Sunday, 7 June 2009

The "fun" in horror games?

When discussing gameplay in games, the main focus is mostly on making it "fun". The meaning of "fun" is usually that it is an enjoyable experience for the player and that boredom and frustration are reduced as much as possible. Normally this is the main priority when working on some part of the game and if it is not "fun" enough, that part will be remade or scrapped. In many horror games things are different though and focus is instead put on invoking emotions other than just "fun".

A good example is at the start of Silent Hill 2. Here the player must go for several minutes through a wood and city outskirts until reaching the town of Silent Hill. Apart from meeting a character and finding a save spot, not much happens during this section and it is only used to build up atmosphere and more imporantly to make the player feel as if they are making a long journey to reach Silent Hill. The second point is really different as it wants to give the player a special feeling and introducing things like boredom into gameplay to achieve that. This very different from how game mechanics usually work.

Silent Hill 2 is filled with situations like this. At one point the player is trapped in a well and has to find their way out by using tedious "pixel hunting", increasing the sense of being trapped. In another situation the player is locked in a room of cockroaches and the puzzle needed to get out cannot be completed straight away, invoking panic in the player. Both of these showcase how inducing some kind of emotion has been more important than making the gameplay "fun".

In our upcoming game Unknown we are going to use unfun gameplay in order to enhance emotions of fear. We aim to do this by letting the player get negative gameplay feedback whenever in a scary situation and therefore be more careful when exploring. We are hoping to get something along the lines of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, where investigators (the players) are very cautious when encountering anything unknown.

I think discarding the notion that gameplay always needs to be fun is crucial if games shall evolve as a medium and to really take advantage of its form. The things made in horror games is a step on the way, but I think there is still plenty of avenues to explore. For example, what about a game where the gameplay focuses on creating laughter?

Do you think games always need to fun? Can recall any more situations where the gameplay was "unfun" in order to invoke emotions?


  1. Yes, I agree with you about the fun in games. But have in mind that having fear or feeling other emotions in a videogame is another kind of fun, even if not the usual one.
    Very good article.

  2. Yeah I can recall some, or a lot. Right there in Penumbra. It is not fun at all to have to go around those dam dogs. Hearing their noises give me both fear and annoyance; and knowing that they see me gives me complete panic.

  3. Answering your question, yes, I can recall at least one. The Cradle level in Thief: Deadly Shadows. Most of that level was about building atmosphere and placing the player in the desired mood. Nothing else happened in the first half but exploring empty areas in a particularly scary place. It worked beautifully.

    About unfun, I find that survival horror games haven't fun as their primary goal after all, not in the standard way we use the word fun. It's mainly about atmosphere. So, well, no problem here with some tedious moments as far as there's a purpose to it. The Penumbra series went for that pretty often and it worked well for the most part.

    That said, I'd be more worried about player frustration, as it's something that happens particularly often in horror games. Frustration doesn't equal tension, nor leads to horror. Games contain challenges and challenges invevitably lead to varied levels of frustration, but I mean the kind of frustration that makes you seriously think about stopping playing the game. An horror atmosphere is hard to build and extremely easy to lose, and visiting the menu screen often isn't helping. If you want an horror-breaker force the player to reload from a savegame for the fifth time to finish that sequence or puzzle.

    While frustrating inducing moments aren't that important in your, say, average FPS or RTS it's something to take into consideration when you're trying to build atmospheres. If you want to make a particular scene an adrenaline flowing, cold sweat horror inducing memorable piece make sure your player doesn't have to go though it more than once. Maybe twice. Beyond that the player is mood and atmosphere insensitive. The player just want to solve that damn thing and keep playing. Now, that's unfun. And totally not atmospheric.

    Overture had a couple of those particularly frustrating moments, almost quicktime events (spider/worm chase) but they're almost totally absent in Black Plague, which is funnily enough a better game overall. Anyway, I thought it was something worth mentioning as in my opinion keeping frustration under control is something as important to keep the atmosphere and mood flowing as any other "unfun" factor.

  4. Please make penumbra run on 8800GS/GT cards :(

  5. esopo:
    I agree that frustation can be a real mood killer and I think the biggest reason is puzzles. In silent hill I know I got awefully frustated with some puzzles which totally broke the mood, even though the setting and atomosphere created at first by the puzzle work very well. But after trying different things for an hour or so, the mood was not really here any more.
    Planning on writing a post about this too and discuss how we tried to approach puzzles in Penumbra and how some puzzles did not work as we planned :)

    Gonna see what we can do this week, but Nvidia cards should work. Please keep this discussion in our forum though.

