Archive for horror games

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.


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.


The Jump-Scare Microcosm

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

Often, I get the urge to go back and edit my old posts. Usually, there’s a typo that’s bothering me, but sometimes it’s just the post itself that needs to be changed. You grow a lot over the course of a couple years, but you always start somewhere. Thankfully, I’m not regurgitating all of Yahtzee’s analogies anymore, but that doesn’t diminish the urge to go back and change the posts where I did.

But, that’s where I was at the time I wrote the post. This is a blog, so its integrity relies on its temporality, which is a ridiculous way of saying that I’d feel weird about editing old posts. So, I’ve just got to do better next time. I wrote a pretty glowing review of Titanfall, but I haven’t really played it since. And I hated Dark Souls, but I’ve got a Letsplay of it now, and I love it.

I’m going to learn from those experiences and do a Letsplay series on Clockwork Empires as it develops. For the people listening to my opinion, I feel compelled to back up my words. Also, it’s fun.

But we’re not here to talk about FUN, are we? We’re here to talk about FEAR. Well, horror, actually, of which fear is a principle component. It doesn’t matter what medium you’re working in, the important experience is the end-user experience. And when you’re talking horror, that means that you have to take things like lighting, stress-levels, pop-culture and interface into account.

But, that also means that you’re working with a complicated apparatus. Inducing the experience of fear is like playing a complicated emotional symphony. You know how those laughs that follow tense moments are always extra poignant? Part of the reason for that is that laughter is an emotional stress valve. The process of building emotional tension is also the process of building physical tension (stress). Striking at a point in the arc creates a related reaction.

This is one of the mechanisms that makes the jump-scare work. Whether it pays off for a viewer usually depends on their individual reaction; whether it will work on anyone usually depends on the designer.

But tension is not enough, even something as brief as a jump-scare requires a lot of thought to put together and relies on a lot of things going right. Even if it all goes off properly, it’s still being fed through self-aware systems of such sublime complexity and variation that no two will remember it in exactly the same way. That being said, they’re also creatures of such immense sophistication that they could still describe it in exactly the same way if they were asked to. That’s us.

I’m talking about the jump-scare because it’s like a horror-movie microcosm. It relies on most of the same elements: physiological reactions, context and timing. So, if we break down its elements, we can see part of the system we’re working with. Because, despite the fact that each person is different, the reactions they have are in relation to their steady-state, so you can still scare most people a little bit.

For instance, sounds can build physical stress. Let’s paint a standard late-night scene in a deserted park. Our character is walking beside a row of hedges as the wind whips up a little, shaking the leaves. Now, if we were watching a movie, you could start building a deep, subtle sound in the background that would arouse the attention of your audience and begin building some physiological stress.

You can start using restrictive camera angles to let your audience’s visual system know that it’s not getting enough data by using the auditory one, because there are sounds in the background that they’re hearing: strange, out-of-sight sounds. Cut the angle out to a wide-angle of our character walking beside the hedge, edging slightly away from it but clearly feeling foolish about it.

At this point, your audience knows from the music that something’s wrong. This is where people begin yelling at the character to get away from the hedge! It’s dangerous! I think that’s a stress-release valve that opens because the danger is apparent but unknown. This is where you need to be subtle, because your audience wants to get stressed out. However, if the character’s acting foolishly, then they might opt out of buying-in entirely.

We’ve all watched scenes that we thought might have been frightening but were completely ruined because the character didn’t act in a logical manner, right? We are, after all, relying on our audience to project into the mind of our character. If our character acts in a manner that they don’t understand, then our audience can’t really connect with them in any meaningful way. At that point, our character is no longer embodying our audience, so neither will they.

So, back to the scene… Our audience knows that there’s something up, because the music has aroused their attention. They’ve understood that the character feels creeped out by walking alone, at night, beside a hedge, but that the character feels silly about it. The background noises have combined with the camera angles to give the audience the impression that they’re missing some information. But, the wide-angle has communicated that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong. Everything is benign, but it feels dangerous.

Now, what of context? We just painted a random park somewhere. Are we watching a slasher-flick? If so, then we know what’s probably waiting in the hedge. Or, at least, the worst thing that could be waiting in the hedge as far we know. That’s kinda meh, honestly. What if an unknown creature escaped from the Lab somewhere and our character doesn’t know about it?

Well, now we have another element of mystery. Not only do we not know if something’s wrong here, but we don’t even know what it could be. That’s not AS helpful as it could be, but it does do some work for us. What if we knew it smashed a cage? Then, it’s strong. How about if it melted its way through a wall? That’s pretty visceral. What could it do to our character?

Still, that might be a little too descriptive. What if we just know that it escaped, but it shredded the corpses of the guards on the way out? The more details we restrict, the more each detail increases in importance in the mind of the audience. However, we still need to give their imaginations enough to work with.

Let’s go back to slashers for a second. If he’s skinned two people so far, then we can imagine that he’ll probably skin his next victim. That’s a gruesome thought, but it only engages the imagination so far. If, on the other hand, he has only removed certain body-parts from each victim at random, then our audience might imagine what would be next.

However, we can encourage them to imagine that by introducing a pattern into the dismemberment. Buffalo Bill, for instance, was building a body-suit. If the reader was given enough details to be encouraged to imagine which ones he’d be after next, then we have further engaged their imagination, and, thus, deepened their immersion. Human curiosity and imagination are essential tools for creating horror.

So, that’s context. For variety’s sake, let’s just say that a creature escaped from a lab. It burned its way out of its cell, then it shredded the skin from each guard, absorbing their blood through the tears in their flesh. (If we want to get really specific later, then we’ll say that a guard who died from severe acid burns wasn’t drained, suggesting that their heart-beat aids the process) That’s pretty graphic.

Now, we have a colorful potential fate for our character. We’ve told the audience that something’s up, but we didn’t overdo it. Then, let’s say their cell-phone rings. If we did it suddenly, then it might act as a mini-jump-scare, relieving some physiological tension. That can be good if we plan to build it up again or catch our audience off-guard. However, if we wanted to build towards a single big scare, then it would build slowly.

Does it build up alongside a rustling in the bushes? Does our character notice something shuffling in the leaves, ignoring their phone to pay attention to the new thing in the shadows? Does our character answer the phone and end up getting stalked by a camera? Does our character not believe their friend? The next few seconds are crucial, and they’ll define the entire tone of the jump-scare.

For our single instance, let’s say that our character pulls their phone out of their pocket, the volume increasing slightly to show why it was initially muffled. Then, they look at the call-return, still walking as they go, putting the phone up to their ear, the camera cuts to a typical walking-talking-head angle, at which point something pounces from off-camera. Our sound-cue here is essential. The scene cuts to the other end of the phone, where we receive more of the plot and a small bit of information about what’s happening to the character we just left.

