Designing our own horror game
Let’s apply our observations to a hypothetical horror game of our own design. You’ll play as a middle-aged father, a rancher whose family has been beset by chaos and evil. You must try to protect your family and find refuge for them.
Characters. Because players not only need to protect themselves but also look after their family, we introduce a layer of complexity beyond self-interest. The image above already has several important ideas we could explore, but let’s consider some ways that the developing relationship between characters can add intensity and meaning to your choices:
- Your wife is part of the group, but she’s injured, so she’s the weakest link both physically and psychologically. She becomes especially unstable if she feels the son is unsafe, and may panic under stress.
- Your son becomes brave and focused while his mother is near (for her sake) but makes bad decisions about what to do without good instructions from you. You can give him instructions any time and he’ll listen.
- Your dog is mostly protective of your son, but is very useful as a companion for you because she is very good at detecting danger and finding clues. Taking her with you will cause your wife to become extra stressed.
- If anyone is captured or goes missing, including you, the game does not automatically end. That person is still out there somewhere, and must be rescued if they are still alive.
In this setup, staying with your family and talking to them is very important for keeping your family calm and stable. However, the story will make it clear that staying still is not a long-term option, and that threats are approaching that you need to prepare for. You need to get your family away from the easily accessible entrance areas and deeper into the house where they are less exposed to danger. Here are some elements that could make for good gameplay:
- Your wife is afraid to go anywhere that hasn’t been explored and secured, and won’t let her son go there either. Therefore, you need to scout and explore areas first. Depending on how stressed they are, they may panic and retreat if they even see disturbing things along the way. Reducing their fear is essential to progressing.
- Depending on what you find and learn, you can give specific advice to them about what to do in different situations, and give them equipment that might be useful if something happens. More information and supplies improves their morale.
- Getting hurt can happen in many ways, such running past sharp objects sticking out of somewhere, stepping on broken glass or sharp things while not wearing shoes, and being exposed to toxins in the air for a long time. Not only do they brings you closer to death, but they can incapacitate and injure you in specific ways that hinder you, affecting your aim and movement. In a weakened state, your family refuses to let you go out, and will panic if you do it anyway. You must show that you’ve recovered and can function. Your wife is a veterinarian on your ranch, and can tend to wounds.
- You can board up doors, windows, and holes. You can turn on and off lights. Traps and dangerous things can be removed, but also placed in other areas for strangers to encounter. You decide where your family hides.
Setting. Let’s say that the setting is similar to Resident Evil in some ways. Your family narrowly escapes some frightening events and become holed up inside a large old estate undergoing major renovations. Despite being fairly remote and supposedly unoccupied, you see evidence of strange recent activity. More strangers will probably arrive yet. Some sections of the house are demolished and exposed to the weather; some parts are still original and badly dilapidated; and others are renovated and may have state-of-the-art features. Parts of the house have no electricity, plumbing, insulation, etc. This gives us a good excuse for variety and contrast, and explains the unnatural state of the furniture and supplies you come across. The nature of the house ties into the nature of the threats, both inside and out.
Threats. Besides the possibility of meeting strangers, there are disturbing creatures on the prowl, and environmental dangers that can escalate to death. Here are some ideas that go beyond your standard “dummies who move towards you and attack” design into more interesting territory:
- Unnatural creatures wait around the house and outside, but are not all hostile. Some are purely a form of sensory trigger for other things that happen. Listeners, Watchers, and Feelers are examples. Their purpose is unknown at first, but they seem to leave you alone and keep their distance. Killing them releases a toxin.
- Tentacles creatures tend to block passageways and act as living spider webs, and must be avoided or they will release toxins. They can also move slowly and squeeze through small openings but aren’t very intelligent.
- Toxins tend to cause paralysis and hallucinations that only slowly wear off if they reach a high level. Respirators and filters can be worn to mitigate toxin inhalation.
- Hunchbacked humanoid creatures with no eyes, ears, or noses lurk or patrol, but have no way of knowing where you are unless one of the other sensory creatures can detect you. When they know where you are, they scream and charge recklessly and will injure and capture whoever they can.
- Intelligent humanoid creatures with wings instead of arms and a full set of senses will try to break through from the outside and capture the boy while he is in the open, but otherwise only observe.
- Termite-like insects who also have corrosive powers will swarm spots and weaken them, allowing the flying creatures and others to infiltrate the house and bypass blocked areas.
- A gangly human-like creature fights you directly if he sees you and will try to kill you, not capture you.
- Cultists wearing strange disguises are found later on, and may use weapons to attack, or defend themselves.
Solutions. Now that we’ve established reasons to be afraid, let’s talk about what we can do to overcome these problems. A general theme of the game is awareness and information control. You want to know more about the enemy than they know about you. Slowly moving around Listeners will allow you to evade detection from them, whereas quickly and loudly running past Watchers when they aren’t looking is perfectly viable. Creating noise or visual distractions by throwing things or setting up some kind of diversion also works. But beyond the obvious solutions, here are other ideas:
- Wards. Certain mysterious symbols, physical artifacts, noise-makers, and trinkets seem to ward off creatures. These can be found and possibly even replicated, creating safe zones. Different wards are only effective on certain types of creatures, however.
