Personally I feel like everyone should study history. It is one of those topics that is taken for granted. Many people disregard history but don’t realize how much history shapes and defines the world we live. Many conflicts are based on certain interpretations of history and many cultures define their identity on a certain view of history. But what goes into studying history? What difficulties do we face when we construct our historical narratives?
Unfortunately we do not have a perfect recording of the past. We have to piece together a picture from what little scraps history has decided to leave us. We have to reconstruct the kind of world our ancestors lived in and we have to grasp at the motivations and thoughts of those long gone.
There are many sources we rely on to reconstruct the past from excavated villages or cities to written works. All sources are up to certain amount of interpretation and several often have to be used in conjunction with each other.
The trouble with certain sources such as written ones is how much scrutiny are we supposed to treat them with? Often we have sources that talk about one period of time but were written much latter. The gospels were written 30-50 years after the estimated death of Jesus. Are certain elements of the gospels reflective of the time of Jesus or the time they were written? The war involving Troy mentioned in the Iliad was thought to be a myth but then archaeological evidence showed that there might be a grain of truth to the story. But how much of the Iliad could actually be trusted as a historical source?
Even if we decide to trust a certain source we have to take into account biases or misinformation present in the source. How much of the descriptions about the Germanic people can we trust from the Romans or from Christian missionaries? Or descriptions of the Native populations from early European colonizers to the Americas?
Archaeological evidence can also be difficult to work with especially if you have no other sources to work with it. Collaboration is important when it comes to reconstructing the past. Using several sources together can help create a clearer picture of a certain moment in the past while helping us to see what biases might exist in certain sources. With the use of several sources we can piece together a picture that is rarely ever completed.
The Many vs The Individual
One question that arises from studying history is the question of whether the social-political currents of a time or the individual is of greater influence. Would have the Reformation still have taken place without Martin Luther? Would the Second World War still have happened without Hitler? Both the Reformation and World War 2 are intimately tied with these individuals but they were riding on social-political currents that had been bubbling to a point for a while.
During Luther’s time the populace was fed up with the Catholic Church and its abuses. Some individuals tried to break away but such movements often failed. There was outcry for reform. Was Luther simply the first one to pop that bubble or was there something about his character or place in society to push for what became the Reformation? Luther’s actions led to the formation of other denominations that were able to survive and reforms within the Catholic Church. Some have argued that if Luther did not start the Reformation others would have simply filled his role; the social-political climate was there it just needed someone, anyone to pop that bubble.
Europe was still tense after the end of the First World War. Germany resented its treatment under the Treaty of Versailles. Economically it was in shambles. And the efforts of those in power to maintain a stable Germany was failing. Some debate has been had on what a Europe without Hitler would have looked like. Some have argued, due to other factors in Europe, war would have broken out. But that this war would have been a vastly different war than what we ended up with. Others have argued that it was Hitler’s charisma and ambition that drove Europe to war, that without him Germany might have still have flexed some military muscle but it would have been on a much smaller scale.
One of the issues with examining what is more of driving force in history is it always makes us play the what if game. In the end all we have is what have. History played out the way it did. By trying to figure out what might have happened if certain factors were different we toe the line of speculative fiction. What is likely is that some moments are driven more by a con-flux of factors and other times are driven by individuals.
What does history mean to us?
Everyone has their own history. This becomes apparent when history enters public discourse and we see how everyone uses history to craft a part of their identity. In the 1990s the Smithsonian tried to create a display to remember the bombing of Hiroshima. There was a proposed 300 page script that was supposed to go along with this display. Those that crafted it tried to be balanced and unbiased but when it was revealed there was a backlash. Some felt the script sympathized with the Japanese too much and that the valor and courage of U.S. soldiers wasn’t explored enough. Those that crafted the narrative for the display were accused of rewriting history and trying to make it more politically correct. In the end the original exhibit that was envisioned was done away and replaced with a smaller more low key exhibit.
