Having to run from an enemy is scary, but successfully running away is boring.
Modern horror games have it rough. Not only is it hard for anything not obviously in the survival horror genre to be accepted as a true horror game, but even those games that do classify as survival horror have to face a discerning public that’s very picky about any mechanical flaws or inconsistencies. Unfortunately, one of those technical and artistic challenges is also a major staple of the subgenre, creating scary enemies that you can run from.
While I don’t believe that combat intrinsically lessens the terror an enemy can evoke, there’s no denying that weakness is scary. Going up against an enemy so overwhelming that your only recourse is to flee is frightening, but if you can successfully escape, then one has to wonder: just how dangerous is this enemy really? Running away time and time again makes even the scariest, most disturbing monster look stupid and non-threatening.
This is the central flaw in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and why its chase scenes are more frustrating than freaky. You’re thrown into a dark, icy world and suddenly weird, white things start attacking you. Without any weapons, your only option is to run, but running away isn’t scary in and of itself, rather it’s what we’re running from that’s supposed to be scary. Running away is all about context. To be afraid, we have to feel like we’re up against an imposing, impossible force, but in Shattered Memories, we don’t know what we’re running from or why we’re running even after the final twist. The monsters always remain a mystery. The normal world is more frightening because you’ll find logs chronicling everyday acts of violence; we peek under that facade of normality at the evil beneath.
Some games get it right or at least get close. Haunting Ground, an old PS2 survival horror game built around chases, is one such success. The heroine is Fiona, a helpless teenage girl chased by a mentally disabled brute, a gorgeous homunculus, and two crazy old men. While her pursuers often have disturbing intentions, the fact that she escapes from them over and over again throughout the game makes them less threatening. However, Haunting Ground gets it right with the third pursuer, one of the crazy old men named Riccardo, who chases Fiona with a pistol. He wants Fiona alive, so instead of shooting her, he shoots around her. Since the game uses a kind of sanity meter instead of a health meter, these missed shots scare Fiona, which is essentially the same thing as attacking her. With Riccardo, the game gives us a narrative reason for him not to catch her but still makes him dangerous by hurting Fiona mentally rather than physically. It’s a clever combination of story and mechanics that adds to the overall suspense; he’s clearly just toying with her as she runs away. But this is just one of four pursuers. The other three quickly wear out their welcome and become annoying.
I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that one of the more frightening recent horror games is also the one that refines the act of fleeing and actually makes it scary. Being the most recent means that the developers have had time to look at what works and what doesn’t. Amnesia: The Dark Descent handles its chases the same way that Haunting Ground does (I don’t know if the latter inspired the former, or if anyone at Frictional Games even knows about Haunting Ground, I’m just saying that they just have mechanical similarities). You spend most of your time exploring the environment, but when you run across an enemy, you must run away and hide before your fear drives you insane. What makes Amnesia so much better at this is the fact that there’s no truly safe place to hide. To escape from the monster, you must hide in the dark, but darkness itself makes your character scared so you can’t hide indefinitely. Both the monsters and the darkness are your enemies. By forcing you to embrace one to escape the other, Amnesia turns running away into a careful balancing act that solves this particular paradox. Running away is scary because you’re always running towards something hurtful, it’s just the lesser of two evils.