Friday, July 17, 2015

An Exploration of Horror at the Writers Guild

In this article, narrative designer Robert Rappoport reports on the discussion at the Writing for Horror Video Games panel, ranging from player agency, push design, to the role of writers in game development. 

Things got scary at the Writers Guild of America East on June 17, 2015 during the panel, “Writing for Horror Video Games.” Organized by the WGAE Video Game Writers Caucus, the panel discussed writing and creating horror in video games, the difficulties involved, and the successes that members of the panel had found in utilizing the expert tool of fear. The panelists were Alex Toplansky, Senior Writer at Deep Silver Volition, Justin Pappas, former level designer at Irrational Games and founder and creative director at Ape Law Games, and a special Skype appearance was made by Chuck Beaver, best known for his work on the Dead Space trilogy.

The conversation began with a simple question by Matt Weise, the panel’s moderator: “Why make horror games?” Toplansky responded by commenting on player agency within horror, that the tone of a horror story often places the player him or herself in the driver’s seat of the terror. Fear is something that happens to you, and unlike a love story, horror is direct in its delivery.

The panelists ventured onto familiar ground during the discussion as each designer amicably used examples from their own work to show how horror was a useful tool in the writer and designer’s toolbox. Notably, Pappas discussed in detail his involvement as a level designer on the most recent and well-acclaimed Tomb Raider game. He discussed the transitional moments of the game where Lara Croft is forced through passageways that, Pappas explained, were used to intentionally demonstrate Lara’s fears and phobias. “How are we going to make the player claustrophobic in this area?”

Ideas like this are rarely planned, and the panelists were amused to think about the lightning in a bottle moments that have to happen for great gameplay to occur. “One of the funny things about video games is that it’s such a broad medium. The organization of teams is so strange,” Toplansky said. “The most successful cases are when everyone’s doing air traffic control, so they’re all there to peer review one another…We churn through everyone’s stuff and then it’s ‘who’s going to blink first?’ If you’re willing to own and champion your idea, then it makes it into the game.”

The importance of each role in a design team was discussed, with all panelists agreeing that there is no set way to create horror. “It’s all a case by case basis.” Pappas offered.

Level designers are important because everything passes through them, but writers are the people who have to make sense of everything. It is a sad truth of game design that the writer is often brought in right at the end of the development cycle, and the panelists concurred that this was no way to tell a story. They all agreed how wonderful it was that writers were more frequently being brought closer to the very beginning.

Beaver reminisced on his recent experience at Electronic Arts, where one of the first true writer positions was being forged for that company. The gaming industry is becoming a world where writers are not only appreciated, but are being sought after in places that they would not normally think to be involved. “I’m super excited about the professional career of writers. Who knows, soon we might have narrative for sports games!”

After discussing the role of the writer at length, Weise steered his excited peers back to horror by mentioning Konami’s Silent Hill 2, a landmark of the genre in the context of inhabiting an empty shell versus the experience of being in the head of a fully fledged character. Each of the panelists agreed that it was important to establish pillars in the world that the character and the player had to obey. Toplansky cited the familiar “In a world…” phrase to help bring the point home. “Silent Hill is, ‘In a world… where you’re going insane.’ In that world the story isn’t going to finish with ‘You weren’t insane at all!’ It wouldn’t make sense.”

Beaver commented that the changing nature of the medium and the enthusiastic approach studios are taking to virtual reality technology would also greatly change the face of not only horror, but also games as a medium. “In film, it’s always been a passive audience, but now the audience has the camera and is experiencing the story. There’s a huge amount of exploration left to do about what is effective.”

Player agency led to the discussion of how to make the player take actions that are frightening and unnerving. Or, as moderator Weise put it: “How do you make the player go into the basement?” Push design, a concept developed and popularized by Valve, was discussed. It’s the concept of creating soft boundaries around the player to gently guide their actions: “You have a ledge somewhere in the space, you look down and you see something neat, and we as designers have to show that if you walk there’s no going back. You’ve let us push you.”

“People who bought a ticket for a horror movie, a game is the same way,” Beaver mused. “I bought a horror game, I know I’m going to be scared. I don’t want go to the scary place! No, of course you do. You bought the game.” Beaver went on to discuss how Isaac’s needs in Dead Space lead to a detailed exploration of the game and its story.

The conversation wound down to systemic design and the future of horror. “We’re going to get more systemic games,” Pappas said. “It’s about discovery and finding those perfect moments.”

Toplansky spoke about how in a systemic game, a writer cannot plan for every situation, but they can create enough interesting interactions that a sophisticated engine will give the player a unique and terrifying experience. “A writer needs to come in and stack the dice.”

The panel created an overall thrilling and enjoyable experience for its audience, which had been a large turnout. Each of the speakers brought his own unique take to horror and how it affects the writer’s position and the nature of games, along with opinions of its future as a genre. No doubt we will see even more panels like this one as more people participate in Caucus functions.

[This article originally appeared on Robert Rappoport's personal blog.

 A narrative designer with a penchant for all things scary, Robert can be found sipping tea at his favorite hideouts in New York City. When not brewing tea by candlelight, Robert likes writing and creating horror... also by candlelight. If you enjoyed the article, you can find more of his work at


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