More recently there was debate over changes the Texas State Board of Education wanted to make to its text book standards. There was a lot of argument of what elements of American History should be focused on and how should somethings be presented. Why should country music be talked about but not hip-hop? How do we handle unsavory topics of American History such as the abuse of Native American cultures and slavery? There is a certain interpretation of history that is the correct American view. To interpret it a different way is to rewrite it and to dishonor our heritage.
People tend to think that their view of history is the only correct view before realizing it can be perceived differently by different people. A white man will perceive the history of slavery differently than a black man. Even if the white man understands and is disgusted by that history and views it as an atrocity he will not have to live under its shadow like the black man. The black man has to struggle against the effects that slavery and its attitudes have left behind.
History also tends to age. As we move further away from a certain point in history our concept of that time becomes distorted. People are remembered differently. The founding fathers become idolized versions of what they really were. Golden ages that never existed are remembered. People long for the 1950s that never existed. Wars and battles become myth. The war that involved Troy becomes immortalized in the Iliad.
History can help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes. But this rarely is the case. The human race continues to play out its depravity in war, subjugation, political, social and economic abuses. But we should continue to study history in case we are able to avoid those horrors again. We also need it. There is a need in the human spirit to try and understand were we came from and to try to place ourselves in the fabric of human history. But we must be careful to not tie ourselves down too much with one interpretation of history. If we can learn to see history from different perspective we might be able to better understand other people, other cultures better. We can become a more unified people through history and maybe one day avoid the horrors that we continue to repeat over and over again.
This will be the last of my articles for my Survival Horror Series. This post is mostly just a mish mash of various design thoughts when it comes to survival horror design.
I am Tank
One of the hallmarks of the earlier survival horror games was the controls, often referred to as tank controls. Like a lot of elements from the earlier games, limitations in design or technology were turned into something that helped to add to the atmosphere of fear. Tank controls in early survival horror games meant the player had little to no control over the camera. Developers took advantage of this by having possible threats just outside the player’s field of vision. This created suspense and unease. The “bulky” control scheme also helped create a sense of panic in combat as the player tried to get their character to fight back.
The problem is that tank controls are outdated now. You can still find games here and there that use them but the limitations that necessitated the use of tank controls are no longer present. Some argue that we should keep tank controls in survival horror games but these days it creates more frustration than fear.
Really when it comes to the controls we should accept this is no longer a good way of creating tension. Players are used to what modern games have given them. Survival horror games are no less freighting just because they don’t have tank controls.
User Interface, Menus, and Inventory
I’m throwing these three together because they all link to each other in a way. These three elements can help or hinder the flow or immersion of gameplay.
Older survival horror games often had the player go into menus to access various items or information about the character they were playing. In a way this breaks immersion. The immersion could be broken even more if the player had the ability to bring up the various menus during tense moments or during combat.
Survival horror games have tried to move away from having the player rely on menus to access items, weapons, or character information. Character information is either displayed in a corner of the screen or is conveyed by changing how the player sees the game world, such as redness at the edge of the screen that intensifies as health drops lower. Weapons and items are now accessible by hot keys or quick menus.
For the most part these changes have improved the flow and immersion of survival horror games. As long as the hot key or quick menu set ups are not clunky or slow the change in design helps augment the flow within the game.
There are two competing philosophies when it comes to how inventory should be handled in survival horror games. On the one hand you have games like the first three Silent Hill games that pretty much give you unlimited inventory space and on the other you have the early Resident Evil games that limited what you could carry. Later Silent Hill games would try their hand at limited inventory systems. The idea behind limiting inventory is that it places pressure on the player to pick and choose what they really need. There is also the argument that limiting inventory is more realistic and that it can help immerse the player.
