Monday 15 June 2009

A History of violence. Part 2

In this part of "A History of Violence" I will briefly investigate some of the types of combat found in horror games, compare them to films and discuss how they impact on the scare-factor.

Action-hero Protagonist
Example game: Doom 3
Example film: Deep Rising

These type of movies and games are very similar. The lead character(s) go around with big guns and wastes tons of ammo while fighting the bad guys. The protagonist is far from vulnerable and this type of horror is generally more "fun" than the others.

First of all I got to say that I like both games and films in this category, but the concern here is if they are scary. Games and movies of this type relies pretty much on having "BOO!"-type of spooks, where a monster suddenly emerge from a corner or something similar. I actually think that these kind of games and movies are on the border of being to referred to as horror.

That being said, I know that a lot of people consider Doom 3 the scariest game they have ever played, even though one plays as a bad-ass marine carrying around a minigun and rockerlauncher at the same time, singlehandedly creating a monster genocide. This means that having loads of guns does not entirely remove the scare-factor, but I would still say that it significantly lowers it.

Untrained protagonist
Example game: Silent Hill
Example film: The Descent

In this type of horror combat, the protagonist carries weapons and kills off monsters, but is by no means an action-hero. He/she has no or little combat training and monster do not go down easily.

I think that there is a very large increase in fear factor (in both games and film) compare to the action-hero type of combat, but I would argue that it is very fragile and unstable. The best example comes from Silent Hill. When I started the game I found the enemies terrifying and was genuinely scared of them. Then as I killed more I came up with a tactic using melee weapons where I lost pretty much no health when in combat and after this combat stopped being scary for me.

A way to remedy this is to have fewer encounters or a more balanced combat system, but when the gameplay awards for killing enemies most players will figure out a good tactic after a while, loosing the scare-factor.

Defense only protagonist
Example game: Siren
Example film: Friday the 13th (pretty much any film)

This type is very rare in games (perhaps the rarest of the types), but much more common in movies. Here the lead character has weapons but does never manage to kill the monster(s) and only uses combat as a mean for a quick escape.

The most probable reason for this type being rare, is that it takes out much of the fun in combat. Since enemies always wake up again, there is no real award for defeating them and thus lessening the fun-factor (which does not have to be the goal though). Films do not rely on these kind of mechanics and thus do not have this problem.

In Siren, the player has a very limited set of weapons (and some times none, but more on that type later) and can never kill any enemies, only stun them for a while. This means that there is no substantial reward in combat, making the player avoid it.

It is hard to judge how the scare-factor differs (as if it was easy on any type...) from the untrained combat type, but I think the main advantage in terms of scariness is that it is much more stable. Because of the low award for "killing" an enemy the player is less likely to use weapons, especially if they require ammunition, and will therefore have a lesser chance of learning a pattern. In the case of weapons with ammunition, this puts more pressure on the player as this sparse resource needs to be conserved, leading to more fear.

No weapons protagonist
Example game Clocktower
Example film: Blair Witch Project

Although not as rare as "defense only", there are few games made with focus on this type of combat. One big problem when making games for this genre is that there is little direct gameplay gained from it. This means that the game needs to be filled with puzzles and other types of challenges instead, which is a lot hard to implement. It is also very easy for these games to become tedious, always having to run and/or sneak, which can take the edge out of the horror. Movies do not have this problem though, as there are tons of different things to have in between encounters with the antagonist(s).

Games like Clocktower and Siren (which use this type along with defense only) can get very frustrating and thereby becoming very un-scary for some players. At the same time, this type of gameplay can deliver a very frightening experience, and excel in scare factor compared to the other types.

This type clearly shows that there is a thin line between horror and frustration which is also very evident in how people either hate or love the Clocktower / Siren games.

Example game: 7th Guest
Example film: The Sixth Sense

It is very hard to find a similar type of film for this category since the way it is implemented in the mediums is very different. I am not very sure "The Sixth Sense" is a good example either, but was the best I could come up with.

The main aspect of this type is that the protagonist (player) is never in any real danger even though scary situations are encountered. In games this "invulnerability" is told through the gameplay mechanics, while very different methods are used in movies , for example that the protagonist is a recurring character in a series of films or that the situation is never threatening. For movies you essentially have to take away the scariness in order to obtain this type, while games can still be perceived very scary, even though the player is never in any danger of dying.

An interesting question is if games of this type become scary because players fool themselves to believe that it is a very threatening situation (although the gameplay mechanics says it is not), or if simply experiencing something seemingly threatening is enough to create feelings of fear.

