Why horror isn't always scarier with weapons

Wrote this in response to Why Horror is Scarier With Weapons found here: https://youtu.be/alepXw5Cl9Q

(which is a great video you should all watch)

Figured that it's long and involved enough to post here as well.  Also because YOutube refuses to let me post it on the video itself. 

I think it's a compelling theoretical argument. Weapons and what they bring to the table can enhance horror, and there are definitely examples of this working. Condemned, System Shock 2, Resident Evil, and Shadow of Chernobyl definitely spring to mind.  That said...

First, a slightly off-topic point regarding Amnesia and the whole "it's scary because you can't fight back" thing. That's certainly what a lot of people think and that's certainly what I thought back in the day, but in light of all the Amnesia clones that have come since I don't think it's actually true.

(Obvious disclaimer being that "scary" is incredibly subjective)

I firmly believe, and I think you'd agree, that "horror" only works in the context created by and/or alongside the cultivation of "terror." Which is to say that nothing is frightening unless the time/gameplay/narrative/what have you surrounding it makes it frightening. Specifically, the player has to be in the right state of mind, and making an effective horror game is about doing everything possible to put them there. There are different ways and philosophies of doing this. I try to do it through narrative. Frictional games tries to do it by tricking the player's brain into thinking of their in-game persona as themselves, and feeling/reacting accordingly (Thomas Grip's written blogs about this if you're interested in reading more).

You said a few days ago that the opening to Amnesia is boring. And sure, it's uneventful, I'll give you that. I think it worked a lot better back before actual threats in indie horror games were the exception rather than the rule. But the point is that it's taking time to let all Frictional's little immersion details do their work, so that by the time you encounter the first monster you're connected enough to your in-game avatar to feel genuinely terrified for your safety.

I have issues with this approach, and it certainly doesn't work on everybody.  But I think it's important to recognize why a game does work for some people.  In the case of Amnesia, I don't think it has anything to do with the lack of weapons.  It's down to the "feedback loop" approach to immersion and whether or not you're affected by it.

Ok, on to the actual point of this video.

As usual, I think you've got a very well-thought-out argument here with a lot of good points.  However, my problem is the whole thing seems to come from an assumption that the only horror games worth considering are a) lengthy gameplay-focused affairs that are priced accordingly, and/or b) involve frequent contact with tangible threats.  Something which probably wouldn't bother me as much if you hadn't said things in the past that suggest you have a complete disregard for horror other than "monsters are attacking me and there are dismembered corpses everywhere."

I mean, I could write pages about why I disagree and why I actually believe that narrative-focused horror is potentially even stronger than gameplay-focused horror.  But optimal approach to horror is a different subject than what defines horror, in the same way that optimal videogame narration is a different subject than what defines a videogame.  I'll just say that there are horrifying things in the world other than blood, guts, and immediate danger--something you'll find plenty of examples of in both film and literature.  I think they provide a compelling enough argument for experimenting with interactive horror as more than just a primal fear "fight/flight" simulator.

For the sake of time, let's just assume you recognize narrative-driven horror as legitimate horror (or put more bluntly, you recognize that Edgar Allen Poe and Lovecraft existed).  This complicates the discussion a little bit, because now we're not just talking about how you make an NPC monster frightening, and how to maintain that experience over dozens of hours.  We also have situations where maybe there's no tangible threat involved for the majority of the narrative.  Or maybe the horror doesn't involve a tangible threat at all.  Probably in a game that isn't much longer than the runtime of a typical movie.  How you make that sort of thing work in the context of a videogame is a different topic, and something I'm still struggling to figure out.  But my point is that these are the situations where I feel having a weapon and gameplay mechanics involving that weapon can be really detrimental.

My game A Wolf in Autumn is a Lynch-influenced story about a little girl's troubled psyche and relationship with her mother.  There's an implied threat, but for the most part it's focused on a more abstract form of both terror and horror.  Now I'm not going to say it completely worked--as the creator I don't think I'm in any position to judge that.  But I think adding a shotgun and some psyche-themed enemies to kill would have detracted from the actual point of the story.

Or, take Scratches as another example: an adventure game about gradually uncovering the Lovecraftian secret of an old house.  It would collapse in on itself if you actually encountered some sort of ancient evil during the course of the game, let alone if you fought one.

