9 Years, 9 Lessons on Horror

It has now been over 9 years since we released Amnesia: The Dark Descent. That is a bloody long time, and feels like we should celebrate that by talking about the craft of horror games.

Horror games are quite a different beast when it comes to the game industry at large. Most other genres revolve around what the player does. In a turn-based strategy you take turns doing strategy:

Into the Breach

 In a first-person shooter you shoot things from a first-person perspective:

Doom

In a Match 3 game you match three thingies:

Candy Crush: Soda

In a horror game, the activity is not at all as important. What is important is that the experience is a spooky one. This makes designing horror games different from designing within other genres. Many times the standard industry tricks just won’t work, which makes one think about game design in a different light.

In the past 9 years we have learned a great deal about horror games, and to celebrate the occasion, I wanted to share 9 lessons we have learned over the years.

That being said, I don’t see these lessons as only useful for horror games. There’s quite a bit of overlap with other genres, especially any games that aim for a narrative-heavy experience.

And finally – this is by no means an exhaustive list. Still, the lessons here are at the core of the craft of making scary video games.

Lesson 1: Horror is not enjoyable

The basic emotion of horror is not a pleasant one – yet people play horror games wanting to experience horror. This is the paradox of horror as entertainment. This paradox requires game developers to be careful in how they deliver the experience to the player.

You could draw an analogy between horror games and rollercoasters. The basic purpose of a rollercoaster is to simulate the sensation of falling. Under controlled circumstances the experience of falling is thrilling and fun (at least for a good portion of people). But if you put someone in a barrel and push them down a cliff, chances are they will not find the experience fun at all. Even if they survive unscathed, the whole ordeal would be a horrible experience.

The same is true for horror games. If you have a game that only relies on jumpscares – figuratively throwing people off a cliff in a barrel – few people will consider that fun. This became apparent in certain maps in Penumbra. We thought it would be good enough for a scary gameplay section to have a maze and some monsters. Instead of becoming mazes of fear, they instead became mostly… annoying. Amnesia: The Dark Descent had similar issues towards the end, where the monster encounters were just that, not supported by any other aspects. At that point the game no longer felt as entertaining.

Well, a familiar face.

Lesson 2: Players are working against you

For a horror game developer, the worst enemy is… the players. Seriously, if we could sit around and make games without having to worry about what the players will do and think when playing the game, life would be so much simpler!

As mentioned before, being scared is not a pleasant feeling. Therefore the players will try to optimize the feeling away, often unconsciously. In the end, the players will ruin the intended experience for themselves.

Take the demon dogs from our first game, Penumbra: Overture. The game takes a bunch of time to build them up as creepy monsters that stalk the dark mines. However their AI has some weaknesses that some people are very quick to catch. Hence the dogs become easy to defeat, and are no longer scary.

Can’t get me. I’m on a box.

And the crazy thing is that the players complain when this happens! They probe the system for flaws and choose to exploit them, yet want the dogs to remain scary. So their behaviour ends up going against their will.

Some games solve issues of player exploitation simply by making the enemies extremely hard (think Dark Souls): they make sure the monsters are just as hard to beat as they look scary. Another approach is to instead skip much of the gameplay (think Dear Esther): if there are no mechanics, there’s nothing for the player to exploit – problem solved, right?

I don’t think either of these solutions is optimal. Instead I think one should aim for a third route: making the players think about actions in a more narrative fashion. More about that later!

Lesson 3: Scares alone won’t make a horror game

Horror is like a spice that defines a dish. You cannot do without it, but you can’t cook a dish solely out of spices either. That would be just gross.

As an example, let’s take three horror movies I consider to be at the top of their genre: Alien, The Exorcist and Ringu. All three movies deal with very different subjects, have different styles, and are overall different from one another. But there is one thing they have in common: they all have very few scares in them!

Instead each movie is mostly about the characters, the discussions, the anticipation of the horror – building up the atmosphere and the dread of things to come. Very little time is spent actually facing the horror.

Let’s get back to our roller coaster analogy. When you think about it, the actual roller coaster ride lasts a very short time. Most of the time is spent doing things like buying a ticket, standing in line, and hearing other people scream. All these actions are not superfluous extras – they build up for the actual ride, and are crucial to the overall experience.

When we first made the study section of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, we implemented a ton of jumpscares. Books fell down from shelves, doors banged, pianos started playing and so forth. But as the map became more complete, it felt like something was off. So we reduces the scares to just a couple, and instead focused on letting the player learn the castle’s mysteries. At first we were afraid this would make the level too boring – but as it turns out, spacing the scares apart made players much more scared than previously.

In horror, less is often more.

Lesson 4: Fun gameplay is just too… fun

In a horror game more than any other, the players go in expecting to have a bad time. And as designers we want them to feel anxiety, despair, and a whole array of negative emotions. But gameplay – because it’s so damn engaging – tends to counteract all these juicy emotions.

Let’s use Dead Space as an example. When I started playing it, I was really scared, walking around slowly and peeking around every corner. Then, about an hour in, I learned how to kill the monsters, and what tricks I needed to survive.

Dead Space 2 promo art
All of the fun, none of the horror!

Not only did I get good at killing the monsters, I thought it was great fun! The things that used to terrify me now became a source of amusement. Instead of dreading the monster sounds they now made me excited – oh great, another necromorph to dismember!

So where did the fear go? It was simply overshadowed by the rewarding gameplay.

Us humans tend to have this thing called attention, and we only have a limited amount of it. If the game is constantly engaging the player with thinking about their aim, checking ammo, and looking for loot, there’s no room left for much else. In other words, the players’ brain will lack resources to frighten themselves.

The early designs of Amnesia: The Dark Descent included genre-typical weapons, and even guns. We also experimented with very elaborate puzzle set-ups, everything from swinging chandeliers to redirecting rays of light. All these caused the same issues as Dead Space. They were too fun, and took attention away from what mattered: getting scared.

Eventually we decided to reduce the “fun” elements the gameplay had – and it paid off.

We saw this very clearly when watching Let’s Plays of the Amnesia games. Since players didn’t have things like combat to pay attention to, they reacted to things they might not have even noticed in other games. A vague sound, almost like a footstep, was suddenly a reason to look for the nearest cupboard to hide in. Had the players minds been filled with thoughts of loot boxes, they would have never reacted like this.

Lesson 5: Narrative is a core element in good horror

So if engaging gameplay can be counteractive to the horror, and you need to be careful with the scares, what do you fill a horror game with?

While no silver bullet, narrative is a big part of the equation.

By building up a narrative, us game designers can make game worlds bigger and more intricate than they actually are in-game. We can prime the player into doing a lot of the scaring for themselves.

In order to explain this, let’s take a random image let’s take a random image of a quaint town:

Aww, I wanna go there. 🙂

This feels like a great place for an evening stroll, right?

Now let’s give this image some backstory. Put on some spooky music, like the Amnesia soundtrack, and read the following:

It has been two weeks since a huge storm cut the town from the rest of the world. All means of communication are down.

Today, our emergency services received a call – it just started out as static, a joke that kids would play, but then the screaming started. The screaming of people, then an otherworldly roar, nothing a man nor beast on Earth could make. I had to find out what happened to these people up the serpentine road from us. 

I am now here, yet no one else seems to be. It’s like everyone vanished. But as the cold sun sets down over the mountain, I get a sense of unease…

…And now look at the picture again.

The worst monster of all is leaving the lights once you’ve been murdered horribly.

Not so cozy anymore, right?

A new context leads to re-interpreting the environment based on this information, and get into a different mindset based on it. While you previously admired the view, you are now scanning it for signs of danger.

A big part of horror takes place inside a player’s head. And by fueling their imagination, we can turn a cozy village into a place of terror and despair.

Looking back on which areas worked in Penumbra, this component became apparent. The most loved environments were those where players could use lore and environmental clues to fantasize what happened… and what could happen. The expansion, Penumbra: Requiem, lacked a lot of this background information. So despite us designing some of our best puzzles and implementing interesting visuals, Requiem was received quite badly. Without a strong narrative component, the players didn’t get the experience they wanted.

Penumbra: Requiem, or as we call it, The Marc Game.

Lesson 6: The world must feel real

In order for a horror narrative to have proper impact, the world it takes place in must be taken seriously by the players. But what does “serious” mean? Grey and brown tones with no cartoonish elements? Not quite.

Let’s draw a parallel between real and imagined worlds. If you suffer from nightmares, there’s a trick to that: make a habit out of knocking on walls, tables, or whatever is closest to you. Eventually you will start doing the same when you’re asleep. However, when you knock on walls or a table in a dream, your hand is likely to go through the surface – that’s how you’ll know you are in a dream, and no longer need to be afraid of the world around you.

