Saturday, February 28, 2009

What Horror Games Can Learn from [Rec] and The Descent

The first time a game ever made my cry out in fear was System Shock 2. It was on the fourth deck of the Von Braun, ambushed by a pair of horrid mutated spiders leaping from the darkness. Of course, the spiders alone were just the catalyst; the horrifying atmosphere of the Von Braun has set the stage extremely well.

For similar reasons, the spiders in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic made that game more memorable for me that it had any right to be. Its spiders were unsettling to the point that I actually behaved irrationally when faced by them, doing everything I could to stay at range and using up many valuable resources to dispatch them as quickly as possible. But the most horrifying game (or rather, level therein) I've ever played didn't need to play on my distaste of arachnids. I'm going to discuss it later, but I'd encourage you to post in the comments what your scariest game/level was before going any further. I'm curious if there's any kind of consensus.

(If you've arrived via Gamasutra or GameCareerGuide, welcome! This post has a bit of a prologue, so you might want to read that first.)

I love horror games, movies and books. Only rarely do they genuinely inspire fear, but when they do, it's something I really admire and enjoy. It's disappointing that so few games can succeed in creating genuinely scary experiences. I'm going to discuss how I think many horror games look to horror movies for inspiration, only to emulate their shallowest tropes. In general I'm loathe to revisit comparing games and film yet again, but this is one of those cases where there actually are some valuable lessons to learn. We've just been looking at the wrong references.

When thinking about fear in media, most think of horror movies. Of course, most horror films are quite poor at actually being scary. Most of them are simply gory/gruesome and while I enjoy that, it's not scary and it's not really trying to be. I don't think anyone expects the Friday the 13th reboot to be scary any more than House of the Dead: Overkill. At best, these films will occasionally surprise the audience, causing them to jump with sudden appearances and noises. It's the proverbial "spring-loaded cat" and was already tired in the 80s. It's the media equivalent of hiding around a corner and jumping out with a "BOO!" when someone approaches. The response to that is usually being slugged in the shoulder, which is about how much audiences appreciate the media equivalent. (By sheer coincidence, Gamasutra put up an article yesterday about practically the same topic and its author calls out this cheap trick as well.)

There are some films that set the bar much higher, relying on atmosphere and pacing to create a growing sense of anxiety of dread and terror. Two recent films that did this very well for me and everyone I've watched them with are The Descent and [Rec]. The latter was recently remade in the US as Quarantine, but the original is *vastly* better. I don't think it's available as an NTSC DVD at all, but if you don't have a PAL player, just BitTorrent it and buy two of Jaume Balagueró's other movies and give one to a friend or something. I'm rarely one to suggest BitTorrenting movies, but there isn't really an alternative and it just is that good.

Both of these films succeed in being quite scary, but they do so in different ways. The Descent is an extremely intense film; it succeeds by creating an atmosphere where the characters are isolated, vulnerable and very much threatened. Once it starts, it does not let up. The latter is a bit more paced, but is underpinned by feelings of being isolated and trapped. The story is told via a reporter and her cameraman, so all the film is first person "footage," similar to Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. [Rec] uses this to create an experience that's extremely intimate, claustrophobic and tense.

What's strange is how unsuccessfully first person games have been (with one exception) at recreating a similar experience. Doom 3 is all cheap scares. The demons are Jason and Freddy, jumping out of shadows and howling. F.E.A.R. 2 is similar. The problem is that cheap scares are impossible to maintain. Eight hours of flickering lights grows tired

Third person horror games have been more sucessful, but usually still fall short. Resident Evil 1 and 4 (the strongest entries in the series) begin with solid atmosphere for the first few hours of play, but quickly fade into being chased by a giant statue of a midget Castilian Napoleon. It doesn't help that the plot and writing in the RE series are outrageously bad. Don't get the wrong idea, I love RE1 and 4, but they're not exemplary horror games.

Far better examples would be the Silent Hill and Fatal Frame series. Both of these rely heavily on making the player feel vulnerable and isolated. They're slowly-paced, cerebral horror, where confusion and weakness create tension and anxiety. The setting subtly encourages the player's imagination to fill in terrors lurking in the fog and in the darkness.

