Here are my notes on season 4 of GAMETHING, a podcast in which Pippin Barr and David Wolinsky play through a series of videogames. This season was horror games. You can listen to it to it here - https://open.spotify.com/show/23cGs1bJiejoeeY5JwiNd0?si=e1e4688f7fdb4a57.
A lot of what interested me was their thinking on how the player helps the game scare them. Please feel free to ping me if a note here interested you but you’re not sure what I mean. These notes are very raw. Of course, if something sounds interesting, the relevant episode will have a lot more detail than any of these notes.
Alone In The Dark
- It’s a good point that you do have to assist the game with being scary. That’s a really interesting thinking point - that as players we choose to help the game scare us, we ignore the game paths that would eliminate scariness.
- Further thinking on this is that being surprised is often a part of being scared. Do we turn avoid actions & thoughts that would diminish surprise. How possible is that?
- The game taking away control of things like the camera and so disempowering the player for effect is interesting. Can we do this for things other than fear?
- Given that you can’t kill the enemies when the default of games is to kill enemies, would playing these games train people out of the habit of assuming that they can defeat enemies? Can we eliminate this pattern from current game literacy and so open up more design space?
- Video games are always going to have some amount of goofiness and silly comedy. How does this interact with fear?
- It’s an interesting point that the game has to both push towards scaring you but also push towards giving you tools to make things less scary. This is true of most games for challenge though.
- It’s also an interesting point that you don’t necessarily be scared as much as recognize that you’ve been put in a position to be scared.
- The horror of making the player take disgusting actions that suck away humanity is interesting. Linking this to watching something like animal cruelty is very interesting, I think in part because the player doesn’t really have autonomy in either case.
- Another interesting thinking point is that much of the experience of playing is one of tedium, which plays well with horror. Horror adds tension to the tedium and you can’t have the intensity of horror without the quiet of tedium.
- I don’t agree with the idea that a UI conflicts with horror. I think that’s a relic of a school of design that was popular for a while, the skeumorphic design school, but I never felt very convinced by them. It just seemed to be assertions that grew out of earlier assumptions (the quest for ‘lifelike’ graphics, also Dead Space and Dead Space 2 and also the rise of the iPhone), but not necessarily something that actually matched the experience of the player.
- The idea of the player moving in the way of the monsters is very interesting. Shambling is a great word here.
- The responsibility to be afraid is still so interesting. What are equivalents for other kinds of games? Roleplaying in strategy games, eg; pretending that you have real citizens in Civ / CK or Cities Skylines?
- This blends very interestingly with an issue I’ve often had reading reviews, where it feels like the reviewer reaches hard for a gameplay experience that the game gestures at but doesn’t quite deliver. I’ve always been frustrated with these because I feel like it is the responsibility of the game designer to have the game actually deliver the gestured experience, but maybe it is actually a lack of gaming literacy on my part.
- “Repetition is the enemy of being scared” and is also inextricable from a core loop. That’s an interesting tension. The core loop is a means to letting the player engage with the systems of the game instead of the surface.
- Figuring out the sheet guy killing fear is an important thing.
- The idea of the fear being dead permanently once it has been killed is very interesting.
- Death losing its sting is a Big Problem In Video Games. It’s inevitable in a game like this.
- The lack of ambiguity in death is a very interesting point.
- Learning the patterns of the designers being the end of fear is interesting.
- Should you just stop playing the game at this point?
- What does a reskinned horror game look like? What is the experience of playing this?
- How severe can the penalty of a horror game ever be?
- Permadeath is interesting, but it warps the design heavily and as a result loses impact. If you die a lot in a game with permadeath, even permadeath loses impact.
- Can you make it about other characters dying instead of you? That way the game doesn’t reset after each death. Resetting in particular seems opposed to fear. It can even just be permanent consequences to your own character.
- Worrying about jumpscares is very interesting. Effects on the person playing instead of the avatar played.
- Dogs will 100% take being annoyed in order to keep playing a game.
- Seeing clipping in the game and how that makes the game feels more like a game rather than a dream is a very interesting point. I think all games are inherently surreal and dream-like and so the boundaries here are a little blurred and so highlighting that this is a game to a player may also have the effect of making the game feel more of a dream.
- It’s very interesting to see a literary reference that isn’t Lovecraft because Lovecraft seems to have been divorced from the word literary.
- Horror coming from the souring and rotting of things that could have been beautiful is a great statement and one that opens up a lot of space to work in.
- There’s a really interesting point there about the game being funny due to the affordances of the mechanics. Humor has a very interesting interplay with horror - there’s the laughter of relief when a situation looked scary but ends up being anticlimatic, the laughter of relief after escaping from something scary, but also the laughter that kills the sense of horror outright - when something is so silly that you can no longer be scared.
- Enjoying interacting with the mechanics detracts from the horror - fascinating point. This reminds me of how people are less likely to donate money after solving math problems. This is a big question in game design
- Teenagers don’t just go to horror houses to cross their arms. They go there so that tentative couples have an excuse to clutch each other. They also go there because sharing an adrenaline rush makes for good group bonding. Horror is historically something of a communal experience - why aren’t there more games that cater to this?
Resident Evil 4
- The inventory management is more stressful than the horror elements - what does this mean for other games? What are the ramifications of this stress?
- Yeah, I think that horror is meant to make you laugh. There’s the laughter when you release stress.
- The haunted house as the threatening space and so a good game setting is interesting.
- Translating from a movie to a game making an event less dramatic as they come up through the procedures of the game instead of as a single event.
- The idea of people taking care of each other is key to horror movies - does this join cleanly with postcolonial game design? What if a key aspect of a horror game was other characters in the game saving you as much as you saving them? What if it’s just about them saving you - imagine a very fragile player character.
- It really does feel like less information should be scarier but it clearly isn’t the case for lo-fi graphics. Does it distance you too far from the situation? I think that these games were probably a lot scarier when their graphics were cutting edge though.
- The font being harder to read is an interesting wrinkle to all of this.
- “The key to horror is destabilizing the player’s sense that they know what’s happening” - I think that this is a very strong approach vector, but I think this statement is much more interesting if you challenge it and try to build horror that rejects this rule.
- Horror games tend to have puzzles so as to keep the player occupied and then that makes it easier to scare them. What are other ways that you could occupy the player? What about implicit puzzles instead of explicit, coded ones? What about something entirely different?
End of Messages
- “Horror not with the goal of scaring the player but instead as a way to add a new flavor to a game” - I really like this idea.
- Are horror games more theme-parky than the average game?
- “The setting has to feel like a character for a great horror game - it has to be both believable and horribly unbelievable.” - Is this more true for horror than other genres? Isn’t this true for SFF as well?
- The fear of being scared is a very important part of horror and this is a really interesting place of cooperation from the player and so an interesting way for the player to interact with the game. They always have the choice to yawn at the horror or cheese their way around the horror, but choose to make the game scary.
- “I would really like for a game to explore the fear of being a monster.” - For what it’s worth, Whalefall will do a lot of this.
- Are Ico & Shadow of the Colossus games about losing your identity?
- I would like a game about being escorted by powerful NPCs in a dangerous world as a way to express the fear of abandonment. Have the powerful NPCs protecting you go in and out of the party. Have them send you on the occasional (but rare) task by yourself.