is dead, your wife is missing, and you are hunted by not one but TWO ax-crazy murderous cults!
For the love of C’thulhu, drop the camera and pick up a goddamn axe already!
“JANEWAY WAS BEEEEEEEEEEEEST!!”
I don’t like pointing fingers at developers and citing The Laziness Clause because developing a video game is hard, and, hey, what do I know about that? I’m just a guy on the internet writing arguably-funny opinion blogs after all. However, if developers are already invested in the idea of realism and a horror atmosphere interlaced with that very idea of realism, then the very dang least they can do is not cut corners and go full hog in developing a rudimentary (well, I wouldn’t say a combat system but more like a rudimentary “not-die-while-not-running-and-hiding”) system.
A horror game is not automatically scary just because you can’t fight back and are constantly forced to run and hide from your would be life-enders. No, a horror game can in fact be scarier when you are given the means to fight back and know that, no matter how many clips you empty into the encroaching grotesqueries, you will still not come out on top. It’s the very idea that is as old as Lovecraft: to stand face to face against a massively powerful, nigh-unstoppable, cosmic terror and realizing how small you are and tiny and powerless and how, in the immortal words of Chris Rock, “you ain’t shit.”
Too Long Didn’t Read Version: if you want to ape a successful survival horror game post-2017, shift your views from Outlast and take a page from Resident Evil 7 instead.
“Archer was be-” *BANG*