But the scariest single level of any game I've ever played was in Thief: Deadly Shadows. And if you've played it, you know exactly what I'm talking about. The Shalebridge Cradle is a level late in the game that, quite simply, does everything about horror right. The Thief series isn't specifically horrific, but it is dark, and some of the previous games had levels that were undoubtedly a bit scary. But nothing in the previous games or any other game I've ever played can touch how absolutely chilling the Shalebridge Cradle is. The setting (an abandoned asylum that also served as an orphanage) alone is creepy, but the sound design, lighting and everything else works in perfect harmony with the level. You explore the level at your own pace, slowly discovering the dark history behind the Cradle. By the time you finish the level, you feel like you've survived, not succeeded.

Kieron Gillen wrote an excellent article about the level, which I highly suggest reading if you've played Thief: Deadly Shadows. If you haven't, it's on Steam for only $20 and the experience of the Shalebridge Cradle alone is worth that.

Creating horror in games is simple- have the player interact with something they fear. The problem is, there's a lot of variability in what people fear. For some folks, like me, the tarantula in Deadly Creatures is enough to be unsettling. I've heard of others who, bothered by heights, barely play the Coruscant level of the original Dark Forces. Walking high above the city on narrow walkways without guardrails, the sound of wind roaring, under fire by enemies; even not being bothered by heights it's a little intense. It's also a testament to how important the player's imagination is, which we'll touch on later. Dark Forces was released 14 years ago on DOS with Doom era graphics. Yet I'd wager that even today that level could still provoke some real anxiety in acrophobics.

To create games with the broadest potential of evoking fear, they need to emphasize something most people fear. And until we can make "Public Speaking: The Game" fearsome, the broadest fear is death. But players die in games all the time and most of them aren't scary. Given the blasé attitude most games have toward death, is it possible to make fear of death genuinely scary in games?

Unfortunately, this post will again be ending on a cliffhanger. I was invited to participate in the IGDA Game Design SIG's new Game Design Aspect of the Month blog, so I'll be discussing the topic of player death and its implications in horror games there shortly. I'll post a link here as soon as it's up. I'm quite excited about this new project and greatly looking forward to seeing what kind of conversations the blog generates. Hope to see you all there.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Wherein I Admit I'm a Bit of a Wuss

In the twilight haze between wake and sleep, I heard something land on my pillow. I'd spent most of the evening prior forcing open the painted-shut window just above my bed, using a crowbar I'd purchased explicitly for this purpose. Admittedly, I was amused by the Freeman-ness of now owning a crowbar. It was summer and I could no longer stand the kiln-like nature my unventilated room assumed. Given the labours weren't exactly gentle (I was renting and it was the idiot landlord's fault that he'd painted the bloody windows shut), I imagined a broken chunk of frame or sill had come loose and tumbled next to my head. Not wanting to spend the night aspirating flecks of what was most likely lead-based paint, I grabbed and turned on the flashlight that was next to my bed. I don't remember screaming at what I saw, but I can't promise it didn't happen.

Sitting on my pillow, mere inches from where my head had just been, was the biggest spider I've ever seen outside of the rainforest monstrosities kept by the zoo. I moved from my bed to the doorway with the celerity only terror can grant. As the window had been painted shut, it didn't have any kind of screen. I didn't really notice until after prying the window open. While the area around the house was ... verdant (again, awful landlord), I imagined things would be fine for one night. Fate does not like being taunted.

I turned on the room's only light, fear spreading from the reactionary animalian part of my psyche into areas of active thought. It was a primal fear, fully pervading my senses- tunnel vision, that strange coppery taste, the phantom feeling of tiny crawling legs. This blended with a growing feeling of violation. I think everyone feels, at least a little, that their bed is a place of sanctuary. It offers respite from the monsters of the world, be they the imagined closet-dwelling variety of childhood or the adult beasts of work and relationships. After the invasion of something I so revile, would I ever be able to stop wondering if those deep sheets and vast undercarriage now housed further abominations? What if the thing on my pillow was a female, distended with eggs, seeking warmer environs to secure her brood?

After a few half-hearted attempts to capture the creature with a tupperware container, it skittered under the bed. It was the victor and I went out to the living room to sleep on the couch, haunted by illusory spiders. The next day, I bought and installed lots of screen, deployed a can of insecticide and spent the next several nights at my girlfriend's place. Fortunately, these defenses were sufficient and there were no further incusions. Still, this incident and a myriad of other reasons made me elated to leave that hovel a few months later.

