Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a game I want to enjoy more than I do. It has a lot I enjoy and find interesting. I wanted to finish the game before I wrote anything up but I’m having a hard time pushing myself to complete it. It’s lasted longer than I thought it would and honestly it’s lasted longer than it should, given what type of game it is. I will eventually finish it, I want to, but it will be a slower process. It’s not an unplayable game but if you do choose to give it a shot you should keep a few things in mind regarding the experience.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine takes place in America during the Great Depression. At the start of the game you are tasked with traveling across America’s landscape to collect stories. Stories you collect are treated like items in an inventory. Along your journey you encounter other travelers. Successfully tell them the stories they want to hear and they’ll slowly reveal their own personal story. The game ends once you have completed revealing the stories of these fellow travelers.
The Great Depression setting is a compelling one. Periods of distress in American history are not often explored in video games. It is a period rife with potential for narrative focused games. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like you get a greater sense of that history from the game. While the personal stories convey the struggles people went through you don’t get the narrative of the Great Depression itself. If you’re not familiar with the history it will just be some time in the past when America was poor.
The art style and music of the game initially drew me to the game. The pre-release marketing didn’t reveal much about the actual gameplay of the game so I didn’t know what to expect in that regard. The art and music did not disappoint. Both fit the setting pretty well, though the art style is the more unique and pleasurable aspect of the game. The voice acting is top notch. The majority of the game is voice acted with pleasant narrations of the stories you experience.
The focus of the game is stories and it is the most polished mechanic of the game. The main way you collect stories is by investigating locations and experiencing something which then becomes a story you can tell. When you come across the fellow travelers, you tell these stories to them. Except they request certain kinds of stories. I mostly enjoyed this except for one aspect.
Each story is a certain kind of story (tragic, funny, hopeful, etc.). Most of this is clear cut, except for thrilling or scary stories. Stories are not labeled as such, you have to figure that out yourself. Which can be difficult if how you define a genre is different from how the game does. Progress in the game is defined by how much the other travelers reveal their own story. This only happens if you tell them the kind of stories they request. It’s really aggravating to tell stories you think are thrilling but they read as scary or vice versa. Otherwise I enjoyed the mechanics of collecting and telling of stories and would like to see it developed and adapted in other games.
There are some other mechanics in the game. You walk around the map using your choice of controls. You interact with smaller locations or cities to collect stories. Larger cities can be entered where you are able to look for work or experience a unique story in the city. Otherwise there isn’t too much more, the cities can feel a little repetitive. Surprisingly there is a health mechanic in the game. It didn’t register to me until I died. I think I only lost health after hopping trains. The railroad people find you and beat you. You can heal yourself by eating food in the cities. There is also a currency and sleep mechanic. You use money to buy food or to pay to be on a train instead of hopping. And you usually get sleep when camping with other travelers.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine firmly falls into the walking simulator genre. These games usually last just a few hours. Any longer and you risk losing your player. I played about ten hours of the game and I’m having trouble keeping my interest and engagement up. There is no personal narrative to entice you along. Just stories from other travelers where the pacing is dependent on how well the player does with the other the travelers, so things can feel drawn out or repetitive. The mechanics are not varied enough to carry the game for hours on end. Even for others who enjoy the walking simulator genre this may be a tough one. Looking around, the game takes around twenty hours to complete. Which feels somewhat like a chore now.
The game should not be avoided completely. It has merits but it is a niche game in a niche genre. I’m not surprised to read that the game is not doing as well (sales wise) as the creator hoped (I have my own thoughts on his reflections concerning video games and the landscape of video games but that is a conversation for another time). The game is enjoyable but falters because it is a longer game for the mechanics and gameplay loop it offers. But it is still a game that can offer us a lot to reflect on for what we do narratively and mechanically in future games.
Difficulty in video games is a frequent topic of discussion. Some think games have become too easy. They bemoan the days when games used to be more difficult. Others dismiss difficulty’s role as a part of the medium’s experience; asking easier modes be added to games selling themselves as a difficult experience. How difficult a game is, is dependent on the kind of experience the developers want to provide. Video games are an interactive medium and difficulty is an integral part of the experience.
