The Spice of Gaming
Gaming is a lot like everything else, the wrong parts in the wrong places can cause the game to feel wrong. Just like too much salt or spice can cause a food dish to taste overpowered, too much horror or action can cause a game to lose the impact it’s going for. A horror game that keeps pouring horror into every second will quickly desensitize the player to the horror that is present in the game. Meanwhile a game that constantly has action going on will potentially lose a players interest, no matter how good the game mechanics might be.
A horror game is a great example of something that must be done with a good mix of mechanics and emotions. If you constantly have a player running and hiding through the entire game, they will either get callous to the horror of the game, or will become irritated by how oppressive the games horror gets. My brother played through Alien: Isolation recently and when I asked him how it was, he said that it was a very cool game with an AI that made it seem more intelligent as the game went on. However, he complained that as he found himself playing the game, he was constantly hiding. He felt like he was hiding more often than he was out and moving around. This made him feel like the game was boring and that the alien was a huge inconvenience that just slowed him down, rather than something he needed to outsmart. This constant threat of the xenomorph caused his experience to be lessened in both ways. He no longer felt that fear when the xenomorph entered the room and he felt like the interesting mechanic had become stale and obnoxious.
A good horror game should have a mix of horror and other emotions. The players emotions should have an opportunity to recharge between heightened moments of tension. This can use a lot of different emotions for the down times. For example, after a long period of tension and horror, there could be a small period that makes the player feel empowered, like giving the player an enemy that could be defeated. After giving the player some time of empowerment, they can return to the under powered state where the creature or mechanic that was used as the primary horror mechanic and the horror can feel more fresh than it would have without the break.
Then, there is an action game that puts nothing but action into its game. These games can cause a player to feel like they have to pay attention throughout the entire experience and they can’t do anything like take a drink or look at their phone. This can result in someone feeling like the game is one dimensional and overbearing.
A proper action game should follow what games like Uncharted and Resident Evil 4 do and mix in different levels. Uncharted decides to do this by mixing in four different level designs. They will switch between periods of action, platforming, exploration and puzzle solving. They will move from periods of extreme action to exploration in order to give players a chance to come down from their heightened state of tension and stress. Resident Evil 4 on the other hand used prop pieces such as radio chatter or cut scenes to help cut up sections of action and even used larger sections of more horror based game play to both call back to its roots and to give a different feel to different chapters of the game. One such chapter is when you are facing off against regenerators, an enemy that can’t be defeated with your weapons when you first encounter them. This means you have to instead avoid and stun these creepy monstrosities so that you can navigate the tight corridors of the lab and find the key to their defeat. Even today, this haunts people when they think of these creepy enemies.
One game that does a fantastic job of joining a lot of different emotional states together is Fallout 4. I know I have already given Bethesda a lot of praise already, but they deserve that praise. Fallout 4 is a dish with a little of every ingredient. There are places like Pickman’s Gallery that give us spooky horror vibe as we walk through rooms and halls full of bodies that are posed and pictures that are painted in human blood. Then there are times like the detective missions with Nick Valentine that we are made to feel like we are detectives, finding clues and figuring out how the mystery that you are trying to solve goes together. Then we have the entire process of the companions in the game. I legitimately felt proud when I helped Cait to overcome her addiction and to chems and to improve herself. Then there’s the whole story of redemption and vengeance as your character tries to find their son, who was taken from them at the beginning of the game. The game could have become any genre of game if they had simply changed the balance in any given direction. This shows the great balance of different feelings that the Fallout 4 game.
Too much of any one thing can ruin a games feel. Mixing a little of your games primary element with a complimentary emotion can give players a chance to remember what the game is like without the primary emotion, and can then cause them to feel that primary emotion to a greater degree.
There is a great video series I have followed for a long time called "Game Makers Toolkit" and the creator of that series touched on many topics that have influenced
these articles. I would recommend viewing them if you like analysis of video games.