Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Thoughts on Alien: Isolation and Horror Simulation

Alien: Isolation is an interesting game. It is the latest entry in a lineage of games that I refer to as horror simulators. It does an excellent job at creating tension and uses a lot of the knowledge built up over the years to great success. But, because it has such a laser focus on a certain type of play a bunch problems arise and other parts of the package suffer. It is a great game in many ways, truly excellent really, but there are some fundamental problems. These lead to, for me at least, a devastating flaw: At its core it fails to be a faithful emulation of the original Alien (1979) movie.

Before we can properly discuss the game, we need to talk some video game history and design theory. Over the past, there has been two different schools of horror games. One that has a horror wrapping on top of standardized gameplay (horror wrapping) and one that tries to recreate the happenings of a scary movie/novel (horror simulation). The former is quite well known and started with games like Lurking Horror (1987). Mechanically, the game played like other contemporary adventure games, but took place in a scary setting with events meant to frighten the player. The latter one is a bit harder to nail down precisely, but I would say it started out with a 3D Monster Maze (1982), a game that is neatly captured in its name: the player is trapped in maze and needs to escape a monster (in this case a heavily pixelated T-Rex).

While the horror wrapping design has thrived over the years, being a design corner stone for games like Phantasmagoria (1995, an adventure game), 7th Guest (1993, a puzzler) and Resident Evil (1996, an action shooter), the horror simulation is much rarer. After 3D Monster Maze, the next game to do it somewhat properly was Clock Tower (1995).

It is now time to dig into the distinction between these two types of design. What sets Clock Tower apart from Resident Evil is that its core mechanic is not there to entertain, it is there to put the player in the shoes of a protagonist in a horror story. Clock Tower does this by having a single monster (little guy with giant scissors) hunting the player in certain scenes. The player can choose to hide in closets, under beds and hope that the monster does not find and kill them. Compare this to the core mechanic of Resident Evil, where the player needs to scavenge for ammo, weapons and health potions and then combat the monsters encountered. Resident Evil's gameplay could really work with any sort of theme and setting, while the one in Clock Tower is much more focused on being a horror experience. It is important to mention that Resident Evil does tons of things to crank of the level of scariness; scarce ammunition, inventory management, limited saves, etc. But none of these give rise to any specific horror scenarios; the game is still all about shooting various enemies in order to progress. There are very few sections in Resident Evil would fit a horror movie or novel, but Clock Tower is filled with these moments.

The core difference can be summed up as Clock Tower being focused on having plenty of verbs that are related to a horror movie: hide under bed, looking into mirror, run away, push monster, etc. As the player plays the game, they reenact scenes of horror simply by following the rules set out by the gameplay. Resident Evil hardly does it all, the focus being much more on standard tactical combat with certain scariness attached to it.

As a horror simulator, and really horror game in general, Clock Tower is not very successful though. First, much of the gameplay is actually pretty standard adventure game affair. Second, the actual chase moments are quite clumsy and frustrating to play, rarely resulting in any proper feelings of dread and terror. Despite these, quite major shortcomings as a horror simulator, Clock Tower is well worth studying. If you look past its flaws, there exists a focus on making horror elements playable that just didn't exist in games at the time. In fact, it is really hard to find similar games until quite recently. Hell Night (aka Dark Messiah, 1998) has the player running from a single monster and features cool stuff like a look-behind-you-button and having to carefully choose a companion. But it also suffers from lots of problems and is often a very frustrating experience.

Even such horror classics such as Silent Hill (1999) have little focus on trying to do proper horror simulation. Most of the game is based around solving puzzles and fighting enemies (while running is sometimes advisable, most encounters are best handled through combat). Instead a lot of your typical horror moments are not simulated, but put outside of the player's control. For instance, in Silent Hill 2 (2001), when the protagonist hides in a closet it happens in a cutscene. Remember, this is a scene that played out through gameplay in Clock Tower. If you look at the large body of the gameplay the player does in a Silent Hill game, little of it resembles what you would see in a novel or film. In fact, it resembles little of how a rational person would behave in similar scenarios. This does not make the games bad by any means, but it is a crucial concept to keep in mind. The games heavily rely on standard, often narrative-wise nonsensical gameplay in order to create the foundational engagement for the player.

