|City of the Nightmare King|
May 22, 2015
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 donít 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 hasnít 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 womanís 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 Williamís 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 studentís 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 Williamís spirits but nothing ever seems to work. Lately William has been spending less time with Nicholas and William wonít 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 heís just waiting for the day when her life is finally taken.
As Juliaís 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 anyoneís 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 donít 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 Marcusí and the Nightmare Kingís 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 Williamís 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 Williamís firearm will require an explanation to his superiors. Depending on his sanity level the dialogue options will vary from reasonable lies to ďOh my god there were monsters!Ē 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 Williamís perspective of reality and his place in it. At the start of the game he hasnít 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 Williamís 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 Williamís 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 didnít 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. Itís 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.
|Sanity in Survival Horror Games (Survival Horror Series Part 5)|
May 11, 2015
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 arenít 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." Lovecraftís 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 donít 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. Itís 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. Oneís mental stability begins to unravel as you are faced with something incomprehensible. How can you overcome or defeat something you canít 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. Itís 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. Itís trying to convey to others what is happening, what you are experiencing, but canít 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 Sanityís 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 itís 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.
Amnesiaís 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 characterís 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 shouldnít 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 shouldnít 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 doesnít get it quite right. The perspective of the world changes for the character but this doesnít 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 Amnesiaís darkness mechanic. Tweaking it a little, being in the darkness doesnít lower oneís sanity but if a characterís 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 Lovecraftís fiction yes definitely have some sort of sanity system. Thatís 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 doesnít 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 itís over.
Survival horror games can and should be enriched with an effective sanity system. Itís 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 weíll 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.
|Storytelling in Survival Horror Games (Survival Horror Series Part 4)|
May 3, 2015
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 Walterís 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 elseís Mass Effect play through and saying to themselves, "Thatís 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 donít 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.
January 25, 2015
There is a new story up today: Sleepless
|What I Learned From Ghost Hunting|
July 5, 2014
When I was a freshman in high school Ghost Hunters premiered on SyFy. Until then I had not been exposed to the more methodical approach to the paranormal. I grew up on ghost stories and some of those stories included people who would chase them down. Ghost Hunters introduced me to what at the time I considered a more realistic and logical approach to the paranormal. I couldn't resist the urge to try and be a part of that world.
Throughout high school and my early college years there were sporadic attempts to integrate ghost hunting into my life. There were two attempts to form a ghost hunting group with some of my friends. Neither attempt went very far. Cases and investigations were few and far between. After the first couple of investigations my first lesson was ghost hunting is actually quite boring. Working to keep yourself under control, not freaking out over every little thing your nights become less being chased by scary ghosts and more like this:
I came to realize that in ghost hunting/paranormal investigating there are an unbelievable amount of assumptions made. A lot of ghost hunters can be hesitant about commenting on the exact nature of ghosts but they will have no issue with saying EMF fluctuations, radiation, temperature drops, etc. are evidence of ghosts. But why? When did anyone ever capture a ghost and discover that they affect the environment this way? And even if some did, by what mechanism and why? At the same time I was asking myself these questions I also learned there was a lack of knowledge in how to properly measure and interpret these various pieces of evidence in the community. Even more so there was frighteningly lack of knowledge on how various elements of the environment influenced the readings. Ghost hunting teams were inadequately trained to tackle the subject of their research. I learned and decided I should approach the paranormal more like psychology, trying to understand the paranormal as a living relationship with human beings. I become less concerned with finding hard evidence to prove the existence of ghosts and more with how the dead affected the living.
I still believe in ghosts and all manner of strange things. I just don't think we are at a point conceptually and technologically to approach the supernatural world the way ghost hunters attempt to. About half way through college due to various factors the ghost hunting group my friends and I tried to form fell apart. Since then I have had little desire to try and form such a group again. The closest I came was shortly after I graduated college I was approached by someone I had gone on a hunt with. He wanted my help in putting together a more rigorous and scientific ghost hunting group. Unfortunately he got laid off from his job shortly after approaching me and had to back out to deal with his employment and financial issues.
Does this mean I'll never ghost hunt again? I'm not done. If anyone were to ever ask me to go on a ghost hunt I'd be there right away with a camera and an audio recorder. I'm never too far from the supernatural. I still experience it regularly through private spiritual/occult practices. Through ghost hunting I learned to be less concerned with finding hard scientific evidence for such things and more how the subjective experiences affect and influence the living. I realized we didn't know enough about what were researching and we probably didn't have the technology to properly investigate it. But that doesn't mean such things aren't still affecting people. Some hauntings cause people to live in dread. I learned that what is really important is how the living and the dead relate to each other.