Making horror games is basically a business of creating nightmares. But it’s hard to be successful when you have a bunch of players (those damn players again!) constantly doing the equivalent of “knocking on surfaces”, simply by playing the game. As soon as they discover some sort of glitch the immersion of a terrifying world breaks, and it takes a long time to build it back up again.

Let’s look at an example from Penumbra again. In Penumbra we want the players to imagine that the demon dogs are “real”, implying all the traits (demon) dogs possess. So, we want players to be worried about encountering a dog, and hiding from it. However, some players “knocked on surfaces” by messing around with the environments, and figured out that the dogs can’t reach you if you camp on top of a box. So, whereas a real dog could jump up on the box and chomp the player up, the AI dog cannot. Therefore the fantasy of dogs as “real” is lost, and the game loses a bunch of its scariness.

Penumbra: Overture by IsisMasshiro on DeviantArt
The intended reaction when encountering a demon dog

Because of this effect, game developers have to be careful about how they construct environments, and what tools they give to the player. There should be enough things to do to make the place feel real. But not so many as to aid players in breaking the illusion.

Lesson 7: Keep it vague

You know creepypasta and scary photos you can find on the internet? Almost always the thing that makes them scary is that they leave a lot to the imagination. Seeing a silhouette and glowing eyes out in the corner of a photo feels threatening. A close-up glamour photo of the same monster does not.

AAH! What IS that?
Oh, just our good friend Terry bringing us a gift. (by ThiccBoiMyers on Discord)

As mentioned before, much of the horror comes from simply not being sure what the hell you’re looking at. It’s when there is a gap in our knowledge, a certain amount of uncertainty, that horror can really shine. This is especially true when you combine it with some sort of danger element.

It is quite common in games to make sure the player understands the systems in place as clearly as possible. This often results in some really daunting tutorials. Of course for some games, like fighting games, it’s important to have in-depth knowledge about the systems to be able to optimise the game. In horror games we actually want the opposite!

A vague and uncertain game system is like a creepy photo. You can make out enough to get an idea of what’s going on, but there’s still room for the imagination to go wild. Let’s use the health meter in Resident Evil as an example. Internally it is an analog property, a decimal number from 0 to some value, but the player will only ever know that it has “three” states. This strikes a great balance between giving information and being vague, and helps crank up the tension.

The sanity system in Amnesia: The Dark Descent is similarly vague. You know scary things – whatever those are – lower your sanity, and bad things – whatever those are – will happen if it drops too low, so you don’t want to risk it.

This was not always the case. We started out with a pretty straightforward gameplay system, hoping players would play along with it. However, people either game it or got frustrated by it. When we tweaked it so it was much less clear how it worked, it sparked player’s imaginations and it was much more enjoyable.

Alex isn’t looking so good.

Lesson 8: Players need a role

All stories are driven by the characters that are contained within it, and how a plot plays out is determined by the characteristics of these characters. Just imagine how different Jurassic Park would be if the annoying lawyer guy was replaced by Judge Dredd! So, in order to get the most of any narrative, it is crucial to establish roles.

Games are no different. The role that a player inhabits will determine what actions they have at their disposal, what their goals ore, and so forth. Knowing the character is a vital component in order for the player to be an active part of the story.

Yet this is one of those components that many horror games forget. You are often thrust into a story as some generic character. Often the thought behind this is that the player would “play as themselves”, but this is not how any narrative really works. In order to properly parse a story situation, you need to understand what kind of person is dealing with it.

Say that you come across a corpse. You are playing as Sherlock Holmes, a corpse means a case! You will want to search for clues and try to solve the mystery of how this person died.

Now imagine you’re playing as a flesh-eating ghoul. Now the same corpse is suddenly dinner – yum!

An alternate universe where Daniel is turned into a ghoul. Bon appetit!

In most areas, horror games are well beyond your average game in terms of narrative. But for some reason, a large portion of horror games just fail to set the player role properly. It’s strange, relying on a narrative backbone, yet losing so much of the atmosphere by not defining the player role.

Another big reason for defining roles is that it can help with some of the issues addressed earlier. For instance, it can limit the number of actions the player feels is rational to take. For example Penumbra’s protagonist Philip is a physics teacher, so while he could perhaps fight some demon dogs, it would be more logical to run and hide from aggressive humanoids.

This lesson we clearly learned in SOMA. At first we thought about having a non-speaking Simon with very little character. However, this made player distance themselves from the events. Things got a lot more personal when they played as a character who was reacting to what was happening. While players previously wouldn’t ponder the strange events in-depth, Simon pushing them in the right direction it worked much better.

Lesson 9: Agency is crucial

When I talk about agency, I’m not talking about the CIA. What I mean is agency of the free will kind. A game that has a lot of agency lets the players make decisions and feel like an active part of the narrative.

This is closely tied to the previous lesson. Not only do we want to give players a role, we also want them to own that role. They need to feel like they really inhabit the character they are supposed to play. A game can achieve a lot by combining agency with keeping things vague – and letting players decide to take uncertain decisions.

Say that you are faced with a dark tunnel – dark tunnels are pretty scary!

Now imagine that the game explicitly tells you that your goal lies beyond the tunnel. There’s no choice, you gotta go in. And if the game forces you do something, it will also make sure you do actually have the means to complete this quest – in this case get to the other side of the tunnel.

What’s the worst that could happen? 🙂

But what if entering this dark tunnel was voluntary, or at least presented as such? The game vaguely tells you that there might be something important there – but you don’t know, and might also be a certain death. All of a sudden the tunnel feels a lot less safe. By adding agency and making entering the tunnel an uncertain choice, all sorts of doubts pop up in the player’s mind.

There’s also a number of other ways to add agency. Say the player needs to do something unnerving, like Amnesia’s Daniel drilling into a corpse to get blood out. In the game it is clear that there is no other option. Overall reactions to this was not very strong.

Just petting a guy’s head while the drill drills a hole in it.

Compare this to similar moments in SOMA, where intended course of action is much less clear. Here players are forced to actually think through what they need to do, and get emotionally involved in the process of it.

While SOMA did do this part better, it also had its shortcomings. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the game was divided into hub maps, so there was no one path or right order to do things. These choices increased anxiety. Whereas maps in SOMA were way more streamlined, and we noticed a considerable drop in scariness due to this.

In closing

And them’s the rules! As said before, these are not the only ones, but I believe these come out on top when listing the most important ones. You could also go into them with a lot more depth, but I wanted to keep this blog concise. A lot of my previous blogs in the design tag dive deeper into related subjects.

Finally, I want to close by saying that, because of all these special requirements for horror games, I don’t think you can approach them like other games. Instead of “finding the fun” and iteratively building upon that, horror game design needs to start with some strong principles.

When designing a horror game, you want to hone into what you’ve chosen as your core principles, be it atmosphere, theme, or something else. Then, as you progress in development, you don’t want to evaluate the game on how “fun” or “nice” it is to play – but in how well it fulfills its set core principles. And a cornerstone for being able to do that evaluation is to keep the above lessons in mind.

This in itself is a huge topic of its own, and will need to be dealt with in some future post. Stay tuned for more!

Thoughts on Heavy Rain

It is very easy to talk bad about Heavy Rain. One can say it is just an interactive movie where you press buttons at certain key moments, in rare cases changing the outcome of the story. One can talk about the hole and cliche filled story and the weakly developed characters*. One can talk about this and other negative aspects of the game and I would fully agree. But if one only focuses on these areas, there is plenty of really interesting aspects that are missed.

Despite all these flaws I really enjoyed playing Heavy Rain. Sure, the quick-time-events (QTE:s) really got me worked up on more than one occasion and a lot of other issues bugged me, but on the whole it was quite an engaging experience. There are some truly tense and disturbing moments in the game that work great. For example the scene at the mall, while lame in many ways, managed to capture the protagonists sense of panic and that in an environment and setup I have never seen in a game before. The game also features great graphics, nice music and not too shabby acting (for most of the time anyway, and once you get used to the uncanny valley feel). The game also lets you be in situations that I have never seen outside of Interactive Fiction.

What really made the game interesting though was not the things that I liked, but the things that are slightly broke. Because of the way that QTE:s work, being a quite fragile system in terms of immersion, it sort of exposes your own usually hidden thought processes as you play the game. Also, the game’s filmic nature and focus on a branching narrative makes it a virtual smorgasbord of game design theory to try out. This is what truly makes Heavy Rain worth playing.

Immersion as an essence

By far, the most important realization I got when playing Heavy Rain is how interaction is not mainly about giving the player interesting choices. When playing the game I never felt the need to make choices on the basis of seeing what would happen, instead I simply wanted the characters to act in certain ways in order to confirm to my expectations of how I thought they would (and should) be acting. What I think happens is that as we interact in a videogame, there is feedback loop between us sending input to the game and us getting information back from the game (in the form of visuals, audio, etc), which builds the basis of us feeling present inside the game’s virtual world. The better this loop works, the more we feel as a part of the experience.