  6. Great. I can't wait for that post.

    And, for the record, I really enjoyed the Penumbra games (didn't have the guts to deal with Requiem, as pure puzzle games aren't my thing). It's actually very impressive knowing you're such a small and (relatively) inexperienced team. So, keep up the good work :)

    PS: This is "esopo", I updated my profile in blogger just after posting that comment.

  7. What truly terrifies me when I am playing a video game is the sense of mortality, knowing that I need to use my weapons and medicine wisely. I would have liked the combat in Overture more if it had focused on incapacitating the dogs instead of killing them - maybe a certain blow to different parts of the body could have different affects?

    I like the vulnerability in Black Plague but I would have like to do more damage to the zombies, say like knock one out by throwing a brick at it's head.

  8. That's a good point about "fun" gameplay in horror games. Unless you rely totally on shock scares you need to make the player uncomfortable in some way if want a creeping atmospheric horror.

    But as esopo said, when doing unfun gameplay it is can be really easy for the player to fall into frustration.

  9. Sam from London - Bought the Penumbra Pack over the weekend, Famas-X On steam forums (I made a post in the "Message from Frictional" Thread)

    It's great to hear about Unknown, I can't wait! I'm sure it's going to be awesome, I'm not sure how Penumbra could be so under-rated. IGN did a great review of Black Plague if you don't already know.

    You're starting to gather quite the fanbase, I'll definitely be waiting on the edge of me seat!

    P.S: You are gods for making actual GOOD horror games for the PC (never been done before imo, except doom and maybe half-life 1)

  10. Hello,

    I bought the game off steam too, not really knowing what it was and I am really enjoying it thanks!

    The only thing I can really add to this discussion comes from my experience of recently playing Dead Space and Resident Evil 5. Both games are in the survival horror genre but take different approaches in the control mechanism, for me Dead Space was the better game and most importantly the more scary. The reason for this was control scheme, Dead Space was a lot more fluid and natural to control than Resident Evil 5, which I felt was very clumsy and brought you out of the experience sharply as you fought the controls. What ever way you decided to make the game, whether you are going to slow down the pace to increase the growing sense of dread that somethings going to happen, or trap someone in the room until later you have to make the control scheme as natural as possible so the player can respond/react in a life like manner. To many times in Resident Evil 5 the control scheme got in the way, turning around slowly or button presses not registering brings you out of that state of fear and into a state of frustration quickly. I hope this makes sense to you and that I have not written a lot of twaddle. :)

  11. I think that PC gaming loses a lot of it's horror potential by the simple fact that most players can quicksave before they open every door and flip every switch.
    I believe that you can make up for this by using suspenseful, atmospheric storytelling, instead of AI enemies. For example, the furnace room with Red from Penumbra: Overture. I remember spending a few minutes looking around the room, thinking "there's gotta be some other way".

  12. I LOVE Silent Hill 2, and the fun comes from, in Silent Hill, and Fatal Frame 3, following these characters through their journeys. No, simply playing these games isn't fun; the enjoyment of them is derived from the player's emotional investment in the characters.

    Let's take Silent Hill 2: Here we follow James Sunderland (and a host of other beautiful, broken characters) through his intensely personal journey through Silent Hill, solving the "mystery" (I won't spoil it I promise) of his wife's letter. Is it fun to run around in a dense mist, in which the player can't see 10 feet in front of him, trudging from locale to locale, beating upon monstrous forms with primitive and undisciplined ferocity? Probably not. But where, then, does the fun come from? The story and characters.

    Survival-Horror games, I think, are second only to RPGs in their potential for telling an engrossing story.

  13. I actually don't really agree that invoking emotions is exclusive to horror. I believe it is used for different kinds of games too.

    But yes, un-fun gameplay invokes feelings, obviously you need to balance the un-fun gameplay to frustration, and yes many games use that. So it's not so original. The only original thought is HOW to provoke those emotions.

    F.E.A.R used the element of actual fear of going ahead. Audio and flashing pictures were a huge part of the horrific experience.