On a closely-related note, I also have a problem with your view of the relationship between horror and terror, especially in regards to "a lot of horror games fail because they have too much terror and not enough horror" (horrible paraphrased quote there).  Don't get me wrong, they interact and that interaction is important.  But while I agree that terror compliments horror (to the point that I don't believe horror exists without the proper terror context), I also believe that horror undermines terror.

More about that in a minute,  First thing's first... I completely disagree that the ineffective horror games are the ones that focus on terror over horror.  In fact, I firmly believe the opposite.  The games that get under my skin are the ones that prioritize terror over horror.  The games that don't do anything for me are, almost without fail, the ones that prioritize horror over terror.  Because without terror, horror stops being effective beyond the initial shock.

Outlast is a perfect example of this, where it relies on perversity and grotesque brutality so much and so often that after 10-15 minutes you're jaded to just about anything the game can throw at you.  Erring on the opposite side of things, there's a little indie game called Home that does pretty well at cultivating a sense of mystery and terror throughout, but fails to provide appropriate payoff leading to an ultimately disappointing experience.  The difference is, Home actually works for a little while.  Outlast fails out the gate.  By neglecting proper context and not taking the time to build terror, and by relying too heavily on horror alone, it loses the ability to evoke both terror *and* horror (again, keeping the "subjectivity of emotional experiences" thing in mind :P).  An unfulfilled player can still be scared, a jaded player cannot.

Back to "horror undermines terror."  Terror is a building-up of tension, and horror is not just a culmination of that tension but also a release of that tension.  You're afraid of encountering a monster.  You encounter the monster.  Horror.  You kill the monster.  Horror is over.  Terror is gone.  It must be built up again.  Sure, a loss of ammunition or other such "soft" failstate can aid in this, and  I agree that this ebb and flow can be more immersive, more compelling, and downright more enjoyable.  But it also means that throughout the experience the player is becoming more and more jaded, as the unknown gradually becomes the known.  Or put more simply, the more zombies they kill the less they're going to care about zombies.

(Successfully hiding from a threat has something of the same result, but I would argue that since the threat is still nearby and the mechanics of hiding involve much less overt contact with said threat, it's more successful at maintaining tension.  However in both cases, failstates are equally detrimental to tension, and the problem of failstates in horror games is a whole other complicated topic.)

In a traditional horror game, circumventing this by upping the ante is just part of good design (although I think there are a lot of combat-driven horror games that fail to effectively do this, which may be why so many people feel that weapons inherently break horror).  But in a narrative-driven horror game, chances are you're working with one or two specifically horrifying ideas, which you don't want to rob of their power/context with other frequent "terror releases."

And at this point you might say "this is why narrative horror doesn't work in videogames."  You might be right.  You might be wrong.  At this point there's no way to say for sure, because there simply haven't been enough experiments in that area yet.  There's a pretty solid tradition for "kill or flee the monster" horror games, so titles in that style have a lot to draw from.  Gameplay-focused games in general do actually.  Narrative-focused games, horror and otherwise, do not.  There's a wealth of cinema and literature to draw from, but nothing that provides a framework for telling an interactive story that isn't just an excuse for repeating mechanical systems.  That's why developers have tried things like getting rid of traditional challenges or traditional goal-focused interaction.  We're just trying to find something that works.  And I don't think "ehh, this hasn't worked yet so it probably won't ever work" is a fair response to what is still very early experimentation.

Another point worth touching on is that while traditional horror games can be better with weapons, it's also much more difficult to put combat in an effectively horrifying context than to put running and hiding in an effectively horrifying context.  Especially since combat practises in games have developed specifically to cater to power fantasies.  Take F.E.A.R for instance, where the over-the-top gunplay is so effective at undermining its ghostly haunted house segments that they become a trivial annoyance.  An unwelcome beat between combat arenas rather than an effective moment of horror.  Sure, it's not like firing a gun or swinging a melee weapon *has* to make you feel powerful.  System Shock 2, Resident Evil, Shadow of Chernobyl, and Condemned all did a pretty good job of making you feel vulnerable despite your ability to fight back.  But how much easier and more reliable is it to just take weapons away?  It's kind of a risk/reward thing.  If you nail horror with weapons, you've really nailed it.  But if you fail, you really fail.  There's always going to be some base feeling of vulnerability if there aren't any weapons at all.