We want to catch the audience off-guard, but we don’t want to contrive camera-angles or plot-devices that will let them know when we’re planning on catching them off-guard. That defeats the purpose of contriving them, unless they’re a meta-contrivance, and that’s a whole other ball of wax: horror movies for people who love horror movies. (<3)

At the same time, we want to ensure that the angles and mechanics that create the jump-scare are still present. We still want to restrict their vision and menace them with sounds, but we don’t want them to feel like those things exist solely to accomplish the task of creating a jump-scare. That line of thinking runs through everything I understand about creating horror.

You want to create horrifying situations, but you don’t want your audience to have to think about the fact that you’re doing it. You’re not just creating a situation that’s horrifying for the character: you’re using your character’s situation to horrify your audience. It’s their physiology that you need to worry about. It’s their tension that is ultimately played-upon. It’s thrilling to experience when it all works out, because it was created to be experienced.

Games have a huge leg-up when creating horror because they engage the audience directly. However, the job becomes that much more complicated as you add elements, like volition. Creating truly great horror in a game universe means understanding and manipulating someone’s decisions in the same way that jump-scares use physiological tension: they must contribute to the horror in their own way.

Each decision should be part of a string of events that bring you to a horrifying moment. It doesn’t matter if the decision is to walk forward or to choose between two doors or to apply the lotion from one vaguely-labelled bottle instead of the other. The decisions should be themed around creating the experience of horror. They should engage the imagination.

You should have to think about what moving forward might bring. You should be worried about what’s behind each door. The consequences of the choosing a lotion should be frightening. Of course, you’re not always going to be able to do that with every game, so it’s just something to think about while you tackle the realities of putting together any piece of media.

Horror is a difficult thing to produce, and its personal effects are so variable that it’s difficult or impossible to create any piece of media that will engage everyone in the same way. But, that’s the beauty of horror. Strike out into the dark and try something new. Good luck navigating the shadow; I’ll see you on the other side.

Halloween Steam Sale Buyer’s Guide 2013

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

It’s that frightening time of year: the time when another Steam sale is out for your blood-money. But what to buy to tickle your scaredy-pants, you might wonder. Well, wonder no longer! As someone who feels it’s his sacred duty to support horror-themed games, I can help you save your money and escape the Steam Money Massacre ali… still affluent.

First, some general advice. You might think it’s a good idea to pick up some of those 5 dollars games now that they’re a buck-fifty, but really think about that for a second. You aren’t playing all the games you buy on Steam as it is. If you really wanted to play that game, you’d have bought it at its 5 dollar price-point. The fact that it is now a dollar-fifty doesn’t make the game any better. It may make you feel better about buying it, but it won’t increase the quality of the time you spend playing it.

Don’t forget to check out the reviews for a game. Even games that sound like really neat ideas can fail in their execution. Also, Halloween-themed games seem like a great idea, but if you want something to scare you in honour of the holiday, then don’t sink your money into a re-skinned version of Diner Dash. Animated pumpkins don’t alter game-play. Unless they do, then umm…

Slender is a massively popular game on-line, so Slender: The Arrival seems like a natural buy, right? Well, hold on. Play the original game, because it’s free. Then, decide if you want to play a better-looking, but not significantly different, version of the game that’s going to cost you money.

Costume Quest is a cute, not at all frightening, game from Double Fine studios. If you like quirky mechanics and a fun aesthetic that weeps personable charm, then pick it up.

Condemned: Criminal Origins is a surprisingly good, fairly graphic, first-person crime-solving brawl-em-up. Enter at your own risk.

The Walking Dead is well-known for its zombification of the Adventure game genre, and we all know that making something a zombie makes it like 30% cooler.

Anna is bad. It literally gave me a headache while I played it. It’s messed up in almost every way possible, though, so if that’s what you’re looking for, then it’s your five bucks.

Dead Pixels: Cool concept let down by unbalanced mechanics.

Penumbra is the series that pre-dated the Amnesia series. It’s by the same developer. It’s scary. It includes physics puzzles.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent: If you haven’t gotten this game, and you’re a fan of the horror genre, then I’d really consider getting it. It takes advantage of the years of experience that the studio had making the Penumbra games.

Lone Survivor: Side-scrollent Hill

Eldritch: Eldritch actually means strange. And this blocky Cthuloid adventure is certainly that.

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened: A Sherlock mystery-adventure game about Cthulhuian cults. They literally made this game for me.

Limbo: for those who like platformers and are terrified of giant shadow-spiders.

DMC Devil May Cry: Not at all terrifying. A LOT of fun to smash away at.

Dead Space: It’s still a lot of fun. However, if you don’t feel like buying it, you could always play Resident Evil 4 while watching Event Horizon.

The Wolf Among Us is a cautionary tale about why you should wait for more episodes to come out before buying into an episodic adventure game. It will draw you in. Prepare to howl with frustration at the fact that you have to wait for the next installment.

Damned: Organic, multi-player survival-horror. Why are you still reading this and not playing that?

Resident Evil 6: Playable but ridiculous.

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City: Just buy a CoD game.

Painkiller Series: If you loved Quake and Doom, then you’ll enjoy this.

Outlast: a technical masterpiece let down by an incredibly linear story that relies on repetitive game-play. Worth getting if you just want your horror spoon-fed to you by a nanny that only occasionally pries off your finger-nails with a coat-hook.

Alan Wake: A third-person shooter about the super-powers of writers. I love it, for some reason. The narration and story-line alone are worth getting it for, as well as the interesting little philosophical side-notes. Besides being quite beautiful, it’s also very engaging. A tad repetitive on the shooty-front, and you’ll see all the dark, spooky forests, but if you find yourself watching each and every television in the game, you’ll know it was worth it.

Paranormal: An interesting little haunting simulator. Not exactly terrifying or graphic, but if you can sink into it, there’s a break-neck descent into a personal hell just waiting for you to click Purchase.

The Typing of the Dead: Overkill: A game for those who need to improve their secretarial skills, but also laugh at exploding zombie-guts. Honestly, surprisingly, worth playing.

Sniper Elite Nazi Zombie Army: All the head-shots ever.

Deadly Premonition: A port of a cult-classic. Not exactly cutting-edge, but worth your time to consider.

Dark: Vampires the X-men and contextual button-pressing about sums it up.

F.E.A.R. Series: a bullet-time FPS that only occasionally flips out and injects acid directly into your character’s brain.

The Swapper: Surprisingly atmospheric puzzler.

S.P.A.Z.: Fun time-killer, but kills your time for no adequate reason.

Silent Hill: Homecoming: an American developer’s first attempt at a boxed-console Silent Hill game. Not bad, actually.

Deadrising 2: Kill all the zombies in all the ways.

