Playing F.E.A.R.: Can we make an action game scary?

So this week in uncomfortably quick succession I beat two games: the original F.E.A.R. and A Story About My Uncle. The latter is a completely nonviolent gaming experience in which the protagonist journeys to an alternate world with a neat jumpy suit and a grapple beam to find his uncle. F.E.A.R. had a story, I think. There were genetic experiments, various acts of cannibalism, and hallucinations about a creepy little girl. The game itself though is mostly about killing so many soldiers that the corpses could have populated a small city.

Both are FPSs with simple gameplay mechanics. Both are repetitive to an extent. I didn’t mind it so much in Uncle as it was only about four hours long and slight innovations were introduced as the game went on to freshen things up. F.E.A.R. on the other hand took over twice that amount of time and introduced even fewer innovations along the way. Maybe a new gun or a new enemy here or there. The big draw was the slow-mo function. Which Max Payne already did, but hey, it’s done well and it makes blowing bad guys up with a shotgun more cinematic.

I know it’s a decade old now, but I’d like to talk about  F.E.A.R. I just purchased a computer with a decent graphics card for the first time and I have a lot of gaming to catch up on.

Really once you strip away its horror trappings, F.E.A.R. doesn’t have much to offer the player. It made horror more accessible to action junkies by adding in the occasionally bloody hallway or demon flying at you. Otherwise you just go from point A to point B, shooting dudes along the way. I did like the addition of these horror moments, but their intensity never mounted and they never fused well with the action. It was simply another part of the cycle of gameplay. Exposition, explore, find enemies, shootout, explore, horror sequence, find enemies, shootout, etc. The horror elements were routine and leveled out after the second or third sequence. One can only slowly walk through so many bloody hallways. I hoped that the scariness would eventually overwhelm the game. I got sick of shooting at nondescript baddies a few hours in. I hoped that our antagonist Alma Wade would eventually start taking care of these mortal peons for me, leaving me to deal with a greater foe: One that we would have to fight on a psychological front. But instead I was left with a few deliberately split up horror asides rather than a unified horror-action game.

I guess that was the trouble: How do we make a shooter in which the player has to take on a non-Euclidean genetically mutated abomination? That’s kind of tough to manifest when the crux of the gameplay is pulling trigger lots of times. Mainly F.E.A.R. avoided this by having the player fight hordes of generic soldiers instead. (Aside: I did enjoy the ultra-fast soldiers who would jump out at you all of a sudden and who you could only kill by using the slow-mo function.)

The last act of the game tries to make up for this. As you escape the facility, these evil flying fire demons pop out at you and try to kill you. All it takes is one bullet to kill them, but they fly at you fast. It’s scary for one or two waves. But soon the player realizes that this is nothing more than a glorified wackamole and they lose all sense of terror.

During certain parts of F.E.A.R. I started to long for a break from all the shooting. I wanted a lengthy exploration section or else a new horror section. But my commissioner Rowdy Betters kept radioing me to tell me about another a huge horde of enemies right up ahead. It got comical after a while.

I haven’t played much of it, but Outlast might be a good source to consider for future horror-action games. Why not a section in which the player loses their weapons and has to flee from aggressive psychos using only their wits and endurance. It cranks up the tension nearly unbearably, as the player dreads turning every corner, hearing any unexpected noise. That’s a temporary fix at best though. This can’t be overused or else it ceases to become horror-action.

While not a horror game, I like the way Kane & Lynch: Dead Men amps up the tension by setting the players against impossible odds. I’m pretty sure you kill the entirety of the L.A.P.D. within the first two hours of that game, but those cops just keep swarming no matter how many you take out. That might be a good source of horror: Combining the helplessness of Outlast with the running-and-gunning of F.E.A.R. A game in which the player can’t always defeat all the enemies.

F.E.A.R. was fun for what it was worth. It didn’t scare me the way I hoped it would. I’ll be interested in seeing how the sequels do in terms of combining horror and action.

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About Bryan Cebulski

Writer. Cis queer. History, masculinity, media. Point-and-click adventure protagonist. He/Him/His. Collects bad habits like Jessica Rabbit.
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2 Responses to Playing F.E.A.R.: Can we make an action game scary?

  1. bryanonion says:

    I’m glad my blog has influenced your gaming! I wanted to like F.E.A.R. more than I actually did, but it definitely made me more aware of what actually makes a game scary. Your point about dying in videogames is well taken. I think it’s an essential aspect of survival-horror though. It should just be used in moderation. Like Amnesia, for instance. You can die pretty easily, but only during certain sequences in the game. And if you’re even a decent player then death is pretty easily avoided, which means the threat of death is still there without too much to break you from being absorbed into the game world.

  2. For me, once I die once in video games, the fear is gone. Its just a game. Jump scares don’t get me even if the loud static sounds get more of a jump scare out of me. I think I’ll play F.E.A.R. now because of your blog. I’ve heard for years how its legitimately scary.

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