Theorycrafting: The Horror Genre (if there even is one)

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Halloween snuck by me this year. It seemed like Valve forgot as well, as the Steam Halloween sale started much later than in previous years. Not every spooky game was on sale either. Elder Sign: Omens and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the World remained stubbornly undiscounted on my wish list. Despite this little first-world problem, I thought it might be a good time to bring up another minor inconvenience in my land of pretentious game theory. The genre labeling system as we know it has become antiquated. Shooter, strategy, platformer, and so on have become insufficient in being the only means of classifying a game’s format. However, of all labels, it may be “survival horror” that is the least descriptive of a game’s mechanics, thus illustrating a seemingly endless possibility of overlap for traditional genres.

Come with me if you want to live.

One thing that we should point out that could be considered superfluous about the term “survival horror” is the word “survival.” Surviving is almost always the basic goal of reaching the end of an adventure oriented game (you can actually die in Dear Esther believe it or not.) Though a blatant death state is not always the means of punishment for failure in a game, it is a mechanic that is nonetheless very prevalent. Therefore, survival should be implied and not be explicitly stated. Now hold on there. I know what you’re thinking. That’s not what the meaning of “survival” is in these games. A defining attribute in the horror family is that survival is also based on resource management. In the early Resident Evil titles, the ease of your progress was defined by how well you conserved your ammunition and medical supplies. This remains prevalent in newer titles such as Outlast in which you must conserve your battery usage to do something as simple as navigate in your surroundings. This form of survival is not exactly unique to horror games. Other genres place emphasis on resource management as well. The various rogue-like/light games (David Bowies as I call them) place an emphasis on scrounging, scavenging, and saving what goodies you can to make it onward. We wouldn’t call these games horror titles typically, with the exceptions of some with an aesthetic of horror such as The Binding of Isaac.

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This is my boomstick.

In some cases, resource management is not the highlight of a horror game. The idea of horror is placed more on the themes and aesthetic nature of the game. The F.E.A.R. series may be a good example of this in that it presents a setting with horrific sights and Hollywood jump-scares, but has a very simple mode of resource management. Ammo, health packs, and power ups are more than plentiful unless the player manages to go through them all like candy. If the theme and aesthetic were taken away from F.E.A.R. then it would be considered just a first-person shooter. In this case the horror game is also a shooter.

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On the opposite end of the horror spectrum, titles such as Amnesia and Outlast opt to completely strip away any sense of power the player has. Managing your resources is important again, but you have no means of defeating enemies other than completely evading them. These games are also first person horror experiences, but there is no shooting to be had like in F.E.A.R. Jump-scares are still placed throughout, but ultimately this flavor of horror is a different experience.

Let’s throw some guns in the mix again and maybe ration the supplies a little more. Pull the camera out a bit to a third person perspective and we have ourselves an experience like Alan Wake. Here we have another horror experience with a little more emphasis on the “fight or flight” conundrum. Alan could opt to try and gun down his shadowy pursuers, but making it to the next amply lit safe spot is a viable alternative. We wouldn’t say it plays very much like a shoot-‘em-up game akin to F.E.A.R. It also wouldn’t make sense to say it plays like Amnesia. Perhaps it is more akin to the Resident Evil of old.

Nowhere to run. Literally. There’s only one place.

For one more experiment, let’s take out the combat again and go back to the first person perspective. Let’s limit the resources as well, but while we’re at it, take out the ability to move entirely. Now we end up with something like Five Night’s at Freddy’s. (An aside: I personally do not condone let’s-play videos and have not had any exposure to any YouTube videos of this or any horror titles used for such purposes. The front of the Steam page is where I typically learn of a title.) Freddy’s is a first person perspective game and is a horror title like the others mentioned. You can’t defend yourself with weapons in this game. Running isn’t an option either as you are completely glued to your post as night security. What you do have control over is monitoring the cameras, enabling the lights, and activating your security doors. To do so merely requires pointing and clicking. When it boils down to it, Five Night’s at Freddy’s is a very simple point and click game requiring quick reactions. If I described it to an older gamer like myself who has never seen it before, I might say that it is kind of like Myst, but you’re stuck in a room with a security system. The puzzle is saving electrical juice and blocking your room when need be.

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Anyways…

If we took every horror title and looked at them for their mechanics alone then we would probably start to see that they have plenty in common with other genres. In fact we might start to see that the horror label is merely just an aesthetic flavor or a choice of setting. More than ever, games are demonstrating overlap and iteration of mechanics that blur the lines of genres. In a sense, we could consider a FPS as a point-and-click adventure in which enemies are a puzzle to be solved and bullets are the solution. So simply point your gun and click at the puzzle you want solved.

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