Are strategy games and horror compatible?

There’s a moment in the first tutorial of XCOM: Enemy Unknown that felt like a revelation. Skip past the languid tutorial pacing, the stilted voice actor telling you what to do, and instead focus on the structure of the mission. Your team enters a building, meets with the unknown, and is summarily slaughtered by beings you can barely comprehend.

Simply put, it’s terrifying in a way that the rest of the game decidedly isn’t. Walking into a room with an alien staring off into space—the situation the mission offers—is a situation you can plan for; when enemies pop up at all the exits, then the game goes full-on horror. Your squad is not getting out alive. Plan to call their families.

The rest of the game, though, doesn’t build on this capital. Missions become standard strategy fare: there are enemies, of whom you know the basic number and power, and who you can force to meet on your terms. Once you’ve played five missions or so, you know how the enemies are going to behave, and you can plan for that. You understand the unknowable.

Horror boils down to a lack of information, by my definition. It is a Lovecraftian definition, not a modern one. Jump scares, the bread of modern horror (gore being the butter), are a cheap version of this: you don’t know the killer is hiding under the bed and then oh there he is. The best horror, though, is deeper, more psychological: you know something is there, but you cannot define what it is. Even when you see it, it defies logical explanation.

What matters isn’t that the killer is under the bed, but that she’s formless, unidentifiable, and isn’t going to come out unless we go looking for her. This was kind of the original X-Com’s playbook: you’d land in a dark cornfield, meekly edge your soldiers through it, and eventually someone would take a sniper’s bullet to the head, leaving you scrambling to figure out not only where the enemy was that did it but what that enemy was.

Still, combining horror with strategy has long been a challenge. With some exceptions—the not phenomenally successful RUSE chief among them—video games haven’t been good at combining limited knowledge with strategy. The reason is blatant: 95% of mainstream games work as power fantasies. Resident Evil, once one of horror’s standards, became a third person cover shooter this year. Why should strategy, a genre without much horror history, deserve a different fate?

I expected more horror than I got from the XCOM remake. For the first dozen missions, I expected the parameters to shift dramatically midstream, for the game to test my plans. I was waiting for enemies to appear behind me, to lock me in, to force me to push the plans I’d made to the limit. I expected the aliens to outsmart me, to push and prod until my squad cracked. The game itself even has a “breaking under pressure” mechanic, where stressed soldiers would go nuts. Perfect!

The problem was, that moment never came. Instead of mining the fears of the unknown, XCOM: Enemy Unknown mined our fears of the random, of the absurd. In short: it mined the random number generator. The aliens aren’t dangerous because they’re worthy opponents: they’re dangerous because an invisible die roll says they are.

There are two random events that occur in any XCOM mission—when someone shoots, and when enemies “break” (a technical term) after you spot them—and these represent all of the tension in the game. After a couple missions you know exactly what enemies you’re going to fight thanks to improving satellite coverage and your knowledge of the enemy, so while the level’s dark you know what’s coming. What you can’t predict is where enemies will go when you see them, however, or how well you’ll shoot each other.

The “breaks” in the game are possibly the antithesis of horror. What happens is this: the enemies spot you, then they move in random directions, towards some sort of cover. Where the horror comes in is when your last soldier manages to spot an enemy, and the enemy decides to break towards you, settling into cover, magically, a hundred feet from where he started, in a position that flanks half your team and renders him unassailable.

It puts the weight of the game on the random number generator. Suspense comes from the fact that now, when that Muton (because it’s always a Muton) gets to shoot at you, there’s a 63% chance that he’ll hit. If he hits, he kills one of your soldiers. Sometimes you’ll get through it all right, and other times you’ll lose a guy. Either way, it’s suspenseful.

But it left me with a sort of hollow taste in my mouth. XCOM was making suspense from random numbers and cheap-feeling occurences, yet it was dropping the horror veneer it had in its abbreviated first mission. It opened with horror, and all was a lousy set of shots my sniper missed with a 95% probability.

XCOM made me ask the question: can strategy and horror be combined? Are they peanut butter and jelly, or are they the more perplexing peanut butter and pickle sandwich, which has devoted followers but doesn’t make a lick of sense?

The game that made me believe in the horror of strategy wasn’t a video game, but instead a board game: Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. It is a game about ignorance.

The concept is simple: the players are astronauts. Half the squad has been infect by a terrible, Alien-esque parasite, rendering them cannibalistic horrors. The other half are humans, who can’t fight back. They’re on a spaceship with absolutely no power.

What this means is you all have your own delightful little boards, pock-marked with hexes. You record your movements in absolute secrecy. Humans are slow, and squishy: they can only move to adjacent hexes. Aliens are fast, lithe, and hungry: they can move two spaces (three if they actually eat someone) and choose to chow down on any space they land on. Of course, doing that involves publicly announcing where you are.

