Out of all media, video games are simply the best at conveying personal impact in stories. In some cases, the concept of choices and consequences takes this into account very literally, and builds entire game genres around it. However, this is not to be underestimated in other areas either.
Plenty of frustrations people associate with bad horror movies, come from characters not handling tense situations in a way they would. Obviously, directors such as James Wan simply play on that incredibly well – to great effect. However, having an own hand in how one approaches tense moments is a big strength of the video game genre. Some people rush through areas, some people crave a pause, some people slowly edge towards inevitable doom and regret their decisions immediately. As long as the intensity does not feel forced, this relative freedom of action actually intensifies the moment.
There are several key things I feel the first game in the series did excellent, perhaps unintentional. Later sequels actually infringed on these – and subsequently failed to gain as much traction as before.
The following examples contain spoilers for the entire F.E.A.R. series.
“Never Explain Anything” ― H.P. Lovecraft
While speaking in hyperbole, Lovecraft had a good point on the concept of what keeps a good scary story actually scary. The gaps in the story should be small enough so we can see the big threads of the complete story, but our own minds are ridiculously good at filling in blanks. When primed with a spooky atmosphere, it’s easy to see how we can relate stronger to a story with gaps filled in by our own mind.
F.E.A.R. introduced itself in a very particular way. It offered a small scale conflict with a human antagonist and hints of the rest of the story. A player is familiarised with the concept of a select group within the world is aware of the supernatural occurrences. Governments are, and their involvement serves as red tape through the story – kicking it off with the first phone call in the opening scene. Such forces are suggested to have posed problems before, hence protocols are in place to deal with them. The player’s team acting as a first countermeasure (The ‘FE’ in the cheekily named special unit FEAR referring to ‘First Encounter’) and the game’s end acting as the final last resort. If anything, the first game follows a nice story structure.
By the time all sirens go off, the player is familiar enough with this context that the rest of the story is able to flow from it. The elements of supernatural, however, are hinted to be rare enough in nature. This allows the story to remain grounded, allows all parties to remain in the relative unknown. Eventually, this also justifies the ultimate ending. All characters fail in their task to contain the situation, although everyone played their part.
The final act goes somewhat heavier on the exposition, but generally keeps in line with the player’s expectations. Alma, the main antagonist, is simply vengeful for her long history of abuse and ultimately being forgotten. The destruction caused is simply her reaction to the regret the main actor gets and the redemption he thinks to simply find.
There is no reason to explain further why Alma was capable of all this, how she remains alive or why she doesn’t choose to forgive anyone. It actually adds to the story when we don’t know, because it feels there is so much anger behind her, she simply exceeds all regular expectations. Switching between her different states (the above features little girl in the red dress, and the mangled grown woman), with slight different behaviour (the girl tends to protect and stalk, while the grown woman is closer to angry) explains, in a sense, enough about the journey she went through.
This is also where the sequels failed. The Alma story had been unraveled enough to understand the cause of the problems, and containment ultimately failed. There was nothing more to dig into, her story was told. The ending leaves us with a sudden black screen, but it works well that way. It startles you, subverts your expectations and allows the player to fill in the rest in his mind. Alma, essentially, will not rest before her vengeance is complete.
Instead of continuing her storyline unnecessarily (and for two more games, geez), it would have been more interesting to continue with a new team, in a new location.
A similar story structure as the game that was just successful, with perhaps a different kind of supernatural layer to keep things fresh, would have made more sense. The first game was soaked in J-Horror, references; yet goes its own way too much in the sequels. Another theme would have kept it new, while still allowing a same formula to be applied to the game. Much like Assassin’s Creed switches up the time periods, but refines its mechanics more each time instead of reinventing them from scratch.
A personal favorite would be a similar layer such as in the first Spanish movie ‘REC’, to keep in line with the concept of being inside a big, yet locked of location – with something stuck alongside you.
This brings us to an interesting feeling the first game brought forth as well. The sequels span multiple locations and moves quickly in between them. FEAR’s main gameplay element being gunplay, this combination makes it feel like you’re making very crude progress through anything put in your way. You feel less and less threatened.
The first game, however, takes places in a select few areas. It starts of with a few relative quick changes of scenery, easing you into it and making you comfortable with the efficiency of your character. However, once he encounters Alma, a different pace occurs. Most of the game takes place in a series of office complexes in lock-down. The looks between the different later areas even feel similar, making it so the player feels much less like he is making progress – instead struggling to find a way out of the sprawling complex.
A final thing to look out for, is the way the tension keeps building. Alma and Fettel remain unpredictable throughout the entire game, and genuinely end up feeling like they’re are aware of the player’s presence. You never feel like you’re truly out of their sight, and they – very Shodan-like – allow you to move along and figure out their story.
This unpredictability provides for the best atmospheric moments. Instead of simply scares jumping at you, going for the startle – the game often relies on this to creep you out. You look a certain (anticipated) way, and notice something out-of-place.
Behind some office glass, a distorted view of Alma creeps by. Taking an elevator ride stops halfway as the power cuts out, but taking the path to the fusebox nicely leads you around to a remote location with a view on the open dark elevator. Turning the power back on, you see someone else being there as the doors close again.
Some are more to the point than others, but its best moments are not particularly in your face at all. Pathways are simply implied to be unsafe by these hints of spookiness, and it puts the control in your hands to brave through them.