Once An Integral Component Of The Genre, Puzzles Are Taking A Backseat To Action In Modern Horror Games: Does it Matter?
I might have a problem. Maybe it’s a side effect of growing up in the golden days of the point-and-click era when games like Shadowgate and Maniac Mansion twisted in my brain into knots as I attempted to uncover their secrets, but I’m starting to realize that I can’t enjoy a survival horror game without half-decent puzzles.
I started to notice the symptoms during my recent review period with Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, which was released on consoles and PC today. Armed with my Camera Obscura, I devoted more than a dozen hours to photo-bombing phantoms into oblivion. However, no matter how many photos of shrieking shrine maidens I stuffed into it, I couldn’t fill the hexagon crank-shaped hole in my heart. Sure, the game’s eerie atmosphere was on-point, and its ghouls were especially ghastly. But without some interesting brain-teasers to string me along, I couldn’t find myself as invested in the world as I wanted to be – though not for lack of trying.
Where were the puzzles, those satisfying, multi-part roadblocks meant to prevent me from steamrolling my way to the finish line? Surely there’s a crest with a lemur insignia just around the corner. Or perhaps some elaborate Rube Goldberg-inspired contraption waiting on the other side of that dingy paper door on the other side of the room.
If you’re not a fan of the genre, horror and puzzles probably sound about as appealing as peanut butter and anchovy sandwiches. However, the two concepts have become inexorably intertwined since the genre first shambled into the spotlight in the mid-1990s with Alone in the Dark, Clock Tower, and, of course, Capcom’s hugely popular Resident Evil franchise. Unfortunately, at least in recent years, they’ve somewhat fallen to the wayside. Take Resident Evil Village (here’s our review), for example. The latest entry in the long-running horror series leaves little room for using your gray matter as you rush from one explosive showdown to the next, mowing down waves of lupine terrors. Is it a good game? You goddamn better believe it is. But does it really feel like survival horror anymore? I’m not so sure.
But that’s not to say every studio has abandoned this once-mandatory feature. Developed by Dual Effect and Abstract Digital, Tormented Souls (you can read our review here) is a recent example of a survival horror game that goes all-in with its puzzles. Heavily inspired by the survival horror games of the 32-bit era, it tasks you with scouring a creepy hospital to rescue a pair of missing girls. As you make your way through the eerie facility, you’ll solve a wide range of puzzles that’ll have you doing things like recreating an occult ritual or decoding a cipher on the back of a floppy disk in order to uncover a password. And these are just the tip of what the game offers in terms of its clever conundrums. Some of them were so clever that they had me reaching for a pen and paper to solve them – a true hallmark of a good puzzle.
Moments like these are exactly why I love the survival horror genre so much. Not only do these puzzles serve as a fun change of pace from dodging the nightmarish monsters that lurk in the shadows. They also help immerse you in the game’s world and add to the sense of mystery as you progress from one haunting environment to the next.
After all, simply waltzing through the front door of a secret lab where tons of shady experiments are going down just doesn’t feel impactful. However, when you have to go to great lengths not only to find the items that serve as keys to unlock that door, but you also need to figure out a way that you can actually use them, then it really adds to the experience. But sadly, these moments are becoming fewer and further between. And as they do, I find myself becoming less interested as a result. For me, it seems they absolutely are an integral ingredient of what makes the genre so special. If they eventually become phased out altogether, I probably won’t stick along for the right. I love a good scare as much as the next guy. However, it’s the puzzles that pin it all together for me. Am I alone in this regard, or do you feel that way too?
So, dear reader, do you believe a truly great horror game needs to have its share of puzzles? Or do you think the genre has outgrown this aging trope? We love to hear what you think, so be sure to sound off in the comments and let us know.