BioShock is an exceptional feat of atmospheric storytelling that still, after all these years, manages to terrify players — up until the moment it stops terrifying them. That moment varies a little depending on the player and their style, but there’s a specific game mechanic that de-escalates the game’s biggest threat.
The Hypnotize Big Daddy plasmid transforms the horrifying monsters into ... just another obstacle. It alters the gameplay so much that instead of making the player cautious when one appears, it now becomes an opportunity to save some ammo by conscripting a bodyguard. And two Big Daddies? Even better — make them fight it out.
You only get the Hypnotize Big Daddy plasmid if you save three Little Sisters. It’s possible to harvest them and acquire immediate rewards, which also makes progress easier because you have access to more resources. Either way, the early-game burden of limited resources is lightened, and the game, as a result, becomes a lot less scary.
Prey has a similar mechanical linchpin. The mimic’s ability to transform into any item makes exploration a tense, frightening experience; you have to be on constant alert for jump scares. Then, about halfway through the game, you uncover the Psychoscope, which allows you to scan a room and see what items are shape-shifted mimics. Suddenly it’s much less stressful to explore. The game still has scary moments and frightening creatures, but the moment-to-moment experience is no longer terrifying.
The survival part of survival horror is key to this tonal shift. The cornerstone of horror games is a constant, low-level feeling of powerlessness. The main way games invoke that feeling is to limit resources, whether that’s ammo, health, battery life or electricity. This keeps players in a constant defensive state by forcing them to actively think about whether it’s worthwhile to fight, to run or to hide.
This simple gameplay limitation is the root of terror for most survival horror games. But it’s the main thing that separates, for example, zombie survival horror games from zombie shooter games. If you gave Joel enough ammo to mow down waves of zombies in The Last of Us, would it still be a survival horror game?
Regardless of which path you choose, BioShock will eventually morph into a regular action game thanks to an increased access to healing items, ammo stockpiles and, you know, getting the ability to shoot bees. Because once you can shoot bees from your hand at any time, it’s hard to be afraid of a gassed-up flapper wielding hooks.
It’s not a bad thing that players become immune to frights; it’s difficult for any game to maintain a tense atmosphere over an extended period of time. Most beloved horror games are surprisingly short, around the 8-hour mark. But BioShock clocks in at 12 hours, and Prey at 15.5. If you have a lot of story to tell, it makes sense to transition mechanics to be closer to an action game, to keep them from becoming too rote.
This also means, to a certain extent, that the skill and knowledge of the player is a factor in how long a survival horror game remains scary. A veteran player who can pick out the algorithmic movements of a monster or confidently line up shots and not waste ammo won’t be as afraid for as long.
But where’s the fun in that? Both BioShock and Prey are better games for flirting with terror, even if neither game commits to it for the full tenure. Watch the video above to learn more!