Today’s Art (23rd July 2021)

This is a digitally-edited cyberpunk painting which, to my delight, turned out better than I’d expected it to πŸ™‚

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Street Four” by C. A. Brown

Review: “Amnesia: Justine” (Expansion For “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”) (Computer Game)

2021 Artwork Amnesia Justine (2011) game review sketch

Well, since “Dino Crisis” (1999) is taking longer to complete than I’d expected and because it’s been a little while since my last horror game review, I thought that I’d take a quick look at “Amnesia: Justine” (2011) today.

This is a free expansion for “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” (2010) which was also included in the DRM-free edition I bought from GOG a few weeks before writing this review – but somehow I completely missed it back then. To be fair, the small button labelled “Justine” on the opening screen initially just seemed like it was there for dramatic effect – especially when placed opposite another button titled “Remember”.

Aside from one brief, and easily missed, reference to “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”, this expansion tells a self-contained story (though it obviously requires a copy of the main game to work). However, I’d recommend playing the main game first, since “Amnesia: Justine” kind of assumes that you’re already familiar with it’s gameplay mechanics (eg: using the mouse to perform “motion controls” style actions).

So, let’s take a look at “Amnesia: Justine”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS and DISTURBING IMAGES.

Amnesia Justine (2011) - Main Menu

After a few messages telling you that there is no way to save your progress, the game begins. Set in 1858, you play as a person who awakens in a mysterious stone cell with a phonograph in the corner and no memory of how you got there. As you crank the phonograph, a lantern lowers from the ceiling and the wax cylinder starts playing. The voice of an aristocratic woman – Justine – welcomes you to her “cabinet of perturbation”, a psychological test of some kind.

Amnesia Justine (2011) - Cabinet Of Perturbation

Game over!” *Slam!* Dum-dah-dum-d… Ooops! Wrong horror franchise!

After picking up the lantern, an elaborate system of pulleys opens the door and the tests begin…..

One of the first things that I will say about this expansion is that, although it isn’t as good as the main game, it’s still a brilliantly scary short horror game. Seriously, I’d almost forgotten the thrill of playing a genuinely heart-poundingly frightening horror game. Yes it focuses slightly more on intense suspenseful terror than the slow-building psychological dread of the main game – but is still a really good companion piece to it.

Amnesia Justine (2011) - Ominous staircase

Yes, it’s definitely an “Amnesia” game…

So, I should probably start by talking about this expansion’s horror elements, which are fairly similar to the main game. There’s a mixture of psychological horror, monster horror, gory horror, sexual horror, gothic horror, character-based horror, cruel horror, moral horror and frantic suspense.

Unlike the main game, this expansion places a bit more emphasis on running away from scary monsters. These segments are relatively short, but feel considerably more intense and suspenseful than most parts of the main game. It’s an expansion that will have your heart pounding when you’re actually playing it, but won’t linger in quite the same way as the main game does.

Still, this isn’t to say that “Justine” doesn’t have a creepy story. As you progress through the “cabinet of perturbation”, you’ll learn more about the mysterious Justine – with notes giving hints about her twisted backstory and the occasional gloating phonograph message from her. On their own merits, these segments are creepy- but they cover a lot of the same thematic ground as the original game and seem slightly less shocking as a result. So, this element of the game will just be “more of the same” and slightly less scary as a result.

Amnesia Justine (2011) - Creepy pictures

Ok, there’s still disturbing cruelty and creepy psychological horror.. but nothing that will shock players of the original game that much.

This is probably also because of the short length of this expansion – which means that there isn’t really room for the same level of gradual character development that made the original game so exquisitely unsettling. Yes, Justine is a creepy character – but she comes across as slightly more of a generic “evil aristocrat” villain than anything else. And, yes, her name is very much an “edgy” Marquis De Sade reference. It is an “Amnesia” game, after all…

Amnesia Justine (2011) - Justine

And, of course Justine has a creepy oil portrait too. This is a modern horror game, after all…

But, as hinted earlier, the game compensates for it’s shorter story by including more frantic “fleeing from monsters” moments – in a faster succession – than in the main game, and these segments are absolutely excellent. There is also at least one segment that may or may not contain a monster – I was too busy fleeing in terror when I heard scary noises behind me to actually turn around and check. Usually it is best to just run – however, expect to get caught out by this at least once… since failing to close a door behind you at one point gives the monster a major advantage. It’s a mistake that is easily made, and utterly terrifying when you do. Especially since said monster can easily break through some of the other doors you might try to hide behind.

