Receiver Gives You a Gun, but Terror is Using It Wrong
HorrorScope is a recurring feature exploring the horror genre in gaming and drawing attention to its elements, its tropes, and its lesser-known but still scary titles.
Survival games have a problem, and that problem is guns.
Guns, in almost every game, have the power to remove tension. The loud blast of a pistol is often enough to make a player feel powerful, even if the shot is not necessarily enough to kill off whatever snarling eldritch horror is bearing down on you. Guns are powerful weapons, and in games they serve to provide the player with the knowledge that he or she is, in fact, powerful enough to overcome whatever horror is bearing down. That can instantly turn a vicious, towering fiend into just another enemy. You know you can kill it, you just need to spend the time figuring out how.
I find that games such as Resident Evil 4 aren’t particularly scary, even if they are tense, for just this reason. The tension comes from knowing a fight will be difficult, but it loses the gnawing fear that the situation really might be hopeless, and that you might be powerless. With a gun, fighting becomes more about figuring out how to kill an enemy — and knowing that you can — and not about how to escape them.
Some games combat this problem by incorporating awkward control schemes to disrupt the player’s combat effectiveness. People who have played the early Resident Evils and Silent Hills will know all about the awful tank-style controls and painful aiming imprecision, for example. While this does work to ratchet up the tension and terror, it does so in a way that many players, myself included, find frustrating. If you ask me, game design shouldn’t have to sacrifice good controls to make a game terrifying; the horror of a horror game should be evident through good game mechanics and tension, not frustrating controls.
This is why Receiver, a quick indie FPS by Wolfire Games, works so well as a horror game, despite being nominally a first-person shooter.
Receiver takes place after an event known as the “Mindkill,” where every human — except you, apparently — has disappeared. Instead, robotic turrets and flying drones guard the halls of the buildings you move through, and their express orders are to kill you on sight. All you have to fight them off is a lone pistol without enough firepower to outright destroy them; instead, it takes a number of shots to take them out, and each time you fire, you run the risk of a single return shot dropping you. Your goal is to find 11 tapes that will teach you to “awaken” and transcend your existence. There’s not much else to the story, as the game is intended to be more of an exploration of mechanics than a full-fledged release.
The terror in Receiver stems from the intersection of permanent instantaneous death, randomized enemies, resource conservation, and intricate, unique gun-handling mechanics. As such, it’s not a traditionally “scary” game with Lovecraftian monsters or gibbering mutants. Rather, it’s a scary game because of the tension created through the sum of its parts. Each aspect of Receiver is scary in its own way, but it boils down to two big concepts: granular gun-handling that turns your greatest point of strength into your greatest weakness, and a lack of information on your environment.
The foremost cause of tension and terror in Receiver stems from the realistic — for a game, anyway — gun model, which incorporates all the actions a person would actually need to perform in order to use a gun. Pull out the clip, holster the gun, fill the clip bullet-by-bullet with ammo (which you don’t usually have much of), reload the gun, pull back the slide, and flip off the safety. Your gun is now ready to fire. Want to see how many rounds you have? The only way to tell is to pull out the clip and look through the holes machined in the side. Want to see if you actually have a round chambered? Pull the slide back a small amount. It’s an intricate system for what is a fundamentally intricate process. We’ve been spoiled by pressing “r” to reload, and Receiver makes you appreciate that fact every time you have to hit four buttons in their proper sequence to ready another clip.
This focus on strong gun handling makes battles incredibly tense, and even terror-inducing. As you can only carry so many rounds, and reloading while you are being chased by a drone is a nerve-wracking process that requires all your concentration, you either have to master the art of reloading in combat (a very, very difficult one), or compensate by taking out targets with your limited clip. This is why the Glock is the best pistol in Receiver; it has a large magazine capacity. However, marksmanship and staying cool under pressure is rewarding.