BioShock: Get if it if you don’t have it. Played it? Good.

Home: a short, fun little adventure story about doing horrible things.

Resident Evil 5: Just… okay, you get to punch boulders into a volcano. But, the AI partner sucks. Don’t play solo.

Prototype Series: If you don’t have Saints Row 4 and you want to play as a super-hero, then this is the one for you.

Aliens: Colonial Marines: Don’t.

Okay, that’s an awful lot to take in, and we’ve only gouged the surface. Still, it should give you something to think about while you stare at your dwindling bank-balance.

Addendum: I was watching today’s Extra Credits video and they recommended I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. It’s a dark, grim, mature look at humanity and questions of our right to exist. I haven’t played it personally, but I bought it immediately on their recommendation, because I trust their judgement. Warning: It’s supposed to be very weird. Thankfully, it’s also super cheap.


Horrors in Their Mediums

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2013 by trivialpunk

Horror is not a plot-line, an aesthetic or a monster. Horror is an experience. In much the same way that a game is not an event displayed on a screen, but rather an experience had by a player, horror is a perceptual trajectory. You start out feeling, seeing and thinking one way and you end up in an entirely different mental location. Once, I had a discussion with a writing professor about a story I was working on. He said he didn’t appreciate being tricked into thinking or feeling a certain way by the format of the story. Really?

We don’t read fiction because we want the truth. We read it because we want to experience A truth. The best way to read a book or watch a magic show is with the understanding that you want to be fooled. If the production is good enough, you’ll forgive the minor annoyances and obvious realities in favour of the grand design. We know magicians aren’t psychics. We know writers can’t control what we feel. At least, we know that as long as we don’t allow them to. Much like hypnotism, the trick is in convincing someone that, yes, they want to –and can– go along with things. It places a lot of trust in the hands of the entertainer (magicians, writers, hypnotists), but that’s part of our covenant as audience and performer.

Last post, I rambled on about the creation of an environment for eliciting fear responses from players in role-playing games. One of the pre-requisites of that was knowing what kind of horror you were producing. I didn’t elaborate too much on that particular topic, because it’s almost as complex as a person is. The fears that plague our nightmares are grotesque manifestations of our hopes and dreams. They are us, taken to an unbearable extreme. Pain plays a harsh solo on our most delicate, life-preserving senses. Claustrophobia is the comfort of enclosure taken to an extreme we are extremely uncomfortable with; it crushes our personal space with its invasion. Psychopaths are the delightfully unpredictable nature of humanity twisted towards an unpleasant end… for someone.

Well, that’s one way to look at fear, anyways. It’s by no means the only way, and it’s not even technically correct, but it will give you a window into someone’s experience of fear. For us, for today, that’s good enough, because, today, we’re going to look into horror within its medium. No curtain held, let’s start with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.


This is an old one, and we’re going back this far for good reason. Over the course of your lifetime, television and movies have changed drastically. However, as you are part of that stream of televised evolution, you might not be wholly aware of how the small differences in production, society and design have changed the opportunities available to directors. Most of them are subtle changes, but two obvious ones that have occurred recently are high-definition and passable CG. You don’t have to look very far back to see some pretty terrible CG monsters, and I’m sure we can guess how that would ruin a good horror movie. However, high-def is an even fouler culprit. Now, we can see way too much of the shiny, bloody bastards, so they’re not as frightening. I’m sure you’re familiar with the notion that exposing the monster too much ruins its mystique and takes away from the element of fear (You know, unless the monster is cleverly designed to be seen, but we’ll get to that…). Not only do we see each and every imperfection on a monster’s body, but with high-def came 60 frames-per-second movies. 1080p, 60 fps movies –initially– look unusual to us, because for most of our lives, we watch the 30 fps movie standard. Ironically, things just move too realistically, too fluidly, in 1080p; they look fake, because we’re used to seeing things a different way. You can see how tweaks to the presenting medium can change an experience drastically. So then, why Caligari? Because, it was made before the introduction of colour.

Look at the walls in the scene, the way the lines on them flow towards a single corner. Notice how they twist your perception of the frame slightly. The entire movie is like this, giving everything a subtly-overtly off feeling. Without the need for canted-cameras, we get a sense of the obtuse. Even the make-up is stark, deliberately so. Shadows are deeper, eyes more sunken, wrinkles far sharper. These are techniques used to get around the limitations of the day, yes, but they are also marked advantages.  The set, colours and tone allow the movie to be what it is. If you tried to paint a set in a similar fashion today, in high-def with colour, it would look like the bathroom at a rave.

Even the silent movie aspect allows for a sense of pacing and emotional reaction that would be impossible now. You don’t have to fill your voice with the quaver of convincing fear; you just have to look terrified. The fewer aspects you have to worry about aligning, the less likely you are to run into a detail that pulls the audience out of the experience. Also, not having to compete with dialogue allows the sound-track to do its thing at whatever levels are required by the emotional content of the current scene. I’m not saying that these things don’t also present their own difficulties, I’m just saying that this particular movie would not be experienced or created the same in today’s popular mediums. Thus, we’ll never again experience the sheer contortion that suffuses The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in exactly the same way. (Incidentally, you can still find this film. I’d recommend giving it a watch!) But, let’s step even further back…


To the era of Lovecraft. No, not the 60’s, I mean the author, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft and Stephen King are big names in horror literature, but, as you’ll notice, they each have very different styles. That’s influenced by many different things: personal style, type of horror, experience, society… yeah, almost everything plays into an author’s work, but some things that are easy to parse out are the places and things they describe and how they describe them. Stephen King, often, discusses very banal things. He works to reveal the insane with the mundane through the use of frightening events within familiar locales. Not only that, he’s often quite explicit. This is because the world King is writing for, our world, is bathed in the garish light of revelation. Now, the best way to frighten someone is to show them how terrifying that world can be. Lovecraft, on the other hand, was writing for a very different world.

Lovecraft’s horror is slow-building and ominous. His descriptions of strange, alien places, in themselves, make his work off-putting, in a fashion similar to the way The cabinet of Dr. Caligari used its backgrounds. I was actually discussing this with a colleague the other day. Aside from mentioning that the directorial style of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was perfect for a Lovecraft movie, she also mentioned something I found singularly enlightening. One of the passages in Lovecraft’s work describes an extremely exotic locale, full of fantastic sights and peculiar peoples. When she read it, she said she stopped for a second and said, “Wait, Lovecraft, that’s just Hawaii. I can hop on a plane and go there right now.” And while I envy the notion of freely travelling, I agree that the world of Lovecraft was still full of incredibly foreign notions.