That concludes this rather brief, but at the same time lengthy, overview of different combat styles. In the next part I will go into a specific "combat" mechanic that is very underused in games.

Until that: Do you think I covered all the different types of combat in games? Did I miss something important regarding a specific type? What types of horror games do you prefer? And finally, what kind of "combat" do you prefer in horror movies?


  1. Hi!
    I recently played Penumbra Collection thanks to 75% off week-end on Steam. I've finished Overture and I've played Black Plague for 3 hours. I love your games and I think these are the scarest survival horrors I've ever played. The leved design, the sound design, the story are awesome. And for a fan like me it's really a pleasure to discover levels which remind me "John Carpenter's The Thing", "Silent Hill (the games)", Lovecraft etc...
    Thanks for these games! Keep doing survival horrors like Penumbra and Good luck for Unkown Project.

  2. I think that even metal gear it's not a terror game. It has two of the combat types that you have named. For example "defense only protagonist" in the most part of level, if you hit a enemy you can kill it but if the alarm is activated... the best option is always to hide.
    The second type is "action type protagonist" this is evidently with the boss fight, you have always to kill someone or destroy something, in this part of game the option of hiding its not possible.

    I think that if you mix all or some types of combat in a terror game could be awesome.
    I mean, for example, in the begining of the game the type of combat could be non-violence, just only investigating something only to see that "holly shit something bad is happening" and then turn the game into a no weapons protagonist/defense only protagonist for a while with the question: "What is happening?" in mind.
    When we discover what is happening we want to kill the monster, stop the evil or escape from danger or something like that, the game could turn into a untrained protagonist/action-hero protagonist.

    Sorry for my english. Im spanish XD :$

  3. I have to say that the Penumbra series is my favourite when it comes to horror titles. Overture was refreshing, and Black Plague blew me away. Now my favourite series used to be Silent Hill, but its obvious that with the exception of Homecoming and perhaps the upcoming Shattered Memories that the series had very clunky and frustrating combat. Honestly after I had seen a Silent Hill enemy for the third or forth time all apprehension had disappeared.

    My ideal horror combat system: Very minimal. Achieve this by: rewarding and encouraging players that use stealth (remember Phillip's nightvision mechanic? Perhaps this could have helped him spot random items he otherwise would have not noticed but at the same time isn't necessary to progress through the story), keeping the number of overall enemy encounters low but keep the environmental tension high through atmosphere and sudden sound effects (ie. breaking windows, banging doors, scratching, random occult voices, all which was executed beautifully in Black Plague btw), and keeping encounters scripted. I believe that the scripted and unique encounters were much more frightening in Penumbra. I don't necessarily mean the worms either, but the Infected breaking down the door or the good doctor in Computer Central. Having enemies just patrol an area builds tension but there's just something about it that isn't scary in itself. Also have a wide variety of enemies. The Infected became less un-nerving towards the end of the game due to their frequency, but this wouldn't be so bad if they at least looked differently rather than all using the same model.

    So yeah, to summarize my perfect horror game:
    - intense atmosphere through sights and sound
    - very infrequent encounters but with an incredible variety of scripted threats
    - encourage stealth gameplay and reward people for it
    - include rarer scripted environmental deaths for enemies, but make them not-so-obvious and rely on some puzzle work (use physics to set traps!)

    But you guys have done pretty damn well with the Penumbra series, so when I look to the natural evolution of horror, I will naturally look towards your team.

    Just as an aside, I agree that I found the various touches borrowed from different horror sources interesting within the series, and I've heard that Penumbra borrows a lot from Lovecraft (I wouldn't know myself). Will Unknown have different source material, or will you try to craft your own brand of horror? Admittedly I've never completed a single work of Lovecraft. I found some of his works boring, and the ones that I got into I had to put down because he has a habit of making racist remarks that are uncomfortable for me and, in my opinion, entirely un-necessary within the story except to spread his own propaganda on the subject. I loved the plot of Penumbra from beginning to end however, so I trust your own writers quite a bit!

  4. Like most who have answered here, I have to say that Penumbra is indeed one of the most scariest and yet well balanced horror series in history.

    It's hard to combine horror and combat in a game and make things go along properly, but Penumbra actually acomplished that by changing its mechanic along the series.

    For example, in Overture, you do have weapons and you do end up gaining confidence once you master them. That makes you move into Black Plague feeling confident and ready to blow brains but when you end up facing the fact that you don't have and never will have weapons, you end up losing that confidence and you find yourself plunged even deeper into the feelings despair and fear. That was already a factor that gained points in the horror meter and, to be honest, it didn't bother me at all... Because I already had my share of skull crushing in Overture and I embraced the change of tactics with a grin (but with a stain on my pants).

