Although it uses conventional horror tropes, Condemned: Criminal Origins takes an unusual approach for a survival horror game. Survival horror often generates tension through resource scarcity, limiting the player’s ability to fight or heal himself, but because of its melee combat focus Condemned is necessarily limited in this respect. The relatively plentiful checkpoints mean that the player usually isn’t punished excessively for failure. Yet Condemned is a frightening, tense game because it artfully keeps the player from knowing what is coming next.
Condemned has a significant advantage when it comes to generating fear because of its visceral combat. While a few guns can be found in almost every level of the game, its hero Ethan Thomas can’t carry ammunition for any of them. As a result, he is forced to improvise melee weapons from the environment, and fight his enemies up close and personal. Moreover, he’s not fighting fantastic creatures, but ordinary people who have taken on (in most cases) a subtly monstrous aspect. The close quarters and melee brutality make the combat intrinsically frightening, but if that were all that Condemned had going for it, it would not be a truly scary game.
Video games pose a special problem with regard to creating fear because any game is a system that can be mastered. If the designer wishes to evoke a fear response through an attack on the avatar, he must contend with the player’s ability to manipulate a game’s combat systems. If the player becomes proficient at fighting off the enemies, or lowers the difficulty to compensate for his incompetence, then the onset of a fight stops being frightening and starts becoming a problem to be solved. Similarly, if a cue or activity is known to precede a fight it loses its power to develop fear. These moments cease to be tense and instead become a time where the player prepares himself for a battle he knows is coming. Knowing that a fight is about to happen lets the player feel in control of moments where he is meant to feel vulnerable. To be frightening, a game must re-weight the power relationship in favor of the designer, rather than the player.
Condemned presents just this kind of activity in the form of crime scene investigation tools that Ethan must use to track down the serial killer who has framed him. The player often must use the tools in order to find vital clues, but Ethan cannot hold one of these gadgets and a weapon simultaneously. Thus, every use of an evidence-collection tool leaves Ethan vulnerable to attack. In any number of games this would form the basis of a recurring sequence: see clue → collect evidence → get assaulted. The player would enter the state just described, in which starting to collect evidence would signify the onset of a combat sequence and allow the player to feel control. Instead, the developers of Condemned chose to attack the player during the course of evidence collection only occasionally. Sometimes Ethan gets attacked while he collects evidence, and sometimes he does not. The player cannot develop mastery because these sequences have ambiguous outcomes.
Condemned plays with this idea in other ways as well. Environmental sounds sometimes signify an imminent attack, and sometimes do not. In one level, some mannequins turn into enemies and others, often indistinguishable, don’t. The levels occasionally rearrange themselves, without regular signifiers. Condemned avoids predictability, and this denies power to the player.
The finest articulation of the skillful design that went into Condemned comes in its penultimate chapter, in which Ethan must search the (apparently) empty house of the serial killer for clues. The killer has written trails of words that lead to important spots, but these can only be seen if the player uses Ethan’s UV lamp. The whole house becomes an evidence collection routine, but the developers resist the urge to have enemies burst out of every door and window as Ethan searches. The occasional attacks they employ instead support the tension of the sequence without letting the player view it as a combat routine. This level is so memorable in part because of the exquisite suspense it generates.
The most interesting thing about choosing to attack at only some of these junctures is that it doesn’t come at any cost. From studies of conditioning, we know that using a variable schedule of positive or negative reinforcement (i.e. not reinforcing every time) is no less effective at generating a desired response than continuous reinforcement. In fact, research has shown that conditioned responses created using variable reinforcement are more resistant to extinction than those created with continuous reinforcement. By associating the fear of a surprise attack with just some of these evidence-collection routines, the developers guarantee tension in all of them, without granting the player any feeling of power over the game.
Condemned ultimately falls down because of its last level, an uninteresting romp across a farm, beating down mutant hillbillies on your way to a dull and conventional final boss. Up to that point, however, Condemnedcleverly steals power from the player by avoiding routine. Because the player can never be certain when an attack is coming, the intrinsic fright generated by the game’s brutal combat is never diluted by the player’s mastery. The player’s uncertainty perpetuates his fear.