The Horror Games are Still Games Problem
Contributed by DJMMT
Earlier this month, I played The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope for the first time. I really like this genre of games. Companies like Supermassive Games and Quantic Dream do a good job of telling interactive stories that are compelling, accessible, and fun. At the same time, my experience with Little Hope revealed something to me that I had never considered before. Specifically, horror games become less interesting and surprising as one becomes more familiar with the horror games genre.
Because I don’t really play horror games that often, I’ve never really noticed the clichés in them outside of foundational design choices. Games tend to play the same tricks that they’ve seen done in other games, because they’ve been shown to work. But in the case of games this affects gameplay as much or even more than story. For instance, you know that you’re supposed to put a bomb in front of a cracked wall. Games work based on a tried and tested structure that rarely deviates from the norm in most cases. This is why I find the originality argument so ironic in gaming discussions. As long as it plays well, I don’t need a game to be original. The problem is that these tropes directly affect the experience of playing a horror game in an unintentional but ultimately negative way.
While I won’t speak for everyone, I would say the major goal when playing games like Until Dawn is to make everyone survive until the end without reloading your saves. The player tries their best to keep everyone alive. The major problem with trying to make everyone survive is that experienced players of the genre stop reacting emotionally, as intended by the developers, and start thinking critically based on established game tropes.
Supermassive Games has the habit of always letting the player find a lethal weapon. Then at some point a situation comes up where the character with the weapon is put in a position where they’re being approached by a figure that they can’t see clearly. It always ends with the player being asked to decide if they should attack the shrouded figure with the lethal weapon or not. The correct answer is to never attack the figure. The weapons in these games always come in handy, but you should never use them unless you’re already engaged in a fight scenario that the game has thrown you in to. You never choose to attack blindly. Because the shrouded figure is always an ally. They do it in every game. You pull that trigger and you will inevitably have shot one of the other party members. It was this very moment in Little Hope that spoiled the experience for me.
This critical moment comes up in Little Hope just like it did in Man of Medan and Until Dawn, and I didn’t take the shot because I knew that having played the other games. And as I predicted, that was the right move because it was one of your other party members that you had gotten separated from earlier in the story. My choice not to take the shot was not an authentic decision. If I hadn’t played games like this in the past from this very company, I probably would have taken the shot. My wife wanted me to take the shot. Because she’s not a gamer. She doesn’t look for patterns like this. She doesn’t analyze games at a critical level. Taking the shot and dealing with the consequences would have been the authentic decision. Losing that ally would have been a grave consequence that hurt me dearly at a personal level, but it would have been real. I lost that experience because I knew I was playing a game and made my choices as an informed and experienced gamer would. And that’s the entire problem.
Horror games are still games. They’re built like games. They come from established development teams that tend to repeat the same things, because they know they work. Games operate in certain ways based on a gameplay loop with risks and rewards. No matter how much you try to surprise the player, it is impossible to deviate too far from the norm without flat out insulting the player. And while I did enjoy the game and don’t regret playing it, this realization tarnished the experience of playing Little Hope for me. It’s like watching a horror movie after watching the documentary about making the horror movie. Once you’ve seen behind the curtain, it can’t scare you anymore. This means that the more horror games you play in a particular genre, the less satisfying the experience of playing them becomes over time. Unless you got amnesia and forgot everything you know about video games, the only other solution is for developers to deviate so far from the norm that the experience of playing the game becomes too foreign for the average player to enjoy. Ironically, this is what they tried to do with the ending of Little Hope; and I absolutely hated it.
I won’t spoil the ending, but essentially Supermassive Games kind of realized that their game was falling into this awkward situation of being too obvious to players of their previous titles. So they tried to end the game with a devious twist that ultimately falls flat on its face. For me, the ending was very insulting. It would have worked fine for a movie, but for a game it was terrible. Basically, you work so hard to make everyone survive to the end only to find out that none of it actually mattered. Because it had nothing to do with your performance throughout the game. All the QTEs, good decision making, and clue collecting had nothing to do with saving the characters. After Until Dawn and Man of Medan, it was just insulting. There’s no other word to describe it. But what’s the alternative?
Is there a way to actually fix this problem? Can Supermassive Games and the like make more games in this genre that surprise the player, stay true to the general risk and reward gameplay structure, and not insult the player? I honestly don’t know if it’s possible. They could definitely stop using a few of the same bits, but they also have to make the player’s choices matter. There has to be consequences to your actions and decisions. But those consequences also have to make sense.
Another reoccurring trope in Supermassive Games’ horror projects is the risky rescue. The player is always tasked with choosing whether to try to rescue a character from certain death or to run. Just like with not shooting the gun, you always choose to rescue the character. If you don’t, that character will die. They will always die. The character that runs away will live, but your party will lose a character. But if you choose to rescue, assuming you successfully complete all the QTEs, both party members will get away safely. They do it in every game. It never comes up that if you choose rescue and complete all the QTEs that either or both characters still die. Because that would be insulting to the player. If doing the right thing ends in two party deaths, that means that your only option was to leave one of the party members for dead. But if that’s the case then it means that it was impossible to keep all party members alive. But again, that’s the entire point of the games. So you can’t put the player in a scenario where someone has to die. It goes against the basic rules of how to construct a satisfying risk and reward system in a decision driven survival game.
I do think this issue specifically affects horror games because horror is built on the unknown. The player has to believe that the stakes are high and that they have the capacity to fail by making the wrong choices. By establishing a formula, the experience is ruined, but without a formula you risk making a bad game. I am curious to see how The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes turns out, as it is the third and supposedly final installment of The Dark Pictures Anthology. But if I’m being honest Supermassive Games has left me less and less satisfied with each game in this genre since Until Dawn. And not for lack of trying.