    What I'm trying to say is that a change of tactics throughout the series is also a good factor to please combat audience and fear adicts. Silent Hill, while being a good and scary game with a good and scary story, lacked this, since you always knew you'd end up hacing something to kill your enemies ever since you picked up the first pipe... And that works for some but gets repetitive for others...

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to see if I finish off Black Plague while the sun is still up =P

  5. I think what could raise the fear in games is that player should get permanent injurys. Painkillers should help to stay concious or help to run faster when hurt. But player should not be able to heal him completly. This is not directry related to combat but this could dramatise the outcome of it.

    Also using painkillers or some other limited amount of drugs when seriously injured to stay councious could add feeling of not being able to make it to the end which I have never noticed in any game.
    This is just my teory that I didn't touth about it for very long.

  6. Klayman:
    I plan on discussing different health system in an upcoming blog to. As you point out, it also a very important part of creating scary combat.

  7. I think that the Untrained protagonist is the better option, but it hinges on how it is carried out.

    The combat should be infrequent (Silent Hill 2 had too much combat, and the horror suffered somewhat from it), and it should also be unwieldy and very unnappealing.

    One enemy should tax the player's reasources pretty heavily, say reducing his/her health to well below half its full amount.

    Since we need to accommodate for less proficient players, difficulty levels should be included. A "No Combat" option should be available for those who become too frustrated with the purposefully clunky and difficult combat system.

    But to satisfy the more advanced players, the Hard (and "Insane" or other extreme difficulty settings) should be truly awful. A single foe should be almost impossible to defeat, and two foes is certain death.

    Thorough playtesting should be conducted to insure that there are no loopholes by which a player may always have the upper hand in combat.

    Make it horrible and difficult, but don't take it away from them. Making the player feel helpless by making combat unappealing is very different than making them feel helpless (and irritated) by not having options and being constrained by the gameplay.

  8. This is the same Anonymous that posted earlier. Thomas, I was wondering, as you may be aware Konami has been recently outsourcing Silent Hill to some western studios like Climax and Double Helix that have delivered some controversial results. I believe the spirit behind your team is just the kind of thing the franchise could use in order to fill in the shoes for Team Silent. I'm sure Konami employees could fill in for a few things like character animations and such, but your team is generally pretty solid from what we've seen of Penumbra and "Unknown". Now I can't wait for "Unknown"'s release and so don't think I'm trying to derail the team's current direction by sowing these seeds but:

    Would you ever consider contacting Konami in order to take over the reins of Silent Hill?

  9. I dunno, one thing I liked about FG is the freshness of all their material. Sure, they were inspired by Lovecraft, but it's still their ideas and plot construction. They put their love into the entire design of the game, even if things might not have worked out perfectly (game-wise).

    I think them taking over a different game series is a bad idea. They might REALLY REALLY love the series, but...there will still be that slight disconnection, having not worked intimately with the game from the very beginning. That slight disconnect is all it takes to make a stunning game (from what I've heard of the original Silent Hill) into a sack of crap (from what I've heard of the newer Silent Hill games).

    Not saying FG wouldn't be able to do it justice, I just think they should stick to their own plots, their own stories, their own loves.

  10. Being a first-time poster on here I'd just like to thank Frictional Games for the Penumbra games; they managed to transform me into a horror game fan almost overnight it seems. Black Plague was one of the few games to really make me think deeply afterwards about what it all meant.

    Personally I think I prefer the apporoach you took in Black Plague to combat by never actually fighting anything directly. It was a good game but once I'd discovered how to kill dogs in Overture by throwing stuff at them I wasn't gonna make it harder for myself by sneaking around them anymore.

    That being said, one of my favourite types of protagonist in any media is the 'untrained' one; ordinary people pushed to their limits and forced to fight back with whatever they can. Thing is, given enough weapons or ammo the line between 'untrained' and 'action-hero' can become very small, sometimes almost invisible.

    I think it also has to do with the atmosphere and attitude of the character; Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life games or even the Marine from Doom - men who are pretty much 'in the wrong place at the wrong time' - look a lot less like action-hero types when compared to a character like Duke Nukem.

    All in all, I like the 'untrained' protagonist type a lot because usually they are strong but believeable character, however, for your sort of horror game I think anything from the 'defence only' protagonist down is a good choice.

  11. Hi, i beleived the combat used in Overture was near-perfect because you oculd be all "oh my god a dog!" and hide with your pickaxe in hand and when he turns his back and run toward and swing at him.