Talking of mistakes, they matter a lot more in this expansion. If you screw up and get killed by a monster, the game shuts itself down and you have to restart the whole thing. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it adds a lot more tension and suspense to this expansion than the main game has. However, having to restart the entire game can get frustrating… and will probably lead to you “speedrunning” the earlier parts of the game in order to get back to where you were before you screwed up. This chore-like repetition of the earlier segments can drain some of the fear from them, not to mention that it also reduces the atmospheric slower pacing that made the main game so brilliant.

Amnesia Justine (2011) - Desk

Yes, there is the occasional “safe” area where the pacing slows and the player has to solve a puzzle. Still, the overall pacing of this expansion is noticeably faster.

I suppose I should probably talk about the puzzles, which aren’t as well-designed as the ones in the main game. Thankfully the very first main puzzle is optional, albeit at the cost of causing another character’s grisly death if you skip it. But, given the fact you have to replay the entire game after every “game over”, this will quickly go from being a shocking moment of moral horror to “Ha! A shortcut!“. Whilst this could be a subtle way of emphasising the callous cruelty that is a major part of this series’ horror elements by making the “evil” choice the easier option, it’s probably just there to avoid frustrating players who don’t want to solve a long-winded physics puzzle every time they restart.

Amnesia Justine (2011) - Dungeon

Yes, this grim dungeon, complete with the anguished pleading of a prisoner, is seriously creepy the first time you see it. Less so, the third time…

The second puzzle is confusing and badly-explained, with a misleading item that seems like a major part of the puzzle but has relatively little to do with how to solve it. Seriously, just use a walkthrough for this one.

Amnesia Justine (2011) - Projector

This projector is prominently placed in the middle of a room, I’m sure I’ve got to arrange… *five minutes later* It does NOTHING?!?!?!

The third main puzzle is reasonably simple… but relies on a bit of trial and error in order to work out how to keep the monster at bay for long enough to solve it. If there was a saving system, this would be fun… but having to re-play two-thirds of the game (yes, “speedrunning” it takes about 5-10 minutes, but still…) every time you make a mistake is not only frustrating but also feels like a cheap way of padding out the game too.

In terms of sound and visual design, this expansion is as good – or better – than the original game. Not only does Emma Corkery’s voice-acting for Justine walk a fine line between genuine menace and stylised aristocratic villainy, but – as mentioned earlier – there was one segment where I was so scared by just the sound of a monster behind me that I didn’t even bother to look back to see what was chasing me (if there was anything there at all…). Plus, the creepy music certainly gets the adrenaline flowing too!

Likewise, the game’s visual design keeps the gloomy gothic atmosphere of the main game – albeit with slightly fewer creepy background details. Still, there is an occasional visual motif of male nudity – which could just be there for the sake of “edginess”, but it certainly fits into the De Sade-inspired story. In addition to this, the almost subliminal female symbolism on the main menu background is also a brilliantly “edgy” Freudian detail too.

As for length, this is a short expansion. With about 2-3 restarts and moderate walkthrough use, it took me a little under an hour to complete it. There are three main puzzle areas, some corridors/rooms connecting them and the ending area. This short length is probably a good thing – since it allows this expansion to keep up a reasonable level of intensity throughout, whilst also ensuring that having to restart the entire thing isn’t as frustrating as it could have been in a longer game. Still, the lower quality of the puzzle design and the lack of a saving system does feel like the designers were trying to pad out the length a bit. Still, there are apparently multiple endings depending on your actions, not to mention that you can choose whether or not to save some of the people you encounter, so there is probably some mild level of replay value.

All in all, whilst not quite as good as the main game, this is still a brilliantly scary expansion. Yes, the puzzles aren’t as well-designed, the lack of saves can be frustrating and the shorter story is slightly less creepy than the story of “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” – but it makes up for this by being a game that focuses more on short bursts of intense terror than a more drawn-out feeling of dread. It’ll scare you more when you’re playing it, but won’t leave you feeling quite as unsettled afterwards.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just about get a four.

