Are strategy games and horror compatible?
There’s a moment in the first tutorial of XCOM: Enemy Unknown that felt like a revelation. Skip past the languid tutorial pacing, the stilted voice actor telling you what to do, and instead focus on the structure of the mission. Your team enters a building, meets with the unknown, and is summarily slaughtered by beings you can barely comprehend.
Simply put, it’s terrifying in a way that the rest of the game decidedly isn’t. Walking into a room with an alien staring off into space—the situation the mission offers—is a situation you can plan for; when enemies pop up at all the exits, then the game goes full-on horror. Your squad is not getting out alive. Plan to call their families.
The rest of the game, though, doesn’t build on this capital. Missions become standard strategy fare: there are enemies, of whom you know the basic number and power, and who you can force to meet on your terms. Once you’ve played five missions or so, you know how the enemies are going to behave, and you can plan for that. You understand the unknowable.
Horror boils down to a lack of information, by my definition. It is a Lovecraftian definition, not a modern one. Jump scares, the bread of modern horror (gore being the butter), are a cheap version of this: you don’t know the killer is hiding under the bed and then oh there he is. The best horror, though, is deeper, more psychological: you know something is there, but you cannot define what it is. Even when you see it, it defies logical explanation.
What matters isn’t that the killer is under the bed, but that she’s formless, unidentifiable, and isn’t going to come out unless we go looking for her. This was kind of the original X-Com’s playbook: you’d land in a dark cornfield, meekly edge your soldiers through it, and eventually someone would take a sniper’s bullet to the head, leaving you scrambling to figure out not only where the enemy was that did it but what that enemy was.
Still, combining horror with strategy has long been a challenge. With some exceptions—the not phenomenally successful RUSE chief among them—video games haven’t been good at combining limited knowledge with strategy. The reason is blatant: 95% of mainstream games work as power fantasies. Resident Evil, once one of horror’s standards, became a third person cover shooter this year. Why should strategy, a genre without much horror history, deserve a different fate?
I expected more horror than I got from the XCOM remake. For the first dozen missions, I expected the parameters to shift dramatically midstream, for the game to test my plans. I was waiting for enemies to appear behind me, to lock me in, to force me to push the plans I’d made to the limit. I expected the aliens to outsmart me, to push and prod until my squad cracked. The game itself even has a “breaking under pressure” mechanic, where stressed soldiers would go nuts. Perfect!
The problem was, that moment never came. Instead of mining the fears of the unknown, XCOM: Enemy Unknown mined our fears of the random, of the absurd. In short: it mined the random number generator. The aliens aren’t dangerous because they’re worthy opponents: they’re dangerous because an invisible die roll says they are.
There are two random events that occur in any XCOM mission—when someone shoots, and when enemies “break” (a technical term) after you spot them—and these represent all of the tension in the game. After a couple missions you know exactly what enemies you’re going to fight thanks to improving satellite coverage and your knowledge of the enemy, so while the level’s dark you know what’s coming. What you can’t predict is where enemies will go when you see them, however, or how well you’ll shoot each other.
The “breaks” in the game are possibly the antithesis of horror. What happens is this: the enemies spot you, then they move in random directions, towards some sort of cover. Where the horror comes in is when your last soldier manages to spot an enemy, and the enemy decides to break towards you, settling into cover, magically, a hundred feet from where he started, in a position that flanks half your team and renders him unassailable.
It puts the weight of the game on the random number generator. Suspense comes from the fact that now, when that Muton (because it’s always a Muton) gets to shoot at you, there’s a 63% chance that he’ll hit. If he hits, he kills one of your soldiers. Sometimes you’ll get through it all right, and other times you’ll lose a guy. Either way, it’s suspenseful.
But it left me with a sort of hollow taste in my mouth. XCOM was making suspense from random numbers and cheap-feeling occurences, yet it was dropping the horror veneer it had in its abbreviated first mission. It opened with horror, and all was a lousy set of shots my sniper missed with a 95% probability.
XCOM made me ask the question: can strategy and horror be combined? Are they peanut butter and jelly, or are they the more perplexing peanut butter and pickle sandwich, which has devoted followers but doesn’t make a lick of sense?
The game that made me believe in the horror of strategy wasn’t a video game, but instead a board game: Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. It is a game about ignorance.
The concept is simple: the players are astronauts. Half the squad has been infect by a terrible, Alien-esque parasite, rendering them cannibalistic horrors. The other half are humans, who can’t fight back. They’re on a spaceship with absolutely no power.
What this means is you all have your own delightful little boards, pock-marked with hexes. You record your movements in absolute secrecy. Humans are slow, and squishy: they can only move to adjacent hexes. Aliens are fast, lithe, and hungry: they can move two spaces (three if they actually eat someone) and choose to chow down on any space they land on. Of course, doing that involves publicly announcing where you are.
The other way to announce where you are: by landing on a gray tile. There are two types of tiles in the game: white tiles, which do nothing, and gray ones, where you have to draw a card. These cards come in three varieties: blank cards, which tell you to tell the team the ship is silent; red cards, which tell you to announce your location to everyone; and green cards, which let you tell everyone a noise occurred anywhere on the ship. No one knows which kind of card you drew, so they’re never sure if you’re lying or not.
In practice, this makes for an incredibly tense, tactical game of cat and mouse. In the beginning, no one knows who’s a human and who’s an alien. The threats are left completely ambiguous. As the aliens begin to munch, you begin to understand, slowly, just how doomed you are: there’s nowhere to go, the aliens are everywhere, and you have to get the hell out of there, now. You’re running for the escape pods, but the aliens can almost definitely get there first.
What it reduces to is a very tense, human game of horror. You have a lot of information, but it’s never quite enough to know anything for sure. There’s absolutely nothing random about it: the aliens are going to win a straight fight, so a human has to be flexible. They have to lie, they have to deceive, and they have to win with head games.
Horror isn’t about the atmosphere, or the jump scares, or the tension; these are all just symptoms of a fundamental lack of information. In my book, Dark Souls was great horror: the smoky white walls which delineated the levels presented us with a fundamental lack of information, allowing the game to confront us with the terrifying unknown. On the other side could be quick death—Ornstein and Smaugh, the most difficult boss fight in modern video games—or it could just be a placid countryside. Or maybe Havel the Rock will hit you with his weird bone club before you even walk through the door, reducing you to a paste. You have no idea, though, and that’s what’s frightening.
Escape grasps the best thing that horror can offer—the unpredictable, the unknown—but could it work in a video game? Who knows? Few have tried. Frozen Synapse captured some of the building blocks with its denial of knowledge and sudden violence, but it obviously wasn’t going for the genre like XCOM attempted. XCOM had all the atmosphere of a horror game, but it gave you all the rules, all the information, up front. You ran into increasingly difficult new challenges, but none of them were truly different: Elite Mutons died like the regular kind. As the game progressed, tension melted into more bullets, more guns, more random number generator panic, and more knowledge.
And knowledge, after all, is the enemy of horror. Once you understand something, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Once you can see all the pieces, nothing can be truly scary.