We discuss creating a terrifyingly compelling atmosphere for our horror game, unveil a little bit more about what the game is about, and show off some of the first environmental concept art.
- False Prophet
Evil Comes to Youtube- Dev Blog 01-
Our first video developer blog is up! It begins!
- False Prophet
Halloween Special! 5 Questions To Ask When Designing a Horror Game-
In honor of the Halloween season, this week's dev blog will be dedicated to the topic of horror game design (that's my favorite kind of game design). Although these questions may initially appear to be aimed at game developers specifically, in many ways I think that both gaming critics and even gamers and fans in general would benefit from considering some of these elements that go into designing a good horror game.
Now note that I said "designing" instead of developing. The process of game development is an extensive one and can involve all stages of creating a game. Designing the game is one part of that process, it's the idea phase, the part that involves coming up with the initial concept and flushing it out, before you get to the main stages of development that involve implementing those ideas with programming and art asset creation and things like that. Before you can begin building a game you have to come up with the initial idea for it. So here are 5 things that are good to consider in regards to horror games, whether you're trying to develop one or simply trying to enjoy them on a deeper level.
Is this actually a horror game?
That seems like a pretty good question to start with. And it's definitely not a simple yes or no question either. Horror, like all genres, has a tendency to overlap with other genres. The horror genre is usually defined by its intention to invoke fear in the audience. But this isn't always what it does and it's not always even its desired effect, at least not completely. For example, I would say that most real horror fans are not usually scared by their favorite movies. Maybe they were the first time they watched them, but for people who like to watch them over and over again, they usually experience very little actual fear and a lot more humorous enjoyment from this activity.
Many observers have noted that real horror fandom seems to involve as much laughing as it does screaming. Horror has always been associated with camp and a lot of people's favorite horror franchises are often pretty campy. There's a reason why Freddy Krueger was such an icon in the 1980s, there was definitely sort of a weird fun side to his personality. In this way there's also no denying that horror and comedy sometimes go well together. Some of the most notable cult horror films are actually horror/comedy films, to one extent or another.
But aside from comedy, there are other genres that are often paired with horror as well. These include things like action, mystery, and science fiction. It's easy to find examples of these being combined with horror in both games and films. Any game or movie that involves the protagonist or player running around cutting down or shooting zombies definitely has an action element to it even if it also has some horror.
Although they're not quite as common currently, in the days of classic cinema (including the silent era and beyond) there were a lot of movies in the "old dark house" subgenre of films (The Cat and the Canary is one of the most notable examples of these and has been remade several times over the years). These are primarily mysteries or "who done its", with some vague "spooky" horror elements and aesthetics attached to them. The video game equivalent of this might be something like the classic Lucasfilm Games' Maniac Mansion video game from the original NES era. Maniac Mansion is also an example of "camp" being used in a in a video game, as it deliberately spoofs B movie clichés. But many games in the adventure genre, particularly point and click adventure games have this kind of mystery element that at times can have a definite overlap with horror, at least aesthetically (meaning even if it isn't designed to scare you it still looks like horror or is dark and creepy in some ways).
And of course for the overlap between science fiction and horror we have to look no further than the film Alien. Alien has been described as a gothic horror movie masquerading as a science fiction film. The video game equivalent of the same overlap would be something like Dead Space. Similarly, Half-Life can be considered a science fiction action game with some very heavy horror elements. But the point is that horror comes in many forms and at different levels depending on what the game is going for. When designing a game, it's important to ask yourself what you really want. Is the primary focus for the game to be scary, to be action packed, or is there a mystery to solve? Or is the game suppose to be fun or funny with a spooky or campy look or atmosphere that is often associated with horror? You can do "pure horror" or create a mutant hybrid from pieces of other genres. You're playing god here, so have fun with it!
How much power should you give to the player?
Unlike movies, video games are an interactive medium and players expect to be able to actually do things in the game (I'm told that just sitting there watching cutscenes doesn't count). But in some ways, this very concept can run contrary to the goal of trying to scare the player. Powerlessness can often be an essential ingredient to inspiring fear, so you must be careful how much power you give to a player in a horror game.
You could argue that a large part of the history of video games, particularly popular or mainstream games, has been that they often act as power fantasies. In a way this makes a lot of sense, especially for an interactive medium. Many classic games have involved some sort of hero triumphing over adversity to rescue a princess or save the world or something like that. This basic type of thing seems to be a common human story and has been a popular fantasy long before the existence of video games (for instance, Beowulf is the oldest surviving long poem in Old English).