The next game, after Clock Tower, to really give horror simulation another proper go was Siren (2003). Here the player's actions are a lot more aligned with how it makes sense for them to act. For instance, it features a map without any indicator of the player position, and also allows you to see the world through the monsters' eyes. In all, it creates a much stronger sense of being inside a horror story. The problem with Siren, like Clock Tower, is that this focus amounted to a very frustrating experience, which in turn easily diminishes the overall immersion and scariness. Once again, this type of design didn't gain any traction.

I now need to briefly discuss a design concept called "mental modeling". A concept that is closely related to the difference between horror wrapping and horror simulation. When you play a game like Resident Evil, every encounter is a very tactical and precise decision. You look at what kind of opponent you are facing, what weapons you have, the current ammo supply, health levels, etc. The model in your head is much less about the appearance of the creatures, and much more about pure numbers. This can be very stressful, and combined with a horror thematic the total experience can feel quite scary. But on the whole very little is left to the imagination and narrative-related intuition. In a game like Siren however, you are much more worried about what you cannot see, and your mind is racing with trying to predict future happenings. Combine this with a map that forces you to think yourself as part of the environment, and monsters that you mostly keep track of by inferring their position, and you get a mental model that is far more horror-like and vivid. The problem is that since you lack the sense of numerical certainty that Resident Evil supplies, it becomes much harder to formulate correct tactical decisions. This is a fact that I think has a part in making these kind of games so frustrating. It is clear that the mental modeling that Siren has is better suited for a horror game, but it was not yet working properly gameplay-wise.

Now back to game history again. The release of Siren marks the beginning of the end for what I would like to call the golden age of survival horror. It had brought us gems like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame (2001), all of which brought a very fresh take on the horror experience. But after that, the well seemed to dry up and horror games got increasingly action oriented. Resident Evil 4 (2005) really got this trend going. One reason for this change in focus is partly diminishing sales and increasing production costs. Another major – and connected – reason was almost certainly the lack of evolution in the genre. All of the big games had been based on horror wrapping, with most of the gameplay being quite standard. The wrapping did not allow for much change, and when the focus was put on the underlying mechanics, the horror rapidly faded.

It took a while before anything new came along, and this is where we enter the picture. When we released Penumbra: Black Plague (2008), we made our attempt at doing a game without having any weapons. It had a bunch of issues, but showed promise in how it changed the player's perception of the game's world. The decision was based on lessons learned for Penumbra: Overture (2007) and from the linage of games discussed above. The following year sees the release of another combat-free horror, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009) which also puts emphasis on crafting more of a horror simulation, but also manages to get a bit too frustrating. Upon releasing Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010), there is one thing I am especially proud being part of creating. Simply by using the game's basic system, we can get the player to hide in a closet and fearfully watch as a monster pass them by. It felt like we basically managed to recreate, through gameplay, the closet cutscene from Silent Hill 2, and properly simulate one of the main mechanics from Clock Tower. I feel way too biased to say how much effect – if any – this had on horror games in general though, but for me personally I feel it is one of our biggest contributions to the genre.

Two years later, the short and free game Slender (2012) is released and this what I think really kickstarted the horror simulation. Slender is a simplistic game with not much in terms of standard gameplay. The player is simply tasked to collect a few notes in an open, but still slightly maze-like environment. Where the game gets all of its engagement from is how it manages to simulate its horror. You cannot look at slender man, you have to move carefully, you cannot use your flashlight too much, you need to stay away from spooky sounds, etc. All of these gameplay elements are quite vague and together they give rise to a rich mental model. The end product is that you got a very engaging horror experience from almost nothing. Remember that Slender has very little story and interesting goals. It is all about existing inside a certain virtual space. It is all about raw horror simulation and little else. While other indie games like Hide (2011) have done similar things in the past, Slender proved it was really a viable method of making a game. If you just make things vague enough, and allow the player to play based on that vagueness, you can make engaging games of pure horror simulation. In some ways, Slender is sort of like the Super Mario Bros or Wolfenstein 3D of horror games, a distillation of what makes the genre work into its purest form.