Mainstream And Indie Horror Games – A Brief History

2021 Artwork Mainstream And Indie Horror Games article sketch

Well, I’d originally planned to title this article in my series about horror videogames “Mainstream VS Indie Horror Games”, but then I realised that the topic was a bit more complicated. Throughout most of the genre’s relatively short history, it has been either one or the other – or a mixture of the two. Very rarely, if ever, have the two things ever truly been in opposition to each other.

Although horror videogames have existed in some form since at least the 1980s – with the indie game “3D Monster Maze”  (1982) arguably being one of the first, and also something of a forerunner to the “run and hide” style of horror gameplay that would famously be crystallised in “Clock Tower” (1995) and then go on to characterise the best type of indie horror games from the early 2010s onwards (with “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” (2010) and/or “Outlast” (2013) starting this trend) – they only really became vaguely mainstream during the mid-late 1990s.

This was mostly thanks to the release of a certain game called “Resident Evil” in 1996. It wasn’t the very first 3D survival horror game – that was probably “Alone In The Dark” (1992) – and it was also famously inspired by an earlier horror-themed JRPG game called “Sweet Home” (1989) too – but it was the game that put the genre on the map. Yes, horror had also flourished in the “point and click” genre before 1996 (eg: “Shivers” (1994), “Phantasmagoria” (1995) etc…) and “Resident Evil” took influence from the puzzle elements of this genre – but it really helped to define “survival horror” as it’s own separate genre.

With dramatic fixed camera angles, a third-person perspective, slower pacing, an emphasis on careful resource management, puzzles, “realistic” pre-rendered backgrounds, deliberately awkward movement/combat controls, hilarious B-movie voice-acting and a premise that took heavy inspiration from classic George A. Romero zombie films – albeit with a hint of sci-fi – “Resident Evil” stood apart as something intriguingly different from the action, platform and racing games that were popular at the time.

After a sequel in 1998, other major survival horror series began to appear in 1999. Whether it was the dinosaur-based suspense of “Dino Crisis” (1999) or the more atmospheric paranormal horror of “Silent Hill” (1999), the survival horror genre – and horror games in general – really began to come into their own in the late 1990s.

The 2000s were probably the heyday of “mainstream” horror games – with the first half of the decade being filled with a litany of survival horror classics like “Silent Hill 2” (2001), “Project Zero”/”Fatal Frame” (2001), “Resident Evil: Code Veronica X” (2001), the amazing 2002 remake of “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill 3” (2003), to name but a tiny handful. Seriously, if you had a Playstation 2 console back then, you were in horror heaven πŸ™‚

However, due to the release of the famously more action-focused “Resident Evil 4” – which I’m still reluctant to actually play – in 2005, the genre began to go into decline during the second half of the 2000s. Mainstream horror games from the mid-late 2000s, like “Dead Space” (2008), placed less emphasis on suspenseful slow-paced gameplay and more on “intuitive” controls, “over-the-shoulder” cameras and fast-paced combat. These games targeted a more general “mainstream” audience than a niche horror audience, but couldn’t quite compete with the actual dedicated action games (eg: “Call Of Duty” etc…) at the time. Having lost their soul and sense of purpose, scary mainstream “AAA” horror games just sort of fizzled out and almost disappeared for a few years in the early 2010s.

However, indie developers were there to fill the void πŸ™‚ There were two main types of indie horror games from the 2010s – one is significantly better than the other, but both are interesting for very different reasons. Still, let’s get the worst one out of the way first.

I am, of course, talking about *groan* “walking simulators with jump scares” – these were more simply-designed indie games, possibly inspired by the seriously well-written narrative elements in “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” (2010), but without the more complex gameplay that “Amnesia” had. Likewise, the CCTV-themed indie game “Five Nights At Freddy’s” (2014) also popularised jump-scare horror games too. Another influence was probably “P.T.” (2014), but more on that game later….

