Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Useful Tips for Horror Game Designers

A while back Chris Pruett (creator of the excellent Chris's Survival Horror Quest and currently at work with some creepy stuff at Robot Invader) and I had some discussion about common horror / puzzle tropes over twitter. Now all of these little nuggets, and more that came up during subsequent mail discussions, have been collected into a nice blog post by Chris. If you are ever going to make a survival horror please read this first. Here comes:

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!

This got old in 1997.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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!


  1. Some of these tips seem really hypocrite coming from Frictional Games. (Maybe that's the point)

    1. These tips are not coming from Frictional Games, as explained in the very first paragraph. But some of them do apply to their games as well. It's a fun overview of everything that's wrong with horror games today.

    2. In what sense? I know that we have used a lot of these tropes, but that does not make them less tropey. Our games are faaar from perfect. And a game is not bad because it has a bunch of common tropes, but it is always important to be aware to it, and use it in a good way.

      Added to that, there is a certain tongue in cheek style to the article that I think must have come across ;)

    3. Apparently it did not, but maybe it will now. :D

    4. "Do not provide a stock of limited supplies unless you make the remaining amount clear." – Lamp oil.. lamp oil.. lamp oil.

    5. @Mayflower: Well, they did fix that in AMFP and everyone ended up bitching about it.

  2. I respectfully disagree with A LOT of the things you wrote, a game doesn't need to have 110% unique ideas and content to be good, sometimes it's a very clever thing to reuse old clichés in a new way to keep it fresh, that goes for every single puzzle you wrote down as "bad", it might be overused but it's not bad, ever, unless you as a designer make it bad, don't blame the core of the idea, blame the execution. Please.

    1. To add to that, the first Alien Movie was basically made out of old ideas and clichés from the horror film period of the 50's, but they used them in a way that made it seem fresh and new, and it's considered one of the best sci-fi horror movies out there.

      If it was me jotting that list down I would have thought thrice before publishing it, because it's full of blatantly wrong and biased points.

    2. yeah what he ^ said. completely agree.

    3. I agree too. Thomas should have think thrice before posting it here. Seems more like a trivial joke/rant than serious game design business. Perhaps that was the intentiont, but then, it does not fit this blog well at all.

    4. The list is geared towards psychological horror which most of the features deprive from or otherwise push the game into territory of non-psychological horror.

    5. I think we can probably all agree that Alien executed on those ideas & cliches that it used very, very effectively, which makes all the difference

  3. Quite a good article that will help many developers overcome certain cliches BUT keep in mind that from your narrow angle of an expert, almost everything seems like a cliche and you are being too restrictive with certain things.

    Being a musician I know how easily you can start finding cliches everywhere and disregarding everything as non radical or just boring when you get at a certain level of expertise, but keep in mind that, that is just a very small percentage of people that will actually play the game.

    1. Yes, sometimes tropes are very powerful. If everything is 100% unique it can be hard to get a good grounding as a player. You need some stuff to be recognizable and easy to digest. Knowing the tropes and use them right can be very powerful.

  4. I always like reading a good rant, had some laughs.

  5. What's with everyone: this is just, as Eric said above, a nice, good and really funny rant written by Chris (who has an awesome blog, and I read it, and I'm so glad FG and Chris exchange ideas).

    If you haven't played a lot of horror games, especially some of the old classic, you probably won't recognize some of these cliches, but they date back probably from before the original Resident Evil.

    Actually, now that I think of it, almost every single thing mentioned here you can find in a Resident Evil game, so, to sum it up: if RE did it - don't; just... don't. :D

    (Of course, RE had some great moments too, but we're talking about the silly stuff here.)

  6. Hahah every single one of those: the early Silent Hill games <3 And probably the new ones for that matter but SH after the 4th = >:(

  7. Great stuff, thanks for the tips guys! As an indie developer who loves horror, I'm getting a little tired of the same tropes all the time too.

    Though I do have to say there were a couple of Amnesia's puzzles that made me whinge in annoyance a bit (The one with the pulley system near the end comes to mind!) but we all learn as we go.

    Seeing as enjoyment is subjective when it comes to puzzles, I do wonder... Is there ANYONE out there who enjoys "move the block/statue/mirror" puzzles? Why do they keep on coming back if nobody likes them?

    1. "Why do they keep on coming back if nobody likes them?"
      Because they are very simple to implement and provide lots of gameplay. Same thing with mazes, numeric code puzzles, etc.

    2. You should add a special section dedicated to Quick Time Events. I'm surprised that wasn't in the original post, considering how frequently and how badly they are used in most games these days.

    3. Dear God I have such a hatred for quick time events after Resident Evil 6. They got really boring and wore me down after 4 and 5, but 6 made me never want to play a game with QTEs again.

    4. It's all part of the "lets make games that feel like movies" syndrome that has been plaguing games in the recent years. I'm not a big fan of taking the cool things about games (interaction and player autonomy) and ripping them out in favor of inferior mechanics from other media.

      Hollywood should be learning from us, not the other way around!

  8. I think 80-90% of these game design warnings apply to Resident Evil. Think the earlier Resident Evil games get a bit of a pass for being a little bit more fresh and new at the time?

  9. "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."

    Personally, I found the overabundance of unopenable doors in AMFP very grating and frustrating.

    1. AMFP wasn't made by Frictional Games.

  10. Pretty much all reads as "Don't make Resident Evil AGAIN"
    Which is something *everyone* can agree on.... OH! Wait, no, sorry, i forgot! I was thinking of the wrong industry!

    Also, definitely post rants more often, they're hilarious :)

  11. Hilarious. Although is always problematic the distinction between trope and cliche (the former can be done in a fresh way, the later can't).
    It's a pity I can't tell if it is truly serious or it has some tongue in cheek parts.

  12. hahaha this is amazingly hilarious,i like how he makes fun of all the great classics like resident evil, silent hill, fear and even amnesia itself! great humor, and very instructive(some people,usually stupid ones, might find it offensive). it is a good example on the matter that not everything our favorite games do is a work of genius and must be praised and copied. for instance resident evil series is amazing, but has almost 90% of the flaws written above. it's not those things that made them great, but all the rest.
    ps: i like the zombie dogs, what's wrong with them? :(

  13. I actually arrived here from a google search for "horror game puzzle ideas" and it feels like the entirety of this article is just telling people what not to do, without actually offering anything of substance. We all know the tropes from games like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, or Amnesia. The problem is that there has been nothing offered to the contrary. Kind of exhausting reading all of this "Don't do X" preaching with little in the way of actual solution given.

  14. I'm not qualified to argue with highly successful game developers or even with bloggers they admire. I have yet to finish my own games, and I don't know if anyone will like them when I do. But even so, I respectfully agree with at least a third of this. It clashes irreconcilably with my primary creative ethic:
    Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. –C.S. Lewis

    Just to give one small example, the assumption that monster-worshipping cultists care less about their appearances than average does not hold up to personal experience. Give me only one glamorized character model to use in the entire game, and I'll assign it to a cultist, no question. If your religion involves mandatory sex in any way, you naturally care about how the lower members look naked. Similarly, if your religion requires abuse or violence toward those lower members, personal magnetism is essential so that you can discredit them on TV when a few finally work up the courage to squeal on you. It's not helpful to compare such people to run-of-the-mill game developers who may never be prostituted or involved in a large cover-up in their lives.
    I didn't mean to rant. That's just one example of how I would personally choose honesty over originality-for-its-own-sake. And maybe I will never produce anything like your hits. I just thought maybe the alternate perspective would provide food for thought.