The Sci-Fi horror setting is becoming one of the more common environments in gaming. While the setting is among my favorites, its full potential has yet to be explored.
It isn’t difficult to understand why an abandoned space station or moon base makes for a good horror game location. They put us in a position that goes against our natural instincts. We’re isolated in a foreign location, have little resources, and have little contact with Earth, Mars, or wherever home may be. Oh yeah, and there may or may not be deadly creatures in all of those dark corners, watching your every move.
You navigate through tight, dark corridors. The sound of liquid dripping could be anything from leaky pipes to the mutant lurking in the dark. You’re reluctant to press on into the darkness, but you never really had a choice.
You don’t have much health or ammo remaining, so all you can hope for is a save room or storage locker so you can let your guard down a bit.
System Shock, Doom, Dead Space, and to a lesser extent, even the Metroid series have used these tropes to put us on edge. These staples exist in all types of horror, but a location on a foreign planet or outer space takes these elements to an extreme that a dungeon or haunted mansion cannot.
Writers, designers, and artists have virtually unlimited freedom with the science fiction horror setting. One wild example would be the Doom series, wherein you fight your way through Mars and into Hell.
The genre's setting provides unique experiences. There are no conveniently placed gas stations or gun shops to loot. Players are forced to think about confronting enemies, since scavenging their remains may be the only way to acquire ammunition or resources. Shooting down aliens may allow for easier access to an area, but it could also cost more ammo or health than it’s worth.
Dead Space took it further and had weapons that fit within the context of the environment. The weapons were engineering tools, as opposed to the usual pistol, shotgun, and SMG combination. They still behaved like guns, but it wasn’t much of a stretch to believe they were tools engineers would use in the year 2508.
As mentioned before, developers have a lot of creative freedom to work with when it comes to science fiction, but instead every sci-fi horror game strives to be Alien. It’s a great film, but I think it’s time the industry attempts to tread new ground…err, space?
My biggest problem with current Sci-Fi horror settings is they allow only so many scares before the setting shoots itself in the foot. Here is how a usual Sci-Fi survival horror game plays out:
You’re brought onto a space station, moon base, or similar structure to respond to a distress call of some sort. After some basic tutorials, disaster strikes in the immediate vicinity and you’re on your own.
As you explore the area, there are subtle things in the environment that are… off. Somewhere between the grunts coming from the vents, sirens going off in the distance and the bloody handprints on the wall, you realize that something bad has happened. After exploring the area, you find a pistol. Shortly there after, your first enemy jumps at you from the dark.
You run backwards while firing as fast as possible. It goes down after a few badly aimed shots, and then the game decides to attack you with your own paranoia. Everything has gone from chaos to silence. At this point, you’re making wide turns around corners, and looking behind you every few steps. Things start getting scarier. This happens for an hour or two.
And then you find a shotgun.
This ain't so bad after all.
That might as well be where the horror ends, and as fellow bitmobber Erik Chalhoub mentioned, "atmosphere fatigue" sets in.
If every sci-fi horror game is going to put us in claustrophobic hallways, then shotguns will kill the scares along with the enemies.
The sci-fi horror environment can provide us with so much more than dark hangars and small passageways. The surface of a foreign planet can be just as unsettling as a cramped indoor space. Players would still have to scavenge for resources, and elements of psychological horror could be mixed in. There would be less “BOO!” moments and more moments that rely on tension.
The most unsettling moment I’ve ever had while playing a game was when I first encountered Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2. Nothing jumped out at me. I was walking through an apartment building when I saw his figure down the hall. He was completely still and silent. I had no choice but to head in his direction. It wasn’t something that made me leap out of my chair, but I felt a creepy tension that no other game has matched.
This moment left me scarred for life.
Spotting a creature on the horizon approaching you, while on a foreign planet’s surface can be just as creepy, especially if you didn’t have a shotgun or rocket launcher to defend yourself with. This would work great if you had to build or repair a structure before a creature approached à la Minecraft.
One of the common themes of horror in films and literature is the extremes humans would resort to for the sake of survival. Some decision-making elements would be perfect for a situation where all your allies are suspicious of each other. Throw in a self-aware AI like HAL 9000, SHODAN, or even GLaDOS and you’ll be just as paranoid in an agoraphobic landscape with a team as you are in some space sewer on your own.
It may be difficult to imagine a Sci-Fi horror game that doesn’t use traditional scare tactics such as darkness and surprises, but the genre hasn’t been exploited enough for developers to have to regurgitate old ideas and settings.
Dinosaurs… in space!