Modern Horror Games and the ‘Haunted House’ Problem

It’s honestly super nice to see that horror games are once again getting lots of love from the game industry. There was a long period where the only new horror experiences were coming from indie games. Now big companies like Capcom are getting back into it! At long last the big drought that started during the PS2 and Xbox era is finally coming to an end… However, I feel like a lot of modern horror games just don’t have the scares and the intensity of their classic counterparts. So let’s talk about that!

Ah, the classic survival horror genre… Fixed camera angles, tank controls, confusing puzzles, a bunch of locked doors, and lots of map checking! It’s a genre that use to get lots of love back in the day. Games like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, Rule of Rose, Haunting Ground, and Clock Tower were popping up left and right. And rather than all those series getting new entries or getting replaced by new horror series, all but Resident Evil really have faded into obscurity. Which is a shame for lots of reasons but primarily because a lot of modern horror games seem to have forgotten to learn from these classic series. One recent game however, tried to do just that! The Medium. And while the game seemed to understand classic survival horror on a surface level, it never manages to understand what truly makes them great. And I think it’s a perfect example to start off this discussion with!

Created by Bloober Team, a developer with a few other horror games to their name, the Medium was meant to be their take on classic survival horror, with lots of inspiration from Silent Hill specifically. And while it is the best attempt I have seen in a long time, it sadly just falls short…

Now the Medium isn’t technically a bad game, far from it, I just feel that it could have been so much better! The game came so close to being a true modern take on classic survival horror, but it’s not quite there. And it goes to show how the developers only understood what makes a game a classic survival horror game but not what makes them great.

The first thing the game pulls from classic survival horror can be seen right from when you get to start playing. It has fixed camera angles! If you’re curious as to why I feel this is a good thing over a bad thing, I have another blog post explaining it. However right as you actually start to move your character you run into something that shows they didn’t fully grasp fixed camera angles. It doesn’t have tank controls… Why? Not even an option for it! Like, I understand that most people don’t like tank controls so having an option to not have to play with them makes sense. Even making the default to not be tank controls makes sense. But you don’t give people an option to play with them? Despite having fixed camera angles? The two go hand in hand!

And it’s problems like this that prevail through out the game. The Medium tries to modernize classic survival horror so much that they end up missing what people love about the games to begin with. For example, one of the staples of the genre is exploring around large areas, finding locked doors and puzzles you need to complete to progress. And the Medium has this! It’s setting is a run down and abandoned resort center. A place for families and friends to go and relax. This is perfect! It’s big, spooky, and there’s a mystery as to why it’s currently abandoned. It’s also surprisingly fresh for a genre that normally relies on settings like schools, hospitals, train stations, and police stations. But I obviously wouldn’t be bringing this up if I didn’t have something to complain about with it. And the complaint I have is the fact that you don’t get to actually do any exploring at all! It might feel like it at first, but from the moment you realize you won’t be given a map, it should become clear that you are going to be on one set path the whole game.

This might not seem like a terrible idea on paper. In theory you are still going through the entire place, solving puzzles when one pops up. However, this makes the game feel more like a tour rather than an adventure through a spooky place. You aren’t discovering anything, you’re being dragged between things. This is a very modern horror game design choice and I can understand the idea behind it. Doing it this way makes it so your player won’t get lost, it also makes it so they won’t miss any of the scares the level designers put in. And that’s all very true! But it also makes the game feel very formulaic.

Think about it like this! Going through a Haunted House attraction at an amusement park compared to wandering around the woods alone at night. Both are very scary experiences but they are also completely different. In the Haunted House you are being taken from scare to scare. Any quiet downtime is designed to be there, even. It’s a quick scary experience that you are sure to walk away terrified from. Now compare that to a walk through the woods at night. Realistically, the odds of anything besides shadows and your imagination jumping out at you are pretty low. It’s a much longer experience as well. One that really depends on you and your ability to find your way out. You may find a creepy bug, or a harmless animal might shake a bush while you walk by. Things that don’t compare to a bloody clown jumping out at you with a chainsaw! But I can promise you the experience of walking through those woods is going to sit with you for a long time. Thinking back on it, it probably won’t even be that scary! But in that moment? When you were in the middle of those woods? Lost, confused… You were way more scared than when you were going through that Haunted House for 15 minutes.

It’s concepts like this that game designers don’t understand when it comes to making horror games anymore… ‘Haunted House’ experiences. That’s what I like to call modern horror games. While they are still horror games they are made to take you through the motions. The scares feel cheap and contrived. They are meant to scare you and you are meant to find them. But because of that, the game will never have a lasting impact on the player.

It really all comes down to the fact that most developers don’t have faith in the player anymore. And this is somewhat understandable. Why put all that effort into designing a great jump scare if the player isn’t ever going to find it? The answer is honestly pretty simple though. Just make sure the player doesn’t notice you are guiding them. Easier said than done of course, but all you really need to do is look to the past a little. Classic survival horror games already solved this problem ages ago.

While classic survival horror games may make the player feel like they have more freedom when it comes to where to go and what to do, they really don’t. In most cases there is still just one critical path. There’s a reason why in Silent Hill 80% of the doors in any given building have their locks destroyed. It’s to direct the player to the few doors they can open or require them to find a key to unlock. While it might be just as linear as any modern horror game it still gives the player the illusion that they have choice. And this does wonders for your scares! Now watching a Licker crawl across the window in Resident Evil 2 feels like your discovery even though that window is in front of the only door you can open when you get to the police station. Seeing Pyramid Head standing at the end of the hall in Silent Hill 2, just staring at you before you enter the door you came down that hall to check feels more like you are stumbling across him than the game designer guiding you down that hall even though that’s exactly what’s happening.

