It’s no secret that horror games have lost their scare factor a long time ago. Gone are the days of being too scared to enter into the next room for fear of the unknown. When people think of survival horror games, the top two contenders of the nostalgia games are Resident Evil 1-3 and Silent Hill 1-4. But there’s one game series that not many people know about (or possibly have just forgotten) that just got it right.
The reason that the Clock Tower series of games was so scary is due to the fact that the player is left completely helpless. With a demented stalker who pops up at random to put the character’s life in danger, the only thing the player can do is either run or hide. Helplessness seems to give people an added edge to the gaming experience. Fear is an emotion that we don’t feel too frequently in horror gaming today. Except, one recent game has adopted this same formula and its terrifying moments have been raved about immensely: Outlast.
Before I touch base on Outlast, let’s discuss why Resident Evil and Silent Hill are no longer scary. These two used to be the flagship survival horror games, bringing fear into the hearts of gamers as they held their controllers to navigate the terror-filled hallways that lay before them. The reason for that? The feeling of helplessness.
Resident Evil used to give such little ammo that players either made every bullet count, or they tried their best to run around the zombies without getting bitten. Not only was there limited ammunition, but healing items were hard to come by as well. If you got yourself in a bind and had no health items in your inventory, you hoped and prayed that there would be a green herb beyond the door at the end of the hallway and no zombies in the immediate vicinity of the entryway so you could heal up. We all know the disappointment when we’re in dire need of healing and we stumble on a red herb. More often than not, that wasn’t the case; that’s where the helplessness sank in.
Recent entries in the series have done away with this helpless feeling. Gone are the days of feeling the need to conserve ammo, and healing items are a lot easier to come by. A professional playthrough on Resident Evil 6 still delivers ample ammunition. The only difference is the enemies deal heavier damage and are a bit harder to kill but it still doesn’t exactly propose a challenge or feel scary in the slightest.
Silent Hill on the other hand mostly played psychological warfare on the player. With bizarre and creepy enemies, dark, dingy, dilapidated, disgusting environments, and a limited field of vision, the town of Silent Hill is an unforgiving wasteland to those who have done wrong in their lifetime. This game doesn’t make the player feel helpless; at least not for the first 4 games. Origins introduced breakable weapons which could attribute to a feeling of helplessness but it was more of an annoyance than anything else. Especially if you run out of weapons in a crowd of monsters.
In any case, the first four games had melee weapons that remained sturdy throughout the whole game, and limited ammunition that was best saved for boss battles. Since the game rarely relies on helplessness, it more relies on the unknown. Players never really know what awaits them around a corner or even behind a door. The only warning they have is their radio static. This is an advantage though because some enemies, like Pyramid Head, could use sounds to instil fear in the player. The dragging sound of Pyramid Head’s massive sword or the heavy footsteps that pound away in the darkness as he walks about the environment can be very fear-inducing.
So how does Outlast fit into all of this? Well, that game is a prime example of helplessness and fear of the unknown. Players are to traverse a (believed to be) abandoned mental health hospital with nothing more than a night vision camera that depletes battery life at a somewhat rapid rate, and no weapons to defend yourself with. Your only defence is to either run or hide. Battery life must be conserved because if you run out, then you can’t see what’s ahead or behind you; you’d end up stuck. Finding batteries around is a luxury and one that must be taken advantage of immediately. Battery hoarding is key.
Aside from wielding a night vision camera and nothing more, a gigantic and deformed stalker (amongst a variety of others) hunting you down throughout the hospital also adds to the fear. No one would remain calm if a (possibly) 400-pound stalker with intent to kill was chasing them around an abandoned hospital they couldn’t run out of the front doors from. Therein lies the helpless feeling; you can’t attack your attackers, and you have to either run to an area that’s inaccessible to them or find a hiding spot where they can’t find you.
This isn’t to say that I hope all survival horror games adopt the run and hide playstyle – if everyone copied it, then it wouldn’t be scary anymore. But the fact that Outlast adopted an old survival horror formula relative to that of Clock Tower that effectively instils fear into the hearts of gamers is impressive. However, nothing beats the feeling of having a firearm at the ready in case you need to gun down an enemy.