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Experienced Points: You Don’t Scare Me

By Shamus
on Monday Nov 2, 2009
Filed under:


My Halloween Experienced Points article is a lament for where the Survival Horror genre has gone. (It touches on some of the points I wrote about here, but does so in a lot less words. Having a soft ceiling on your word count can do wonders for your writing skills.)

The common trend is to blame a lot of the negative industry trends on the bumbling and idiocy of publishers, but this is one case where I think the move is just a response to what people actually want. I think those of us who like tense, story-driven games with lots of atmosphere and not too much combat are actually a small minority.

Comments (47)

  1. Nyaz says:

    Hey! This is old, I read it the day when you posted it on Escapist. I was totally thinking it was a new one. *Disappointed*

  2. krellen says:

    To answer the question at the end of the article:

    Just about the only scare I can remember while playing a game (I don’t scare easily in real life, either – even normal things like “Death and Dismemberment”) was the Haunted House in VtM: Bloodlines. I totally didn’t see the stage coming when I first went through it, and even when the spectral appearances became predictable (there’s a corner, something’s gonna happen), they were varied and delayed enough to still elicit the fear response.

    Even though I’ve played through that stage a dozen times by now and pretty much know the layout by heart, I still avoid doing so with the lights out and curtains down (which I did the first time, it being a late session).

  3. krellen says:

    I should add that my first play through of the game was as a Malkavian, and Malks experience a different game from the other clans (basically seeing things other characters do not), which added to the effect: I didn’t know what was real haunting, and what was my Malkavian madness.

  4. acronix says:

    Besides Thief 3´s Cradle and the haunted hotel Krellen mentions in Vtm, the moment that scared the hell out of me was in that same game. You can turn the TV to hear the news regarding some random stuff and your latest deeds. Once I turned it on with a Malkavian, watched a while, and suddenlt the annoucer started talking to ME. I couldn´t do noting but stare at the screen in panic for a few, long seconds.

    Now that I think of it, I don´t know why I got so scared. It was kind of silly, really.

  5. modus0 says:

    My answer to the question at the end of the article can be summed up in two words:

    Shalebridge Cradle.

    I was on the edge of my seat from the get go, because I’d found a note about how the place was haunted, and was expecting something to jump out at me. The tension only ratcheted higher when nothing did, and I think I jumped a bit when I got to the door that is being pounded on, only to open it and find no one on the other side. Getting to the second section with the “patients” was just as bad.

    Although, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been as scary if the rest of Thief 3 had be similar, I think the vastly different atmosphere really contributed to the “horror” aspect.

  6. I love it …

    I came into the comments thinking about the blah playthrough of the PSP game ‘Obscure: The Aftermath’ I just completed and reviewed, with the basic conclusion ‘hey, there aren’t many others on the PSP’.

    And I quickly see Shalebridge Cradle and the VtM: Bloodlines Haunted Hotel mentioned … sweet!

    As for Bloodlines, it is truly amazing how different the game is for various clans, esp. Nosferatu and Malkavians!

  7. Sean Riley says:

    YES! I wish game designers would take that key insight: In a horror game, you definitely want the players to live. Strip away anything else, give them buddies and kill the buddies off mercilessly if they play badly, but do not make the players play through the same section of game over and over. It’s as damn certain a way to kill fear as you can find.

    I’m playing the original Condemned again at the moment. It does fear very, very well.

  8. Magnus says:

    For me, the greatest “survival horror” game ever was Alone in the Dark (the original) but the CD version.

    The quite magnificent music and voice acting really added massively to the tension. Of course, the lovecraft-themed basis for the game was brilliant, with a need for puzzle-solving in order to defeat the ghouls and ghosts you meet, rather than brute force.

    It did commit a cardinal sin in your eyes though, death was cheap. However, I didn’t feel it hurt the game in the slightest. The later two games were a touch more unforgiving, and required too much fighting, but the original kept a good balance between action and suspense.

  9. Monkeyboy says:

    Vtm:Bloodlines also had some other great sections, the prothstetics guy, I was just creeped out the deeper and deeper we went into that building. “What the heck is going on? Where did that guy GO?” The house in the Hollywood hills, boarded up, covered in blood and flies…ouch.

