Ransacking

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!

Outlast


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.

Nanocon Part Deux

Happy to report that I’m heading back to Nanocon this year to give a talk about the Rules of Horror, particularly in games. If you can’t make it, I’ll post my slides when I get back to California. If you can make it–see you there!

Part of the talk I gave at Nanocon a few years ago focused on horror games as a “chautauqua.” The term refers to a traveling group of entertainers/educators that toured rural America in the early part of the 20th century. Robert Pirsig used the word in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to describe the book itself: it is meant to enlighten and educate, but does so by entertaining the reader with a story. I really like the concept of entertainment as a vehicle for teaching, and I think horror games are particularly adept at assuming that role.

Richard Rouse III, designer of The Suffering (and many others), points out that horror is uniquely positioned to discuss complex social topics because it flies under the radar of political critics. Horror is quickly and easily written off as “garbage for the kids,” and thus is free to discuss topics that more prestigious genres cannot touch. You can read more about this idea in my write-up of a talk Rouse gave a couple of years ago.

This year’s talk will be a little different. I’ll post my slides when I return.

EDIT: So I didn’t really go to Nanocon. Apparently I was there in spirit, though, as a character in a horror-themed ARG that the folks at Dakota State put together this year. I’ve never been a character in a game before. That’s… really weird. So, sorry: there aren’t actually any slides this time around. But that chautaqua stuff is still an interesting way to think about horror games, right?

10 Years

My first Chris’ Survival Horror Quest post appeared on August 6th, 2003. That means that this is the Quest’s tenth year running, which I’m finding a little hard to comprehend. Since I started I’ve had two kids, shipped a bunch of games, founded a game studio, and moved across the Pacific ocean twice. I’ve also finished over sixty horror games, and have written about most of them (which, by the way, is a little over half of the games cataloged here).

Since it’s Halloween, and since there’s more interest in horror this year than in recent memory, I thought I’d call out a few of my favorite posts from the last ten years.

There are a bunch more that I am proud of, but these are some of my favorites.

You might also be interest in this podcast I did with Patrick Klepek over at Giant Bomb recently, or the short history of horror games that I wrote this week for EDGE Online.

Thanks for sticking with me as I continue to dig into this fascinating genre. Happy halloween!

Feature: Useful Tips for Horror Game Designers


Ah, reconnecting the power to the elevator. So much fun every time.

A few months ago I had a discussion on Twitter with Thomas Grip, the brains behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the Penumbra series, and now SOMA, about overused elements in horror games. Turns out there are a whole lot of trite, cliché, and downright dated design elements that show up again and again in horror games, and once we started talking about them they just came flooding out. What started as a joke (“Not every mansion needs an underground lab”) quickly turned into a mega-thread, to the point that some of my followers asked me to stop talking about this and write a blog post.

So here is that blog post. Thomas and I have racked our brains to produce the following USEFUL TIPS FOR HORROR GAME DESIGNERS.

A few people have commented since we posted this today that there are a lot of complaints about Resident Evil in here. That’s true! But we worked to ensure that each tip addressed a trope that can be found in multiple game series. None are exclusive to Resident Evil, and most are employed by five or six different games. Read the feature here..

Useful Tips for Horror Game Designers

A few months ago I had a discussion on Twitter with Thomas Grip, the brains behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the Penumbra series, and now SOMA, about overused elements in horror games. Turns out there are a whole lot of trite, cliché, and downright dated design elements that show up again and again in horror games, and once we started talking about them they just came flooding out. What started as a joke (“Not every mansion needs an underground lab”) quickly turned into a mega-thread, to the point that some of my followers asked me to stop talking about this and write a blog post.

So this is that blog post. Thomas and I have racked our brains to produce the following USEFUL TIPS FOR HORROR GAME DESIGNERS.


This got old in 1997.


Puzzles

No puzzles about equalizing pressure (or any other type of dial) by adjusting switches or knobs. Do not include puzzles that involve reconnecting the power, especially to an elevator. No sliding bookshelves with scratch marks on the floor. Avoid puzzles that involve pressing keys on a piano in a specific order. Do not require the player to collect paintings to reveal a secret image, or examine paintings to decode a correct sequence of buttons. No locked doors with an engraved symbol that also appears on the key. No important documents encrypted with stupid-simple substitution ciphers.

As you design, repeat this mantra to yourself: “I will have no keycard doors in my game.” No feeding fertilizer or poison to giant plants. Check yourself before adding puzzles about inserting crystals, gems, or figurines into some ornate locking mechanism. Reconsider any puzzle involving a four-digit number sequence, found elsewhere, that opens a lock.

Do not employ sliding block puzzles. Ever. That includes sliding statues! No!

Deny the urge to take inventory items away from the player without a legitimate reason. When building puzzles that require combining more than two items, you must allow combination of arbitrary pairs of items even before the entire set has been collected.

Do not turn terrifying monsters into puzzles unless your goal is to kill all tension.