A well-executed limited inventory system can add to the immersion of the game. But designers should be very careful because a limited inventory system that isn’t well-executed can add more frustration than immersion. Designers need to try to not overload the player with too many items. Items should be rationed out to the player in way that makes them choose between just a few items. If the player is forced to choose between too many items then it becomes frustrating. One solution to this is to have a storage place where the player can store an unlimited amount of items but even here the setup has to be well-executed.
Combat and Weapons
The focus of survival horror games should not be combat. Combat can and should be present but it should be a less present element that augments the overall experience. Atmosphere, world building, characters, and narrative should be at the center of survival horror games.
One of the things I enjoyed about the early Silent Hill games is that combat was pretty easy, except for the tank controls. You didn’t fear a confrontation with most monsters because it was hard but because they were just so god damned messed up. Coupled with the nightmarish atmosphere the game didn’t need to make combat hard. It was there but didn’t take center stage. Most of us if confronted by such creatures would probably attempt to fight back, whether we were successful is another matter.
Later titles in both the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series made combat more central to the play of the game, moving these titles more into action horror territory than survival horror. Something is lost when combat takes central stage. As long as a combat system is well designed, which is arguable for the later Silent Hill and Resident Evil games, you don’t have to worry as much about story, character, or atmosphere. I love Gears of War but it’s not because of its story or characters, which tend to be a bit thin, but because the combat is really fun. One of the things that make survival horror a unique experience is its focus on stories, characters, and atmosphere to create a truly nightmarish game. If the focus of the game becomes combat then those elements are lost.
Along with keeping combat simple weapons should also be simple. The player shouldn’t have access to an arsenal to choose from. Most of the weapons should be everyday things and guns should be restricted to what you might find in an average home. Imagine running around Silent Hill with an M-16 or a rocket launcher, it just doesn’t create the same feeling.
I really don’t have a lot to say about music or audio. It is not really an area that I have really delved into. I will just say that the music and audio in survival horror games plays a central role in creating the nightmarish atmosphere the player enters into. The more unnatural something sounds the more unnerving it can be. There also moments when little to no audio can add to the tension of a particular moment.
Really bad voice acting can take a player right out of the moment. The voice acting in video games isn’t always the greatest and this isn’t something confined to survival horror. Voice acting for video games for hasn’t been taken seriously in the past but it is improving. If you’re looking for decent voice actors look for somebody who has experience in radio/audio plays or someone who has done voice acting for animation, puppets, or CGI creations. Make sure their voice acting is good enough for a video game set up. If you ever find yourself designing a survival horror game don’t let the audio, music, or voice acting fall to wayside.
So concludes my Survival Horror Series. It was fun to think about the various design elements I wrote about. I hope these posts have been informative and have helped those who also like to think about the design aspects of video games, especially survival horror games.
In my last post I hinted at a game concept I wanted to develop that incorporated some of the sanity system features I discussed. What follows is that game concept. It is a loose outline of ideas for a video game. I don’t have the knowledge or resources to make anything out of it but it is something I wanted to flesh out and share. The pictures I use are not exactly what I anything is supposed to look like but are used to convey the tone of characters or locations I am describing/outlining. Now come and enter the City of the Nightmare King.
The Opening Scene:
It is a stormy night. Lightning flashes over a rundown house that looks like it is in a bad neighborhood. The windows have bars over them. The player then sees within the home as an elderly black woman is locking up her home. Thunder sounds in the distance. She passes by some family photos. One is a middle aged man in military uniform; her husband who died in war. Another is her son who she hasn’t seen in years. She thinks he is rotting in prison somewhere. The gangs got to him. She wishes could leave this neighborhood. It was a good place to live when she was younger. Since then it has deteriorated. But she has no way to leave. She slowly shuffles to her bed.
As the storm rages on the player sees the woman sleeping. The player starts to see her crying in her sleep. There is a dark mist that starts to form over her. Her body stretches out unnaturally as she quietly begs for her life. Gun shots are heard but no source is seen. Bullet holes form on the woman’s body. The dark mist dissipates. The Nightmare King has feed for the night.