The other way to announce where you are: by landing on a gray tile. There are two types of tiles in the game: white tiles, which do nothing, and gray ones, where you have to draw a card. These cards come in three varieties: blank cards, which tell you to tell the team the ship is silent; red cards, which tell you to announce your location to everyone; and green cards, which let you tell everyone a noise occurred anywhere on the ship. No one knows which kind of card you drew, so they’re never sure if you’re lying or not.

In practice, this makes for an incredibly tense, tactical game of cat and mouse. In the beginning, no one knows who’s a human and who’s an alien. The threats are left completely ambiguous. As the aliens begin to munch, you begin to understand, slowly, just how doomed you are: there’s nowhere to go, the aliens are everywhere, and you have to get the hell out of there, now. You’re running for the escape pods, but the aliens can almost definitely get there first.

What it reduces to is a very tense, human game of horror. You have a lot of information, but it’s never quite enough to know anything for sure. There’s absolutely nothing random about it: the aliens are going to win a straight fight, so a human has to be flexible. They have to lie, they have to deceive, and they have to win with head games.

Horror isn’t about the atmosphere, or the jump scares, or the tension; these are all just symptoms of a fundamental lack of information. In my book, Dark Souls was great horror: the smoky white walls which delineated the levels presented us with a fundamental lack of information, allowing the game to confront us with the terrifying unknown. On the other side could be quick death—Ornstein and Smaugh, the most difficult boss fight in modern video games—or it could just be a placid countryside. Or maybe Havel the Rock will hit you with his weird bone club before you even walk through the door, reducing you to a paste. You have no idea, though, and that’s what’s frightening.

Escape grasps the best thing that horror can offer—the unpredictable, the unknown—but could it work in a video game? Who knows? Few have tried. Frozen Synapse captured some of the building blocks with its denial of knowledge and sudden violence, but it obviously wasn’t going for the genre like XCOM attempted. XCOM had all the atmosphere of a horror game, but it gave you all the rules, all the information, up front. You ran into increasingly difficult new challenges, but none of them were truly different: Elite Mutons died like the regular kind. As the game progressed, tension melted into more bullets, more guns, more random number generator panic, and more knowledge.

And knowledge, after all, is the enemy of horror. Once you understand something, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Once you can see all the pieces, nothing can be truly scary.


  1. I’m sorry, and this is not a complaint about your review, but have you played the game in the classic mode? I found out that the whole “horror of the unknown in the field” you spoke about was quite present. Also, I kept dying a lot. Maybe I’m just a terrible xcom player…

    • Ian

      That’s definitely what I felt. The fact that the aliens are smarter and move around even when they haven’t been triggered adds a great feeling of being overwhelmed and assaulted from all sides. In one memorable mission, I was slowly inching my three remaining soldiers through an office after having had a bruising fight with a trio of floaters. Two of them were dead, but the third had run off into the fog of war. I moved slowly, covering my corners and abusing the hell out of overwatch, when all of a sudden the floater I KNEW was moving around out there came up from behind my squad. All but one of the reaction shots missed in agonizing slow motion, and the shot that landed wasn’t enough to put it down, and it blew away one of my guys and sent another into a panic. Another time a hoard of Chrysalids came from an unexpected direction in the middle of a fight and shredded my team.

      Such moments aren’t common enough in the game, but they’re there.

  2. Alec Chalmers

    Whilst thinking about horror/strategy games that I’ve played before, I was reminded of the old Warhammer PS1 game, “Space Hulk”. The game was extremely flawed and painfully clunky, but entertaining to watch someone else. The player explores some sort of abandoned ship, with a small team of space marines. They almost immediately split up as a group every time, and the corridors were to thin to allow more than one player at a time. The enemy was allowed to take its turns as you did, but you couldn’t see them unless you had visual contact, at which point they were right in front of you, and you were trapped, alone, in a tiny passage, with the wrong weapon equipped. The soldiers didn’t even seem to have a grasp on their weapons, as one fire of the flame thrower could turn the entire room into a furnace, and kill your friends, almost as if the flamethrower was just put there to toy with the player.

    As bad as this game was, it seemed to combine some fundamental horror elements with strategy pretty well, and I hate Warhammer. A quick look on the googles shows it’s being remade. Might be interesting…

    • A new Sapce Hulk game is on the way..oh and it’s WH40K…

  3. Blackest Tea

    What I get out of this article is a very fine but important distinction between “tension” and “horror”. I would venture to say that “tension” is the threat of the uncertain, but known possibility, whereas “horror” comes from the continual threat of the unknown. That’s why I think Frozen Synapse is a masterpiece of tension: All (or a huge number, depending on the mode you play) information on the status quo is available. There is not even dice-luck, only mathematical calculation. Every possibility can be anticipated and simulated. However, the actions of the other are forever uncertain and that creates tension. The new XCOM (which I haven’t played) seems to go in a similar direction, creating tension by using dicerolls of which the probability is always already known, but the outcome is uncertain.
    All this can make for great, tense gameplay, but for me, it’s the antithesis of horror, where I’m continually haunted (but seldomly confronted) with the unknown. A classic example form non-strategy would be Thief 3’s cradle where I skulked around the first part of the level in paranoia and fear without ever having encountered a direct threat. I can definitely see how the mechanism described in Aliens from Outer Space can work to create horror and I’m sure other boardgames or even multiplayer games (frozen synapse with denial of information) can work the same way and truly create a sense of dread. However, I don’t see this working anywhere nearly as well in games against the AI. Given the nature of the strategy genre, it would seem that people demand control and the ability to plan ahead in order to outwit their opponent which would go against the conceits of the horror genre.

