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The Unrealistic Solution of Klutzy Combat in Horror Games
by Josh Bycer on 04/20/12 05:15:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It's been awhile since my last horror game related post. Over the years I've covered a lot of areas relating to horror game design and I wish there were more titles out there for me to analyze. Today's topic goes into a little more detail about a point I mentioned in the post about making manly men cry. Combat is one of those tricky areas when designing horror titles. If it's too much of a focus, then the game becomes an action title, not enough and it comes off as poorly implemented.

On one end of the scale we have titles like Dead Space 2 where the player becomes a walking armory. On the other end, titles like Silent Hill or the recently failed horror title: Amy which featured tank like controls and awkward combat. For this post I'm going to ignore titles without combat like Amnesia: The Dark Decent as I talked about it in the post detailing fight or flight in horror game design.

The point of contention with combat is that designers want the player to feel like they're controlling an everyday person. This is how they rationalize poor control schemes that mostly get in the way. My issue with this is that they're still creating unrealistic characters by trying to impose their sense of realism.

Many horror games take place over the course of several days, I would expect if someone had nothing but a lead pipe to defend themselves with. They should get acclimated to the pipe and swing it better over time. Then you have characters that use the most grandiose and worse way to use a weapon. If someone is using a blunt weapon, swinging it from side to side is not as useful as an overhead swing. I know that I'm not the strongest or smartest guy around, but if I have a knife and there is a crazy, monstrous sob coming at me, I'm aiming for the effing head every chance I get.

Going back to the second paragraph, there needs to be a balance between how powerful the player should be. The challenge of getting it right is why in my opinion; a lot of developers like to create horror games without any combat. The problem is that without combat, you lose the notion of "fight or flight" neutering the design. Combat should be involved enough that the player feels like their input is having an effect, but at the same time it can't be the first, last and best answer to every situation.

I don't want a six button combo system in a horror game, nor do I want to just hit one button and watch the same animation play out each time. One of my favorite combat systems is still from the Condemned series. As they made the player feel powerful but still made combat chaotic. The challenge is that even if the designer makes a compelling combat system that can still get in the way of the horror.

If the player is made to be all powerful from the start, or get that way over the course of the game, it can marginalize the horror aspect. That's why you either want to mix up the types of enemies the player fights, or design situations where violence isn't the best answer.

While I was at GDC I attended the post mortem on Alone in the Dark. One area that the designer talked about was how he wanted puzzle solving and thinking to be on the forefront, while combat is the last ditch solution. Many fodder enemies existed which had to be dealt with by force, but there were more situations requiring puzzle solving instead of combat. Interestingly enough, while there were guns in the game.There was so little ammo that it made the weapons used more for emergency situations.

I've yet to play a really scary horror game in some time. Fatal Frame 3 basically scared the fear out of me and I haven't been bothered by horror games since. I keep hearing how so many people couldn't finish Amnesia because it scared them while I just breezed through it. I would like to see a horror game designed around randomization of events and enemies to see how terrifying that would make the experience. And I started thinking about a game idea on that very note.

While the heart of any good horror game is a combination of puzzle solving and exploration, there must be conflict and danger or all we have is a moody adventure game. On the flip side, too much action and we have an action game that slows down for light puzzle solving time after time. Balance and a specific design vision are required to create a game that will scare the hell out of people playing it.

Josh Bycer

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Douglas Lynn
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The point on randomiztion is quite good. Randomization produces surprise, and surprise in the right context creates shock (and/or fear). One of the issues with it, though, is that, like anything else, it needs to be practiced in moderation. To generate a tense, frightening environment, there needs to be enough randomness to keep the player on alert, but not so much as to be frustrating and overly-confusing.

Strangely enough, I find that in video games, one part of the fear element actually comes out of expectation. Surprise is good for keeping players on their toes, but there's also something to be said for something scary to happen just when and where you expect it to. If you walk into a room with a dark corner, a big part of you knows that something is going to suddenly jump out at you from that corner. When it finally does, you've pumped yourselfself up for it so much that you almost panic. It's something completely expected, but still shocking.

Technically, I suppose a level of randmness is still at play. You know what's going to happen and where, but the high level of anticipation skews your perception of time. You don't have a good sense of the exact moment when that big reveal will occur. If done properly, the jump will occur exactly when you first start to think, "Maybe it won't happen."

So unexpectedness is a big part of the fear game, but there's also a lot to be said for careful regulation. Controlled chaos may be the term I'm looking for here. If the environmental factors are properly executed, there's no need for a "more realistic" (clunky) combat setup to drive up the fear factor, save for the power balance. Combat design should still follow the rules of efficiency and logic - the main element of fear comes out of level design and scripting.

At least, that's my interpretation.

Josh Bycer
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"Strangely enough, I find that in video games, one part of the fear element actually comes out of expectation. Surprise is good for keeping players on their toes, but there's also something to be said for something scary to happen just when and where you expect it to. If you walk into a room with a dark corner, a big part of you knows that something is going to suddenly jump out at you from that corner. When it finally does, you've pumped yourselfself up for it so much that you almost panic. It's something completely expected, but still shocking."

That buildup is definitely important for any horror title. It also helps differentiate between an action title and a horror title. If you're fighting enemies every 5 seconds, then there is no build up and you lose that tension. But if the next enemy could come anywhere between the next 3 to 5 minutes from any direction, then that's a different story.

However, while that delayed reaction is important, there must be an eventual release of that build up or all that tension is lost. In FEAR, because the designers split the horror and combat from each other, you know that when things get scary that there is no danger to the player. Because of that, all that buildup goes nowhere and the moment is lost.If anyone is interested in more thoughts about horror games. A series I wrote on both my favorite horror titles and a look at horror game design is up on the site (the link is too big to fit in the comments section)
It's an 8 part series with part 3 going up tomorrow I believe.

Eric Schwarz
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I've never enjoyed poor controls in horror games no matter what justifications. The fact is that controls are the base way we interact with a game, and by having poor controls you are straining that relationship between player and game on a very fundamental level.

Game difficulty, challenge, tension etc. should come from the rules of the game and the scenarios the player is in, not by giving them handicaps that are annoying to work with. There are just too many ways to create the same feelings without having to resort to intentionally poor controls. A few:

1) Limited resources
2) Low health
3) Low movement speed relative to enemies
4) Maze-like level design that makes the player feel trapped
5) Sound effects
6) Creepy shadows and indistinct visuals

There's another problem with bad controls: they violate players' perceptions of their own abilities. Generally, we are capable of a variety of feats - running quickly with reasonable precision and distance, moving precisely, throwing objects somewhat accurately, etc. Regardless of whether or not the "average person" can really do these things, we think we can. When our in-game avatars are bumbling and incompetent, the barrier between player and game is suddenly taller than ever before.

Luis Guimaraes
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The challenges horror games face now and will keep dealing with in the short future are expectations problems. The whole design of this genre has to account for it as a first importance design problem. Words like "klutzy combat", "clumsy controls", "backtracking", "artificial handicaps", must all be avoided, as words and perceptions, in a way that the benefits of their true related mechanics remain strong.

While some goals of these mechanics are artificially achieved or resulting effects of technical limitations, their benefits are strong for the genre and can be replicated with design solutions that avoid those bad perceptions.