Live and Let Die

[This post contains spoilers about one of the best moments in Siren.  If you haven’t played it yet, please ask yourself what you are doing with your life.]

There is a moment in Siren in which your character, a young teenager, is trying to reach a church to meet her parents. The landscape is full of crazed shibito, some of whom have begun to grow bug-like appendages and extra sets of eyeballs. It is dark and foggy, and to survive the trek you must sneak past these monsters using the title’s signature “sight-jacking.”

The game has trained you well by this point. Siren is a game in which stealth is paramount; if a shibito even so much as hears you it’s all over. A flash of red and quick cut to the enemy’s perspective signals that you fucked up, you failed to sneak well enough, and now you’re about to get killed. By the time you reach the church stage you are a sneaking pro.

Your high schooler crouches behind some bushes as you wait for the bug-thing roaming around a few feet ahead to establish a pattern. Her name is Tomoko. She’s still wearing her red phys ed jumper, as if the cataclysmic event that turned the residents of this rural Japanese town into monsters happened right in the middle of her gym class.

The moment comes and you go for it, crouch-walking just behind the shibito as it pauses to examine a flyer pasted on an ancient farmhouse wall. As you pass you can hear the mutated ex-farmer crying. But then a flash of red, and for just a moment you see yourself through the eyes of the enemy. You didn’t make it. The shibito has turned and discovered your hiding place. Tomoko has no weapons and no means of defense, and this close there’s no chance of escape. That’s it, you fucked up, game over.

And then, it doesn’t happen. The monster doesn’t attack. It saw you, that much is clear, but it doesn’t move. The creature just sits there, a few feet from your 11th-grader, looking at her. Slowly you inch her away and then break out in a run. The monster continues to sob quietly to itself as it watches you go. After a moment it returns to the flyer.

Something is wrong here. The game has trained you that getting caught equates to a quick and grisly demise. You’ve put hours and hours into this game so far, and never has a monster failed to attack. The rules, somehow, have changed.Tomoko_Maeda

As Tomoko stumbles forward other monsters see her. There’s a red flash of recognition, but nothing approaches her. Nothing attacks. You don’t know what’s going on, but this opportunity is too good to pass up. You put the girl into a sprint, her red jumper a blur of color across the monochrome landscape, and cover more ground in the next minute than in the previous ten. Soon the church is in sight.

The end of this level is one of the scariest moments Siren has to offer. Sony used it in a television commercial that the Japanese government banned for being too scary. It’s a moment where the game’s developers knife you in the back and then twist the blade.

The reveal is this: when Tomoko reaches the church, she runs to the windows and bangs on them for help. Her parents, sitting inside, turn at the noise and are horrified. Tomoko’s eyes are bleeding. She’s joined the ranks of the terrible shibito without realizing it.

One of the most powerful things about Siren is that it forces you to play as characters that ultimately do not survive. There is a large cast of playable characters, and in the end most of them don’t make it. By constantly switching from person to person, the game denies you the comfort of knowing that the protagonist can never die. It eschews the trope of the untouchable main character by not having a main character.

Alien does this as well. The passive camera refuses to give the viewer a protagonist, and so he must assume that any character might die at any moment (and, for the most part, they do). Alien sets up Dallas, the strong male lead of the crew, as a potential hero and then promptly kills him. There’s no clear hero until everybody but Ripley is dead.

Siren is exceptional in its capacity to replicate the Alien model. How many games can you name in which the protagonist is not obvious? How many that have no obvious protagonist? How many in which some of the playable characters turn out to be enemies of other playable characters? This just doesn’t happen in video games. Games are usually about someone in particular, and death of that person is just a play failure. Oops, you died, restart.

In Siren, characters die and the game progresses. The effect is subtle at first, as individual levels play out like traditional games. There’s a single protagonist and death is a level-restart failure. But the meta game spans time and characters in a way that I’ve not seen often, and the effect becomes powerful: nobody is safe. A level restart is not enough to revive a character. Most will not make it.

The one other title I’ve played that does this is Eternal Darkness. Though very different from Siren, it uses the same multi-character mechanic to keep you on your toes. Characters die and the game progresses, the roster of playable characters continually expands, and early protagonists become antagonists by the end of the game. Eternal Darkness gets away with a few scenes like Eye Bleeding Tomoko because its fundamental game structure allows for playable characters to be killed off. If you make a bad decision you can’t always just restart and try again.

