Chris' Survival Horror Quest Long Walk Short Pier
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Welcome to Chris' Survival Horror Quest. Here you will find a database of every console survival horror game ever created, complete with commentary, screenshots, game data, and forums. My goal is to play all the titles in this genre to learn what makes the good games good and the bad games oh so bad. Check out the database, the forums, and info on how you can help!

Posted by: Chris on 2015-01-06 01:50:46

This entire game is based on that one scene from The Descent.
There's a lot to like about Outlast. It's a non-combat stealth horror game made by a small team of veterans that sports super high production value but keeps things simple. The sound quality is fantastic and the graphics are nice and it manages to be pretty scary now and then. It's got a great mechanic (a nightvision camera) that it uses well. It's exactly the type of game that interests me in this post-Amnesia world: small, contained, high-quality, and (hopefully) experimental. So it is with great regret that I must report that I did not like Outlast very much.

There are a number of obvious problems with Outlast. The story is fairly routine and inconsequential to gameplay. The game goes for excessive gore, which is probably exciting to kids but is pretty boring to me. The stealth system is pretty bad, and it's often easier to just sprint through a level than to try to sneak around. The level art and enemy design is pretty repetitive. The encounters with one big brute enemy get old really fast.

But these are really just superficial problems. There are games with much worse stories, and much poorer stealth mechanics, that still manage to pull off some great gameplay. No, the real issue with Outlast is this:

It's predictable.

Not just the story arc (although that's also predictable), but the core level design. The levels follow such a routine, obvious pattern that everything from item placement, to pop-out scare pacing, to encounters with other characters is easy to read way in advance. In a game with very few interaction mechanics (you can move, hide in lockers, and look at things through night vision), predictable level design is a serious problem.

Comfort is the antithesis of horror. When the player feels comfortable, they aren't feeling scared. In a game like Outlast, one of the primary ways that a player comforts himself is by anticipating what will come next. This is a mode of thinking that treats the game we are playing like a system. Every time you think, "oh, the obvious flashing light is to the left, so I'll go right first," or "this would be a good spot for a hidden item," or "it's been a while since the last pop-out scare, I bet one's coming up," you're thinking about the game as a system that you are trying to solve. You're not navigating the dark hallways of a corrupt insane asylum that's been experimenting on its patients, you're solving a Rubix Cube. Guess which one of those types of play is scarier.

Outlast's main problem is that it has very little to work with to keep you uncomfortable. The levels are narrow and linear, and there's only ever one right way to go (if there's more than one way, there's probably an item at the end of the alternate passage). The game mechanics are well implemented but extremely shallow, which makes the actual moment-to-moment gameplay very repetitive. The game dutifully saves before every major encounter (and immediately after) and helpfully alters the music to let you know exactly when you are in danger and when you are not. As a result, you know enough to see through the game content and treat it like a Rubix Cube.

The developers try to combat this with stealth sections. Sometimes they work; when you are hiding in a dark corner and can't see your pursuer, it can be pretty tense. But the stealth sections quickly devolve into a repetitious, frustrating challenge, which feel unfair. After a few attempts, you realize it's easier just to run for it. Now you're treating it as a system again, and the power the game had over you is lost.

The only remaining trick the developers have up their sleeves is pop-out scares. But even those get old really fast. They are startling, and knowing that they could pop something out at you at any time is stressful, but they happen so often that the easiest solution is to just take yourself out of the game. Once you stop caring about your character the pop-out scares have no power, and their appearance becomes yet another thing to try to predict.

It's a shame, too, because there are some great scenes in Outlast. My favorite is a bit late in the game when you finally exit the foreboding asylum into a rainy courtyard. It's almost pitch black but the area is punctuated by lightning. This section only lasts a minute or two until you're guided back into more strictly-linear passage crawling, but it's a great scene.

There are some other nice touches as well. The night vision camera pretty much saves the day by giving you a very narrow cone of vision and forcing you to navigate unfamiliar territory with it. There's a battery mechanic that creates some pressure between using the night vision to see your surroundings and trying to conserve your small supply of batteries for an emergency situation. The actual movement mechanics are good and the game isn't buggy or broken (although the way the camera rocks made me feel like my character is wearing clown shoes). There's some really nice automatic first-person body and hand animation that I haven't seen done this well before.