Obviously, I'm a bit arachnophobic. It's not severe, I can deal with smaller spiders well enough. But the sudden and violating nature of the creature's entrance transformed the usual discomfort into absolute horror. When I picked up Deadly Creatures last week, I thought back to that night and I felt a little proud that I could play it despite my revulsion. Gameplay-wise, it's solid but not terribly novel so far. Plus it reminds me a little of Bad Mojo, as you're an invertebrate in both, and I remember that quite fondly. Deadly Creatures is still unsettling and it makes my skin crawl, but I can cope. Although it may be affecting my perception a bit; walking home, a bit of discoloured stone looked spider-y enough to give me a small jump and things skitter in the periphery of my vision a little bit more.

Given the recent release of F.E.A.R. 2, a game ostensibly as much about scares as shooting, I can't help but compare it and Deadly Creatures. I played the demo of F.E.A.R. 2 and while it had a few jumpy moments, Deadly Creatures is a vastly scarier game for me. While I understand that's certainly not ubiquitous, I've been thinking a lot about my reactions to both games. While quite elusive, I wonder how the feelings it evokes could be yoked to create games that can create fear meaningfully, instead of abusing the cheap tricks films have exploited for decades.

This has become a bit longer than I expected, so I'll break this up into two posts. In a few days, I'll talk about the scariest games I've ever played (and they don't all involve spiders). I'll also look at two films that did fear extremely well. If we want to recreate their excellence in creating real scares, we're going to have to question some pretty fundamental assumptions we have about games. I hope you'll join me.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Something is Rotten in the State of Malaganga

Democracy 2 seems like a game I would love. You're the leader of a nation's governing party and you need to adjust policy to improve your nation and maintain leadership. It's pure political simulation, replete with deliciously complicated graphs and charts. That's right, the simulation's detail includes the effects of legalizing prostitution on your nation's GDP. It's interaction directly with a ruleset and that tickles me in all kinds of places.

It would be very easy to put Democracy 2 forward for those claiming games only offer shallow entertainment. Not only is the use of politics directly educational, there's also a ton of potential for tangential learning about various leaders, policies and more. It most certainly teaches the systems literacy Tom Armitage and others have talked about.

I'm going to get a little critical, but it's only because I think this game is generally fantastic and absolutely love what it's trying to do. I think Democracy 2 was made by a single guy and that's ridiculously goddamn awesome. I have nothing but respect, and intend for these comments only to be helpful.

Democracy 2's great strength is also its great weakness- it is a tremendously complicated game. Let's take a look at one of the more common screens in the game. When making changes to funding various policies and programs, you see a screen that graphs the effects changes to its funding will have. This is the screen for changing the nation's state-funded housing policy. By removing all funding from this policy, we see these effects:

Maximizing funding to this program produces this:

Amongst the effects, homelessness has been decreased significantly, equality has increased significantly, poor has gone up and poverty has gone down. The feedback from this screen is quite confusing, even having played the demo entirely three times.

Going back out a screen, here's the impact graph for state housing (I don't know why the background disappeared, but it actually helps make things simpler):

Here we can see that there are actually three different types of things that can be affected: voter groups (socialist, capitalist and poor), national statistics (equality, poverty and poor earnings) and situations (homelessness). As far as the simulation is concerned, they're all quite different, but the policy change graph treats them as the same, and worse, intermingles them. "Poor" and "Poverty" are different things, but looking at the policy change graph, there's no way to know this.

Additionally, which direction you want the positive/negative bar to go depends on what type of thing is being affected. You generally want to minimize loss of voter support and keep those bars as green as possible, but you actually want situation bars to be large and red (I think this is ubiquitous, but I'm not positive) as you're decreasing the situation. So a larger red bar for homelessness means less people are homeless, not homelessness becoming more of a problem. Again, it's quite difficult to infer this just from looking at the policy adjustment interface.

The fact the game is complicated isn't a problem necessarily; for what it's trying to accomplish, it has to be complicated. The problem is the game has almost no meaningful tutorial at all. Its "How To" section is a dozen or so blocks of text, about one per type of interface screen. Having never played the game, most of this text was meaningless or confusing. It's cliche, but "show, don't tell" really is an important maxim.