Since then a bunch of similar a games have followed, one of the most successful being Outlast (2013). The story in Outlast is paperthin: A journalist enters an old asylum where experiments are rumoured to have taken place, is met with the place being overrun and now has to escape. There are no puzzles, no standard gameplay, it is all a bunch of levels where you run or hide from insane inmates. Also included are a few breather levels where you simply walk to (or try to find) the next destination by going through some spooky environments. Scattered around are also documents detailing background lore, but you gain very little from reading them. You can pretty much go through the whole game ignoring them and still get a coherent narrative. What makes the game engaging is the situations that it puts you in. Hide from monsters in lockers, sneak past them as they talk gibberish, walk past weird looking denizens not knowing if they will jump you or not, try to make out dangers using grainy night vision camera, and so on and so forth. Almost any gameplay scene that plays out could be directly baked into a horror movie or novel. Outlast is a pure horror simulator, and a narrative naturally arises from the situations the game throws you in.

And now, finally, we get to Alien Isolation. This is the latest breed of horror simulations, and a very successful one at that. The big feature in this game is that there is only one monster that can appear at any time. In many ways, it is really the 2014 version of 3D Monster Maze, in which the whole game was built around trying to figure out where the monster was located and how to avoid it. Alien: Isolation obviously has complexity far beyond that, but it is striking how similar the basics are.

There are bunch of elements that all work together to craft a mental model that perfectly fits the game and make Alien: Isolation really scary. First off, like in any other horror game, the sound is vital and you need to constantly listen for clues. This can be cues from other survivors (who are hostile towards you), malfunctioning androids, or the alien monster itself. Not only do these paint a terrific ambient soundscape, but they are also very important for you in order to progress. You also need to be conscious about how much sound your own actions are causing. The game warns you to not use the notorious bleeping motion scanner too near people as they might hear you, and after that you get really paranoid about any sounds you might be making.

On top of that, the save stations, which are crucial to locate, give off a faint and distinct beeping noise. As the environments are dark, and the stations can sometimes be found in a hard to spot location, you have another reason to listen carefully. The difficulty level in the game is quite harsh, and the tiniest mistake can lead to sudden death, so you are always eager to save the game. This leads you to listen extra carefully when you have gone a long way from a save, making you vulnerable to any other sudden noises. Remember those jump scare videos that told you to watch or listen extra carefully only to throw a spook at you when you least expected? It is sort of like that that, but without you feeling annoyed afterwards. Add to the fact that the Alien can really appear anywhere in the game, and you get a mind model that is primed for picking up and seriously considering even the slightest sound.

Because the alien feels so random in when and how it appears, it is hard to get a grip on what sort of signs to watch out for. The mind model becomes vague, and more prone to paranoid imagination, which is obviously great for a horror game. This is combined with the fact that unless you have one of the beefier weapons, if the alien spots you, you are dead. With no possibility to run away, the player gets very conscious about their movements, the alien's possible location, and – yet again – the sounds that they hear and might be causing.

Combined with all this is an assortment of items (noise makers, flares, a revolver, etc) that all have pros and cons (eg flares light the dark, but also attracts attention) along with a certain interplay between the different types of hostiles. For instance, if there is a room with human adversaries you could throw a noise maker in among them, attract the alien and then have that kill them off. But that also means you now have an alien in your vicinity, which might prove more dangerous than the humans. And since the systems are vague, it is hard to predict outcomes and you live in this constant uncertainty.

Another aspect I love is how the alien monster forces you to sneak. It is quite common in stealth games that you can simply lie in wait and club down patrolling hostiles, and that that tactic is far better than the (narrative-wise, better fitting) approach of sneaking past them. But in Alien: Isolation, you do not want to risk any sort of alarm, and staying hidden almost always feels like the better option. In turn this makes most humans that you encounter seem more alive. You mostly only see their vague outlines and hear their conversations from afar. In your head you a build much more vivid picture, since you are never pushing the game into displaying their often immersion breaking behaviors that occur when they are up-close.

All these actions available coupled with the resulting mind model lead to gameplay spaces that properly simulates horror. Sometimes even unscripted horror shows play out in front of you eyes. For example, a band of survivors can be caught off guard by the alien as you hide in a locker and you end up staring at the onslaught terrified that the monster will come for you next. And like with Outlast, just about any scene that plays out would be fitting in a book or movie. A horror story unfolds as you play and is affected by your actions. And unlike similar games based on horror wrapping, eg Dead Space (2008), the actions that you do feel sensible and realistic. Apart from some more gamey mechanics like the save station and scrap collection, you behave just like a character would do in a movie or book version of the same story. This is horror simulation at its best.