But this kind of power fantasy is in some ways the very opposite of what you're usually going for with a horror game. You don't want the player to feel too empowered because, to put it simply, that's not scary. Feeling vulnerable is much more frightening.
But because of the interactive nature of games and, perhaps even the tradition established by many games of the past, it's easy to fall into that trap of making what is supposed to be a horror game into more of an action game than you may have originally intended. This is something that many of the more recent larger horror games seem to be guilty of (the Resident Evil franchise has especially gotten a lot of criticism for this). But if you think about it from the standpoint of the designer, it's a very easy trap to fall into, especially for bigger studios with larger budgets and resources (and higher expectations put upon them). You want to create something that seems exciting, and so the obvious choice is to insert a lot of action into it. This is a tricky balancing act for any developer, and if you want to make a horror game you have to ask yourself how much power do you want to give the player, and do so with the understanding that by giving the player more power, giving them a greater capacity to fight whatever they're afraid of, you may be sacrificing some of the element of fear that is supposed to be in the game.
Should there be actual gameplay in this game?
Unfortunately, it's not just action that can be a problem in this way. The truth is that to a certain extent, any type of gameplay can sometimes distract from the fear that you are trying to instill in the player.
For example, I've seen horror games which try to incorporate some puzzle solving elements into them and if done incorrectly this can sometimes work against the fear that they're going for because the player's mind will be focused on trying to solve the puzzle as oppose to whatever they should be scared of. So what ends up happening is that any gameplay can become a bit of a double edged sword for a horror game developer. This is one of the interesting challenges that is much more of an issue for video games in this genre then it is for movies or books. Gamers expect a level of interactivity in games. If you don't have enough gameplay then your game will be accused of being a "walking sim", but by adding more gameplay you run the risk of distracting the player from the emotion of fear that they should be feeling while playing your game.
Though it's also worth noting here that different players like different things and some people genuinely do like more action with just a little bit of horror and there's absolutely nothing wrong with creating a game that only has certain horror elements, but relies heavily on other types of gameplay. And of course when done right, sometimes gameplay can actually add to the fear as oppose to distracting from it. But for a horror game designer it's best to keep in mind that this is always a danger.
How long should this game be?
On average, horror games seem to be a bit shorter than some other types of games and I would argue that there's a very good reason for this. I think that horror, as a genre, often seems to work better in smaller doses; it has more of an effective "punch" that way. This can be seen in the popularity of scary short stories in literature (yet another thing that has been around, and been working at scaring people, long before video games).
Let's just say for the sake of argument that you were going to make a 20+ hour-long horror game. One of two things would likely happen. The most likely thing is simply that it would stop being scary after a certain point. This actually seems to be a problem with many horror games that try to stretch out their gamplay beyond what is reasonable. I recall Outlast being accused of this, and while many people found the game to be enjoyably frightening, many also felt that towards the end the sensation of horror began to wane, due to its length (and it wasn't even that overly long by video game standards).
But even if you were able to create a game that didn't suffer from that problem, and were able to make it continuously scary all the way through, would it still be a good idea to make the game like that extremely long? I'd imagine that if you could make a game continuously terrifying for that length of time, it would probably be exhausting for the player. It would likely end up being an emotionally hellish experience, and not in the fun "hellish" sort of way. We have to remember that fear is a form of stress, and although it can be fun for some people in certain small doses, creating a long, grueling, relentlessly terrifying experience like that would probably not be a great a game (though I admit that if you were somehow able to pull that off, and actually keep the fear revved up for that long without people getting used it, that would definitely be impressive in another way; not necessarily a good game, but impressive).
Of course part of the issue here is that many gamers will actively complain if they don't think a game is "long enough". In fact some people actually seem to judge games partially by their length and I know that at least in the past, some reviewers would actually take off points if a game wasn't long enough. The industry has adopted sort of a culture of bias towards longer play time and this can definitely rub off on developers and cause them to try to make games longer, even when they shouldn't. My advice for any horror developers out there is to try to fight the urge to unnecessarily lengthen the play time of your games and judge everything on what's best for the game on a case by case basis. Not every game has to be Skyrim, and horror especially works better when you don't drag it out to the point that the player becomes bored instead of afraid.
How should you scare the player?