To talk about difficulty we have to define what difficulty is. Difficulty is how easy or hard the mechanics and systems of the game are to engage with and master. Different kinds of games have different mechanics and systems. So a player might find some types of games more difficult but not others. Someone who plays shooters might find adventure games more difficult and vice versa. And in each type of game some games will be harder than others. Some shooters are more difficult than others; some adventure games have more difficult puzzles than others.
Broadly speaking there is unintentional difficulty and intentional difficulty. Unintentional difficulty is the difficulty of a game caused by poor design or implementation. Unintentionally difficult games are difficult due to of bugs or glitches. The developers did not do a good job of designing or implementing aspects of the game. Intentional difficulty is the intentional design and implementation of the systems of the game to provide a particular experience to the player.
Difficulty is an inherent aspect of the video game medium. Sometimes an element of the medium that can be taken for granted. People don’t always realize how difficulty can be calibrated to provide a particular experience. Some designers choose to lower the difficulty in their game to the point where it feels like it doesn’t exist to help facilitate a particular experience. To try and increase the difficulty would break the experience of these games. And the same can be said of those games that exist on the other end of the spectrum; the experience of games designed to be difficult would break with the lowering of difficulty. Though most games tend to be designed with a middle ground in mind with difficulty being implemented with a variable difficulty system.
As the medium has grown, games that choose to calibrate difficulty to provide a particular experience are often niche games and are marketed towards a more focused audience. Walking simulators make the choice to reduce difficulty in order to provide a particular narrative experience. Rich narrative experiences can be provided in higher difficulty games but a player’s frustration with the difficulty can distract from the narrative experience the game is trying to provide. Though walking simulators have their own risk of boring the player. Video games are an interactive medium and requires a certain level of interactivity in order to keep the player engaged with the experience. This issue of engagement is present in higher difficult games but for different reasons. As mentioned, frustration can cause the player to break away from the experience the game is trying to convey. Replaying or feeling like you are getting nowhere due to the difficulty causes a player to disconnect from the experience and may cause the player to give up on the experience entirely; the engagement is no longer a positive experience.
Most games these days choose a middle ground role for difficulty. Games for a general mass audience design an experience that is not dependent on low or high difficulty. Instead players are allowed to adjust the difficulty of the game to optimize their own engagement with the experience the game is trying to provide. Not too easy to bore a player but not too hard to frustrate them.
But some games choose a particular difficulty in order to convey a particular experience. When it comes to games with lower difficulty people tend to simply dismiss them as real video games instead of calling for a difficult mode. As mentioned before this can bore many players who don’t feel like they are engaged enough with the game. These games make a choice to reduce difficulty in order to let other aspects of the experience shine. This does not mean they are any less of a game than other games. To increase the difficulty would to break their particular experience.
A more intense conversation arises around difficult games and their choice to not include easier modes of play. Sometimes developers are asked to include easier modes to make a game more accessible to a wider audience. These calls feel dismissive of the role difficulty plays in providing a particular experience. Just as raising the difficulty of lower difficulty games can break the experience lowering the difficulty of high difficulty games could break the desired experience.
In the past year or so I experienced two works considered difficult works. While difficulty doesn’t exist in the same way in the other mediums, there are aspects of how they are structured or conveyed to the audience making them hard to experience in a similar way the difficulty of a game may make it harder for a player to experience.
Twin Peaks: The Return chucked any expectations of what I thought it would be into a garbage disposal and pulverized what was left. The original run of Twin Peaks and the movie Fire Walk With Me had some strange elements but still told its narrative in a relatively straight forward fashion. Not so with The Return. It’s hard to convey exactly what happened in Twin Peaks: The Return. I can try to provide a summary or cliff notes but so many aspects are highly interpretative. It is a piece of television that has to be experienced in every aspect. But some people won’t and that’s alright. The pacing zig zags everywhere. Episodes go by where nothing seems to happen. Episode 8 tells most of its narrative through visuals (very interpretative visuals) and non-dialogue audio. Some people will just not have the patience or want to think too hard about the experience to enjoy it. It is not an experience for them. And those that do enjoy it, revel in it, are not better than those who can’t get into. It’s just a narrative experience some are up for and others are not.