  4. fatcatfan

    Not knocking what you’ve said, it’s true. However: most of the XCOM missions are as you describe, but there are still some of the council missions with aliens dropping in unexpectedly out of nowhere. When you’re escorting a VIP, “Thin Men” drop in on the way back to the safe zone. Seems like there was anoher scenario with similar mechanics.

  5. Will McCollough

    I don’t know. My first encounter with Chrysalids on a terror mission was pretty damned horrifying. I had handled Sectoids and Thin Men pretty well, and thought I was up for it. My squad had racked up some experience, and I felt like they were powerful enough to take care of the mission. Then the Chrysalids showed up. They had more hitpoints than any of the other enemies heretofore encountered, and managed to one-shot my assault soldier as soon as they showed up. As if that wasn’t enough, the next turn, the corpse of my beloved assault soldier, named after a good friend of mine, stood up and proceeded to slaughter the rest of my squad. And there was nothing I could do about it. Horror has two parts: the unknown, and our powerlessness in the face of it.

  6. Brendon Ulen

    There is some horror but nothing like the original. The biggest problem really is the “break” mechanic. As long as you are playing carefully you always get to see and analyze the situation after it is sprung before anything happens to you. They took out the shot from the dark which was the truly terrifying thing in the original. They also took out night which made the shot from the dark more common. Wasting precious turns to throw tiny light discs or knowing something is over there but not knowing what and debating how to approach without getting yourself killed was horrifying. That said, it does exist in XCOM. The feel is way different on the rare occasion where an enemy flees and circles around or if you trip guys and then retreat from vision. There are also mechanics which take away you ability to play safe (bomb defusel and terror missions) but it’s a shame they aren’t more common / incentivized strongly enough to make you stop playing safe.

    It’ll be interesting to see if a patch or a mod makes makes enemies start active. That would put a whole lot of the horror back in it.

  7. Jakerbeef

    The new XCOM works best, for my money, as perhaps the first “Panic Management Sim”. An escalating challenge against an enemy superior in resources and technology, where time and money is limited and playing it in its ‘true’ mode- Ironman, allows it to best represent this. You have multiple things on your alien-invasion to-do-list but only time to execute one of them before more pressing needs pop up.

    Is it horror? Probably not. I it nerve-wracking? Absolutely. It has tension in spades, but alas, doesn’t match the horror of that opening mission.

  8. Doorhangler

    I think the beauty of XCOM is not in the way it fosters horror, (or, rather, doesn’t foster horror) but in the way it creates tension. The ability to change the names and appearances of your squad members is an incredibly interesting aspect of the game. I named all of my “main team” after close friends. And then I put those characters, the virtual avatars of my dearest friends, into harm’s way. Possibly the tensest and bitterest moment, for me, came during a random abduction mission. My best Sniper, named after one of my closest friends, the first character who had reached Colonel, who had never once missed a shot, got caught out in the open by a Muton Berserker. I had her wearing Skeleton Armor, for the mobility bonus.

    The Berserker rushed my Assault troopers, and I kept drawing it in. Finally, I shot it with my Support character, bringing its health down to three bars, leaving the last action to the aforementioned Sniper, who was maybe four tiles away. Too close for the Laser rifle in her hands to be of much use. I ordered her to switch to her pistol. To fire. 75% chance to make the shot.

    She missed. My turn ended, the Berserker dashed up to her, and I watched a short cutscene as the colossal alien brutally smashed her head into the pavement. Blood splattered everywhere.

    “Col. McClair has been killed.”

    I paused the game immediately, a frantic sense of dread rising in my throat. I looked back through my saved games. My last save was from three hours prior. I was so, so, tempted to reload that save.

    Maybe I should have.

    Moments like that stick with you. Seeing the face of a friend in your mind as you calmly, brutally accept their virtual death. The slightly bitter knowledge that your pretend soldier isn’t coming back. It feels like a betrayal. It feels tense. It stings.

    That is the true beauty of XCOM. Cringing as your best friend takes a plasma shot to the face and drops, headless, to the ground. Fighting a sense of horror as your roomate runs smack dab into a pack of Chrysallids on your last action. Watching a Sectopod rain fire down on your cousin’s position, knowing that his health is already dangerously low. Moments like that made the game a tense, thrilling experience for me. It also made it a tad bit traumatic, in a good way, which is something more games should aspire to be, I think.