But this super focus on being a horror simulation, also starts showing cracks in the game as a whole. For instance, just like in older games of the same genre, Alien: Isolation can be very frustrating. The tension built up from being 20 minutes from your last save, quickly turns to anger and frustration when you are killed seemingly out of nowhere. While still vague (which is essential for giving rise to the right mind model), it is predictable enough for you to be able to get past any threats if you are just careful and cunning enough. Still, this part is divisive, as can be seen by the review scores and I have myself felt extremely frustrated with the game from time to time. There is a certain sweet spot in how to approach situations properly. Too aggressive, and you will die a lot. Too passive and the game's pacing gets messed up. The trick is to be able to move forward at a steady pace and still be cautious enough to avoid death. A way to fix this would have been to make the alien AI better adapt to the player's style, so if they hide a lot in lockers, it backs off quicker and keep things interesting and the pace at the right level. The developers should have probably focused a bit less on challenge alone to provoke a certain mindset and also have had some elements to dampen the difficulty for players that were behaving properly, but are being a bit too passive to get a good experience.

While the frustration and bad pacing are clearly issues, I do not think they are that bad and, as noted above, it should be relatively easy to fix. What is a much bigger problem is how these system gives rise to a very simplistic narrative. The first part of the problem are the save stations. Having these are a crucial part of making it all work, partly based on the simple reason that after a little while you get too comfortable around the alien for it to be intrinsically scary. There needs to be some gameplay aspect that keeps the tension up, and keeps you in the right mindset. The save stations does just this. But the side-effect is that the save stations become the biggest objective for you as a player. Finding the power station that you need to activated is not at all as important as finding the next place to save. This means that your personal narrative becomes dumbed down, and ends up being a simple hunt for loot and save locations, without any thought on what the higher level fiction behind your actions really is.

The problems with objectives does not stop there though. Another issue is that they are all extremely simplistic and without any interesting narrative significance. They are all about powering up things or finding keycards. It is old school mission design with a thin layer of narrative coating. While these sort of boring objectives are pretty common in games, I think Alien: Isolation has an especially hard time getting away from it. Because the game is constantly so dense with information that you need to keep track of (save stations, motion tracker, alien signs, loot, resources, etc) you really cannot manage to keep any complex objectives in mind. It is also crucial that the player has a good idea of where they should be headed, because too much disorientation and the mind model starts breaking down. This leads to basically decent objectives (eg find a keycard on a dead doctor by figuring out what rooms he has visited) becoming very handheld experiences, as the game constantly marks your next destination. The simple reason for this is that less hand holding would have made it too frustrating. You can see similar mission design in Outlast, and while I think there was more room for improvement there, it is a design decision that probably stems from the same issues.

Another connected issue is that the notes and audio logs you find in the game never really feel that relevant. It is another issue similar to Outlast, although I find that the content was way more interesting in Alien: Isolation. But the real issue is that you cannot really have too much important information in these, because accessing terminals means a danger to the player. It is really hard to explore and think about the environments and backstory when you are constantly worried about the threats the game might throw at you.

As you look closer at these flaws in Alien: Isolation, it becomes more clear that it really is just a pure horror simulator, like Slender or 3D Monster Maze, just with more sections to play through. The aim of this game is not to tell a longer horror story. The aim is to put the player in different scenarios involving hostile human survivors, creepy androids and/or an alien. Any interesting narrative then arises from how these scenarios play out. It has no real story at a higher level apart from the basic "get the hell out of there". There is nothing wrong with this of course, and the basics of the game works fine as is. But Alien: Isolation's issue is that it just goes on for too long. If you (like me) want to get some sort of deeper narrative experience from your game to keep going, the game wears thin after just a few hours. This is a bad thing for a game that last for at least 15 hours. Outlast takes about 5 hours to complete, and that feels like a better fitting length for this sort of gameplay.

Alien: Isolation has another big problem. If you went in hoping this would be an interactive take on the first movie, you will be disappointed. Rather than being some sort of video game adaption of the original film, it is more like a version of Alien 3 or 4. The first movie is the birth of a monster, it is a long build-up of a creature followed by a final confrontation. It is much more about discovering some hidden lovecraftian horror, than about people fleeing for their lives from a well-established creature. So what the game ends up being about; sneaking from place to place, just constitutes a minor part of the movie, and is a far cry from replicating the experience.