House of Leaves is a horror novel with aspects making it difficult to enjoy its experience. It interweaves two narratives and by the end you aren’t exactly sure what is real or not. House of Leaves is difficult in how it decides to convey its experience. Often the prose is not formatted in a standard way on the page. Sections of the book read like dry academic texts, long lists of references, or a seemingly large amount of meaningless footnotes. Like Twin Peaks: The Return some will face difficulty in experiencing House of Leaves. And again that is alright.
I consider both works good in their respective mediums but would not provide a blanket recommendation for them. I understand people have different tastes including the conventionality of conveying the medium’s experience, which Twin Peaks: The Return and House of Leaves do not follow. This makes them difficult works to access and experience. But I would never go to their creators and say, “Make this easier for me to experience. I want Twin Peaks to tell a straight forward story about Cooper escaping from the Black Lodge. None of this silly Dougie stuff or episodes of psychedelic imagery. I want House of Leaves to be published without all of its crazy formatting and useless footnotes.”
I would never ask these things because that would take away from the unique experiences they offer. To do so would to make them less than they are. Most games design their experience with variable difficulty in mind. This allows the player to adjust the difficulty as they wish in order to keep them engaged enough in the interactive experience of the medium. But some games want to provide an experience that is dependent on a particular difficulty, either low or high difficulty. In the case of games with low difficultly they should not be dismissed as not “real” games. And in the case of games with higher difficulty we should not feel the need to demand easier modes. In both cases the unique experiences provided by the game are dependent on the particular difficulty chosen by the designers. To change that would to break the experience meant to be conveyed.
The Cat Lady begins and ends with suicide. Video games have continued to mature as a storytelling medium over the years. We have seen an increasing number of titles sincerely grapple with the tougher aspects of the human experience. The Cat Lady, released in 2012, is a game with depression and suicide at the core of its narrative. The player takes part in a story whose characters struggle with their depressive demons, stepping into the shoes of a woman who is healing from her own depressive and suicidal experiences.
You play as Susan Ashworth. The game opens with you committing suicide. You appear in some sort of afterlife. Meeting an entity who refers to herself as the Queen of Maggots, she tells you she is sending you back to kill five people, who she refers to as Parasites. She is also sending you back as an immortal.
After your exchange with the Queen of Maggots you are sent back to the living world and you wake up in the hospital. Working to get out of the hospital you face off against the first Parasite, a deranged doctor that tortures people for artistic pleasure. Returning home you are greeted by a young woman, Mitzi, who wants to become your roommate. As you continue to play out the story, it is revealed Susan used to be married and had a daughter. Her daughter died and her husband drank himself to death. It is revealed that Mitzi is dying from cancer and is tracking down someone called The Eye of Adam. The Eye of Adam convinced Mitzi’s boyfriend to commit suicide. And Mitzi wants to confront him for her own closure. Susan agrees to help. In your quest to hunt down The Eye of Adam you confront the remaining Parasites until you are face to face with the last one, The Eye of Adam. The game can end a few different ways depending on your choices.
One of the interesting things about The Cat Lady is it establishes a legitimate afterlife and at least one supernatural entity. This creates an interesting discussion around the themes explored in the game, especially suicide. The afterlife space presented in the game is more of a limbo space belonging to the Queen of Maggots. It is never made entirely clear who the Queen of Maggots is. She is old and claims to go by many names. Her role and motives are left up to interpretation. We don’t know why she tasks Susan with hunting down the Parasites, though there are lines later in the game that might provide some hints.
Towards the end of the game the Queen of Maggots suggests she is a part of Susan. This implies she may be a personification of something that exists in everyone. Remember this bit because I’ll bring it back up when I discuss suicide in the game. This also explains the Queen of Maggots’ mission to kill the Parasites. The Parasites are humans who could be said to have no souls. They kill and torture with no empathy. They often draw people in with a false sense of security. The Queen of Maggots wants them dead because in a way they feed off of that part the Queen of Maggots represents.