The City of the Nightmare King takes place in an unnamed metropolis that sits beside a massive river. The buildings within in the game should have a distorted design to provide a feeling of unease. Everything should just feel a little off. The city is covered in smog. It is in this city we find the characters of the game. None of them are perfect. They all have nightmares to feed the creature that has begun to haunt it.
The Wayward Son:
The player plays an aging detective: William. He grew up outside of the metropolis on a farm. His mother died while he was young and was raised by his father. He drew strength from his father and entered law enforcement as his way of putting the ideals he learned into action. He wanted to protect and help people but he has become jaded. He has seen the corruption that runs through all levels of society and the amount of suffering human beings can inflict on one another.
The victims of the Nightmare King are just more files of unsolved homicides that end up in the basement archives. There is no link between the victims and the method of killing varies between victims. William only becomes embroiled in the affairs of the Nightmare King by chance and a threat.
Nicholas is William’s lover, though their relationship is strained. Nicholas still maintains a hope in humanity that William has lost. Nicholas is a history professor at the local university. His specialty is in the study of Early Colonial American Folklore.
Nicholas tries to come home and tell William about his student’s efforts but William only half listens and makes comments about what is the point; they will just become corrupted or become victims. Nicholas has tried to uplift William’s spirits but nothing ever seems to work. Lately William has been spending less time with Nicholas and William won’t talk about it.
As William gets drawn deeper into the world of the Nightmare King it starts to bring the fears the lovers have for each other to the surface.
The Iron Maiden:
Julia heads the precinct William works in. Her precinct has one of the highest unsolved homicide rates in the metropolis. Since her appointment a few years ago she has tried to improve the part of the metropolis she has been tasked with watching over. Her methods draw lots of criticism as they are seen as brutal and draconian. She fires and humiliates any individual within her precinct found to have connections to criminal activities. There are also rumors that she turns a blind eye to the beatings of those who have committed more serious crimes. She has torn the checks and spit in the faces of the gangsters and mobsters that have tried to bribe her.
As the story starts William and Julia barely know each other on a personal level. Julia considers to William to be a good detective and wishes he would aspire to move up. What little hope William has in the system of law enforcement in the metropolis lies in Julia. But he doubts she will last long enough to make any permanent changes for the better. There have already been several attempts on her life and he’s just waiting for the day when her life is finally taken.
As Julia’s connections to the Nightmare King slowly emerge William must struggle to understand what is happening and work to gain her trust.
Marcus believes he has found the key to moving up in the criminal world. He has been the laughing stock of the criminal world for always trying to use occult practices for criminal endeavors. His methods rarely worked and if they did it was a fluke. One day he beat a homeless man to death and while going through his possessions found several handwritten pages bound together into a booklet. In it it described a creature that killed by feeding on nightmares. Marcus decided he would try his hand at being a hitman by harnessing the power of this creature. After a couple of small time hits were pulled off successfully people started to take more notice of Marcus, entrusting him with more important hits.
Marcus has become drunk on the power he has gained, believing he is in complete control of the Nightmare King. But the Nightmare King is a creature that is never truly in anyone’s control. As the story begins for the player there are signs that the Nightmare King is acting of its own accord. As the story progresses Marcus has to come to terms with the fact that he was never in control and that the power he had gained is quickly draining through his hands. By the end he is a desperate man that will do whatever he thinks he must do to not lose that power.
The Nightmare King:
The Nightmare King is a creature ultimately incomprehensible to human beings. Its motives for showing up when Marcus called it are unknown. In the waking world if anyone sees the Nightmare King it appears as a human shaped cloud of dark mist. It cannot be interacted with physically. It will leave you alone as long as you don’t try to attack it. Attacking it will cause it to induce hallucinations in its victims and kill them with fear. It never speaks and any sound that emanates from the creature sounds like howling wind.
