In this post, I used Condemned: Criminal Origins as a fitting case study for (the impact of) weapons in games. Condemned features a dedicated melee system and only occasionally offers a firearm to the player, which makes them stand out more. Monolith Productions went completely the other way with F.E.A.R., a shooter that focuses its entire gameplay experience on smooth and stylised combat. With guns. Lots of guns.
In a very unintentional and roundabout way, F.E.A.R. got me thinking about psychological warfare. The game of course uses it to unsettle the player with its horror element, but that's not what I mean to discuss. It's actually a certain aspect of the combat system that made me think about it from the other side. One of the melee moves that the player can employ in F.E.A.R. is a crouched slide kick, which affects physics objects. It also works on dead enemies, but a little too well. Slide into a corpse, and the ragdoll physics see it bouncing clear across the room, smashing into walls and leaving blood smears. This is very comical and elicits no reaction from anyone in the game world, friend or foe. But what if it did?
Imagine a group of soldiers holed up in a chokepoint. They know someone's coming, someone who's managed to wipe out many other soldiers. And then the lifeless corpse of one of their fallen comrades flies into a hallway in front of them, brutally coming to rest against a nearby wall. Nothing else happens until another corpse joins the first. The soldiers are now terrified. They get the message. "This is what I did to your friends. Think about what I'll do to you". As a result, they are demoralised and less effective in combat.
This is what I kept doing in F.E.A.R. because it was fun, a glitch or oversight in the physics engine or another homage to the stylised, over-the-top combat that typifies the F.E.A.R. series. But of course, the soldiers were never terrified because they weren't designed to be. Enemies actively fearing the player is a tactic used in some games (usually a result of the advantage that the player has, which in F.E.A.R.'s case is slow motion), but this is rarely a direct result of his actions. Far Cry 2 sees the player gaining notoriety, which gradually switches the enemy battle cries from "You're gonna die, ha ha!" to "We're gonna die, whimper!". But this happens during every playthrough and is tied more to what the player is than what he does. In the Aliens Versus Predator games, it's because you can be fearsome creatures like aliens and predators. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, it's because you're the goddamn Batman. Even Sam Fisher manages to instill fear in his enemies, but that's because he's established a reputation over the course of four preceding games ((The combat dialogue uttered by enemies in Splinter Cell: Conviction constantly alternates between unwitting boasts and intimidated cries of fear, as illustrated in this hilarious article)).
Many games are focused on scaring the player, but how many focus on the player scaring his enemies? What if a game constructs its gameplay and combat mechanics around causing actual fear to weaken enemies before even firing a shot? This would of course go further than using the dead bodies of enemies to intimidate live ones. Different fear mongering methods could be employed. After all, there's more than one way to skin a cat and then dangle in front of other ones.
Welcome to Playthroughline, the online home of writer/narrative designer Joannes Truyens. Together with a bunch of cool people, I made Neurocracy, a hypertext game that invites you to solve a murder in a near-future world by diving into the Wikipedia of that world.