Action-Horror: A game of two halves

Games given the label ‘action-horror’ are on the face of it an appealing prospect, but in practice many games with the appellation tend to only work as one or the other… or worse, neither.

It seems that many developers struggle to find a mechanic that can fulfil both sets of requirements simultaneously. Initially scary enemies lose any sense of fear or mystery, eventually becoming commonplace in order that they can be shot often enough to confidently tick the ‘action’ box: the “horror for the first 30 minutes” effect.

It’s easy to see why this occurs. Both genres of game require a threat to oppose the player. It can seem sensible that one threat should fulfil both roles, to suit the story and streamline the game. But at every step, from initial conception up to eventual execution, the demands of ‘action’ and ‘horror’ are different and even directly contradictory.

Still, action horror is sometimes done well, and the result can be quite brilliant. The art of putting players in control and providing regular bouts of excitement, whilst also making them too terrified to open the bloodied door concealing the scratching sound, is a fine art indeed. When you’ve fought an enemy plenty of times before and know it will go down with a few shotgun shells to the head but you still pray you don’t see it ever again, you know a game has something special.

This article isn’t about the best or scariest action-horror games, it’s about some that used interesting or original mechanics and design choices to successfully mix these contradictory genres. Of course this article is also subjective; one man’s corny old folk tale is another whimpering man-boy’s nightmare about the hook-handed psychopath who crawls across your ceiling if you let yourself fall asleep.

The F.E.A.R Series

F.E.A.R takes the most direct response possible to combat the central problem. It passively accepts the idea that the twin concepts of ‘action’ and ‘horror’ are bad influences on each other, so it separates them like naughty children.

The replica soldiers that make up the vast majority of F.E.A.R’s enemies don’t lose their fear-factor after the initial fright because they were never scary in the first place. They are merely intimidating and smart soldiers who are endlessly satisfying to snuff out by the truck-load in traditional gung-ho action game style. Then, periodically, the action ends and the horror half begins.

Alma and the bizarre, terrifying visions and paranormal activity that accompany her presence are doled out slowly and with a deliberate, subtle pace that never gets old, predictable or loses its mystery and power. Then, periodically, the horror ends and the action half resumes. And so it continues.

Sure, it’s pretty clumsy. I use the word ‘half’ happily because if you imagine a pie chart with one red half and one blue half you’ve got a pretty good visual representation of how distinct the line is between them, and how separate they are kept. At times it feels as though the script was produced by passing a typewriter back and forth between Tom Clancy and Fred West.

Despite this multiple-personality approach, F.E.A.R’s blunt and clearly delineated style adds a lot of character. As long as the central game’s good I have a soft spot for unique personalities, and F.E.A.R definitely has that. Most importantly, though, the original mission is fulfilled: from start to finish it’s a horror game, and an action game, and it never lets either element encroach upon the other.

Alan Wake (and Alan Wake: The Signal)

When you begin to play Alan Wake it soon becomes obvious that Alan won’t succumb to the dark presence at the end of episode two – massive spoiler alert, obviously.

This is a problem because knowing this represents a type of security, and good horror has none of that. As a general rule, cynically but correctly guessing the outcome of a story based on a common sense understanding of the economics of publishing media doesn’t tend to get you too invested in said story.

The very concept of a game inherently presents this problem, irrespective of whether the player is controlling a brand name avatar. When you face a monster in a game you know there’s a way to beat it. Probably a weak spot of some kind, whether in the form of a glowing spot, gamer’s intuition regarding the head area and that gun you’re holding in front of your face, or just the knowledge that ‘enough bullets’ll do it”. Even if the monster gets you we understand that this will be built into the story and the game will continue. We know this the entire time we’re playing.

Understanding that the game must go on is a real downer on the atmosphere of some games.

So along comes Alan Wake, which smartly deals with the issue by telling you a campfire horror story with every bit as much vigour as it puts into giving you a horror game to play. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that the developers of Alan Wake considered the narrative equally as important to the end product as the gameplay. This game is really trying to tell you a story, not just using it as a framing device for explaining why you’re running around in the woods with a hunting rifle.

Further, the story is outside of the constraints that cause game elements to be reused; there’s no need to worry about control schemes or art assets or any of that. In a novel you will rarely find that the author just repeated chapter two with the occasional word changed because it would have cost too much money to write chapter three from the ground up.

