Outlast 2 has recently been released and has spurred a lot of discussions around not giving the protagonist any means to fight back. I haven't played enough of the game to be able to give an overall impression of it (I'm just 30 minutes or so in), but I think I've seen enough to weigh in on the discussion. We at Frictional have been knee deep in this problem since 2006, and I've been up against the problem myself ever since I made my first hobby horror game in early 2000. This is something I've been thinking about for almost 20 years, and hence something I have a strong opinion about.
The discussions around weaponless protagonists is often focused on horror games. It's really a question that concerns narrative games in general, though, and isn't just about what sort of horror you want. It's really about what sort of approach you want to take to storytelling. It also has a lot to do with my recent post on mental models, which makes this a good time to go into it.
Let's start with the main reasons why you would want a game with a defenseless protagonist. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it brings up the most important reasons.
1. It makes the player assume the appropriate story role
To someone with only a hammer, every problem will look like a nail. The same is true for the tools that we give to a player. The actions that we let the player use informs them about the role they are supposed to play within the game. It's really hard to make the player feel like a detective if they never get to do any actual detecting.
Why is this the case? Because the way we interact with the world around us is via a mental model. This mental model is built from a network of connected attributes, all having do with the various aspects of our world. When taken together this gives us a sense of how the world behaves and what we are dealing with. So when we see a character looking for clues in a crime scene, interviewing witnesses and trying to piece together evidence, it'll point towards the idea that this person is trying to solve a crime. This creates a strong belief that the character is indeed a detective. If we are simply told a character is a detective but only see him chopping wood it is really hard to take the first statement seriously. You will never model this character as a detective. No matter how many times you tell me that a pile of sharp glass is a chair, I will not perceive it as one. It simply lacks any of the attributes that I associate with things that are chairs.
In the same way, in order for the player to feel like they are inside a horror story they need to have access to the actions of the protagonist of a horror story. In horror the protagonist is supposed to be vulnerable, uncertain, and out of their depth, and to get this across to the player you need to restrict their available actions to support this. A really simple way to do this is to simply skip any means of fighting back. Sure, you can always make weapons less effective in the game, but the moment you give them any sort of weapon it's likely to awaken deeply rooted mental models in the player. We humans are really good at generalizing and unconsciously judge many situations on the first pieces of evidence we can get our hands on. So when you introduce a weapon in a horror game, the player will view the game as one where the primary action is combat and then by assumption add a variety of other attributes to the experience. This is something we experienced firsthand when making Penumbra: Overture where player would even treat an old broom as a potential weapon.
2. It make monsters feel like threats
Just as the actions at your disposal informs your role, so do your interactions inform what sort of world you are in. If the player's main action is to shoot down monsters, the monsters become target practice. Again this is mental modeling. Just like we determine something to be a chair by determining its shape, how well it can be used for sitting, and so forth, we also evaluate any dangers by what attributes we can assign to them. When "thing that I shoot to generate fun gameplay" becomes a strong attribute for a monster, a lot of the horror is lost.
If, instead, monsters are things that the player interacts with only by running away and hiding from them, the mental model becomes quite different. You start to draw connections to other things that you would run away from, and this jacks much better into your primal fear response. The monster is no longer a game object connected to a core combat loop. Instead it becomes an unknown entity that you have no means to fight. This makes a huge difference to how the player perceives the threat.
3. It leaves more to the imagination
Another problem with being able to fight any creature is that this requires many close up encounters. You need to aim at the creatures, see feedback of them being hit and so forth. Most importantly, in order for this gameplay to work you need to have lots of actual confrontations. This goes against one of the most important rules in horror: leave the monsters as vague as possible.
When your gameplay doesn't rely on combat, it's much easier to keep the monster out of sight. When you are running and hiding, the monster doesn't really need to be visible at all. You can just rely on the player seeing quick glimpses, hearing sounds, watching a motion tracker and so on in order to sustain the gameplay. This gives a lot more room for the player's imagination, and allows them to conjure up far scarier monsters than what could be rendered using polygons.
