Enclosed spaces and twisting, turning hallways do more than just break down our spatial understanding and sense of direction - they also have a deep psychological effect on us. Some of our deepest fears and memories involve getting lost, or trapped, or isolated; all of these represent the unknown, and instill a sense of being somewhere like what we know, but not what we know. Silent Hill revels in that feeling of things "not being quite right" and leaves us unsettled and uncertain of how to proceed. Of course, being a horror game, usually the only way to go forward is to plunge deeper into the belly of the beast, and in making progress, we are forced to confront our inner fears rather than hide from them.
When navigating those treacherous corridors, oftentimes it's not just the physical layout and the lack of health packs that put us on edge. The Resident Evil series, and other horror games, have been criticized for slow, sluggish, and difficult controls.

Enclosed spaces and twisting, turning hallways do more than just break down our spatial understanding and sense of direction.

Simply pointing the finger at such controls as "bad," however, misses out on the fact that often, those poor controls exist specifically to enhance the horror experience. Though perhaps in breaking with reality - Leon S. Kennedy can't jump out of the way of a zombie's grasp on reflex, for instance - there's no denying that not being able to perfectly anticipate the enemy and dive out of the way at a split-second's notice makes the player more vulnerable. Much as the limited resources and spread-out save points require the player to play for distance rather than speed, the sluggishness of the controls often force the player to live with the consequences of his or her actions, which applies in equal measure to good decisions as well as reckless ones.

False Intensity

The traditional horror game has begun to disappear due in part to recent trends to push titles towards wider audiences as production costs incline.. Modern horror titles, though replete with all the broken light bulbs and ugly mutants that modern technology can afford, are focused less on instilling a sense of dread as they are on injecting jump scares and shocks into their shooter frameworks; without classic horror game mechanics backing things up, the result is an intense, but not necessarily frightening, experience.

Though Dead Space 2's environments are soaked in blood and Necromorphs lurk around every corner, ammunition and weapons are abundant, and the invisible director invariably fulfills the player's every need. "Run out of Stasis Capsules? No problem," the game says, "here's a few, right when you need them!" F.E.A.R. 3 meanwhile, shies away from claustrophobic, maze-like offices and basements, in favor of wide-open arenas with clear paths forward. Both are enjoyable games, but the gameplay experiences they provide aren't frightening.

Videogames thrive on interactivity and in providing meaningful context for the player to make his or her gameplay choices; when resource management, navigation, and indeed, peace of mind become non-issues, something is inevitably lost. Though modern games are built using metrics and in-depth physiological analysis of individual players, all the biometric data in the world won't help the design of a game if the horror fundamentals have been abandoned. Horror games, if they are to have a future separate from straight-up action games, need to return to those fundamentals: resource management, complicated level layouts and less-than-responsive controls. Without them, horror games begin to resemble those same zombies they're so fond of - twisted, empty shadows of their former selves.

Eric Schwarz has a passion for all things games design, and is sardonic beyond his years. He currently writes for GameBanshee and maintains his own blog, Critical Missive.

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