In dreams where it attacks most of its victims it appears as their fears. If it speaks in dreams it is only ever as the character they are playing, never as the Nightmare King itself. When the victim dies in the dream their physical body will manifest any injuries the Nightmare King inflicted on them in the dream.
At first the Nightmare King attacks only the victims Marcus directs it to but as time passes it starts attacking random people. It even starts to turn on Marcus, invading his dreams. And in the end when it takes its last victim it will leave with no explanation. It reasons for bothering with human affairs will always remain unknown.
The bare bones of the story are that a high ranking individual in one of the gangs has been assassinated. William is the one placed on the case. Through investigating he learns about Marcus and the gossip around him in the criminal underworld. This leads him to look into other alleged hits by Marcus, also leading him to other strange unsolved homicides that are ultimately revealed to be other victims of the Nightmare King.
The climax takes place when William discovers that Marcus’ and the Nightmare King’s next hit is supposed to be Julia. All the while William is struggling to deal with his own demons and the nature of the events taking place as the Nightmare King slowly starts intruding in William’s life.
The story can end in various ways depending on how the player played the game. Different choices include whether or not William lets himself get killed/sacrifices himself to the Nightmare King, whether he let the Nightmare King kill Marcus, and whether or not the player let William lose all of his hope and sanity in the end. Ultimately the Nightmare King leaves off to unknown corners of existence, to one day return and feed again.
The game would take place from a third person perspective. It would have a control scheme like Alan Wake. But combat would not be the focus. In fact any discharge of William’s firearm will require an explanation to his superiors. Depending on his sanity level the dialogue options will vary from reasonable lies to “Oh my god there were monsters!” The game would focus mostly on investigating. Combat might be used in encounters with criminals encountered throughout the game but it will have consequences based on how things play out.
The sanity system would have three components. The first part would basically be something like sanity resistance. These are things that reinforce William’s perspective of reality and his place in it. At the start of the game he hasn’t completely lost hope in the ideals of making the world a better place and helping people. The player can have William go out of his way to help others or intervene in negative situations. These actions reinforce William’s conviction. Actions where the player has William ignoring the plight of others or committing heinous actions himself makes him more susceptible to sanity loss. He would be losing his conviction and a weakness to sanity loss represents him grappling with his certainty of things and himself.
The second part of the sanity system would be the things that actually cost William his sanity. Most situations where William would lose sanity, is in confronting the Nightmare King. These situations might be in the waking world or at some point William might be able to enter dreams to confront the Nightmare King but doing so would require high resistance to the possible sanity loss. Depending on the situation and based on the resistance factors from above he may or may not lose sanity.
The final part of the sanity system is the actual effects on gameplay William’s sanity has. His sanity level will affect what dialogue options he has. Lower sanity means he is having major issues with what is happening causing him to talk in what sounds like non sense to others. This can have a negative impact because he might lose access to resources that can help him, meaning the player would have to find a way to finish the game without the support of Julia or any other law enforcement resources. Lower sanity also means William will be less likely to effectively defend himself, feeling that there is no point in resisting death.
On the flip side a lower sanity might make some clues more obvious to William because of a growing sense of paranoia. This way the player could fast-forward the narrative but it would be toeing the line to make sure his sanity didn’t drop to low.
Keeping sanity up lets William keep himself together to have dialogue options that are reasonable lies about what is happening in order to keep the resources he needs the most. Sanity level would also play into what options are available to William for the end game and ultimately the ending.
There you have it, the City of the Nightmare King. It’s not perfect by any means but is one of the frameworks in which I was thinking about a more complex sanity system for video games. Anyways I hope you enjoyed this slip into what if territory.
There is a difference between sanity and mental illness when it comes to horror with supernatural, absurd, or surreal elements. Real mental illnesses are not fun and most of the time a person suffering from a mental illness did nothing to suffer from it. Generalizations should be avoided when thinking about or interacting with people with mental illnesses. Most people suffering from the myriad of mental afflictions out there aren’t psychotically dangerous or about to "snap." They are people too and should be treated as such.