One of the more common complaints in horror (games and films) is regarding the overuse of jump scares. I've seen many conversations about horror games and even started a few myself discussing what people would like to see in their horror games, and this is one thing that almost always comes up.
Some people enjoy a few jump scares and some people don't like them at all, but it seems that most people would definitely prefer that horror developers don't rely on them too much. So I think this is something to note if you're developing a horror game. Jump scares can be very effective, but it's because they're so simple and effective that they're also often overused. Many players will tell you that they would like to see games that rely more on a creepy atmosphere or other more subtle and disturbing mechanisms to scare them. Of course this is much more difficult to achieve than just throwing a bunch of jump scares that the player, which is why it's not usually done as consistently or effectively.
To make matters even more complicated, the same types of things don't always scare or disturb different people. I've worked in physical haunted attractions before and I can tell you that some people are just more prone to being scared than others, and there's always going to be some people that you just can't scare at all. If you search around the Internet to find reviews and comments about any of your favorite horror games, I guarantee you can find someone who will claim that it wasn't scary for them. The thing is, those people may be telling the truth. Different things affect people differently and one of the realities of creating any kind of entertainment, including games, is that you can't please everybody. You can't scare everyone either.
But this is why jump scares are often seen as a safer bet, it's not just that they're easier to do but they are also more likely to scare more people because they rely on the element of surprise. Other, more subtle ways of trying to scare people that don't involve that element of surprise are often more subject to individual interpretation. You see, if you want to scare someone you need to make a psychological impact on them and the more subtle and "psychological" the method you're using to try to scare them is, the more likely it is not to be interpreted the way you want it to. It may still disturb some people, but others may not be scared by that sort of thing at all. This is why doing a really good intense psychological type of scare that affects people on a deeper level than just a jump scare is so rare and so coveted. It's what you want to try to do as a horror game developer, but it's also very difficult and if you miss the mark then it just ends up being lame.
In this way scaring people is like telling a joke. Different people have different senses of humor and a scare can fall flat in the same way; sometimes people just don't get the "joke".
One of the best ways to approach this I think it is just to do your homework. Learn what scared people in the past and try to get a feel for what works and what doesn't. Learn from other games as well as other horror media and of course be creative. As I mentioned above, due to their interactive element video games can be more challenging when compared to other forms of horror media because the gameplay has the potential to distract the player from the fear. But the fact that they are interactive also gives game devs an advantage. You can be more deeply immersed in a game because you have to interact with it and that is the potential strength of good horror games. Try to make the horror work with the gameplay and not against it.
This is something that Five Nights at Freddy's did very well and why, despite being a fairly simple game, was so effective at scaring lots of people. All of the gameplay in that game was designed around creating tension and invoking fear. BioShock also did this, though not necessarily through its gameplay but just its aesthetics and set up. BioShock wasn't specifically designed to be a horror game and yet I've heard multiple people say that it's one of the scariest games they've ever played. It hits a lot of classic horror points if you really think about it. It featured a dark and strange environment, intimidating enemies, creepy children, deranged and dangerous characters and even elements of body horror. It did a lot of things right.
But one last point want to make is that I think horror is a great genre for indie developers. It's one of those things that seems to go very well with smaller projects. Keep in mind that some of the best and most beloved horror films were not big budget studio pictures, but much more modest endeavors. Of course there will always be plenty of bad horror games out there, just like there are lots of bad low budget horror movies and many extremely mediocre horror stories and novels. But I wouldn't let that fact stop anyone who thinks they might want to make a horror game. It's important not to be deterred by the idea that what you make might be considered "bad"; after all, it wasn't so long ago that all horror was considered bad, lowbrow or schlocky in our society. That's part of the fun of it and comes with the territory.
Although you could argue that horror has become a lot more mainstream than it was in past decades, there's still something oddly niche or cult about it. It's one of the those things that not everyone likes but the people who do like it often really love it. And loving a genre is always a good reason to want to create something in it. And if it allows you to also scare the hell out of people and get away with it, well, that's just a bonus!
- False Prophet
Insane Solutions to Mundane Problems-
Here's the story behind the first NPC (non playable character) that you talk to in Twisty's Asylum Escapades. This is also an example of the kinds of challenges that game developers have to regularly solve when plotting gameplay.