That’s the meta-mechanic here: making decisions carry weight. In a medium where every failure can be undone, horror games must go out of their way to increase the cost of a mistake. This is how good horror games create tension. Atmosphere and environment might suffice for an hour or two, but eventually a horror game must teach its player that their decisions matter. Resident Evil does this by rationing shells and saves. Silent Hill does this putting save points far apart to increase the time cost incurred by restarts. Amnesia obscures the rules related to failure, forcing you to constantly second-guess yourself.

Siren does all these things: it rations resources, has few checkpoints, employs obscured rules, and on top of that it allows characters to die. It is terrifying.

Tracing the Tendrils of Item Management

One of the things I learned while working on Dead Secret (big announcements coming soon!) is how complicated item combinations can be.  Combining items is a pretty standard Adventure game mechanic.  You allow the player to collect parts of an item from different locations, then combine those items into a new item that is necessary to progress.  Combine the herbs to make more powerful health items, combine the batteries with the flashlight to make it work again, combine the secret decoder ring with the mysterious page to read it.  If you’ve ever played any Adventure game you’ve probably combined some items at some point.

Horror games have used item combinations as a core puzzle mechanic since the very beginning, and it’s easy to see why.  Adventure games abiding by the puzzle dependency chart model allow the player to work on multiple problems simultaneously, but often need a synchronization point to gate progress.  Keys and locks get boring pretty fast, and item combination gives designers a way to make these synchronization points more interesting.

Item management in Resident Evil 2.

This all sounds simple on paper, but of course the devil lurks in the details.  In early Resident Evil games, item combination became part of your inventory management strategy.  In those games your inventory space is quite limited, so often you needed to combine items (shells, herbs, etc) just to free up inventory slots.  Inevitably there came a moment where you desperately needed to collect some item but didn’t have enough space for it, and item combination became an organizational tool.  Inventory management is a wonderful sub-game in the Resident Evil series, but from a production perspective it’s expensive to build.  You need UI to select items and combine them, some logic in the items themselves to determine when items and and cannot be combined, and maybe even some smart way to explain why certain item combinations are not good.  Resident Evil eventually implemented a number of changes to mitigate some of these complications.  For example, later games allow you to use a health herb without actually collecting it to get around the problem of death via full inventory.  Resident Evil 4 has hands-down the best inventory management system ever, but it’s also the most complicated to build.

More importantly, allowing player-controlled item combination makes it harder to communicate puzzles to the player.  If you want the player to combine the blade with the whetstone to sharpen it, then combine the sharpened blade with the hilt, then use the completed knife on the rope, you need to invent a reason that the blade can’t be used on the rope without the hilt.  You need to tell the player that the blade is too dull when he tries to use it on the rope without sharpening.  You need to invent a reason that the sharpened, completed knife can’t be used to cut other ropes, or as a weapon to stab the bad guy.  You must consider the possibility that your player doesn’t know what a whetstone is.  The more expressive your item manipulations become, the more the player will attempt complicated interactions.  It’s on the designer to come up with ways to respond to those attempts to avoid player frustration.

For Dead Secret, my goal was to keep item interactions as simple as possible.  In early design iterations items could only be collected or applied.  This kept the interface and communication requirements pretty reasonable.  But as we built out the game this simplistic item model became restrictive, so we changed it to allow for automatic item combinations.  When you collect all the necessary pieces of an object, the inventory system automatically does the combination work for you.  This approach has some pluses and minuses.  On the plus side, it keeps the UI simple but still allows for multi-step puzzles involving items that can be collected in any order.  This is particularly valuable in VR, where traditional user interface modes (e.g. the “pause screen”) don’t translate very well.  On the minus side, it removes the sub-puzzle of figuring out which item combinations make sense.  More importantly, it removes a degree of puzzle dependency control.  If parts for an item can be collected at multiple places, the item can be put together at any of those locations, and that has ramifications for progression.  There’s one spot in particular in Dead Secret where we had to do a bunch of work to accommodate this complexity in the dependency graph.

Inventory management in Dead Secret

Overall I’m pretty happy with the system we ended up with in Dead Secret, but it isn’t nearly as simple as I had initially planned.  Items can be collected, automatically combined, used as one step of a multi-step puzzle, and even automatically used up.  There are items that can be applied in multiple areas, items that can be used independently, and items that are entirely optional to collect.  There are secret items that have no icon and no presence in the inventory screen.  A seemingly simple design has turned out to have all sorts of tendrils, extending deep into the mechanics of the core game.  Even so, the item system in Dead Secret is much simpler than many other Adventure games out there.

