Ever since I started working on horror games (first was a simple 2d game called Fiend) I have been thinking about what kind of combat one wants in a horror game. This question was even more important when working on Penumbra as we had some problems in Overture concerning weapons. Our idea was that player would want at least something to defend themselves with, so we gave them some weak weapons and cumbersome combat mechanics, thinking it would only be used as last line of defense. Instead all kinds of problems arose, some players thought that since there where weapons, combat was meant to be used and complained about it be boring. Others figured out some tricks with the combat and thought it was way too easy. Very few players seemed play the game like we intended it to and we had to fix this somehow.
In Black Plague we took the decision to skip combat altogether and let the player be as vulnerable as possible. Not only did this make the design easier for us (could always assume enemies where alive), but most players also found the game scarier and more fun to play. Still, I think that there should be some way to use weapons, as it seems like such a "natural" thing. For example: if some monster/bad guy traps you in a corner, you will probably grab what ever is near and try to use it as means to get away. This kind of mechanic is also very common in horror movies, for example Scream uses it quite a bit.
For our new game "Unknown" we first considered using weapons and having them as defense only. But after some playtesting, the same problems that we had in Overture popped up. Some found the combat way to easy and others found it almost impossible. As trying to configure good difficult settings would be really hard, we decided to tone down combat and make the player very vulnerable instead. Further gameplay testing seem to confirm that this was the right thing to do.
In part 2 I will discuss the different kinds of combat found in games.
Until then: What are your thoughts on the combat in Overture and the lack thereof in Black Plague? Does removing combat really make a game scarier or is just a matter of how it is implemented?