Level design goes a long way in making your scares feel way more organic. And those are the kinds of scares you want as they will sit with the player way longer than any other kind. I mean, there are even some games that aren’t designed as horror games that have long last scares because of this very reason. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Bloodborne or Control. Games I would not call horror games but can still be terrifying!

Beyond level design and guiding the player organically, the other major area I feel modern horror games are lacking in is combat. Or the lack there of. I think it all started with Amnesia: The Dark Descent… A great indie horror game that is sadly responsible for a lot of the pit falls of modern horror games. It was a smash hit when it first came out. Popularized through YouTube videos of people screaming as they played. It was honestly rather revolutionary! A first person horror game that was focused on puzzles and the fact that the player had no way of fighting back. At the time, this was a breath of fresh air. Now though? That description probably describes five different horror games that were released just last month…

This actually brings up a larger issue with modern horror game development. Once someone comes up with a new idea and shows that it’s popular, it’s run into the ground by other imitators. Looping back to Bloober Team, their break out game that put them on the map was Layers of Fear. A game that borrowed heavily from P.T. A demo for the now cancelled Silent Hills game. Namely it’s use of shifting space to throw off the player. A great scary concept that was sadly once again over used because it was popular. And the concept that developers took away from Amnesia? It’s lack of combat.

Now, like a lot of other things in modern horror games, on paper making it so the player can’t fight back against the monsters chasing them is scary. But what developers don’t seem to realize is the fact that you have to design your game around this. Meaning that just because the player can’t fight back doesn’t mean they can’t survive. As such, hiding places like lockers or under beds suddenly signal the player that there is going to be a threat here. Not only that, they have a very easy way to escape said threat because there has to be or that wouldn’t be fair and the player would feel rather cheated when they die.

Developers seem to think that the lack of fighting back automatically makes their game scary. That and it’s a lot less work to not have to design a combat system. But they don’t understand why it worked for Amnesia and not for them. Amnesia came out at the perfect time. There wasn’t another horror game like it. It’s lack of combat was fresh. Now? It’s a tired concept. But here’s the funny thing though. I don’t think a lack of combat is a bad thing. But it’s hard to have a lack of combat when there is no combat to begin with. This is why enemies like Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 and Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2 are so effective. They are basically unkillable enemies in a game where you can kill things. Suddenly, the player is feeling completely helpless as one of their options for dealing with a situation no longer works. And that’s where the fear really strikes! But it’s honestly impossible to have that sense of fear when you are meant to always feel helpless. Suddenly, feeling helpless is the norm. You get use to it. Helplessness is a fear you have to earn, you can’t just get it by default.

There is one other argument when it comes to having a lack of combat though. And that’s that combat in classic survival horror games was bad. And that’s completely correct, it was. But that’s not a bad thing. Once again, game designers don’t look passed the surface of something to see the real reason behind it. Games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have bad and clunky combat because combat wasn’t your only option. You were intensives to run away from a lot of encounters.

In Resident Evil‘s case, this was partly because ammo was so rare. See, this is where the ‘survival’ part of ‘survival horror’ comes from! The fear of running out of ammo and supplies is always hanging over your head in Resident Evil. Of course, this is mostly in the player’s head. By the end of the game they should have more ammo than they can carry and enough healing items to survive anything. But similar to what I was saying before when it came to giving the player freedom, it’s more about the illusion of it. Let the player feel scared on their own. Just telling them there is limited ammo will cause them more fear and stress than ten jump scares in any other game.

Silent Hill also shares some of this ammo fear but it gets most of it’s combat stress from just being clunky. And while in the original Silent Hill on the PS1 this was probably a limitation of the hardware, it was hard to argue that when it came to the PS2 era games. Then the clunky combat was apart of the design. Running from most monsters was the best option since you were bound to get hurt in most instances of combat.

Now is this unfair? Almost forcing the player to be ‘bad’ at the game? Yes. But because it makes for a scarier experience, it’s more than fine! Being forced to run away from a monster and running away from a monster out of choice, even if it is the better choice, are very different things. That tiny choice changes everything…

Of course, you could also try and make your combat actually scary but that is honestly the hardest option. The only game to come remotely close to achieving this probably being Fatal Frame. Given you have to use a camera to take pictures and fight the ghosts haunting you and to do more damage you have to let them get closer. A really cool system honestly that manages to sustain the scares! And yes, this is just me trying to get more people to pay attention to Fatal Frame, the series needs more love…

So what now? Should modern horror games just go back to their clunky classic survival horror beginnings? Well yes and no. On one hand, there is still very much an audience craving those classic survival horror feels. But it’s also possible to combine modern horror games with classic survival horror. The recent Resident Evil games are a great examples of that! Beyond that, I feel like the best thing for modern horror games to do is to stop chasing trends. Being original is the best thing you can do. Which is much easier said than done, but at least give it a try! It’ll be much more rewarding than making the sixth first person horror game about solving puzzles and having a lack of combat that was released last month…

But those are just my thoughts! What are some of yours? Are you a fan of horror games? Do you prefer the classics or more modern horror games? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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One response to “Modern Horror Games and the ‘Haunted House’ Problem”

  1. […] ended my last post on modern horror games by talking about how they should try and strive for more unique scares […]

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