At the time, English society was still enthralled with the mystic Orientals, the exotic Amazonians and the mysterious Egyptians. Of course, today, we can zoom around these locales on Google Maps, and I attend classes with people from each of these locations. The mysticism has faded from the world’s far reaches in our post-modern age. The strangest, most alien place that impinges on our everyday existence is space. The threats to our well-being are quite well-known, though, so the best way to scare someone now is to simply show them their home in a way they’ve never seen it. And, that could be why Lovecraft is still horrendously, awesomely readable.

Aside from being very well written, Lovecraft shows us our world through the eyes of a profoundly different society. It makes the world itself alien. I once wrote a work that ended up being similar in tone and style to one of Lovecraft’s works. It was criticised for the style of its language because it didn’t feel right next to contemporary references. Yet, it’s that very alien nature that makes the story readable. This comes back, in part, to what I was saying earlier about allowing yourself to experience something. As a contemporary author, people are pulled out of an experience I create with any linguistic style other than my own, but we are ready to accept Lovecraft’s tone because of his time, so we do. This alien acceptance and separation from our own society only magnifies the content of his work: the Eldritch and the Otherworldly. Things that are so absolutely beyond the scope of human experience that experiencing them rends our minds, or, failing that, are so far outside of our grasp that we can’t even perceive them properly. They’re indescribable. Strange, otherworldly geometries. Experience-induced madness. These are roads well-travelled by Lovecraft. This content resonates with the style of his work, amplifying its effect, regardless of the era you’re reading in. Hmm… but, let’s jump from one literary generation to…


The wide-world of creepypastas! (If you like the picture, check out the watermark, it’s only fair). Creepypastas are horror stories for the age of the attention derelict. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I love creepypastas; they’re a great way to fit a horror experience into a short span of time. This might sound like a challenge (and it can be), but, again, it’s also an advantage waiting to be exploited. Remember how I said that seeing the monster often reduces its fear-effect? Well, that can apply to many fear-experiences. It’s like porn, most of the time, once you’ve seen the money-shot, the rest is just clean-up. Creepypastas are great for this in that they are almost all pay-off. They’ve got a short establishing section, then it’s right into the horror. Doing this properly can be a real challenge. I know, I’ve tried writing my share, and it’s difficult work.

Each and every section of a creepypasta is incredibly dense. Characterization, motives and monsters are squeezed down into an essential presentation. Yet, since it’s being read by someone ready to accept the world the story quickly presents, these essential elements don’t seem hastily executed on. They’re not being rushed; that’s the format. Even more advantageous, the quick-and-dirty characterization leaves lots of holes for people to fill with their own gooey ego-brains, making it much easier for readers to project themselves into the story. Convincing people to buy into a story, to think about it, and to search for meaning within it, is half the battle when crafting an experience. People reading short-form stories already know that they’re going to have to do just that, which is a huge bonus for any author. Enough foreplay, let’s skip over to games.


Aha! You thought I was going to talk about the graphical limitations of the Playstation 2 as it applied to Silent Hill 2! Well, no, I’m not going to mention that the feeling of the oppressive nightmare world was enhanced by the fog that was implemented, in part, in order to deal with the limited draw distance of that generation. Not this time! (DAMMIT! >.<) Silent Hill 2 basically has its own section in this blog. Actually, I might eventually give it its own section, but, until then, we’re going to talk briefly about Fatal Frame, the FPS game about a small, ghost-busting Japanese girl. And, by first-person-shooting, I mean with cameras. Capturing the soul and all that. Sort of. The gist of its inclusion here is that Fatal Frame’s graphical limitations, and the graphical state of the industry in general during the PS2 era, allowed for vague, half-seen shapes and half-loaded polygons to flit, uncriticised, across the screen.

What do I mean by allow? Well, we could certainly create games that looked like PS2-era games, but they wouldn’t be received in nearly the same way. If horror is an experience, then it’s readily affected by expectation. You’ve seen that theme running through this entire post. Like the greater frames-per-second of high-definition, we’re influenced by what we’re used to seeing. What we’re used to seeing becomes what we expect to see. We’re pattern-reading beasts, after all. So, while we can still play excellent games like SPC-Containment Breach, Slender and Penumbra, they feel much less immersive than they would have in the year 2000. Still, if you’ve played Outlast, I’m sure you’ll agree that fantastic visuals aren’t all there is to a game, either. Speaking of, I thought we’d round this out with a brief discussion of the high-definition future of digitaining horror.

We may not have the advantage of iffy hardware excusing shadowy figures, but we do have the advantage of visuals that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Look at Outlast. That game looked amazing, and it was only a little bit of writing and some more organic game-play away from being unforgettably awesome (Still good, though). Even so, the graphical fidelity allowed for some pretty chilling visuals (Horror set-pieces, if you will) and a fantastic initial level of immersion. We can now create horror experiences that are eminently visual in nature. Yes, many horror experiences are ruined by the monster-money-shot, but, sticking with the metaphor, what about bukkake? By which of course I mean, what about horror based around the form of the terror? High-definition visuals don’t have to ruin an experience; they can enable it, too. Look at Uzumaki, the horror story about the spiral. Look at… well, just look at spiders. Clowns. (Getting your finger cut off in Outlast). There are plenty of things that scare us because they’re frightening to look at. We just have to find a way to make players see them as horrific in all of their high-definition glory. Also, we have to remember that it’s not ALL about visuals. Hell, you could copy-paste the game-play of Slender or SPC-CB into a game with better visuals and get positive results.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but it takes that simple idea to shift your focus from hiding the monster to displaying it proudly. It’s the same sort of shift that happens when you go from Lovecraft to Stephen King. They’re both clearly writing horror stories, but it would be difficult to derive one from the other. We need to learn from the wisdom of the past, not try to emulate it. I’ve got faith in our devs; they’re up to the task. That’s not idle speculation, either. This era of video games has several other advantages besides high-definition that developers are taking advantage of.

For instance, our physics engines are on another level compared to where they were only a decade ago, and they’re being utilized by games other than Dark Souls to scare our pants off. Paranormal owes its organic haunting experiences, in part, to its physics engine. Thus, paranormal experiences, bloody telekinetic murders and horrific deaths are entirely possible in today’s industry. While it’s still difficult to translate a physics engine into a decent horror story, our current technology can be used to improve the elements of horror that surround the central narrative. Even so, no one ever said that every horror experience had to have a plot. Sometimes, it just has to have a monster.

That’s enough for a multi-player experience and,  relative to history, our multi-player infrastructure is second-to-none. Look at Damned. A game like Damned (on Steam) would never have been able to exist in the pre-broad-band era. Yeah, we had large StarCraft, Quake and Counter-Strike communities, but that’s because… well, that’s most of what we had, besides a few MMOs. We didn’t have gaming platforms designed specifically to bring people to game lobbies. Okay, it’s a little annoying that the next-gen consoles are pushing the open-world, on-line, multi-player aspects of their games so hard, especially for those of us that want a tight, coherent narrative, but that set-up is also enabling some pretty awesome experiences. We just have to design them and find them.

