Game Over in Horror Games

Game Over in horror games

Game Over is an integral part of video games. In the majority of games, it is associated, above all, with going backwards in the adventure. In horror, it’s all the more unpleasant as it’s generally synonymous with the protagonist’s death. In this style of game, where mimicry with the protagonist is the main key to fear, the key is to make the player fear the death of his protégé, by any means possible. While in action games in general, the Game Over is simply synonymous with restarting part of the advance, here it must seek to arouse genuine regret in the player. Since death doesn’t just stop at the act of starting the game over, it’s important to know how to bring it about (before), sublimate it (during) and then make the player regret it (after). In this article, we’ll focus on the first two of these parameters.

Death, an obstacle to fear

What’s strange about survival horror is that death – an essential, if not principal, theme in this style – is an obstacle to fear, especially if it’s repeated. Indeed, knowing what happens in the event of a Game Over removes some of the unknown from the enemy, since we know what fate the enemy has in store for us if we fail. As the majority of fear is internal and unconscious, simply imagining what would happen in the event of a Game Over (during and after) is enough to make you fearful. A game whose main mechanics we already know, particularly in the event of death, takes some of the fear out of what death can bring: physical contact with a repulsive enemy, the form that loss of progress takes… If we knew what would happen after our death, would we fear it as much? Then, of course, a repeated death can still be a little feared, thanks to the right staging, which we’ll come back to below.

Imagination, especially in horror, will often make us think of the worst possibilities. I don’t remember dying in Outlast, but the game’s enemies always terrified me throughout the adventure. The margin left to the player between hits generally allows us to run for our lives before our protagonist dies. In this way, the fear of losing, reinforced by not knowing exactly how much life is left, maintains a constant sense of pressure throughout the end of the confrontation (or rather, escape). We could also cite the example of Layers of Fear, a game in which you can’t die, but which nevertheless, through the staging of its situations, makes us fear the opposite.

This feeling is reinforced in games where the difficulty is sometimes greater (or at least appears to be). In Little Nightmares, for example, every boss escape involves cold-blooded dexterity, governed by the simple fact that you die in one hit. As bosses are fairly slow (but on the lookout), and being spotted by them quite rare (except in the case of dodgy moves), the tension in their presence is very heavy, especially as once spotted, that’s usually the end of it. You’re groping your way forward, fearing your fate and the prospect of having to repeat a whole grueling scene.

Little Nightmares boss

Little Nightmare and its bosses who won’t let you try your luck

Unfortunately, a consistent and assumed difficulty potentially implies a recurrent death and therefore, in the long term, a reduction in the fear of losing. For example, in Little Nightmare 2, battles against small enemies are less gripping than bosses. As the latter are fast-moving (and kill you in a single blow) while our protagonist is slow and weak, dying is almost compulsory in every fight, while we learn from our mistakes. As a result, certain scenes quickly become a chore, especially when these enemies are numerous. I therefore think that for these types of sequences, the game would have benefited from implementing certain systems to reduce the number of game overs; for example, by having the weapon held by our protagonist occasionally take the first hit (instead of killing us directly), forcing us to pick it up to continue the fight, praying that we don’t get hit again.

In more action-oriented survival horror, where confrontation is commonplace, limiting the player’s death by this kind of procedure is obviously more difficult to implement; dying will therefore have to be an integral part of the gameplay mechanics. So let’s take a look at how to make the most of death.

The act of dying

When the death scene arrives, we realize that the game is over, accepting the punishment that will follow. The pressure is off, and the death scene loses some of its value. Indeed, it’s usually a mini-cinema that we’re content to watch, and which becomes a habit. The most thrilling moments are therefore those close to Game Over, when life is weak and the means of escape/overcoming seem difficult and limited. Knowing the outcome of the situation is less emotionally powerful than the moment preceding it.

If you want to push the envelope a little further, it’s easy to extend the sense of stress even further (rather than showing that famous end cinematic). For example, it’s possible to simulate the possibility of a final opening or a means of escape. This is what Resident Evil 4 did, with QTEs to try to free oneself from a hold even when one’s life is almost non-existent, leading almost inevitably to defeat. The ordeal continues right to the end. Why not also continue the QTE with a “false” animation of the action to be performed, slowing down the rhythm of the button to be pressed, as if to show the distress and impossibility of succeeding in escaping from a hold, advancing little by little towards a death that is inevitable anyway? Okay, I’m going a bit far here.

In short, the ideal is to give the player the impression that there’s always a way out, even if it proves futile. This generates a desire to give everything, and thus leads to tension at its height: “after all I’ve done, I’m not going to die now, am I?” What’s most interesting, then, is that it pushes us to adapt with what we’ve got left, rather than pushing us to give up, which would be easier and more comforting. A tension that comes to a head when we discover, while our life is low, that this boss we thought we’d beaten actually has a second phase (grr).

Resident Evil 4 being catched

Whether in the original or the remake of Resident Evil 4, it is cleverly possible to undergo an embrace that will inevitably lead to death, in the event of a low life.

The Game Over itself

Over the years, survival horror has seen the emergence of almost scripted death scenes. Gone are the days of the protagonist simply falling over the edge, giving way to far more violent and gory deaths that are as terrifying as they are enjoyable. Indeed, the problem with this old-fashioned procedure (although still used and understandable in certain types of games) is that it makes it difficult to associate the notion of game over with the notion of death. It’s much more telling to see a protagonist’s face suffer as death approaches, than for a single character to fall, so as to make us fear an imminent death (and the repulsive scene that goes with it).

In the Dead Space games, a real cinematic announces death. It’s almost as if we’re dealing with the game’s denouement, as the scenes can go on and on. There’s no shortage of ideas, and they’re as pleasing as they are frightening to watch. The only thing “missing” in this game’s deaths is not being able to see the horror on Isaac’s face, and therefore to fully realize it; although his helmet excuses him from doing so. In Remothered, on the other hand, the expressions expressing the fear of death are beautiful and terrifying, making you feel guilty when you die (and I’m not even talking about The House of Velez, which doesn’t want to cause any trauma). What’s more, death can also be expressed audibly, as Visage does. Here, the game compensates for the impossibility of seeing the protagonist’s suffering (due to the FPS view), with a sound design that suggests it.

What’s more, so that you never have the impression that you know the enemy and the fate he has in store for you, you can vary the spells you suffer, with, for example, a brutal death / a slow death / a narrow escape from an embrace.

Whatever the case, it’s important to convey the idea that death is an end in itself, and that it will therefore have consequences for the rest of the adventure. The player will have to pay for his defeat, because while in video games there is a reward for victory, there can also be punishment for failure.

Game Over in Remothered

Remothered: Tormented Father and the horrified expressions of Jodie Foster’s twin, ladies and gentlemen, to disturb you.


The simple mechanic of Game Over can thus take on added depth. Depending on the game, its scenario and the recurrence of defeat, it may be appropriate to ask how best to serve it. It goes without saying that this article is not intended to be taken literally, but rather as a source of inspiration from which to draw. As always, consistency of experience takes precedence over all else. I invite you to check out this interview with Simon Wasselin, lead narrative designer on Alan Wake 2, to find out more about this coherence. Thanks for reading, and see you next time on Point’n Think.

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