Among the defining characteristics of the often-terrifying Amnesia games — as well as similar games like Slender and Outlast — is the fact that players are given no weapons. There's no way to defend yourself, no way to fight off the beasts that hunt you. That makes the game scarier, right? That's obvious... right? Hmm.
Over at Talk Amongst Yourselves, reader DocSeuss argues that in his experience, games are more scary if you do have a weapon. Responding to my review of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, he cited Frictional's Penumbra as a scarier game than their follow-up Amnesia: The Dark Descent, for the following reason:
Knowing that a game's been designed with a way for me to avoid my enemies generally robs the experience of all tension. Penumbra scared the shit out of me, but not so much Amnesia; I'm not really interested in buying A Machine for Pigs.
In the full article, he elaborates:
Penumbra is the only horror game I've given up out of fear. I personally believe Frictional did a better job with Penumbra than Amnesia, in part because, when I encountered those horrible, monstrous dogs, I had a way to fight back. I had some rocks. As it was, I perched, like a lunatic, on top of a boulder, tossing stones at the dogs. My panic increased as my supply of rocks dwindled, and when I ran out, I sat, paralysed, knowing I had no more weapon. It wasn't until later that the thought to flee occurred to me, and even then, my immediate response was "what if I couldn't? What if I needed those rocks?"
I really like this line of thinking. My one point of elaboration/contention is that weaponry isn't the only way that a game can make you act/respond/push back under trying circumstances.
A combat-free horror game like A Machine For Pigs could add a huge amount of tension by forcing you to manipulate the environment and solve puzzles while simultaneously being hunted; that kind of agency isn't all that different from combat, when it comes right down to it. Weapons aren't the only way to engage with a game-world, they're just some of the most popular. A game may be designed to force you to avoid directly engaging with enemies, but sneaking around them, tricking them, playing them off of one another… all of that is still engaging.
That said, A Machine For Pigs doesn't really do any of that, despite the other things it does well. And regardless, I like the broader ideas that Doc's playing with — the thing that makes horror games so fun (and scary) is that to complete them, we must act; we must go through the door, we must overcome the Nope Moment. When the beasts come for us, only we can save ourselves, and that's a frightening proposition. (Side note: I actually think The Last of Us manages at times to capture the vibe Doc describes when talking about Penumbra — that game was often incredibly tense, despite the gun in Joel's hand. )
At any rate, read what Doc's got to say, and weigh in in the comments below.