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Horror Games, Atmosphere & Modern Sensibilities

I don’t get how people can find horror games with unlimited saves/save anywhere systems frightening in the least. It’s similar to having an unlimited rewind button. If you can essentially rewind time, what suspense is left? How do your actions have any meaning? If mistakes become unpunishable, why bother having anything that allows mistakes in the first place? Just make a movie. If you’re going to make a survival horror game, and it’s going to be longer than 2 hours on the first go-around (Excluding speedruns, because we all know almost the entire Resident Evil series can be done in 2 hour speedruns. There’s always something to unlock by doing so.), it needs a save system of some kind. If you’re making it in the current year, it’s likely to be an autosave/checkpoint system. These are okay, but kind of lacking in synergy with the atmosphere you’d be trying to create in a survival horror game.

The counterpoint I keep hearing to this is “But my wasted time!” If your time is so precious, stop fucking up and do it right. Learn from your mistakes. If you lost 45 minutes to not saving, maybe you should consider saving at better times or maybe avoid pissing away all of your ammo on zombies that you could have easily avoided. The game has given you all of the rope you need, and you chose to hang yourself with it. There’s a difference between a game wasting your time with missions that go nowhere or long cutscenes that go nowhere (A complaint I have lobbed at many a game) and a game “wasting your time” by sending you back upwards of an hour because you didn’t think before you charged into a room, guns blazing. That’s self-inflicted time-wasting. The game is trying to teach you something: That blindly running and gunning will eventually result in your death by either being overwhelmed or by a lack of ammo when it’s needed most. If you refuse to listen, the consequences are yours and yours alone.

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It’s like that bit in The Hogfather where Death gives a little girl a sword. “But what if she cuts herself?” “THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.”

Resident Evil 0, just like its predecessors, is tightly balanced around this method of saving. Ink ribbons take up an inventory slot. Without them, you are unable to save, so carrying at least one is advisable. Only 6 inventory slots are available, with a pistol taking one slot, ammo up to 50(? I think it’s 50.) rounds taking up another slot. We’re down to 3 free slots, and that’s just the bare essentials, no healing items, secondary weapons, keys, or puzzle items.

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All large weapons are two slots. And by “large”, I mean “anything that can’t be held and/or used in a single hand”. So, anything larger than a handgun. Plus an extra space for ammo. If you wanted to run like this, you’d either have to drop the ink ribbon and forego saving (Except in the instances of typewriters near the bottomless item boxes, which is less common in the old games), not take the ammo and only run with two shots, or just not take keys or other items and not progress at all. Add inventory slots, and it becomes too easy. Yes, I know there is a secondary character, but they are not always available. Make all items a single slot with no regards to quantity or size? It could work, but it could also make the game too easy.

Ideally, horror games are hard. Not unplayably so, but you need to dread the next corner for practicality’s sake, not just because there might be a scary-looking thing around the bend. It needs to be more than window-dressing, it has to be an actual threat to your continued existence. Otherwise, it’s all for show. For some, that might be enough, but I’ve become somewhat numb to that and I can’t be alone in this. It’s pretty sad that I have to turn to Fallout 4‘s Survival mode for an adrenaline rush because it’s somehow more intense than just about every horror game I’ve seen recently. Amnesia and Outlast get a pass here for being pants-wettingly terrifying, and are exactly what I’m talking about. I’m not saying every game needs to be like that, but some pages should be shamelessly copied from their book. It’s relatively easy to balance terror against an unarmed player. Let’s see one where you can be armed and it’s still as scary. We’ve done the unarmed horror thing to death and got some impressive examples of how it should be done. Now let’s get combat back in. Maybe take Silent Hill‘s approach of starving the player of ammo but giving them an almost viable melee weapon.

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I should probably define “viable melee weapon”, now that I think about it. A viable melee weapon, in the context of horror games, are weapons with about 3-5 feet of reach, with moderately quick swing times and a couple of seconds of recovery. Something that should be able to dispatch the weakest of monsters with, say… 4 or 5 hits? Think Silent Hill‘s lead pipe or fire axe. It was the perfect weapon for a horror game: Scavenged, and somewhat effective. You’d expect to find something like that lying around. Now obviously it doesn’t have to meet these criteria to be “viable”, but it’s a good starting point.

Now obviously Resident Evil never had anything fitting the description above. All you ever got was the knife, which was awful. But it dished out a lot more ammo to compensate. The handgun became your go-to weapon. As long as you weren’t an awful shot, it’d be fully stocked for the entire game. The downside being that the handgun had all of the stopping power of a wet noodle later on in the game, and ammo for the larger and more powerful weapons was much harder to come by, with the holy grail of RE weapons, the Magnum, the rarest of all. In the first game’s remake, there are only 27 rounds total for it. For those unfamiliar with Resident Evil, the Magnum will instantly kill just about anything short of bosses. If you absolutely, positively need something dead in the shortest time possible, that’s the weapon for you. Of course, this means you won’t have it for anything later on.

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Which I guess brings me back on topic: Resource management in horror games. It might not sound scary, but it definitely helps with building tension. There’s no tension if every encounter doesn’t have the potential to be your last, put you in really bad shape for your next one, or force you to consider using that shiny Magnum you just found. Once encounters become routine, they’re no longer frightening, or worse: Boring. By tossing resources in as a variable, each encounter is, ideally, different enough that you’re taking different ways out or avoiding them altogether. Manage your resources well enough, and there shouldn’t be any issues until something unexpected, like a boss, happens. Then the priorities shift: Health is no longer an expendable resource to save ammo for later. This is later. This is what you’ve been saving ammo for. The decision to make now is which ammo gets used. Let’s take the worst-case scenario as an example. Either you’re an awful shot, or this boss takes a ton of punishment to put down, and you took a lot of damage. Either way, all that’s left is maybe 20 handgun bullets. The game was, until recently, getting a LOT easier and therefore less scary because you always had an answer for whatever the game threw at you… until just now. You’ve used it all. There isn’t enough to go around anymore. Suddenly, every bullet counts. Every hit you take is one more than you can afford. Now the game is properly scary again. Especially if you’ve been liberal with your limited saves. (If you’ve saved enough to run out of ink ribbons, you’re doing something very, very wrong.)

In conclusion, “Modern sensibilities” and horror do not mix. Modern gameplay design focuses too much on making sure everyone sees everything regardless of skill or lack thereof, which means there can be little to no consequences for failure. Without any fear of death or failure, there’s no tension and therefore no fear. A horror game that isn’t scary (I’m looking at you, The Evil Within) is a bigger waste of time than being sent backwards 20-45 minutes in a game that is scary.

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