Heavy Rain is an excellent example of this process at work. When there is flow in the controls (which is usually in the scenes giving you direct character control, such as the early mall sequence), there is a very satisfying feeling of being one with the character. Then suddenly some weird QTE pops up and you either fail at completing it, or it simply does not give the result you expected, and once again you are pulled out of your sense of presence. The game is littered with moments like this, pulling you in and the throwing you back out. When Heavy Rain manages to sustain the belief of you having agency over the character, that is when the game is at it best. These are the occasions when there is a very strong loop of interaction going on and you are the most present inside the game’s world. When this loop is broken, it does not matter what kind of interesting choices you might have at your disposal. The game immediately becomes less engaging the moment the loop of interaction breaks down.

In this light of thinking, QTE events make perfect sense. It is simply a rudimentary system for trying and sustain a feedback loop during various types of scenes. It is not about setting up a competition for the player, it is just a very blunt and unreliable system to sustain a sense of presence. I really doubt that QTE:s is the way to do narrative art in videogames, but it does gives us invaluable information on how to proceed.

What all this seem to indicate is that a videogame that wants to tell a story, should not use interaction to deliver a multitude of choice, but instead to reinforce the feedback loop of immersion. This might entail having choice, but the choices in themselves are not what is of the most importance, giving a very sharp focus on how to design the mechanics. It may actually be that the very future of making artful games with focus on narrative is to focus on this interactive loop of immersion. There is a lot more to discuss on this subjects and there are other things that also points in this direction. I am hoping to devout an entire post on that subject soon, so consider this a taste of things to come.

A final note: This “interaction as a means to create immersion” does not imply that the future of videogames are incredibly linear interactive cinema -far from it. In many cases a non-linear and open game world is essential in order to support the feedback loop.

The importance of determinism

In most games you have a pretty strong sense of what the protagonist will do when a button is pressed. Not so in Heavy Rain. Apart from direct movement and a few repeatable actions (like be able to shout your son’s name in the mall scene), most of the time icons just pop up with vague hints on what the input will achieve. Sometimes you will learn what action might happen (such as that an up-arrow at a railing will mean that you will lean against it), but this takes a bit time and requires that a similar action has already been carried out.

In many cases this has a drastic reduction on the sense of presence. For one, it makes you unable for you to form plans. Simply by surveying an environment you cannot determine a course of actions (even if you know all trigger spots), and during action sequences it gets even worse as QTE:s may up at any moment in pretty much unguessable form. Making up plans is one of the basic corner stones of human intelligence, and possible the reason we developed a consciousness, so not having the option of doing this is a hard blow against the sense of agency. Another reason it reduces immersion is that your character might not act in the way you intended. Before picking an action you almost always makes some kind of assessment of what will happen, but it is quite likely that this will be dead wrong. Thus the character your are supposed to feel a connection to, ends up performing an action that you did not intend. Of course, it is very hard to feel as a part oft he game’s world when this happen.

This system stands in stark contrast with how Limbo works, where you are pretty much always certain of exactly what will happen. I think this is very much connection in the level of immersion Limbo manages to have throughout (unless you get stuck in trial and error of course), and how Heavy Rain stumbles through the entire experience. One should not be too hard on Heavy Rain though as the space of interactions that are possible to perform throughout the game by far outnumber those in Limbo. The real challenge for the future is to coming closer to multitude of actions in Heavy Rain, but still having the determinism of Limbo.

The understanding between Player and Videogame

Another big problem in Heavy Rain, which is related to the point above, is that the game sometime seem to work against you. It might seem obvious that this is a dealbreaker in terms of immersion and I have already discussed the problem of camera control in Dead Space Extraction. The issue can be a bit more subtle though and Heavy Rain serves as great example of this. For instance, in one scene I had made a plan of actions: to first bandage an unconscious person and then to poke around in his stuff. There really was nothing hindering me from doing so but instead the game removed my ability to interact directly after caring for the person. The game interpreted me wanting to help the guy as I also did not want to poke around, thinking that they two were mutually exclusive actions. Of course I thought otherwise and considered it no problem at all to do some poking afterward.

There are plenty of situations like this and it makes it quite clear that you should never move ahead on a bigger outcome from a choice without being certain that this is also what the player expects. I also see this as a problem of having major choices the player in a game that lack a high level simulation (like Fallout for example). Just the simple action of walking out a door can have many different meanings to a player, and one needs to be careful and make sure that most players have same idea of what it means. Once you throw branching paths into the pot, it gets a lot more complicated and clashes between player and game is much more likely to happen.

Emotional Simulation

An interesting aspect of Heavy Rain that I have not seen (at least not this directly) in any other game using QTE:s (or normal mechanics for that matter) is to trick the player into feeling certain emotions. The way it works in the game is that the player is forced to hold down a lot of buttons at the same time, while often also moving the stick around. This creates an uncomfortable and demanding way to hold the controller in, which is meant to simulate the way the onscreen character feels. While it might sound a little dodgy, it works quite well in many cases, especially in a scene containing self-mutilation.

The research behind this kind of response is actually very well established and designer Chris Pruett has hypothesized that the effect is probably a reason why many unforgiving horror games turn out to be extra scary (a design decision that comes with other problems though). The way it works is that we humans often do not know why we are feeling a certain way and unconsciously project it onto something else. For instance one experiment had people thinking that arousal due to their fear of heights was due physical attraction instead.

All is not good with this design in Heavy Rain though. Because the inputs you perform are not fluent (as it is prompted on a situational basis) and non-deterministic (as explained above) you are mostly very conscious of what you are doing with the controller. If the controls where more transparent (like in Limbo) you would be less conscious of your input, and any uncomfortable placement of the hand is much more likely to be projected into whatever the protagonist is doing. I think this can be very potent stuff if handled properly and let the player get immersed in experiences that would be hard to simulate in any other way.

Trial and error

Heavy Rain boasts that it does not have any game over screen, but it still manages to have is massive amounts of trial-and-error. This time the forceful repetition of events does not only occur in death threatening situations though. In Heavy Rain it often happens during extremely mundane actions like brushing your teeth and taking a shower. It is an extremely good example why this sort of design is so immersion destroying. From believing that you are playing an actual living character, the sudden requirement to repeat an event pulls you out from the experience directly. It is so obvious that you go from trying to become present in a virtual world to just trying and overcome a very mechanical task.

I think the biggest problem is that Heavy Rain is very sensitive in how you complete the QTE sequences. Let go of a button for a micro seconds and it results in an instant failure. When the game gets rid of so many other stigmas of old game design, it is sad to see it stuck in this one. I think the way it should have done it is to become a little bit more relaxed and to allow some more failures. Instead being competitive-like and very strict in the actions, it should instead check if the player tried enough to do something. As long as the players are playing along, I see no reason for punishing them. The game should have tried to keep the illusion of an interactive-feedback loop alive for as long as possible, instead of simply breaking it at the slightest incorrect input.

Some misc points

Now for some shorter stuff that I found interesting:

  • When done right, the direct and free control method is by far the more immersive. However it also puts a lot of pressure on the character reacting in a proper way. Quite often, the character I was controlling ended up acting like a moron, walking into walls and the like, even if I really tried hard to control him properly. The constrained events do not suffer this problem, and have the characters act much more lifelike, but at the same time they do not have the same level of interaction required for deep sense of presence.
  • Heavy Rain is at its best when simulating tightly space and time-wise bounded scenes. At these points it was much easier to give me a sense of having agency and to let me become one with the moment. The scenes self-mutilation, pushing through a crowd, escape from bench in cellar, etc are all great examples of this. Judging from what seemed to have worked best in Amnesia, I think a lot can be gained by taking this design further.
  • The game is a great test bed for a game that has decisions with big ramifications, such as the death of main characters. My own conclusion from Heavy Rain is that all of these choices are probably unneeded and did not gain me much except the sense of missing out on the story. Interestingly, Heavy Rain feels quite different in this regard from a game like Fallout (with the, as mentioned, more higher level narrative simulation).
  • Achievements (trophies on the ps3) really suck in story-centric game. Having gone through a scene and then getting a sort of grade, really removes the ability to make up your own mind of what just took place. It is quite similar to the “understanding between player and game” problem, as achievements has a high risk of going against the player’s intentions (and does not really help gain anything).

End notes

As I think this post shows there are many reasons why Heavy Rain is a really interesting game to play. It does a lot of things that other videogames do not even dare to consider, and while it kind of fails on a lot of it, just attempting it is an important step on the way. If only more mainstream games were like this.

