This is a cross post from here: http://guilelessmonk.tumblr.com/
The conflict between horror and RPG come down to simply what they are about, horror is about powerlessness and RPGs are about empowerment. Horror games rely heavily on atmospheric elements to instil fear but without gameplay elements to reinforce them a game can’t maintain that fear. When the main element in the gameplay revolves around growth and empowerment, the enemies aren’t unstoppable forces that you run away from in terror, they are just problems to solve. The game series that best shows how these elements work against each other is Resident Evil, as Resident Evil stopped being a horror series when it added RPG elements into it (in force) in Resident Evil 4.
This isn’t, by the way, going to be me talking about what a bad game RE4 is. In fact not only is it great it is one of my all time favorites. It just isn’t a horror game like the previous instalments of the series. Luckily the designers realized they weren’t making a horror game and adapted a lot of the game’s elements to fit this new feel. They changed the fixed camera position to a third person position which made aiming easier, they increased the number of collectables in game (while files being strewn about the levels for people to find was always a mainstay of the series in RE4 they added things like blue medallions to further reward players for exploration), and most notably they gave the player a shop where they could actually chose how they wanted to fight the enemies.
Horror games (Amnesia, Slender) tend to not focus on fighting enemies as they try to portray them as unstoppable forces we are powerless to stop. Rather the gameplay is focused on escaping/hiding from them, hiding is especially powerful as you know that you are powerless to do anything if they find you and are completely dependent on the enemies mistakes instead of your action. RE4 is the first Resident Evil game to have the main character be proactive and initiate the story. He wasn’t going about his daily life only to be swept up in forces beyond his control, he was a special agent sent to rescue the president’s daughter from cultists. He knew he was going into a bad situation, and he went into it armed (not heavily but still armed). The movie analogy for this game isn’t horror but thriller.
It is a fine line between the two, Psycho is listed as one of the best horror and thriller movies, but but in games I think the distinction is more clear in that a horror game won’t have pronounced RPG elements while a thriller will. The thriller game seeks to create a constant, inescapable tension and will often use things like a horror atmosphere or traps to make the player feel like they could die at any moment.. Resident Evil 4 even tried to maintain this tension in cutscenes by occasionally forcing you to have to do quick time events in them. The Dead Space series and the Demon/Dark Soul series also sought to create this feel of inescapability, and even made menus in game so that when they wanted you to feel tense and scared there was no way to stop the game and give yourself a second to collect yourself.
The fact that the player was expected to be able to handle the fights and not have to run away from everyone changed they way the game felt, it turned into a tactical game. The player had too much control over his environment to feel helpless terror. Sparse ammo and health drops, the distance between save points, the fact you had to keep Ashley (the truly helpless one) alive; these elements were all aimed at making you feel like you are constantly on the edge of death. But unlike a horror game you are expected to feel in control of whether you die or not. You are suppose to be constantly ready, but to fight and not flee.
That is not to say that the game didn’t have legitimate horror moments, but it was only able to achieve them by removing the RPG elements. When you first fight a Regenerator you assume they are again just a bigger zombie that you have to kill. You shoot them a couple times and they go down, but they get back up. They get back up over and over again. The game removes fighting as an option and forces you to run from something that you can’t kill. All the weapon leveling you have done to give yourself the best pistol is suddenly null and void and the game becomes legitimately scary because running is your only option. The second you find out how to kill them they just become another enemy for you to kill, just one with an annoying mechanic.