on Aug 6, 2008
Thanks so much to Double Helix Games for the changes they’re making to the Silent Hill franchise. I’m so glad that the main character in SH5 is going to be “a war veteran” and that “combat in the game will take into account Alex’s experience as a soldier”. Finally. I’m sure everyone agrees that the biggest problem with survival horror games is that the main characters didn’t kick enough ass. Perhaps next time around they can make him a space marine in power armor and give him the BFG 9000. Maybe put in a vehicle section where he can pilot a hovertank along with a wisecracking and flirtatious female sidekick. Oh! Oh! And Pyramid Head could be “re-imagined” as a 20 meter cyborg hunter-killer.
WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that the preceding paragraph contains toxic levels of sarcasm. If exposed, flush eyes and go read something upbeat and heartwarming.
Actually, saying the main character is a soldier doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, but in the case of Double Helix I suspect they’re just missing the zombie-stomping point. Their other major project was called Harker, which was a re-imagining of the vampire hunter Johnathan Harker, with a focus on making him “much more efficient and courageous”, which is another way of saying, “more like all the other videogame protagonists we’re trying to mimic”. We already have more than enough square-jawed ex-military heroes and brooding mystic ass-kickers in videogames, but it’s frustrating when the character concept is both cliché and it undermines the point of the game. (i.e. being frightened.)
I wouldn’t even mention this except that the survival horror genre has been whittled down to pretty much a single game at this point, and there is a certain (well justified) concern that this game is going to abandon the defining concepts of the genre. Resident Evil has stopped making survival horror in favor of action comedy. Jericho was an inept action game. (I played the demo. It was about as frightening as the Naked Gun movies, only sillier.) It’s like game designers collectively forgot how to make these games.
I love survival horror. It’s technologically one of the easier sorts of games to produce, but one of the most challenging from a storytelling perspective. In a lot of ways it’s one of the purest forms of game design. Other games have the more simplified goal of “entertain player”, and can sneak by with graphics spectacle and fun gameplay even if their stories and characters are shallow. But with survival horror, the audience is showing up with the expectation of a very specific type of entertainment: being frightened. The experience lives and dies on the strength of the plot, pacing, and immersion.
I really do think that survival horror is a good genre for low-to-mid budget game companies. The competition is pretty thin, and the costs are more manageable.
An example of the cost-cutting available to would-be developers: You don’t need persistent NPC companions with lots of scripting and voice acting. I know NPC companions are all the rage in survival horror these days, but that’s expensive and self-defeating. Sort of like putting an air conditioner on a bicycle. Aside from the drag they put on immersion, there’s the fact that it’s comforting to have company. Alone in the dark, and such. So even if you spend the copious money required to develop a well-written, well-scripted, and well-voiced companion, they’ll just make the game less scary instead of breaking immersion. And they might even do both. (I’ll make an exception for characters like Maria in Silent Hill 2, because she was more or less designed to freak the player out, not help them.)
In these games, it’s fine if the AI is simple. The behavior of zombies and feral monsters is not rocket science, and is a cakewalk compared to coding (say) a squad of supposedly intelligent soldiers who cooperate with each other.
And finally, the slower pace and pervasive darkness in your typical survival horror game means you don’t need to have huge sprawling acres of scenery for the player to explore. You don’t need (and shouldn’t have) expansive outdoor areas that will take ages to produce and tax graphics hardware.
But while you’re cutting all these technological corners, you do need to be exceptionally careful with characterization and pacing. Fear is one of the most difficult emotions to invoke in the context of a game where the player can just put the controller down and go make some nachos. You have to make the player want to continue the game, while simultaneously making them very uncomfortable. The player has to be invested in the fate and feelings of the main character and they need to empathize with them enough to feel both the fear and the need to continue.
But aside from Silent Hill, everyone keeps trying to make horror games with these badass protagonists, characters who are too cool to be afraid of anything. Joe Average with a golf club vs. three zombies can be scary. But Neo and Trinity with automatic weapons vs. a hundred zombies isn’t. Okay, it would be a gleefully hilarious spectacle and I’d probably watch it twice, but it wouldn’t be frightening.
They’re all drawing from the id Software school of laughable fright: Make the player an armor-plated superman with a rocket launcher, and then try to scare them by decorating the levels with goat heads and pentagrams. The end product is fun in a mindless sort of way, but it lacks the narrative deft to reach in and make the player experience anything deeper than the amusement of watching things go boom.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.