What's goin' on with horror games?

So, I really like horror games- and I really liked Amnesia. But the recent release of Outlast 2 has me thinking about how much Amnesia influenced our mainstream horror games, and how I think that hasn’t been totally positive.

(To be clear here: I’m talking specifically about structure/mechanics. A discussion of Outlast 2’s real thematic issues is a whoooole other thread.)

When Amnesia first came out I hadn’t really played a horror game like that before- where I’m largely powerless and my only options are to run and hide. It got me real good!

But nothing in that style has hit me as hard since. It seems like so many of our more mainstream horror games follow that formula now; creepy scripted sequences bookended by stealth “arenas” where you just have to crawl painfully slowly and hope the monster/zombie/pickaxe-lady doesn’t see you. I think that’s scary exactly one time. In the 2-3 hours I spent with Outlast 2, I literally ended up in a position where I would die, and then I’d press play on a podcast because all the tension was immediately gone. Now I knew the enemy was there, and I just had to execute on this kind of tedious, fiddly stealth section.

With SOMA, I eventually just installed the mod that removes all the enemies. It was like it didn’t have confidence in the (really effective, existentially troubling) story it was telling; it needed to put some creepy monsters in there.

The problem is, I’m no armchair game designer. I get the appeal of “You aren’t a person who can fight back” as an approach to getting the player scared. I know I don’t like it, but I don’t know what a good alternative looks like either. So what are your ideas? Or, even better, what awesome games am I not aware of that already have genius different approaches to horror?

EDIT: Oof I wrote a novel here didn’t I.

I thought RE7 brought a (kind of) fresh approach. Kind of melding the concepts from Amnesia, and the games that followed it, with a bit of well paced action, and clever puzzles.

Other than RE7 though, I’ve felt largely burnt out on the genre lately because there is nothing new and engaging. They’re basically all just “running simulators” now.

It’s been a staple of horror games for a long time but the helpless player character is indeed more popular these days. I think it mainly depends on the execution. Resident Evil 7 was solid on that aspect because you still had agency by being able to fight back and subverts your expectations heavily whereas Outlast 2 is pretty much textbook hide & seek with some die & retry sprinkled all over it. I haven’t played SOMA yet so I don’t know where it stands.

A lot of people still praises Clock Tower and it was basically like you mentioned but it had the ability to make you think and give you several chances to come up with a strategy to fend off Scissorman instead of dying in one hit.

I think it’s a good aspect within horror games but maybe one of the hardest to get it right. When a horror game takes back agency from me, I will focus a lot more on the few options I have left and will be far less forgiving if they’re not tuned right.

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To me the best horror game I’ve played is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but specifically the parts before and after the awful chase sequences. The dread that game manages to squeeze out is second to none.

I might be in the minority here, but I reeeeeally enjoyed The Evil Within. I haven’t had a chance to play RE7 yet, but I liked how The Evil Within was more action-oriented. I know about a month ago it was leaked that a sequel may be on its way, so…fingers crossed!

Also looking forward to Agony, so hopefully they release more information about it soon.

@Jeverage I feel you. Amnesia was scary as hell when it debuted but now there’s a deluge of similar style games I have a hard time getting excited about. The completely defenseless thing is a little played out right now.

I think there’s always been a struggle giving the player just enough power in horror. I think Alien Isolation actually did a good job of it, you had enough ways to temporarily distract the Xenomorph but you still always felt like you were being hunted and there was a threat present.

@thecalgee Ooh yeah, Alien Isolation is a good example of pulling this off without feeling frustrating- I’d forgotten about it when I posted this.

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Personally (and maybe this won’t fix the problem for you), I have the problem you describe way more in 3rd person over-the-shoulder or 1st person games. If I had to guess, that’s probably because some part of my brain associates those perspectives with action games. I mean, maybe there’s something inherent to that perspective too?

I liked the first season of the Last Door, which is a point and click horror game. It’s straightforward and the simplicity of its UI, game verbs, etc make the horror/scary stuff more immediate. But it’s a lot of jump scares and doesn’t resolve until the second season and the second season wasn’t nearly as good.

It’s also like five bucks.

The higurashi/when they cry games, especially the first couple of them, are pretty great as horror if you’re down with anime tropes and kinetic novels (think visual novels with not many pictures and no decision making). It’s essentially just reading with some graphics and music, but it kind of works better for it.

Also, you could check out lo fi rpg horror. The strange men series is free and like corpse party is on steam now for maybe ten dollars. None of these games are particularly mechanically interesting, but there’s something about them being so simple and straightforward that I really find appealing. That said, Corpse Party cleverly switches between characters and leverages player knowledge against character knowledge effectively by doing this.

Also, check out fan translations of the already mentioned Clock Tower (and watch Phenomenon for all the crazy amount of stuff Clock Tower borrows from Argento). Clock Tower has like 20 endings and has like a single health/energy bar and an inventory and that’s like it. It’s point and click and it’s all about being in this spooky mansion you don’t know, running from [something]. The [something] has like 2-3 places from which it may appear in any given screen and it shows up randomly or mostly randomly and chases you until you can hide from it, it tries to break down obstacles. The game assumes you’ll die a bunch and it’s really about figuring out the mansion and how things work and you get progressively better at leveraging this knowledge against the [something].

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