    I was playing through the demo for Doom III when it came out, I had done it a few times, but never got close enough to the mirror in the bathroom to trigger the “you zombie now!” cutscene. I was fooling around after clearing the level, stepped up, and triggered something completely new and unexpected. Its the only time I ever jumped back from the computer in sheer terror, and shut the game down.

  10. Matt K says:

    I’ll second VTM:Bloodlines and add Silent Hill 1 which I didn;t get too far into because the game kept creeping me out. Condemned was also a fairly frightening game but I pretty much quit due to wonky game design and not because I was too freaked out.

  11. Rolaran says:

    Interestingly, the same game for me supplies the best examples of genuine fear-inducing horror and irritating, fear-dampening difficulty- X:COM UFO Defense.

    The horror comes largely from the fact that the game is so good at keeping you in the dark (metaphorically and literally) about what you’re up against. The experience of entering a room, looking around, then closing the door and OH CRAP AN ALIEN WAS BEHIND THE DOOR… Pitch-perfect fear, and proof that you don’t need to cover the walls in blood or play audio scare chords every ten seconds to have a really terrifying game. The other thing that contributed to this was that they managed immersion without singling out an in-game character and saying “There, that’s you”. As a result, they were free to chew through your units like candy, and while it was scary (and expensive) when an entire squad got pulverized by Chrysalids, it didn’t result in you losing immersion, because you weren’t in the field- you were the one behind the entire operation, and you just saw Moscow burn because you sent the B-troops.

    On the other hand, Psi was broken enough to wreck this. “OK, we have contact, let’s try and- what? Eric spazzed out again? Even though he’s across the map, still in the jet in fact, and there’s no aliens anywhere near him. Well, damn. Guess they have Psi. Looks we’re 11-manning this one again.” The idea was really scary- I mean come on, having one of your troops suddenly turn around and train the rifle on his teammates! But the way it was implemented led to aliens just Psi-ing your army into an unrecognizable mess the moment you found them.

    To recap, the unknown, the fear that there’s something hiding in the room with you, and if you turn your head fast enough you’ll catch a glimpse of it before it tears you apart? That’s primal fear at its best. Suffering through a mission where a third of your troops are in the fetal position or shooting each other in the back? Just feels like a cross between Starship Troopers and the Three Stooges.

  12. NobleBear says:

    I think we are in the minority as well, but I refuse to acknowledge it, moreover I’m set on becoming an obstinate motherfucker when it comes to better stories and more immersion. Having people act like bad horror cliches (–but in space!)or vaguely lecherous merchants purveying their wares to me is not good immersion, it’s just bad.

  13. Monkeyboy says:

    “Suffering through a mission where a third of your troops are in the fetal position or shooting each other in the back? Just feels like a cross between Starship Troopers and the Three Stooges.”

    So…just like the original Starship Troopers game then.

  14. Alan De Smet says:

    I’m completely with you: immersion is absolutely key for horror. But the survival horror genre as a whole doesn’t give a crap about immersion. Bad camera angles destroy immersion. A character that handles like a tank destroys immersion. The protagonist interrupting his or her dark quest to play a collection minigame breaks immersion. A cut scene in which the protagonist does something mind bogglingly stupid breaks immersion. It’s not survival horror, it’s survival with a thin veneer of horror tropes smeared on top.

    My review of Resident Evil 4 enumerates the many ways an otherwise quite enjoyable action survival game pisses all over actual immersion and trashes most of the horror.

  15. David says:

    Pretty old-school by now, but . . .

    I still recall my first play-through of Doom II back in college. I’d lost track of time, so it was probably 2-3am and I was, of course, rather tired. Since my roommate was sleeping, the lights were off, and I was using headphones. Throw in a lightning storm outside, and I was somewhere in the middle of a level when I first noticed they were using the positioning ability of stereo sound. I thought I’d cleared the area but was searching for a secret door I’d heard about when I heard one more monster breathing somewhere behind me.

    Turns out there was a monster in the hallway behind the secret door, and I’d just walked past it, so it was behind me – but I couldn’t find it anywhere.

  16. Robyrt says:

    Survival and horror needn’t always be opposed. System Shock 2, for instance, rarely kills the player, but engages in extreme rationing of non-life-threatening items like inventory space, plot points, new abilities, repaired guns, etc. so that you still feel you are battling for survival.

