Imagine this scenario: you’re being chased by a lumbering monster through an abandoned building. As you burst into a room trying to find an exit, you notice a wardrobe to hide in. You quickly place yourself inside, shut the door, and with bated breath pray that the door doesn’t open. Would you feel more confident surviving this situation if you were empty-handed, or had some kind of weapon to defend yourself, be it a handgun, a hatchet, or anything lethal? Everyone would say that having a way to defend yourself should instill you with more confidence, so why is it that horror games where you’re defenseless are typically less engaging than horror games where you have a way to fight back?
At its core, it boils down to the number of options a player is given at any given time. Use a game like Outlast for example – for the first hour or so it can feel like a truly terrifying experience, as you first enter the abandoned asylum, unsure of what awaits you in the darkness illuminated solely by the green tint of the video recorders night vision setting. The opening manages to fill players with an overbearing sense of apprehension and dread, but it quickly wears off when it becomes apparent that all of Outlast’s encounters end up playing out the same: you either run from crazed lunatics in what are essentially scripted chase sequences, or you try and stealth around them.
It’s at this point when Outlast’s enemies stop feeling like threats and instead become tiresome exercises in trial and error. Instead of fending off the crazed inmates with a mix of resource-intensive combat and stealth, surviving through a combination of wit and skill, you have to entirely avoid enemies as you try and discern the exact path of progression that the designers intended. When every enemy becomes an invincible blockade, they stop feeling like organic threats that lead to memorable interactions and instead become embodiments of frustration.
This generation’s Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard act as proof that horror games can indeed have their cake and eat it too with their unstoppable foes. Not only do these games feature unbeatable enemies that the player has to evade – with Alien: Isolation’s Xenomorph and the Baker family in Resident Evil 7 wandering around the environments independent of the player – but they also give players plenty of tools to fight back. Much like in the Alien movies, the Xenomorph can be forced to retreat with enough bursts from the flamethrower, while each Baker family member can be temporarily downed with enough gunshots.
These re-occurring and somewhat randomised threats not only add a constant sense of tension to exploration throughout these two games, but they manage to do so without completely stripping the player of interesting choices and options. These choices have been an integral piece of horror gameplay for quite some time, where each enemy leads to a quick-second decision of choosing to attempt an evade, or using some scarce resources to clear a safe path.
Even action-oriented horror titles where combat is much more integral, such as Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space, offer moment-to-moment gameplay choices and depth, as the player has to dispatch of groups of enemies in efficient ways, to avoid burning through precious ammo stockpiles that may be essential for later boss fights and combat encounters.
This isn’t to say that horror games absolutely need combat to have engaging gameplay. 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s old-school adventure-style puzzle-solving, insanity mechanic, and stealth systems all helped in making the game an immediate horror classic. But even then, it’s a game that begins to lose some steam towards the end, as the repetition of avoiding the same types of monsters over and over starts to set in.
Some might be quick to point out the now-iconic P.T. demo as an argument for how horror can be just as effective without combat, but it’s worth keeping in mind that it was a much shorter experience that likely wouldn’t have been completely indicative of the full Silent Hills project. As the name suggests, it was a Playable Teaser to give players a taste of some of the concepts that could turn up in the full game. I can’t see a fully-fledged game built around cryptic puzzle solutions working as well as a short free-to-play experience (look no further than divisive nature of the original Siren game for proof of this.)
In the indie scene specifically, it seems like combat has become less prevalent in the horror genre, but I feel like that’s a mistake. A lack of combat doesn’t inherently make a game scarier. If anything, the combat mechanics and resource management often add an extra layer of tension and complexity to the overall gameplay, making games that include these elements much more enjoyable experiences to play and replay. After all, even the most timid person will eventually get tired of hiding.