The gaming landscape is changing, so horror experiences have to change with it. That doesn’t mean we abandon the past, though. No, it’s the best source of information on how we can adapt our current understandings of horror to the Eldritch world of next-gen gaming. Some people may say that horror is dead, but they’re just pessimists (When has that stopped a shambling grotesquery before?). Maybe the type of horror we once knew is fading into the shadows, waiting for another day to rend our flesh with its dripping jaws, but horror itself will persist as long as we do. From my perspective, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the terror we can render in 1080p.


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.


Outlast At Last!

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2013 by trivialpunk

Can you believe we’re at 91 posts? Geeze, it feels like just yesterday I was writing surreal, pseudo-autobiographical posts about my birth. But, that was yonks ago, in another completely different incarnation of the Trivialverse. I know I said I was going to up-date on Saturdays, but then a gelatinous slime-monster crawled its way down my throat and set up camp for the weekend. Which is my classy way of telling you I was very sick.

Still am, actually, but if we’re getting a post at all this week, then I’m going to have to write it through the wavering haze of my retreating fever. Here’s this week’s video. This week’s story is another refurbished one. I’m sitting on three or four fully-fleshed-out narratives, but I’m waiting until I can think straight to write them. Otherwise, we might end up with a story about a haunted library where a mind-altering-flesh-eating beetle learns to love. Not that that doesn’t sound kind of kick-ass, but it would lose a lot of the character development and prose necessary to realize its full potential. Whatever that is. I’m not allowing any more refurbished stories in this challenge, though. It doesn’t reflect well on the spirit of the thing. I’m only allowing one this week because I couldn’t possibly write a new one properly. I’ll have to start working on a pool of new stories to act as buffer zones just in case this happens again.

Alright, so this week, I’m reviewing Outlast. It’s going to be difficult, though. I really, really liked this game when I booted it up, but then… well, I’ll see if I can explain it properly. But, let’s talk horror for a second. Lately, I’ve heard people say that there’s been a resurgence of the survival horror genre. That’s true, but I propose that we just call it the horror genre, because with variety comes the need to classify and survival horror is just a specific genre that existed when most others didn’t. Now, we’ve got quite a few different takes on horror, and I would hesitate to call most of them survival horror. Sure, the point of the games IS to survive, but, then, that’s true of most games. You wouldn’t call Mario “Survival Platforming,” or Mario Kart “Survival Racing…” but, I guess that depends who you talk to.

Outlast is a great example of what I’m talking about because, for all its pretensions to being a -survival- horror game, it’s kind of a shit one. You’re never really strapped for resources and there’s really no need to scour your surroundings for the items and clues you need to survive. You don’t have a health meter and there’s no combat to speak of. You’re never really in any danger of dying… that doesn’t mean you won’t die, but… okay, let’s just get to the review. However, to simplify things, I’m going to write this review in two sections: the good-with-bad and the bad-with-good. I’m going to start with the good and end with the bad, because that’s kind of what Outlast did to me. Without any further hesitation…


Outlast is a horror game with many good ideas that was developed and published (on Steam) by Red Barrels studio using Unreal Engine 3. Now, these guys aren’t newbies, many of them worked on games like Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Uncharted… you get the picture, and the experience shows. The game is fucking gorgeous. But, if you’re familiar with those particular games, then you’ll probably guess the caveat to this little advantage: aggressive linearity. Set-pieces are fine in games like Uncharted (mostly because I’m not really a fan), but feel bizarrely out of place in a horror game. We’ll get to that later, though. Since the surface is where the beauty lies, that’s what we’re going to scratch at.

The game takes place in a mental hospital that has gone… well… absolutely mental. The prisone… patients have escaped and are wreaking havoc throughout the facility. Nearly everyone has been killed and the few that remain are grotesque monstrosities, barely cognizant, with an unsettling tendency to jump out of shadows and half-closed doorways. This is where the game excels. The linearity of the game ensures that they always know where you’re going to be coming from, so they can set up some beautiful jump-scares. A couple times, I even dropped my mouse, which caused me to spin 360 degrees and run right back into the arms of the terror of the minute.

More than that though, since corpse-strewn hide-aways are kind of the bread and butter of horror games, it’s a nice change of pace that the corpses are able to talk at us. And jump… at us.

The HUD is pretty simple. There isn’t a lot to keep track of in this game. Just your battery life and your total number of batteries. And a little zoom bar. Well, that’s when you have your camera out. Which, quite honestly, should be most of the game, since you only record notes to yourself when the camera’s up, because if it didn’t happen on camera, it doesn’t matter, right Letsplayers? Right, Instagammers? Right… modern society? Oooh, social commentary.

But seriously, revelation lives in record. There were institutions that abused and mistreated their patients to a disgusting degree. That might be what they were playing at.

The other things the camera does are give you a zoom and serve as your flashlight. The inexplicably amazing night-vision function bathes the area in a film of green that should be familiar to anyone that’s consumed one of the 8999 Paranormal Activity movies that have come out recently. It’s a nice touch and menacing at times, but it sort of washes everything out. I mean, the colours and textures are gorgeous, so why would we want to ruin it by bathing the whole thing in mint? The other problem with this is that it lets you see a little too well. Half-heard gibbers in the dark and the scraping of ethereal chains on cold, hard cement are kind of muted by the fact that I can turn around and see the poor, emaciated little dude that’s causing that ruckus curled up on the floor of his cell.

Peering into the shadows, guessing at the location of the lumbering behemoth that’s stalking you, feeling your way through the dark… these are classic elements of horror. Of course, we need to be able to see for the frantic sprints down darkened hallways that the game loves to throw at you. So, maybe it’s a fair trade-off. It would certainly be a different game without it.

OH! We can’t forget the control scheme. I mentioned this a couple posts ago, but I love the default control scheme in this game. It’s simply elegant and looks like it was actually designed with gamers in mind. By keeping things simple, they’re trying to remove as many obstacles between you and the experience as possible, and they aaaaaalmost succeed, but we’re almost to THAT part of the review.

Two things that bear mentioning before we start muck-raking are the animations/perspective and the creature personalities. The first-person perspective is considerably enlivened by some very well-done body animations. If you look down, you can actually see your feet moving. When you peek around a corner, your hand rests on the wall to steady you. When you’re sprawled under a bed, shaking with fear and hyper-ventilation, you can see your hands splayed out on the floor beside you. Reloading the batteries into your camera. Jumping. Crawling. All of these animations are done incredibly well. The animators worked very hard to ensure that the visuals made sense. They’re some of the best first-person animations I’ve ever seen.