4. It makes the player paranoid
Checking how much ammo you have left, thinking about what gun to have available, planning for ammo usage, looking for items and so on - all of these are activities that the player constantly has on their mind when playing a shooter. And all of these take up mental resources that could have been used for other things instead. It's very important to know that the player has a limited amount of focus and whenever you tell the player to give something their attention, something else will have less attention. Remember this as a designer: whenever you say yes to something, you say no to something else.
What this means is that when you remove any form of combat, the player has a lot of mental focus to spare. In fact, many players will have too much. This almost leaves the player is a state of sensory deprivation. The outcome of that is that they start to pay a lot of attention to small details. It makes players more paranoid, more prone to invent reasons for small sounds and so on. This is an extremely good state in which to play horror. It's also something you lose if you give the player too much else to think about. We noticed this ourselves in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, where many levels where made better by giving the player less to do. This encouraged them to fantasize more and gave the unintuitive result of increasing their engagement,
5. It makes it harder to optimize away emotions
A combat system is something that the player often has played hundreds of hours of before. Sometimes much, much more. There are lots of well-known tactics for dealing with encounters, and players often come with a huge instinctual toolset on how to bypass various dangers. What this means is that there is ample opportunity for the player to figure out ways to beat the monsters. In turn, this means that the monsters lose their core attribute, to be horrible threats, and instead just become standard gameplay objects.
It's much harder to do this in a game without combat. When you don't have a set loop that the player uses to interact with the game's world, it becomes much harder to figure out underlying systems and to optimize. This means that the player has to rely more on their imagination to make a mental model of the world and its inhabitants. If the systems that drive the monsters are obscure, you have to think of them as living, breathing creatures and this greatly heightens any emotions that you associate with them.
Of course, if you use non-combat oriented gameplay in the wrong way, you will fall into the same trap. This is something I'll go over in a bit.
6. It is a great design constraint
As I noted before, games are often too much fun for their own good. This is most certainly true for combat. In fact, combat is probably the most common core mechanic in games. It's really easy to come up with engaging ways for you to do it. So the moment that you decide that you will have combat, it makes it so much simpler to come up with engaging scenarios for a game. This means that you are very likely to overuse combat and to drop focus on the narrative you are trying to convey.
When plot dictates that the player has to go through a sewer, how should we make this section engaging? With combat this answer is easy: just add some monsters and have the player fight them. Problem solved! You see this over and over in games that use combat, especially horror games. Even though it is clear that the focus ought to be on delivering a certain end experience, there are tons of areas that, by being satisfied with just having simple combat, counteract this goal.
If you don't have combat, you don't have this option. If your basic gameplay is just running and hiding, it's actually quite the opposite: your core mechanics are not much fun. This means that you need to think of ways to vary them, you need to be careful when to use them and there need to be other activities involved. This forces you to avoid any easy solutions. Simply relying on "add some monsters for the player to encounter" will not work in the long run. It will soon become very tiresome to play the game, because you are relying gameplay that is, at its core, not engaging enough to be the driving force of the experience.
That concludes the list of the most important reasons why a defenseless protagonist is really good to have in a horror game. Now I will go over a few common counter-arguments, and respond to them.
Claim 1: "Without combat, the game becomes boring"
I think this is both true and untrue.
It's true in the sense that in order to get the player to experience certain things, such as the paranoia that comes with sensory deprivation, your game simply cannot be too much fun. This is how narrative works in other media as well. Certain experiences cannot simply be made into a super-engaging package. There needs to be a certain level of "boredom" for it all to work. The experience as a whole must of course be engaging, but not every game can have the moment-to-moment excitement like something like Doom.
