Archive for Survival Horror

Horror, Asymmetrical Dementia and The Prisoner’s Dilemma (Soap Not Included)

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello ladies and gentles! Tonight, on a very special episode of Trivial Punk, we’re going to highlight an article that I think is hilarious to a certain point. It’s about the kind of personalities that can manifest when we’re thrown to the wolves. It’s a bit of a hard line to take, because we’ve all been “that guy” at one time or another. Don’t kid yourselves, girls can be “that guys,” too. Guy is hardly a gendered term any more. Where was I? Oh right, we’re only going to be spotlighting one blog a post until mid-terms and final papers are over, so I can maintain some vestige of conscious thought.

So, what’s in the news? Oh, right, there’s the whole Aliens: Colonial Marines thing. I know a lot of people beat on this game, and with good cause, but it’s a sign that gaming is still moving on up, as it were. It has been named as the next official step in the Aliens continuity, so that must mean something. Unfortunately, the small nation of developers that this game had seem to have been breathing in paint fumes during its creation. Oh well. Let’s hope that the next time a popular movie franchise decides to throw its IP to the critical gaming community, it doesn’t turn out so shit.

Moving on from that piece of gaming history, let’s move on to another of my favourite slow-moving targets fashioned from potatoes without ham-strings: Dead Space 3. Now, I know I’ve said everything that I needed to say about the game itself, but there’s still the multi-player component to spray down with Lysol. Up front, I’m going to say that I think it was an interesting idea. Adding a little multi-player to a horror experience may seem like a terrible idea on the surface, and the way they implemented it, it was, but there’s a flash of something shiny underneath. So, let’s start up our drills and dig until we hit diamond.

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Some might say, and indeed I have, that adding another player to a horror experience eliminates the feeling of soul-crushing aloneness that leaves one feeling over-whelmed and out-matched against impossible, alien odds. That’s true. It’s also hard to maintain an atmosphere when you can do things like throw a limb into a loosely re-assembled pile of body parts and get the “First Aid” achievement. This happened to me playing two-player Monkey-swap on Dead Space 2 with a room-mate. We laughed for about an hour of game play. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have laughed longer than a minute, tops. However, used correctly, another player can add something that no horror game can hope to match on its own: an unpredictable element. Sure, some games can be surprising, but nothing in the world will make you feel more alone than knowing that the only other sane being in the room may turn around to try and kill you at any point. Nothing is more difficult to cope with than another intelligence in indirect competition with you. It can be hard to craft a horror game, a primarily experience-based, narrative-driven genre, that is viable in both multi-player and single-player modes. I think Dead Space 3 should get props for trying to pull together two entirely different campaign paths into a unified experience. Here, they might have spread themselves too thin, but they also took a somewhat flawed approach.

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They introduced a mechanic called asymmetrical dementia. It basically means that your partner doesn’t see all of the same things that you do. This means that, to you, they may start behaving very strangely at times, without explanation. This is cute, and it’s a nice way to squeeze another player into the game while trying to maintain an air of suspicion, especially considering the largely illusory characters that made up the cast of the previous two titles. However, I have two problems with this approach. The first is the most obvious one. We know that asymmetrical dementia is a part of the game, so there’s really no reason to be weirded out by our partner’s unusual behaviors. If they do something strange, then it’s pretty easy to chalk it up to the mechanic. The second is related, but slightly different. There’s no reason to fear your partner’s behavior. There’s no distrust. In order to make a set-up like this effective, you need to combine unusual behavior with an untrustworthy situation or demeanour. I’m sure that the people who pull phishing schemes are suspicious, but there’s no reason for me to be afraid of them until I start making some rather unwise decisions concerning my chequeing account. Essentially, there’s no threat, and, for a horror game, that’s a pretty big problem. You need to give partners a reason to distrust each other, but, also, a need to cooperate. Given that DS3 has you working together against an overwhelming enemy while you’re both slipping slowly into hallucinogenic madness, it’s easy to see how the opportunity was well developed, if unexploited. So, how do we get people to work together to cut their own throats?