The player is greeted with the full weight of Susan’s depression from the very beginning. As she experiences what she thinks are her final moments she laments that all she has are the stray cats she has cared for. But they will understand. They always have. When she finds herself in the realm of the Queen of Maggots she can only express weariness. She just wanted it to be over but the Queen of Maggots pushes her back to the land of the living. The Cat Lady is in part a journey of acceptance.
The game for the most part makes no attempts to provide a cure for Susan’s depression. It isn’t something that can cured. It can be treated. It can be coped with. A wheezing beast living in your mind. Some days you can sit peacefully with it in an uneasy alliance and other days it runs rampant taking away the energy you were saving to deal with anything but it. The Queen of Maggots promises happiness at the beginning of the game. At first this seems like a promise for a cure. But it isn’t. Susan is in a better place by the end of the game but she isn’t cured. She herself says that she will always have the “invisible illness” with her but her opening up and friendship with Mitzi has allowed her to better cope with it.
After Susan wakes up in the hospital she has to go through a session in order to assess the risk to herself. Here the player is allowed to choose some of Susan’s history. The player is able to choose whether Susan grew up with both of her parents or neither. The player is able to choose what kind of parents they are. Later in the game Mitzi asks Susan what depression feels like. After Susan answers Mitzi describes what it feels like for her. Each describes their depression in a different way. There is an underlying message that regardless of circumstances depression can infest your mind and that each person’s experience with it is different.
Your time at the hospital presents perspectives on how those who need help view treatment. Susan is pretty hostile towards drugs and therapy. The game doesn’t delve deep into society’s view of drug treatment for mental illness but Susan’s own attitude does reflect a stigma people have of drug treatments. Admitting you need drugs is an admission of defeat. You weren’t strong enough. There is also the unwanted side-effects that often come with drugs. The game at one point tries to portray the lethargy and skewed perceptions caused by drugs. And society doesn’t try hard to dispel these unhealthy antagonistic attitudes towards drugs. When you’re on the edge of a mental knife though those drugs can be a life saver. In the end Susan moves on without any drugs but this doesn’t mean this is the right choice for everyone.
Returning home introduces an interesting mechanic for one chapter in the game. You are given two meters. A red one that fills up when something upsets Susan and a green one that fills up when something makes Susan happy. Neither cancels the other out. If the green meter fills up Susan can sleep peacefully, if the red one fills up she suffers a breakdown. Things that cheer Susan up are things like having coffee or a burger cooked just right. Things that can upset her are things like being startled in the dark or seeing unpaid bills. This conveys the fact that what may seem small to other people can make or break the day of someone suffering from depression.
The day after Susan gets home Mitzi enters her life. At first Susan is distrustful. But over the course of the game they open up to each other and form a friendship. Mitzi tells her story to Susan and over time Susan reciprocates. Susan tells Mitzi about her daughter and husband. Mitzi may not be a professional but she’s the only person who Susan makes a connection with. When it comes to depression being able to open up and connect with someone is one of the most important things. Mitzi is able to help her in way no one else had due to that connection.
Regardless of which ending you get, in the final scene of the game Susan expresses how she has learned to cope with her depression through her friendship with Mitzi. Susan admits she will never be rid of her “invisible illness”. Depression isn’t something that can be cured. It can be managed or lessened through drugs, therapy, or other lifestyle choices. But the ghost of that melancholic beast will always hang over you waiting to get you when you least expect it. In two of the endings, where Mitzi dies, Susan is able to meet new people. She goes out with them every once and a while. She allows herself enough of life to not be completely boxed in and alone.
I can’t think of too many games that deal with suicide as directly as The Cat Lady. It isn’t a single plot point that just sets off the events of the game. It is a continual thread that appears again and again. Susan encounters a ghost that wants to commit suicide. Mitzi’s boyfriend committed suicide. Susan commits suicide at least one more time, and possibly another after that. The final antagonist of the game, The Eye of Adam, is a man who encourages and helps people commit suicide online. The climax of the game is a choice between letting your friend commit suicide for revenge or convincing her to move on and living the rest of her days with Susan.
