Survival Horror makers must employ a different set of rules to designers of other types of video game. So said Brian Gomez, design director on the forthcoming horror game Silent Hill: Downpour at GDC Europe today.
Gomez, who has previously worked on a raft of horror titles including Thrill Kill, Evil Dead, Alone in the Dark and Clive Barker’s Jericho said: “A good horror game immerses us in an atmosphere of dread, explores our fears, violates our comfort zones and allows us to experience the vicarious thrill of being preyed upon."
"As games are so often about wish fulfillment and escapism, we are trying to elicit different feelings to other games, and therefore need a different set of rules," he said. "We are in the business of nightmare fulfillment. In survival horror games, this means dis-empowering the player, something that as game designers we are often taught not to do."
Gomez was quick to make a distinction between Action Horror games and Survival Horror titles. "There is a horror game schism between ‘Action Horror’ games, which enjoy a faster pace, focus on action, combat and an action hero protagonist and ‘Survival Horror’, which require a slower pace, puzzles, exploration, survivor protagonist," he explained. "Survival horror is all about making players feel dis-empowered. As developers we are taught with the core rules not to take away player agency and control. But in survival horror we need to learn to break some of those rules."
Gomez explained that early survival horror games were often successful because of technical limitations. "Early survival horror games were basically broken action games," he said. "They had poor cameras, appalling controls and a confusing interface. They often were an exercise in frustration, felt cumbersome and pulled you out of the sense of immersion."
But, said Gomez, action games have evolved and moved on: "Our interfaces and controls have improved greatly. We can make streamlined minimalist HUDs, intuitive cameras. But when these advances are applied to the survival horror genre, the player becomes empowered again. This creates a difficulty for us in a genre which is all about dis-empowerment. We have to find ways to dis-empower the player again, which aren’t led by technical limitation."
Gomez gave numerous examples of ways in which the team at Vatra is working to achieve this with Silent Hill: Downpour. "Our monsters have been designed around psychology, not just aesthetics, he said. "Likewise, we fast discovered our protagonist’s body language had to be fearful. If your avatar doesn’t look scared then you as a player aren’t going to feel scared or intimidated."
In terms of combat, the team's approach was one of weakness, not power. "We wanted to give the player the feeling of being in a bar fight without him being a bad-ass. We increased the strength of the monsters so that, in many cases, fleeing is the smartest thing to do. We also changed our cameras. We brought back some of those fixed angles from the early PlayStation survival horror games."
Gomez also emphasized the need for honesty when writing story for a survival horror game. "We searched deep within to identify darker themes and taboo subject matter for the game. As a design team we sat down and asked: ‘What was the worst thing that ever happened to you in your life?’ We went raw and deep. What we found is that fear is almost always about loss. We had to ask: what are you most afraid of losing. That’s what you should make your game about."
Gomez finished his talk by talking about the future of the genre. "I believe the future of survival horror is about co-op. Team mates provide a graphic example of the price of failure and that sense of 'safety in numbers' rapidly diminishes as the body count rises, in a way a solitary experience cannot mirror. One of the fascinating areas of fear is in creating distrust amongst players. If a survival horror game can achieve this, the effect will be incredibly powerful."