Also, after playing through Heavy Rain I have come to wish that there were more games like it. By that I do not mean more games with QTE:s (which I really hated much of the time) but games that allows the player to always progress and focus on a rich narrative experience. In most other games I either have to endure annoying puzzles or have to become an accomplish in a genocide. Given the high scores the game has gotten (from press and the public) I do not think I am alone in this. Please do not see this as an urge for people to copy Heavy Rain though, but instead to use the game it as a step towards something that truly makes use of the medium.

*Emily short has a really good essay on the story of Heavy Rain. Check it here.

Some Industry Reflections

One thing I have been thinking about recently, is the direction in which the indie game scene seems to be heading. This is something that can be seen in upcoming of games, various talks, articles and what is considered the largest recent successes. It is a direction that might have large consequences for the future of the medium.

Quickly summed up, there is a strong design trend of making games by iterating and extending a fun core gameplay mechanic. This is then incorporated to a game with heavy emphasis on re-playability and/or ease to make levels. The main perks of this approach being that the game becomes more fun to create (as you can have fun at a very early stage), it makes it easier to home in on a “fun” core and allows for an early beta to be released (thus allowing feedback and income to trickle in before completion). This is of course a rough outline of the trend, but I still think it represent the main gist of where the industry of indie game development is heading.

Designing a game like this is of course perfectly fine. It makes sense financially and personally. By having a game where the fun comes in at a very early stage, it is much easier to discard bad ideas and figure out the best way to do things. Getting some kind of income before completion can be crucial for a start-up company, which is much easier when having an early playable version. Betas/alphas also help building a community and spreading the word. On the personal side, motivation comes a lot easier when almost every added feature add something to the gameplay and change is easily tracked. This can make up for other not so motivational aspects of being an indie (low income, non-existing security, bad working conditions, and so on and so forth). Summed up, making games like this make a lot of sense and it is not strange that it is a wide-spread trend.

However, what troubles me is that this kind of development is seen by most as THE way to design a game. While of course many great videos games can (and have!) come out of this manner of creation, it is not the only way to go about. I believe that doing games this way makes it impossible to do certain type of video games and to expand the medium in a way that I personally think is the most exciting. Because of the focus on instant gratification, gameplay will pull towards a local maximum and only take short term value into account. This disqualifies videogames that focus on more holistic experiences or has a non-trivial pay off (for instance, lowlevel gameplay that only becomes engaging in a certain higher-level context).

As an example of this, after finalizing the basic mechanics, it took six months before Amnesia: The Dark Descent became a somewhat engaging experience. Note that this time was not spend on perfecting the mechanics but on building the world in which they existed. Without the proper context, Amnesia’s core mechanics are quite boring and it took additional layers, such as the sound-scape, high fidelity graphics, etc, to bring it home. With this I am not saying that Amnesia is the way forward for the medium. I am simply saying that a videogame like Amnesia could not have been made using the type of development that a large chunk of the indie scene (and mainstream for that matter too) is currently advocating!

Another thing that has also struck me is how many people that are interested in videogames with experiences not solely focused on a fun core. For example at GDC, we met many people, from many different places in the industry, saying how much they liked the game because of its non-gamey aspects. Also, most of the random people that we “dragged” in to the booth were very interested in this kind of experience and often surprised that videogames like Amnesia even existed. We have also seen this kind of response across the Internet, with many people wishing there were more games focusing on these aspects. Again, I am not saying that this means Amnesia is some candle bearer into the future. What I am saying is that there was an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards the kind of games where a fun core mechanic was not the focus.

However, because the current trend of developing games, this potential market will most likely go without many games.

A positive consequence of this is that it creates a potentially very profitable niche with almost no competition. So while the preferred way of making games might be more secure, these projects will be launched in an extremely competitive environment. I think this evens out some (all?) of the risks involved in a development not focused on quickly iterating fun mechanics.

A negative, possible devastating, consequence is that the lack of these kinds of video games might remove the market altogether (or at least limit it to a very niche one). What I mean here is that if the general population’s view on view games is that they are just about “cheap thrills”, people will never bother looking for anything else. Thus most people who would have been interested in more holistic video games, will never be exposed to them. In a worst case scenario, this would mean that these kind of game will pretty much be stopped being made.

I consider this is something worth thinking about and believe the critical cross road will come very soon. The video games we decide to make today, will shape the future for quite some time.

End note: For those wonder what other ways of designing games there might exist, check this post as a starter.

Thoughts on Dead Space 2

So I just finished Dead Space 2 and wanted to discuss it a bit. Mainly because it is a perfect example of some trends in game design that I find are really harmful. I also find that it has some moments that could have been brilliant if just slightly changed, making it extra interesting to discuss.

Before going into the actual critique I want to say that the game did have some enjoyable parts, especially the at times absolutely amazing scenery. Dead Space 2 just radiates production value and it is a very well-put together game. I quite liked a lot of it and it is one of the few games in recent memory that I played until the end. The game has very nice atmosphere in places and even attempts at a sort of meaningful theme(more on that later).

At the same time, it is very clear that Dead Space does not aim for any real sophistication. For instance, you need to stomp on dead mutant children to get hold of goodies and gore is quite excessive. In many ways, the game is much closer to Dead Alive (Braindead) than to something like Alien, and should probably be judged that way. However, in the following discussion I will approach the game as if the goal was to create a tense sci-fi horror game.

With that out of the way, let’s get down to business.

Cheap deaths

When I started the game, I was not in the best of moods (being a bit agitated), but I did what I could, darkened the room and so on. Everything to heighten immersion. As the game started out, it began with a non-playable sequence, something which made me relax and slowly immerse myself. Once the game actually began and I gained control, my mood had changed quite a bit and I felt I was ready to be immersed and role-play. Then after just playing for 30 seconds or so, I took a wrong turn and died.

This broke all the immersion I had built up over 10 minutes or so, and I had to start all over. The intent was probably to communicate the danger to the player, but this could have been made a lot better. Why not simply hurt the protagonist, or something similar, giving in-game feedback that the player should be very careful. After I had died and gotten a loading screen, I had to build up my mood again almost from scratch.

The same thing happened at the end of game, where you need complete a sort of chase-sequence before the final cinematic. I was unsure of the controls in this sequence and died just before it was over. Just like with the death at the start, this completely spoiled my mood and removed any emotional impact the ending might have had. Instead of becoming an exciting sequence, it became an obstacle and I concentrated on the pure mechanics instead of role-playing.

Having cheap deaths during immersive/emotional events like this is just lazy design. The sequences are meant to be completed in a specific fashion anyway, so I cannot understand what can be gained by having players restart over and over until they “get it”. Sure it adds some kind of excitement, but this is greatly removed on subsequent attempts anyway, not speaking of how bad this is for immersion and role-playing. And considering there are other ways to add consequences to actions, I do not think it is a valid reason. It is just falling back to old and uninspired design.

Saving Progress

Scattered across the game are save stations, all using an interface similar to 20 year old games. I do not understand why these are in, as it is the most immersion-breaking device one can think of. Having to enter a menu, and choose a slot in which to save, has no connection to the game world at all. Consoles nowadays have large hard drives (and save games can be made very small) so it cannot be a technical limitation like in older games. I am guessing it is just another case of falling back to old design patterns, and again I think it is totally unnecessary.

The way I save games in systems like this is to loop through the visible slots (usually four), always picking the oldest save game to overwrite. That way I have three older save games to go back to in case something screws up. As this is basically the system we emulate in Penumbra and Amnesia, and nobody has raised any complaints on that, I guess I am not alone in saving like this. So, if one still wants to use the save stations, my first suggestion would be to simply skip the interface and just save upon interaction. If players want to go back to certain places have a “Save Game” option in the menu or simply a chapter selection.

But why stop at that? I would have liked the game to skip saving altogether and do it automatically for me. Dead Space 2 implements resource streaming extremely well and you never feel like you travel between different maps, but roam a continuous environment. Not having any kind of visible save system would fit this design perfectly and most likely increase atmosphere.

Repetition

It seems quite clear to me that Dead Space 2 tries very hard to provide a lengthy adventure (took me 10 hours or so go through) and to do so it repeats many elements over and over. This is something that exists in just about any game, where the goal of having filling a certain length quota trumps pacing, story development and the like.

For example, I really liked the first time the protagonist is forced to crawl through a ventilation shaft, but the tenth time this was repeated it just felt old and uninspired. Instead of trying to come up with new ways to create similar moments, the first one used is just recycled. Another example is the hacking mechanic that was served as an interesting diversion the first time, but ended up being an unwanted frustration.

You rarely see this sort behavior in other media (at least the good works). It is only in games where an, at first intriguing and noteworthy, event/idea is repeated until tedium. I would much rather have a shorter game that constantly bombards me with unique and inspiring sequences.

Dead Space 2 does do this right at a few times though. For instance, one section has the protagonist hanging upside while enemies swarm from all directions. This sequence is never repeated and not even dragged out. I would have liked to see that for all parts of the game.