These games basically just involved walking slowly through a creepy location whilst being startled by “jump” moments – with these often being the sole source of suspense, given that the main character was rarely in any actual physical danger. Still, despite their flaws, they did do a lot of good for the horror genre in terms of outreach…

These “walking simulator” horror games are an important part of the genre’s history thanks to the fact that “Let’s Play” presenters on Youtube started playing them and over-reacting to their scary moments in a really funny way. These hilarious comedy-horror “Let’s Play” videos really helped to bring horror games back into the popular imagination whilst also introducing a new generation of gamers to the horror genre. Likewise, the games got a lot of free advertising from these videos – with inexperienced horror game fans wanting to play the games their favourite “Let’s Players” played – further fuelling the popularity of this style of simplified low-budget horror game during the 2010s in a symbiotic “circular economy” kind of way.

On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, the very best type of indie horror games from this time period – like “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018), “The Coma Recut” (2017), “Monstrum” (2015) and “Outlast” (2013) – focus a lot more heavily on suspenseful “run and hide” gameplay, in the tradition of “Clock Tower” (1995), involving unarmed or under-armed protagonists who have to evade invincible foes whilst solving basic puzzles and/or trying to escape from somewhere. Focusing heavily on extreme sustained suspense, these are arguably some of the most genuinely terrifying horror games ever made.

In addition to some segments of “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” (2010), the game that probably helped to re-popularise this style of “run and hide” horror game was “Slender: The Eight Pages” (2012) – a first-person perspective indie game that involved exploring a gloomy rural area and collecting notebook pages whilst also trying to avoid the “Slenderman” – a tall faceless man in a suit. This style of “run and hide” horror game also clearly had an influence of some of the “AAA” horror games that began to emerge again during the 2010s too….

I should probably point out that, due to things like system requirements and/or console requirements, I’m relying entirely on second-hand information (eg: online footage etc…) when it comes to discussing modern “AAA” horror games. I unfortunately haven’t directly played any of them at the time of writing. Still, mainstream “AAA” horror games had a partial revival from about the mid-2010s onwards. Although mainstream horror games are less common than they previously were during the 2000s, a few actual horror games did begin appearing from “AAA” game studios again from about 2014 onwards.

Whether it was “Alien: Isolation” (2014) – a mainstream “run and hide” first-person perspective survival horror game, albeit with limited combat elements, that seems to take more inspiration from the very first “Alien” (1979) film rather than it’s action-packed 1986 sequel.

Whether it was the rare, yet influential, “P.T.” (2014) – a combat-free “walking simulator”-style demo for a cancelled “Silent Hill” game set in an ominous looping hallway with heavy emphasis on slow-building atmosphere and a few “jump” moments. Yet, unlike the many “walking simulator” imitators it inspired, this game used things like repetition, slower-building suspense, subtle altered details, mystery, the illusion of genuine danger (eg: the player is “killed” by a ghost at one point, before restarting another iteration of the hallway) etc… in a way that could even creep out experienced horror fans watching footage of it. It also apparently contained a puzzle too, an element more commonly found in traditional survival horror games than “walking simulator” ones. Interestingly, it also borrows the first-person perspective used in earlier indie horror games like “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” (2010) and “Outlast” (2013) too.

Or whether it was “Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” (2017) – which famously added more actual horror elements back into the series, albeit with “first-person shooter” gameplay. Modern mainstream horror games took a bit more influence from indie horror during the 2010s. Yes, the 2019 and 2020 remakes of the second and third “Resident Evil” games seem to have leaned a little bit more into “over the shoulder” third-person action – but the footage I’ve seen still contains a lot of the lighting, style and pacing of traditional survival horror.

In fact, this article was inspired by watching some spoilery online footage of one notorious segment of “Resident Evil Village” (2021) out of morbid curiosity – and being genuinely surprised at how scary even second-hand footage of this one segment was. It seemed to be a lot closer in style to the ultra-suspenseful gameplay of the very best “run and hide” indie horror games… but with the budget, graphics, sound design etc… of a major “AAA” game. Yes, the footage from the rest of the game that I’ve seen focuses a lot more heavily on gothic horror and/or “first-person shooter” action, but this one segment could easily be an ultra-terrifying indie horror game from the 2010s….