Not only that, but when you perform an action, your perspective shifts to accommodate the movement. The game’s great at using these changes in angles AND restrictions of angles in conjunction with their sound-effects to conjure terrible creatures from the reaches of the natural phantasmagorial plane that exists in your imagination, even if it doesn’t pay it off very well. Oh look, another patient. Better hide under a bed! The wonder… the terror… just starts to wear off.

But, hold on, there’s still more good to behold! I mentioned earlier that the patients were a nice touch, but the enemies are even better. A lot of work has gone into ensuring that you get to know them pretty well. The murderous-patient cries are pretty entertaining and serve to flesh out their insanity pretty well. Repeated calls of, “This is the experiment!” and “Death and Taxes!” from the pursuing psychopaths lent an air of surreal jollity to the piss-dribbling proceedings. There’s even quite a bit of build-up for a few of them. There’s a pair of naked dudes that look like someone took a mech-suit and made it out of skin that very kindly inform you that they’re going to murder you so good. One of the former guards is particularly memorable, because he looks like… well, he looks like a giant, evil, white, naked Fat Albert. But, by far my favourite has to be Doctor Trager.


He’s not only eminently likeable, but he’s also bat-shit insane. He sort of represents the entire Asylum. You know they can’t help it. Despite their best efforts, they’re being driven to madness and death by something inexplicably horrible. But, it’s not like they have to be uncivilized about it. He makes you WANT to sympathize with him. And, ultimately, he might represent the greatest lesson that romps through metaphorical Asylums like these can teach us: atrocity is not necessarily a thing committed out of spite or hatred. Sometimes, all it takes to become a monster beyond your most fiendish imaginings is to accept protocol and slowly slip into complicity. You may think you’re doing right by someone. You may think you’re doing what’s best, but from another angle, from a retrospective, you could be one of history’s greatest monsters. There’s very real danger in rationalizing your position, in accepting the status-quo just because others are and you’re taught that it’s right, and this is it.

We’ve heard that all before, but it’s worth remembering, because it’s easy to forget. We compromise ourselves into misfortune time and again, but that’s part of what it means to be human. Then again, so does dragging ourselves out of it. Interesting side-note, one of the doctors mentioned in the game, Doctor Wernicke, was actually a famous physician/psychiatrist, but he wasn’t a mad necromantic doctor. Sorry. He’s best known for Wernicke’s aphasia, the inability to comprehend words due to damage to “Wernicke’s Area” in the brain, which is just over the medial temporal lobe. But he’s also famous for Wernicke’s Encephalopathy, a disorder whose symptoms include: ocular disturbances, intense apathy, unsteady gait and changes in mental state, resulting in a waning awareness of one’s surroundings. Like most mental conditions, it’s not absolute and in his day, as in ours, diagnosis was more of a science-art than a check-list, but the guys in the room near the beginning that are watching nothing on T.V. (you’ll know it when you get to it), are a grotesque, exaggerated representation of the disorder.

Okay, time to get down to it. Remember how I said that there’s a great build-up for some of the enemies, a pair of naked, angry dudes, in particular? Well, the game doesn’t pay off near enough of their taunting introduction for me to care. I mean, they say that they’re impatient, that they want to tear me limb from limb RIGHT NOW, so where the hell did they go? Did they stop for froyo on the way and get distracted by a trinket shop?

But, that’s nit-picking, the real problems with the game are inherent in its design. Like I said before, the Doctor Trager-strapped-to-a-wheel-chair bit (you’ll know it when you see it) kind of summed up the whole game for me. It was clearly twisted and horrific, but it wasn’t frightening because it was totally scripted and out of my hands. I mean, if the game had ended there, that would have been fantastically ominous, but I knew it would keep going. I was, after all, being shuffled along. So, the threat was completely extrinsic to my ability to combat it. A player without agency is just a person watching a movie. Still, it’s a really cool sequence, but it didn’t play to the strengths of the medium of engagement. However, if, by this point, you are still engaged with the horror, I think you’ll find that the feeling of helplessness could be incredibly effective. The threat of violence here is both overt and unpredictable, which elevates this portion above the bits with guys with sticks. It’s not frantic, which is a nice bit of juxtaposition. It helps that Trager brims with more personality than a man with twice his skin coverage!

But, was I engaged? Was I immersed? We often talk about immersion and engagement like they’re two different things. And, they are. BUT, they’re inextricably linked. If you are engaged by a game, then you’ll have an easier time settling into its atmosphere. I mean, look at Silent Hill. It looks like crumbly bum-biscuits by today’s standards, but when I sit down to play it, it springs back to life. And I don’t think I have to explain how a good atmosphere can help engage you. Suffice it to say that if you are settled into an environment, then you’ll invest in the things that happen within it. Earlier, I said that the game looked beautiful, and I mentioned their skilful use of camera angles and sound effects, so you know the atmosphere is fine… for the most part.

Part of the problem is that the environments get a little too repetitive. I mean, there’s even a bloody sewer level. It goes from repetitive Asylum, to repetitive prison, to repetitive sewer, to repetitive… you get the idea. The environments look nice, but the objects within them are repeated ad nauseam. Despite the extremely linear nature of the game, I even found myself getting lost a few times, backtracking into doors I’d already been in because one room full of beds looks the same as another. There is an effort to introduce some variety, but that kind of falls to pieces when you realize that all the lockers in all parts of the place look exactly the same. This sort of makes sense, since it’s all one big compound, but they’re in samey-video-gamey spawn points. Usually, they’re right beside an objective, because once you turn that knob, the monster in the halls will come find you. So, you’d better get inside that locker!

Maybe I should explain. The stealth mechanic in this game is kind of weak. It’s hard to tell when you are and are not visible. So, to supplement this, they introduced a hiding mechanic. When a monster is chasing you, you run out of its line of sight and dive into a locker or under a bed. Then, it comes looking for you. This is pretty effective in the beginning. There’s a lot of standing, frozen in terror, as the monster of the minute sniffs around outside of your hiding place, wondering why he can’t smell that strange piddling sensation in your pants or hear your character’s heavy breathing. Or the beeping of your camera. Or why it doesn’t just check BOTH lockers. But, seriously, this happens so often that it starts to lose its flavour and you start wishing it would hurry the hell up so you can get back to your fetch quest. And that’s the thing, in a horror game, you should never ever get to the point where you’re thinking, “Geeze, I wish it would hurry up and find me or leave so I can get back to this fetch-quest.” EVER. That’s the thing, even if the monster finds you and pulls you out of your hiding spot, it doesn’t kill you right away. So, you can just get up and run away again. Most of the time.

Occasionally, a monster will have a machete or something, and then it just one-shots you and you get warped back to the last check-point. But, the check-points are kind of sparse. Nothing kills horror like getting caught in a corner and knowing you’ll have to warp back and try an execution challenge again. Repetition kills engagement.

