For a guy who admittedly plays very little in the way of horror games (I played Slender, Resident Evil 4, and Dark Souls + Bloodborne, if you want to qualify those as horror games), I spend a disproportionate amount of time writing about them. Part of that is because it’s a genre I ingest frequently through lets plays, walkthroughs, and assorted wikis, and another is because it’s a very popular genre amongst indie and low-budget developers because compared to, say, an action game, it’s very easy to make. You don’t need hordes of enemies, you don’t need a lot of items or resource management… it’s just about a step above a walking simulator in terms of difficulty, and only needs a fraction of the writing skill the simulators require.
And, of course, there’s just my plain fascination with the morbid and macabre, something that drives many people into exploring these games in the first place. So when I found out that Outlast 2 had been released, of course, I was excited to get some popcorn, plop in front of my computer, and gleefully watch as someone gets butchered gruesomely on my behalf, clapping like the madman I am. Imagine my disappointment when I found the game to be… wanting, especially compared to Red Barrel’s earlier work, which was a master class of the genre.
Many reviews have delved into the game, talking about why it was sub-par or left wanting, but very view of them, I feel, have gone into depth as to the root of the game’s many problems. And after carefully considering my own opinions and analysis, I think I figured out a golden rule for Horror games, a golden rule that Outlast 2 breaks soundly and, thus, lost some luster in the process.
Horror games should be easy.
This is a very bold claim, I admit, but hear me out: it’s hardly a perfect claim and it certainly doesn’t apply to every horror game, but in a general sense… well, I’ll go about defending my position now.
I’ve publicly stated many times that dying in a horror game is the easiest way to defuse a tense situation, but it deserves reiteration here. A lot of the horror in these kinds of games comes from a dread of the unknown, that crawling fear when you see a dark corner and you realize you have no idea what’s behind it. Not only does dying break immersion by reminding you of that you’re just in a game and you’re in no physical danger, it also sets you back and allows you to better steel yourself: after all, now you’ve explored that corner, so you know what to expect when you turn it. So, in most horror games, it should be difficult, but not impossible, to find yourself facing a death screen.
For example, one of the most quintessential horror games, Amnesia, is surprisingly easy in most parts. The monster is slow moving, and while you can’t outrun him, you typically have enough of a head start that you can turn a corner and hide before he lumbers into the room. He’s also very bad at finding you when you’re hidden, and even the most poultry hiding spots is usually enough to make him lose interest and wander off. Plus, sanity boosts are abundant, so it’s easier than you’d think to take advantage of lurking in the dark, out of sight. And yes, there are some sections near the end where the challenge ramps up, but those are less “tension horror” and more “stress horror”, which is the kind of thing you might see in Bloodborne.
Another great example comes in the critically acclaimed Resident Evil 7. Now, this game was a lot harder in an objective sense than Amnesia, with smarter enemies, mobs who could swarm you, and less places to hide if you find yourself being chased. But your character has a startling amount of HP, much higher than you might first suspect. You can take quite a few blows before you die, but, the game cleverly hides just how deceptively tough you are by not giving you an easy-to-see health bar, but also making every impact FEEL urgent with audio-visual cues and a start increase in the amount of blood flooding your eyes. You always FEEL like you’re on the edge of death, even if you could take six or seven more blows and stay standing.
And finally, our best example? PT. In PT, Lisa actually attacks you very, very infrequently, typically to pre-determined cues that you can actually avoid if you pay attention and look for the clues. It would be entirely possible to go through the entire game, solve all the mysteries and escape from that infinite hallway loop, without having to die to her, even once. But even if you do die to her once or twice, her infrequency also means you never get quite used to it. It’s not like some horror games where you can run into her open arms, die, and breathe easy. Lisa only ever attacks on her terms, not yours, so the game does everything in its power to strip you of anything you could use to breathe easy… even if you have nothing to really worry about for most of the game.
The trick about all this, though, is that while objectively these games are easy, you don’t play them objectively. A comber could perfectly manage to navigate the halls of Amnesia, gun down the hillbilly family in Resident Evil, and solve the mysteries of PT. But we’re not objective players, we’re not emotionally detached. The difficulty comes from our own nerves and terror making things way harder than it needs to be. That’s the “trying to unlock a car door while a killer runs at you” feeling, and while the games are just easy enough you can get the door open, they’re not so easy that you don’t nearly get your legs cut off in the process.
Of course, there’s another way this particular issue can be fixed while keeping things challenging: procedural elements. But I would contest that for many of these procedural horror games, the true horror isn’t the dark creature that lurks in every shadow, tracing your every step… at least, not after the beginning. Rather, these games substitute horror with frustration later in the game when you find yourself dogged by an increasingly aggressive assailant. Slender, the game of a thousand clones, is probably the best example, but any low-budget indie horror falls into the same trap. Yes, the first few times you have to navigate the bathroom to find the page that’s inevitably hidden in one of its corners, it’s one of the best moments of dread in horror game history… but after a few dozen attempts and constant deaths, you’re still feeling dread, but of a different, far less enjoyable variety.
Alien: Isolation also takes advantage of some moderate procedural generation, in so far that the Alien itself is fairly intelligent and moderately unpredictable, so turning a corner and finding an alien baring down on you in one play through is no guarantee they’ll be there in the next. But the same problem emerges: dying seven times and having to re-do a section, no matter how differently it plays, stops being scary and simply becomes frustrating. Whatever common-sense rules you’d have for a platformer also applies to horror.
Of course, there’s always taking it too far. SOMA, giving people two chances to avoid rather slow-moving robots, proved to be a far better experience when modders later removed the aggressive robots altogether and simply turned it into a messed-up walking sim. Many other games, such as LISA, lose their edge when you realize that for all the disturbing imagery and the perceived threats, there’s no actual way to die, which means you again have no reason to fear turning around that corner. As much as I rally against death in Horror Games, I also recognize that we still have no better way to threaten people in a video game, outside maybe forcing really loud screaming to play from their speakers for five seconds straight.
Outlast 2 is both too difficult, where it’s possible to die in just a few hits, but it also ramps up too quickly, so you encounter one of the more gruesome foes stalking you very early in the game. Sure, that first encounter with that scythe-weilding maniac will thrill the most ardent horror fans, but after that, all the body horror and gross-out attempts (which was far more transparent and uninspired than what we saw in the first game) seem trite. And you’ll die so often, trying to navigate the wide open maps, that you’ll find yourself wondering, having died a seventh time trying to reach what was ultimately a dead end, why you don’t just try sprinting through the level just to see how it goes.
And that’s sad. But then again, I’m not Red Barrels, so what do I know?