A Trip Down Horror Lane: forgetting how to fight

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Amnesia: The Dark Decent is a critically acclaimed game from Frictional Games, the makers of the Penumbra series. It completely failed as a horror experience. Every time I read that someone couldn’t finish or play Amnesia because they thought it was too scary, I mutter “lightweight” under my breath and laugh evilly for a few seconds. Amnesia has problems with design and tone. This isn’t the first horror game to remove combat, but it is the poster child for it.

After the jump, pacifist horror

A crucial concept in horror games is “fight or flight”. This is the decision we make in the face of danger. Amnesia removes the option to fight, which is hardcoded in our DNA. Instead of fight or flight, it becomes die or flight. When I played Amnesia, I wasn’t scared of the enemies, because I knew my response would always be the same.

Good horror should force you to make tough decisions. Should I go on or turn back? Can I even fight this? Rogue-like fans or Demon’s Souls players should be familiar with these questions. This is why the original Resident Evil was such a hit. It was the closest a horror game came at being a rogue-like.

The other decision that killed the horror for me in Amnesia was making the player immortal. That removed all the tension, as I knew that no matter what happened I would be fine. I actually stopped caring about the monsters. Whenever I was caught, I let them kill me, since it would take less time than just running away.

Horror is about good pacing, about making the player tense. Nervous is good, but it needs a tipping point. All that tension and terror must reach a point where it explodes in the form of some kind of danger or conflict. If there is no breaking point, then the player will eventually wise up, and the game will lose its atmosphere. The same thing happened in Fear. By removing the danger during the horror segments, there was no breaking point and eventually the horror dissipated.

Another dampening effect on horror is repetition. Having enemies or situations happen the same way each time kills any tension. Horror games have little replay value. Amnesia is even worse in this regard, as there is only one and only one way to get through the game. Not helping matters is that there is no conflict or any meaningful choices for the player to make or change. This can happen from no combat, or from too much combat. Dead Space and Alan Wake reveled in combat. But you’re fighting the same enemies and situations throughout. Fighting one necromorph in Dead Space was freaky; fighting 100 of them was tedious. Limited enemy design and AI makes battles play out the same way every time. This is one area where horror game designers should take a page from action games. Make adaptive enemies. Fighting enemies should be a meaningful experience, forcing the player to react differently based on the situation.

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Josh Bycer has had nightmares that make less sense then the Silent Hill series. As he continues to search for his place in the industry, you can find him over at Gamasutra, on his blog, or posting in the forums as Jab.