Monday, March 30, 2009

Memento Mori: How Player Death is Killing Horror Games (Part II)

In Part I, programmer Nels Anderson explains why there's a fundamental problem with player death in horror games. In Part II, he offers some suggestions on how to deal with it.

So what can we do about this? I have a few suggestions of my own, but these are really meant to start conversation and brainstorm, and are certainly not edicts on how to create fear correctly.

1) Getting Death Right is Essential

Shamus Young wrote about this problem and his suggestions involve making the player seem more threatened than they really are. It’s certainly better than a punish combat and death system, but should the illusion break down, I imagine most players would feel taken advantage of. But if one can focus the gameplay more on evading and running away than being able to actively confront foes, this is more viable. Fatal Frame does this well, and although I haven’t played it in years, I remember my experience with Silent Hill was much more about running away and being afraid of dying than actually being killed and being forced to replay things I’d already done.

I would prefer to be more experimental and move even further away from our old tropes. We’ve seen Planescape: Torment make the protagonist’s immortality central to the narrative. Far Cry 2 had a literal buddy system where an NPC ally would revive you from unconsciousness, allowing the player to “die” without damaging the narrative. There is a lot more room for experimentation with player death that wouldn’t cause the replay frustrations that so quickly sink the horror aesthetic.

2) Keep It Short

Horror is strongest when it’s condensed and pared down as much as possible. I wrote about two horror films that I think are exemplary in terms of aesthetic and pacing, [Rec] and The Descent. The former’s runtime is only 75 minutes and it doesn’t need to be a minute longer. Some of the best writers in horror, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Guy de Maupassant, were masters of the short story. Famous horror directors recently collaborated to produce something similar. Most responses to horror games are something akin to, “It was great at the beginning, but then…” (see Steve Gaynor’s reaction to Haunting Ground)

I think a series of short games that have a similar mechanical and aesthetic structure, but are entirely self-contained, could address this. A horror version of Grimm or Telltale’s offerings, if you will. The protagonist’s death could come at the end of some episodes without jarring consequence to the narrative. It would also be much easier to maintain the illusion of danger. Eternal Darkness has a structure that is similar to this and they utilize it quite well. Alternatively, just one level or section of a game could be especially horrific. Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm section is an example, or the absolutely brilliant Shalebridge Cradle in Thief: Deadly Shadows.

3) Make Limited Resources Interesting

While the execution appears to have fallen flat, a recent game adaptation of John Carpenter’s The Thing has a core mechanic that seems solid. At any point in the game, one of the player’s NPC allies could really be host to the Thing. With some reworking, the core gameplay decisions could be how the player reacts to the possible infection of their allies. Not killing an infected ally could be disastrous, but killing an innocent ally could cause distrust in others, in addition to having horrifically murdered someone for no reason. Survival horror’s tension comes from managing very limited resources, but in this case, the resource is trust rather than bullets or ink ribbons.

4) Less is More

While horror is hard to pull out, there is one ally the horror designer will always have - the player’s subconscious. Establish the right tone and mood and the player’s imagination will create something more horrifying than any designer or artist could ever hope to. Polish here will pay off in spades. Spend lots of time getting sound and music right.

There’s a lot of opportunity for interesting and scary horror games. I cannot even begin to describe how excited I would be for a multiplayer game similar in design to Betrayal at House on the Hill. The unknown betrayer has worked for literally decades in the form of social games like “Mafia” and dinner party murder mysteries. But to create frightening experiences that affect in ways more primal than other games, things must change. We have to stop designing mechanics, especially those related to the player death, that inevitably sabotage the tension and tone so essential to horror. Do you think we’re up to the task?

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design at


Brian said...

Another good example to look to would be The Orphanage, if you haven't seen it. Instead of a premise that relies on facing a scary monster and defeating it, it's about horrible things happening and having to live with them. The scares are more about uncertainty and less about 'boo!' moments when things pop out from the shadows. Since it's a great psychological story, not just a scary story, it's more human, more relatable, and ultimately more disturbing.

Nels Anderson said...

I haven't seen The Orphanage (which I plan to correct soon), but yet another great Spanish horror movie is Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone. Similarly cerebral and atmospheric. Check it out if you've haven't.

Brad O'Neill said...

The reason TV Medical Dramas are successful is because the Drama is in not knowing if the patient will survive and they are replaced every week. Yes we have the typical social issues and the occasional tragic illness or emergency with main characters but week after week our good doctors face death with a new patient. This is a device that could be used in a horror genre. If you are a guide and there is no guarantee your charges are going to make it tension can be added without abrubtly ending the story should tragedy occur.

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