Let’s begin by looking at some other examples of hybrid-cooperation games that didn’t pan out. Call of Juarez: The Cartel included a sort of levelling system that relied on each player completing secret objectives while the others weren’t looking. It meant that your allies would be sneaking around on you to get upgrades to… assist you. Yeah, that’s where the whole thing sort of breaks down. Why wouldn’t you do your best to help your partner get that BFG? So, the problem was that there was really no level of competition. Sure, you were supposed to play within the rules of the game, but players will always meta-game, especially in cooperative games. So, as developers, we have to design games that take advantage of that tendency and forces them to compete head-to-head in the for-realsies world, while still wanting to cooperate. That’s how we fuck with heads.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors

Speaking of, have you played Zombies Ate My Neighbours? It’s a great example of a game that requires cooperation but still stokes competition. At the end of each level, a score is displayed that shows how well each player did that scenario. Pick-ups are limited and enemy weaknesses varied, so items are always at a premium. Losing your lives, obviously, resets you with the starting gun, so you want to make sure that you get a share of all the loot in case your partner dies. In multi-player mode, the fast-paced, quick-decision type of game-play leaves you cooperating and competing at the same time. It’s a perfect example of the type of formula you need to ensure that players will work together, but also, occasionally, turn on each other, or vice versa.

That leads me nicely to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Illustrated here…

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma is classic game theory. Not for developing video games, but the kind that has been involved in everything from espionage to chess games. Basically, you and your partner in crime have been captured by the police and are both being interrogated in separate rooms. The time-frames and exact penalties vary a bit, but the basics of it are that there are four situations:

If you rat on your partner and they stay quiet: you go free and they get a big penalty. Let’s say, like the illustration, it’s 20 years in prison.

If your partner rats on you and you stay quiet: they go free and you get 20 years.

If both of you rat: You both get 5 years.

If both of you remain silent: You both get 1 year.

Essentially, by the numbers, it’s always better for you to rat, because you get an okay result no matter what your partner does. However, it’s optimal if both of you to stay quiet. BUT, you can’t possibly know if your partner will, and it’s devastating to you if you do and they don’t. So, you’re left to ponder your partner’s motives and your own decision. This is what it means to set two people who are better off working together against each other. Of course, we can’t just copy-paste that set-up, or the ZAMN one, into Dead Space 3, especially since everything uses AMMO-brand ammo, but we can do something similar…

Given that we’re giving each player slightly different information, and given the tendency for players to meta-game, then we just need to set up a few more caveats. First, we ensure that they are competing for something. It could be something as simple as weapon up-grades, but it could be plot-points, if we really want to make them hate each other. For instance, if both players perform a certain action, then they get a full ending, but if one does something else, then the other player is killed, while they get a personalized character ending. Then, we ensure that they can’t just save-scum that part, a’la The Cave. Even more dastardly, you could include some form of friendly-fire, while making life imperative, but with the same sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma-like result. If your partner kills you, then… etc. You have to make sure that one partner can’t just instantly murder the other, so there’s a point to staying on edge to give you that extra reaction time. The point is to get the players to distrust each other through the mechanics, while still making the play rewarding and challenging. If you make the co-op mode difficult enough, then they won’t want to hold their partners back. However, if you make the rewards tantalizing enough, then your players will spend the majority of the levels looking over their shoulders for big, soft targets in which they could, theoretically, plant speeding projectiles that blossom into blood-fountains.

This is just one way of thinking about it, but it makes a lot of sense considering the asymmetrical dementia approach. Under a regime of oppression and suspicion, unusual behavior becomes the most terrifying kind. It would really help to mechanically represent the distrust a psychopath might have for another murderous psychopath as they try to, carefully, navigate the murky waters of cutting each other out of their straight-jackets with only a single knife, literally, between them. If we’re going to begin introducing co-op into horror games, then this is exactly the kind of thing we’re going to have to master.

There are as many different ways to breed distrust as there are wants in the dreams of the most avaricious among us, so I’m sure I’ll end up discussing a few more in the time to come. If you have any ideas, then feel free to post them in the comments. I’m going to get back to stitching together what brief strings of sane thought I can into something resembling a cogent essay. See you on the other side!

SCP – Containment Breach: Survival Horrgasm

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

I haven’t written anything with this little rest under my belt in a long while. Thankfully, I don’t have to be anywhere for a few hours, so I’ll get a power-nap in. So, without further ado, let’s get to it! Today’s first article I’m putting under the spotlight is the beginning of a series that I think could prove quite interesting. It’s a look at different MMOs, an important topic to discuss given the amount of time that a player has to sink into one to really get a feel for the game. The second article comes from the hilariously named “The Second Breakfast.” I can’t help it; I love LOTR.