When we were first developing Asylum Escapades, the player's progression through the game was even more chaotic than it is now (if you can believe that's possible). The problem all stems from the fact that this game is fairly nonlinear. Although it's all contained in the same building, it's all completely open to the player in a very maze-like layout, and the player is permitted to go in multiple directions right from the beginning. There really is no set course the player has to follow. Originally, we thought this was a pretty cool feature which provided opportunities for exploration and for the most part we still do. But it did create some interesting challenges.
Through play testing of the Alpha build of the game, we found that test players weren't figuring out how to use a certain type of attack which was critical for making the game interesting and more enjoyable (specifically Twisty's bite-and-shake attack). The solution to this was fairly simple, we would just need to provide a tutorial for the player early in the game so they would know how to use it from then on. Through our play testing, we knew which direction most players would go and what room they would end up in. We even found a way to tie the tutorial in with an element of the story so that it made more sense and gave the player even more of a payoff than simply learning how to do this attack alone would. The whole thing came together exceptionally well and actually solved several problems. Unfortunately there was just one catch, we still couldn't guarantee that the player would actually always go to that room the first time they played the game. We knew that a lot of players would do it automatically based on play-testing, but any player could still technically go in one of two other directions and completely miss the tutorial, which was now an essential part of the game's progression.
Of course we did what any reasonable people would do to solve such a simple problem; we introduced some criminally insane characters into the game to bark murderous orders at you in a snarky and condescending way. Basically we needed a way to direct the player to go the right way, but without physically blocking off the alternative routes (we still wanted to keep the floor plan of the asylum open and maze-like). We decided that one way to do this would be to have NPCs simply tell the player which way to go in the beginning, to give our crazy brain character some friendly advice. But who would want to help this crazy brain escape the asylum? Why other crazy inmates of course!
This gave me an excuse to use a character that I had designed but couldn't find a place for in the game and it also allowed me to make the basement halls even more interesting by having these Hannibal Lecter/Silence of the Lambs type of cells in the basement. This even added a bit more of a story element to the game and had the added benefit of making the player's progression more obvious and gave them more sense of direction.
We set up a system to cover all possibilities, no matter which way the player goes they will either have to go by one of these inmate cells, in which case they will be stopped by the crazy person inside and given instructions to go to the tutorial (because everyone knows you should stop and listen to random crazy people), or they will simply go directly to the room with the tutorial. The only way that this system fails is if the player, after having been stopped by the inmate, clicks off the text without reading it and just continues on (in which case the player will have no choice but to either come back to the inmate to read it again, simply figure out where to go themselves, or just be lost wandering around the building). Unfortunately no system is completely foolproof and as a developer there's a certain point where you have to draw the line in regards to "hand holding" with the player, and that's where I decided to draw that line. If you refuse to read the text and yet you still can't figure it out by yourself, then you're just lost (both in the asylum, and as a "cause").
But all and all it was a fairly effective solution and added several more elements to the game. It's also a good example of the kind of creative problem solving what video game developers have to utilize on a regular basis. Weird problems often come up in game development and it's up to the developers to find creative ways to let the players know what to do. Players normally don't like it when you spell things out for them too much, and yet at the same time you have to be clear enough so that most players are still going to get it and continue to enjoy the game. Sometimes this can be as simple as tweaking certain settings, sometimes it means changing the layout of a level, or creating interactive tutorials to show the player how to do things, giving them subtle clues to push them in the right direction; and sometimes it means having a crazy guy in a straitjacket stand there and tell them to go down the freak'n hall and perform a human sacrifice to summon the spirits of the dead into the asylum. You just have to sort of finesse these things.
I hope that you'll continue to follow along with these developer blogs of madness, chronicling our remastering of Twisty's Asylum Escapades; the game that's made for, and by, and prominently features some surprisingly helpful but very psychologically unstable characters.
- False Prophet
Repetition: A Brilliant Insanity-
One aspect of game development that I haven't seen discussed very much is the simple fact that a big part of it involves performing many of the same tasks over and over again. It has been said that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It has also been said that the distance between genius and madness can only be measured by success, and furthermore, that success often requires persistence (which is defined as, oddly enough, "an obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty").
But logical and philosophical loops aside; the nuts-and-bolts reality of game development is that it tends to involve a lot of repetition. Whether we're talking about art, programming or even marketing, if you're an indie dev, chances are you're going to be doing a lot of the same or similar things over and over again, over the course of creating your game. This includes tasks like copying and pasting code to multiple places, placing the same art assets in various places around the game and repeatedly tweaking or modifying that same code or those art assets multiple times so that they do specifically what they're supposed to do in every instance you use them. In fact I would argue that this overall sort of activity makes up the majority of game development, in my experience. Of course there's plenty of fun creative stuff, as well as the challenging, problem-solving type of stuff to do too; but there's also definitely a lot of repetition.
