The convention is that survival horror games are very brutal and unforgiving. The combat is finicky and mistakes are devastating. Resources are scarce, and consuming too many now can mean hitting an impossible barrier down the line. Your character tends to die often. Even the ability to save is sometimes rationed. Allow me a moment of presumption and arrogance, but I think survival horror game designers have been undermining the very atmosphere they’re trying so hard to build. They’re doing it wrong.
- Oh no! The grue is going to eat me! How horrible!
- Oh man. The grue is going to eat me and I haven’t saved in half an hour.
Now, if your goal is to just create a serious challenge for tenacious players to overcome (and some people really do like that sort of thing) then routine player death is a required component of that. But I think in most cases the extreme difficulty is part of a misguided attempt to make the game more frightening. You feel the first kind of fear when you’re immersed in the game. You only feel the second when you are not immersed. The first kind is the thrilling kind. The second is an immersion-breaking killjoy. Which means that – counter-intuitively – if you want to scare a player you should make every effort to avoid killing them.
You need to approach the game with an awareness of how much real threat you want vs. how much perceived threat you need to create the right atmosphere. They are not the same thing.
When it comes to movies, people like Spielberg regularly use this sort of thing to create nail-biting moments. If you take yourself out of the movie for a second, you know Spielberg isn’t going to let the dinosaur eat the little girl. You know she’s going to live until the end of the movie. Yet when the dino is snapping and missing her face by an inch it’s still edge-of-seat time, because you’re immersed in the movie. This often works even when you’ve seen the movie before and there can be no doubt in your mind about the survival of the girl. You’re fully aware that the real threat is zero, yet the perceived threat is off the charts. (Assuming you’re into dino movies. Naturally tastes differ.)
If they’re immersed, the player will fear death the same way they will fear for the life of Spielberg’s pint-sized protagonist. Actually dying is a bit of a let down, though. They end up at the menu. Suddenly they realize that the death they feared is more of an inconvenience than a source of terror. They remember that it’s all just a game, and that they just lost. They’re either annoyed that they have to replay a lot of the game or relieved that they just saved recently. Either way, they are out of the game and death is no longer the great unknown. It’s going to take them a while to settle back into character.
Worse, dying means replaying a section of the game, which is counter-productive if you’re trying to manipulate them. They will notice that cat that jumped out or the shutters that banged in the wind right when they entered the room. The sound of footsteps from the floor above they heard right when they opened the cupboard. It seemed unnerving the first time, but when it happens again your artifice behind the experience will be exposed. Like pulling back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, they will see that there was never anything to be afraid of in the first place. Making the player replay a section is like doing the same magic trick twice.
Thus the goal is to menace the player with death while doing your level best not to kill them, to cheat (on their behalf) as far as you can without getting caught. You have to walk a fine line: If you’re too harsh, the player is yanked out of the game and dumped back at the loading screen. If you’re too gentle, the illusion will be broken and the player will realize you’re all bark and no bite. The real art of scaring the player – behind the monsters and spooky sounds and blood and frightening imagery – is to strike the right balance between these two extremes, to make the perceived threat as high as possible and the real threat as low as possible.
I’ll offer a few meager suggestions of my own:
- Have monsters pause right in front of the player for a blood-chilling howl – it scares them silly, but it also gives them a chance to back off and take a free shot or run or whatever they’re doing in this context. Half-Life 2 did this with the fast zombies, and it was one of their more frightening moments, despite it making them less dangerous.
- Monsters should telegraph their arrival. Those moments between the point where the player realizes they’re about to be attacked and the actual onset of combat are the most suspenseful moments, and you want to hit that note as often as you can. Silent Hill does this with the static radio sounds that precede monsters. Half-Life 2 does this with the howling of the fast zombies and their clanking as they climb the drainpipes. Again, having the monsters make noise makes them more frightening and at the same time less dangerous.
- If you’ve got a third-person game: Have monsters grab and the players and shake them for a second or two before chowing down, giving the player time to recover or pull away. Like the zombie grabbing your ankle in Resident Evil, it’s really alarming to have something grasp your avatar like that, and it will get the player’s heart pounding. Many won’t even think about the fact that they didn’t get hurt, they’ll be too busy thinking, “Gah! It touched me!”
- Have monsters do less damage as the player’s health gets low. This one seems cheap and obvious, but Valve Software has been doing it for years and most people never even noticed. This works the other way as well: Healing resources heal you in proportion to how injured you are.
- Take a page from Spielberg’s dino, and have the monster lunge too soon or too late, so it will just barely miss them. You don’t want to do this every time, and you probably want to save it for special occasions to keep your monster from seeming incompetent. Perhaps have the monster miss once if the player is very low on health.
But in any game with combat governed by player skill, you have to allow for death and work to mitigate its negative effects on immersion.
I’ve said before that I think survival horror is one of the purest and most challenging forms of game design. Other genres can get by with amusing gameplay and graphical pizazz, but here you live and die on the strength of your ability to create an immersive experience. As most survival horror games have proven, you can create lots of stress by making a game with tricky combat and being stingy with healing supplies, and then spacing out save points as far as possible. Throw in a few cheap “gotcha” moments and you have the formula for a really nerve-wracking game. But creating fear requires a bit more finesse. This isn’t to say existing games aren’t scary at all. Some of them are excellent. It’s just that I think they could be even better if the weren’t undermining themselves so often.
Survival horror is very much a niche genre – much more niche than its movie counterpart – and I think this is because nobody has really tapped its potential yet. It might sound like hyperbole, but I honestly think that if a game designer would approach the task as someone working to create an experience, they could create one of those landmark titles that redefines the genre and sets the standard for future games.
Barring that, if I could get them to stop yanking me out of the world with meta-game decisions about when I should save the game I’d call it a step in the right direction.
There's a wonderful way to balance difficulty in RPGs, and designers try to prevent it. For some reason.
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