Once you dig into the details, items and inventory system design is fascinating.  Seemingly minor changes to item usage rules can change the way a game feels dramatically.  Item collection, inventory space management, item upgrading and crafting, single-use items, items-as-weapons, disposable items, items that degrade, item boxes, item merchants–the derivations go on and on.  It’s probably a topic worthy of a lengthier post.

In leu of that, I’ll pose a question instead.  Take your favorite Adventure game, horror or otherwise, and consider the item system.  If you removed it entirely from the game, how much game would be left?

Murdered: Soul Suspect

The intertwining of the ghost and human worlds is fantastic.

I wasn’t planning on buying a next gen console, at least not for a while. I have a giant stack of games for older consoles that I should play first, and besides, I’m out of HDMI ports.  But when a friend offered me his Xbox One for $100, I couldn’t pass it up.  The only game on the platform that I really wanted to play was D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die, which was worth the cost alone (seriously, if you read this site and haven’t played D4 yet, go correct that now).

After playing some frustrating bits of The Evil Within and finishing Outlast, I moved on to Murdered: Soul Suspect.  Murdered got pretty mediocre reviews, but I had a good time with it.  The conceit is that you’re the ghost a cop who’s been murdered and must now track down his killer.  The actual tracking down involves walking around through walls, possessing people to hear their thoughts and manipulate them, and solving mystery puzzles by gathering clues.

The basic ghost mechanics in Murdered are the real draw here: walking around through walls never felt so good.  The world is also densely populated with little snippets of story–other ghosts to talk to, spooky dialogs that can be unlocked by finding hidden items, the thoughts of the living, not to mention the main story arc, which is steeped in Salem, Massachusetts’s legitimately crazy history.  For me, wandering the world as a ghost, picking up bits and pieces of other people’s lives on the way, and searching crime scenes for clues was the entertaining thing about Murdered.  There are times when I would simply ignore the main path and venture off into the world in search of small stories.

Finding other ghosts and hearing their stories is a treat.

Less fun, and less carefully implemented, are the “gamey” parts of the game.  As a ghost, the main character (an unlikely ex-con-turned-police-detective named Ronan) occasionally has to contend with demons, select the correct answers to quizzes, and figure out how to traverse passed areas that ghosts cannot touch.  These bits, particularly the demon segments, are pretty frustrating.  The demons look cool, but to kill them you have to sneak up behind them and do a quick timer event, which is easy to flub.  You can sneak past them at first, but later in the game you have no choice but to take them out.  It’s a pretty shallow mechanic to begin with, but it’s spread way too thin over the course of the game.  Similarly, the cool crime scene investigation mode is followed by a lame connect-the-clues puzzle where the real challenge is to figure out what question the game is trying to ask.

As I played I felt increasingly convinced that the game would be better with less game play.  What I want is to walk around as a ghost and discover stories, either by meeting other ghosts or eavesdropping on the living. Murdered is almost the most AAA walking simulator ever made.  But then it goes and tries to inject some mechanics, mechanics which really can’t support the entire weight of the game, but are given the task nonetheless.

Looking at the reviews of this title, it’s clear that some journalists only saw (or only considered) the mechanical aspects of Murdered in their review.  Others, like me, enjoyed the real mechanic (story snippet exploration) and came a way with a more favorable impression, despite the flaws.  It’s a shame, really.  Airtight Games closed its doors immediately after Murdered shipped, and it will probably be a long while before we see another non-indie walking simulator (or, as I like to call them, exploratory non-combat horror games) of this scope or pedigree.

Designing Horror Games for the (Teenage) Masses

I’m pretty interested in Five Nights at Freddy’s and Slender.  Both are low-budget indie horror games that have, in the last few years, reached incredible levels of viral success.  The two titles are very different: Freddy’s is about a security guard who must survive the night in a department store full of killer animatronic animals, and Slender is a game about finding notes in a forest while avoiding the infamous Slenderman.

Despite the obvious differences both of these titles have enjoyed significant success, particularly with teenagers. The extent of the impact these games have had on American teens wasn’t clear to me until Mike, the Art Director at Robot Invader, told me about his daughter.  Apparently she and her friends like to get together and play a game called “Slenderman.”  The setup, as described to Mike by his daughter, is very similar to the design of Slender, only this game isn’t played with a computer: one kid gets to be Slenderman and she chases the others around outside.  In fact, most of these kids have never played Slender.  The game has wormed its way out of the computer monitor into their consciousness without direct contact.  Freddy’s is even a bigger sensation, apparently.  Here’s a family counselor explaining Five Nights at Freddy’s to worried parents.  Both of these games are simple to play and pretty scary, and have managed to capture a large audience of kids.