But in the end, the thinness of the game mechanics and the predictability of the level design sucked all the scariness out of this game for me. The reliance on pop-out scares further removed me from the game, and by the end I was just Rubix Cubing my way to the finale.
The Interaction Feint
Posted by: Chris on 2014-10-04 14:07:01
Fatal Frame 4, which I keep coming back to every few months but never seem to complete, has a neat item pickup mechanic. Your character, a young woman trapped in a dilapidated hospital on a forbidden island full of moon ghosts, slowly extends her hand to reach for an item when you hit the A button. In fact, you need to hold the A button down or she'll draw her hand back. As you hold the button down, her hand extends and the camera moves to follow it. There is a slow approach, a pregnant pause, and then ding!, a Shinto bell indicates that she's got the item.

Except sometimes, every tenth item or so, a ghostly hand will shoot out of the darkness and grab her wrist just before it reaches the item. A stinger plays and the camera cuts to an animation of the protagonist fighting to get the hand off. And then the game resumes. It's a pop-out scare built right into the item pickup mechanic.

Ju-on: The Grudge does something similar. Every time you open a door you see a slow animation of a hand extending, grasping the handle, and opening the door. Every once in a while, a little ghost kid's hand shoots out of the darkness and grabs you. It happens just frequently enough that every time you open a door you hold your breath.

I'm calling this mechanic the Interaction Feint. Formally defined, an Interaction Feint is when a routine interaction is co-opted without warning to startle and surprise the player. It is powerful because it subverts common interactions that the player performs so often that they've become automatic. Its effect is to make those operations more nerve-racking by forcing the player to mistrust the interaction. The ultimate goal of the Interaction Feint, as with most horror mechanics, is to keep the
player from feeling confident and in control.

The Resident Evil games have, from time to time, used the inter-room door loading animation as an Interaction Feint. A clutch of zombies appear and attack in the middle of what appears to be another boring room load. There are other examples, but they all serve a similar purpose: to keep the player from falling into a comfortable routine.

Even non-horror games use Interaction Feints. One great example is the Mimic in Dragon Quest 3 (and his jerkwad counterpart in Dark Souls). This is a monster disguised as a treasure chest that attacks the player when he tries to open it. It's a great Interaction Feint because the player opens many chests and is excited to find them. He is thinking of what might be inside, and is (ideally) caught completely by surprise when the Mimic attacks. The Mimic can be pretty scary, too. In Dragon Quest they can often kill a party member instantly. Maybe next time the player won't approach a chest so carelessly.

I think that pop-out scares have value in extreme moderation. The best pop-out scare is the kind that forces the player to wait for the next pop-out event, which should ideally never come. A good pop-out can coil the player like a spring, and then force them to stay that way, with no chance to unwind.

The Interaction Feint is a particularly insidious form of pop-out scare because it forces the player into a state of hyper vigilance. The player must now be careful no matter how routine the operation. If he forgets and relaxes, the Feint can achieve the shock value of a good pop-out scare. But it's even better if the player doesn't forget, because in that case he must worry about every single item he collects, every door he opens, every chest he investigates. Now a routine, nonthreatening, uninteresting interaction has been transformed into something that induces tension. That's pretty cool.
Curse: The Eye of Isis
Posted by: Chris on 2014-08-25 21:39:22
Hey, I finished another horror game! Crazy, right? This time it is Curse: The Eye of Isis, a throughly mediocre game that nonetheless has some interesting ideas (that don't work out, of course). This was one of the most pleasant bad games that I've played in a while because it's not particularly buggy and I got a kick out of killing everything with the default club weapon. If I can finish a couple more games I can retire the original Xbox, which I've kept hooked up just for a few obscure titles like this one.

Curse is actually a great game to study because it's got all kinds of common failures wrapped up in one package. If you're like me and you enjoy punishing yourself to learn things, it's actually worth a look.
Virtual Reality Horror is Amazingly Great
Posted by: Chris on 2014-06-20 00:21:02
I played Alien: Isolation at the Oculus booth at E3 last week. Alien is a high-end experiment in the genre I've been calling "exploratory first-person horror" for the last few years. Mechanically, it's a lot like Slender or the hiding bits of Amnesia: you are running around a dark space ship with an obfuscated radar, hiding from the deadly alien that is prowling somewhere in the shadows. If the alien catches up to you, it's an immediate, grisly game over. The presentation is dark and the tension is high and, as exploratory first-person horror games go, this one probably has the best production values of anything I've played. It's a good, tight horror game. But as a VR experience, it's absolutely jaw-dropping.