Repetition kills engagement.

Anyways, remember earlier when I mentioned the first-person animations and the simplified HUD? Well, here’s how they screwed that up. When you mouse-over a door that’s openable, hint-text pops up to remind you how to open it. However, if the door is locked, then there’s no text. It feels like they were going with a Silent Hill/RE feel here with all the locked doors, like most horror games at this point, but if I don’t have to test a door, it doesn’t matter. It’s just scenery. All the immersive animations in the world won’t change that if I never have to use them. That’s the problem right there. The hint text and constant reminders of my character’s body animations that I don’t control (counter-intuitively enough) just keep reminding me: you are playing a game. A player that knows they’re playing a game will play like a gamer. No sound effects will fix that. Perhaps, if I was really immersed, the animations would have an elevating effect, but between the weird inmate behaviour, the obvious jump-scare locations and the constant hint-text, it was just another reminder that I was playing something. It’s like the uncanny valley: it’s an all or nothing proposition. If I don’t feel that it’s my vision moving along, then I’m not going to become fully engaged with the actions. That’s why camera-bobbing doesn’t work very well, despite being a neat idea. Your experience of running is smooth. Your visual system corrects for the motions in your perception and your memory. We have an incredibly intricate predictive-corrective system that lines up our voluntary movements with our visual system. Your focal point doesn’t bob, cameras do. The perception is the important part, not the reality.

Being immersed… no, I suppose, engaging the portion of your imagination that produces terror and the emotion of fear, even momentarily, can plunge your world into a coating of venomous ichor from which there is no escape… until you turn the lights on. I close the light on the bottom floor of my house every night before walking up to my room. It’s not frightening or anything; I know this place like the front of my keyboard. But, every once in a while, just before I turn out the lights, I’ll wonder what could hide in the darkness. What Eldritch, twisted, tainted, tortured terror teeters tremulously to tear me trembling from its trap. In those moments, my world is a night-scape of perplexing, unknowable horrors. It’s all very vague, but the feeling is there for a minute. In my middle-class-ass hallway. In the bloody suburbs. If that mind-scape can work there, then imagine what it could do in a horror game. It’s a tricky thing to invoke, but it’s the essence of horror. That’s why immersion and originality are your primary concerns when crafting a horror game. Spark your player’s imagination, and they’ll consume themselves in the fires of their own fear.

It’s the nexus point where immersion meets engagement. Granted, it’s a difficult thing to maintain, but well worth the effort. It’s what legends are made of.

So, let’s hit up engagement and wrap up. Not being able to fight is usually seen as a point in the game’s favour, but it’s also a negative. Not being able to defend yourself, hiding in spots that will only hide you at chance value and won’t often kill you when you’re discovered, and not being able to plan a route when you’re running away seem like they should be frightening. And, for a while, they kind of are. But, being helpless, but constantly escaping by no skill of my own, got old after a while. Plunging headlong into the darkness of the sewers should be scary, but I know there’s nothing I can do if I’m caught, so I don’t feel the need to preserve myself. It works for Amnesia, because you die when you’re caught and you can stealth in the shadows to avoid detection. But, Outlast’s stealth mechanic is barely functional. Monsters can spot you across whole rooms in the dark. It’s replacement, the hiding mechanic, didn’t leave me with much of a sense of agency. So, naturally, I didn’t feel invested or defensive. Just… kind of impatient for the game to spew out its story guts and wrap up. Even a life-bar wouldn’t be completely ridiculous. Just anything to make me feel like my mistakes and my decisions mattered in the long run. Like I can prepare. Most importantly, like I can fail. I know I CAN, but when it comes to horror, the FEELING is more important than the reality. When my only option is “run,” I just feel like I’m being herded. Which should be scary, but only really reminds me of playing Gears of War.

What’s the end-result? Well, I know when I’m going to be in trouble and when I’m going to be okay (Hint: it’s most of the time). The game telegraphs itself really well. If I’m in a dark, restricted corridor with no hiding places, then I’m going to be fine, because I don’t have any other option BUT to be fine. Otherwise, the game couldn’t continue. It’s like when you run into chest-high walls in Mass Effect. There just MIGHT be an ambush in the works up ahead. I guess it comes down to a clash of design principles. The game’s mechanics suit a linear, story-based game, but the type of horror it tries to evoke needs a more organic set-up. Spooky sounds in the dark are just tiresome when there’s not a damn thing I can do about them. And, so, conversely, they can do to me.

 A few other points, the other cameras lying around are a nice touch, but I think it’s a huge wasted opportunity that we can’t pop one of our batteries into them and view a few ominous story-pictures. It would give us another use for the batteries we get, and set up a bit of tension around the decision to use one or not. The banging behind doors that lead to empty rooms is ominous… at first. But, again, where are the consequences? And, I wish the monsters would stop disappearing after I escape their areas. Let me see you rattle your chains!! SCARE ME WITH YOUR IRE!!! These two last points make the threats feel unreal, which would be great in a psychological horror, but are out of place next to the visceral threat of inmatey death.

Let’s get this wrapped. The bits with Trager are probably the best parts of the game. Organically searching the environment while a crazy doctor chases you with an enormous pair of scissors is not only shockingly reminiscent of Clocktower, but it’s also the kind of horror this game was crying out for. Our character is trapped and has to escape, so he’s got to move forward into the terrible darkness regardless of what he wants. We, on the other hand, are the sociopathic hand guiding his every move, unfettered by the consequences of our actions and completely aware that we have to be able to move forward, because it’s a game. And we’ll be fine, because the game is designed to allow us to move forward. The Trager Trap (as I’m now going to refer to it from now on), requires that we, as players, move into the area inhabited by the monster and find a way to escape. Now, you may say that’s nothing new to the game, in fact, it’s basically the same set-up as all the other fetch-quests, but the open-ended nature of the environment, the fact that the doctor constantly talks to us and a lack of knowledge of where the key is are the elements the other areas were missing. It gives us decisions to dread. The tension of having to explore, while being hunted by a seemingly intelligent being, in an organic (albeit small) environment, will always beat out following the signs to a release valve, hiding, waiting for the monster to go away, turning said valve and then repeating the sequence almost exactly. Trager is a monster I escaped that not only didn’t disappear, but faded into the background of the area he knew I’d have to be in. It’s a much different mind-set, even if the situation is exactly the same. Again, what you feel in a horror game will always be more important than what actually happened.

