Lost Horror Game Mechanics that NEED a comeback! (and some more…)
Have you ever played a game and just thought “Wow, that was a truly unique experience.” As the years pass and games progress, you find yourself still thinking about that one game, wondering “How much better it would be if it were attempted again today?”
What are Game Mechanics?
Game Mechanics are basically features that make a game tick, and as games have become more mainstream, their mechanics have also become more refined. It’s now become common practise for games to include mechanics such as Health, Objectives and a Level Up or Skill Tree system. However, even though games are only getting bigger and more complex by the year, some game mechanics seem to have been lost to time. It’s these forgotten gems that we’ll be exploring today…
✨Let’s go back to ‘the good old days’ of gaming✨
Siren is well known in the horror genre as a classic for many reasons, it was able to provide the player with an overwhelming sense of vulnerability as it successfully blended traditional western horror film techniques with more subtle psychological themes which are iconic to Japanese horror. The games dark environments, vulnerable characters and eerie sound design had me terrified to move when I played as a child, but one element of the game shone out from the rest: sight jacking.
Sight jacking allowed players to look through the eyes of the Shibito (which literally translates to ‘corpse person’) that are trying to kill them. This added a totally unique perspective to a horror experience as it not only allowed the player a glimpse into what the Shibito could see and hear, which was often drowned out by its disturbing groans, but through their vision they could also spot themselves, displayed as a glint on the screen. The larger the glint, the closer they were. However, when a player is Sight Jacking they’re also completely vulnerable to an attack, so this adds an extra layer of fear to an already overwhelmingly scary game. Siren knew how to utilise this mechanic well by having one of its main characters have to guide a blind person, therefore making the player dependant on looking through the eyes of what players were trying to avoid to navigate through the level.
As someone who loves horror games myself but is also terrified of them, this mechanic forced me out of my comfort zone to get close enough to what I feared so as to use their sight to my advantage. I’d love to see what games can do with this concept nowadays as its been over a decade since the last Siren game released in 2008.
Gregory Horror Show, known as Gregory Horror Show: Soul Collector in Japan, is a not-so-well known mystery horror game, but is something of a cult classic to those who had the luck of stumbling over it. The game centered around a hotel which would eventually fill with guests who want to harm the player. As a player your goal is to steal the souls of these guests without being caught first, the only way to do this was to learn the routines and weaknesses of the guests to use to your advantage. As you might expect, stealth is a pivotal aspect of this game.
Eavesdropping is not a unique concept within the gaming world but using it alongside the games Memo System rewards the player for their patient sneaking. When the player begins the game they’re presented with a book of empty time slots for each hotel guest which suggests the times when these guests will be occupied doing a certain task. To reveal what the guests are doing within these time slots the player can eavesdrop on them to listen to a thought dialogue in its entirety. These tasks repeat daily, allowing the player a chance to discover what the guests are up to at each time slot until they have discovered enough information through the thought dialogues to retrieve their next soul and progress to the next level. The benefit to this is not only discoverability but also being able to track where each dangerous guest will be at any time just by checking their Memo. The more hard work you put into eavesdropping, the better the pay off.
The concept of peering through key holes or sneaking to find out information from NPCs is still used today, however a system like this rewards the player for these actions and allows them to retain the information that they’ve learned in a way that can influence gameplay, especially in a game that requires stealth and avoiding other characters. As someone who loves to admire the details of any game and actively tries to make sure I learn as much about the worlds characters as I can, I love the concept of being able to learn all you can about a characters daily routine and I’d love to play a game like this again. Even if it lacks an oddly aroused pink lizard.
Random events is something that got explored a lot around the PlayStation 2 era and seems to have fizzled out in preference of more open-world games with branching narratives. Sticking to the Horror theme, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem has a Sanity System which triggers Random Events when players reach a low sanity level. These events are vast and varied, including: having your inventory appear empty, having fake enemies surround you, having your character grow, shrink or even having their head fall off and recite Hamlet! Some random events only occur at specific chapters of the game, making this mechanic an integral part of the games discoverability and replayability.