Though Slender and Freddy’s are very different games, they share a number of similar traits.  Perhaps it is these traits that make both titles so accessible to younger audiences.

Obfuscated Rules

Both Slender and Freddy’s go out of their way to obscure key parts of their game design.  In Slender, the speed and movement pattern of the Slenderman is unpredictable.  You never see him move, but when you turn your back on him he gets closer.  In Freddy’s, the movement of the monster animals is also unclear, as is the amount of power consumed by each of the actions you can perform.  By making key rules unclear, the authors of these games make it harder for you to treat the experience as a logic puzzle.  There’s no comfort to be found in understanding the rule set and exploiting its weaknesses because the rule set itself is hard to pin down.

Forced Unawareness

Both Slender and Freddy’s force you to look away from the thing that is trying to kill you.  This is a pretty powerful mechanic.  In the case of Freddy’s, you can’t spend all of your time on the monitors or you won’t have enough power for the doors.  In Slender, looking at Slenderman actually hurts you, and you have no choice but to turn away from him and run.  This mechanic induces tension quickly because you must actively deprive yourself of incisive information to win.

Pop-Out Scare Failure Event

Neither Freddy’s nor Slender rely on a series of pop-out scares, but both use them to make failing a level dramatic.  Rather than pop some hideous creature out of a dark corner every few minutes, these titles build tension with the threat of a pop-out scare, which doesn’t actually occur until the player fails and reaches the game over state.  These games are designed for replay, and once you’ve failed once the weight of the impending pop-out scare serves to dramatically increase your level of stress.  This is a very smart way to use pop-outs, I think, because it gives the player no release; rather than employ the common pattern of building tension to a pop-out, then easing off, the pop-out-at-the-end approach only relinquishes its grip when the game is over (or the level completed).  The actual pop-out effect is almost inconsequential.  Tension is built by the impending scare that you know is coming if you fail.

Mettle Tests

The design of Freddy’s and Slender is good, but I think their virality amongst kids has to do with them being tests of mettle.  These games are a safe way to prove your courage, both to yourself and your classmates.  Like CandymanBloody Mary, or Hanako-in-the-Toilet, Slender and Freddy’s provide easy-to-reproduce fear challenges that kids can perform without involving adults.  The challenges are equitable and accessible: anybody who has a mirror can try to summon Bloody Mary, and Five Nights at Freddy’s can be played on just about every PC, smartphone, or tablet platform under the sun.  Children use these challenges to test their mettle and then boast about the results to their peers.  This social, competitive aspect of these games is probably what drives them to be as widespread and popular as they are.  But of course, they would have never become tests of teenage fortitude if they had not been well-designed and extremely accessible to begin with.

Slender and Five Nights at Freddy’s are good games, and are worth playing if you want to study interactive horror.  But more interesting is the way that these titles have gripped a segment of the audience not usually considered by horror game designers.  The appeal of these games to teenagers is, to me, the most fascinating part of their success.


When we describe games like Resident Evil to others, we probably say something like this:

In Resident Evil, zombies have taken over a big mansion and you have to stay alive by shooting them and solving puzzles.  You have to conserve ammo and read documents to uncover the mystery behind the mansion and the zombies.

While technically true, this sort of description doesn’t actually describe what you do from moment-to-moment in Resident Evil.  A more accurate description might be:

In Resident Evil you visit a large number of rooms. When you enter a new room, you look for zombies and shoot them.  Then you run around the edges of the room and press the search button to find items and documents and keys and puzzles. By finding items and solving puzzles you can open up doors to new rooms. Eventually you visit all the rooms.

This description isn’t sexy, and it ignores the narrative elements of that game, but it’s accurate.  If you recorded all the button presses used in a Resident Evil play session I’m sure you would find that “search” is one of the most common operations, second only to movement.  Resident Evil, and almost all horror games from that era, spend a lot of energy on the ransacking of the game world.  In these games, missing a hidden item can cause difficulty to increase or even stall progress completely.

Ransacking a room isn’t a very exciting game mechanic, but it is one of the pillars upon which many horror games are built.  The side-effects are numerous: the pace of the game is slowed, players treat the environment as an area to be systematically swept, and item collection becomes synonymous with survival.  Ensuring that every single item has been collected becomes an important, as missing even one could have consequences later.  For example, Silent Hill has items that ruin the ending of the game if missed.  The message is clear: search everything, everywhere, or run the risk of negative repercussions.