  17. Jordi says:

    I never really played any survival horror games. Probably because I do scare easily.

    I think the first time was in Morrowind. It was probably the first time I was walking from one town to another and I wasn’t really strong yet and really felt like I could be attacked (and killed) at any time. I guess I was just really immersed. Another time was when I first (accidentally) entered the capital and this obviously powerful and semi-scary looking guard came running at me as soon as I entered and immediately bludgeoned me to death.

    Other moments have been in Riddick: Butcher’s Bay (but the Dark Athena remake). Riddick is kind of a badass, but I still managed to get killed a lot, so most of the time I was just sneaking around in the dark, praying nobody would notice. I should really get back to that game.

    Anyway, I think I agree with parts of the article. In order to experience fear, immersion and the feeling that you can be killed at any second are very important. However, I think achieving the latter will be very hard without actually killing the player sometimes. Maybe it would be best to instill a good ground fear in the player at the start (i.e. kill him a lot) and then let him live in fear for the next large part of the game.

  18. vede says:

    I agree almost completely here, but I also have to say, I’ve never been able to immerse myself very well in a game played from a third-person perspective. I just feel like I’m watching someone else be afraid of things. This is for the same reason horror movies never really worked for me.

    But I have to say, the way you put it, the underground sequences (especially the ones that were filled with monsters, not people) in STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl could easily be considered survival horror. Almost every one evoked that feeling of dread, where I knew I had to press forward, despite how afraid I was of going down the next hallway, and despite how little hope I felt I had. (NOTE: These sections may not have been fun for some, since a lot of people felt the game was very difficult. This is different for me for some reason. STALKER just came naturally to me; I rarely found particularly difficult sections, even when I was playing on the hardest difficulty levels.)

    I’d like to find more games that manage this, but I haven’t found any. Most “survival horror” seems to either be Silent Hill, or standard horror games plus challenge, like you mention in the article, and I don’t really like those games either.

  19. krellen says:

    The Sewers in VtM: Bloodlines are, I think, supposed to be the “Survival Horror” stage of the game (you run through a maze of sewer tunnels while little half-human monsters pant and growl and leap at you from darkness), but rather than being scary I find it simply tedious. By that point in the game, your character is pretty powerful, and after the third “RAWR!” followed by a leaping monster, it ceases to be scary and just gets annoying.

    That’s the sort of gameplay I think most “survival horror” games are achieving these days.

  20. Daimbert says:

    I can’t believe no one’s mentioned “Fatal Frame” yet. There hasn’t been a new one in a while, but it was a game that I actually managed to beat — so it isn’t that hard — and is unique in how it handles things. And all of the three installments can creep you out in interesting ways.

    The best thing about it was how it used sound … especially for each ghost. You don’t get that much creepier than “My eyes!” for the blinded ghost.

  21. Fatal Frame and Fatal Frame 2 scared the hell out of me. Playing as little japanese girls with only a camera is fairly terrifying, especially the first time you actually capture a ghost.

  22. Jay says:

    One thing in the recent games that I do like is the “character dying, partner revives” system. That struck me as a good way to make it seem as if the player is in trouble without going back to the main menu. Of course, handled poorly it would probably suck, but what system isn’t that true of?

  23. Stormcaller says:

    For me… Shalebridge Cradle…

    From me?
    Tapping my house mate on the shoulder while he was playing Doom 3 at 2am with all the lights off and proper surround sound :D – Hilarious :D

  24. Bryan says:

    Nobody likes Penumbra? :-(

    Well, come to think of it, it did break the “don’t kill the player” rule pretty badly. Though I never seemed to notice; hmm. Requiem was better about that (actually, so was Black Plague, but Requiem was even better) — but Requiem didn’t have much of a story. It was more or less just you walking around. :-/

    Still, for $15, I think it’s worth it. :-)

  25. EmmEnnEff says:

    Two words.

    Polito’s Office.

    Second place.

    Shalebridge Cradle.


    I was going to say The Inverted Manse, but then I remembered being absolutely terrified in that second underground lab in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. The one with the bulldog creature, and the poltergeists.

