Unprepared for death: How control and unpredictability are used in horror games (Part 2)

Content warning: Disturbing content, some gore, the usual deal, it’s horror after all.  Also, mild spoilers mostly related to gameplay.

Now, keeping in mind the reasoning of why I thought the two games mentioned in Part 1 of this article had ineffective gameplay, let’s talk about two games that I personally think are part of the top echelon of gameplay effectiveness in horror.  One is Alien: Isolation, which is wildly popular and is just high quality in all aspects, and the other is the most innovative (though not my favorite) RPG Maker horror game I have ever experienced, The Witch’s House.

Alien: Isolation, released in 2014 (the same year as the first FNaF), is a unique hybrid between first person shooter, stealth game, and horror game.  Based on the series of famous movies, the core gameplay revolves around constantly being hunted by a single alien “xenomorph” aboard a large space station, putting the player in constant paranoia of a jumpscare and placing them in many situations where they need to hide, hoping that the xenomorph doesn’t check their spot.  What makes this game so one-of-a-kind and what garnered most of its praise is the use of AI in making the xenomorph so effective in scaring the player, which was a difficult task as the developers needed to somehow introduce unpredictability to the single antagonist that is present throughout the whole game.  Most importantly, it’s engineered in such a way so as to make the player paranoid and alert, but not feel totally luck-based.  Below are some examples of AI components that contribute to its effectiveness in creating horror.

Honesty:  The AI does not openly cheat.  Even though it spends much of its time supposedly above the player, in a vent system above the main map, it never travels faster than the player can react. Often the player will hear the xenomorph making noises in the vents above it – these noises are genuinely where it is, and telegraphs where you can expect to run into it.  This is further exemplified by the game giving you a motion tracker that allows you to see the rough amount of distance between you and the xenomorph.  By doing this, the game instills the right amount of premonition and this tells the player “if you die here you know exactly where it came from and why you died”.   Another aspect of honesty is that the alien will not catch you unless it legitimately sees you.  Using sensors that emulate vision and sound, the AI enters and searches areas where it thinks you may be, but it doesn’t know exactly where you are.  If you make any sounds (footsteps, motion tracker, etc.) or enable it to see you by moving the wrong way, it’ll be able to hunt you down.  Your mistake, your demise. It is the perfect balance between omniscience and blindness, making it an ever-present threat, but not an infallible one (as you can use things like noisemakers to distract it too).

Learning: In order to make the AI feel more unpredictable as the game goes on, the developers used a clever technique to make it feel as if the AI is learning, thought it is not in reality.  Essentially, the AI has a lot of different behavior paths it can choose to follow when it is searching for you (check lockers, look down, etc.) but at the beginning of the game, many of them are locked, making the xenomorph unable to take those actions unless it sees/hears you.  As the player meets certain conditions or progresses through the game, more behavior trees are unlocked, making it seem as if the xenomorph is learning new techniques to more cleverly hunt you down.  An example:  The xenomorph comes into the room, while you are hiding in the locker.  It currently doesn’t have a behavior tree of checking lockers.  You don’t make any movements and the xenomorph leaves.  The game however registers that you were able to hide in a locker and avoid capture—this unlocks the behavior tree for checking lockers, and next time, it might check lockers.  If you keep getting away with hiding in lockers, the chance that the xenomorph will check lockers gets higher each time—as if it is learning from your behavior.  That’s a simplified way to explain it, but the bottom line is that by using this illusion of learning, the game isn’t repetitive; unlike Paranoiac, you don’t die the same way every time.

Please don’t check the lockers.

Regulation: The game has multiple difficulties—always a good thing.  Also, during gameplay, the AI stores a “menace meter”, which is a metric that estimates how much stress the player is going through.  It goes up if the xenomorph is threatening to the player (it is close to the player, the player can see it, etc.).  Once it reaches a certain threshold, the alien gives up on its search if it does not sense the player and goes back into the vents, and the game tells it to chill for a while before chasing the player again.  This creates an effective oscillation between making the player feel in control and making progress, and feeling threatened and panicked.  Again, a useful device in making a better horror experience in making the player feared to the bone, but not crushing them with BS.

All in all, Alien: Isolation’s AI is an ambitious and effective system to make the game scary through a balanced level of unpredictability, as well as being able to make the player feel in control one second and send them into full panic mode the next.

It may seem unfair that I am comparing this game—a high-budget AAA title with a large dev team and publisher—to indie games like the other three mentioned in this article. But you don’t need a big studio to create a great horror game, as evidenced by the next game…

The Witch’s House is another doujin (indie) RPG maker game by someone who goes by Fummy.  It wasn’t the first nor the last game that would define the subgenre, as it was released in 2012, but it was damn well made and surged in popularity quite quickly, especially with YouTube audiences (just like the other three games I’ve discussed).  While it isn’t a very long game, and there is little replay value other than getting the true ending, it is absolutely terrifying for the entire duration, despite its simple gameplay design. 

No death is the same in the witch’s house.  From the very beginning of the game, gimmicks are designed to throw you right off guard, causing a short-lived panic that results in your untimely death.  If you’re not thinking properly in this setting of horror, it may seem unfair, but the art of this game is that it really isn’t.  The way that this game creates just the right amount of unpredictability is by giving every single death some kind of reason or sign that is exposed to the player before it happens, enhancing the brutal impact of a jumpscare death and just screaming at the player: “You should have seen that one coming.”  Two minutes into the gameplay, you enter the house, and the second room you enter has a blood splat on the floor.  The unsuspecting player, thinking nothing of it since it’s just the first couple minutes, walks forward…

Yep.

but they should have seen that coming.  You cut a teddy bear’s arm off, and what do you know?  It wants to get revenge on you later.  The other way in which this subtle telegraphing system contributes to the paranoia the player feels is that it gets to a point where the player starts to suspect everything.  See a harmless item on the floor?  Even if it won’t kill you, the dialogue box that pops up asking if you want to pick it up still succeeds in psyching the player out in fear of a random death.  Oh, and speaking of the teddy bear example from earlier, there are a lot of places where the player sacrifices animals in order to survive.  Another good device used in horror—can you accept the horrors that you’re forced to inflict on others for your own good?  That’s a theme that is explored in more detail as the game goes on; I’ve spared the rest of those details as I highly recommend exploring the game (and discover the true ending) for yourself, which is free with an English translation.  Truly a game that thinks outside the box to deliver an authentic sense of horror brought on by a mind-twisting unpredictability.

This might have been a bit of rambling about too many games for too long, but you get the idea.  Just like many other art forms, horror is a craft that values balance, a concept that the best horror game devs know how to utilize to its maximum potential.  The central law is that an effective horror game needs to be unpredictable, but at the same time give the player a degree of control; this is how you make the player feel as if they are fighting to survive while being scared out of their minds.  Leaning too far in either extreme only serves to make the horror game experience feel banal and unfulfilling in its mission, though I’m sure many have different opinions than me on the matter.  Anyways, I’ll stop typing now.  Thanks for reading.

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