On the upside, ransacking forces the player to pay attention to the environment. Resident Evil and its ilk love puzzles that involve opening up a secret area or revealing a previously hidden compartment because these force the player to pay attention.  If you want all the items you’re going to have to open all the doors which means you can’t just go running around shooting zombies haphazardly.  It’s a mechanic that requires focus, and as a result, gives the designer a lot of opportunities to inject story information into the player’s consciousness.  You had better pay attention to the details of that painting and read all of the text in that document if you want to ensure that you’ve found every last nook and cranny there is to find.  Resident Evil in particular doubles down on this approach by making health, ammo, and save items rare commodities that must be collected at all costs.

Hope I found everything.

On the other hand, ransacking can make you play the game like an idiot.  The mechanic encourages you to believe that every item must be found, and so you traverse the corners of every broom closet and alleyway just to ensure that nothing is missed.  It creates anxiety: whenever a ransacking game closes an area off without warning (e.g. in a cutscene), you feel uncomfortable about items you might not have found.  Even worse, collectors going for every item must anticipate upcoming game events that might restrict their access to a segment of the level map.  The problem is exacerbated when the map is large.  The way forward is obvious, but you always take the alternate path, never forget to look under the stairwell, and methodically check every stall in every bathroom.  Each time there is a branch in the map you have to guess which direction is the “real way” and which is likely to dead-end in an item room.  This pattern is especially frustrating when it conflicts with a narrative that wants you to move forward.  The level design in The Last of Us and Alan Wake suffers from this: the story says, “GO! GO! GO!” but the map design is like, “hey, maybe check out this door over here?”

Ransacking encourages the player to think about his environment as a puzzle rather than as a real place.  We’re checking mental checkboxes as we clean rooms out, taking note of rooms we’ll need to return to, maintaining a ledger of tasks completed and tasks outstanding.  Obscure has a character who’s special power is to declare whether all the items in a room have been found, and this power is the most useful of all the characters in the game.  This mode of thinking is not the most conducive to scaring the player.  In fact, it often becomes an annoying chore.  We’re paying attention, but only because we don’t want to be burned later.  Horror games about ransacking and collection must find ways to give the player breathing space, where the pressure of finding every last thing is eliminated and they can enjoy the story for its content.

One mitigation strategy is simply to make items of interest flash or sparkle.  This approach releases the stress of ransacking by making the operation much easier: you can simply look at a space and see if there’s anything to do there or not.  When there’s nothing to see, the player can swiftly move on to something else.  The problem with this method is that it removes the focus element that ransacking provides, and makes it more difficult for the game to grip the player with its narrative.  Fatal Frame and many other games thus employ an uneasy middle ground where some items sparkle but others do not, thereby affording narrative detail for players who wish to consume everything while releasing others from the need to exhaustively search.  Still, when I play these sorts of games, I can’t help but worry that I’ve missed something important, and end up turning the whole place upside down just to be sure.

Resident Evil 4 threw ransacking out the second-floor window by removing the need to find specific items.  There are very few keys or puzzles in that game, narrative sequences tend to be built into the core progression path, and consumable items such as ammunition and health are available in infinite supply from fallen enemies.  There are still item boxes to find hidden away for players who go exploring, but by removing the need to search an environment for items the design ensures that nobody worries that they missed something.

Good thing I checked.

More recently, Amnesia takes an even more dramatic approach by simply eliminating items altogether.  Sure, there’s an occasional key to find, but with no combat and no ammo, very little item management is required.  Lamp oil is rationed to force the player to turn out the lights, but if you do so then oil supply is not a major concern.  In Amnesia, every drawer of every desk can be opened, but there’s almost nothing to find because ransacking is not the mode of thinking that the developers wish you to assume.  The Amnesia school of thought dictates that by removing your ability to think of the environment as a system, you’re forced to think about it as a real place.  That’s probably one of the reasons why that game is so much scarier than most games from the Resident Evil era.

In Dead Secret, the VR murder mystery game I’m building with my team at Robot Invader, exploration of the environment is the primary mode of play.  There is no combat or health, but we do have other sorts of items, and you’ll need to search every room throughly to find them all.  To prevent ransacking from becoming a chore our approach is to put a high concentration of items and documents in each area.  You will not spend your time barraging through a series of rooms, fingers crossed that you haven’t missed anything.  On the contrary, you will take your time in each room to discover the interesting clues it has hidden away, and you can come back later if you want.  Our items do not flash, but sweeping the environment is not difficult because the reticle changes when it passes over items that can be collected.  When experienced in virtual reality, physically looking around your environment becomes one of the main modes of play.