It's not that the VR experience is completely convincing. There are a lot of technical problems left to solve. The resolution should be higher, and it's hard to reconcile the direction that your character should move when you press up on the analog stick (moving the way you are looking felt weird, at least to me). Any time the game took camera control away from me, even for a moment, I started to feel queasy in my stomach. And it's not clear exactly how this will scale to more complicated games.

Because it's imperfect, the VR version of Alien felt a bit a Disneyland ride to me; a not-entirely-real world that was trying its best to be convincing. But here's the thing: I was there. The world might be fake, but I was standing in the middle of it. The "sense of presence," (to use Thomas Grip's term) is so strong that I quickly forgot about the details of the environment and concentrated on hiding in a tiny ventilation shaft while the flashing dot on my low-tech radar passed dangerously close. With VR, even though the tech and presentation have a lot of room for improvement, the feeling of being inside the world is astounding. And it makes the horror of this kind of game work almost immediately. Grown men and women sitting near me were literally screaming as they played.

Speaking of Thomas Grip, I chatted with him at the annual Game Developer's Conference this year. He's hard at work on SOMA, which, from the little I've seen, is going to be the best horror game available on a console for a long while. One of the things we discussed was the ways in which that sense of presence is built (or, in many cases, destroyed). Sense of presence goes beyond suspension of disbelief; it is the feeling that the world is real, that you are in it, and that the consequences of your actions are therefore meaningful. It's an incredibly hard feeling to create; most games don't manage it. Those that do are often horror games, and those horror games are the best horror games.

But with VR, the sense of presence is almost free. The world, even when rendered imperfectly, is immediately believable. Though your brain knows that you're sitting in a chair with a cumbersome mask on, it's very hard to actually interact with the real world. Even reaching out my hand to pick up a controller from the desk is hard for me to do without closing my eyes. The visuals your brain is getting are strongly sending you the message that you are somewhere else, and the easiest thing to do is just believe that.

As I mentioned above, there's still a lot of technical hurtles. The biggest, I think, is character movement. You can't very well get up and walk around with a giant screen stuck to your face, but your character in the game needs to move freely. This disconnect between your real movement and the in-game movement is jarring because there's no such disconnect between your head movement and your view. My biggest beef with Alien is that movement felt unnatural. It wasn't unplayable, but it hurt the sense of presence. It felt like I was just a disembodied head flying through space.

But these issues will be solved. In fact, I'm sure the all-star dream team of developers that Oculus has assembled is hard at work on solving this sort of problem right now. But even at its current state, VR for horror is incredibly compelling. I am tempted to claim that it will be, for the types of games that work in VR, the best possible way to play horror games in the future.
Nanocon Part Deux
Posted by: Chris on 2013-11-08 09:08:00
Happy to report that I'm heading back to Nanocon this year to give a talk about the Rules of Horror, particularly in games. If you can't make it, I'll post my slides when I get back to California. If you can make it--see you there!

Part of the talk I gave at Nanocon a few years ago focused on horror games as a "chautauqua." The term refers to a traveling group of entertainers/educators that toured rural America in the early part of the 20th century. Robert Pirsig used the word in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to describe the book itself: it is meant to enlighten and educate, but does so by entertaining the reader with a story. I really like the concept of entertainment as a vehicle for teaching, and I think horror games are particularly adept at assuming that role.

Richard Rouse III, designer of The Suffering (and many others), points out that horror is uniquely positioned to discuss complex social topics because it flies under the radar of political critics. Horror is quickly and easily written off as "garbage for the kids," and thus is free to discuss topics that more prestigious genres cannot touch. You can read more about this idea in my write-up of a talk Rouse gave a couple of years ago.

This year's talk will be a little different. I'll post my slides when I return.

EDIT: So I didn't really go to Nanocon. Apparently I was there in spirit, though, as a character in a horror-themed ARG that the folks at Dakota State put together this year. I've never been a character in a game before. That's... really weird. So, sorry: there aren't actually any slides this time around. But that chautaqua stuff is still an interesting way to think about horror games, right?
10 Years
Posted by: Chris on 2013-10-31 23:28:35
My first Chris' Survival Horror Quest post appeared on August 6th, 2003. That means that this is the Quest's tenth year running, which I'm finding a little hard to comprehend. Since I started I've had two kids, shipped a bunch of games, founded a game studio, and moved across the Pacific ocean twice. I've also finished over sixty horror games, and have written about most of them (which, by the way, is a little over half of the games cataloged here).

Since it's Halloween, and since there's more interest in horror this year than in recent memory, I thought I'd call out a few of my favorite posts from the last ten years. There are a bunch more that I am proud of, but these are some of my favorites.

