November 29, 2012 3:00 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Agustin Cordes of Senscape, the person behind indie horror adventure hit Scratches (back from the era when adventures were considered dead and the indie scene was much smaller) and the driving force behind the long awaited Asylum, has decided to let us pick his brain and try and understand how horror works in games.
How interactivity can amplify scares. How pointing-and-clicking can achieve much more than your average monster flick. How you should probably think when designing horror games. How the dialectics of interactive storytelling actually work.
You have essentially specialized in horror games. Why?
You might be surprised to hear that this was mostly a coincidence. Yes, I love horror, I grew up watching the most deranged and depraved movies you can imagine, and yet I wouldn't want horror to be my primary focus in games (even if I can't help it right now). I like just as much comedy, or a good fantasy adventure, or even better: science fiction, which, some will be disappointed to hear, is my favorite genre.
Basically, when I begun working on games Scratches happened to be the most developed idea, even though I was close to choosing a sci-fi story to debut. Other factors decided for horror though: it's no secret it sells better, so it was a good bet for a first game, particularly as the Scratches story leaned well towards a low budget indie game (for example, we didn't have to show any characters).
As for Asylum, I decided to stick with horror because it feels like the most natural next step; I learned from many mistakes I did with Scratches and I wanted to do better, improving upon a similar experience. So, in a way, Asylum is a spiritual successor. That said, we're definitely trying our luck with another genre at Senscape next time.
Do you believe that horror in games can be as effective as in other mediums?
Yes, absolutely. Great horror relies on mood and subtlety, and we can have them in spades in games. In fact, some movies fail to provide a strong horror experience because, as a purely visual medium, they're forced to show too much, leaving nothing to the mind of the viewer. Books are the ideal medium: I firmly believe that the most terrifying experiences can only occur in books when the mind of the reader is always at work.
I'd say games fall in between: yes, they're a visual medium as well, but we can stimulate the mind of the player in ways movies simply can't. We have more time to develop a good story, slowly build up momentum, even provide with more details, hidden clues, and all sorts of tricks to enhance the experience and reward those who look deeper. Note that I'm focusing on the narrative aspect of horror; some games disregard all of this and provide a more visceral experience that is purely visual. I think that's the most straightforward form of horror, the one that is shocking and likely disturbing, yet instantly forgettable. It doesn't stick with you; you never feel the dread creeping upon your soul. Games can definitely provide that feeling just as well as a great horror movie or book, but it requires planning and a good script that not many companies are willing to invest in.
How does interactivity change the way gamers can be scared?
This goes in line with what I was discussing before: the interaction we require from the player gives us a completely different perspective and ways to enhance the experience. Some academics will claim that interaction kills good narration, but I beg to differ. I find that requiring actions from the player gives you, the designer, the opportunity to reveal the story in various ways and improve the pacing. I like to think that both the designer and the player need each other to tell a really great story in games.
When it comes to horror, I'm convinced that you can present the player with very believable situations and explain the motivations of the protagonist even better than in movies (but not better than books). Sometimes in a movie you feel insulted by the stupid decisions characters are making, or you fail to understand the logic that drives the desires of the protagonist. In games you have more room to elaborate on these matters and such far-fetched situations feel less forced. Specifically in the case of Scratches, the infamous furnace sequence would have been extremely gratuitous in a movie. I mean, why the heck is the protagonist going to crawl inside that furnace in the middle of the night in this allegedly haunted old house?! Just get the hell out of that place and be done with it! Yet it seemed like the natural course of action in the game: by that point the player understood the motivations of Michael, the protagonist. Most importantly, it was the players who decided to enter the furnace. All I did as a designer was point them in the right direction.
So, I definitely think interaction can improve the overall experience and help us scare the players even more. The key is suspension of disbelief: it's very hard to pull it off correctly in movies, but we have more tools at our disposal in the case of games.
Did you feel that Scratches really worked as a horror game? Why?
It's hard for me to judge that but apparently it did. I'm still receiving comments from people that were terrified with the game (I wish I could experience that but, alas, I'm not easily scared these days). The most amazing thing for me is that it seems to have worked as I hoped, as was showcased in the aforementioned furnace scene. Of course, I couldn't be happier but this still surprised me; I mean, in retrospective, Scratches was a flawed title with decidedly weak spots, yet somehow the sum of its parts made it work.