Silent Hill also had some effective uses of random events which kept players on their toes as to whether danger was really ahead of them. Of course, many times in a horror game the atmosphere would build up around a player to create suspense through the visuals and audio before facing something made to scare them. However Silent Hill 2 incoorporates random events such as unintelligable whispers and a door knob rattling when you’re on the opposite side of it, to take players off guard and keep them unsettled, even if technically there was nothing there to fear.
Having random events causes the player to not trust the game they’re playing, which may not work for all games but for these two examples it certainly elevated the anxious fear needed for a horror game. Like the unreliable narrator in books, if done well this could allow for more unique and memorable experiences, if anyone is brave enough to give it a go!
Talking of Silent Hill 2, I’d also like to bring up its subtle use of player choices that influenced which ending the player would get. Nowadays many games allow player agency by offering them choices throughout the games narrative, however these choices are more often than not made very obvious to the player through either a dialogue choice or a quick time event. Narrative-driven games such as Life is Strange and TellTale’s games would always display these options on the screen for the player to choose from, and sometimes there are even warnings in games to let players know when a choice they’re about to make is pivotal to the games narrative direction and ending.
During Silent Hill 2 the game logs small actions that would depict the natural playstyle of the player to influence a different ending. Some examples are: Triggering an ‘underwater ending’ if the player depicts risky behaviour throughout the game by taking a lot of damage and not healing often which shows James’ lack of respect for his own life, a ‘good’ ending which is influenced by players reading a note from James’ wife multiple times as well as other things that would show the players interest in the story of James and his marraige to Mary, and the ‘Maria’ ending which is given when the player actively pays attention to the character of Maria, a seductive manifestation of James’ wife Mary, actively defending her from monsters and checking on her when she decides to stay within a hotel room for a period of time.
Allowing players to influence a games narrative creates a personalised experience and allows for replayability. By making these choices obvious to the player it informs them of the importance of this choice and its impact on the game world. However, I feel that the downside of presenting this information is that it can also sometimes break immersion, allowing players time to think logically about their choices instead of doing what feels natural which in my opinion allows for much more interesting results as players act on impulse instead of questioning every decision they make. Perhaps this could also allow players to learn a bit more about themselves along the way…
Fixed Camera Angles
Fixed camera angles used to be a staple in the horror genre due to technical limitations of the time. However, as games have progressed and these limitations are no longer a concern we saw them fade into the past in favour of a first-person or third-person camera view. In many ways this is a positive thing as it allows more immersion as the player can have full control over the camera view, however I can’t help but miss the fear and anticipation that came with games that utilised this lack of player control to their advantage.
Games like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark did this by hand-crafting what the player could see and when. This would often help to heighten scary scenes such as monster reveals, or bring attention to important items. It also made for some truly cinematic displays of environments in a time when the technical limitations made this a difficult task to achieve. It also allowed for creative camera cutaways which would help with environmental storytelling in ways that would be difficult to recreate with a first-person camera view of today. For instance, the shot in Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare when the player runs in front of a mansion and suddenly sees the camera switch to show someone watching them from within the building, complete with the sounds of a heart beat.
There are many benefits to giving full control to the player in terms of camera placement and visibility, especially in terms of gameplay. However through doing so we loose the ability to hand-craft these moments that made iconic horror games so memorable and I’d love to see what games could do with the mechanic if it was explored with more today.
I go in more depth about the benefits of Fixed Camera Angles in my article: The Forgotten Art of Fixed Camera Games.
Similar to Hidden Choices are Personalised Events, where the game would either use actions a player has taken throughout the game or even their own information to personalise experiences within the game.
Metal Gear Solid is a game that’s highly praised for its ground-breaking design that paved the way for a whole new genre of stealth games. However this wasn’t the only mechanic that has been remembered for its ingenuity, the boss battle with Psycho Mantis subverted players expectations by using their own gameplay and data against them. Like Silent Hill 2, the game had been subtly tracking how often a player would do certain actions, but instead of this information to affect the ending, it was relayed back to the player through dialogue. For example, if a player had saved the game frequently then Psycho Mantis would say “You’re a very prudent gamer…aren’t you?” Psycho Mantis would also famously quote on any saved Konami games that the player might have on their memory cards, using the players data against them. For example, if the player had saved filed of Suikoden he would comment “Soooooo you like role playing games hmmm.”