- Lures. Just as with the wards, certain other symbols and artifacts attract creatures to an area, causing them to move away from places you need to go, or group them together for some kind of attack.
- Disguises. Wearing the clothes of a cultist will allow you to move around without being attacked and even fool other cultists temporarily. This is necessary to move around outside where creatures tend to dominate.
- Interrogation. Cultists and strangers that you successfully threaten or attack into submission can be interrogated for information, revealing secrets. These are not necessarily accurate.
- Strangers. If you don’t threaten strangers, they may be eager to team up with you, attack you out of fear, or fulfill some agendas of their own. How you handle the different strangers will determine whether they become temporary allies or problems that need to be eliminated. Sometimes they only want supplies or help, but other times they want something too valuable to part with. Eventually you might meet strangers who are allied with the cultists and want to trick you into exposing where your family is. The dog is very helpful when dealing with strangers, so keeping it alive becomes a big boost.
Endgame. Once you’re past the house and are able to move around more freely outside thanks to disguises, you realize that the foothills beyond the estate feature strange religious sites, like a blend between Native American and Roman Catholic practices. Carved out trenches and tunnels, subterranean and cliff dwellings, and forest habitations reveal a system of practices and superstitions that explain many things and hold secrets to utilizing the creatures for your own benefit by using them as your own proxy sensors. Here’s how this might come together:
- The family can’t travel outside the house without getting spotted, so you must leave them to investigate the foothills. While you’re gone things can happen to the family, but they will probably be brought to the foothills if they are captured, since this is where captives end up.
- You can find captured strangers who will be extremely grateful if you rescue them, although they have little to offer besides gratitude and a personal testimony unless you give them weapons or a disguise.
- Your wife can end up joining the cultists and betraying you if she is captured and her confidence in you is too low, since the cult will offer to spare the boy’s life in exchange for yours. If you don’t rescue her, she may return and secretly serve as a spy.
- In the end, somebody you trust with your family’s safety must become infected/possessed by the spirit of the mysterious cult in order to tap into the sensory matrix of the creatures. If the process is handled correctly, the user can sacrifice most of their own senses in order to know what the creatures know, but without sharing information in return. Any member of the family including your son or your dog can take on this role, but there is no guarantee that they can be cured later. Depending on the relationships you have maintained, different people may be willing to do it. If nobody else does it, you can do it yourself.
The final sequence might involve a final hunt for your family, in which the only way to succeed is to know where everyone is through sensory sharing so you can create traps and kill them all using the skills and tools you’ve developed. Perhaps a cult leader figure/monstrosity must be killed and exorcised of the spirit that controls it, or something.
We want to create a temptation to spend lots of time with the family (safety, relationship building, gameplay benefits, strategy) while knowing that the inevitable threat coming their way demands proactive preparations. Needing to explore and secure your surroundings before you can escort your family puts pressure on us to be thorough, but our character’s vulnerability makes every risk we take significant and possibly not worth it. Taking the dog with you would greatly improve your own exploration, but it would need to be worth the risk to your family. Donating weapons or supplies to the family would also be a struggle, allowing for different playstyles: those who coach and provide for their family won’t need to worry about them as much because they may even be able to handle themselves in a confrontation, while those who prioritize their own effectiveness are less likely to get injured, killed, or captured, which would doom their family even more. Of course, if the family is handled poorly, with bad writing and voice acting causing us to hate them as characters, the whole situation deflates somewhat.
Structurally, it’s important to emphasize that your family will end up injured, disarmed, and captured, not outright killed by the creatures. They want you all alive. In fact, we might even decide to name the game ‘THEY WANT YOU ALL ALIVE’ just to drive home the point and push it as a marketing angle. We interpret death in video games as a loss of gameplay, not a loss of life, so there’s not much reason to threaten life if you want to motivate players. We invest time/energy, and we worry about losing our reward for those investments. Therefore, injuries can be much more meaningful than death because they are very inconvenient. To make sure that failure is guaranteed to be inconvenient to the player, the game might need to automatically delete your save file and save a new one as soon as your family is captured, to prevent you from quickly exiting the game and reloading a file in which there’s still time to save them. The whole question of how saving and loading works is vital to think about, as always.
In RE7, death and failure have almost no significance, unless you’ve neglected to save for a long time for some reason; this leads to the problematic pattern where players stop caring about death because it doesn’t have consequences. Auto-save checkpoints, especially during boss fights, undermine their seriousness. The obvious benefit of turning back the clock and resetting a player’s progress by forcing them to load from an old save state is that it emphasizes getting past problems correctly the first time, and giving your best shot at every attempt. The alarming choice to not include something like “ink ribbons” this time, which limit how often we can save and makes save files a literal resource we need to collect in the game, feels like an admission of defeat from a game design perspective. Without exaggeration, the ink ribbon system introduced in the first Resident Evil remains one of the greatest innovations in game design history. I’ve always wondered why more games didn’t copy the idea, and I suspect Capcom put a copyright on it or something. The inclusion of a limited save function did appear in the Hitman series, however, and it also worked brilliantly there. Since then, Dark Souls has proven how effective real-time saving can be, by preventing players from even being able to control when the game is saved or how to load it; there is only one constant game state that you must cope with. These structural choices change everything about the psychology of success and failure.