I know this blog isn’t the “Hate on EA and Dead Space Show,” but I think they’ve started deliberately trying to provoke me. I see what they were going for here, I really do. EA realizes that the micro-transaction model is here to stay, as well as a great way to make money. It might be a good way to keep games costs down (something I haven’t seen yet), but it has no place in survival horror. Although, given the seeming permanency of the financial model, I’m starting to wonder if that’s a bad thing. We’ll get back to that in a second, but first, I just want you to look at the quote, because it is a quote. If you think about it for a second, you’ll see the problem with it. If you’ve only ever played games on your smart-phone, then how could you be a survival horror fan? I’ll give you action games, because they’ve already started to incorporate MT systems into on-line play. That’s fine, but I’m not an action-game writer. I can assure you, with some authority, that there are no good survival horror games coming out of the App store. You can count the Slenderman port all you want, but the original is more immersive, if only because it’s not on a tiny touch-screen.

I tend to think of survival horror as an art-form; at its core, it’s about evoking something in your player. Throwing something as needlessly materialistic and fourth-wall-breaking as a MT system into a survival horror game is ludicrous. I know I said Dead Space 3 wasn’t going to be a survival horror game, but, please, EA, stop trying to defend your decisions. That or make better ones. Don’t, whatever you do, don’t call what you’ve been doing survival horror.  I’ll give Dead Space 1 a nod, because that shit was great. It got a bit dodgy towards the end, but was solid at its core. Dead Space 2 gave me more laughs than a barrel of monkeys in fedoras, and the Dead Space 3 demo was full of more cheap attempted scares than that same barrel of monkeys covered in marinara sauce, but far less disturbing. We’re not here to talk about Dead Space, though.

I only mentioned it because I like to try to stay topical (HA!) and it highlights an important point. I mentioned that survival horror, as a genre, isn’t really set up to incorporate micro-transactions directly into game play (until someone gets really clever), so the prevalence of the system might make survival horror games harder to come by than they already are. Of course, there are mounds to be made in DLC, but that’ll remain to be seen. Then, there’s the independents section of the market. Nowadays, when I want horror, I go to the internet. Things like creepypastas and Slender are making up for a lot of the content that the larger developers aren’t creating. I was listening to the very first podcast from Counter-Attack, and I realized that I was sitting on a hidden wealth of horror that I was selfishly keeping to myself. This summer, I sat down and wrote a horror game RPG system from scratch. During the process of its creation, I did a lot of research. During that research, I was fortunate enough to be  made privy to hidden gems like Uzumaki and The SCP Foundation.

Uzumaki is great, and I encourage you to read through the archives of the SCP Foundation, but we’re here to talk about games! Mostly. Much the way Slenderman gave rise to the Slender game (Did you know they’re working on a sequel?), the tales of the SCP Foundation gave rise to its own game; that, you can download here. Coincidentally enough, it’s free and the topic of today’s discussion. So, let’s get on our Reviewing pants and crack this baby open (not literally, please). If you’ve got some kind of Reading wear, then feel free to mix and match, but try not to clash.

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SCP is an excellent game, but its graphical fidelity reflects its independent origins. The characters are stocky and the sound-effects are pretty terrible. However, what its game designers lacked in financial power, they made up for in knowing how to put together a survival horror game. It is in the beta phase, so it has problems. More than once, I loaded through the floor. The levels are procedurally  generated ( an interesting addition to the horror genre that deserves its own article) and the save system is a bit creaky. BUT, if you can get past these problems, then I think you’ll see the potential this game has.

The story focuses on the daily activities of the SCP (Secure. Contain. Protect.) Foundation. During a routine test on one of the SCPs, a malfunction occurs that forces open the door. Depending on how far you get in the game, this seems like either an overly convenient plot twist or something far more sinister. As a result, the SCP you’re investigating breaks loose and starts rampaging through the building. Your goal is to survive long enough to escape… you probably won’t.

The look of the game is dark and simple. Obviously, there were graphical limitations that had to be considered, but it sort of gives the impression of being a rat in an underground maze. Off-putting at best. The music is slow and unnerving, with plenty of clash for the occasional hairier moments. The sound effects really help bring the world to life. While they do sound a bit tinny, the things going on around you add layers of depth and atmosphere to the environment. One time, I heard a guard commit suicide in the washroom. Disturbing. The procedurally generated nature of the game really helps here. It means that, despite having played it a few times already, I’m never really ready for the ambience. It’s a nice touch.