Now, I don't have any problem trying different things and figuring out what works. The difficulty is the feedback is usually quite delayed and often subtle. Realistically, changes to policy don't have their full impact immediately. But that means it's difficult to know what impact, if any, your changes have made. This makes initially learning the game's systems and interaction harder than it needs to be.

I feel Democracy 2 could be a much more accessible game if it came with a proper tutorial. It could feature a microcosm of the game, with only a few policies, situations and voter groups. The effect of policy decisions would be enhanced to give more feedback faster. This could even be presented cleverly into the game's fiction by saying you're the leader of a minority party in government with limited influence, or perhaps a cabinet minister with specific duties.

Democracy 2 is a very strong game, but its potential audience is limited by the game's complexity. I'm not sure how many folks there are like me who are willing to soldier on until things start to make sense, but it can't be that many. If you're even mildly interested, I suggest giving it a try (or three), because Democracy 2 really is fantastic. I just wish it was a little easier to love from the start.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

GlobalGameJam Vancouver - Aftermath

When many modern games have development cycles that number in years, not months, trying to create a full game from nothing in less than 48 hours seems like madness. Yet, last weekend hundreds of people attempted just that and I believe most of them succeeded. Of course, the scope and polish of these games were quite constrained, but to go from tabula rasa to any working game at all in that time is quite commendable.

I participated in Vancouver's GameJam and with the help of four extremely talent folks. We created Treelings! The game is playable here and its GameJam page is here. I'm extremely proud of what we accomplished in the time allowed and we even pulled it off without any all-nighters. Others have even commented upon how polished our project appeared. I thought the GameJam was a fantastic experience and keeping with the spirit of learning and improvement, I wanted to jot down a few observations and the things our team kept in mind when we were working:

1) Find something simple and fun, and build upon that

As soon as we were given the theme ("As long as we're together, we'll always have problems.") and adjectives (thin, rotating and evolving) for Vancouver's games, our team began experimenting with L-systems. While in the end we ended up using the simplest L-system possible, the core mechanic of using the vine to climb platforms was solid and prototyped by the end of the first day. Using this simple but enjoyable mechanic, we were able to focus the rest of our time on Saturday and Sunday to make that core experience as enjoyable as possible.

2) Scope is driven by constraints. Don't be afraid to cut, cut, cut

It's always difficult to cut a feature or idea you're passionate about or you've worked hard on, but being able to maintain enough distance to objectively know when the cost of a feature is not worth its payoff is an absolutely essential skill to possess. Our constraint was obviously time, but in professional development it might also be budget, manpower or something else. Our final game has only maybe 1/4 of the features we intended, but I think it was much stronger for it. I get the impression that some of the other teams bit off more than they could chew and ended up with several features that were all pretty rough instead of just one that was really solid.

3) Polish counts for a lot

Related to the above, if the decision is between one polished feature or two rough features, I'd contend a single polished feature will always end up being more impressive. I'm sure most people familiar with games can think of numerous titles that had features that felt bolted on, rushed and rough. When working on Treelings, we considered numerous addition features, such as some notion of health, attack/defense trees, scoring, etc. Ultimately, we opted against all of these, preferring to just focus on making the core of our game as strong as possible. I think this was the correct decision and it was visible in our final game.

4) Capitalize on your team's strength

Initially, we intended on building a game in Unity, as none of us had used the system before and we wanted to experiment with it. Quickly, however, we realized that the game's style and our various skillsets were more suited toward a Flash game. We prototyped the core mechanic in Flash, our artist was a traditional 2D animator and all the programmers had used Flash in the past. As interesting as it would have been to experiment with Unity, I think we made the right call. We would have spent so much time just coming up to speed with the tool itself, we would have had a lot less time to devote to improving the game itself.

All in all, the GameJam was an absolutely fantastic experience. Being able to go through a microcosmic version of an entire game development cycle, from team selection and pitching all the way to documentation and release, was an invaluable experience. As I mentioned in my last post, the only disappointing thing was there was a distinct lack of industry professionals. For those in the industry, the GameJam provides a rare opportunity to practice a wide variety of vital skills. For those outside, it can provide a fantastic demo to share with potential employers, possibly some good contacts or just some perspective on just how challenging, but rewarding, game development is.

