Do Stealth and Horror Games Differ in Gameplay?


#1

Just a moment ago, it occurred to me that I could distinguish horror and stealth games only by their themes, atmospheres, aesthetics and tones. I can see no real mechanical differences between horror and stealth games, however. Both horror and stealth games involve hiding, avoiding enemies, rather than fighting them head-on, and both make the player-character weak, frail, and easily killed by enemies. They also both emphasize sound more than most other games, particularly environmental noises and the sounds enemies make. The biggest difference I can think of is stealth games require you to hide corpses. This seems like a trivial difference.

Of course, horror games scare us, while stealth games excite feelings of suspense. I’d consider these feelings two sides of the same coin. In mechanical terms, both feelings arise from the player-character’s vulnerability and the enemies’ strength. Horror games present this feeling differently, through scenes of gore, jump-scares, and moments that build psychological tension, but they do that through their atmosphere and storytelling, rather than their game-play mechanics. Not all horror games are sneaky, and not all stealth games are scary, but it seems to me no coincidence that, since the very early days of the original Clock Tower, horror games have involved stealth mechanics.

I think Thief 1 best shows us how easily a game can shift between stealth and horror. People always claim that Thief 2 is the superior game, and they’re half right. Thief 2 is a superior stealth game. But Thief 1 stands out to me for exactly the elements which Thief 2 eliminated: the horrific, supernatural exploration missions, such as the Lost City, and Down in the Bonehoard. To me, these levels work alongside the urban burglary missions because the same mechanics can work for both stealth and horror. Thief 1 deserves credit for using its mechanics to achieve a broader narrative scope, to frighten us and make us feel like sleek super-spies.

What do you all think? Can anyone identify some significant game-play mechanics that distinguish horror and stealth games? Try to refrain from using hybrid games as examples, e.g. Deus Ex or Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space. I’m talking more about games that most people would classify under one genre, e.g. Splinter Cell or Resident Evil 1, or games that combine only stealth and horror, e.g. Clock Tower, or Amnesia.


#2

I think you’re largely right that they often overlap, and that atmosphere and thematics are often what people use to differentiate stealth from horror. But I don’t necessarily associate horror as a genre with hiding and avoiding enemies, and I think the comparison itself is a bit flawed. For me, saying stealth often overlaps with horror is like saying shooters often overlap with science-fiction or JRPGs often overlap with fantasy; the former are mechanics-based genres and the latter are thematic-based (and largely an import from literature). They overlap because one is a way of classifying the actions the player has to take to progress and the other is a way of classifying the narrative devices the games use. So “shifting” between stealth and horror is almost meaningless, as is trying to designate games hybrids of both; the genres are not contradictory, and a game can easily be both at once. Additionally, as horror’s not a mechanical genre, there are no “only horror games”—there are games in mechanical genres that can also be classified as horror games because of atmosphere/themes/etc.

Now my immediate example for a non-stealth horror game is Silent Hill 2, which sure, allows you to avoid most enemies but doesn’t necessitate any kind of stealthing to do it. You either fight them or run past them, and the game doesn’t really care which. Horror isn’t mechanically defined in SH2; it’s entirely dependent on the art/acting/writing.

Or, if you think about the gore and violence side of horror you could easily classify DOOM (or any game in the series) a horror game. Those games have some pretty frightening moments, and a lot of their thrill comes from grotesque imagery and the catharsis of “defeating” that imagery with huge, powerful guns.

Another example that upends this is Spec Ops: The Line, which I would absolutely classify a horror game. Its narrative satirizes military shooters by forcing the player to commit war crimes, which is a downright brutal experience. And in the same vein, Wolfenstein: The New Order has this atmosphere of constant depression and futility that is definitively a horror atmosphere, even if it’s accompanied by lots of cathartic Nazi-killing.

Or how about Until Dawn, which fits into the same mechanical genre as Life is Strange and every Telltale and Quantic Dream game, yet is also more or less a slasher movie in video game form?

So to answer your final question, no, I don’t think there are gameplay mechanics that distinguish horror and stealth, but that’s because horror as a genre isn’t actually defined by any set of gameplay mechanics. Rather it’s a genre imported from books and based on narrative tropes, and is always associated with some kind of mechanical genre like stealth or shooting or branching-path-choices.


#3

Part of my point in making this thread was consider the possibility that your negative answer is true: that no mechanics define horror games. I certainly never said I thought stealth and horror were contradictory or incompatible genres. There are no incompatible or contradictory genres.

The problem is, we do tend to treat horror games as distinct genre in a way much different from the way we do sci-fi or fantasy games. Games like Clock Tower, Amnesia, Knock-Knock, Resident Evil 1, Alone in the Dark, Doom 3 and System Shock 2 do share a common set of mechanics and themes. Games that feature similar themes to these horror games, but different mechanics, such as Doom 1 and 2, Dead Space, and Spec Ops: The Line, feature horror elements, but we generally distinguish them from horror games proper. We call Dead Space a horror/action or survival/action game, and we consider Doom an FPS rather than an action game. It’s very hard for me to consider a game a proper horror game if it makes fighting a consistently viable option. Horror games make the player feel weak. If the player know she can defeat any enemy she faces, the game isn’t scary anymore. I imagine Silent Hill is an exception here, but I’ve never played it. Why does this apparent mechanical difference exist, when the mechanics that distinguish horror games as such appear in different games?

