Archive for experience

Crafting Horror Mechanics and Mindsets

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2014 by trivialpunk

Last time, we were comparing the elements that create a jump-scare to the elements that create an entire horror movie. Today, we’re going to expand on that and talk about creating player mind-sets in horror games.

Finding primary sources for this is difficult, because horror experiences are so personal. I can tell you what I was thinking at a given moment of gameplay, but it might not be the norm. We can discuss what designers wanted their players to feel, but whether or not that translates to the player experience is going to depend on a lot of factors external to the design.

So, we’re going to go broad and stick with a few concrete perspectives. To do that, we’re going to start with Dead Space 3.

Now, we all know the crafting system in Dead Space 3 rocked our immersion with its micro-transaction frippery, but is that the only issue with it? I would argue that it also creates entirely the wrong mind-set in the player. When you’re crafting a weapon in DS3, what are you thinking about?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking about how much damage it’s going to do. I’m thinking about how many pieces they’ll fly into. Or, I’m considering the merits of perpetual-stasis ripper-saws against those of a glowing death-ball cannon. If you watched my Painkiller video of yore, you’ll have probably figured out my point already: in none of the scenarios I’m considering am I the prey.

I’m preparing for battle, so I’m preparing to hunt, or, at least, to take down a dangerous opponent. The dynamic I’m thinking in is that of a predator. That’s empowering; that’s the opposite of the way I should be thinking. I should be thinking, “I hope this will keep me alive, but I’m not sure if it will.” If I’m going to min-max, then it should be for all the right reasons.

But my question is, if you’re already thinking about your strength and how to combat an opponent, aren’t you already in the wrong mind-set? This is one of the things that makes horror RPGs so questionable to me: RPG elements are usually about growth towards success and away from dis-empowerment.

The way we usually employ leveling systems isn’t going to cut it; we need our level-ups to reinforce our position in the monster dynamic. There are several ways to do this. One way is simply to ensure that your growth never makes you equal to the monsters. This can be accomplished by simply making the monsters more powerful, but then it’s pretty hard to distinguish between standard monster progression and an atmosphere of oppression. Lulz.

Again, though, if we’re in that mind-set, then we’ve already lost the first battle. Let’s step back: what does our level-up system tell the player about how they’re growing? If you can grow in strength, then your ability to combat the enemy grows, as well. But, what if you grow in pivoting speed? I know it sounds silly next to Strength, but that’s why we just don’t include Strength.

Our character could grow in areas that reinforce its prey-like nature. The ability to pivot quicker or sprint longer would give the player the tools to escape enemies more easily, but it wouldn’t make the escape itself trivial. An ability that allows the player to sense their enemies seems like a good idea, but that also increases the player’s ability to combat the enemy.

Another thing to remember, here, is not to allow the level-up mechanics to interact with the puzzles or the challenges in any way that makes them easier. Doing that gives the player Avatar-strength, which is exactly what we’re avoiding in the combat. The message should be: your growth helps you survive, not succeed.

For example, let’s say we give players the ability to unlock an emergency u-turn button. That ability shouldn’t then interact with some puzzle that requires that you turn around more quickly, unless the speed with which you turn has no bearing on the challenge.

Let it be a convenience. What do I mean? Well, if you’re doing a riddle that requires that you pull on six hang-man’s nooses that are spaced around a room, then quick-turn lets you navigate to them more easily, if you’re in a third-person shooter. However, if there’s a timed-element, then quick-turn makes this portion easier by making the navigation easier.

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Now, this can be contextual, as well. If the puzzle is just a random timed puzzle for reasons, then it’s not really a big deal that your level-progression assisted you through it. However, if it’s a timed puzzle because the forces of darkness are slowly possessing your soul, then your level-progression has assisted you in fighting them, altering the dynamic once more.

Growing empowered doesn’t have to be a negative aspect of a horror game. It could always be shown to be an utter illusion, but, since it’s already an illusion, it’s difficult to experience the difference, at times. However, if progression leads you towards something awful, then we’ve altered the dynamic, again.

Think about Cthulhu. (but not too hard) As an entity, it is beyond grasping. However, in their studies of Cthulhu and the Occult, many adventurers find fantastic powers and strange, overwhelming artifacts. The deeper an adventurer quaffs, the madder it becomes. That’s another way to look at a power-progression.

Let’s say we’re in a house with a small ghost. Every day, that ghost grows slightly in power. In order to combat that ghost, we’ve got to learn about it and grow in power, as well. However, in order to grow in power, we must make sinister deals with Otherworldly creatures. These deals let a little bit of something slip through and we’re suddenly racing our madness with our intellect.

I envision this as a haunting-Occult sim that grows in insanity as you make deals with more and greater numbers of spirits. I’d include a Pact system that would eventually allow you to banish the evil from your house, but only after you’ve endured some messed-up shit and if you don’t die. However, it could also be a platformer that grows in complexity as you begin seeing more and more of the spirits populating the levels. You could probably get some funky level-replay value out of that. Remember the ! blocks in Super Mario World? Like that but with demons.

