Thoughts on Action Horror

I may have been a little unfair to Action Horror in my last couple posts. “May.” To that end, I want to talk a bit about action horror.

Remember Doom? The original action horror video game[1]. I remember the first time I saw a cyberdemon. I was a little cocky taking out whatever was before it, and then there was a short pause in the game, not quite long enough to make me on edge, and then I triggered the baron’s appearance.


I was scared out of my gourd. And it was awesome. But a good part of that was the medium — both in the visual & audio elements, and the immediacy of real-time play. It hits my lizard brain with fear, makes my breathing tense, makes me twitch and jump. Before I played Doom, I was only mildly interested in horror as a genre. Doom blew me away and showed me how the art of suspense can be wielded.

Contrast that to a horror novel. It relies on creating an imagined space between the author’s words and the reader’s mind. That’s a different part of the brain that’s interpreting language. And it’s not immediate, it’s at the reader’s pace. A tabletop RPG is more akin to a novel than a video game, with the difference being that you have agency in a RPG or video game and don’t in a novel.

RPGs that try to emulate Doom are fun action games, and I like playing them, but they don’t feel like the lizard-brain horror elements. When I’m this badass space marine walking around Hell with my shotgun, and suddenly I hear a cacodemon to my left[2], HOLY CRAP TURN LEFT FIRE FIRE FIRE. That feeling can’t really be captured in an RPG the same way.

First of all, there’s the Alertness roll to see if I notice the cacodemon — which gives away to me the player that I should be on edge about *something*. Doom didn’t do that. You either noticed or you didn’t.[3] It also slows down the play to something far from immediacy. Then there’s the GM describing the situation — which is either quick and incomplete, allowing for something closer to immediacy but lacking in rich details, or is detailed but removes the suspense that’s built around immediacy. Then there’s the to-hit roll, all of that. The farther you go, the more you drift away from the immediacy of an action horror video game or movie.

So, there’s that factor. There’s another that feels true in a movie or video game but feels false to me in a novel or RPG about horror: hyper-competency. One of the themes of a horror story is hopelessness, and I find it hard to feel like that when The Gun is presented as being equivalent to The Threat. That turns the protagonists away from fighting for survival — fighting for their own hopes — and into people who can fight for others. As a character motivation, that’s great, but I want a horror game to constantly feel like one’s own hopes are at Threat, that they can be chewed up and spit out for entering the arena of a Threat.

Hyper-competency shoots that story element to hell. The macho “they have tentacles, we have shotguns. Bring it on!” sense of action turns the characters from Victims into Heroes. For something paced like a video game, taking the role of a Hero is great. You still have a lot of lizard brain-generated tension to play with. But for something paced like an RPG or novel, I am more interested in the Victims.

(Hypoer-competency also tends to destroy the mystery element of a game, when all you need to know is where to shoot it. The mystery still exists, but the drive to it is lessened dramatically.)

That isn’t to say you can’t run a fun action horror game. Who doesn’t want to shoot up some vampires? But that’s not engaging in the themes I look for when I think “horror” because of the limitations of the medium.

– Ryan

[1] At least, to me. If there’s one earlier, I’m all ears. It certainly is one of the iconic ones.

[2] Back then, I had a SoundSource, so I was all about plugging my headphones in to hear in stereo. Man alive that was awesome. Not the SoundSource, but needing to wear headphones turned into loving wearing headphones in horror video games.

[3] I like what Left 4 Dead does, where you get audio cues that something is about to happen. That’s anticipation-driving insanity. I only wish I liked playing console FPS games, but I haven’t gotten used to the controllers yet.