Key to its success, I think, is the pacing and the cinematic feel it provided. It's dreadfully slow at first and demanded a lot of attention from the player, but eventually the story picked up with many twists and surprises. Many didn't make it through the first day, but those who endured were extremely rewarded in latter stages of the game. So, I'd say that the slow pace enhanced the perception of players; not much was going on, so they were paying attention to every detail in the game, anticipating the smallest of events, and thus getting soaked in the atmosphere and slowly learning about the intricate story. When things began to pick up, they were completely immersed and therefore very receptive to scares and dreadful plot revelations.
At the same time, players had complete freedom or control over the gameplay; maybe TOO much freedom, as often many felt lost without hints as to what to do next. In the end this was an illusion because, once again, the damn furnace: you're not in control if you're doing exactly what I was expecting you to do. So Scratches can be described as this tension between player and designer fighting for control in the game (remember what I said about a story being told by both?). It didn't always work as intended, but the moments it did could be quite effective.
What should we expect in Asylum? Did you change anything in the way you approach scares?
Not much. In short, I want to improve on the same style of design. Whereas Scratches was too slow or didn't provide enough hints, Asylum will feel more immediately accessible and dynamic. The intention now is to keep players busy all the time, with always something to look forward to and without those intermezzos with nothing happening as was the case with Scratches. I'm finding that I'm assigning less importance to puzzles to avoid hurting the pacing of the game; the focus is even stronger on the experience this time around.
As for scares, it all remains mostly psychological with a bunch of on-the-edge-of-your-seat sequences. We're not afraid of pushing the line with some fairly disturbing moments. Actually, the game was going to be gorier at first but we're taking it easier on that front (there will still be more blood than in Scratches though, which was practically bloodless). All in all, it's a more relentless experience; the atmosphere is very oppressive and anguishing, the storyline much darker and many moments will be decidedly jarring. Yeah, you're going to love this alright.
Where do you look for inspiration?
When it comes to horror, many sources. Like I said before, I grew up watching tons of horror movies: Friday The 13th., Poltergeist, The Changeling, The Thing, House By The Cemetery, House Of The Long Shadows, Shock Waves, Evil Dead, The Wicker Man... Those are some of the movies that most influenced me, though each one in a different way: how to build suspense, create a strong mood, stimulate your audience with a dark mystery, fear of the unknown, surreal moments, bizarre deaths, pastoral horror, and more. Hammer Films, slasher horror, and Italian horror are the sub genres that I love the most. Specific directors would be Lucio Fulci, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg.
But, my most significant source of inspiration, which should be fairly evident by now, is H. P. Lovecraft. His work is by far what has most influenced my approach to horror writing. It's rather contradictory that Lovecraft is so present in media and yet his actual stories are the complete opposite of what you get these days: with dense prose, excruciating pace, very few terrifying moments and actually not that many encounters with monsters in his entire bibliography, it's safe to say that the "true" Lovecraft isn't a good fit among the fast-paced, show, don't tell, horror media we have today. That said, I keep finding myself attempting to emulate his penchant for otherworldly mood and the ever-present notion in his stories that what you can't see is always much scarier than what you can.
Any specific horror game-design guidelines?
Any suggestions I can offer would be strongly tied to my preference in horror, namely slow-paced experiences leaning towards the psychological horror. I can't stress enough the need to attain a strong mood; however, describing how to achieve this is very hard. "Mood" is the sum of many things and a certain undefined ingredient that keeps them together. Take your time to properly introduce your story and provide as many details as possible. Don't overwhelm players with them, but do reward those willing to dig deeper and uncover the darkest secrets. Provide insight; your protagonist should react meaningfully to his or her surroundings and always take the opportunity to expose thoughts, beliefs, sentiments. Try to establish a connection between player and protagonist so that they're identified with the situations in the game. Give them enough liberty to learn your plot at will; too linear games are generally bad practice, but perhaps horror is the genre that will suffer the most from a very linear design.
That would be my advice to approach horror game design. Of course, you should also read a lot and watch many movies to seek inspiration. Keep an open mind; don't limit yourself to a particular sub genre and try to explore new possibilities. Research; Scratches was entirely designed after research on Google. I have never been to such an old Victorian house or a decaying Kirkbride asylum. You can't imagine how much inspiration you can get from staring at a bunch of pictures. It's all in the details, both in terms of visuals and plot.
And remember: horror works best when you hint at terrifying things. Don't show, tell. If your character is rowing a boat across a sinister lake and some strange, cyclopean creature is lurking beneath the waters, you don't want to have that creature suddenly emerging in front of the boat; that will be shocking, yes, but instantly forgettable and cheap. Rather, have a massive, deformed shadow passing under the boat and I can guarantee your players will be scared to death.