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When Your Best Isn't Enough - The Ideal Horror Experience

The best kind of horror game isn't the one whose mechanics make you helpless, but your own follies that do.

There's one moment that instantly terrifies me in Capcom's Resident Evil 4. I haven't seen the game in ages, but when I bought the HD edition on PS4 this past week, I remembered that spot that haunts me to this day.

For those that don't understand the premise of Resident Evil 4, an evil cult in possession of the Las Plagas parasite kidnap the U.S. President's daughter, and agent Leon Kennedy is sent in to rescue her. 

It's not a boss- no, not one of the incredibly disturbing fights with Leon's gruesome end as a fail state- but those scare me too.

It's a moment of realization in the castle- Leon and Ashley enter this room of the castle, with long narrow walkways separated by shallow pools of water. Music hasn't started, but the silence is daunting and deafening. The expansive room has regions you can't even see yet- as a wall of armed Los Illuminados are staring right back at you, with flails, shields, bloody grins and a parasite living in them all ready to explode out of their heads and eat you. 

"Morir es vivir..." (To live is to die...) - Los Illuminados

This one moment scared me so much as a kid-- the fact that when handed the controller from my older brother I couldn't aim. My hands were shaking, and sweating, and I was so afraid I wouldn't see it to the end that I had nightmares about this fight for quite some time.

Granted, an 8-year-old kid shouldn't have been seeing this game. But I couldn't tear my eyes away -- it was the most intense thing I'd ever seen on a TV. What Resident Evil 4 achieved was something incredible. It gave you the full capabilities to defend yourself, and survive against somehow even more insurmountable odds. 

The game certainly has an action-heavy approach to its combat. It offers a large upgrading system for your guns to become more powerful, a wide variety of weapons for any playstyle, and the ability to upgrade your max health.  That along with story context of Leon Kennedy being a confident bad-ass that kicks and suplexes all his foes should make the player confident -- but the beauty of it is that's not enough. 

All of this makes me much less afraid in modern horror games -- the trend that Amnesia: The Dark Descent set forth is one that I find incredibly lame. Instead of providing ways to defending yourself, games like Outlast, Soma, Slender: The Arrival, and Layers of Fear, all decide to put players at a disadvantage mechanically. You control a person with no real means of defending themselves other than running away and hiding from the enemies.

That's part of the appeal, though. In a game like Outlast you don't really win, you survive. Even so, a good horror game shouldn't let you always run away.

This doesn't make them bad games. But without some means of defense, I feel weak. Plus, in any situation I want to face my fears -- confront them, and attack that adversity. True horror comes from the realization that you can't keep running from your problems. You have to get through them, otherwise there's no victory. Going through Soma on my second run was the least tense time I'd had with a horror game in a long time, because I knew exactly where to run to and hide at every turn. Perhaps that's a place for innovation in this subgenre of non-confrontational stealth horror; less corridor-focused level design would allow for more exploration into the unknown.

 That's why it's survival horror instead of... horror? (I'll be honest, gamers throw "survival" onto the term so much now I don't even know what it really means other than Resident Evil -- the series that created the term.)  It pulls you away from some innovative ideas that can be put in place, whereas defeating your foes becomes part of that survival. 

It's the trending horror that pits players against things they should run from, and that's not a bad thing. But when the player is not eventually forced to face those fears, it might as well be the same thing as turning the game off.

I am excited to see how Resident Evil 7: Biohazard handles its horror -- the producers have gone on record saying it takes some inspirations from games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent but also state it will still have combat. Perhaps they strike the balance I'm looking for -- a game that makes you want to flee constantly, but also forces you to face your fears in the end. Until then, I'll be sticking it to Los Illuminados for my horror needs.

What about you? What horror games make you afraid? Let us know in the comments section below, and as always, thanks for reading.

 

Published Sep. 25th 2016

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