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- 10 Survival Horror Gaming Mechanics We Never Want To See Again - December 19, 2023
- Survival Horror Blueprints - Copy and Paste Galore
- 10 Game Mechanics in Survival Horror Games That Have Overstayed Their Welcome
- Quick-Time Events
- Damage and Health Regeneration
- Fast-Dying Light Sources
- Conveniently-Placed Ammo
- Player Guides
- Obvious Hint Drops
- The "Just in Case" Weapon
- Keys and Locked Doors
- Predictable AI
- Questions and Answers
- The Real Horror of Survival Horror Games - They're Predictable
There was a time when survival horror games scared me. Every turn around the corner had me wondering if someone was about to slice my head off. Every bullet I shot had me worry if I’d find more ammo. But those days are gone.
Survival horror games have become lazy. Instead of innovating the genre, developers are too busy making remasters and remakes of existing content. Even when remaking a game, they use the same mechanics many other games use.
This has become a problem because it’s making survival horror games predictable. You know what’s not scary? Predictable situations.
I’ve identified 10 game mechanics utterly destroying the survival horror genre. Let’s take a look at them and dissect why they’ve become so invasive.
Survival Horror Blueprints – Copy and Paste Galore
So, how did we get here? I think it falls to two survival horror titans–Resident Evil and Silent Hill. These two games made the survival horror genre what it is today. They introduced new concepts like atmospheric horror and quick-time events at the time. Because of their success, game studios copied their blueprints. Suddenly, many survival horror games were using atmospheric horror or quick-time events.
And that comes down to the risk aversion that game studios have. It’s understandable to a degree. One bad game can close a studio. But being risk averse also shuts down any talk of innovation. Studios focusing more on profits than player experience will continue implementing familiar, basic mechanics in their games.
As always, money is the problem. If studios balance risk with profits, someone can innovate the survival horror genre. And the genre is really in need of something fresh. Alan Wake II aside, things have been pretty stale.
To help studios avoid the familiar, it’s essential to identify critical mechanics in survival horror games that are overused and outdated. We can push developers to try something new by helping them realize that certain mechanics must go.
10 Game Mechanics in Survival Horror Games That Have Overstayed Their Welcome
Oh, quick-time events. They work well in cinematic games like The Quarry, Heavy Rain, and Detroit: Become Human. But that’s about it. They are so overdone in survival horror games. Running from a horde of zombies? Button mash. Need to maintain your sanity? Hit the right keys.
I understand why developers use them. The added stress of manically tapping a button helps add tension to the experience. But QTEs are often tossed into a game as an afterthought. It’s like a team sat down to discuss a particular scene and how to make it feel more scary or tense. When no one could come up with anything, someone suggested slapping a QTE on the scene. Problem solved.
It’s lazy. And because of the number of incredible games that have come out in recent years, players have a sense of lazy development. So, if a team wants to use a QTE, how can they make it feel fresh?
Supermassive Games does it right. They have QTEs that drive the story. These aren’t merely throwaway mechanics to annoy players. If you fail a QTE, something terrible can happen to the character–immediately or down the line. It makes the QTE part of the experience.
Digging deeper into that and intentionally using QTEs to drive different outcomes for a story could provide a new and exciting experience in survival horror games.
Damage and Health Regeneration
With the damage a character typically takes in a survival horror game, I’d expect them to be in a hospital for months recovering. Broken limbs, missing limbs, and even just deep gashes are just some of the injuries the main character usually receives. But considering the dangers they’ve experienced, it’s not enough or realistic for the damage they should be taking.
A classic injury in survival horror games is damage to a hand. Broken fingers, missing fingers, or just a hole in the hand are pretty standard. Despite this damage, the character continues to use their hand without any problems. I can barely type or game if I have a paper cut on my finger, let alone a broken one.
It needs to be more realistic. And this goes hand-in-hand with how most survival horror games measure health. They often use health regeneration. Whenever a monster or enemy attacks you, the inflicted damage shows up as blood smears on the screen. As time passes, you magically heal, and the blood smears disappear.