I understand it’s a little more difficult to derive player data nowadays due to most games being built to be cross-platform, however I’d love to see more information pulled from a players Steam, Xbox or Playstation accounts to create truly fourth-wall breaking moments like this, Imagine seeing your profile picture show up in a photo frame, or notice that an NPC is using a name from your friends list: “I’d love to buy 2 health potions please, Miss_DogLover619” Okay, maybe something better than that, but you get the point!
Human AI Combat
It’s common for a player to run into different enemy types in a game which all have varying levels of difficuly and attack or defence styles. Perhaps one NPC is slow moving and has a shield to defend their front from a distance, while another is fast-moving and goes straight in for the attack. However both of these NPCs have one thing in commmon, no matter their combat style they remain visible and present within the players vicinity.
Condemned: Criminal Origins introduced a whole new combat style for its NPCs when it released back in 2015 which I can only describe as being more ‘human’. These enemies are deranged criminals that have most definitley just taken a hit of something funky. The game uses a melee combat system which forces the player to get up close and uncomfortable with them. But what has stuck with me the most is their unique fighting styl; instead of running at the player to attack them the player would instead hear them first and, upon getting closer, then catch a glimpse of them running off through the many doors or blown out holes of the environment. Some would even attempt to hide in the room to catch you off guard. There’s something extremely offputting about seeing an NPC act in this manner and this, along with the mostly melee combat, would keep the player on guard at all times.
One iconic part of the game was within an abandoned shopping mall which was filled with old Christmas decorations, shattered display cases and, of course, mannequins. Instead of running away here, some enemies would instead choose to simply stand still in the hopes of blending in with the many mannequins dotted around the mall’s wide open spaces. There they would wait patiently until the player would stray close enough for them to get a jump on them. Understandably, this made players distrust all mannequins and it forced them to scan rooms upon entering for any suspicious looking shape that could be an enemy frozen in disguise. Something about realising a shape in front of me was actually an enemy, patiently waiting for me to move closer, seriously unnerved me as so often it took a while for the details to present themselves through the darkness and give way to the figures true nature. I’d just stand there, watching them watching me. Nothing has quite creeped me out that way in a very long time!
Immersive Skill Progression
Skill trees are a pivotal part of player progression in RPGs, allowing players to invest in developing particular skills that will shape their character to fit their preferred playstyle. These skill trees are usually visible within the games menu, where a player can assign skill points once they have been unlocked through levelling. This manual process gives players visibility over the many possible paths of the skill tree so that they can make an informed decision on how to use these points.
However, in the past there have been games that try a more immersive approach to progressing through these skill trees. Bethesda’s RPG games, such as Morrowind and Oblivion, focused on assigning skill points to in-game weapons, objects and actions. Due to this, skill points would progress naturally based on the players playstyle, for instance running would improve Athletics or using a Bow would improve Marksmanship. Players could also read books or pay trainers as an alternative option to improve these skills.
In 2006 Ubisoft released a horse riding sim called Pippa Funnell: Take the Reins, which allowed players to experience being a student in a prestigious horse riding school where they could progress their skills through choosing which horse training classes or other activities they would like to allocate time to throughout the week. Each class or activity would enhance a skill and would aid toward the main story as well as weekly competitions. There were classes aimed at improving horse care as well as skills such as show-jumping or dressage, as well as activities such as visiting the Rest Room which enhanced the players social status as well as allowing the player to develop relationships with their fellow students. This replicated a school setting where you are expected to juggle classes and social time alongside creating a layer of strategy by forcing players to allocate their time wisely, keeping in mind that they needed to care for their horse and level up their skills for each competition as well as progressing the stories narrative by doing more social activities.
I’d like to see how this idea of immersive skill progression could be pushed even further now and, while on the subject of Pippa Funnel, I’d also like to see more horse games in general. No, not just horses IN games, HORSEY GAMES!
Playstyle Affecting the World
Player agency is an important part of bringing a player into the game world by allowing them control and influence over the world itself. This is arguably what holds games apart from other forms of entertainment such as films and books, whereby the consumer is simply a passive viewer. Games introduce player agency through interactable objects, cosmetic choices, optional side quests and many more mechanics that are designed to be influenced by the player.
