Horror Games 101 Part 2: Keeping you Scared by Keeping you Poor

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

NB - Not Safe For Children

Another mechanic found in many survival horror games is resource scarcity.

We saw in the last article how Clive Barker's Jericho gave you and your team essentially unlimited ammo, magic and health regeneration. This abundance of resources conspired to rob it of any genuine fear factor.

However, the polar opposite of resource abundance - resource scarcity - can generate fear even in the absence of other fear inducing mechanics. Reducing your available supplies can make every decision and every encounter a gamble fraught with danger.

For example, you only have six shots in your revolver - the only weapon in your possession - and you have encountered a mid-tier enemy. Do you expend those rounds on this enemy, or do you risk unarmed combat in order to save those bullets in case you should encounter something more dangerous later?

When this is combined with randomly spawning and randomly roaming enemies this becomes an even more difficult decision. Why? Because you will not know when and where your next encounter will be, who or what it will be with, or how many of them there will be. You will also have no way of telling if this will happen before or after you manage to obtain any additional resources. This pushes the fear factor up even further.

This is exactly the situation someone will find themselves in when playing the highly regarded cult classic System Shock 2 – 1999’s ‘spiritual ancestor’ to BioShock.

System Shock 2

Video by Khan Fusion

This cyberpunk infused sci-fi survival horror sees the protagonist being woken up from cryo sleep aboard mankind’s first ever FTL spaceship, the Von Braun.

The ship has clearly met with disaster, however what the nature of this disaster is you are not sure, as there is no one around alive to tell you. Your only guide is the disembodied voice of Dr. Janice Polito, who instructs you over your cybernetic implant.

Similar to last article’s MINERVA, Dr Polito drip feeds you information, only telling you what you need to know at the time to perform the task at hand.

Therefore, your main source of information as to what has actually happened to the Von Braun and it's crew are the audio logs you find throughout the ship whilst doing Dr Polito's bidding. It soon becomes clear the ship has been infected by some alien (?) life form that has infected and mutated the crew, and that very few, if any, uninfected remain.

You will soon develop the sneaking suspicion that the good Doctor knows more than she is letting on, and that she may not be the ally she claims to be. These feelings of disempowerment, isolation, ignorance and distrust conspire to make you feel especially vulnerable to the events unfolding around you.

And this feeling of vulnerability is well justified, as your resources are extremely limited. For example, it is not possible to fully upgrade all of your implants and weapons even if you obtain every last resource available in the game. This forces you to make hard choices as to which weapons and implants to keep useful via upgrades, and which to sacrifice to obsolescence.

As with the example at the beginning of the article, ammo too is severely limited, forcing you to use stealth to avoid enemies or to engage in risky melee combat to conserve ammo.

Unlike many games, you will never be able to have everything you want; therefore, the ideal situation will never arise. This is a subtle but important distinction, as it makes it clear the game is never intended to be a ‘power fantasy’, and it is not the developer’s intention to make you feel good about yourself whilst playing it.

If your limited resources were not bad enough, your even more limited ability to carry them is even worse. Your carrying capacity is limited by both weight and volume. Therefore, you will not be able to carry all the weapons and items you would ideally wish to at any one time. Again, hard decisions will have to be made as to what will be your EDC - Every Day Carry.

Everything else will have to be stashed somewhere, and you may be forced to back track to these resources to obtain them when you need them. As System Shock 2’s enemies are randomly spawning and randomly roaming, travelling to and from your stash runs the risk of encountering one, thus risking both death and expending precious ammo if you cannot avoid fighting them.

This is made all the more nerve wracking by the complete absence of 'safe spaces’ in System Shock 2. The best you can hope for are places that are slightly less dangerous than others.

For example, I stashed most of my gear in a storm room. This store room had a solid door, so enemies would not be able to see in from the outside, and it was located in what appeared to be a relatively safe part of the ship. I believed this to be a safe space, and it was where I would retreat to when I was at my most vulnerable, i.e. when I needed to heal, repair my weapons and replenish ammo etc.

And I was wrong.

Enemies would still occasionally enter to investigate, forcing me to fight when I was least prepared to do so. This feeling of insecurity, of never feeling safe, helps to make the game a persistently frightening experience, even on successive playthroughs.

System Shock 2 can be purchased from both Steam and GoG.com at a very reasonable price. NB – there are a number of mods available that can be added to bring its visuals up to date.

That’s it for now. In the next article we will investigate how developers can unnerve the player by limiting their senses.

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