It’s important to make objectives and mechanics clear, but if you just tell the player what to do and where to go, you’ve removed the puzzle entirely. Let them think for themselves occasionally. Be especially vigilant when designing any cumbersome door opening apparatus. Remember, your players will only believe so much!

Story

Not all stories have to be about the protagonist’s personal demons. Don’t blame everything on evil mega-corporations. You don’t need a crazy Special Forces unit with an awkward acronym name. Do not include a sequence in which a child must crawl through a small opening to unlock a door for an adult. No more helicopters escaping from mushroom-cloud explosions. Eschew underdeveloped sub-plots about drugs.

Avoid zombies. But if you must use zombies, for the love of all that is holy, do not rely on a virus to explain them. Zombie dogs: no.

Not all vengeful ghosts need to be women. And curses do not all need to spread like a virus. And the virus doesn’t have to kill its victims after exactly seven days. Also, ghosts don’t always have to be innocent people who died horrible deaths.


Took forever to find pants in my size. And now they’re torn.


It’s not very believable that a high-security military research complex would have passwords written down on scraps of paper. If your plot twist involves the surprise reveal of a secret, sinister cult, you should probably stop.

Try to think of ways to put your characters in vulnerable situations that are not limited to making all of your characters petite school girls. Men can be vulnerable too. Plus, I know some school girls that could wipe the floor with your sorry designer ass.

Levels and Characters

There are other ways to block a passage off than having the roof collapse. Make a distinction between locked doors that will eventually open and doors that can never be opened; if you have any of the former, the latter must be barred, or broken, or otherwise obviously forever inaccessible. Be warned, however, that “it’s jammed” gets old mighty quick.

No arbitrarily non-interactive objects; either you can interact with all doors or none of them. Ensure that you have more doors that can be opened than cannot. Do not block the player with short fences or other obstacles that should be trivial to bypass.

If a location is supposed to carry emotional weight, do not litter it with ammo boxes and collectibles. Do you want the player to contemplate the horrible living conditions of a young child or rummage through their things looking for loot?

Just say “No!” to items that are of great use to the player’s problems but cannot be picked up. No obstacles that could be easily dispatched using the protagonist’s arsenal but instead require some puzzle sequence to overcome. Do not provide a stock of limited supplies unless you make the remaining amount clear. Do not put hidden collectables in horror games with large levels, or in games that do not allow you to backtrack. Maybe just skip the whole hidden collectable thing completely.

We don’t need any more tentacle monsters in horror games. Especially not tentacle monsters with bright, bulbous weak spots. Avoid close-quarter combat with ghosts that can pass through walls. Never throw the player against a source of infinite damage unless you also provide a source of infinite health and ammo (e.g. infinite enemy spawner).

Little known fact: not all monsters have an irresistible urge to bare their teeth and scream at the player. Nor do they all hunch over with long, bent arms. Crazy, huh!?

Excepting certain types of zombie, it is almost never exciting to see a monster charge the protagonist. Perhaps you can modify your AI to stalk the player and approach him slowly to appear more menacing? Caveat: circling the player and occasionally revealing a weak spot is not a good alternative.


10 seconds of loading to tell us that flashlights are useful in the dark.


Ask yourself: “how many times have I been to the gym this year?” You’re a game designer, so the answer is probably “none.” Do you think your game’s cultists have it any better? They’re too busy summoning an obscure deity to think about their diety. So why did you make them look like they’re all bodybuilders and/or silicon implant models?

And while we’re on the topic of appearances, does your monster really need that awkward underwear? I mean, you just had him rip a dude’s head off in the last scene; I don’t think your audience is going to be phased by a little monster nudity. Or heck, just come up with something else. Tiny bits of torn fabric around the midsection of an otherwise naked beast is a cop-out.

Technical Stuff

When you have a body lying on the floor that is significantly more detailed than all of the other bodies on the floor, we all know that it’ll come to life and attack us sooner or later. Also, a surprise attack isn’t very surprising if the game suddenly starts loading like crazy moments before.

Do not put scary encounters in cutscenes. I know, I know, you want to control the camera and the timing and the sound so everything is “just right.” But listen, games don’t work that way. Take a gamble. Let the player discover the monster through gameplay.

Navigating save slots, confirming file overwrites, and waiting for flashy menu animations is pretty much the worst possible thing you can subject a player to. Your sense of presence must extend to the game as a whole, even your UI.

If you have item descriptions, why not make them interesting or useful? Everybody already knew it was a trashcan before they examined it.

It may sound a bit unintuitive, but horror games work surprisingly well without rocket launchers. And you’d be surprised how fun mystery games can be when they don’t have RPG mechanics shoved into them.

Fail in every other category if you must, but do not fail in this: map and menu screens must not require a loading pause to display. It is bad enough that you have to bring these up in the first place. Oh, and checking the map every two steps is not fun.

Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to making a horror game that is fresh and original! After which you can make endless sequels!