Game Design in Reverse: The F.E.A.R. Series

FEAR - 1 - 2 - 3

I think very few trilogy’s follow the path game design has taken quite like the F.E.A.R. franchise. I am in no way telling you that any of the games in the series were necessarily bad, because ultimately each one was a completely different experience. I played these games in reverse because I wanted to see how time, technology, and trends in the industry affect design decisions. I am not going to comment much on the plot details here, so there won’t be much spoiler if you want to give these games a go after reading this article.

F.E.A.R. 3

Released in 2011, F.E.A.R. 3 felt like an experiment on its own. It incorporated elements from other popular games, such as a cover system and regenerating health, as well as having a very linear path to victory. I never once got lost during the seven hours it took me to beat the game, and I felt like this was intentional. The developer, Day 1 Studios, opted for a more action first, scares later technique, and you could tell from the get go that this was very much an attempt to attract the Call of Duty demographic. Hell, they even hired John Carpenter to assist with the cinematic sequences and had bands like Marilyn Manson and Danzig on the soundtrack. The A.I. wasn’t bad, but I only died a handful of times in the campaign. Using the series iconic bullet time, I was able to dispatch groups of enemies easily and never once ran low on ammo.  This was very much the “Michael Bay Presents” entry in the franchise, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it just isn’t what  the other two games sold themselves on.

At the end of each level, a score is given to you based on repeatable achievements that you can complete once per Interval. These points are used to level up your character, granting you small boosts in health, bullet time duration, and other minor improvements. While this is somewhat unorthodox for shooters, the mechanic did hook me and I found myself trying to meet every goal before I beat the Interval.

After you beat the game once, you can choose to play through again as another character entirely. What’s interesting about this is the fact that game play changes completely as your ability goes from bullet time to being able to possess enemy forces and pit them against each other. This forces a slower, more thought out play style and it ended up taking me almost ten hours to complete F.E.A.R. 3 a second time. I almost wish that you had the option to play this character for the first run through, because I’m not sure that many gamers liked the title enough to sit through it twice.

F.E.A.R. 2 : Project Origin

Both F.E.A.R. and F.E.A.R. 2 were developed by Monolith Productions, so some of the design choices stuck from the first game to the second. The A.I. (which I’ll get into when I talk about the first game) remained quite intelligent, and the enemy squads communicated with each other and responded to how aggressive I was playing. The game itself seemed to try and persuade the player to interact with the environment to create cover by knocking over objects. There were also several secret rooms reachable by moving a vending machine here or a desk there.

With that said, I still found this game to be easier than the original, and there were very few occasions where I died or found myself frustrated. The armor/health mechanic from the first game is mostly intact, with the addition of health dropping from enemies to presumably keep downtime a minimum. With the game released in 2009, it was clear that Monolith wanted a faster paced game while still retaining the spirit of their franchise. There were several “creepy” moments in the game, and the plot was delivered both with cinematic cut scenes, voice transmissions, and gather able “intel’  chips littered in each Interval.

Very rarely did I get lost in each level, and the game while not quite as linear as F.E.A.R. 3, still kept the player on track with visible hints and cues as to where to go next.

F.E.A.R.

And here we come to the original entry in the series. Monolith released this game on October 18th, 2005 for the PC and shortly afterward for the Xbox 360. At this point, the advent of “reflex time” was relatively new and refreshing. The Lead Designer, Craig Hubbard, was quoted as saying that he wanted each firefight to have the same intensity as a John Woo film.

With that said, I have to tell you that this was the most difficult game in the series, and there were several times when I was stuck for up to twenty minutes at a time, trying to figure out the best way to engage the enemy. The A.I. here was incredibly challenging, as they ran in when I was low on health and knew how to strafe/flank me when necessary. It’s no surprise that the game won Gamespots 2005 “Best A.I” award and earned 2nd place in AIGameDev’s “Most Influential A.I. games list”. In this .pdf written by Jeff Orkin, we’re given a detailed analysis of what made the game so challenging. It’s rather lengthy, but a great read for anyone interested in how one develops a competent and adaptable Artificial Intelligence.

Unlike the last two games, F.E.A.R. put more emphasis on atmosphere and engrossing the player in the environment. There was quite of mystery to the games main antagonist , and what made her unique was the fact that she was largely invincible. Watching her take out an entire squad of soldiers without blinking added more tension as you knew that she could take you on and win. There were many dream sequences throughout the Intervals, and the music along with several sudden sightings of Alma did in fact creep me out when it happened. Plot was revealed both through these sequences and voicemails that you could play with any flashing phone, often from main characters in the story. There were also laptops that you could upload to your headquarters as to find out little tidbits about the Project that yielded the protagonist.

