Welcome to Horror Declassified — here we’ll be examining mechanics, tropes and design philosophies that are common in the horror genre. Have something you’d like covered? Send us an email.
Written by Matthew Ritter, @matthewmritter
Games have inventory systems. Not all of them, but any game that has limited player resources has some kind of inventory system. Mario keeps count of coins. Shooters keep count of bullets. Games where you collect flowers keeps track of flowers.
Adventure games and games with puzzle and key items often have much more complicated inventory systems. Red keys and blue keys, weird boxes, umbrellas, that broken orb you need fixed by the magic item repair shop down the street but first you have to make sure you’ve gotten the coffee mug. Things like that.
Inventories come in all shapes and sizes, limited inventories and infinite inventories, grid inventories where you have to play Tetris to get your items to fit, menu inventories that often can only hold 99 of something, and inventories that you don’t even realize are inventories. Right now we’re looking at inventories in horror games and the connection they have.
Horror games, especially survival horror games are often associated with very limited or frustrating inventory systems. The limited ones are generally there for very different reasons than they are in other genres. In a standard shooter limited inventory space is used to control the flow of action. To force the player to decide on a favorite weapon and to make sure the player has to consider their next move carefully. This is the same with many games, but in horror while resource management is the goal, the emotional value of the limited resources is very different.
In many games that truly wish to frighten the player the designer is often attempting to make sure the resources available and the inventory system are not up to the combative task ahead. In a more straightforward action game the choice might be between the rocket launcher or the machine gun. In a horror game often the choice becomes significantly more complex. There might be a rocket launcher, but it only has one or two shots and takes up important inventory space. The player is never sure if they should waste it now, or if they’ll desperately need it down the line. This incredibly frustrating aspect of limited inventory horror games is intentional.
It creates a feeling of controlled helplessness and brings the player into the world of the game. The player is in control of the inventory as limited as it is. Their survival and horror (Heh, see? That’s why that sub genre is called that!) is based on their ability to organize and manage what they find. To mitigate their ability to kill enemies that are often much stronger on average than most games.
It is exceedingly rare to find a horror game with unlimited resources of any kind. When a player has an unlimited resource they feel powerful. A feeling of empowerment is the antithesis of what a horror game is normally trying to evoke. It’s one of the few genres where regenerating health is still uncommon. Of course if the game is horror in trappings only infinite resources might abound. The Devil May Cry series, for example, uses the iconography of horror games, and the first one was even originally supposed to be an installment in the Resident Evil franchise, but a feeling of desperation and terror is not the game’s goal.
Resource management and inventory can take on a lot of hidden forms. Eternal Darkness, for example, made sanity and the characters and even the players grip on reality a resource to be measured and mitigated. There was a green bar on the screen that let the player know at any given time just how much sanity they had left. A commodity to be carefully protected, that could be earned back by killing monsters, and was lost at seeing horrible things. The game also had an invisible stat for stamina, with each playable character being able to run before getting winded for different lengths of time. Definitely an important resource in a game where most of the things you face can dig in through your eyes and wear you like a suit.
This actually segways well into the feelings some people have that true horror games are being killed by action horror homogenization. True or not, the main difference isn’t controls, or even atmosphere. The main difference is often resources. The same game where one has to struggle for every bullet, is a much scarier game than the one where guns rain from the sky like candy. Though, infinite resources is not always a surefire way to keep a game from being scary.
There are many situations in horror games, or games with horror sections where infinite resources are used to heighten the tension. Having every bullet in the world feels great when you’re blasting away at easily blast-awayable (I conjugate the way I want) zombie kittens. It’s not always the case when you face something that is either very difficult to kill, or impossible, with the resources you have. Being shown that your seemingly useful weapons aren’t actually useful can be a great way to turn things on its head. The Left 4 Dead series, while predominately action, uses this often. With many enemies that can render a single player helpless no matter what resources they might have.
I mention this because there’s often a rallying cry for a push back to simpler and more limited inventories and resources in horror games. I respect the sentiment but the problem is not in how much stuff the player has, but in the overall game’s design. Inventory space and the resources the game gives out are just one aspect of play that must be balanced with the rest of the overall experience.
For example, I personally prefer grid management inventory systems. I like playing Tetris with my swords, guns, and pills. It isn’t right for every game though.