My point isn’t necessarily the gameplay: my point is the player mind-set. We must never stop asking: how do the systems we’re utilizing work together to influence how the player is thinking about their gameplay experience and, thus, their choices? That experience is where we need to concentrate our unnerving efforts: a frightening back-drop is nothing without it.

Speaking of backdrops, what about those environments and our relationship to them? Well, that usually depends on the systems in the game. If you’ve got a standard physics system, then you and the floor are well-acquainted. If you can swim, then water’s your buddy, guy! How about stealth mechanics? Shadows are your friend! And barrels. I like hiding behind barrels.

Think about how your relationship to the environment and the creatures changes between Outlast and Amnesia. Both of these games are about exploring the creepy-dark and finding baddies therein, but Amnesia has a stealth mechanic and Outlast has a hiding mechanic.

If you’re cornered in Outlast, then you can make a break for the next bed or locker and hide there. There aren’t really a lot of decisions to make about that: you just sprint and hide when you’re out of LoS. That’s about as much as you need to think about the environment, and that’s about as much as I did think about the environment.

However, in Amnesia, where every box might hide you and every shadow conceal you, you’re paying attention to the environment. You’re thinking about what the monster can see. You’re engaged with your surroundings. Yes, not being able to look at the creature helps, but only because you’re concerned about what the creature can see, so you’re thinking about the creature.

If you’re just thinking about avoiding the creature, then you’re not really threatened by it, because you’re not thinking of it as a threat. You’re thinking of it as an obstacle. You don’t think of its parameters, because they never come into play. You just react. See monster, run out of sight, hide, repeat. Or, see monster, stay out of sight, use sounds to avoid it, repeat.

A monster in Amnesia is an artificial intelligence to be played around. There are unknowns in its programming and risks you can take. You can successfully stack two boxes on top of each other and cower in a corner without knowing if that will hide you. That’s a qualitatively different experience to picking a locker to crouch in for a while before being found or not. One’s a coin-flip, the other’s a die roll.

For our player, the math behind it is not as important as the experience. That experience informs their mind-set, which informs their choices, which folds back in on their experience. Yes, that is a conceptual cluster-fuck, but we’re self-aware beings, so you weren’t expecting an easy answer, now, were you?

In any event, this is just a handful of perspectives. As I said last time, horror is like a finely-tuned melody. Any one of these elements that I’ve discussed, in good light or bad, can be part of a successful horror experience. The difference lies in how well the pieces fit together. It’s a difficult puzzle to navigate; I’ll see you on the other side.

Horror Role-Play – Setting the Stage

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Gloam with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello and Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving! Now, I know many of my readers are American, so to them, Happy Monday! Or I guess, Happy Day, because who knows when you’re reading this. Maybe it’s night. Day designations are random anyways, but not so random that they don’t mean something. We often look to the genesis of an event to define its meaning, but doing so can make us forget that its current meaning is equally as important, especially considering our tendency to twist meanings with time. We are born without context, so it’s easy to forget that history is just… ridiculously convoluted.

Anyways, here’s this week’s story. It’s sooort of my take on a Thanksgiving tale. I did something a bit different with this week’s video in preparation for another thing I’m swimming around starting. I’m not going to announce it until I’ve got at least three segments finished. Shhh…

As you may know, it’s Halloween month, and so you might be curious about why I’m not doing a big Halloween thing. I mean, horror blog, right? Well, truth be told, I haven’t been strictly horror for a while, but aside from that, every month is Halloween month for me. I write, think and talk about horror almost every day of the year. So, I’m letting other people have a go at it, while I… okay, maybe we’ll do some horror stuff. But, not video games. This week we’re going to talk about roleplaying.

As some of you may remember, I started to write down my horror roleplay system. It’s in the links of this blog, but it’s not really extensive. The reason for this is that I began writing and, as I wrote, I started editing the system. Eventually, it got out of hand and started turning into a video game. And the game became a project. And the project lost its programmers. It happens. I’ve been a part of a few orphaned projects, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. No way. Where was I…? Right!

Today, I thought I’d give you a few of my favourite tips for setting the mood for your horror roleplay. If you haven’t done a horror roleplay session, then I can’t recommend it enough. It’s like telling an interactive horror story that you can change on the fly in response to your players’ moods. It takes some experience to pull off, but that just means it’s better to start practising now than later! What better time than Halloween month? (Don’t worry, most of these can apply to the telling of horror stories, as well)

First, do your planning way ahead of time. It’s important to stay spontaneous in the game, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also do your homework. Figure out what kind of horror experience you’re providing. What exactly is horrific about your setting? Your antagonist/challenge? Your situation? Try to get inside the minds of your players and figure out what you’re asking them to visualize and the responses you’re going to be asking them to make.

Let’s choose a running example: a horror story set in the woods. With something lurking between the trees and in the leaves.

Alright, so we know where we are. What scares people about the woods? This is an important question, because it’ll affect how you should set up your room. You see, when you experience something, it sensitizes you to related ideas. There’s plenty of research on the subject, but I won’t recount it here. What I’ll tell you is that you should be organizing your space such that it reminds your players of the most salient aspects of the environment you’re asking them to imagine. But, not just any salient aspects, focus on the ones that inspire fear.

