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Aim for the head. Slice off the limbs. Burn the rotting corpse. Suck the spirit into a vacuum. The ways in which we can kill our fears in horror games are numerous but that doesn’t make them any less terrifying. That doesn’t mean we ever conquer them however just that we’re staving off the inevitable. It’s easy to say that games like Outlast or Amnesia: The Dark Descent are scarier but there’s no greater terror than playing as a heavily wounded Leon Kennedy struggling away from Mr X in Resident Evil 2 knowing that all you have in your inventory is a useless red herb and three handgun bullets.
Guns have been a staple of horror gaming since Doom landed in 1993. Resident Evil would take this concept and run, OK tank-walk, with it into the early decades of this century. Along the way it opened the door for the likes of Dead Space, Condemned: Criminal Origins and Left 4 Dead. The mainstream of horror gaming came to be defined by this concept of “shoot what scares you” and it’s easy to see why. The ability to be proactive about fear can help deal with the emotion even if it can never truly get rid of it. Landing a headshot in Resident Evil feels that little bit more permanent than successfully hiding in Outlast does. Satisfaction comes with facing (and shooting) your fears rather than running from them.
I’m not saying that games like Outlast, Amnesia or the more recent Visage don’t have their place. They found their niche a long time ago and have settled into it quite comfortably. But the feeling of frenetic helplessness and often abject hopelessness these games offer isn’t for everyone but that’s not to say there aren’t similarities between these two streams of horror. Violence is usually the big crossover point. It’s hard to imagine Resident Evil without its splattery gore just as it is Outlast without all of the photorealistic mutilation. No matter what kind of horror gaming fan you are gore is almost a guarantee. Also a guarantee, unsurprisingly, is fear.
I quoted Lovecraft in a previous article about games like Amnesia and Outlast and I’m going to do so again. The grandfather of cosmic horror once wrote “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. There’s a certain loss of power in horror media, especially films or novels, when the source of the horror is revealed. That can happen in games too but the need to keep the scares fresh over a five hour game as opposed to a 90 minute film often prevent this or at least they do in good games. It’s why reveals like the Crimson Head in Resident Evil, the Hive Mind in Dead Space or the Witch in Left 4 Dead matter so much. The horror is kept fresh because the games’ most frightening moments are built around the tension of not knowing what comes next.
Further Reading: No Weapons, No Hope: In Defense of Defenselessness in Horror Gaming.
Take the first reveal of a Crimson Head in Resident Evil. While these enemies didn’t exist in the original 1996 version of the game they made a lasting impression in the Director’s Cut that was released two years later. In the back garden of the Spencer Mansion there’s a staircase leading to the furnace that heats the old house. Innocuous enough at first thanks to the game’s fixed camera a more sinister use for the room seemingly built out of bare earth reveals itself after venturing further in. Above four stone faces set into the wall is a metal coffin held up by four chains. Once the player finds the four masks to fit the faces the coffin drops and the zombie that steps out is different from the rest.
The Crimson Heads were stronger versions of the original zombies. They had sharper claws, didn’t die as easy and, naturally, their heads were blood red in colour. They were terrifying. Still are even when the passage of time has made certain parts of Resident Evil very dated. Scarier monsters have come and gone since but it’s a great example of a game doing its best to keep those scares coming especially as players will likely discover the coffin well before they know what’s inside it. It hangs there, reaching closer and closer towards the ground as each chain drops away. If players were smart or lucky enough they’d be carrying the shotgun which, if they didn’t panic, would send the Crimson Head back to the hell it walked out of. One of the best scares in gaming combines the indestructability of monsters from Outlast with the desperate combat of Resident Evil.
The necromorphs are without mercy but one in particular – the Hunter – was truly terrifying. The rule of Dead Space was that if you shot off the limbs of your enemies they would slow down and eventually die. Using the plasma cutter to take away a Slasher’s bone blades and then knock it out for good by chopping its legs at the knee was always a satisfying feeling. The Hunter was quite similar in design to the Slasher being a humanoid shape with blades of sharpened bone where its arms should be but where Slashers of all stripes could be stopped. As intended by its doomed creator Challus Mercer it cannot be stopped by the repurposed mining tools player character Isaac Clarke has at his disposal. The Hunter pops up again and again, each encounter scarier and more tense than the last. It’s only when Isaac reduces it to its component atoms using a shuttle’s plasma engines that he and we can breathe again.
The Hunter is Dead Space’s version of Mr X or the Nemesis from Resident Evil. Apparently unkillable and only temporarily stoppable the creature epitomises all that players of this kind of survival horror truly fear. It’s bad enough in the likes of Amnesia where player character Daniel only has a lantern that is useless against the fleshy mutants on his trail but it’s even worse when you have a fully loaded shotgun and all it does is momentarily incapacitate the lumbering behemoth in your way. It’s a common trope in every kind of horror game and when you do kill these massive creatures it’s tantamount to the feeling when you popped that first enemy’s head like a melon.
It’s fair to say that few of these games offer any kind of replayability to the more casual horror gamer. To those that love a sense of atmosphere over combat then returning to the early Resident Evil or Silent Hill games makes sense for that as much as it does for completionists. Where combat is concerned the likes of the two Left 4 Dead games – with the second one having recently received a Valve-approved fan-made update – will always be there. Although these games lack the same kind of dread the FPS survival horror games had they make up for it with a different kind.
One zombie? No problem. Ten zombies? Piece of cake. A hundred zombies? Problem territory. Left 4 Dead is constantly upping the stakes thanks to the efforts of the game’s AI, ominously dubbed the Director. The Director will adapt to player choices sending specially selected special infected along with the hordes of thousands of infected. The Director will also adjust future encounters depending on the status of the four survivors. It’s a pretty ingenious way of making sure that no two playthroughs are ever really the same. Few experiences are scarier than deciding to head for the escape helicopter and leave the rest of your team to die beneath an avalanche of infected or wade in and risk everything you’ve fought for in order to rescue your friends.
Just like in real life a gun rarely makes a situation better but much like a condom it’s better to have one and not need it than to need it and not have it. So it goes in horror games. I could probably survive without one, as Outlast demonstrates, but it would be much better to have one as has been demonstrated countless times. It’s rare that you’ll ever be truly safe with one in Resident Evil or Left 4 Dead and a gun will never guarantee that you’ll survive. But when a necromorph is thudding around in the vents above you I’d pick a plasma cutter over a camcorder any day.