So, yes, it isn’t so much a case of “indie vs mainstream horror games”, but more of a symbiosis between the two things. Horror games started out as something made by indie bedroom programmers and the occasional medium-large (by the standards of the time) games company, then they became mainstream, then they fell out of the mainstream and became indie again… and, these days, most horror games are indie games but there’s a lot of two-way cross-pollination between them and the few “AAA” horror games that come out these days. Interesting times indeed.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Why It’s Ok To Use Walkthroughs For Survival Horror Games

2021 Artwork Walkthroughs and survival horror games article sketch

Well, for this article in my series about horror videogames, I thought that I’d talk about walkthroughs and survival horror games. Although some people may consider using a walkthrough guide to be “cheating”, I’d argue that they are one of the best things to ever happen to the survival horror genre. Why? Because they serve as an unofficial “puzzle difficulty” setting for games that don’t have this option – whilst still preserving the complexity, artistic vision and general experience of many survival horror games too.

Put another way, there are quite a few classic survival horror games that I’d have never completed without the help of a walkthrough. Even back in the day, I’d sometimes actually have to print off physical copies of segments from online walkthroughs (using dial-up internet, no less!) in order to get past a tricky puzzle or even just work out what to do after getting completely and utterly “stuck”. Yet, even if you have a guide that tells you what to do, these games still manage to be fun and compelling.

Why? Well, it’s because horror games are more than just their puzzles. Yes, some people enjoy solving complex puzzles and these games also often include them for good creative reasons too, but they aren’t the “be all and end all” of a good survival horror game. Other things, like the visual/audio design, the minute-to-minute suspense, the other gameplay mechanics, the story and the general atmosphere of a horror game can be just as- or more – important than a horror game’s puzzle design.

Yet, one of the benefits of using a walkthrough – as opposed to games including a “skip puzzle” button – is that you still have to go through the steps needed to solve a puzzle. Even though this can sometimes prompt thoughts of “How the hell do they expect anyone to work this out on their own?“, it not only shows you how the designers intended the game to be played but also gives you a bit of a hint about the thought processes that went into a horror game’s puzzle design. This means that, if a set of puzzles is well-designed enough, then you’ll probably want to at least try to solve the next one yourself rather than just jumping straight to the walkthrough.

Most of all, walkthroughs allow for a variety of playing styles. These unofficial guides allow game designers to create challenging games that appeal to players who love fiendish puzzles, well-hidden items etc… with the knowledge that, if anyone gets stuck, they can make the active decision to look for a separate online guide. Although somewhat convoluted, this preserves the artistic vision of the game whilst also giving players who are “out of their depth” a way to keep progressing. It’s the best of both worlds – a challenging “standard” difficulty for experienced players, but with an unofficial way for inexperienced or confused players to keep enjoying the game. Games are, after all, meant to be fun.

Another benefit of walkthroughs is that they still require thought and strategy from the player. A great example of this is the ultra-suspenseful horror game “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018) – although the item-based puzzles in this game are very much on the easier side of things, I still found myself using a walkthrough for them for the simple reason that it allowed me to focus more attention on learning the game’s challenging stealth gameplay. This is a skill that has to be learnt via direct experience. Most of the game’s horror and suspense comes from these stealth elements, so knowing where all of the puzzle items were didn’t detract too much from the overall experience (except for the time that I – thanks to skipping ahead in a walkthrough – accidentally picked up a puzzle item too early and had to restart because this broke the game).

So, walkthroughs still actually require the player to play the game and experience a lot of the suspense and challenge that the designers intended πŸ™‚ They are a way of making a horror game a little bit more forgiving without taking all of the “edge” off of it.

Yes, well-designed difficulty settings can do this too. Seriously, the “easy” mode in the 2002 remake of “Resident Evil” is brilliant – even though I didn’t die once throughout my playthrough, the balancing was still good enough that I genuinely feared I would on many occasions. Likewise, most or all of the classic “Silent Hill” games (1999-2004) have a separate difficulty setting for puzzles, allowing the rest of the game to still be enjoyably challenging πŸ™‚

But, although horror games that don’t need walkthroughs are good in some ways – since there’s a more organic feeling of progression – this can often come at the cost of making the entire game just a little too easy in some ways. “Dead Space” (2008) is a cautionary example of this – yes, it’s cool that the game has a GPS-like feature that literally tells you where to go next whenever you press a button… but half of the fun of survival horror is exploration.

