September 17, 2015 6:30 PM | Joel Couture
Players come to games with certain preconceptions or knowledge crafted from years of playing them. In a horror game, this knowledge provides a kind of comfort; unnatural horrors may be on their way, but the player typically already knows how to run from, shoot, or otherwise deal with them. But what if you could take those tools away from the player, leaving them confused and uncertain in a horrible place?
This was what David Maletz, head of Fancy Fish Games, attempted to do with I Can't Escape: Darkness. His horror game of hopelessness in an ever-changing, dangerous maze was built around taking player preconceptions and subverting them, creating a tension, confusion, and paranoia in the player. "Gamers always enter games with preconceptions about them - there is a path to escape, keys are used to unlock doors, etc - and by breaking those preconceptions, I was able to create a form of 'horror' without even needing jump scares." he says.
Much of that horror comes from misdirection created by breaking expectations, leaving the player confused about the meanings and importance of what they are taking in. People who are used to playing games have certain expectations about enemies, music, and level design. If you see an enemy, you fight it or avoid it. If the music changes, something in the game has changed. When the meanings of these things change, it makes the player nervous, as they are no longer sure of the rules of the game world or how to cope with incoming danger. Or if danger is coming at all.
Creating that tension started with misdirecting the player on what was most important on any given screen. "The easiest way to distract the player is to make them think something else is more important." Maletz says. Player expectation of a maze would be that means of escape are the most important thing to focus on. Using that line of thinking, Maletz can place doors or other important items in key places, then set traps near them that play on the player's distraction. After a few mishaps, the player will be left wary when something useful shows up, wondering if it's just bait for a trap.
Enemies were added to further distract for the player. "Maybe an enemy is nearby and they are focused on combat, and before they know it they hit a trap. Or perhaps they are following a ghost, and it floats right across a pit and the player walks right into it." Maletz says. If a horror game has enemies, it is almost always the case that they should be the most important thing to focus on. They're often the biggest danger. In I Can't Escape: Darkness, that enemy could be deadly, or it could also be a distraction meant to lure the player into another trap. This leaves the player unsure on whether to prepare for a fight or start looking over the ground, wondering if the enemy is just bait for a greater danger.
This combines with the fact that not all of the monsters seem to hurt the player. They make noises and touch the player, but then...nothing. The game does indicate damage when the player receives it, so there are just some harmless creatures wandering the maze. This may seem like a boon, but it also serves to make the player pause when they see a new creature. Should you risk ignoring an enemy patrol in hopes that it won't hurt you? It can encourage the player to take extra risks. Not only this, but there are few games that have enemies that run up to the player and do nothing.
This can leave a player wondering if that rat's bite has done some secret thing the game isn't telling them. Were you just poisoned? Did that bite have some other unknown effect. No enemy ever does NOTHING in a video game. The player is left to wonder what state their character is in, and if they're in danger or not, loading every moment with a constant stream of paranoid thoughts.
This worry also comes from the unclear combat damage. When the player gets hurt, the screen turns red, but there is little about this that indicates exactly how hurt they are. "None of this is explained to the player. There is no health bar and the feedback is subtle, so when an enemy attacks you and your vision turns red, you don't even know if you are hurt or poisoned. This keeps the player uncertain until they begin to figure this system out - can they afford to take a hit from that enemy without dying? How will they heal if they do get hurt?" Maletz says.
Combined with the extra variable in combat damage, this can be terrifying. When in a red damage state, can those previously-harmless enemies now kill the player? It leaves something unknown and unclear to worry about, again promoting a paranoia while exploring.
Music was another important aspect in keeping the player unsure. "We learned quickly that having large breaks in the music actually built tension and made the moments where the music started again more impactful. So, choosing when to include music and noises was mostly deciding where we wanted to grab the player's attention, or perhaps distract the player even when there is nothing there." Maletz says.
Players often associate a change in music with some new development - in horror, this can be an oncoming enemy or some other form of bad news. Maletz used this by playing music when nothing was happening, preparing the player for an event that wouldn't occur. This also worked by not giving the player a musical cue when something dangerous was coming, giving them a nasty surprise. Still, musical cues are so common in games that, even when someone is deliberately tricking the player with the music. That fear still builds, but the player is left to wonder if it truly means anything.
Maletz hoped to bring about more anxiety and unease through the high difficulty of escaping the game's catacombs, too. "Making the game nigh-inescapable was more about breaking that expectation (of being able to escape), and in doing so bringing up emotions of hopelessness and despair. Making an impossible game wasn't really my goal, it was more of a side effect of what my goals with the game actually were."
To make players feel truly afraid, Maletz needed them to feel endangered. This could not come from a game where players would succeed more often than fail. Players often expect to beat the games they play, even with horror games. There may be some stumbling points on the way, but overall the player expects to meet the game's victory conditions. Maletz made those extremely steep to undermine that expectation, which also created a powerful tension within the dungeon. If the player expects to win but keeps failing, it builds fear and anxiety.
It can also build irritation. By frequently setting the player up to think one way and then acting in another, a developer runs the risk of aggravating instead of frightening. Maletz got around this by making some of the consequences of that trickery rather minor. "I Can't Escape: Darkness does not punish players too greatly for hitting a trap. You might fall through a pit, and end up near someplace interesting or useful."
I Can't Escape: Darkness is full of many minor failures before the game is over. The results of not noticing a trap aren't always fatal, teaching the player to be more careful over time. This also means the game continues after a screw-up, so the player doesn't feel like every minor failure results in a complete loss. It still creates this sense of being slowly overwhelmed, and when combined with the confusion that has already been building in the player over not knowing the best way to proceed, it fills the player with a panic that infuses every change in the environment.
Everything Maletz has done was designed to undermine expectations leave the player in a paranoid state. Will that monster hurt the character? Is it just a distraction? What state is the character even in? Did that errant sound mean something bad is going to happen? Is the silence meant to lull the player into a false sense of security? After having died so many times, will the player die again on this run? By breaking the player's preconceptions of what they know about games, Maletz has created a paralyzing fear in its players, one born of never being sure what is dangerous and what is safe.
I Can't Escape: Darkness is available for $11.99 on Steam. For more information on the game and Fancy Fish Games, You can head to the developer's site or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.