Horror is subjective, and what makes a game terrifying for one player won’t even ruffle the feathers of another. There’s no one right way to make a horror game, which encourages developers to try different approaches. One of the biggest differences comes down to scripting. Some titles, such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, are tightly scripted. The player moves through pre-determined events like the protagonist in a novel. Others, such as Lethal Company, are more or less unscripted. Randomized levels, monsters, and events create constant surprises in this great indie title. Both approaches have their merits, but there’s an argument that the lack of script makes Lethal Company scarier than Resident Evil and similar games.
Scripting in Lethal Company vs. Resident Evil
Resident Evil is a sprawling franchise with a number of different types of games under its belt. Nonetheless, it tends to follow a formula, at least where the numbered entries of the main series are concerned. The Resident Evil 4 remake is a great example. Even when the game gives you the choice of which house to explore or enemy to kill, you are following a script. You will always face Las Plagas in the village and cultists in the Castle. You will experience fires, explosions, and ambushes in the same order every time. It’s a cinematic style of storytelling, allowing the developers to create one-of-a-kind setpiece scares that would be otherwise impossible. It’s also predictable.
Lethal Company focuses on emergent gameplay. Though the exteriors of bases change little, their interiors are heavily randomized. Hall and room layouts shift with each visit, as do the locations of the valuable scrap you must collect. Most importantly, the whereabouts of the monsters always change. You never know exactly what you will encounter or where. A Jester appears on a moon where you didn’t even know it could spawn. There’s no time to think, just run, because its music is already playing. When that twisted jack-in-the-box opens and the monster transforms, anything it touches will die. The unshakable tension that results is what makes Lethal Company a brilliant horror game.
How Multiplayer Makes Lethal Company Scary
Your first playthrough of any horror title is always the scariest because that’s when the element of surprise is at its strongest. You don’t know what will happen next, so the dread just keeps building. Tightly scripted games like Resident Evil struggle to retain their scare factor in ways that Lethal Company does not. The game’s own randomization isn’t the only issue here, either. Although you can play Lethal Company alone, it’s designed as a co-op horror game. You and your friends can tackle the horrors together. In some ways that’s comforting. At least there will be a friendly voice to soothe your anxiety as you plan your approach.
In other ways, however, multiplayer further loosens the game’s scripting and makes scares that much worse. You’re standing on your ship, waiting for your crewmate to bring the last of the scrap aboard so that you can leave another awful moonbase behind. But before your friend can reach the ship you hear something: a howl in the forest. An Eyeless Dog has spotted them What you hear next is audio that the game’s developer could only dream of making: your friend’s panicked screaming as the Eyeless Dog runs them down and eats them. Scripted games may deliver chills on their first playthrough, but unscripted games keep them coming long after.
Neither type of game is inherently better. Scripted games excel in creating calculated setpieces, while script less games excel in creating emergent horror. Some of the best games manage to merge both styles, integrating handcrafted moments with emergent gameplay. It’s also worth noting that team size and budget determine what kind of game it’s possible to make in the first place. That said, there’s an argument that more randomized, less predictable horror games like Lethal Company will always be scarier than Resident Evil and the like in the long run. Lethal Company is proof that even without predictable setpieces you can still create a terrifying experience that will haunt players long after the closing credits.
Lethal Company is available for PC in early access.