Then again, back in the heyday of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, we used to call horror games “survival/horror” games, and back then few proper survival games existed in the sense of games we see today like Raft, This War of Mine or Don’t Starve. Maybe what I call horror games are really just horror-themed survival games. If so, then stealth games might be considered a sub-genre of survival games.


#4

I completely forgot about survival horror as a term, but now that you mention it I do think it applies to most if not all of the games you’ve labeled as horror. It carries the thematic context of horror but does associate itself with a specific gameplay goal, even though “surviving” is probably the most basic gameplay goal there is. And survival horror games often incorporate stealth elements, but since the genre is so malleable it can easily incorporate other mechanical elements as well. BioShock is arguably survival horror, but it uses shooter gameplay rather than stealth mechanics to achieve that goal. Something like Resident Evil 7 is survival horror with a fusion of stealth and shooting; its shooting elements exist but are only useful in specific situations, while stealthing is your only option in others. Yet I don’t think anyone would contest calling that game survival horror.

It’s interesting to me that you say that feeling of weakness that horror games invoke disqualifies any games with fighting elements, because there are games with consistent fighting elements that have made me feel incredibly weak as a player-character. RE7 is a good example of that—you can always fight, but with the scariest enemies your guns usually do no damage, just some knockback so you can get away. An even better example is Wolfenstein: The New Order, which, despite being a high-octane shooter (and very much not survival horror), made me feel the weakest I’ve ever felt as a player immersed in the world of a game. That game is filled with the sense that your actions won’t end up mattering, that all the shooting and killing you’re doing for the sake of this tiny resistance will just be absorbed by a much more powerful enemy, and that you ultimately can’t even save the people you care about from pain and death. It projects weakness through writing and atmosphere rather than gameplay, and the writing is good enough to make that work. The ending, which I’ll try to avoid spoiling if you haven’t played it, utterly cements that feeling as well; I’ve never felt as powerless in a game as I did at the end of Wolfenstein: TNO. And I’ve played Amnesia, Outlast, SH2, RE7, etc.—none of them come close.

The difference here is that in those games you have something you can do—you can run, or hide, or shoot—but the end of Wolfenstein paints your actions as utterly futile, achieving momentary success before collapsing in on themselves. Sure, in that game the player can defeat any physical enemy they face, but those physical enemies are only representations of a much larger foe—an idea, really, and a world government based around it that BJ and his guns are woefully ill-equipped to fight. It’s like fighting a California wildfire with a Super Soaker; you can take something that seems like action, but the game is constantly reminding you that it will never, ever be enough, and that left me feeling incredibly weak as a player.


#5

I never said that fighting elements disqualify a game from classification as survival horror; most of the examples I used involve fighting. I said that in a horror game, fighting should not be the player’s first option to resolve conflicts with enemies. In games like the Resident Evil 1-3, and, I imagine, 7, though I’ve not played it, fighting is a last resort. I’ve heard that this is even more true in 7, because some enemies are unkillable in many encounters. When one plays REmake, for example, one knows not only that one cannot win by fighting every enemy due to ammo scarcity, but also that fighting enemies will sometimes make the player more likely to die: one of the scariest things I’ve ever witnessed in a game is REmake’s Crimson Head zombies. If the player kills a zombie and leaves its body lying around with its head still attached, after a certain amount of time passes, the zombie will come back to life as a Crimson Head, a faster, more powerful zombie that can open doors. Something nearly all survival/horror games have in common, as far as I can tell, is consistent encounters with enemies who can kill the player character so easily that fighting them at all becomes futile, at best a momentary solution to a much bigger problem. In Thief 1’s “Return to the Cathedral” level, you can fight all you want, but it’s basically pointless: zombies come back to life, and enemies in general outnumber you so much that fight one and risk attracting them all is basically suicide. In survival/horror game, I think fighting can be an option, just not a consistently viable one: the game needs to punish the player with a game-over for trying to overpower the enemies.

I’ve yet to play Wolfenstein: TNO, but your description makes me want to play it even more. From your description, it sounds like the game is more oppressive than horrific. This oppressive feeling interests me. I observe it in STALKER, and Far Cry 2, games that make it possible to win through fighting, but aggressively stack the deck against you. STALKER, especially: in the first few hours of the game, you’re low on ammo, every enemy outnumbers and outguns you, and the guns you do find are weak, short-ranged, inaccurate, often break so quickly that I found my self panicking, running through firefights desperately firing a few shots from a gun, then throwing it away when it broke or ran out of ammo, only to replace with a barely if at all better gun which I would throw away a few seconds later. Not to mention the radiation poisoning, ravenous animals, the threat of death by bleeding, and the barely visible anomalies that kill you just for touching them. Even the relics that buff you irradiate you and so threaten kill you from prolonged usage. STALKER certainly has horror sequences when you fight monsters indoors, but here I’m talking about the outdoor environments where you fight humans. Those parts play differently that a horror game; they feel more anxious, suspenseful, frantic, and, yes, oppressive. I’m no Cold War historian, but the game’s setting in the late USSR, seems to me to fit its game play. In STALKER, the player frequently gets caught in an every-man-for-himself, desperate grab for resources barely sufficient for his own survival against the constant threat of sudden and often apparently arbitrary death. That scenario matches very closely my mental picture of the perils of the worst parts of the Soviet Union.