How does this make sense? A monster just slashed me across the face, but after a minute of just standing around, it’s like it never happened. It completely removes the element of horror. The game isn’t scary if I know I can take a breather and be a-okay again.
While I’m not saying survival horror games should go the Dark Souls route, there’s a system in between the two extremes that will make getting hurt in survival horror games a lot scarier. The next time my character steps into a bear trap, I want it to mean something.
I don’t know which studio started putting collectibles in their survival horror games, but it needs to stop. Games do not need to last 20+ hours. Some of the best games only run a handful of hours. Adding in collectibles is a deliberate attempt to extend gameplay, and it has no place in survival horror games.
Collectibles rarely contribute to the story, too. They’re just something to add to a player’s to-do list. If I’m trying to escape a monster or escort someone to safety, then the last thing my character would realistically be doing is looking for some totem that someone tucked into a corner.
Game studios need to become comfortable with having a short game again. A concise story is usually always better than a story with a lot of meaningless filler. In survival horror games, collectibles detract from the story. Send me on a scavenger hunt for an item I need to progress the story–not a collectible that just earns me a meaningless achievement.
Fast-Dying Light Sources
I think survival horror game devs make scenes dark solely so they can use a light source mechanic. And then they use that mechanic in one of the most frustratingly possible ways. Light sources die fast–ridiculously fast.
Whether it’s Alan Wake or any of the Amnesia games, if you have a flashlight, oil lamp, or match, you can bet it will have the worst lifespan in history. Matches are forgivable, but oil lamps and flashlight batteries do not have an excuse.
It completely breaks immersion, and horror games rely on immersion to keep you tense and scared. If I complain about how the batteries died shortly after putting them into my flashlight, I’m no longer invested in the story–I’m fighting the mechanic.
Use light sources if you need to, devs, but come up with something new. Using 20 packs of batteries in a single in-game night is unbelievable. And if I’m not believing the story, it won’t frighten me.
Call me old-fashioned or a masochist, but the over-spawn of ammo and other consumables is ruining survival horror games. There’s something truly frightening about not knowing if you have enough bullets to take out a boss or make it through a horde. It forces you to strategize and actually survive.
Survival horror games want to hold your hand too much these days. I know different difficulties reduce the number of consumables that spawn in the game, but that’s more of an afterthought than a core game mechanic. The game is trying to appease too many players and ends up just being another copy of a game that came before it.
Real MVPs of survival horror games, indies, take the comfort of consumables away from you—every bullet and health pack counts. AAA survival horror games should revisit their roots in this case. Sometimes, less is more.
I don’t know if game studios think players are dumb or something, but the number of survival horror games that use player guides is insane to me. Player guides are typically painted stains on a door, wall, or crate to indicate that the player should investigate it.
I like to think of them as training wheels you can’t remove. Resident Evil is notorious for its use of player guides. It steers the players needlessly instead of letting them explore the world that the developers created.
Getting a little lost and discovering something new or frightening is half the fun of a survival horror game. Devs should trust players more and design their levels with intention. A good level design will negate the need for player guides.
Obvious Hint Drops
Want a sure sign that you’re playing a survival horror game? Look for the inevitable sticky notes on the wall that tell you how to complete a puzzle. It happens in far too many of them. I’ll be running through some desolate mines only to come up to a broken bit of machinery. I can clearly see the machine is broken and need to fix it. What’s conveniently next to me? A note telling me how to fix it.
These hints can feel heavy-handed to me sometimes. It can also break immersion because who leaves a note like that hanging around? Especially in a location that’s been abandoned for years? And when it comes to trying to scare your audience, breaking immersion is the last thing you want to do.
This problem also goes hand-in-hand with lore drops. It’s common practice to run around an area and find notes left behind by certain characters that conveniently give the crucial information you need. I feel like this is why so many survival horror games focus on a time when phones weren’t in use. No one writes notes anymore, and even fewer write them and leave them for random strangers to find.
