Alien Isolation might be one of the scariest games of this generation with its intelligent xenomorph that stalks you around an increasingly unstable space station. While the inescapable tension of single-player horror campaigns can create memorable scares, something else is revitalizing the genre. Asymmetric multiplayer horror games have been coming into their own in the last few years and should be celebrated for the creativity they bring to the genre.
Asymmetric multiplayer horror might not be the catchiest title, but it’s an apt description. In it, players either fill the role of the monster or the victim, with one player hunting the others as they desperately try to escape. The monster will have abilities to allow them to chase, frighten, and overwhelm the other players that are forced to play as teenagers who can barely handle normal tasks let alone whatever the hunter has in store.
The genre seems to have evolved out of Evolve’s formula, which had a similar four versus one design without the same theme and atmosphere. In fact, Evolve had the larger team of players hunt the individual, something that the horror games have reversed and found success in. Evolve’s focus on action didn’t capture an audience the way the horror games have, however, and it wasn’t a commercial success.
A new horror arises
But while the original might not have worked, the new games have refined the formula and improved upon it. Although the genre isn’t bursting at the seams, it does have plenty of potential for growth and is currently being buoyed by a few core games. Friday the 13th, Dead by Daylight, and recent Last Year: The Nightmare have all contributed to this genre’s success.
Leaning to the tension of a single almost unstoppable enemy works beautifully as a horror trope even if players are caught by themselves or within a group. Rather than attempting to create a lengthy single-player experience that has to be perfectly balanced in order to avoid exhausting or boring the player, asymmetric multiplayer horror games strip away the story for short, intense matches.
Most rounds only last 10 or so minutes, which mean the game can condense its thrills into a shorter time span. This condensed playtime also means that the genre is becoming popular with players who don’t always have the time to sink into a long campaign, especially if the single-player game doesn’t allow you to save whenever you like. The emotionally driven tension of the genre also makes it prime for streamers, which is yet another way these games help the genre grow.
Developers have to create a genuinely scary antagonist that knows how to strike fear within the player. Alien Isolation was celebrated for its xenomorph that seemingly behaved intelligently, stalking and learning as the player desperately fought it off over the course of the game. But instead of taking all the time it would to make an enemy that smart, asymmetric multiplayer horror games enlist a player to do it for them. With a human controlled foe, the player can more easily anticipate their poor victims.
A player can easily devise ambushes, surprises and remain unpredictable to the hunted, which is something AI still struggles to do reliably. Likewise, there is no way for the hunted to cheese an encounter with another human because they are not working off a script, which makes it an improvisational game of cat and mouse. Horror games have always had this tactical element as well, with players planning routes and attempting to think their way out of danger.
And that can ramp up the fear as players take on the role of the monster they are playing. Some players have a tendency to go out of their way in an attempt to scare the other players, not just to win but because it is fun to frighten them. Darting past windows as Jason in Friday the 13th, appearing at one door only to move around and enter another in Dead by Daylight, or to simply stand and watch them in Last Year: The Nightmare is a hoot.
These benefits also work in reverse too. While an AI enemy might struggle to recognize and effectively counter the hunted players’s behavior, a human can more easily understand a real person’s intentions and work proactively against them. In most of the games, players will have several objectives that they can try to complete in order to escape, and part of the strategic side of playing the monster is working out which route they are taking and doing everything you can to stop them.
While battle royale might be the genre on everyone’s lips, the asymmetric multiplayer horror genre is proving its worth. It’s not getting the same attention from the industry or the media, but it is still incredibly popular and deserves to be even more popular because of its inventive premise. Pitting one hideous human-controlled monster against four real people is clever, truly unique to video games, and the best thing to happen to the horror genre in ages.