My thanks to Susan Gold, Ian Schreiber and everyone else that helped organize and participated in the GameJam. Hopefully it will been an even greater success next year!


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How to Survive Losing Your Job in the Games Industry

I hope you will forgive that it has been nearly two weeks since my last post. Things have been ... busy, to say the least. Last Tuesday, the 27th, I was laid off from my job as a programmer at Klei Entertainment. We were working on Sugar Rush, a game for Nexon North America (Humanature Studios) and when Nexon Global closed the studio completely, Klei's project furthest in development no longer had a publisher. Completely understandably, our CEO had to tighten the belt and being the newest hire, I was let go. While large companies ala Disney or Nexon seem to be laying people off to placate nervous shareholders rather than out of legitimate financial necessity, I understand that at small organizations layoffs are sometimes unfortunately necessary. Klei is a fantastic organization with absolutely awesome people, and I learned tons while I was there.

I don't fault Klei for what had to be done, but it was a particularly horrifying experience in that countless other Vancouver game developers have been laid off recently. Talking to a local recruiter, he said that in that last six months, nearing 900 game developers in Vancouver have lost their jobs. Open positions are scarce and fiercely competitive. This is probably the worst time in quite a while to be looking for a job in game development in Vancouver. Despite this, two days after I was laid off I had an interview at an awesome studio and yesterday I accepted an offer from Hothead Games (yes, that means I'm going to be working with Ron Gilbert. Needless to say, I'm excited out of my skull).

Considering how many good folks have lost their jobs recently, I thought I would write up my experience and the things I felt helped me land on my feet. I'm not going to pretend to be some kind of authority, saying "do this, don't do that." I'm just relating my tale and hoping someone(s) will find it useful. I figure I've got to be doing something right if I was able to move from one dream job to another with such expediency. These adages probably apply to other industries as well, and I don't think there's much that's terribly game dev-specific here.

In my humble opinion, to succeed in the game development business and survive being laid off requires two things:

1) Doing great work
2) Let others know about this and take interest in their great work

(An optional rule 0 could be the one that adorns the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Don't Panic.")

It sounds trivial to the point of naiveté, but I honestly believe it to be true. For the former, doing great work doesn't just include what you do between 9 and 5, it also means seeking ways to improve what you do outside of work. When playing games, instead of just zoning out, think about what works in the game and more importantly, why it's compelling. Try playing some boardgames or tabletop RPGs and see how they tick. Work on some side programming projects with a new language or framework. I get up at 5 AM to play games, write or read about games/programming/other things of interest (see my rants about The Devil in the White City).

For the latter, get involved with the local game dev scene in your area. Go to IGDA events, pub nights with other industry folk, take an interest in their projects. Help out with Child's Play charity events. Blogs are a great resource too; I've learned tons in conversations I've had with bloggers who write critically about games. You have to be genuinely interested in others though, not just as a means to an end. This sounds like something out of How to Win Friends and Influence People, but it's true that almost anyone can tell when someone is just looking to use them.

Events like the Global GameJam are a chance to do both of these at once. I participated in Vancouver's last weekend and it was a tremendously valuable experience (upcoming post on that specifically soon). I must say that was pretty disappointed by the fact that aside from myself, one other industry programmer and one faculty member, everyone at Vancouver's GameJam was a student or recently graduated and not working. I understand that the last thing many want to do after a week of work is basically more work that's especially exhausting and without pay, but opportunities to just get together with a group of people and go through an entire game's lifecycle are very rare.

The importance of these two things is should you lose your job (or just be looking for a change), these are the people that will help you land your next gig. They'll tell their coworkers that you're a solid, capable person and the company would be making a grave mistake to let someone else get a hold of your skills. They might let you know about other opportunities. Hell, they might even leave their jobs to form a new studio with you.

Obviously, luck is always going to factor in. There are circumstances that are always beyond one's control, but what you want to do is try to make the most of the things you can control. I realize all of this is tremendously obvious, but I'm always shocked by how content some folks are just to keep their heads down and not be noticed. But if you're not willing to take the time to become really good at what you, it might be hard to compete against those that have.

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