Looting and Shooting

I might be that I am slightly disturbed, but I find shooting limbs of monsters a great pastime. Especially with the fun and greatly varied arsenal that Dead Space 2 provides. So much did I enjoy it in fact that it is hard to focus on much else. Sure, some of the fighting can be pretty intense with enemies swarming you, but not that much different from how a game like Tetris can be. Added to this is the focus on upgrading the weapons and finding ammo/money, which further brings your mindset toward the shooting part of the game.

I have talked about how focusing on fun can be bad before, and Dead Space 2 is such a perfect example. Your main motivation to explore the environment is not to get deeper into the story or to enjoy the art, instead it is to search for goodies. Because the game constantly bombards you with items popping up and force you to pay attention to them (you will run out of ammo otherwise), this becomes the main thing occupying your mind. Everything else is simply pushed into the background, which is really a shame consider the epic set pieces and sometimes interesting background facts. In their effort to comply with “fun” gaming standards, the creators have actually let much of their hard work go to waste.

I must add that the combat was not completely un-scary though. I started out playing on normal, and at one point, my resources had almost run out, which made me much more careful and tense when I thought monsters might be near. As I was put in this state, it completely transformed how I approached the game, and I started to pay more attention to background sounds and the like. Unfortunately, as I died the combat sequences stopped being scary and instead became tedious challenges in resource management. This together with the increased urge to find hidden items, killed most of the atmosphere to me. I then change to easy difficulty and could enjoy the game more as I did not have to worry about looting or combat strategies as much.

Story

Dead Space 2 does have a story, but you will have to make an effort to find and experience it. As if the focus on combat was not enough, the actual story seems to be consciously pushed into the background. I can actually only recall one time when you had to actively confront the story (reading a note gives a clue on solving a puzzle). The rest of the story just plays out in the background and as a player you are pushed on by the urge of upgrading weapons and dismember mutants.

The game does have some interesting aspects though, for example trying to tie the entire game up with the protagonist’s grief, but since it is so drawn out and overwhelmed by other elements, it does not really work. Another intriguing part of the game are some earlier sequences where you encounter people fleeing from monsters and people locked up in cells. Hearing the hammering of somebody wanting your help was quite disturbing and had they just added some kind of interaction related to this (like try to open the door) it could have been extremely effective. Instead it was just pushed into the background.

One of the story things that I did really enjoy was how a recording spoke of the material of a ceiling in an upcoming room. When entering the room your attention is directly drawn up and you could relate the recording, graphics and background story to each other in a nice way. I really wished the game had a lot more of this.

Motivation

In the first Dead Space you played the part of a silent errand boy, something that the creators tried to change in the sequel. The way they try to do this is to make the protagonist an active character and make his own decisions. However, I think this sort of backfired and in Dead Space 2 I had even less of an idea on what is going on. Several times I had to check the “mission log” in order to find out what I was up to, and to find out the reasons for this. Since the protagonist was already talking, I wished he could have done this just a little more, explaining his action and reminding me, the player, of what I was supposed to do.

This also connects to the way the story is told, and further distances the player from the events in the game. Instead of deciding for yourself what the right course of action is, you just follow the game’s instructions in hope that will allow you to progress. So while in the previous game you followed the commands of in-game characters you now follow the commands game’s interface. This is of course much less immersive.

End notes

Playing Dead Space 2 made me both sad and hopeful.

Sad because I feel there is so much excellent work that has gone to waste and that I keep wondering if there will ever be any change to this. For every game i play I feel that there is so much potential lost due to following old and dull game conventions.

Hopeful because while there is much I do not like, it feels that there is not that much needed to totally transform the experience. Simply removing all combat focus and making the game half as long would probably have created a much more interesting experience. The question is if that will ever happen, but now I am at least confident that it is possible.

Why Trial and Error will Doom Games

Some links in this article have expired and have been removed.

A sort unspoken rule in game design is that players should be able to lose. Just about every game has some kind of fundamental mechanic that is possible to fail. Whenever this happens, the player needs to try again and repeat the process until successful. This is thought to add drama, tension and also make the player’s actions count. It seems to be believed that without it games would not be games and instead some kind of boring linear entertainment. I think this position is wrong, extremely hurtful and if not fixed, will become the downfall of the medium. In this post I will explain why.

The Problem

In a book or movie it is common that the reader/viewer need to experience very upsetting events, that can be very hard to read about/watch. This is especially true to horror, where the goal is often to upset the reader/viewer and to evoke emotions such as anxiety, fear and disgust. It is also common to have more boring and slow sequences in order to build mood, explain character motivations, etc. These are not necessarily very fun/easy to experience but will make up for it later on and acts as an important ground to build the story from. Note that these “hard to repeat” moments are not merely handy plot devices or similar. They are fundamentally crucial for creating meaningful experiences and many (if not all!) of the great works among books and movies would not be possible without them. Yet, at many times the only reason one can put up with these kinds of sequences is because one know there is an end to it. Just keep on reading/watching and it will eventually be over and hopefully an important payoff will be given.

This is not true for games. Whenever in a situation where loss is possible, the player is forced to meet certain criteria or she will not be able to progress. It is not possible to just “stick with it” to complete these kinds of sequences. The player needs to keep playing the same passage over and over again until proper actions have be performed. Not until this is accomplished is the player allowed to continue. This either comes in the form of skill based actions (e.g. platform jumping), navigational problems (e.g. find the way out) or some sort of puzzle that needs to be solved.

For sequences that are meant to be emotional this can be devastating. Often the player is not compelled to relive the experience and/or any impact the sequence was meant to have is lost. Also, it sets up a barrier and effectively blocks certain players from continuing. How can games possibly hope to match the impact of books and movies, when the ability to have critical “hard-to-repeat” moments are nearly impossible because trial-and-error?

Case Study: Korsakovia

This problem is very evident in the game Korsakovia. The game puts you in the role a man with Korsakoff’s syndrome and is played out in a sort of dream world, interwoven with dialogs between you and your doctor. It is a very interesting experience, but also a very disturbing one and the game is extremely brutal on the senses. Even so, I felt compelled to continue and it felt like worthwhile experience. This was until I the gameplay started. Korsakovia has all problems associated with trial-and-error (skill, navigation and puzzles) and this combined with the exhausting atmosphere made it impossible to for me to complete it. It was simply not possible for me to replay certain segments of the game and what was the first time around immersive turned into an annoyance and a (literal) headache. I am convinced that the game would have been a lot better, and possibly a truly great experience, if the trial and error mechanics where removed.

I do not mean to trash Korsakovia and I think it is a really interesting experiment. However, it is such a fine example of how trial-and-error can go wrong and I urge you all to try it out. Considering that it is a research project, I think that is mission accomplished for the creator!

Allowing The Player to Play

The problem with players not finishing games is something that recently have gotten more and more attention in the games industry. After analyzing stats collected, it has become quite evident that something needs to be done. For example, less than 50% of players ever completed Half-Life 2-Episode 1 which, considering the game’s length, polish and difficulty, I am sure that is a very high figure compared to other games. This means that more games have started to try out methods at solving the problem. Some examples are:

  • In Secret Files: Tunguska one can choose to show all of the interactable areas in a scene (reducing pixel hunting).
  • Alone In The Dark allows the player to skip chapters in order to force progress in a game.
  • New Super Mario Brothers Wii has a mode where the game takes over control and completes sections for the player.
  • BioShock never really kills the player but instead just teleports them to a different part of the map and leaves the enemies and environment in the same states as when the player “died”.

While this might sound like steps in the right direction all of these solution suffer from the same problem. They are all ad-hoc and breaks the immersion. The solutions are after thoughts, do not really belong in the game world and feels more like cheats than a part of the experience (BioShock possible excluded as it actually works it into the story). When the player chooses to display items and other interaction points in the game, it turns the game from a living world into an abstract interface. By skipping chapters in Alone in the Dark the player effectively skips part of the narrative and misses out on parts of the experience. The trick used in Super Mario removes any interaction from the game, which is definitively not good for immersion.

Finally, although BioShock is by far closest to having a working solution it still feels tacked on and can easily lessen immersion (for example when forced into respawn, charge with wrench, repeat situation). The player still also needs to overcome certain challenges and are forced to repeat sections over and over. However, there is never a moment where the player is unable to progress, given that they are willing to stay at it, no matter their skill level. It is far from an ideal solution, but a lot better than blocking players from progressing.

I think that the proper way to solve this is to incorporate it as a feature in the game from day one. Making sure that players are not unnecessarily blocked from continuing, is not something that should be slapped on as a side thing. It is also very important that players do not feel that the game is holding their hand every step of the way, something that can be very hard unless planned from the start. It is crucial that players feel that the performed actions and choices are their own and that they are not just following commands like a mindless drone.