Let’s look at the interface before we shift over to the alpha antagonist. It takes place from a  first-person view. The controls are the standard WASD affair, with a menu controlled by the tab key. Escape brings up the Save and Quit screen, and left-shift lets you run. You interact with objects in the environment by clicking on them.  That’s it. Oh, and the space bar lets you blink. It’s a pretty simple interface, and if there is more to it, then I haven’t found it. “Wait, what? Blink?” Yeah, the game implements a standard sprint-meter, but also adds a blink meter. At regular intervals, you have to blink. That only makes sense. However, it becomes rather inconvenient as you try to progress through the game. If only you possessed the super-mutant abilities that other video game characters do and simply didn’t need to blink. Oh well… There’s also a gas-mask that changes your HUD and forces you to look through two shadowy lenses, making the environment darker, but letting you avoid gaseous hazards. It’s a nice visual touch.

You might be expecting some kind of “What’s behind door number 1?” joke from me, because the procedural level generation adds to the tension of trying doors and not knowing what will be behind them. But, no, I’m better than that. I’ll only subtly allude to it with smug superiority at having avoided such a lame joke. All the same, it does let me segue nicely into the creature designs. At its heart, The SCP Foundation website is a user-created database of creatures and items with horror-themed backgrounds. As a result, this game had a plethora of creatures to choose from, and I don’t think they could have chosen any better. If you’re a regular reader, then you might recall my previous few articles concerned with the timing elements of survival horror games. The gist of them was that a creature is more effective if we’re left to both wonder about it and dread it. The SCP chosen to be the primary antagonist of the first part of SCP – Containment Breach is perfectly suited to both of these requirements.

SCP-173, known colloquially as, “The Sculpture,” is an unstoppable living statue that compulsively kills everything near it. However, in the tradition of the Quantum Locked angels from “Blink” and the ghosts from Mario, SCP-173 cannot move while you’re looking at it. However, if, and when, you blink, it moves towards you with lightning speed. As a result, you never see it kill anything, so you’re left to imagine. After it breaks out of its cell and starts wreaking havoc all over the building, you’re trapped in a game of cat and mouse with it. This creature design is perfect because you can’t do anything to hurt it, so there’s no combat to mitigate the tension of the chase. At the same time, it also ensures that you’ll be looking at it when you encounter it or that your death will come so quickly that the viscerally resonant snap will catch you by surprise.

This creature has another effect on the player, as well. Part of how a games engages a player is through what it asks the player to do through, and in addition to, game-play. Amnesia asked that we be aware of our concealment and the level of light in the general area. Silent Hill asked that we be mindful of its metaphorical elements so that we could tackle its puzzles more easily (Think: the first boss in SH1).  SCP – CB asks that we keep our eyes searching, straining through a gas mask at, the darkness: looking for threats. Most importantly, looking for SCP-173. It’s not the only threat by far, but it’s the first one you’ll encounter, so it sets the tone for the whole piece. Aaaand, that tone is paranoia.

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They do a lot to create an excellent atmosphere. They’ll waste entire rooms just to help build tension. That is, in part, the work of the procedural generation, but realizing that it was good for the game is a thumbs up for its developer: Regalis. If you want to increase your level of immersion, then I’d recommend listening to some of the audio files on YouTube or reading through The SCP Foundation’s files on-line. I don’t want to say too much more because a good portion of the game is discovery under a repressive regime of terror, but I’ll conclude by out-lining something that will happen to you. When it does, it’ll be no less effective for having read this. That’s a mark of a good horror game.

You’re walking down a hallway. You’ve left the doors behind you ajar because they won’t do much to stop SCP-173, but they’ll waste precious seconds of your life as you try to open them. Up ahead, you hear the solid clunk of metal on metal as the door at the end of the hall slides open and closed. You slip into a side room and pull on your gas mask, just in case. You blink before you go out to increase your chances and, just as you’re rounding the bend, you see a giant, demonic Pillsbury dough-boy wrought from hatred and baked with malice. Panicking slightly, but keeping your head, you begin to sprint backwards down the hallway away from SCP-173. Going through the door, you close it in front of you. As you keep running, the closed door in front of you fades into the darkness, but, just beyond the edges of your vision, you hear the door open. Then, you blink. On the penumbra of your sight, an outline resolves.

You keep sprinting and closing doors, but your stamina is running out. As you slow down and run only intermittently, the outline becomes more and more solid every time you blink. Suddenly, you hit a locked door. You can’t turn around to open it, or you’ll be dead. You need to blink, though. You can’t help it.


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It’s not moving. It’s an absolutely solid mass, totally serene, perfectly benign. You feel your eyes begin to twitch…