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Postmortem: The Game Design of Surreal's The Suffering
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Postmortem: The Game Design of Surreal's The Suffering

June 9, 2004 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

"A stylized horror shooter. The frenetic gameplay of Devil May Cry meets the horror setting of Resident Evil and the immersive game-world of Half-Life."

So began the two-page pitch document that marked the start of Surreal's development of The Suffering. It is odd to read it now, two and a quarter years after it was written, especially given the various twists and turns the game took along its road to completion. But it is even more remarkable how little the game's concept changed from the basics laid out in that initial document.

Like most projects The Suffering had many of the classic successes and failures with which long-time readers of Game Developer postmortems will be keenly familiar. Though The Suffering employs many game mechanics that are well established (it is a shooter after all) a number of design decisions were made early on that we hoped would make the game stand out. Thus it is interesting to look back on the game's development purely from a game design standpoint to see what worked and what did not.

In many ways, The Suffering emerged out of the ashes of a game I had spent the prior two years on, an action/RPG Western called Gunslinger, a game that ultimately fell prey to the market's aversion to its setting in the old West.

Setting the mood.

The Suffering was planned from the get-go to be more focused and conservative in what it tried to accomplish than the extremely ambitious Gunslinger. I realized that in the end part of what sunk Gunslinger was its lofty aspirations, and with The Suffering we had a game I knew we could pull off, including its drastically stripped down morality system. From the start, however, I had very concrete design goals for the project that I hoped would make it stand out.

Most important was that The Suffering was to be an action horror game, instead of a survival horror game. This meant we were going to focus more on combat and avoid the long cut-scenes, frail central characters, clumsy controls, fixed camera angles, and sparse ammo of many console horror games. Losing those elements we knew we would not be able to pull off the cinematic style of horror employed by Silent Hill and Resident Evil, and would need to instead focus on establishing a more disturbing and unsettling tone, taking horror novels as our inspiration instead of films.

Lessons from the Gunslinger

When we first became interested in developing The Suffering, we felt that we had learned a lot about third person shooting mechanics through Gunslinger. Looking back on it now it seems much of what we had learned was what not to do. The aiming-based shooting combat that ships in The Suffering is nothing like the target-lock based shooting that was in the final iteration of Gunslinger. Something that carried over more directly was Gunslinger's reputation system, but in a drastically simplified form. In Gunslinger our goal was to keep track of the player's "good" or "bad" actions and then have the NPCs in the environment react accordingly. This was an incredibly complex system with multiple groups who might view the player's actions differently incorporated with a unique method of distributing knowledge of the player's actions through a town full of people in a believable fashion. (For those interested in the system, Greg Alt wrote an in-depth article about its architecture for the first AI Game Programming Wisdom book.)


We also felt we could be more effective at keeping the player tense and on-edge by immersing them in the game-world as much as possible. In addition to our improved controls and limited cut-scenes, we wanted to immerse the player through player-empowerment. A number of our decisions reflected this: control of the player character would be as smooth and intuitive as possible; the player would be able to interact with the game-world in a believable and consistent way; the player would make their own way through the game-world via multiple paths and numerous optional side-areas; there would be multiple ways to accomplish a given task; players would be able to explore the game's story as much or as little as they want; and players would be allowed to make important choices about how they act in the game world, thus tying into our morality system. Through these important choices, the player is able to determine the main character Torque's guilt or innocence of the crime that landed him in prison. We felt this was our strongest element of player empowerment, allowing players to determine not only Torque's future but also his past, something altogether unique in games.

Finally, to have a disturbing and unsettling tone we knew that creepy monsters alone would not be enough. Therefore we wanted to tie into real-world horrific events. Thus the storyline is suffused with the darkest elements of American history, including prison life and culture, slavery, racism, unethical medical experimentation, mob-mentality executions, and the death penalty. This is fairly serious subject matter for a videogame, particularly an action-adventure, and it amplified the horror of our world tremendously.


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