Surviving the Unknown is Its Own Kind of Horror
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
One of the first big game releases of 2013, Dead Space 3, is coming at the end of this month. When it does, we’ll be treated to a new iteration of the console survival-horror series, a spacey iteration of a genre that puts fear in players by making staying alive difficult and harrowing.
But lately I’ve been playing a number of games that aren’t about “survival-horror,” they’re just “survival” games. Titles such as Don’t Starve, Miasmata and even Minecraft put players into a world and expect them to figure out what they need to stay alive. In Don’t Starve and Minecraft, you need to hack down trees, build fires, gather food and cook it. Miasmata is all about investigating various plants to try to find the cure to a plague.
But while all three games might not be “survival-horror” titles, there’s some semblance of the horror genre inherent in the survival aspect. Dead Space might throw grotesque mutant monsters at you, but it still carries a lot of the base similarities with Minecraft that make both games an exercise in creating player dread.
When we fire up Dead Space, the horror comes in two major forms: first, the explosion of scary things out of places that we didn’t expect to house scary things, and second, a consistent dread of knowing bad stuff is out there and that we might not really be equipped to deal with it. Scarcity of resources, hearty enemies and highly specialized, somewhat-ineffective weapons have us in a situation in which we know we have to go out and face down monsters, but we’re not sure that we’re going to make it out alive.
Minecraft and survival games like it do virtually the exact same thing with their primary game mechanics. In Don’t Starve, you’re constantly battling hunger, but you’re also actively exploring the world around you. Partially, you’re doing this because finding new materials and researching them allows you to make new items, like armor crafted from wood, traps for different kinds of animals, and structures in which you can store your junk. The further you press out from the relative safety of your starting position, however, the more harrowing things become.
In Dead Space, players are wandering through a darkened ship with little idea of what they’ll find. Don’t Starve is the same — as you explore your island, you come across bridges to new ones, with no idea what will be there for you when you arrive.
One of the more interesting mechanics in Don’t Starve is the way the game limits your inventory capabilities, so that exploring isn’t easy. For example, you can fashion a backpack to carry more gear, and you can fashion some wooden armor that will protect you from creatures — but you can’t wear both at the same time. And venturing away from home can immediately present dangers: In my first game, the nearest island was a swamp that featured tentacles that whipped out of the ground with no warning.
The result was knowing there were dangers I’d never encountered not far off, and that preparation would be key. But between armor, weapons, and tools, there wasn’t much room left for food or other resources — which means my range of exploration is somewhat limited, and the danger ramps up significantly.