You might also be interest in this podcast I did with Patrick Klepek over at Giant Bomb recently, or the short history of horror games that I wrote this week for EDGE Online.

Thanks for sticking with me as I continue to dig into this fascinating genre. Happy halloween!
Feature: Useful Tips for Horror Game Designers
Posted by: Chris on 2013-10-22 09:58:16

Ah, reconnecting the power to the elevator. So much fun every time.
A few months ago I had a discussion on Twitter with Thomas Grip, the brains behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the Penumbra series, and now SOMA, about overused elements in horror games. Turns out there are a whole lot of trite, cliché, and downright dated design elements that show up again and again in horror games, and once we started talking about them they just came flooding out. What started as a joke ("Not every mansion needs an underground lab") quickly turned into a mega-thread, to the point that some of my followers asked me to stop talking about this and write a blog post.

So here is that blog post. Thomas and I have racked our brains to produce the following USEFUL TIPS FOR HORROR GAME DESIGNERS.

A few people have commented since we posted this today that there are a lot of complaints about Resident Evil in here. That's true! But we worked to ensure that each tip addressed a trope that can be found in multiple game series. None are exclusive to Resident Evil, and most are employed by five or six different games. Read the feature here..
More Indie Horror Games to Back
Posted by: Chris on 2013-09-23 01:08:55
It's been a busy summer for indie horror game announcements. There are so many horror games in development, looking for funding, or recently shipped that you might think the world has gone insane. Actually, I think the real reason is that we suddenly have platforms where niche communities (like this one) can vote with their wallets for the types of games they want, and it turns out a lot of them want horror games.

Here are a bunch of games you should consider / back / play / keep an eye on. This is far from an exhaustive list! Please add your favorites in the comments.
  • Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is out on Steam. Developed by The Chinese Room, the guys behind Dear Esther, this is one you should go play now.
  • Outlast is another popular recent release that I haven't played because it's Windows-only. Check it out.
  • The Long Dark probably isn't a horror game per se, but the folks working on it are all awesome and it promises to tread ground familiar to any horror aficionado.
  • Neverending Nightmares is a horror game looking for funding. Love the Edward Gorey art style!
  • Long Night is another horror game trying to raise development funds. This one promises psychological scares without the need for combat or gore.
  • Finally, here's another shot of the game I'm working on. No details, yet!
The Problem with Dark Souls
Posted by: Chris on 2013-08-17 21:00:09

It took me a long time, but I finally figured out why I can't play Dark Souls. I tried to play it--put a good 15 hours into it, which is longer than it takes me to complete most of the games I play. I even played a bit of Demon Souls before that, so I had some idea of what I was getting into. But in the end I came away confused, frustrated, and having made almost no progress whatsoever.

Casey, my founding partner at Robot Invader, is a huge Dark Souls fan. So are a number of my friends. Many designers I respect immensely have told me that they consider Dark Souls to be one of the best games ever made. People talk about it with such reverence, I feel like I am missing out. But every time I've tried to play the game seriously, I've felt that I was wasting my time.

The problem isn't the difficulty. Dark Souls is incredibly difficult, but I'm sure that, with time, individual enemy encounters become more manageable than they are in the early game. One should at least become proficient with the combat system and controls, and can eventually upgrade stats and weapons. Combat might not be easy, but over time it probably seems less random. I am cool with that--I have enjoyed some pretty hard games that worked much the same way in the past. I am proud to have finished God Hand, Devil May Cry, Catherine, Siren, and the arcade version of Strider on less than $2, way back in the day. Once I did a zero continues run of Resident Evil 4. It could be that Dark Souls is just too hard for me, but I don't think that's the real issue.

Even after playing for what seems like a long time, I'm absolutely unable to make any progress. Perhaps I'm just playing it wrong. Maybe I've made some grave error in my perception of how this game is to be played, and because of that I'm making it much harder on myself than it should be. Is the first boss supposed to take 100+ attempts? Or did I screw up somewhere?

The feeling of wasting my time comes from the basic sense that I'm zigging when the game expects me to zag. This is reinforced by the occasional discovery that I have be doing it all wrong. For example, early in the game your character is told to that they can go "up or down," but that up is the easier path. The path downwards, a series of winding stairs heading straight into the face of a cliff, is easy enough to find. The path upwards is a small staircase placed at the side of a cliff that I completely missed my first time through that area. I missed it the second time, too. And about fifty other times. I explored the area and the only other place to go, other than down, seemed to be through a graveyard into a cave. I spent a few hours trying to fight my way into that cave, and eventually made it, only to be killed immediately by even more powerful enemies. Skeletons in Dark Souls are no joke.

