Horror, Immersion, and the Broken Tension of the Unkillable Pursuer

Imagine: you’re Leon S. Kennedy, a fresh-faced police cadet that has just arrived to his co-worker’s welcoming party gone Romero. As you begin to explore the confines of your strangely complicated workplace, you slowly begin to unravel many mysteries of both your new city of residence and what exactly has happened here. Someone out there doesn’t want you exploring the depths of the mystery and is willing to go to any lengths to stop this “incident” from leaking out. This “someone” has sent their greatest weapon against you: Mr. X, the 9 foot tall absolute gargantuan of a mutated man, who will stop at nothing to bring this investigation, and your life, to an end. You see him out of the corner of your eye. You turn, sprinting towards the library, hoping for a brief respite from this unrelenting tidal wave of death that surrounds you. Narrowly dodging the claws and jaws of the living dead surrounding your locale, you bound up the nearby stairs, slowly turning to face your inevitable demise. Below, you see Mr. X, climbing a ladder to end yo… Wait, no he’s climbing down.

He makes for the stairs, and as he begins to ascen… Oh, he’s going for the ladder again.

… annnnnnd he’s stuck on a table.

Goddamnit.

Gaze upon the visage of the lord of pathing.

This is only one of the many immersion breaking scenarios I ran into while playing the recently released Resident Evil 2 REmaster. This unstoppable behemoth of unrelenting pursuit actually turned out to be quite stoppable, and quite relenting, once you were made painfully aware you were in a video game again.

Mr. X is only a symptom of a recent trend in the horror genre that seems to be the new fad; the unkillable antagonist. Whether it be the creatures of Amnesia slowly stalking the halls, or the faint glimpses of the horrors captured by a video camera in Outlast, horror game creators seem to want to make you painfully aware of how human you are in these games.

The problem is that it *does* make you feel human. It makes you feel like you’re a human, playing a video game, and that’s one of the easiest ways to kill that sense of immersion that allows us to feel so terrified in these games in the first place.

The year is 2010. The horror genre is about to be revolutionized and revitalized by one, singular event; the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. This new entry into the horror genre sparks an absolute deluge of talk, videos, and live reactions onto every corner of the (then small) internet gaming universe. This near universal acclaim for the game eventually spawned an entire movement within the beloved horror genre, bringing a bevy of new games and game types into the genre. Everyone wanted to be the next Amnesia, both from a commercial and design standpoint.

The shock of success; pictured.

and therein lies the problem. Everyone wanted to be Amnesia, no matter how good Amnesia’s design choices were for their game. New horror games slowly added stealth mechanics, and the addition of new, unkillable monsters into games that otherwise let you deal with your otherworldly foes. Games like the Resident Evil 2 REmake now have corporate fueled agents of war who will not stop stalking you no matter how hard you try, and leave you with nothing to deal with them, other than sitting in a corner and hoping the AI checks another room.

The question is, what are the problems with these enemies, and are there ways to solve them? I believe there are, and some of my proposed changes could possibly bring new life into the horror genre.

The main issue with these bounty hunters of horror is one of complexity. The majority of the time, these enemies have simple goals; patrol this selected patch of level, find the player, chase that wacky kid around for a bit; maybe give their horror gland a good squeeze, then give up when he finds your patented Closet of Lost Object Permanence, and return to running the errands of the day. This is is designed to give the player a chance to recover from a failing to avoid the beast of the hour, but can quickly become an exercise in tedium depending on when exactly you messed with their pattern.

So how do you solve the problem of the bad guy brain? I’ve personally been brainstorming, and have a few ideas below.

Make Their Brain Less “Obvious”

If this undefeatable spirit of vengeance needs to remain, then it needs to be in shorter bursts. Giving the player shorter, but more intense encounters with the pursuer would allow those AI patterns to be less apparent over the course of the game. If you only have to deal with an enemy in one or two hallways, instead of over the entirety of a level, you have less of a chance to find obvious exploits in the AI’s pattern. This is less of a solution and more of a band-aid, as the flaws still remain; you are just controlling and limiting the environments in which you can encounter the big bad more. Of all the solutions, this is personally my least favorite, but if it works, it works.