So in a sense, I agree with you.  If we're just talking about monster/player interaction, weapons can be a plus.  But in a broader sense I don't think they're *always* a plus.  It depends a lot on the sort of horror game you're making, and whether repeated tangible threats and subsequent releases of tension are going to compliment it or not.

And I think the truth of what you're touching on isn't so much that weapons make horror games better, it's that meaningful player agency makes horror games better.  Something which holds true no matter what kind of horror we're talking about, and indeed no matter what kind of game we're talking about.  The more a player feels like their actions have weight, and the more they feel compelled to make meaningful decisions, the more immersive, dynamic, and effective an experience is.  Many of the advantages you list aren't a result of giving the player a means to fight back so much as they're a result of giving the player a more active decision-making role, rather than a passive reactionary one.

Ok, wrapping things up... tl;dr version

I think it's a good video (speech is maybe too fast?  Otherwise everything else seems fine to me) and I think you have a lot of good points.  But in my opinion it's sabotaged a bit by failing to consider horror in a broader context than man vs monster, and to recognize the negative impact that an overuse of "horror" has on terror and consequently on itself.


Videogame Potpourri is gone for now.

It's time to face the fact that I'm just not writing videogame reviews that much anymore.  So for that and various other reasons, Videogame Potpourri has now been locked up.  It still technically exists, but nobody is able to see it.  Not just because I'm not really using it, but also because I feel the purpose of the blog has gotten rather confused.  And because I'd like to reduce my "opinions about stuff not related to games and game development" footprint.  And because I'm actually kind of embarrassed by many of the older reviews.

So NOW, all videogame-related blog stuff will be here on Iron Snowflakes (and there's honestly probably going to be a lot less of that since I'm genuinely doing game development as a full time job now).  And there's not going to be a place for anything not videogame related.  I'm just kind of over the whole "personal soapbox" thing, and I'd like to cultivate a friendlier, more professional image online.

If anyone super wants to have access to Videogame Potpourri for some reason, shoot me an email.


Dusk initial press release

(This game is currently in development)

Dusk is a retro-themed FPS inspired by classic shooters from the mid to late 90s, such as Doom and Quake, with particular attention being paid to engaging and rewarding level design.

Plays like the classics 
Dusk's arcadey gameplay is a throwback to classic FPSs like Doom and Duke Nukem 3d, emphasizing agility and speed over taking cover, and prioritizing fun over realism.  

Looks like the classics 
Play in "1996 mode" with a low resolution filter, a limited color palette, and pixelized textures, or activate bilinear filtering and light bloom for a modern touch.  Or mix and match options to find the right visual style for you.

Quality level design 
Dusk opts for intricate hand-crafted levels rather than repetitive combat arenas or procedural mazes.  Each location is unique, interactive, rewarding to explore, and purposeful about the placement of enemies and items.  And filled with secrets, of course.

Moody setting 
Inspired by Quake, Silent Hill, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, Dusk will take you through rotting swamps, abandoned factories, and gothic catacombs.

Atmospheric soundtrack 
Inspired by Doom 64 and Unreal, Dusk's soundtrack sets the perfect mood for every level, be it dark and ambient or driving and intense.


(Retro filters on, bilinear filtering and bloom off)

(Retro filters off, bilinear filtering on, bloom off)

(Retro filters off, bilinear filtering and bloom on)

Follow Dusk on Twitter for updates on development: https://twitter.com/duskgame

Dusk Twitter Page

So I'm back on Twitter.

Kind of.

Twitter still sucks and I have no intention of returning to it as an actual form of social interaction.  However, I have made an account for Dusk:


I don't think it's going to be practical to try and generate any pre-release interest in the game without a social media account of some sort, so I'll be posting updates and screenshots at @duskgame

Any interaction I do through @duskgame account will be about Dusk, or FPSs related to Dusk.


Visual options

With the visual options currently implemented in Dusk, you have to ability to make it look like a game from 1996...

...a game from 1998...

...or a modern sourceport of a game from 1996/1998...

Some might call it nostalgia-baiting.  In actuality, it just makes me really happy.


Download test level

Build has been removed as it's no longer representative of the game.

Some settings

Screenshot showing visual settings I've implemented so far.  If you don't like the game's default look, you'll have an array of options for changing it to better suit your preferences, including a bilinear filtering mode for textures and even light bloom, if you want that "Shiny Quake source port" look.