  26. ehlijen says:

    Maybe it’s only because I’ve just got no nerves, but I found all the marine vs alien levels in AVP 1 and 2 quite scary.

    Not that the first one actually did much. It just dumped you in a dark level, spawned some copyrighted monsters and told you to run the gauntlet. But somehow not being able to see where you’re going, where the beasties are and still hearing the scream as the motion tracker goes beep beep was enough for me.

    The second one did it much better, by actually letting you exlore some completely empty levels full of long committed carnage before unlocking the alien box. I especially liked the ‘get your friend out of the hive’ level early on. On the way in: nothing. You knew exactly what was coming (it’s straight from the movie) but still, suddenly having to fight your way back out was tense.

    Or maybe that’s just me.

  27. Shinan says:

    I have to say Bloodlines too. The thing about Bloodlines is that not only is it scary but it’s scary in so many different ways! Bloodlines is sort of a showcast of all the different horror game genres there are. There’s the frantic panic of a zombie attack, the jump scares, the creepy poltergeists, a giant immortal monster chasing you.

    Bloodlines really has it all. No matter what kind of horror fits “you”, there’s got to be at least one or two scenes in that game that will creep you out.

    On the other hand perhaps that lack of consistency is a bad thing?

  28. Conlaen says:

    Max Payne was one of the games that did this completely right and completely wrong at the same time. The nightmare scenes with the baby crying in the background and the trails of blood, they seriously freaked me out. But then you have to start jumping from blood trail to blood trail with a fall to your death if you miss by a pixel. After having died from falling nor the n’th time the feeling of dread I had turned into a feeling of annoyance. The baby crying started to get on my nerves more and more with every jump I missed.

    Had they just kept that bit with just a maze of blood without danger of falling, I would have loved the scene.

  29. Conlaen says:

    Oh and I have to second (sixth?) Vampire Bloodlines too. The haunted hotel had me crapping my pants. The lamps and what not that keep being flung at you, the dead ends where you turn around and you just see a shadow running off, the sounds of something coming up to a door or around a corner stopping you dead in your tracks and then nothing is there. A++!

  30. SatansBestBuddy says:

    For me, the scariest game ever would be The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the Shadow Temple, full or eerie music, constant whispering, invisible traps, enemies out of a horror story and overall an incredibly tense atmosphere combined so that, at one point, I simply couldn’t move anymore; I’d entered a new room and had to put down the controller cause I was just too scared to go any further.

    Okay, I was 12 and had been playing the game for a solid 10 hours, it was something like 3AM and pitch black with the only light in the house being the TV with my entire family asleep, so that could have helped, but to this day I still can’t play that through that temple without having to take a breather.

    Also made RE2 for the N64 a cakewalk, wasn’t scared of that game at all.

  31. samiel says:

    For me it’s the original resident evil. Granted I was like 8 at the time, but that first playthrough with jill, coming across the first zombie at 3 in the morning while everyone in my house is asleep, about 5 inches away from the screen and all the lights out… yeah. to this day just thinking about it gives me the creeps

  32. Neil Polenske says:

    It should be noted the term itself ‘survival horror’ is an Engrish screw up created when the original Resident Evil was sent to US shores. Least I think so, I never played the first one, but I DID play the second, which used the term to describe itself.

    Point is, for a term that gained popularity specifically because it sounded so disjointed, it’s not too surprising that the genre it found itself applied to followed suit. Apparently Left 4 Dead can even be included in this stew! (at least according to wikipedia :P)

    Shalebridge Cradle: I started playing T:DS a while ago and stopped cause I’m gonnna be coming up on that level pretty soon. I REEEEEALLY don’t want to play it again.

  33. Stern says:

    The earliest atmosphere I experienced this genre was Zelda’s Shadow Temple as well. That place was creepy if you let the atmosphere take you. I think in the later years the only game to really frighten me was Half-Life 2’s Ravanholm level. That place was all sorts of creepy.

    Admittedly I tend to shy away from the horror genre, but I’m rather curious about trying the Silent Hill and System Shock games now.

  34. Chris says:

    To answer the question at the end of the article: The Shalesbridge Cradle level in Thief: Deadly Shadows. That level still scares me when I play it.