The level design was also drastically different from the games sequels, having many small puzzles and unconventional routes to the next area. This game did not at all hold your hand, and you were expected to figure out how to progress to the next area. Similarly, health packs and armor were plentiful, but not excessive, and you couldn’t just go into each fight like Rambo and expect to finish the game without reloading frequently. Perhaps that’s why F.E.A.R. took me the longest to finish out of all three games, clocking in at 9.5 hours to complete the campaign.

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So what conclusions can we draw from playing three iterations of a franchise that were released from 2005-2011?

For one, it is safe to say that first person shooters have become more streamlined between these years. For whatever reason, developers no longer care so much about making it “difficult” to reach the destination, but rather are concerned about making the journey as fun as possible. Maybe this is due to the fact that less and less people are actually beating the games they purchase, or perhaps it’s the abundance of choice that forces companies like Day 1 to design their game around it being a thrill ride. Even Monolith, who made a game around exploration and atmosphere the first time around was forced to streamline the experience for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. This didn’t necessarily make it an inferior product, just  a different experience.

Ultimately though, I believe that’s the reason why brand recognition can almost be a bad thing in the video game industry. Gamers fall in love with the first entry in a series, and when sequels come out that try something different or attempt  to adapt to market trends, sometimes that is met with backlash by the fan base. I found enjoyment in all three of the games, but each one for a different reason, and ultimately I did find the first game to be more enjoyable than the others. I can certainly understand though if your opinion differs from mine. The design philosophy differed from title to title, and one mans definition of mediocrity is another man’s term for fun.



Categories: Games, Review, Technology

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2 replies

  1. Mr. Simon,

    F.E.A.R. certainly isn’t unique in being a victim to this approach. I’m sure you’ve seen the image floating around the internet comparing a map of a level in Doom to a linear corridor riddled with cutscenes, highlighting how level design has changed (with the definitive implication that quality has been a casualty in the process).

    While this is clearly a trend throughout gaming, horror games are hit especially hard since, in my estimation, it is so very difficult to remain scary as a horror game. Key facets of horror are in the unknown, in not knowing the rules or boundaries of the scary bits. Yet brand recognition means they need to stay in the same place, while somehow moving forward to keep it fresh.

    That said, I would really like to know for sure why F.E.A.R. has moved in this direction. Is it an affect of COD, which for all their criticism offer an adrenalin-pumping thrill ride that even the most neophyte gamer can enjoy? Or are they acknowledging that each iteration will be played by gamers more ready and capable of powering through the fear than last time?

    • Hello Trodamus! Thank you for the comment :) It’s always nice to see feedback on what I write.

      I think it’s both the Call of Duty effect and trying to streamline the experience so more gamers are able to power through the product. I hate blaming CoD for any sort of death of First Person Shooters, but I will say that I think it’s pushed companies to try and mimic the experience, and that WAS quite evident in the third game. Regenerating health is something of a mixed bag for me when it comes to game design. On one hand, I like that it keeps the game from “Stalling” in difficult parts, but on the other hand it trivializes the experience, and F.E.A.R. already had a component to get by tough spots, Reflex Mode. When you combined both elements it made the game about getting the high score and less about trying to beat the level.

      F.E.A.R. 2 was a bit of a hybrid between a streamlined experience and trying to keep the horror elements intact. Of course F.E.A.R. 2 came out before Call of Duty REALLY made it big so there wasn’t quite the following for an action packed joyride. I felt like the second game in the trilogy was still enjoyable, but it wasn’t nearly as hard and the atmosphere only really was felt in the School levels of the game.

      As to the point of horror titles, it’s incredibly hard for any franchise to remain scary and not have to completely change how they operate. This remains true (in my opinion) for movies and TV shows as well. What hurt F.E.A.R. the most I think was abandoning the confined environment of the office buildings and warehouses of the first game and trying to keep the same kind of scare tactics in an open environment. It’s one thing to see a bloody girl in the mirror of a bathroom, but its another to see her at the end of a road that you can run away from. The reason why the school levels in F.E.A.R. 2 were somewhat creepy was because it retained a closed environment like the first game.

      Day 1 Studios I think was almost trying to create a satire of the japanese horror genre, and while I found some elements of enjoyment in the third game, it was the least enjoyable for me. That said, I certainly can’t critique anyone for liking it.

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