This is a successor to another article I wrote which analyzed the combat of Silent Hill Downpour, and how it was a good system that the player was trained on poorly. To dig even deeper at the issue in combat in survival horror, I’ve picked three games that excel at maintaining a scary atmosphere while giving the player adequate means of defense, to see if we can’t figure out how to create a system that’s both scary yet user friendly.
Keep in mind—Resident Evil and Silent Hill are not on this list. While I love both series (and Silent Hill 2 is still one of my favorites of all time) neither has ever had great combat, and when combat was tweaked in Resident Evil it lost the scare factor.
Anyway, let’s see if we can’t figure this out.
Often considered the scariest of last-gen’s survival horror greats, one complaint you never really hear about Fatal Frame is with its combat. It’s not sluggish, nor does it rely on poor controls to hamper you (it switches to a first-person set-up when you bring the camera to your face). So how does it manage to have a good combat system while remaining scary?
The answer lies in two things:
The system is, quite frankly, brilliant. Because ghosts don’t really take damage if you snap a shot of them while they’re far away, you must wait for them to get closer to you. But at the same time, their erratic movements coupled with their tendency to phase in and out of existence makes it hard for you to zero in on them. Lastly, the slow reaction time of your character means that if you fail the shot, you’re going to take damage, because you can’t avoid ghosts at such a close range. All of these elements combine together to get your heartbeat racing, as combat in Fatal Frame is really more about timing and opportunity than anything. And as opportunity grows, so does the threat.
So what can we take away from this system? Well, you shouldn’t be able to fight your enemies at a distance, for one. All that does is diminish the scare factor, as confrontation is only scary when you are at your most vulnerable. There should also be a bigger risk/reward to combat than running. Combat may eliminate a foe, but it will be much more difficult to do so. Conversely, leaving an area will get you past an enemy easier, but they can come back for you later. Lastly, you should be at your most vulnerable when fighting, and never have a position of strength.
For the purposes of this article, I’m only talking about the original, as I believe the sequel adds elements to the combat system that diminish the fear factor, in addition to being generally batshit crazy.
Seriously, remember when you gain the ability to scream people’s heads off?
Anyway, the first Condemned is a pretty scary game, with a combat system that is primarily based around hand-to-hand (or bat-to-wooden plank) beatdowns. How does it straddle the line between giving the player power while keeping them afraid?
The simplicity of the combat is one of the reasons it’s scary. It’s you—a slow, fairly weak man—swinging wildly with whatever makeshift weapon you can find. The sequel added more combos and finishers, which strengthened your fighting ability, yet diminished the fear factor. In addition, there was significantly more gunplay in the second game, which only occurs in brief spurts in the original. And because you have less control in the first, combat is a much more nerve-wracking situation.
Similarities between this and Fatal Frame? A few. The most obvious is that both games require you to get extremely close to your enemies in order to kill them, thus ratcheting up the risk/tension. The next is that your character isn’t particularly adept at dodging, and can easily be taken by surprise. Lastly, both games contain relatively simple combat systems. In Fatal Frame, you point and shoot, merely saving up more damage film stock for harder foes. In Condemned, you wack at enemies, grabbing the most powerful weapon you can find in your current environment. And once again, enemy behavior is hard to predict—sometimes they’ll rush, sometimes they’ll sneak up on you, and sometimes they’ll wait for you to come to them.
It’s this simplicity that really aids in scaring players. When you make a combat system too complex—dodges, counters, myriads of attacks—it gives the player too much control, diminishing their fear.
3. Alone in the Dark: Inferno
Yes, this is definitely a controversial choice. Keep in mind I’m talking about the PS3 version, which had significant improvements made in nearly all areas of the game from the abysmal 360 release. While still not a masterpiece, it’s a fun ride filled with some fascinating game ideas that could be put to good use. While not truly scary, the combat was generally frantic and tense, and it goes about creating this tension in a completely different way than the previous two examples.
Alone in the Dark’s combat is not close-quarters, but designed far more around item management and player creativity while having to deal with large groups. Most horror games only allow you to either fight or run from your enemies, but with Alone in the Dark’s system, you can set up barricades of fire, distract them, or use their own groupings against them. In limiting the player’s arsenal, he’s forced to come up with unique ways of eliminating enemies, and under time pressure.
An example of my own playthrough is I reached a point where the only things I had on me were a lighter, a knife, and a flashlight. I hi-jacked a car to get to my next destination, and when I arrived I could see a group of 6 enemies scattered all along the outside of the building. I looked around—no rags, no bottles, nothing. How was I going to get past them?
Wait…could I…? No, there’s no way it would let me do that…
I walked over to the gas tank, pulled out my knife, then stabbed it. A trail of gas began to leak.
I got back in the car and floored it, diving out at the last second. It crashed into the building, knocking over 2 baddies. I ran over to the line of gasoline and used my lighter. The trail of fire went straight to the car and blew it up, killing every enemy outside.
There are certain things to note in this combat system. As it’s mainly designed for long range fighting, you’re vulnerable when enemies get up close. However, fighting enemies at a distance isn’t scary, so to balance the equation, you have a very limited amount of supplies and are never sure if you’re going to run out in the middle of a fight and have to haul ass out of there. More surprising is the fact that even with all of these options, combat is not complex. You don’t have multiple guns, weapon types, enemy varieties, etc—you merely need to make fire for every enemy, and how you do that is up to you.
From these three games, there are several basic horror design rules that can be discerned.
Why did I add that last point? Well, I just finished “I Am Alive” the other day, and even though it uses many of these rules, it fails to have scary combat because you can never actually avoid it. In fact, there’s a lot I’d like to discuss about that game, but I’ll save that for next week.
In the meantime, what do you think about these principles?