The portrayal of mental illness in video games is a bit uneven (I will probably be tackling the representations of mental illness in a latter post). I have seen criticisms of sanity systems that pop up in horror games. Some argue that it is dehumanizing and distorting the image of people with mental illnesses. I would disagree with their arguments. Often times when a sanity system is implemented in a horror game it is trying to represent something else. Whether these systems accomplish what they are trying to do is up for debate.
H.P. Lovecraft starts his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature with the line, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." Lovecraft’s fiction is filled with characters confronting the unknown and more frighteningly confronting things that could never be comprehended or known by human minds. The characters in his stories started to loose mental stability as they were faced with horrors they had no chance of understanding or over coming.
Think about not existing. I don’t mean dying and arriving in some afterlife or the process and pain of dying, I mean simply no longer existing. No more consciousness or thinking. It’s hard to think of and comprehend. We are existing thinking creatures, to suddenly not be can be frightening and hard to comprehend. Look up at the night sky. Think about the vastness of space, how large it really is. And now think of how tiny the earth you stand on is in comparison to the rest of the universe. The skyscrapers and mountains we marvel at are nothing but the tiniest of specks compared to the vast and dark universe.
Lovecraft was trying to capture the horror of not knowing or even worse the inability to know, to never to be able to comprehend what you are facing. This is the insanity of horror games. One’s mental stability begins to unravel as you are faced with something incomprehensible. How can you overcome or defeat something you can’t understand? How can you overcome or defeat something that is cosmically greater than you are? You are its plaything whatever it or force it may be. This is the insanity of horror games.
Insanity is facing things you would have never thought real or possible. It is facing forces that shatter your very perception of reality and realizing you are its plaything. It’s trying to comprehend the incomprehensible as all rational thought and reasoning withers away because such things are built on the conviction that your perception of reality was correct. It’s trying to convey to others what is happening, what you are experiencing, but can’t find the right words or make any sense because how can human language convey something beyond human comprehension. You are ignored and never believed. People deny the horror you are trying to bring to their doorstep. You are left alone and raving. This is the loss of sanity. This is the descent into insanity.
Various horror games have tried their hands at how to handle sanity. One of the most well-known of these games is Eternal Darkness Sanity’s Requiem. The game seeks to affect the player as your character loses sanity. The game starts playing tricks on the player like saying your controller is unplugged when it’s not or saying your saves have been deleted. The sanity system is used as a scare tactic to unnerve the player but has no narrative impact.
Amnesia’s sanity system looks to unnerve the player through distorting how the player sees the game world. Bugs crawl along the screen, how the world is presented becomes distorted. In both Eternal Darkness and Amnesia loss of sanity can led to death. Once the character’s sanity is drained your health starts draining. Then there are other games where sanity or mental stability is treated as a simple point system that will end the game the same way as losing all your health. Games generally treat sanity as another scare tactic gimmick or a secondary health bar. But remember what the loss of sanity means. It is the erosion of the certainty of your perception of reality.
Sanity is your conviction in a rational and stable world. Everything has an explanation; anything can be understood and comprehended. It is also the belief that you are ultimately in control of your circumstances and that your actions and emotions matter. To lose sanity means to have these assumptions eroded away. Sanity systems in survival games should be implemented in more subtle ways to better represent what the loss of sanity means.
First off sanity should never be measurable to the player. Behind the scenes, in the code there will need to be some kind of measure but to the player this system should be hidden. Secondly sanity needs to stop being treated as a secondary health bar. Loss of insanity does not represent your closeness to death; it represents the loss of what you thought you believed about the reality you live in. Along with stopping to treat sanity as just another health bar you shouldn’t be able to regain sanity just because you turned away from the monster or moved out of the dark. The only way to regain sanity should be by taking narrative action to reestablish your crumbling convictions in the lie about reality you have built for yourself.