  35. Blackbird71 says:

    I have to echo the sentiments for Bloodlines; that game had plenty of creepy moments, and the Seaside Hotel definitely stands out in my memory. They really nailed the atmosphere, what with random objects flying at you, whispers in the shadows, ghostly figures flitting across your view, all the way down to details like old newspaper articles about deaths at the hotel and a little girl’s crayon drawing of someone dark with red eyes, I was totally immersed.

    Yep, totally immersed, right up until the first time the ventilation duct collapsed under me without much warning and I had to reload. After that, I had to think about it as a game in order to get past that point, and I was no longer in the game but playing the game instead. Once I got past that part, the atmospehre was somewhat reestablished, but the scene did have a few other moments later that served to break the immersion in a similar fashion.

    Shamus, you are so right about character death killing the immersion. DIAS gameplay and horror just don’t mix very well. I think this is where the big conflict lies. In order to scare the player, games try to surprise the player. But if every danger is a surprise, then you’re not going to know about a potential character death until after the first time it kills you. Once that happens, the game has succeeded in surprising the player once, but has undone the immersion factor by yanking the player out of the game. So I suppose that success at a horror game requires a difficult balance of including surprise dangers, but makng sure that anything truly lethal is easily foreseen and avoidable. That way, the player still has the impression that their character can die, but will most likely be able to avoid any trips back to the load screen.

  36. SoldierHawk says:

    You know honestly I’m just not as much into the Champions Online play-by-play as I usually am when reading your let’s plays/game reviews/etc. Nevertheless, the opening bit about Canada absolutely made my day. Very well done sir!

  37. Blackbird71 says:

    I forgot to add the games that have always creeped my wife out: 7th Guest and 11th Hour. Not exactly horror, but creepy enough atmosphere to keep her from sleeping at night.

  38. EMK555 says:

    Penumbra is an awesome horror series with three games in it. It’s heavily story driven and atmospheric. You don’t actually fight, you just run and hide, which makes it an even scarier experience. Everybody interested in horror games should try it.

  39. Sarah says:

    Shamus have you seen this game. I don’t know how it rates as horror, but it’s certainly got some interesting atmosphere to it.

    Still only a tech demo, but damn do I want to mess with it.

  40. krellen says:

    @Blackbird: Do you mean the elevator when you say “ventilation shaft collapsing”? Because I don’t think you get stuck however you deal with that. And she does tell you to “be careful” before it falls.

  41. Arquinsiel says:

    Like krellen, the sole moment that a game has ever scared me was the Hotel in VtM: Bloodlines. One specific part of it was very cleverly put together, and I found myself unable to draw a weapon or dissappear into the shadows as I was used to doing when confronted with something threathening looking. I was also a Malkavian, and even though I *knew* that the hotel was mostly non-threathening I was still finding it difficult to keep playing after the house went quiet.

    Alternatively, Silent Hill I blazed through with a cheery song about killing monsters on my lips. I’m no longer allowed play it, because apparently the singing is really creepy…..

  42. Bret says:

    Although it’s neither the best example available nor anywhere near perfect, I think Marathon Infinity’s “Where are Monsters In Dreams” did unsettling pretty well.

    Every previous level in the series? You’re an unstoppable combat cyborg with more guns than most countries. Here, that’s still the case…

    But it doesn’t matter. The enemies are invisible and seemingly invincible, the area feels creepily deserted, and the terminals that usually contain orders from a (sometimes) helpful nigh omniscient AI now have random weird stories about dead bodies in a hanger.

    Not entirely reassuring.

  43. Blackbird71 says:

    @krellen (40)

    That may have been it, it’s been a while since I’ve played it. I remember crawling into a dumbwaiter, crawling around in some sort of duct, and dodging the falling elevator.

    Maybe I should go play it again…

  44. Elbee says:

    The most frightening experience I’ve ever had in a videogame would have to be the Sixth House Shrines in Morrowind. I was never in any danger of dying; my two main characters (the only ones who ever ventured inside) were a level 50+ orc warrior and a level 21 bosmer archer, both more than capable of dealing with the enemies. But the layouts, the darkness relieved only by the baleful red candles, the horrid shrines, the jagged runes, the enemy design and the noise – always the noise. It unnerved the heck out of me, and I hated whenever a quest sent me there.