Fixing this issue is really important. Games can not continue to deny content to players and demand that they meet certain criteria in order get the full experience. Not only does it discourage people from playing games, it also make it impossible to create more “holistic” experiences. By this I mean games that require the entirety of the work for the player to truly appreciate it (something I aim to talk about an upcoming post). It will be very hard indeed to insert deeper meanings into games unless this problem is dealt with.

Less Challenge, More Immersion

Allowing the player to get the full experience and not having win-to-progress situations is a good start, but just the first step in the right direction. As with Bioshock, the game can still have trial-and-error like moments, where the player is forced to play section over and over in order to continue. This brings us back the problem that I mentioned in the beginning: that repeating a certain experiences will either lessen their impact and/or discouraging the player from progressing. As these “hard to repeat” sequences are crucial in order to expand the horizon of the medium, it is essential that we find ways of adding them. And in order to do so, trial and error must go.

I think that first step towards this is to throw away the idea that a videogames needs to be a challenge. Instead of thinking of a game as a something to be beaten, it should be thought of as an experience. Something that the player “lives” through rather than “plays” through. Why designers are unable to do this probably because they are afraid that it will lessen the sense of accomplishment and tension of a game. Many seem to think that trial-and-error based obstacles are the only way of creating these emotions. I think this untrue.

Let’s first consider accomplishment. While this is normally evoked by completing a devious puzzle or defeating an enemy, there are other ways to feel accomplishment. Simply performing a simple act that changes the game world somehow can give this feeling. For instance planting a tree or helping out an NPC. There is no need for these to be obstacles in order for one to feel accomplishment either and thus any sort of trial-and-error is removed. It can also come in other forms such as just reaching a destination. Also, if designed correctly one can trick the player into thinking they accomplished something, for example escaping a monster even though there was no never a way to fail.

Creating tension is not only possible without using trial-and-error; skipping it may even lead to increased tension! When the player fails and is forced to repeat, there is no element of surprise left and it often also leads to immersion being broken. For example when playing horror games like Fatal Frame and Silent Hill I can be play for quite some time without dying, feeling highly immersed. However, once death (which is part of the trial-and-error mechanic) occurs I am pulled out of the atmosphere and suddenly realize that I am playing a game. This means death lessens the immersion and breaks the flow of the game. But will it not make the game more scary?

Regarding death and fear-factor, consider the following:

1) If the player fears death because of a trial and error system, she fears an abstract mechanic and not something of the game world. By worrying about a game mechanics, the player is pulled out of the experience.

2) Once death has occurred, the player will know what to expect. If killed by a creature that jumped out from behind a corner, the next time the encounter will have far from the same effect.

Instead of punishing the player, I think it is better to add consequences. Even just making the player believe that there are consequences (which Heavy Rain successfully does) can be enough. Also, if one keeps the player immersed then it is also easier for the players to roleplay and convince themselves that they are truly in great danger even though they are not. In our game Amnesia, we are doing our best to reduce the amount of trial-and-error and still retain a really terrifying atmosphere. So far it is looking very good for this approach and we have only seen good things come out of it (I guess time will tell if we pull it of or not). If horror games, that are notorious for using trial-and-error mechanics to enhance their mood, can do fine without trial-and-error, I see no reason why other genres shouldn’t.

To sum things up: When one relies on abstract game mechanics for creating emotions, one does so at the cost of immersion and the players ability to become part of the game world.

End Notes

Of course trial-and-error should not be banned from game design. Many games like VVVVVV and Super Mario thrive on the trial-and-error and has it as an integral part of the design. Likewise, many adventure games are supposed to have tricky puzzles, and could not do without them. Some games are meant to be “just games” and to be a challenge to the player. I am not in any way opposed to this kind of design.

However, in other games trial-and-error is just bad and really drag down the experience. In its worst form trial-and-error:

  • Discourages players by setting a standard of what sort of players are allowed to continue.
  • Greatly lessens the emotional impact of events by requiring repetition.
  • Breaks immersion and makes the player focus on abstract game mechanics.
  • Forces games to focus on moment-to-moment fun and discourages a holistic payoff.

It is extremely important to be aware of this and to ask oneself if a trial-and-error mechanics really serves the game right. It is only by breaking free of conventions like this that it will be possible to take games into new and existing directions!

I would like to end with some wise words from funny man Dara Ó Briain: (Check at around 3:18!)

(From a British program called Gameswipe, which is well worth watching in its entirety)

How Gameplay and Narrative kill Meaning in “Games”

In many of the posts here I have been discussing how having “unfun” gameplay can greatly enhance the experience. I have also ranted about how too much “fun” can completely destroy the intended experience. What I want to discuss now is how a game’s most common ingredients might be detracting from certain kinds of experiences and are in some cases best gotten rid of. These ingredients are Gameplay and Narrative. It is my view that these two features can seriously get in the way when trying to take the interactive medium in new directions.

I also believe that using the word “Game” is holding back progress in certain areas. The reason for not using the word “Game” is that it comes with certain expectations, which I will go through below, and these can work against both user and creator.

This post will also explain a bit about the design and goals for our upcoming game Amnesia. Hopefully it will provide a bit insight into the game and explain some of the concepts and ideas that we are trying to accomplish. In Penumbra we put a lot of focus on the actual emotional experience and in Amnesia, we aim to take that thinking a step further.

To get things started I will first dive into something that lies at the heart of all artistic creations.

Meaning

In many people’s minds, the word “meaning” probably provoke images of some hard-to-grasp piece of art with deeply hidden messages. That is not the sort of meaning I will discuss here though. Instead I am going to define it as the essence of all creations. When one make some sort of creative work there is always something that the creator wants to express with it. This can be to create a certain emotion, explore an idea, describe some events and countless of other things. It is this that I call “meaning”. It can be shallow or very deep. It can be very obvious or extremely obscure. No matter its form, it is always there at the core of the work.

Different kinds of medium have different tools for expressing this meaning. When writing a book there are plenty of ways to do so (e.g. style and format) and the same is true for any other medium. When working in a medium a certain type of implementation is most often used because it will best express the intended meaning. This means that two works of fiction, using different implementations, can express the same meaning. For example, take the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This books tells a lengthy story, but its meaning is not the narrative but an explanation and exploration of Objectivism. The important thing here is that the story could be changed but the meaning, the essence of the work, would still be left the same. Further more, compare this with other non-fiction books written about Objectivism where the meaning can be very similar, but the implementation quite different.

Narrative

Basically, a narrative is a sequence of events and is (mostly) the building block for a story. I am aware that narrative, just like “meaning”, does not have an exact definition and will therefore make it more precise in order to avoid confusion. When I say narrative, I mean a sequence of preplanned and connected events that have been laid out by a designer. The sequence can be branching and be told out of order, but it remains a narrative as long as the events have been purposely placed and in some way connect to one another. For many media, narrative plays a very large role. Pretty much all fiction books and movies use a narrative in order to express meaning and the craft of creating a narrative has been analyzed and evolved for a very long time.

Early games used the narrative structure to add more  meaning, but mostly it was not connected to the interactive experience. Often the narrative was just inserted in between levels and had little to do with what the game played like. One of the first games that really connected narrative and interaction was Another World, where changes from cut scenes and gameplay where seamless. Also, most action that took place had relevance to the actual story. Since then the biggest step forward came with Half-life where the line between narrative and gameplay blurred to the point where the word “cut-scene” was not really applicable. Now the narrative was expressed without ever taking away the player’s control and a great example of this was the opening sequence that told of events normally shown through non-interactive cut-scenes.

Half-life was released over ten years ago and there has not been many improvements since. In fact many games have actually not even started using the type of storytelling found in Another World and are still stuck at the level-to-cut scene-to-level-etc formula (While of course fine for some games, many could use the improvement).

Gameplay

Now yet another word needs to be defined in order to progress. When I say the word “gameplay” I will refer mechanics that have a goal. This means that mechanics on its own is not gameplay, but will become so when a goal is added to the mix. For instance, Mathematics is not a form of gameplay, but when a goal is added, such as solving a magic square, gameplay is created! Since a game can be defined as something that contains gameplay, this is the reason why I said that calling some interactive works “games” can be misleading and counter productive. More on this soon.

While gameplay are at the core of game making, it comes with a lot of baggage and makes certain meanings harder to realize in the medium. The most striking issue is the entire failure mechanism that is used in just about every game. You try a certain task, you fail and then have to repeat it. As described in other posts, this can be especially damaging in horror games, where repeating scenes seriously lessens the experience. This mechanism also impose limits on the player’s rate of progress and effectively tells the player: “Either you complete this or you will not proceed!”. Other baggage include the notion that gameplay must be fun and the need to constantly pose challenges. What I mean with the last point is that players assume that a game will always keep them occupied with some kind of obstacle to overcome. This leads to very little interactive content that is added for its intrinsic sake alone. Instead a game’s interactive content almost always have some connection to the goals of the gameplay.