"Don't go that way,"

I have no idea what any of this means.
Casey said, when I asked him about it.

I eventually found the way up, and breezed through the next area until I reached a boss, whom I've been unable to defeat in the subsequent 10-odd hours of play.

"You've just got to get better," Casey said. "That's the fun part."

But better at what? Combat? Better weapons? Better stats? Better at finding my way through the map?

The real issue, I think, is the way the game refuses to give the player feedback about their decisions. The rules are complex and the path to the goal is intentionally obfuscated. Am I going the right way? Which character type should I choose? Which gift? Which stats should I upgrade? Should I upgrade all my stats little by little or pour all my points into one or two abilities? Am I meant to come back to this area later or have I just missed some trick to completing it? Should I spend humanity points or hoard them for later? My experience is that the play outcome for me, for all permutations of the above questions, is the same: I die in the same spot over and over and over again. It doesn't seem to really matter which choices I make; maybe it will matter 60 hours in, but at the 15 hour mark the complete lack of feedback from any of the decisions I've made leads me to feel that they are pointless.

There are other hard games that refrain from holding your hand as you play. I think pretty much everybody hit a shelf moment when they encountered the very first lava spider boss in Devil May Cry. You're meant to figure out that you need to grind for upgrades, or simply become incredibly good at playing, or select the easy mode. That boss is a forcing function: you learn how to play or you adjust the difficulty or you quit. And once you've passed this moment, you have a better idea of what is expected of you as a player, and the game now knows something about how you choose to play. But a lot of people I know just gave up at that point. Siren is another hard game that does a terrible job of telling you the "correct" way to play, and you can get lost for hours on end, making no progress whatsoever, until it clicks. When it does, it's an amazing game. But a lot of people quit long before they get there.

I'm ready to believe that there is a threshold of understanding to Dark Souls, and surpassing it makes a number of unanswered questions clear. That inflection point probably makes it more clear what the game expects of you, and you can start to strategize and make informed decisions. But until you reach that point, you're flying blind. Dark Souls isn't going to tell you if you've chosen the easy road or the hard road, or even if you're on a road that is going anywhere at all. It's not going to tell you if your approach is advantageous or problematic. It's not going to tell you what it expects you to do.

So, I guess you can stick around long enough to figure it out, or you can become frustrated with the absolute lack of progress or feedback and quit. After 15 hours of feeling like I have no idea what I am doing and am wasting my time, I quit.
Posted by: Chris on 2013-07-20 16:40:21
With a grunt the man pulls himself up over the ancient stone ledge. The passage is small and narrow; he proceeds on all fours, drawing centuries-old air in ragged breaths. Just as his exhaustion nears its peak he reaches the end of the tunnel and pulls himself upright into the secret chamber. The artifact is there, resting on a stone pedestal, glowing softly in the darkness. Waiting for him.

He reaches for it but hesitates. Its eyes are reflective, like the sheen of oil in water. It is grinning with teeth the length of his finger. It is horrible to look at, and for an instant he imagines himself leaving it there, resealing the passage cut directly into the limestone, carefully making his way back through the gauntlet of traps, returning the outer rock to its original position, and burning the notebook that contains all of his research.

But no, he's come this far, there's no way he's turning back now. He reaches out and swipes it from its resting place in one smooth motion. He puts his knapsack on the ground, opens the flap, and jams the artifact into it, hopefully deep enough that he won't have to look at it.

It doesn't fit.

Two large rations occupy most of the space of the pack, and in the corners he has stuffed medical gauze, his house keys, and a wad of bills in the highly devalued local currency. In the side pockets he has his flashlight, a lighter, and his notebook. All things he'll need to make it back home alive. He tries to wedge the artifact in again.

It doesn't fit.

He sits down on the floor of the chamber and stares at the bag. It is jam-packed with stuff, overflowing. And yet, he can't bring himself to get rid of anything. An ancient cursed statuette from a dead civilization won't do him much good if he trips over a wire on the way back through the Hall of Trials and breaks his leg without his splint kit handy. What if his camel has deserted him and he must walk back to the village? He'll never make it without extra food. Not to mention it being wasteful. It's not like he can leave some stuff here and come back for it later.

In one hand, the artifact, looking straight through him with its mirror eyes. In the other, his knapsack, filled to the brim. He stares at them. What can he do?
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