This isn't meant to be presented as a good or bad thing, but simply the reality of it. In fact, if you think about it, it's sort of the reality of actual reality as well. Let's consider the subject of video game art for a moment (mostly because that's my department). Quite often, you will see many of the same art assets used multiple times within a game.
Initially you might argue that the tendency to populate game environments with the same types of reoccurring features and props is just a sign of laziness on the part of the developers. And when taken too far or not implemented correctly, that can certainly be true. But on the other hand, can we really say that nature is much better? If you've ever found yourself lost in a real forest, you'll notice that the general settings can look even less distinctive than what you might see depicted in a staged forest environment of a movie or game. And while you can assure yourself that every one of the real trees that you see in the real forest are unique individual organisms, that's probably little comfort when you start to hear something howling or hissing at you from somewhere and you can't get your bearings because it all looks like the same freak'n tree in every direction. It would seem that nature has its own version of a copy and paste function.
Of course this applies to the manmade aspects of the real world as well. We live in a society where most things are manufactured and that means that you tend to see a lot of repetition in day to day life (not to mention that the manufacturing process itself is the very pinnacle of repetition). For anyone who's ever been in any kind of school or classroom before, I'm sure you are familiar with how certain environments can contain multiple copies of very similar objects. For my specific purposes, Twisty's Asylum Escapades is similarly meant to be a very institutional environment and so it's only realistic if you see many of the same art assets used multiple times (though the asylum in the game has to be more interesting looking than it's real world equivalent; if you've ever looked around a real hospital facility, the aesthetics are often incredibly boring and repetitious).
This correlation between real world repetition and games can also be applied to programming. Although video game AI is considered notably less complex than real human intelligence, if you sit and look at a busy urban environment in the real world there's a good chance that 90% of those people will be indistinguishable from wandering NPCs. And anyone who has a "regular 9 to 5" job is almost by definition going to be repeatedly maintaining the same schedule much of the week. A large portion of human behavior is very repetitious.
And in regards to other aspects of game programming, the real world equivalent of game physics is pretty consistent. If you jump off a building you probably can't expect to be miraculously released from the earth's gravitational pull and float to safety. Take a dive off a five story building in any city in the world and the same physics apply. So it's not a stretch when developing a game, to use the same physics code on one level of the game as you do on another.
The fact that repetition is a reality for developers has both its advantages and drawbacks. In many cases it can make things easier, but it also often makes the work more tedious as well. And in some odd cases, the fact that you need some consistency to replicate the repetitious nature of the real world can actually create more work when you can't simply copy and paste something and for some reason you have to redo it or have to heavily modify it in order to get it to work and look or act like everything else; just to make it consistent with the rest of the game.
But whether or not it is an advantage or drawback in any given situation, repetitious tasks are simply a reality in game development, and indeed a lot of the jobs in computer heavy fields. Strangely enough, this is often considered a major strength of computers on a basic level. They're really good at performing certain repetitions tasks over and over and at a very quick pace. But we often have to work in unison with them on this. They are our tools and to a certain extent, we have to adapt and conform to how they operate and play to their strengths and work around their limitations in order to get the best work out of them.
So you've probably already figured this out, but this week I've been doing a lot of fairly mundane but essential work on the game. It's not the kind of showy or interesting stuff that's usually worth blogging about. But after thinking about it, I decided that maybe I should address this in some way. After all, it's a major aspect of game development that seems largely neglected when dev blogging. But that's the real message; embrace the repetition, the persistence and the "craziness" that may go along with it. It's all part of the nature of the beast known as game development, as well as the nature of...well, nature. Creating your own little world is in a sense an attempt to mimic certain parts of reality and nature; and so some repetition is expected. Nature goes through cycles and although reality can be extremely diverse and bizarrely original, it also does a lot of the same stuff over and over again. Why should creating a virtual world be any different?
I hope that you will persist in continuing to follow along with this insane dev blog chronicling the remastering of Twisty's Asylum Escapades; the game about the crazy brain who refuses to give up, no matter how many enemies he must eviscerate, over and over again.
- False Prophet