If gameplay has all this baggage, why is it used? The answer is simply that gameplay provides the same function an exciting story does in a narrative. It is an efficient way of keeping the player/reader hooked and engaged for the duration of the work. Also worth noting is that when a game does not have gameplay that is engaging enough, it almost always falls back on the narrative to keep the player hooked (as is the case in many adventure games).

To make myself clear here: I am not saying that gameplay is a bad thing. I am just saying that gameplay comes with certain issues and when applied to some meanings it leads to problems (such as the meaning to scare, which has been discussed extensively in this blog).

The Problem

Now to the heart of this matter and a discussion on what is wrong with all this. As said above, my main stand point is that having focus on narrative and gameplay is holding back interactive media’s potential. It is now time to explain why I think this is so.

The main problem with a narrative is that it forces a linear experience and lessens the user interaction. It pressures that events should unfold, imposes a certain order on things and wants to keep a strict flow (e.g “prologue-middle-ending” and “character arcs”) . These things work against the interactivity and freedom of the player. For instance, I have previously discussed how physics is very hard to add since players might mess things up and break the intended order of things set by the narrative.

Despite of this, there is currently a focus in games industry to combine gameplay and narrative. Perfecting this art seems to be some kind of holy grail. However, gameplay will never smoothly be part of a narrative and as noted by Jonathan Blow there is an inherent conflict between the two. Gameplay wants to give the player a challenge and sets up goals that needs to be overcome. A narrative wants to move things forward and is often highly dependent upon time and space. Simplified one can say that gameplay tells players to stay where they are and experiment, narrative presses the player onwards and wants them to obey commands.

This sort of conflict is highly obvious in games. Some examples are: making use of quick time events to fit certain events of the narrative (that does not work with gameplay), providing very linear paths and simplifying the mechanics. The end product is that either you focus on the narrative or you focus on the gameplay, making it impossible to be strong in both. This effectively weakens the amount of meaning that can be put into this combination and is why the market is filled with so many shooters and hack-and-slash games. Other types of meanings are simply not possible to pull off in this system.

Increasing focus on the narrative eventually creates a non-interactive medium. There are some very nice examples of narrative heavy games in Interactive Fiction (such as Photopia), but they all heavily cut down on the ability to control and interact (because of the problems listed above).

Gameplay by itself can also be used to created meaning and has been done so in games such as Gravitation. Again Jonathan Blow describes the problem in the lecture linked to above: when the mechanics are fitted for a certain meaning they might not work as a game and the slightest change will change the meaning. Obviously this approach works for some types of meaning (as in Gravitation), but it is very limited, especially if the game is supposed to engaging as well.

Interactive experience

I am quite convinced (for reasons stated above) that there is a vast new world to explore if the interaction is in focus, instead of gameplay and narrative. Doing this is probably the only way to get away from having a majority of games that are just based on killing stuff. I am not against games with violence, but I think it is quite sad how overrepresented they are. Just check check the Game of the Year 2009 nominees from Gamespot – only two out of ten nominees did not have violence as the core experience. The two remaining on that list does not evoke much hope though, one of them is a car game and the other Sims 3 (although it was quite original 10 years ago). There really needs to be some change to this!

The first step is to get rid of the idea that a challenge is needed, at least in the way it works in today’s games. This is why I said at the start that “game” is a bad word. Not only does it imply gameplay, but it also gives the idea that playing should be about winning. Because of this both user and creator have preconceptions of what a game experience is like. A user picking up a game will assume that there will be obstacles awaiting and the goal will be to overcome them. The creator will also assume that this is what the user wants and we got ourselves an “evil spiral”.

Instead of having every challenge as a performance test, one can let the user just experience it. For example, navigating through dark tunnels can be creepy even if failure is not possible. All other media works this way and I do not see how the addition of interaction changes it. Just think about all of the horror games that does not have any player death in them and still manage to be scary (as discussed here). Just like when reading a book or watching a movie, there is a form of role playing going on and interactive works can use this as well.

Another way of overcoming the need of challenges is to have learning as a goal (discussed in a recent Gamastura article). An extreme example of this would be a “game” where players could skip a level at any time but was required to reach a certain degree of understanding in order to grasp later levels. Note that this would be far from what is expected of a game and I think many users would be very confused by the approach. This is another example why I think the word “game” simple does not fit (and is even greatly misleading!) for some interactive works.

As for skipping narrative, this does not mean that games cannot have stories. Instead it means that we need to rethink how stories are told. Many (sometimes most!) events in a narrative are there in order to express some kind of meaning. For instance, in a story about polar explorers some events might be needed in order to show how hostile and unforgiving the land at the poles are. In an interactive work, this can be accomplished through interaction with the environment, thus making these parts of the narrative unnecessary. What I am trying to get at here is that instead of replicating what is described in written form or shown on film, the focus should be on the meaning and how it is best expressed in an interactive format. I am convinced that goals like “creating a cinematic experience” are dead ends in terms of evolving the interactive medium.

Of course there is a still room for a narrative, but trying to copy the way it works in non-interactive media is wrong. The experience should be adjusted according to how the user interacts, instead of trying to control the user’s interaction in accordance to the narrative.

I am not saying that gameplay and narrative should be skipped altogether. In some types of interactive works it might even be best to focus on them! But in order to be able to explore other kinds of meanings in the interactive medium, they cannot always be in focus. It is also important that we let go of some of the preconceptions that exist, both when “playing” and creating an interactive work. If not, we will miss out on a lot of rich and valuable experiences!

Some “games” like Everyday the same dreamFatale and Dear Esther have begun experimenting with this sort of thinking, but I believe they are just barely scratching the surface of what is possible. This is especially true when it comes to using the power of interactivity, which the work listed are quite sparse with. Also, most works of this type have a certain avant-garde feel to them and I think it possible, and quite necessary, to use this way of thinking to create more mainstream works as well.

Our efforts

The above not only outlines a direction in which I think that “games” should evolve. It also describes a lot of the thinking we have had when designing Amnesia. As our project have progressed, we have moved more and more away from gameplay and narrative, instead focusing on the meaning we want to express. This does not mean that Amnesia will be absent of both gameplay and narrative though. It just means that they have been far from the focus during development. The goal (and meaning) with Amnesia is to create a disturbing atmosphere and expose players to concepts about the nature of human evil. All of the game’s design has been built around enhancing these things.

Gameplay wise, we have never really thought about how we want to challenge the player, instead it has been all about creating a certain atmosphere and evoking emotions. No puzzle have been thrown in just to drag out on the playtime or just to pose an extra challenge. We have been very careful to make sure that puzzles have relevance to the story and the feelings we want to convey. The is also true for other gameplay elements, for instance how enemy encounters are handled.

There is a narrative in Amnesia (two separate actually), but instead of making an effort to have certain events at certain times, we have left it up to the player to explore and experience the story. In Penumbra we tried to make sure that the player could not miss certain plot elements, but we are taking a more “relaxed” attitude with this in Amnesia. The game is meant to be explored at a gentle pace and for the clues found to be carefully considered. We think this approach is more interesting instead of just spoon feeding all important information to the player. A vital aspect of the game is for the player to take a stance against things that are revealed and this is deeply connected with the way the game is played.

We are not suggesting that Amnesia is going to be a giant leap in the evolution of the interactive media, but believe that this way of thinking is a step the right direction. It remains to be seen if the finished game will benefit from it, but at least we are giving it a try!

Puzzles in horror games Part 1: Why are puzzles so suited for horror games?

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This post will be the first in a series concentrating on puzzles in games, with special focus on horror games. To start this up I would like to discuss why puzzles are needed at all. Is it really necessary to have puzzles in game when it might detract from story, immersion, etc?

In order to be a game, there needs to be some kind of interaction. I think this is pretty much the most basic feature of a game – no interaction, no game. In order to be engaging there also needs to be some kind of challenge, if the player simple makes arbitrary choices then the game is awfully close to interactive storytelling (not be mixed up with IF) instead. Even in the most linear story games, there is always something blocking progression, something that needs to be taken care of before the game advances. In Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy) the player presses random buttons and in the IF game Photopia the player needs to do the correct action. Both of these games are (in my option at least) are very close to being works of interactive storytelling, but still feel like games.

So can’t the interaction be just some form on exploration? If the player is free to look at anything in the world, is that not enough to make it a game? I think no. The reason for this is that this kind of interaction is very close to a footnotes in a book or hyperlinks in some online text. The reader can choose to read the extra pieces of information or simply keep on reading, thus allowing for very basic interaction. If this would make the work a “game”, then just a about any book or webpage could be considered just that. This does not seem right to me and is my main reason for thinking that some kind of challenge is needed.