My goal is to get you to focus, to think about the content of the rooms, without forcing you to exhaustively check every single corner.  It’s a careful balance, and hopefully it works.


Everything Old is New Again

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about horror games. Mostly I just haven’t had time to play them. But at some point last year I realized that there was more to it than that: I was tired of trying to maintain my 12-year-old custom blog software.  I’ve been writing an occasional blog post over at Robot Invader, and I tweet about horror games from time to time.  But I pretty much stopped writing for Chris’s Survival Horror Quest partially because the ancient software is a pain to use and the site design looked dumb in 2006.

Chris’s Survival Horror Quest first launched in August of 2003.  It’s been through two major iterations since then.  This is the third.  Over the years my writing about horror games has gone from being focused on up-and-coming news, to reviews of video games, to a somewhat more meditative, analysis-heavy form about the construction of scary games and the functional components of fear itself.

The design of this incarnation of Chris’s Survival Horror Quest had three goals.  I wanted to be able to present long-form analysis in a readable way, to preserve all of the content on the site, and to condense everything into a single, flat stream.  Getting the content out of the database and into WordPress took some coding; I repurposed an old RSS serializer I wrote to generate a format importable by WordPress, then added a bunch of mapping hacks to fix all of the links and images on the site.  There are some weird things: all of the old reviews had no date, so they’re all filed under August of 2003 (though they also each have a news item from the date they were published).  Some links might be broken, though I’ve been pretty careful.  A few places need layout tuning by hand.  But generally, I’m happy with the result.  Even the comments made it through!

This is not a promise to update this site more frequently, though I will try.  Thanks for hanging around, especially those of you who’ve been here for more than a decade.  If you’re interested in what I’ve been up to lately, you could watch my GDC 2015 talk about Dead Secret, the VR mystery game I’m making with my team at Robot Invader, read about that game on the Robot Invader Blog, or check out some of the technical blogging I’ve done for Oculus lately.

I’m still here.  I still have a giant stack of horror games to play.  There will be more posts here.  Hang tight.

PS: Today is Chris’s Survival Horror Quest’s twelfth birthday.  Hooray!


This entire game is based on that one scene from The Descent.

There’s a lot to like about Outlast. It’s a non-combat stealth horror game made by a small team of veterans that sports super high production value but keeps things simple. The sound quality is fantastic and the graphics are nice and it manages to be pretty scary now and then. It’s got a great mechanic (a nightvision camera) that it uses well. It’s exactly the type of game that interests me in this post-Amnesia world: small, contained, high-quality, and (hopefully) experimental. So it is with great regret that I must report that I did not like Outlast very much.

There are a number of obvious problems with Outlast. The story is fairly routine and inconsequential to gameplay. The game goes for excessive gore, which is probably exciting to kids but is pretty boring to me. The stealth system is pretty bad, and it’s often easier to just sprint through a level than to try to sneak around. The level art and enemy design is pretty repetitive. The encounters with one big brute enemy get old really fast.

But these are really just superficial problems. There are games with much worse stories, and much poorer stealth mechanics, that still manage to pull off some great gameplay. No, the real issue with Outlast is this:

It’s predictable.

Not just the story arc (although that’s also predictable), but the core level design. The levels follow such a routine, obvious pattern that everything from item placement, to pop-out scare pacing, to encounters with other characters is easy to read way in advance. In a game with very few interaction mechanics (you can move, hide in lockers, and look at things through night vision), predictable level design is a serious problem.

Comfort is the antithesis of horror. When the player feels comfortable, they aren’t feeling scared. In a game like Outlast, one of the primary ways that a player comforts himself is by anticipating what will come next. This is a mode of thinking that treats the game we are playing like a system. Every time you think, “oh, the obvious flashing light is to the left, so I’ll go right first,” or “this would be a good spot for a hidden item,” or “it’s been a while since the last pop-out scare, I bet one’s coming up,” you’re thinking about the game as a system that you are trying to solve. You’re not navigating the dark hallways of a corrupt insane asylum that’s been experimenting on its patients, you’re solving a Rubix Cube. Guess which one of those types of play is scarier.