Nothing can defeat the power of the old-fashioned chilling tale. That the chilling tale in question is woven so well into the gameplay is essential, as it is integral to the game experience. Whether the story of Alan Wake is well written is another debate entirely, it’s the conceptual importance of it that earns the game its place on this list.

Essentially Remedy’s answer to the issue of action-horror conflict is almost as blunt as Monolith’s: the horror is in the story and the action is in the gameplay. The story is one half of the overall package, the action is the other. You could reuse that same pie chart (ed: damn it, man, you know I wake every night screaming in a cold sweat from nightmares of pie).

The first of the two Alan Wake DLC packs also deserves a special mention because it’s the only game I know to ever manage to produce terror in a driving section – which is very much a subset of the action genre, particularly the scenario in which it’s used during The Signal.  For a start I can’t think of any other horror games with good enough driving mechanics, and it’s to Remedy’s credit that they did not overuse that apparently unique experience and instead let it speak for itself once only, in a giant and brilliant set piece. Incidentally, if anyone reading this knows of another scary driving game, let me know. If Alan Wake is anything to go by, they are awesome.

During my playthrough of the level in question I was panic-driving across a pitch-black rural farmstead, dodging haystacks only illuminated by flashlights at the last possible moment, with poltergeists flinging farming machinery at my car while I struggled to keep control and avoid the Taken crawling out of the shadows and having to press forward across uneven dangerous terrain at higher speeds than I could ever maintain and still be considered in control or vaguely safe, knowing from the awful noises that something was definitely waiting for me somewhere in the dark, all while being pursued relentlessly by a monstrous possessed combine harvester out of the worst nightmares of the guy from Duel. I believe the appropriate term is I ‘freaked my shit’. Unless that’s meant to be something sexy, in which case that’s definitely not what I did.

Aliens Vs. Predator (2000)

Aliens Vs. Predator joins System Shock 2 at the top of the list of terrifyingly scary action games, but neither warrants a place on this particular list, because they achieve that effect with good old-fashioned quality design and consistently well-pitched atmosphere. They don’t fit my stated remit of using interesting or original methods to achieve action-horror balance; they just play it classical and do it right.

However, there is one particular mechanic in Aliens vs. Predator that deserves its own section here, even if the game as a whole doesn’t. It’s the same mechanic that first brought me to the realisation that games could be great art in a way that is unique to the medium, without piggybacking on the arguments made for cinema or television.

When playing as the marine in AvP the player finds him or herself in a succession of almost jet-black environments, constantly pursued by countless alien drones. Throughout the game there are two ways to know what’s in front of you. One is to switch your view to the night-vision option so you can actually see. The other is to rely on the small and inadequate spots of light from the environment or your supply of piddly short-lived flares, in which case you also have access to a motion tracker which shows dots on a radar whenever it detects movement in the vicinity (which includes such things as flares, broken steam pipes as well as aliens, just to add some unnecessary pant-shitting terror to the standard pant-shitting terror).

Both options are fucking terrifying. The motion sensor is prone to making mistakes, and it updates every half second or so instead of in real time. On the other hand your eyes can’t see through walls, or even much more than a few feet in front of you, when night vision is active. As a result you are never comfortable, never safe, and forever in a state of heightened tension and emotion. And it’s not the game that made you this scared – it’s you. You chose an option and now you have to accept it, or change it and face the consequences of the flipside of the coin. Horror filmmakers would love the opportunity to make their audience actively participate rather than passively consider where they would place their faith, but this is an example of audience interacting with art which is wholly specific to an interactive medium. Suck it, Hollywood.

AvP

The motion tracker being bloody useless as usual

It’s a classic horror conceit because you do not feel safe no matter what you do, but it’s also a classic science fiction conceit because it deals with the divide between nature and technology. You are forced to decide what you will put your trust in: your eyes, which you were born with and are hopefully human, or pieces of technology, unnatural and not meant to be.

Also, whoever decided to make the smaller motion-tracker dot for facehuggers the exact width of the lines on the screen – so if it happens to be on that exact spot you don’t know it’s there – I salute you, you evil, brilliant bastard.

Timor Mortis

There’s not much more to say that hasn’t already been said. Hopefully the three examples I’ve highlighted above offer up some idea of how game design can engage with the dichotomy at the heart of the action-horror genre in a creative or inventive way – rather than just throwing predictable scares at you.

Are there any other titles, moments or game features that you feel belong in this same list?