So what kind of challenges can be used? Some games like Dragon’s Lair requires the player to press a random button at the right time . This mechanic is awfully simplistic but used at the right time it can be quite effective and at least one upcoming game even bases its entire basic gameplay around it. It can even be more simplistic than this and just require the roll of a die, like some gamebooks. Also notice how the gamebook goes from a branching plot novel (a non-game) to an actual game as soon as these “challanges” are added. This sort of gameplay might be highly trivial, with a clear sepperation of story and game mechanics, but I still think it is what makes a difference and creates what I would like to call a game.

Modern games have plenty of fun ways to present challanges – hordes of enemies, deadly chasms, puzzles, etc. It stills plays the same role as that timed button press though, the player needs to face some kind of obstacle and try to overcome it. This comes as a problem for horror games though, since it is a genre that has a lot of focus on creating atmosphere. Everytime an obstacle is reached, the pace is broken and it can lead to frustration in the player – breaking immersion.

With this in mind, it seems like some kind of hands-on-action is the best for horror games. However, looking at horror in other mediums, classics such as The ShiningAlien and The Exorcist contain very little action. As explained in an earlier post, having too much (player induced) violence will most likely significantly lessen the horror aspects of the game. That said, action do not have to be bad, but basing the gameplay on it will probably not create a scary game.

In search of other kinds of challanges, the three major found in horror are: sneaking, running and puzzles. Sneaking has been briefly metnioned earlier and running has had whole post dedicated to it. I think the problem is the same for both of these mechanics though: they are likely to add an element of trial-and-error. This means replaying which in turn means frustation and loss of atmosphere. This is something one wants to avoid in horror games and thus these two mechanics should be used sparesly.

Left is now puzzles and it is my belief that this is the best suiting horror gameplay mechanic. Infact, horror in other media use similar ways to add drama to the story. Often a horror story has some kind of mystery, a puzzle, at it’s core, making it similar to detective fiction. Events that onfold also often come in the form of puzzles, in Ringu the main characters try to learn the mystery of a cursed video tape and many characters in horror story has to find a way out of locked room, etc. Puzzles also offer a nice change of pace from an intense section, making the player calm down and get ready (more vunerable) for the next scary part. This is probably why action based horror games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, come with many puzzle sections.

Puzzles come with a lot of problem though and can too lead to frustration and loss of immersion in a game. What kind of problems that might arise and ideas for solving these will featured in the upcoming posts.

Until then: What do you think is the most basic essence of a game? Are challenges really needed to create a game? Are puzzles the best basic mechanic for a scary game?

A History of violence. Part 3

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In this blog post I will focus an underused combat mechanic: Chase Sequences. This type of “combat” is very common in horror movies, but quite rare in horror games. I will briefly discuss how we used it in Penumbra, problems it causes and how some other games have implemented it.

In Penumbra we used chase sequences on three occasions in the entire series and and each time it was a highly scripted event. There was always little room for the player to move in and mostly a very clear path. The first two chase sequences were in Overture and both involved being chased by a giant worm. In both of these the player had to complete a specific obstacle along the way and failure resulted in death and a restart of the chase. While a lot of people said that they liked this, a large amount also disliked this portion of the game because of its trial and error nature.

In Black Plague the chase sequence was a bit different. Here the player had more space to move about in, the goal was not as clear and we also deliberately tried messing with the player’s head. The Overture chase sequences focused more on creating fear, while this had a larger focus on confusing and disturbing the player. Like the worm chases, some players really liked the sequence while other did not liked it all. Here the problem was that some people did not found the right way quick enough and the terror experienced was transformed into frustration.

The reason for people not liking the chase sequence is pretty much the same in both of the above instances, and probably also the main reason why this type of combat is so underused: It requires a very scripted environment, has a very strong trial-and-error feel and loses much of its impact and fun-factor after the first try. In order for it to be entertaining, the player must not repeat the sequences too much.

Some example from other games with chase sequences includes Clock Tower and Beyond Good and Evil (which is not a horror game though).

In Clock Tower chase sequences replace normal combat to a certain degree. When an enemy appears, the player must either hide or escape by using scripted interactions with the environment (throwing plants, etc). This is probably the most fateful adaption horror-movie chases I have played in a game, but it comes with lots issues. First of all, the chases loose their appeal very quickly as there is no real reward for avoiding the enemies, so enemies become more of a chore as the game progresses. Also, to avoid players from repeating hiding/avoidance patterns hiding places and offensive environment pieces stop working after some uses, sometimes making it very hard to escape an enemy and leaving one running around in circles trying to avoid the threat. More problems exist, but to sum it up the main problem is that it is very hard to keep this kind of generic chasing interesting and it is therefore not a very good mechanic.

Beyond Good and Evil’s chase sequences are very scripted and at times similar to quick-time events. The sequences are also very much based on trial and error, but have very frequent check points removing some of the frustration. The chases are quite rare too, so they never get too annoying and always seem fresh. They can still get very frustrating though, and like the chases in Penumbra, enjoyment depends on how many tries it takes to complete them.

Finally, a Silent Hill 1 remake is going to be based around some kind of scripted quick time chases instead of combat. It will be interesting to see how this turns out and how they will manage to keep the chases from becoming frustrating trial and error based Dragon’s Lair like gameplay. Judging from previous chase sequences in games, it seems like a risky decision, but it is always fun that developers dare to try new things.

What is your take on chase gameplay? Did you find the penumbra chase sequences fun or just frustrating?

A History of violence. Part 1

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Ever since I started working on horror games (first was a simple 2d game called Fiend) I have been thinking about what kind of combat one wants in a horror game. This question was even more important when working on Penumbra as we had some problems in Overture concerning weapons. Our idea was that player would want at least something to defend themselves with, so we gave them some weak weapons and cumbersome combat mechanics, thinking it would only be used as last line of defense. Instead all kinds of problems arose, some players thought that since there where weapons, combat was meant to be used and complained about it be boring. Others figured out some tricks with the combat and thought it was way too easy. Very few players seemed play the game like we intended it to and we had to fix this somehow.

In Black Plague we took the decision to skip combat altogether and let the player be as vulnerable as possible. Not only did this make the design easier for us (could always assume enemies where alive), but most players also found the game scarier and more fun to play. Still, I think that there should be some way to use weapons, as it seems like such a “natural” thing. For example: if some monster/bad guy traps you in a corner, you will probably grab what ever is near and try to use it as means to get away. This kind of mechanic is also very common in horror movies, for example Scream uses it quite a bit.

For our new game “Unknown” we first considered using weapons and having them as defense only. But after some playtesting, the same problems that we had in Overture popped up. Some found the combat way to easy and others found it almost impossible. As trying to configure good difficult settings would be really hard, we decided to tone down combat and make the player very vulnerable instead. Further gameplay testing seem to confirm that this was the right thing to do.

In part 2 I will discuss the different kinds of combat found in games.

Until then: What are your thoughts on the combat in Overture and the lack thereof in Black Plague? Does removing combat really make a game scarier or is just a matter of how it is implemented?

The “fun” in horror games?

When discussing gameplay in games, the main focus is mostly on making it “fun”. The meaning of “fun” is usually that it is an enjoyable experience for the player and that boredom and frustration are reduced as much as possible. Normally this is the main priority when working on some part of the game and if it is not “fun” enough, that part will be remade or scrapped. In many horror games things are different though and focus is instead put on invoking emotions other than just “fun”.

A good example is at the start of Silent Hill 2. Here the player must go for several minutes through a wood and city outskirts until reaching the town of Silent Hill. Apart from meeting a character and finding a save spot, not much happens during this section and it is only used to build up atmosphere and more imporantly to make the player feel as if they are making a long journey to reach Silent Hill. The second point is really different as it wants to give the player a special feeling and introducing things like boredom into gameplay to achieve that. This very different from how game mechanics usually work.

Silent Hill 2 is filled with situations like this. At one point the player is trapped in a well and has to find their way out by using tedious “pixel hunting”, increasing the sense of being trapped. In another situation the player is locked in a room of cockroaches and the puzzle needed to get out cannot be completed straight away, invoking panic in the player. Both of these showcase how inducing some kind of emotion has been more important than making the gameplay “fun”.

In our upcoming game Unknown we are going to use unfun gameplay in order to enhance emotions of fear. We aim to do this by letting the player get negative gameplay feedback whenever in a scary situation and therefore be more careful when exploring. We are hoping to get something along the lines of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, where investigators (the players) are very cautious when encountering anything unknown.

I think discarding the notion that gameplay always needs to be fun is crucial if games shall evolve as a medium and to really take advantage of its form. The things made in horror games is a step on the way, but I think there is still plenty of avenues to explore. For example, what about a game where the gameplay focuses on creating laughter?

Do you think games always need to fun? Can recall any more situations where the gameplay was “unfun” in order to invoke emotions?