    Tombs in Morrowind are a close second. That awful whispering, and the undead guardians – Bonewalkers especially I can’t stand the sight of.

    So … yeah. Actually, the scariest game I’ve played is Morrowind. >.>

  45. vede says:

    I didn’t like Penumbra.

    While it WAS scary (terrifying, even… I had to fight myself not to turn the brightness up on it), it only managed to be scary for the first few deaths.

    After that, I realized that death obviously didn’t matter, it was going to happen anyway, and just started running through the dark halls like my house with the lights out. No sweat.

    It would have been so good if only it had been lighter in the death area. And the impossibly-hard-puzzles-area. Ugh.

  46. IronCastKnight says:

    For me, pretty much the entirety of STALKER.

    Via the combined powers of the Oblivion Lost mod, the resultant reduction in malarkey based difficulty, and the increase of randomized danger, I became capable of suspending my disbelief and becoming the Marked One in a hostile, murderous hell. Every pseudodog became a direct personal threat, every bullet my last line of defense against bloodthirsty bandits, and every dark structure a haven for a ravenous bloodsucker just waiting to grip me in its embrace.

    Then, of course, I went into the more scripted areas of the game, like the labs, and it became more annoying than anything else. Primarily because they were obviously set up to be all oogedy boogedy scary, instead of just ending up that way via random chance.

  47. Violetta says:

    On my limited budget I’ve not gotten my hands on very many games that were purposely meant to be spooky. I’ve had scary moments, though, which were mostly related to what I was bringing with me into the experience:

    Memorable fear of an enemy: My sister and I spent our childhood playing an 8-bit MS-DOS game called Catacomb. We gradually got pretty competent at blasting through hungry swarms of demons, skeletons, and even (gasp!) somewhat bigger demons. Then one day, we reached level 7(?). We navigated out of the starting tunnel, wondering what awaited us on the other side. That’s when we saw it: An enormous (for the game), hideously detailed (for the game) bipedal dragon that stomped around spouting fire beams everywhere. This was literally the scariest thing we had yet encountered on a computer screen, and we immediately scrambled back into the tunnel to contemplate our piteous humanity. It was a very Lovecraftian moment, not in the sense of squid monsters from outer space but in the way it gave the feeling of utter helplessness in the face of incomprehensible forces. We eventually came back to face the rest of the game, but it left quite an impression.

    Memorable fear from graphics: A few years after that, the two of us found an old copy of SimAnt. We were fond of most bugs and even kept spiders as pets sometimes, so we had no problem running an ant colony. But when the currently-selected player-vessel ant got eaten by a spider, a closeup of the spider’s merciless eight-eyed countenance filled the screen, twitching its fangs euphorically as it lapped up our liquefied organs. On that day, we confused our parents by simultaneously becoming arachnophobes.

    Memorable sense of consistent dread: World of Warcraft’s Gurubashi Arena. I hated that place so much, but I kept getting up at odd hours to return to it because I Had to get my treasure. Not only was I a level 20 twink, unable to beat 95% of the competing players if I wanted to, but I also have social anxiety and/because I find mildly inconveniencing other people to be a deeply distressing experience. Actually engaging in PvP was out of the question. But the other players didn’t know that. Any time they had a chance to attack me, they’d take it without hesitation. Some of them would stealth up behind me and puncture my favorite ventricle when I was finally sure I was alone. I went as far as downloading an addon to alert me whenever it detected anyone nearby. But the fact remained that people could log in right on top of me AT ANY MOMENT. Sure, death only forced me to run around the side of the building in order to respawn, but by then I was already hyperventilating and deprived of my treasure. I…don’t think they intended it to be that scary, probably…and it certainly didn’t contribute any enjoyment to the game…so I suppose it would fall into your stress-not-fear category…but dang, level 24 Alliance Rogues are the stuff of nightmares…

    I don’t think any of those game designers meant to scare me the way they did; I’m not sure whether they could have succeeded if they had been trying. The uniting factor seems to have been a certain type of helplessness, but randomly tossing my avatar in a room full of way-overpowered monsters probably wouldn’t duplicate the effect so much as get me irked at the designer.

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