Death and horror games: how failure may be the least scary thing a player has to face.

         I have to admit that I’m not really a huge fan of horror games. This is down solely to the fact that I am a HUGE scaredy cat: after playing a good horror game, I’m jumping at my own shadow for potentially days after, if there even are any shadows left after I’ve turned on every single light possible. While the cathartic feeling of fear-laden-adrenaline is one particular rush that I can appreciate, I’m not really the type to go actively seeking it too often. The only times I’ve really gone out of my way to get a horror game is when my brothers and I have collectively decided to do a play through together, which makes the actual horror much more manageable. One such outing was for Outlast, and now Outlast II.

The Outlast games are perfect examples of products that heavily benefited from the developers NOT trying to re-invent the wheel. They’re mostly just the standard horror affair of ‘run/hide from scary dudes’ that’s been a staple of horror games ever since Amnesia brought the practice back in 2010. But they don’t really feel any weaker just because they use a well trodden formula: instead they use it to make extremely polished and engaging experiences, even if they’re not necessarily the most innovative. Not to mention, they’re also clearly made by people who aren’t afraid to take the more disgusting and less used avenues in horror (these games have a LOT of necrophilia and child murder between them). For all of that, the developers at Red Barrels have my respect.

(Just a small tangent: how did a group of developers calling themselves ‘Red Barrels’ end up making horror games? Like, don’t get me wrong, the Outlast games are some damn effective horror games, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but ‘Red Barrels’ is the name I’d associate with some kind of action or shooter developer. The group definitely make a valiant effort at re-contextualising the meaning in their logo spot on Outlast 2’s opening, by having blood run into a groove shaped like a barrel, hence giving the name a horror twist. Even then, it’s defiantly an odd one.)

There is one point that I noticed though, as we crept through Outlast 2’s disturbing Jonestown-esque environments. For one, that old woman with a pickaxe is god damn terrifying, holy crap. The other more pressing realization is that actually being caught by the things that are chasing you is weirdly not that scary. You creep around for tens of agonising minutes, tensing whenever a muttering cultist wanders past, ducking into barrels of water that threaten to drown you just so you can be out of sight for a few seconds. Alternatively, you get spotted and you run as fast as you humanly can to be out reach of your pursuers, your breath getting heavier and heavier as your steps slow and their own start to speed up. And after all of that, when they finally catch you, it’s…oddly anti-climactic.

Don’t get me wrong, watching Blake (the main protagonist) get his nadgers cleaved off with a pick is always painful, but I feel all the tension wash out of me when the screen finally fades to black. This then risks what is basically a dying cycle: you can’t figure out how to progress, and get stuck repeatedly dying while you try to figure out just where the hell you’re supposed to run to, making the whole chase more of a chore. There’s a good example of this problem in the very first meeting with Marta. She is guaranteed to see you, and is standing directly in a narrow passage, blocking you from your objective. It’s easy enough to double back and run in a circle around a shed, meaning you can evade her long enough to move forward. The only problem is that the only way to escape from there is to crawl under a small gap in a wall, something that isn’t amazingly easy to spot while you’re running for your life. Since this is early in the game, and the player most likely hasn’t learned to hide in the barrels and tall grass, a lot of players are going struggle to find the critical path without dying at least a few times.

The threat of death and harm is one of the key concepts to horror games. Regardless of your background or character, nearly everyone in existence would rather avoid dying, especially if that death is a painful one. A huge number of classic horror conventions are only effective because they make the perceiver worried there might be some kind of threat waiting around the next corner. This is why the rustling of bushes freaks you, why the darkness is so foreboding, and why you want to be as far from the crazy axe swinging murderer as possible.

…Well, that last goes without saying…

While I think horror needs something beyond that to be truly unnerving (the physical horror of Lovecraft’s ‘Old Ones’ is second to the sheer existential questions and dread they create), there’s no doubt that the fear of dying is an important one for horror products. However, since these are video games, you need to actually be able to make good on that threat, otherwise the game would simply play itself. The only problem is, dying gives you a forced break from all of the terrifying atmosphere and tension. And when Blake is returned safe and sound when the checkpoint is reloaded, we remember that failure only has minimal consequences.

This is why dying repeatedly is a complete antithesis of making something scary: it’s a jarring reminder that you’re sitting safely in your home, just playing a video game. You’re not actually being chased by some horrific monster, and being caught has no real consequence to you. At most, the only consequence is that being caught wastes your time, since you’ll need to re-do the section you’re playing. This is kind of a big issue, since the whole point of a horror game is to be scary. Even worse, this is something that will be pretty heavily affected by the player’s own skill, since a player with better reactions will die less, which helps to avoid this problem, but there’s no way to 100% ensure the player doesn’t run into this problem.

It’s not like the Outlast games are the only horror games that suffer from this: Little Nightmare’s deaths are all vividly disturbing, as highlighted by this ‘delightful’ trailer, but getting stuck on a sequence and watching them over and over would eventually tire everyone out. Even P.T., which was pants crappingly horrifying, suffered a little from this when the final corridor becomes obtuse as hell with no clear idea of how to advance. While that one hallway now has a permanent spot in my waking nightmares, so too does the frustration at wandering down it with nothing happening for ages. Although, considering that it was made by Kojima, it’s possible that was the intended reaction.

This is something that horror developers need to be careful of, and maybe even plan around. Admittedly, keeping it so something is challenging and tense but not too difficult or obscure is a delicate balance to maintain. One key solution that Outlast II itself employs is to make sure that the player knows what the overall objective is in the current area before putting the patrolling threats in the area. A good example of this is when you have to push a cart up to a gate so you can climb over it. The area is completely devoid of threats before you find both the gate and the cart, which also gives you a chance to scout around the area for good hiding spots. This means that when Marta inevitably appears out of (or hacking through) the woodwork, the player has enough clear directions to what they actually need to do. If she had been present while the player had just been scouting around the area, it would have been much more aggravating to get anything done.

Another trick that Outlast II uses is one that’s a pretty common tactic across all of gaming, namely that you can guide the player’s eye using light. This is most obvious during the game’s many chase sequences, where in your path will nearly always have a bright source of light in or near it, making it much easier to tell which direction you have run in even in a split second. While this technique is pretty prevalent across gaming as a whole, the effect is especially pronounced here thanks to the deep and foreboding shadows that seem dominate this entire game.

Of course, even these don’t always save the player from an untimely death, nor always help to avoid several deaths in a row, again mostly because there’s no way to fully guess how skilful the player is or isn’t going to be. Indeed, this might be a problem with no solution, just methods of minimising how badly it is.

I would be fascinated to see a game that tries to directly eliminate this problem, to make failing in a horror setting just as scary as the chase, but until then I’ll have to try and stop panicking when some git with a hatchet jumps and tries to murder my ass.

2 thoughts on “Death and horror games: how failure may be the least scary thing a player has to face.

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