Thursday, 18 July 2013

Event Horizon and What Makes a Game Scary

Event Horizon is a project of mine wherein I attempt to create a horror game. This will part of a series of articles describing this project.

I started from the Resident Evil series, and tried to figure out what made a game scary from there. I established the shambling hordes of zombies are not particularly frightening. Attempting to come up with an answer for what was scary led me to the following prerequisites for fear:
  • Alertness and investment in the game is critical for an emotional response. During tense periods of the game, you should be forced to give the game your full attention, or else suffer horrible consequences.
    • I want to force a high level of control sensitivity. Halo defaults control sensitivity to 3, I want it to default to 10. The high sensitivity forces players to stay calm in order to aim properly. Tutorials will instruct users to press lightly on thumbsticks (or move mouse only slightly). This is essentially reverse psychology done in such a way that no one would realize it, by demanding calm, you induce panic. It also makes the consequences of losing your nerve more severe, as you swing your aim wildly in panic.
    • I also want to have manual reloading, possibly a Quick Time event, that, while relatively easy, can drop your clip or jam your gun if you rush it. This is again, mainly to keep people on their toes.
  • Intelligent opponents - being forced to outthink enemies is a huge point here. You should have to keep on your toes, with the ability to be killed at any point in time. Equally however, you should have a good fighting chance, as there can't really be fear without hope. 
    • This led me to combat that can end quickly and decisively, similar to that of the Counterstrike series, where a single headshot from the weakest gun can kill an opponent in one hit. In addition, requiring that kind of precision forces the same alertness I mentioned earlier.
    • You will probably be fairly tough, so perhaps Bioshock would be a better comparison. Enemies die quickly, but take chunks out of you. Being run down and low on health and supplies can make even ordinary sections of the game intense, whereas being one-shotted with full health doesn't really add anything to the game, and just makes parts frustrating or unfair to the player. NPCs will probably have their own system as well, such as the ability to be downed and subsequently saved by a timely medical intervention.
  • Limited Resources - I think the most emotionally involving thing about Resident Evil was ammo management. You had to fight carefully and conserve bullets, or else you would be helpless in the next fight, even if you won the current one. Again, this is because it forces you to be careful, to tread the fine line of staying alive now versus staying alive later.
    • I want to use this method, but take it even further. I don't want there to be any benefit to the player engaging in combat, and as such, no enemy in the game will drop any health or ammo. I also want to have non-combat resources to manage; food to keep survivors going. In addition, there will be a global limit to the amount of ammo and healing in the game, shared between you and all of your NPC allies. You will only be able to carry a limited inventory worth of items at any point in time.
  • Consequences - probably the biggest difference between games and real life is the permanence of consequences. This is because in the worst case scenario for games, you just start over, with no real loss. Games like Fallout miss out on this by making quicksave/load too accessible, and allow you to steal every valuable item in the game without any real risk of punishment. In addition, I find that the 'choose who dies' method employed by Mass Effect is not particularly effective at forcing an emotional response, because as I stated before, without hope, you can't get invested in something.
    • I will impose consequences in both the short and long term. If you get hasty, you will take damage, and spend more ammunition than you would otherwise. In addition, NPCs will live or die by your choices and abilities, and the likable ones have the greatest chance of being killed. 
    • I will do what I can to prevent quicksave/load OCD perfection, such as making save points few and far between, and try and force players to soldier on after a bad fight.
  • Limited Information - not knowing everything forces you to pay attention to every scrap of information you can glean. This again, forces you to be alert and invested in the game. This is most commonly done by having poor lighting or otherwise limited visibility, but does not have to be limited to visual effects. It can also be done by limiting the map/radar functionalities of the HUD, but also by level design. Having narrow corridors with lots of openings for enemies to come from, and therefore forcing you to stay aware of each and every one of them.
    • I will have significant flashlight sections, as well as indirect sources of knowledge. By this I mean ways of announcing enemies in the area (such as them talking amongst themselves or distinct animal sounds for non-humanoid enemies, seeing an enemy flashlight ahead of you from around the corner, or even being briefed about probable enemy locations ahead of time)
    • In addition, I want to have it that where the alien atmosphere mixes with the human's controlled atmosphere, it forms a white mist that obscures vision.
  • Pacing - proper1 pacing for any game is alternating sections of calm, and increasing tension. Both are equally important for creating the right atmosphere. This principle applies not only to horror, but any form of entertainment.
An attempt at visualising ideal intensity levels over time.
    • This will be created mainly by the plot, as each mission takes you into greater danger, and then back to the safe zones where survivors are hiding out. Ideally, within each mission there should be similar periods of calm and action. Alternatively, different mission segments can provide the appropriately varying levels of tension; a vehicle section with a mounted weapon with lots of ammunition can be stress-relieving, and then the section on foot after a roadblock can bring the stress right back.
    • Supplies will be done in such a way that it reflects the tension; when you are out on a mission, your supplies will run down, and when you get back to base, you will have access to your hoard of supplies.
    • In addition, I want to not have any randomly spawning or respawning enemies that prevent an area from ever being truly "safe". From my experience with System Shock 2, this is more annoying than scary, and combined with my "no drops" policy, just isn't fair to the player. There may be exceptions to this, as certain areas should never be "safe".
  • Taking players out of their "comfort zone" - this is a little harder to explain, but the best example I can give is underwater segments. In Half-Life, you cannot use most weapons underwater, and have a limited supply of oxygen before you drown. This kind of forced humbling raises player tension; players lose their crutches2, and are forced to reevaluate new ways to deal with the world around them. You can't rely on your powerful weapons underwater, and you can't take things slowly and carefully when you only have a limited supply of air.
    • This is done primarily through the use of limited resources, so that a player cannot become too reliant on any one thing.
    • In addition, the alien atmosphere, outside of that controlled by the human colonists, is toxic, and will use up your suit's power with its filtering, and once that is exhausted, it will slowly kill you. In addition, it fights for that power against your flashlight, sprinting capabilities, and even certain weapons.
    • I also want the AI to factor into this; it should learn your habits and punish you for sticking to the same strategies. They should be constantly trying to outwit you, and their AI should adapt and evolve so that whichever tactics are most effective against you are the ones they will employ more often (this includes both their actual strategies, as well as what units they will use against you)
  • Atmosphere - choosing the right setting is important for a game. There are two main approaches to this in horror. Either you make things as dark and creepy looking as possible, or you do the very opposite, and rely on the uncanny tension that the juxtaposition creates (which is why church organs are now so strongly associated with horror music, clowns are widely considered scary, and creepy children are such a common motif in horror).
    • I aim for the latter, placing this is an extremely upscale space colony, featuring a six-star hotel3 and ample lighting; at first anyways
    • As the game progresses, things get darker and scarier, as horrible things keep happening to the colony. Power is lost, buildings are ransacked, tunnels are flooded, and the dead keep piling up.
All of these were factors in designing the game. I wanted for it to be psychology oriented from the ground up. More information will be in subsequent articles.

1 - This is based on an article I read about pacing. It is from a book, or else I would link to it.
2 - In this context, a crutch is anything a player would normally rely on to deal with a difficulty. It may be a powerful weapon, a certain playstyle, or any other tool at their disposal.
3 - Yes, six stars. The rating system has been altered just to accommodate this level of class. Space tourism isn't cheap, and only the super-rich can afford such accommodations.

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