Loss of sanity also shouldn’t lead to any sort of end game. Loss of sanity should have in game effects but more subtle and not as fourth wall breaking as Eternal Darkness. Amnesia is a step in the right direction but still doesn’t get it quite right. The perspective of the world changes for the character but this doesn’t mean bending walls or hallucinations. In game this might mean the character refuses or avoids certain things. Or certain things stand out more to a character because of a growing sense of paranoia and questioning things. This could be interesting for a clue finding mechanic in some games. Losing sanity makes it easier to find clues for solving puzzles or alternative methods of resolving situations but has consequences else ware for the character.
Take Amnesia’s darkness mechanic. Tweaking it a little, being in the darkness doesn’t lower one’s sanity but if a character’s sanity is low enough it affects how the character will deal with it. Darkness in a way represents the unknown. If your character has low sanity, which represents his/her loss in conviction of a comprehendible reality, they will avoid things that represent the unknown because why confront more things that might shatter your grasp on reality. The character might refuse to hide in the dark or after a certain amount of time turn on whatever light source they have or move back out into the light.
In a survival horror game where the character is still among society, the level of insanity can be represented by dialogue or how other characters react to them. Have dialogue trees built around the level of sanity. Does what the character say make sense to others? Do various dialogue options based on sanity levels increase or decrease the chances of other characters helping them? If your character is a detective, the level of sanity, how you try to convey what is happening on your case, can affect how much the institution is willing to help you with resources. Maybe if your sanity becomes too low you get taken off of the case and have to attempt to complete the story without those resources.1
The point of all this is that a sanity system should be an ingrained and organic part of the game and be something more than just another health system. It should augment the narrative and setting of the game. Not every survival horror game needs a sanity system. It depends on various narrative elements and the framework you are working in. For any game based off of or inspired by Lovecraft’s fiction yes definitely have some sort of sanity system. That’s what his stories are about: confronting cosmic horrors and having them shatter your perception of reality. But for a game like Scratches, a good classic pure adventure horror game, a sanity system is unneeded. The game builds horror through atmosphere and the distortion of what we are used to in everyday life (which is a different mechanic for creating a sense of horror). In the end we discover and understand what took place but that doesn’t change the horror of the narrative. And for most action horror games there is no need for sanity systems because the framework is just to destroy everything. There is no real attempt to comprehend or know; just put a bullet through everything until it’s over.
Survival horror games can and should be enriched with an effective sanity system. It’s tiring to see sanity systems tacked on and treated like a gimmick or just another health bar. Especially when there are so many different and cool mechanics you could implement with an effective sanity system. Maybe someday we’ll truly get to experience insanity in a survival horror game.
1. The idea of playing with dialogue trees and societal resources based on your sanity level came about through a discussion with a friend on how developers could better represent sanity narratively in video games. I mean flesh out the ideas we discussed into a game concept, which I may post later.
Here are links to the various sanity effects that take place in Eternal Darkness and Amnesia.
Given survival horror's slow burn nature a good story and other narrative elements can make or break the game. While action horror games can get away with simple narratives such as just trying to survive; the constant waves of enemies and combat systems are usually enough to keep the player hooked. Survival horror games require a narrative with a little more investment. Not only is the narrative itself important but also how it is told. Finally there are other narrative tid bits, such as notes or diaries that might not contribute directly to the story being told at the moment but enrich the overall narrative experience.
We're All Stories
The player character should have some sort of personal connection in the events surrounding them. This personal connection allows the narrative to be about something more than just surviving; the character progresses through the narrative in order to understand or learn something new about him/herself or the world around him/her. This personal connection allows the narrative experience to be something more than running to point A to point B and still being alive. It becomes a journey of discovery in a way where the player is compelled to move forward not because of survival but to experience the story the game is trying to tell.