  12. Anonymous:

    I think that it would be Konami that contacted us and not the other way around :)

    Personally I think it would be fun to take a stab at the Silent Hill franchise, but would rather come up with original ideas. Not thought about it too much though... will have to consider it more if a deal pops up :)

  13. To my mind, the right way to create horror atmosphere is to avoid any cliche. Many times I dreamt of playing a horror game, where protagonist would have a weapon (or any other way to attack and defend himself), but never had a chance or reason to use it. This concept is perfect for making a player be always ready for something to happen and, therefore, be scared of it every corner of the way... Or, for example, imagine a game, where player gets some item much like weapon at the end of, say, the 1/3 of the game... a hammer or screwdriver, a candleholder - whatever, then he uses it for "peaceful" porposes like breaking weak walls, driving off the bolts from shafts and so on. In the meantime, player is tense as he expects something to attack him/her when he finally will be able to use the thing as a weapon due to the horror genre cliche. But when 'something' comes up, it turns out that neither the screwdriver, nor hammer are weapons and are completely unfittable for surviving... Every broken rule is a surprise and, I guess, this one might be as well.

    Perhaps, my favourite horror movies are 'Alien' and 'Exorcist'- I've seen them too much, so I can't name all of the favourites. If to mention 'Aliens', I would say that Cameron showed himself as a lousy horrormaker in comparison with Scott. And why? Because of the SUSPENSE and enormous amount of the aliens, antagonists. The atmosphere is there and pretty dense, the storyline is okay, but why is it more fun than horror? I think, that's because the protagonists know why they are in a place and how they should act. In fact, they have only a couple of options: to shoot into whatever comes in the way or not to - they're aware of their goal and the spectators/players are aware too. The suspense is minimized.

    Anyway, everyone understood what I'm trying to say already. You guys work on "The Unknown"? The title speaks...

    P.S. Excuse me for my mistakes you might encounter in the text - I need more practice.

  14. By the way, I agree with Anonimous about scripted threats and less patroling enemies. The only dogs that scared the sh..t out of me in 1st Penumbra are the first two. The same thing I can say about 'spiders' & 'infected' (the last ones mentioned are actually start to get boring close to the end of Black Plague). The less you repeat yourself - the better.

  15. I would love to see the no save feature added into "Unknown". The idea of having to start the whole game over when you die makes me want to play it even more! Like the video game the characters in the movie Stay Alive play, but you just don't die in real life. I would just have a blast playing Unknown with the no save feature, it makes it that much more fun! And the use of weapons such as flaming crossbows or throwing knives would be a sweet feature, just scarce amunition.

    And I've played and beaten all of the Penumbra games. Great job guys!!!

  16. I've been reading through your posts, one thing that was mentioned somewhere on the site was that one of the later alone in the darks tried to up the fear factor by making you do real time chores during combat scenes, like hobbling together a Molotov cocktail while there are enemies in the room.
    while fascinating most people found it frustrating and took away from the horror because you focused on the fiddly controls rather than the avatar therefore you lost the immersion.
    I think a better mechanic would be to keep it out of combat and apply it to escaping situations like picking the lock of a door to get out of a hallway when a zombie dog is barreling down it towards you.
    one thing that i would like to see in a first person horror game is a realistic use of the hands, instead of doors opening by magic it would be good to see a hand come out and connect with a doorknob, in the case of a shooter two handed guns would have to be redistributed etc. this would add so much to the immersion for me and it seems like a great opportunity to add that nail biting extra few seconds of confusion and helplessness. another possible thing would be engaging "the mighty foot" on a door, kicking in a door sounds like a good idea until you realize the loud sounds it would cause and all of the nasties it would attract. as well as the fact that the door might swing towards you rather than away, leading to a still closed door, wasted time and extra nasties. these two elements would create an interesting risk vs reward, do you kick in the door loudly and keep brandishing your shotgun (that may be ineffective on whatever is in the next room) or do you spend extra time fumbling with the knob knowing that you won't be able to get the shotgun up for a few seconds?
    doorways are always such a good device when portraying horror, it is the unknown on the other side that makes us afraid, and are the horrors in the next room worse than the one we are in now.

  17. burningeko:
    Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, does use an on screen hand if you hack the game a bit ;) There is a fan made patch where one can turn it on. As for adding horrors at doors, the recent Juon game seems to do that (although in a kind of cut-scene manner). I also would like to think we added some door opening to Penumbra :)
    I agree that opening doors is excellent for horror, as it works a as sort of entrance in the unknown..


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