Outlast’s main problem is that it has very little to work with to keep you uncomfortable. The levels are narrow and linear, and there’s only ever one right way to go (if there’s more than one way, there’s probably an item at the end of the alternate passage). The game mechanics are well implemented but extremely shallow, which makes the actual moment-to-moment gameplay very repetitive. The game dutifully saves before every major encounter (and immediately after) and helpfully alters the music to let you know exactly when you are in danger and when you are not. As a result, you know enough to see through the game content and treat it like a Rubix Cube.

The developers try to combat this with stealth sections. Sometimes they work; when you are hiding in a dark corner and can’t see your pursuer, it can be pretty tense. But the stealth sections quickly devolve into a repetitious, frustrating challenge, which feel unfair. After a few attempts, you realize it’s easier just to run for it. Now you’re treating it as a system again, and the power the game had over you is lost.

The only remaining trick the developers have up their sleeves is pop-out scares. But even those get old really fast. They are startling, and knowing that they could pop something out at you at any time is stressful, but they happen so often that the easiest solution is to just take yourself out of the game. Once you stop caring about your character the pop-out scares have no power, and their appearance becomes yet another thing to try to predict.

It’s a shame, too, because there are some great scenes in Outlast. My favorite is a bit late in the game when you finally exit the foreboding asylum into a rainy courtyard. It’s almost pitch black but the area is punctuated by lightning. This section only lasts a minute or two until you’re guided back into more strictly-linear passage crawling, but it’s a great scene.

There are some other nice touches as well. The night vision camera pretty much saves the day by giving you a very narrow cone of vision and forcing you to navigate unfamiliar territory with it. There’s a battery mechanic that creates some pressure between using the night vision to see your surroundings and trying to conserve your small supply of batteries for an emergency situation. The actual movement mechanics are good and the game isn’t buggy or broken (although the way the camera rocks made me feel like my character is wearing clown shoes). There’s some really nice automatic first-person body and hand animation that I haven’t seen done this well before.

But in the end, the thinness of the game mechanics and the predictability of the level design sucked all the scariness out of this game for me. The reliance on pop-out scares further removed me from the game, and by the end I was just Rubix Cubing my way to the finale.

The Interaction Feint

Fatal Frame 4, which I keep coming back to every few months but never seem to complete, has a neat item pickup mechanic. Your character, a young woman trapped in a dilapidated hospital on a forbidden island full of moon ghosts, slowly extends her hand to reach for an item when you hit the A button. In fact, you need to hold the A button down or she’ll draw her hand back. As you hold the button down, her hand extends and the camera moves to follow it. There is a slow approach, a pregnant pause, and then ding!, a Shinto bell indicates that she’s got the item.

Except sometimes, every tenth item or so, a ghostly hand will shoot out of the darkness and grab her wrist just before it reaches the item. A stinger plays and the camera cuts to an animation of the protagonist fighting to get the hand off. And then the game resumes. It’s a pop-out scare built right into the item pickup mechanic.

Ju-on: The Grudge does something similar. Every time you open a door you see a slow animation of a hand extending, grasping the handle, and opening the door. Every once in a while, a little ghost kid’s hand shoots out of the darkness and grabs you. It happens just frequently enough that every time you open a door you hold your breath.

I’m calling this mechanic the Interaction Feint. Formally defined, an Interaction Feint is when a routine interaction is co-opted without warning to startle and surprise the player. It is powerful because it subverts common interactions that the player performs so often that they’ve become automatic. Its effect is to make those operations more nerve-racking by forcing the player to mistrust the interaction. The ultimate goal of the Interaction Feint, as with most horror mechanics, is to keep the player from feeling confident and in control.

The Resident Evil games have, from time to time, used the inter-room door loading animation as an Interaction Feint. A clutch of zombies appear and attack in the middle of what appears to be another boring room load. There are other examples, but they all serve a similar purpose: to keep the player from falling into a comfortable routine.

Even non-horror games use Interaction Feints. One great example is the Mimic in Dragon Quest 3 (and his jerkwad counterpart in Dark Souls). This is a monster disguised as a treasure chest that attacks the player when he tries to open it. It’s a great Interaction Feint because the player opens many chests and is excited to find them. He is thinking of what might be inside, and is (ideally) caught completely by surprise when the Mimic attacks. The Mimic can be pretty scary, too. In Dragon Quest they can often kill a party member instantly. Maybe next time the player won’t approach a chest so carelessly.

I think that pop-out scares have value in extreme moderation. The best pop-out scare is the kind that forces the player to wait for the next pop-out event, which should ideally never come. A good pop-out can coil the player like a spring, and then force them to stay that way, with no chance to unwind.