Susan’s relationship with suicide mostly takes place in the first half of the game. The beginning of the game starts with her suicide. To her horror she finds herself in the realm of the Queen of Maggots, faced with the prospect of continuing to live. On replaying The Cat Lady I was caught off guard because the Queen of Maggots implies Susan will be punished for committing suicide. It was jarring in a game that seemed nonjudgmental of people who commit suicide. While the game explores the emotions around suicide it didn’t seem to blame those who attempt or succeed in suicide.
Later dialogue though can be interpreted to mean Susan would be punished because she thought she ought to be punished. The Queen of Maggots is a part Susan. A part that understands her self-loathing. At the beginning of the game Susan believes she is worthless. Suicide just signifies another failure. One she should be punished for. This isn’t an uncommon attitude. Many do feel a sense of guilt for even thinking about it. And again society doesn’t exactly help. Several religious traditions have declared suicide as wrong. A crime against the body. One which can earn you an eternal punishment. Even from a secular viewpoint suicide is often viewed as somehow wrong. It’s a struggle to change these attitudes. To convince others that trying to commit suicide isn’t a moral crime. There is real suffering taking place. And that individual sees suicide as their only option.
The Eye of Adam is a unique antagonist that is hard to read. As a character he is inspired by real people online who encourage and provide ways to commit suicide. There are real forums out there that resemble those described in the game. Places where a pro-suicide message can be expressed. The Eye of Adam is a crippled man who can only communicate with the world through his eye movements. He encourages others to commit suicide, including Mitzi’s boyfriend. He kills his father and tries to goad Mitzi, or Susan if the player lets Mitzi die in an earlier scene, into killing him. A final grand act. We don’t actually learn much about The Eye of Adam. How his physical disabilities have affected his mental health or nuanced explorations of his motives for encouraging and helping other commit suicide. The player gets to choose how things end. You can let Mitzi shoot The Eye of Adam which will kill her also because of the oxygen tanks in the room. You can also talk Mitzi out of it and deprive The Eye of Adam his final wish. If Susan confronts The Eye of Adam alone, due to Mitzi’s death earlier, she fulfills his wish and kills him.
The Cat Lady presents several contexts for suicide. Susan’s suicide at the beginning of the game is linked to her depression. An action she survives and comes to regret. Mitzi’s boyfriend commits suicide. He can’t bear to think about his life without Mitzi or deal with his own emotions around Mitzi’s cancer. Mitzi is willing to commit suicide for revenge. She is going to die of cancer anyway so why not die killing the person who convinced her love to kill himself? The Eye of Adam is willing to commit suicide as a grand last gesture.
The Cat Lady never endorses suicide but also never portrays those who are suicidal or commit suicide as inherently bad. While the game shows you the emotional reaction of those around you it never moves into blaming territory. It sincerely tries to portray what everyone goes through, those that try to commit suicide and those that care for them. Emotions can be complicated for those who survive their suicide attempt. Like many, Susan feels regret. She regrets making the attempt and in the end she’s glad she survived. At the beginning of the game the Queen of Maggots tells Susan death fixes nothing. In the world of The Cat Lady the afterlife is real. Suffering doesn’t end simply because you died. We don’t have that guarantee in the real world. Suicide may end the suffering of the individual who commits it but it does leave emotional damage behind. Coming to embrace life through her relationship with Mitzi helped Susan. This isn’t always easy. Embracing life is a bitch. And sadly some people are never going to be able to do it. While many are able to recover from their suicide attempts there are many who will go on to attempt again and again until they succeed. There are no clear or easy answers when it comes to suicide.
The Cat Lady is a horror game with fantastic and disturbing imagery. It has supernatural elements and its villains are some of the most demented individuals I have ever come across in a video game. Despite all of this the game is extremely well grounded. The fantastical elements help to enhance the exploration of themes such as suicide and depression, not distract from them. The Cat Lady is an example of game that can sincerely explore these issues without using them as a simple plot crutch. The game tries its best to express these experiences to the player. It is a game that presents depression and suicide without judging. A game that hopefully when finished has allowed the player to better understand these experiences.
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.