While I don’t mind letters, journal entries, and notes to widen the lore of a world, I think the methodology behind their implementation needs some work. It must feel natural and make sense that these items would be where the player finds them. And the content of those lore drops need to make sense and feel natural, too, instead of being obvious hints for things to come or ways to solve a puzzle.
Explain your world, but follow the number one rule in writing–show, don’t tell.
The “Just in Case” Weapon
The “Just in Case” weapon goes hand-in-hand with the problem of the overabundance of consumables. Almost every survival horror game involving combat has a “Just in Case” weapon. This is a weapon that the player starts with or finds early in the game. It’s unbreakable, and although it doesn’t cause much damage, it can still damage an enemy.
I hate that games have started including these because it completely removes the feeling of helplessness. You’re not helpless if you always have a weapon on hand. And feeling helpless is what makes an experience feel frightening.
Starting with zero weapons and finding myself stalked by a monster with no means of protecting myself? Now that’s scary. Give me more of that experience, devs, instead of making me feel safe.
Keys and Locked Doors
I’m okay with puzzles in survival horror games since they can help break up some of the monotony. I wouldn’t say I like poorly designed puzzles like locked doors. Why can’t I shoot the lock or just remove the hinges to get past the door?
Some doors are more advanced, but the point I’m trying to make is that puzzles in survival horror games can be lazy. They’re more like fetch quests or scavenger hunts than actual puzzles.
And they’re incredibly overused. I blame Resident Evil for this. Finding keys to progress through the game is at the heart of its gameplay. While that’s fine for RE, it’s less acceptable when all the other survival horror games start doing the same thing.
They don’t even try to innovate the puzzle, either. There are different ways to slow player progress that don’t involve a locked door. Please break the monotony and implement them instead.
What makes a survival horror game scary? Its monsters, enemies, and living obstacles. Your game becomes a success or is quickly forgotten based on how frightening your antagonists are. And their level of fright comes from how intelligent the AI is.
I can’t count how many times I’ve run away from a monster, hidden under a table in plain sight of them, only for the monster to rush by. Or, when fighting a particular boss, I can easily predict their attack patterns and make what should be a horrifying battle into a tedious task.
Predictable AI is the death of a good survival horror game. It immediately becomes a dull game where each encounter feels like a slog rather than a terrifying and exciting experience. Sons of the Forest and its predecessor, The Forest, showed what excellent AI could look like in a survival horror game.
The games feature AI that learns player behaviors. It’s then able to attack and react in a way that is unpredictable, scary, and a lot of fun. I hope other studios invest more in that level of programming enemies.
I’m a little wary of the use of AI in video games, but in this aspect, it could help. By making enemies more unpredictable with more intelligent AI, studios could create frightening experiences again.
Questions and Answers
Question: What makes a survival horror game?
Answer: A survival horror game is expansive with its different sub-genres, but at its heart, it’s a game, usually in third-person, that pits a player character in a world of horror. The player character has to survive incredible odds, solve puzzles, maintain their sanity, and come to some rescue of another or themselves. It often features locked camera angles, linear stories, and closed levels.
Question: What is the difference between psychological horror and survival horror?
Answer: Psychological horror and survival horror can exist within the same game. However, psychological horror leans more toward unsettling environments and experiences, while survival horror leans more toward shooting and escaping from enemies. One is more of a passive experience, while the other is more of an active experience. The two tend to blend together when used in some survival horror games.
Question: How long should a survival horror game be?
Answer: Survival horror games have linear storylines. They typically take anywhere from 6 to 20 hours.
The Real Horror of Survival Horror Games – They’re Predictable
Whenever a new survival horror game releases a trailer, I feel a moment of excitement. Perhaps, at last, I’m going to see something new. As soon as I see some of the same old mechanics used in every other game, that hope dies. Developers can introduce the new wave of survival horror games by revisiting some of these tired mechanics and making them new again. I’ll be waiting in my locker until they do.