Just Fix Them, Like l o l

Obviously this is a bit tongue in cheek, but having more strides made in the department of AI could help these types of games tremendously. Letting the enemy have some adaptability in their avenues of approach, whether it be in terms of level design, or actively killing the player, would lead to more situations where the player needs to make immersed split second decisions that could lead to terror. This could inevitably lead to the frustration of the “enemy who’s just too got dang smart” that just becomes an unstoppable demon for the average player if not done correctly. As with any changes to AI and computer behavior, it could also lead to even more breaking of the baddie, completely nullifying the effort to fix.

If the existence of the unstoppable antagonist is more malleable, then there are a few more creative solutions…

Make the Unstoppable, Stoppable

Just because an enemy is unkillable, does not mean they need to be unstoppable. Allowing the player to spend resources to effectively contain an enemy would be a very, very effective solution to the problem of the unrelenting psychopath. Ironically, Resident Evil has already dealt with this exact scenario, in the form of Tyrant in Resident Evil 3.

In RE3, there is an enemy very similar to Mr. X that will pursue you. Even across those previously safe loading screens, you are not safe. The main difference between Mr. X and Tyrant is that Tyrant can actually be dealt with.

Mr. X with an uzi could be just as terrifying, but only if he evolves it.

Tyrant cannot be (permanently) killed, but the player can spend valuable resources on temporarily stopping the onslaught of Tyrant’s pursuit. When enough bullets, blood, and willpower are spent, Tyrant will eventually acquiesce and drop valuable upgrades for your character. This turns into a major decision making point for the player; do I spend these finite resources I have now on getting a reprieve from Tyrant, making me stronger later on, or do I just do my best to avoid his assault so that I have more resources for the immediate future?

This line of questioning allows the player to feel more invested in their character and their choices, and by extension, the game. The way to make your player feel true horror is to get them to identify with and become immersed in their character, and allowing a decision making process that has future ramifications gets someone into a character’s shoes faster than an impromptu brain transplant.

Make the Unstoppable Evolve

Mr. X is not a clever man. His main strategy seems to stem from the ye olde year of 2010. To put it bluntly:

“I see enemy, I run shortest distance to enemy, then I punch enemy. Real HARD.”

This… seems like an unreasonable line of thought for a million dollar agent of destruction designed to be the corporate hit-man. You’d think that they’d program in at least a couple of evolutio-…

and there’s the solution.

Allowing your constant antagonist to evolve along with the player would bring a new level of terror to the protagonist and the player.

If the player tends to be aggressive towards Mr. X, shooting him and eventually felling him, allow Mr. X to evolve. With his new knowledge of bullets and their lethal abilities, his body begins to evolve. Like a teenager in the throngs of puberty, his skin begins to harden and become impervious, nearly imperceptible to the eye.

Leon, spouting a few cocky lines, begins to unload a clip into X. He approaches, unfazed, revealing a hardened exterior now only penetrable by the wisecracks of Mr. Kennedy.

Those words are returned with a swift crushing of the skull. Leon is no more, and now the player has to deal with the newfound terror of an ever changing foe.

Making a player leave their comfortable strategies behind because of success would lead to a constant game of cat and mouse, lending even more to that feeling of mounting dread that comes along with an undefeatable enemy. Now, all solutions only lead to a brief respite, and while that is rewarding, the terror of knowing that Mr. X will only return with the tools to now deal with your dinky bullets will sink a player to new depths of terror and discovery to figure out new solutions to experience that brief respite again.

In The End…

Horror games rely on new experiences and tools to keep players on their toes. The addition of these enemies, with their unchanging patterns and ways of life, are directly contradictory to keeping someone ever ready for new encounters. Allowing your main antagonist to evolve along with the player is a terrifying prospect for not only the protagonist, but the programmers as well.

For now Mr. X, and by extension the horror genre, will continue to blindly follow along their path, eventually to be defeated by Protag Onist using a combination of terrible pathing and 100cc of pain to the face. Hopefully, with a potential Resident Evil 3 remake in the works, we can see the evolution of X to Tyrant, and wishfully, an evolution of the horror genre along with him, because nothing is more terrifying then change…

and lootboxes. Capcom please don’t EVER.

Video game enthusiast tasked with the eternal struggle of not ranting about Metal Gear Solid 3. Streamer, writer, video editor, and Twitter gremlin.