Usually a walkthrough, especially if you have to close/minimise the program or look at another screen for it, is something that the player has to actively resort to using after they have explored for a while and got stuck. If you can easily use a built-in GPS-style guide within less than a second, you’ll probably end up using it too often – which ruins the fun of just exploring for a while. So, traditional walkthroughs are there for “Where do I go next?” situations, but are just about obtuse and convoluted enough to use that they are only really something players look at when they are actually stuck. This allows for enjoyable exploration, whilst also removing genuine moments of frustration too.

All in all, I guess that walkthroughs are – for me at least – an essential part of survival horror games because they serve as an unofficial way of putting the player in charge of the difficulty level without distorting the actual game itself. A good walkthrough can turn a game from being “frustrating” to being “enjoyably challenging” – whilst still also showing the player the way that the game was intended to be played. The existence of easily-available free online walkthroughs is also the perfect middle-ground between the two sides of the polarised “All games should have an easy mode!” and “Players should ‘get good’ at the game!” debate about games that still somehow seems to be a thing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Today’s Art (20th July 2021)

Well, to my surprise, I actually ended up making some fan art for today (it’s been a while since I last did this) and this digitally-edited painting is a stylised sci-fi painting of an utterly epic modern classic-style heavy metal band called Unleash The Archers, probably inspired by some of the songs (like “Abyss” and “Soulbound) that they released last year.  

Since this is fan art, it is NOT released under any kind of Creative Commons licence.

“Fan Art – Unleash The Archers” by C. A. Brown

Horror-Adjacent Videogames (And Why They Are Awesome)

2021 Artwork Horror-adjacent games article sketch

Well, for this article in my series about horror videogames, I thought that I’d talk about horror-adjacent games – and why they are awesome. Although the exact boundary of what does and doesn’t “count” as a horror game is a bit of a complicated topic, I’m going to define horror-adjacent games as “games that take visual or thematic influence from the horror genre, but don’t primarily aim to scare the player“. In other words, games from other genres that also include horror elements too.

Some good examples of horror-adjacent games include horror-themed first-person shooter games like “Doom” (1993), “Doom II” (1994), “Quake” (1996), “Final Doom” (1996), “Blood” (1997), “Painkiller” (2004) and “Devil Daggers” (2016). They can also include dark fantasy platform games like “Super Castlevania IV” (1991) or detective/crime genre point-and-click games that also include horror elements, like “Gabriel Knight: Sins Of The Fathers” (1993). I could go on for a while, but these are all “non-horror games with prominent horror elements” than full-on horror games.

Again, the difference is in the mood they are trying to evoke. Typically, a traditional horror game will have a slower pace and be designed in a suspenseful way that makes the player feel weak, disempowered and vulnerable. Whether via a slow movement speed, awkward controls, limited weapons or other restrictions, a traditional horror game will often use it’s mechanics – in combination with things like story, sound design and visual design – in order to make the player feel as afraid as possible. For a genuinely terrifying modern example of this sort of thing, play a game likeΒ  “Outlast” (2013) or “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018).

On the other hand, horror-adjacent games will often focus more on evoking another emotion. Whether it is the thrill of fast-paced platforming or combat, the cerebral satisfaction of solving a mystery, the exciting challenge of learning a skill, the fascinating feeling of exploration etc… These games may include horror-themed imagery, a gothic atmosphere, gruesome moments and/or mild-moderate horror elements but they are primarily intended to be “feel-good” games in emotional terms.

And, yes, the boundary is a little blurry. For example, out of the examples I listed earlier, both “Devil Daggers” and “Blood” are probably the closest to the horror genre. Both games include a subtle hint of the disempowering gameplay of the horror genre by making their combat a little bit more challenging than a typical first-person shooter game (eg: the player can take less damage from enemies). Both games, in addition to “Quake” as well, use a lot of gothic and/or Lovecraftian horror imagery and also include a certain level of gruesomeness too. Yet, at their core, they are still primarily intended to be thrilling first-person shooter games rather than scary horror games.

So, are horror-adjacent games a bad thing? NO! They are awesome πŸ™‚

But, why would a game developer include “watered down” horror elements? Simply put, they are a way of adding some extra atmosphere or a bit of an “edge” to games in other genres πŸ™‚ For example, one of the main things that differentiates “Doom” (1993) from many of the other sci-fi first-person shooter games it inspired are is it’s horror elements. Yes, it’s a fast-paced action game, but the player is not only fighting demon-like monsters, but will sometimes find themselves in areas with horror-inspired background details too – such as skull-shaped door keys, corpses dangling from the ceiling etc… too.