Oh, right, I suppose I should comment on the ending while we’re on Trager. No good horror game should be all gore, all the time. Juxtaposition (and our arousal curve) is a powerful ally in any horror medium. It’s why so many horror movies cut to sex or comedy. They’re arousing experiences that are qualitatively different. Then, they let us settle down before slashing again. It’s why Silent Hill’s two worlds are doubly effective. It’s why Resident Evil and Amnesia have safe zones.  These repeated moments punctuate our memory. Different forms of engagement are good, because it stops the entire experience from becoming a dull sludge. Outlast doesn’t have much besides its standard hidey-lookey-runny game-play. There are a few moments, but because they’re so few and far between, they really stand out. The bit in the thunderstorm. The bit with the fire. The bit with the preacher. The bit with Trager. These are the things I remember most clearly.

However, nothing is more important than the ending of your game. It’s the point by which all others will be defined. If it breaks from the general feel of the game, that can be even better. BUT… BUUUUUT…. Outlast’s ending takes a sharp turn at pseudo-science-and-sci-fi and swerves completely off the road, into a burning ditch of melting tires. The last section of the game feels like one big non-sequitur, like stepping out of Clocktower and into Half-Life. I was disappoint. Severely disappoint. You don’t have to explain everything that happens. Mystery is part of what can make horror engaging. You don’t work for Lucas Film; you don’t have to ruin everything by explaining it. So, subtlety moving forward, hmm? Know when to end a game.

It’s not all that bad. The water effects suck, but the particle effects and rain are awesome. The game’s animations are consistent and change with your character’s condition. The lens crack effect is fantastic. Like I said, it looks great. For some, that could be enough. In fact, I’d still recommend it to lots of people, despite all the things I’ve said here. It’s a bit like a movie, but if you like set-pieces and walking through creepy environments, then you will enjoy this game. If they’ve got the cash sitting around, then horror fans should experience it. For all its faults, it’s funny, occasionally tense, visually disturbing and, above all, thought-provoking. Even if those thoughts are just perturbing self-reflections on why you’re not as frightened as you think you should be of the man with the horrendous pair of scissors. I’m still amazed by how well one adjusts to living without a few fingers.

Otherwise, wait for The Evil Within.

I’m giving Outlast A Sale on Your Least Favourite Kind Of Your Favourite Brand Of Yogurt out of Getting Caught In The Rain, But It’s Only For Five Minutes


Rat-in-a-Maze: The Merits of Organic Horror

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2013 by trivialpunk

What were we talking about? Oh right, organic horror.

No, I don’t mean the giant plant monsters from Resident Evil, Bulletstorm, or Little Shop of Horrors. I mean organic mechanics within a horror game. A little while ago, I did a small series on Silent Hill, comparing Cry of Fear to my old favourite title and contrasting their approaches to monster mechanics. After that, I sat back and really thought about why I thought Silent Hill’s approach was superior. The answer that jumped back at me was that it was more “organic.” The creatures move around on their own accord, only reacting to you when you come into range. Now, I realize they’re loaded as you approach the area, but the user experience is what’s important for this discussion, not the technology behind it.

Cry of Fear’s creatures spawn at specific points, so you always know when they’re going to jump out at you. What’s more, and this is important, they’re nowhere else the rest of the time. You’re assured of safety as long as you stay in specific spots. There’s no stand-still tension. You could argue that there are safe rooms in Silent Hill, and there are, but you have to get to them. Take down an enemy in Cry of Fear, even if you know one spawns just down the hallway, and you’re safe enough to take a breather.

These two have had their moments, so let’s move on to another couple of horror games that I love: SCP Containment Breach and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Let’s start with Amnesia, because it’s one more removed from Cry of Fear. In Amnesia, the monsters often come to you, or you have to go to them. Now, there’s a slight but knowable difference between this and monsters spawning: how much you’re in control. If you’re crouching in a corner in one of Amnesia’s dark basements, a monster can very easily path by you. And you have to wait, breath caught, for it to pass before you can do anything. In that instant, you become prey: helpless, frightened… alone.

Most of us have played hide-and-seek, and this approach plays on the excitement of evasion. We’re all set up to understand that experience. It’s visceral. Worst of all, we’re completely out of our element in the dark. Light makes things worse and the sanity meter adds a timer to our game of hide-and-go-shriek (Obvious pun…. aaaand it’s GOOOOOOOD!) You can’t look at the monster, but you have to know where it is. It’s a combination of being prey and not seeing the monsters; it’s powerful. I could talk about Amnesia all day, but there’s one more thing we need to discuss first: SPC: Containment Breach.

If you read my love-letter to SCP: Containment Breach, then you’ll know all about it. You’re in a facility full of unknowable horrors. Said horrors escape. You’ve got to escape. Your primary, but by no means only, antagonist on this journey is SCP 173, this little guy:


When you’re looking at him, he can’t move. However, when you look away, or blink, he barrels towards you and, well, kills you. The game implements a blink meter that forces you, over time, to blink. It’s almost the opposite approach to Amnesia’s. You’ve got to have your eyes locked on him, and he’s an inexorable wall of death. That can be dreadful, even terrifying, but the truly brilliant part is its omnipresence. You have no idea where SCP 173 is in the facility. It kind of wanders around and kills things. However, you know he’s somewhere, and, when you run into him, you’d better have your eyes on him.

So, you’re tense, constantly on the look-out. You are a rat in a cage. A helpless individual being hunted by a psychotic killer. It’s as close as you’ll get to Jason Voorhees without a machete wound. Actually, come to think of it, Jason moves an awful lot like SCP 173. As long as you’ve got your eyes on him, he’s a calculable force. However, take your eyes off him, and he can show up anywhere. Mike Meyers does the same thing. Horror movie icons in general, actually. Well, now it’s a game mechanic.

The combination of not knowing where SCP 173 is and having to know exactly where it is produces just the right blend of terror for me. Slender uses much the same approach. Terrified, rat-in-a-maze running from the unbridled hand of death is an experience that must be had. Being randomly plucked beyond the vale of tears is horrifying. It would not be the same if SCP 173 showed up at readily memorize-able spawn-points, especially not when you do multiple play-throughs.

Once you realize that you are in control of the where and when of monster spawns, the game loses a lot of its teeth. Now, I’m not saying any one of these approaches is superior. They can each be used to create a different kind of horror, but they must be implemented with a considered hand. Survival horror is pure gaming psychology. Player experience is paramount. SCP: Containment Breach may look like it’s held together by clay and twine, but it has a solid experience at its core. One that keeps me coming back for more, even though I know the ins and outs of the game.

It’s organic. It’s memorable. It’s terrifying.

Oh, yeah, and it’s free.

So, those are some examples of organic horror. I know there are more, but I like to keep the number of games I refer to to a minimum. That way, we can use a minimum of knowledge to have a maximum of conversations. Oh yeah, Cry of Fear is also free. You can get it through Steam. It’s really quite a decent story. I wouldn’t talk about it so much if it wasn’t worth checking out. Cheers!