Why (I believe) the “no-weapons/no-combat” formula horror games is highly overrated
As always, you are free to disagree with everything I say. Just because you don’t agree with what I say doesn’t that I’m wrong, and just because you agree with I say doesn’t mean that I’m right.
These past years (or so) we’ve had many horror game devs stating that, to make a good horror game, you must take away from the player any gun and combat skills so the player is completely defenseless, like that’s the only way to make a “good” horror game. Besides the fact that I totally disagree with this because I believe there isn’t an actual formula to make a horror games (more about that on my “stupid sexy indonesian girls” post), I see a bigger issue: all horror games will be limited to the same simple “do stuff and avoid the bad guy” formula.
I’ve said many times this formula leads to a basic “hide and seek” game that may work in some cases (like in Amnesia, most of the time) or can be… not so good in others(everybody from the 313, put your * hands up and say Slender!). I could explain why I believe the “defenseless character” may not be a good idea, but maybe Peter explains it better:
When you think about it, taking away any form of defense from the player means your character just stands there “taking it.” The bad guy comes and your character will just stand there waiting to be killed because she’s not allowed to defend herself.
Before we continue, I am aware we’re also developing a horror game with no weapons and no combat, but that’s because you won’t have enemies to fight most of the time, and the few deadly entities found in Enola are not one-hit-kill-wonders like those found in other games.
Note that I have nothing against one-hit-kill-wonders when they actually work (and are not overused).
One can argue that certain foes cannot be killed, but there’s also the fact that they can’t be killed not because they are some supernatural living force but because devs designed them that way. Lore and all aside, Slenderman is unstoppable (and unfair half of the time, spawning right next to you at random) because that’s how it was coded. Another example is the the shadow man seen in the video I linked. It cannot be killed, in part because you have no weapons to kill him with (obviously, duh) but technical elements aside, according to the design, you don’t need to kill him because if you escape the “grab” he will disappear.
Just because your enemy cannot be killed doesn’t mean the player character can’t defend herself. Something as simple as pushing the enemy to one side, kicking him or whatever, just to slow him down while you run away is, to me, a far better design choice than the usual “try to dodge the dude and run away” mechanic, and at least it shows your player character can AT LEAST do something other than stand there. You can even have variations to this simple mechanic, like allowing your character pick up and throw props to the enemy to slow him down, stun him, set traps, etc. Haunting Ground is a very good example, I think. Fiona doesn’t carry a shotgun but she can kick Debilitas on the groin to escape.
Movies show this all the time as well. Ghostface takes so long to kill someone is because that someone at least tries to stop him. Imagine how boring the movie would be if Sidney just stood there because the movie rules state she can’t throw things, grab a knife, or punch the guy on the face because she’s not allowed to defend herself. Going back to the games world, if Scream was a modern horror game, players would either just run (and nothing else) or stand there waiting for the Game Over screen.
Ok, enough of this, what about that shotgun? The reasons why I didn’t add weapons in Enola (besides being lazy and not wanting to deal with weapon management coding) are, on one side, that I don’t think a shy young girl (the player character) would take a bunch of guns and go on a killing spree while looking for her girlfriend (even if Heather did the exact same thing in Silent Hill 3, but the story is completely different, her father was killed, and she wants blood); and on the other side, Enola is “story and puzzle oriented” so combat and weapons would never be the main focus.
Note that I’m not saying all horror games should have weapons, because weapons may or may not make sense in the game world. In Fatal Frame you have a weapon (the Camera Obscura) but the entire experience is, to me, far scarier than Amnesia, for example (just to clarify, I do like Amnesia, but it isn’t by far the scariest horror game I’ve ever played). Equally, Silent Hill offers a few weapons, and it’s one of the scariest and more disturbing games ever made (more about this in a bit). Even the original Dead Space was pretty scary because it had a very nice balance of combat and weapons (I can’t remember how many times I ran out of ammo, or how many times I would try to avoid fights because I kept thinking “gotta save ammo because I will need it later”).
Of course designing the weapons (or the single weapon) your player will use can be tricky. It can’t be too powerful and it should be “just good enough” to let them survive but bad enough so that they don’t fee overly confident. Going back to Fatal Frame, the Camera Obscura has a few elements that make it work: You have different sets of films, some more powerful than the others, but stronger films take longer to reload. You can’t go sniper-mode on ghosts because you need to stand very close to the ghosts to shoot them, and the closer you get the more damage you perform. Sometimes shooting requires perfect timing, so it’s not about shooting over and over as it is about shooting at the exact moment.
Of course these two elements, combat and weapons, still limit horror games to a very specific spectrum, and the truth is that horror can mean different things to different people, and that’s why I believe there is no single formula on how to make a horror game, and while there are those that rely on jump scares, there are those that are not about the adrenaline rush and such, but rather about the kind of horror that sticks on the back of your head. Take Silent Hill for example (as I said, “more about this in a bit”). Silent hill isn’t much about fighting all those monsters as it is about presenting the weird story and disturbing… well, everything. In Silent Hill you don’t get all those jump scares or the adrenaline rush from a chase sequence, but rather sticks on the back of your head and leaves you thinking about “many things.”
Anna is another example. Let’s forget the puzzle design in Anna totally sucks and just focus on the fact that the game is just plain weird and the environment plays tricks on you all the time. IMO even if the entire game takes place in a single environment, it feels so alive you feel weird half of the time, and sometimes you even get the impression you’re not exactly alone in that house. Anna has no weapons, but not because they want you to feel like the defenseless puppy surviving hordes of monsters, but because it’s a very “environment-oriented” game and does not need it.
So if any of this made sense at all, now you know why I don’t believe in the no-weapons/no-combat formula meant to make you run the hell away because that’s the only way you will survive, because it can limit what horror games can be. Just like we have different kinds of horror movies like Scream, Mama or Jacob’s Ladder, we should be able to have different kinds of horror games, from the simple ones to the more “cerebral” ones that offer a little bit more substance.
And while I could write about what I believe could be helpful when making horror games (and I’m not saying “horror game formulas” because I don’t believe in them), I will do that some other day because this post is already long enough