Lionhead’s Fable truly grasped this concept within its many world systems that would adapt to the players playstyle. It truly felt that your actions had an impact on Albion itself as the characters within it would call you nicknames based on a title you’d unlocked by doing certain actions (the most popular being ‘chicken chaser’ which is unlocked by kicking a bunch of poor, defenceless chickens, you heartless monster!). A players character themselves would also cosmetically mirror their playstyle by depicting a more devilish or angelic form depending on how many ‘good’ or ‘bad’ deeds they had performed. Other characters in the world would react to this, some screaming and running away if a player had turned evil, while others might actually prefer that. In Fable 2 your character would also get visibly hench as you increased their strength stats!
Too often there doesn’t seem to be any repurcussions to a players choices in games, especially moral moment-to-moment choices such as stealing or deciding to battle with innocent characters (or chickens). NPCs in games might react in the moment, but once that’s over the player can more often than not just go about their business as if nothing had happened. Having the game react to these player actions and decisions over time really elevates the feeling of immersion and heightens the importance around the choices players make in the game, as they will be noticed by and have an impact on the game world around them.
Here are some less specific mechanics that I would love to see more of for games in the future:
As online multiplayer games have gotten more and more popular, allowing multiple people to play together from anywhere in the world the need for split-screen has wavered. However I still find myself scouring through Xbox Game Pass and Steam trying to find games that I can still play with my friends while we’re all together in the same room. Why not just play games from the comfort of our own homes on our own consoles or PCs? For starters, it’s cheaper when you don’t all have to buy the same game but also there is something magical about sharing gaming moments with your friends in person. I have fond memories of bonding with my family and friends over split screen games like Mariokart and 007 and I hope others get to have those experiences as well.
Along with splitscreen, games found other ways to introduce collaboration into their gameplay by even having players share a controller. Kuri-Kuri Mix did this by having both halves of the controller control a different character in its fast-paced puzzle platformer. Do not be duped by the adorable looking bunnies on the cover, without having a friend to share the controller with you to control another character this game proved to be brutally difficult. After all, it is developed by FromSoftware.
Call me old-fashioned but I personally prefer to get some friends together, grab some snacks and spend an evening all watching the same screen laughing at a good party or racing game and it’s getting progressively harder to do so as games focus more on online multiplayer.
There was once a time when you’d buy a game pre-owned and hope to open it up to find that a small scrap of paper left in the case. This paper would indicate a rare find that all gamers of the 2000’s and earlier were eager to learn; cheat codes!
Cheat codes were a wonderful way of allowing both the developers and players to have some fun. It afforded some mystery around the game and there were often discussions amongst friends about supposed cheat codes that would enhance a game experience by either making it easier, unlocking parts of the game or even triggering secrets like the fisheye lens view on the Sims. It’s a shame that the word ‘cheat’ now alludes to a player ruining the experience for others or simply hacking the game, when once upon a time the devs freely had fun with this concept and allowed it to be available for those who were willing to seek out the right secret codes!
Okay, they’re not game mechanics I know, but I just wanted to throw this one in here as well. Game booklets used to be a way to introduce a player to the game world before even inserting the disc and hitting play. These booklets not only gave players valuable information such as the controls for the game, but they also introduced the games narrative through colourfully worded character bios and pictures. As a child I remember reading them fondly and referring back to them if I needed a refresher on the controls and didn’t want to have to pause the game. Some booklets would even have maps within them which players could keep open in front of them while playing to help navigate throughout the game without pulling up the in-game map too often which helped with immersion.
Again, this could just be nostalgia talking, but there was something special about having a physical object that built upon the games narrative and I miss that. I understand it might be slightly better for the environment to not use so much paper, but perhaps we could even have online game booklets which players could scan a QR code to reach, or they could be incoorporated into the game themselves like in Tunic!
✨Wow, that’s a lotta game mechanics✨
I hope you enjoyed this trip down my gaming memory lane! As I was writing I kept remembering and adding more, but I’m sure I have missed so many and, as you can probably tell, I am a major horror fan so most of these mechanics come from that genre. Are there any game mechanics lost to time that you think deserve to be on this list? Do please let me know!
If you’d like to check out more of my work or what I’m up to then you can follow me on YouTube, Twitch, Twitter or Instagram @YagmanX . I also have a free horror game ‘Perfection’ on itch.io and a music EP ‘Sweater’ available on all major music streaming platforms :)