Although these elements, especially given how “retro” the graphics look these days, won’t be immediately frightening – they certainly lend the game a distinctive “edgy” personality that sets it apart from many other older FPS games. They are also very evocative of heavy metal music too – which is always a good thing πŸ™‚ Yes, the actual gameplay – where you play as a heavily-armed space marine – isn’t really designed to be too frightening, but the horror elements really add a lot of personality to the game.

Likewise, horror-adjacent games can be a good way to gently ease yourself into playing horror games too. I’m sure I’ve told this story before but, when I played my very first traditional survival horror game – the PC port of “Resident Evil 2” (1998) – during the early 2000s, I either played on a very easy difficulty setting and/or found the “infinite ammo” cheat. This turned this suspenseful survival horror game into more of an empowering horror-adjacent action game… and I had a lot of fun. It made me curious about other survival horror games, and I later got to enjoy the heyday of the genre as a result πŸ™‚

Of course, I also discovered this game in the context of having enjoyed other horror-adjacent games beforehand (eg: “Doom”, “Quake”, “Super Castlevania IV” etc…) and also reading cool-looking magazine articles about it in the years before I played it. So, it was sort of a gradual progression that eventually led to me remaining a fan of classic survival horror games two decades later. So, horror-adjacent games can sometimes be a good thing for newcomers to horror games too.

These games are also “edgy” in the most accurate and traditional sense of the word too πŸ™‚ They are close to the very edges of the horror genre, without actually fully becoming horror games too. And it’s always interesting to see examples of this sort of thing – especially since “edgy” has become more of a synonym for “shocking” or “tasteless” these days. This is linguistic evolution, and I’ve certainly used the word in its modern sense, but it’s still cool to see things that are evocative of it’s older meaning of “at the very edge of something”.

In addition to this, horror-adjacent games can – ironically – have scarier moments than some actual horror games. This is because, in these games, more serious moments of horror are genuinely unexpected and startling. A great example of this can be found in the fantasy role-playing game “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind” (2002). In the early parts of the game, your movement speed is slow and your attacks are weak. Given the large open world setting of the game, you’ll probably be eager to explore the beautiful roads, coast and volcanic wastelands between the towns.

Of course, you’ll quickly find yourself being chased or killed by the local wildlife. So, getting from one place to another can actually feel like a genuinely scary and tense survival horror game in the earlier parts of the game… and this can really catch new players by surprise. Yes, when you level up, you can easily hack and slash your way through creatures that once posed a scary threat, but the early parts of this non-horror game are brilliant because the horror elements are so unexpected. Especially when you’re exploring the coast at night and suddenly hear the distinctive whooping sound of a hungry pterodactyl-like cliff racer directly above you….

So, yes, horror adjacent games are still good games. Game designers may just choose to include horror elements – rather than making a dedicated horror game – because it is a way of adding extra atmosphere to a game, because it’s a way of adding a bit of an “edge” to a game, because it can interest newcomers to the horror genre or even just as a clever way of catching unwary players by surprise. Plus, they are just like a slightly cooler version of “ordinary” games in other genres too πŸ™‚

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

When And Why Horror Games Leave Things Out

2021 Artwork Horror game omissions article sketch

Well, for this article in my series about horror videogames, I thought that I’d look at omissions in horror game designs. Surprising as it may sound, sometimes the best design decisions in horror game can actually be to leave something out rather than to add something extra.

I first ended up thinking about this when I realised that “Dino Crisis” (1999) doesn’t contain any melee weapons. If you run out of ammo in this game, then running away is your only option. It makes the game’s limited ammunition feel like even more of a precious resource, it adds extra suspense to every dinosaur encounter and – most of all – it just makes sense. The monsters in this game are large velociraptors, pterodactyls and even a T-Rex… these are large, ferocious creatures… so, trying to fend them off with nothing more than a blunt or sharp object would be a stupid idea. The main character is presented as being intelligent. So, the lack of melee weapons is a brilliantly subtle piece of narrative and character design too.

