Wild Theory: Maybe Horror Games Are Scarier If You Can Fight Back

Wild Theory: Maybe Horror Games Are Scarier If You Can Fight Back

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 , 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.


  • I’ve always kinda said that about horror games. With no weapons, your only response is to avoid and evade. With a weapon, the enemies can be scarier, especially if your weapon is ineffective or does no damage.
    I’m pretty sure the first thing everybody did against Pyramid Head is unload a few shotgun rounds, but he kept moving. Making the player think if you had to kill him now, you just don’t have enough bullets, or if he was invulnerable and you’re screwed either way.
    Same thing with Nemesis. Now, speed runners can easier dispatch him with one gun, and always right before he reaches the player, but the first time he came walking down that corridoor everybody wasted all their pistol rounds before being killed.

    • Yeah. Like horror movies it’s all about playing with the mind of the audience. If you know you have to run before the threat even shows up then that’s just the rule of the game. It’s so up front about it that it quickly breaks the game down into mechanics that reassure you that you’re equipped to handle what the game is throwing at you.
      With something like Nemesis (although I never considered him scary) you run the risk of making a mistake. Fighting when you should run, running when you should fight. There’s always a chance that you’re going to run straight past the weapon you need and into a locked door. The flexibility of the engine creates options, and when done right the flood of options can be overwhelming, which in turn causes panic and fear.

      Granted I still think horror games belong to the shorter indy games centered around creative ideas like no guns.

  • Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.. The ending was bad, but it’s still the only game that scared me through most of it.

  • I do tend to find these weapon-less “horror” games far less scary or not scary at all. Running away and evading makes feel more like playing gridiron to me – dodging the defence whilst heading for the end zone. They are fun games, just not all that scary to me.

    Fighting back means forcing yourself (or being forced depending on the game) to confront the fear. Add on top of that the games where ammo is scarce, forcing to pick your fights makes for more sense of urgency to me. Different strokes, I guess.

    There’s free game on Steam called “Cry of Fear” which I would recommend to any horror fans who don’t mind combat, it’s not the most polished game and is fairly low budget, but I found a lot creepier than games like Amnesia.

  • I’ve been saying this for a while since weaponless horror games became popular. But I’m also not a fan of survival horror with limited supplies, as that just makes me a hoarder and reach for a game guide quicker. To me good horror is inherent in the very look and feel of the characters and how your expected to interact with them and the environment.

  • I don’t like the idea of weapons that do nothing – I think that’s kind of cheap – and that’s why I like the Nemesis in RE3 so much, is that you’re supposed to run, but it is possible to stand a fight.

    Also this kinda reminds me of a aspect of a non-horror game – Matrix: Path of Neo – When encountering Agents you were supposed to run because they could kill you so easily, but by then end of the game you could get so good at the combat system you didn’t need to, you could stand and fight. The fear, if you will, of the Agents was diminished by your skill. The same could be said of the chainsaw wielding manic in RE4 – I remember thinking ‘Im so outnumbered and this guy just cuts through my barricades and cleaves my head off’, scary but not invincible or cheap (ok – the Agents were pretty cheap).

    • Yeah, this had me thinking about RE4 a lot too. I think they got it nailed pretty well – eg the “right hand” guy. At first you’re just down there waiting for the timer to count down so you can get the hell out of there, spending your time trying to not get killed. And a couple of my friends didn’t even realise you *could* kill the guy, they thought he was just impossible and they ran as soon as they could. While I stood by and took the battle to him *coolface* With a couple of the troll things too, they offered you a bit of an out instead of having to fully fight them.

      • Heh, I don’t think it has anything to do with scary but I do love it when games throw out a ridiculous challenge like that which they don’t expect you to even try to beat. The game is like ‘you’ve got two minutes to get to your ship and this giant unstoppable alien monster is chasing you’ and your reaction is to turn around, waste the monster then jog to the ship.
        It’s pretty much the gamer equivalent of casually walking away from a huge explosion.

  • I’ll have to cite the Condemned series for this, Particularly Condemned 2. There’s this particular part where, right up until that point, you’ve been with weapon, empowered against what threatens you.

    Then you face a rabid grizzly bear with only one objective: “RUN FOR YOUR LIFE.”
    It’s not so much whether you’re empowered or not, it can be also making the player “feel” empowered, then stripping that away.

  • Meh, I have been successfully scared by both games with and without combat mechanics. The use of or lack of weapons don’t really affect my fear. It’s how they use those mechanics that make it scary.
    I have had my share of boredom and fear from both offerings

  • I guess the secret is to keep the player guessing. Give them a weapon but so little ammo that they have to decide if it’s worth wasting it or saving it for a rainier day.

  • I believe HE enjoys everything a single way but I believe we use mechanics that suit the experience. I’m sure he enjoyed Penumbra more and felt more satisfied by the experience, that doesn’t mean you can then just make an assumption about all games being better if they were just this one way. What if I just decided that i hated Alien because there was only one Alien and more is just scarier? That’s cool. But then i went on proclaiming that the first one sucked and maintains no credibility because of this one thing, pouring all the philosophy i’ve learned from my years of study and experience into only the Aliens bucket, unfairly dismissing the potential DIFFERENT experiences that could have been had. That’s when i’ve made a generalisation.

    Many people who seem to claim things like this seem to only be able to specifically because they’ve made that generalisation. Some people prefer one over the other but to try and enforce a view that an entire type of anything is worthless? I think that’s pretty impossible. I’ve enjoyed both and I’m not sure one-sided generalisations (however interesting) are something we should pay attention to, Kotaku seems to be doing that for us.

  • This articulates a feeling I’ve had for a while but couldn’t quite articulate. Although I’m a total scardy cat, Amnesia is the only ‘weapon less’ game that actually scared me. I suspect its because you could run out of sanity and candles – it wasn’t enough to just hide. Frankly, games with weapons have a much better chance of putting the fear in me, even ones you might not expect, like the original Diablo.

  • In my opinion, it really makes no difference. A good horror game is one that can give you anything and still make you feel like the inevitability is that you will die. If you don’t have a weapon, you know that even if you keep running, eventually you will stop or screw up and the monster will get you. If you have a weapon, you know that you can attack the monster as much as you want and eventually you will stop or screw up and the monster will get you.

    Of course, that being said, a game that gives you a weapon can actually achieve a better sense of fear if done right. In a game with no weapons, you know you have no chance of beating the monster. A game that does give you a weapon, however, can laugh at you when despair slowly creeps over your face as you realise the hope you felt at having a weapon is slowly being drained because you can’t actually hurt anything with it.

  • im just not a fan of weaponless survival horror games in general because it annoys me that the character is too stupid to pick up an steel pipe or a 2×4 with a nail in it. virtually anything you can think of can be used a weapon in self defense

  • I don’t know about anyone else, but my first playthrough of Dark Souls was scary as fuck, all because of the concept of vulnerability. You had plenty of weapons and armour, but when you’re walking into a new area you have NO idea what is in there, but chances are if the IS something, and it catches you off guard then more than half of your health is going to go just like that. I never charged into a room full speed in that game, every step was slow, cautious, sheild up, and convinced that whatever is around the next corner was going to fuck me up.

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