Back to the woods: Obviously, the best choice would be to actually be in the woods around a camp-fire. The light from the fire will obscure the shadows in the woods. Ambient noises and gaps of absolute silence will do a lot of the work for you. However, if we can’t be in the woods, we can bring the woods inside. Step one: Plants. Just, ’cause, plants. Step two, gather your group together, around you, facing inwards around a light source. This does two things: it focuses your players’ attention on the light source, thus obscuring the shadows behind them. The other thing is that it leaves their backs vulnerable. You can remind them of that ever-so-subtly by dropping words like “back,” “behind” and “stab” into your descriptions. They don’t have to be direct references. You can say things like, “We have to go back!” or “There’ll be no turning back.” Be sure to look over their shoulders occasionally.

You can do this for almost every setting. Dark, claustrophobic tomb or the underground labyrinth of an abandoned hospital? Pick a smaller room with a tall ceiling, sit on the floor and point a light directly at the ceiling, producing the illusion of an overly-claustrophobic environment. One famous example involves a horror story set on Mars. They wore gas-masks for the authentic view-obscuring,, uncomfortable, hot, claustrophobic feel. Dystopian universe full of the gleaming white lights of arbitrary death? Get a bright room, but find a way to splash colour into it. Basically, find a way for your room to visually embody your brand of horror.

However, you’ve got more than just the visual to call on. Your arsenal is packed with every sense and thought your players have at their disposal. Every memory. Every association. Don’t be afraid to utilize them. Horror is something that’s best taken seriously in the planning stages, seriously in the telling and whimsically in the experience. Don’t be afraid to let your players have fun, but make sure you build the tension back up.

Soundscapes are a great way to build tension, because it’s something that people eventually lose track of. It fades to white noise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still having an effect.

Woods: Try to see if you can find a track that has rustling noises on it that are punctuated very occasionally by twig-snaps or bird calls. Constantly play the track at a low volume, but make sure that the sudden sounds are loud enough to be heard in the background. If you can’t find a track, then see if you can find a close approximation. White noise punctuated by the occasional laugh. The wind. A crackling fire. One of those faux-fire videos is actually a pretty great tool here, because the fire snaps and crackles are random intervals, and it’s made to be played for a long time, so you aren’t going to get very much pattern repetition.

If all else fails, you can just pick some creepy music, and keep it at a barely audible level. That way, when the room falls quiet, the sound of creeping music will fill the air, encouraging your players to talk or filling them with the slightest hint of dread. You can also use soundscapes to simulate space. Huge echoes for large halls. Small, staccato ones for enclosed rooms. Slow fades for open spaces.

Smell is a powerful weapon, as well. I’m sure you already know that smell is a powerful memory evoker. Creating an alien smell can throw players off. Something sickly and rotting (like a piece of fruit) hidden in the garbage can be just enough to unnerve your players.

Woods: Pine-fresh candles. Fresh dirt. The smell of watered plants. Smoke from a pack of matches that you’re periodically lighting, like it’s a nervous habit (watch for smoke detectors). You get the idea.

The tactile senses are, in part, related to the embodiment of the room bit, but also consider the posture (vestibular senses) you want your players in. Lying down, sitting up, standing, whatever. Make sure they’re comfortable enough to last out a gaming session, though, or you’ll find that all the preparation in the world won’t protect you from player-fatigue.

Taste is another consideration. Want to really creep your players out? Find a way to link the food they’re eating to a description. The crunch of the leaves, like chips. The rending of meat from the bone, like a chicken wing. You don’t necessarily have to make it that obvious. In fact, it’ll severely damage the effect if you do, but consider something like…

Woods: “You hear the sharp whisper of a quiet crunch *bite chip here* from a copse of pine to your right, the sound of a pine-cone shattering underfoot.” “Its teeth digs into your leg, finding bone and tearing the chewy meat off the bone,” if you’re serving chicken wings. “The gag feels soft and chewy in your mouth.” -Pizza.

A large component of taste is smell, but it’s also tactile experience. If you can find a way to disturb your players through the intimate act of eating, one of the most sensual (literally, affecting the senses) experiences a human can have, then you’re well on your way to getting in their heads.

If you’re a good actor, then try tensing up when you want your players to be tense. They’ll mirror you slightly. You’d be amazed what has an effect. Air temperature. Low vibration. The occasional weird, halting speech cadence. Laughter from somewhere in the distance. The use of proper nouns. Horror is a blend of the subtle and the obnoxious. Tension and carelessness. If you’re careful, your players will never know exactly how much thought you’ve put into the evening, or the experience they’ve walked themselves into.

Remember, you want your players to be a little uncomfortable. You’re trying to create a strange and frightening environment out of a common gathering of friends. However, you don’t want to scar anyone and you don’t want to hurt anyone. Be safe.

Also, remember to use modern technology to your advantage, and don’t forget to account for it in your game. One of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had as a story-teller was sliding my phone over to a player with a text-message on it for them and having them fling it away in shock (phone was okay). It was just a picture of a cloaked figure, but under the right circumstances, the banal is terrifying.