It is untrue in the sense that we haven't yet seen what can be done without having combat. Many people simply compare the current state of games with defenseless protagonists to the current state of games with combat, and then take this as how it will always be. I think there's a lot that can be done in order to make interesting defenseless horror, or other narrative experiences for that matter, and still have a level of "gaminess" on par with that of a shooter. The problem is that combat gameplay comes naturally and has had 40 years to evolve; gameplay without combat is much harder and has had much less time to evolve.
I have to admit that I am growing quite bored with the standard "run and hide"-gameplay. I think it can work when used in short bursts, but it's far from an ideal solution. We need to think harder and dig deeper in order to improve gameplay for horror and other narrative games. That is basically what this whole blog is about and something Frictional Games is investing heavily in. This is uncharted territory and there is huge room for improvement.
Claim 2: "No combat leads to lots of trial and error"
If you look like a game like Outlast 2, this is certainly true. There are a bunch of sections where you have to replay over and over in order to continue. This all boils down to Outlast 2 using the "run and hide"-gameplay as a foundational element of the game, and it's interesting to discuss why this must give rise to so much trial and error.
The first reason is that it is very hard to have a good analog feedback system. In a game with combat it's much easier to have stats for things like health and ammo which you can vary during an encounter and use as feedback. But in a game where you are trying to not get caught, the situation is much more binary. You either get caught or you don't. So the moment you need to give the player the feedback that they are "not playing correctly" that usually means killing them off, and forcing them to start over again.
The second reason is the fact that player failure means death and restart. This doesn't have to be the case. Few things break our immersion as much as having to replay the same section over and over. In fact, in order keep a level of presence you are almost obliged to make sure this never happens. Every time you pull the player out of the experience, you break the illusion and force them to build up the fantasy from (almost) scratch again. Player death is a huge problem in narrative games, and despite this, very few games try to deal with it.
Again this is something I think that has lots of room for improvement. It is also something that we at Frictional Games are trying to solve in both of our upcoming games. The goal is to have an experience where you never see a "Game Over" scene, yet feel a strong sense of being able to fail and is very anxious about not letting that occur. This is not an easy challenge, but it is also one with huge potential. Staying immersed and feeling your actions have consequences are big reasons why interactive storytelling is so interesting, and even small improvements can come have great impact.
Claim 3: "Not having combat is unrealistic"
This claim is highly dependant on what sort of experience you are trying to create. Sure, if you are doing a videogame version of Aliens or Deep Rising, it's a great fit. But as I have outlined in this ancient blog post, there are many different ways in which combat is featured in horror movies. If you want to do a videogame version of The Exorcist then combat will play a much smaller role - probably none. Most of the time, weapons are there as a last line of defense for the protagonist(s). From that angle it makes sense that you should have at least have some form of defense. But you also have to consider all of the negative aspects, many of which I listed earlier, that come along with having combat. If a horror story should "realistically" let the protagonist use a weapons in two or three places, then it might make more sense to try and make these places go away somehow.
Another way to approach this is to have combat in ways that doesn't imply your standard combat mechanics. Weapons could be puzzle items that the player have to be careful about when they use them. It's also possible to use the environment as a means of defense. The point I'm trying to make here is that it's possible to retain a sense of realism without reverting to full-blown combat mechanics.
Either way, I think the most important question to ask is: "What is the best way to achieve the intended experience?". If combat is the best way, even if you take all of the downsides into account, then by all means go in guns blazing!
Most of these discussions have centered around horror games, but really most of these things apply to any narrative game. It's not just horror games that strive to keep the player's imagination going or want to avoid players that optimize away emotions. These are foundational issues for any game that wants to try and tell a story. The problem of not being able to rely on an engaging set of core mechanics is also something that goes beyond horror games.
Thinking about why we want a defenseless protagonist in the first place and then figuring out means to make it better feels like a really important question to me. It connects to many of the core issues that face a game that wants to focus on narrative, and any improvements are bound to be helpful to interactive storytelling in general.
Next week I will present a system that will allow us to more easily think about these issues, and will hopefully also make it easier to find solutions.