The Interaction Feint is a particularly insidious form of pop-out scare because it forces the player into a state of hyper vigilance. The player must now be careful no matter how routine the operation. If he forgets and relaxes, the Feint can achieve the shock value of a good pop-out scare. But it’s even better if the player doesn’t forget, because in that case he must worry about every single item he collects, every door he opens, every chest he investigates. Now a routine, nonthreatening, uninteresting interaction has been transformed into something that induces tension. That’s pretty cool.

Curse: The Eye of Isis

Hey, I finished another horror game! Crazy, right? This time it is Curse: The Eye of Isis, a throughly mediocre game that nonetheless has some interesting ideas (that don’t work out, of course). This was one of the most pleasant bad games that I’ve played in a while because it’s not particularly buggy and I got a kick out of killing everything with the default club weapon. If I can finish a couple more games I can retire the original Xbox, which I’ve kept hooked up just for a few obscure titles like this one.

Curse is actually a great game to study because it’s got all kinds of common failures wrapped up in one package. If you’re like me and you enjoy punishing yourself to learn things, it’s actually worth a look.

Virtual Reality Horror is Amazingly Great

I played Alien: Isolation at the Oculus booth at E3 last week. Alien is a high-end experiment in the genre I’ve been calling “exploratory first-person horror” for the last few years. Mechanically, it’s a lot like Slender or the hiding bits of Amnesia: you are running around a dark space ship with an obfuscated radar, hiding from the deadly alien that is prowling somewhere in the shadows. If the alien catches up to you, it’s an immediate, grisly game over. The presentation is dark and the tension is high and, as exploratory first-person horror games go, this one probably has the best production values of anything I’ve played. It’s a good, tight horror game. But as a VR experience, it’s absolutely jaw-dropping.

It’s not that the VR experience is completely convincing. There are a lot of technical problems left to solve. The resolution should be higher, and it’s hard to reconcile the direction that your character should move when you press up on the analog stick (moving the way you are looking felt weird, at least to me). Any time the game took camera control away from me, even for a moment, I started to feel queasy in my stomach. And it’s not clear exactly how this will scale to more complicated games.

Because it’s imperfect, the VR version of Alien felt a bit a Disneyland ride to me; a not-entirely-real world that was trying its best to be convincing. But here’s the thing: I was there. The world might be fake, but I was standing in the middle of it. The “sense of presence,” (to use Thomas Grip’s term) is so strong that I quickly forgot about the details of the environment and concentrated on hiding in a tiny ventilation shaft while the flashing dot on my low-tech radar passed dangerously close. With VR, even though the tech and presentation have a lot of room for improvement, the feeling of being inside the world is astounding. And it makes the horror of this kind of game work almost immediately. Grown men and women sitting near me were literally screaming as they played.

Speaking of Thomas Grip, I chatted with him at the annual Game Developer’s Conference this year. He’s hard at work on SOMA, which, from the little I’ve seen, is going to be the best horror game available on a console for a long while. One of the things we discussed was the ways in which that sense of presence is built (or, in many cases, destroyed). Sense of presence goes beyond suspension of disbelief; it is the feeling that the world is real, that you are in it, and that the consequences of your actions are therefore meaningful. It’s an incredibly hard feeling to create; most games don’t manage it. Those that do are often horror games, and those horror games are the best horror games.

But with VR, the sense of presence is almost free. The world, even when rendered imperfectly, is immediately believable. Though your brain knows that you’re sitting in a chair with a cumbersome mask on, it’s very hard to actually interact with the real world. Even reaching out my hand to pick up a controller from the desk is hard for me to do without closing my eyes. The visuals your brain is getting are strongly sending you the message that you are somewhere else, and the easiest thing to do is just believe that.

As I mentioned above, there’s still a lot of technical hurtles. The biggest, I think, is character movement. You can’t very well get up and walk around with a giant screen stuck to your face, but your character in the game needs to move freely. This disconnect between your real movement and the in-game movement is jarring because there’s no such disconnect between your head movement and your view. My biggest beef with Alien is that movement felt unnatural. It wasn’t unplayable, but it hurt the sense of presence. It felt like I was just a disembodied head flying through space.

But these issues will be solved. In fact, I’m sure the all-star dream team of developers that Oculus has assembled is hard at work on solving this sort of problem right now. But even at its current state, VR for horror is incredibly compelling. I am tempted to claim that it will be, for the types of games that work in VR, the best possible way to play horror games in the future.