Silent Hill 4 is a prime example of a game where the player character has no personal connection to the events taking place and the game suffers for it. You feel nothing for the random guy who just happens to get caught up in Silent Hill's bullshit. Henry Townshend gets involved simply because he chooses the wrong apartment to move into. Compared to previous Silent Hill titles none of the manifestations of Silent Hill have anything to do with Henry or his psyche. The only tenuous connection Henry has with the events taking place is his unlucky choosing of an apartment and his infatuation with one of Walter’s victim. The player has no investment in the character he/she is playing.
How We Tell Our Stories
If we step away from horror games for a moment we can take a look at competing philosophies on conveying stories to the player and how those choices affect immersion. We will look at two video game franchises and the different ways they approach telling their stories: Mass Effect and BioShock.
The Mass Effect games go for a very cinematic and epic experience. Because of this there are a lot of breaks from the actual game play for cut scenes. For any plot progression there is a cut scene. The makers of the Mass Effect wanted to tell an epic, personal, and engrossing story that the player felt they were a part of but at the same time they wanted the player to be immersed in that epic narrative. The developers presented the player with cinematic cut scenes to convey the epic nature of the narrative but to keep the player immersed the player got choose what their Shepard looked like. Everyone knows the feeling of seeing someone else’s Mass Effect play through and saying to themselves, "That’s not Shepard. My Shepard is Shepard." In this way the developers could present an epic cinematic effect through cut scenes while minimizing immersion breaking.
In the first Bioshock game the developers wanted the game to be as immersive as possible. Their philosophy was that cut scenes broke this immersion. The only two cut scenes in the game are at the beginning and the end. The game is presented in first person. Throughout the game when narrative progressing scenes take place this perspective is never paused for a cut scene. The player is always in first person, able to move about as things are happening. This method helps keep the player immersed in the setting that is being presented to them.
Both ways discussed above are valid ways of telling a story. While Mass Effect found a way of maintaining immersion with its cut scenes this is not always the case, being pulled out of the flow of game play can break that immersion for some people. What is important to a good survival horror game is immersion and so it may seem that cut scenes may not be the way to go. While I consider Silent Hill 2 to be one of the greatest survival horror games I've ever played its cut scenes could be iffy. The cut scenes didn't always maintain the atmosphere and dread that the in game play did, coupled with slow paced and somewhat monotone voice acting one could easily have their immersion broken with a cut scene. There is also the notorious voice acting of the early Resident Evil games which has you laughing more than feeling the fear you should be.
This doesn't mean a survival horror game can't be good and effective with cut scenes just be prepared that some of the immersion might be lost. At the moment most survival horror games use cut scenes but the use of cut scenes should be limited. The escape horror game Amnesia avoids cut scenes itself by letting the player to move around as they experience flash backs. The player isn't removed from their first person experience instead the environment around them becomes distorted and the scenes are conveyed through audio only. Survival horror games could become truly frightening if they could move the narrative forward without using cut scenes, reducing the chances of breaking the immersion for the player.
Who has the Time to Write All this Shit?
I don't want to say random tape recordings and notes scattered throughout survival horror games don't have their place but often they get ridiculous, breaking the immersion because of how absurd they might be. But used effectively they can help enrich the narrative atmosphere. Notes or recordings of someone in their death throes will make me raise an eyebrow. But a diary where its entries become more surreal would be good way of showcasing someone's descent into Lovecraftian madness thereby enriching the overall narrative atmosphere. They can also be used to enrich and inform the player of what is taking place in the moment. Fatal Frame 2 effectively uses notes and its version of tape recordings to help enrich the environment in which the game takes place.
How a story is conveyed to someone is important in video games if you want that game to be immersive and grip the player with fear as most developers of survival horror games want to do. Looking at how to move the narrative forward, for immersion, cut scenes should be used sparingly. Along with that if one decides to convey narrative enrichment through things like notes and recordings don’t let it become absurd. Avoid things narrative devices/methods that could break the immersion for the player. The goal of immersion in survival horror games is to keep the player locked in a never ending sense of slow burning dread.