Interestingly, a few other horror games also do something similar to this to a lesser extent. The classic “Resident Evil” games (1996-2004) will usually give the player an incredibly weak close-range melee weapon in order to encourage them to fight monsters from a distance and to carefully conserve ammunition for ranged weapons. If you actually have to use the melee weapon in these games, then you’ve probably made some fairly serious mistakes earlier in the game.

Project Zero”/”Fatal Frame” (2001) is a game where, if you run out of camera film, then you are defenceless – ghosts can walk through walls, save points deactivate if they are nearby etc… Yet, if you are running low on film and aren’t being menaced by a ghost, then you can pick up a limited amount of it as often as you need to at save points. This means that, whilst running out of film in the middle of a battle usually means curtains for you, running low at any other time just requires a trip back to a save point. It encourages careful resource management by helping out players who are willing to top up their camera during the game’s quieter moments.

Of course, some modern horror games get rid of weapons altogether or… more accurately… only give powerful weapons to the villains. By keeping the main character almost completely defenceless, these games not only make the villains seem scarier and more threatening, they also drastically increase the suspense by disempowering the player too. Still, many modern-style horror games will give the player a weak weapon that can only temporarily stun or distract the villains – and is often rare and/or difficult to use enough to make sure that the player only uses it when they absolutely have to.

Talking of modern horror games, another interesting example of design via omission can be found in “Monstrum” (2015). Although this first-person perspective game is a fairly standard “run away from the monster” modern-style survival horror game, with some mild item puzzle elements, it misses out on something that most other horror games have. I am, of course, talking about a saving system.

There is no way to save in the middle of a game of “Monstrum”. Yet, this omission doesn’t feel like a flaw because of the way that the game is structured. Since the main “story” of the game is relatively short (eg: search a cargo ship, with a monster on board, for several items you can use to escape the ship), the lack of a saving system makes it feel like a longer game than it actually is. Not only that, because the player is attempting the same thing multiple times, this added length feels more like a compelling test of skill than just boring filler or padding.

On an interesting side-note, the horror-themed action game “Devil Daggers” (2016) does something very similar to this… but with each “round” of the game lasting mere seconds or minutes depending on the player’s skill. Because of this basis in skill, it – like “Monstrum” – never really feels too repetitive despite the fact that the player is basically doing the same thing over and over again. Of course, there’s no way to save in “Devil Daggers”… since this would defeat the point of the game. You are scored on how long you manage to survive, so the lack of a saving system is a feature – rather than a bug – here.

Anyway, back to “Monstrum”. Another way that the game is designed around the lack of a saving system is that the monster you will face during each attempt is randomly selected from a roster of three monsters who each have different behaviour patterns and abilities. Since you won’t usually know which monster you are up against until you suddenly encounter it and begin fleeing in terror, the game is able to remain reasonably scary despite the repetition that comes from not being able to save. In addition to this, the item locations are also randomised too. This randomisation is a really clever piece of game design that not only makes a short game feel much longer, but also prevents it from becoming monotonous too.

Removing the ability to save also adds a lot of extra suspense to the game too and makes it feel like every action you take matters. The classic “Resident Evil” games also do something mildly similar to this, by limiting the number of times than the player to save. Each save in these games uses up an “ink ribbon” and you only have a limited number of these. This forces the player to not only explore – in order to find more ink ribbons – but it also means that every save matters a lot more too. There’s a real tension between safely saving your game or taking a risk and pressing on a bit further in order to conserve your ink ribbons.

Yes, the effectiveness of this varies from game to game – with the excellent 2002 remake of “Resident Evil” even including a relatively long ultra-suspenseful underground segment where there aren’t even any save points, let alone ink ribbons. Seriously, this part of the game is utterly nerve-wracking! On the other hand, “Resident Evil: Code Veronica X” (2001) is ridiculously generous with ink ribbons… to the point that I had about 10-14 of them left over when I finished the game.

The common theme in all of this is that, whilst leaving something out can drastically improve a horror game, the game as a whole has to be designed around this limitation. If something is removed from a horror game, then it has to be done for a good reason and also accounted for in the way that the game is designed. Still, when it is done well, then it can seriously increase the scariness of a horror game πŸ™‚

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