It is hard to blame the developers though. In order to deliver a similar narrative they would have had to rethink the alien quite a bit, and most likely diverge from the source material. Something that I wouldn't think Sega or 20th Century Fox would not be too happy about, as the creature is the game's foremost selling point. But even if we disregard that, it would be very hard to use the game's given form to emulate the make-up of the movie. If we trace the game's gameplay lineage way back to Monster Maze, we see very little about the other things that make the movie so great. All of these games are about putting the player in a predefined situation and to let that play out. The great strength of the genre is to provide the thrills of being the hunted, and to have a super focus on this.

Alien: Isolation does do some attempts to better replicate the source material. For instance we are taken on an expedition to the iconic derelict spaceship, but for me all of this falls flat. The eggs, facehuggers, and all that are already so well established that you never get a sense of mystery from it all. Worse still, this section differs so much from the movie – which comprises of sneaking about – that there is no tension. The game has trained you to look for save stations, be aware of your resources, listen for certain sounds, etc in such a specific way that when you are taken out of this space, the game loses a lot of its impact.

I think that horror simulation is the sort of design we want to strive for when making horror games. I love how it is possible to set up scenarios where the player gets to experience terrifying scenes, fitting for a horror movie or novel, simply by playing. This is the sort of storytelling that we want from games, and I do not think going back to merely using horror as a wrapping is a good idea. However, it is pretty clear that there is a big problem here. Horror simulation as it is currently done, is very limited in what it can let the player do, and what higher level narratives it can tell.

We had similar issues in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. When playing the game, all you do is go from room to room, solving puzzles and avoiding monsters. But as you read about the backstory you hear about opening tombs in the desert, the first visit to the Brennenburg castle and much more. All of these are moments that an ideal horror game should have let the player play, not just read about in some diary entries.

The issue is not just to recreate these sort of scenes, but to make sure the experience is fitting. As can be seen in Alien: Isolation, the trip to the planet lacks the immersion that the sneaking around has. When you try and hide from the alien, your mind model is aligned with was happening and you act like a protagonist would do. But when visiting the derelict spaceship, you could have just as well been watching a cut scene. There needs to be something more in order to properly bring this sort of scenes into the standard that proper horror simulation has set.

First of all I think there needs to be more restraint on how much of the basic gameplay is used. Even though Outlast takes about 5 hours to get through, it has a hard time keeping the gameplay fresh and the tension up throughout. For me, the game started to feel slightly drawn out the last third or so. Amnesia also suffered from this. Enemy encounters got pretty predictable and less scary after you had gotten through half the game. While the exact time at which this sort of gameplay stops feelign engaging is highly subjective, I think most can at least agree that the less practice you get with the encounters, the more intense they feel. Therefore lies in the best interest of a horror game to use its monsters sparingly.

Second, there needs to be much less reliance on difficulty in order to build the proper mind model. The way that games like Alien: Isolation and Siren are set up really increase the tension, but it does so at the cost of making the game's scope very narrow. As explained above, it is hard to have much else going on in order for the player to enjoy the experience. Also, as soon as you remove any of these elements that rack up challenge (like save stations) a lot of the tension goes away. What games like these are after is to couple the sensation of stress of losing progress together with a firm horror setting. The psychological effect is that the player takes the tension they are feeling and projects it on the frightening visuals and sounds. But building purely on this is a fragile structure as it means you always need to present a mechanical device of stress to the player, and this leaves out a lot of horror scenarios.

I think that the answer lies in having some sort of uncertain outcome as an ingrained gameplay device. Instead of having the player fear "what if I lose my progress?" they should be thinking "what if I affect the world in a negative way?". This is a kind of thinking that can be applied to a much wider range of things. Probably the best example of this in action is the Walking Dead (2012) series. Here one can clearly see the range of scenes that can have tension, purely based on an uncertain outcome. And what I especially like is how personal the choices can be, eg deciding between which person gets your trust. The most apparent problem with this sort of gameplay though is that it requires branching, but this is not as big of an issue as it seems. Walking Dead has in fact very little branching, but even if you know this, you still feel tension by the choices. There is still enough uncertainty for you to feel immersed and care about the decisions.

However, Walking Dead is quite different from how a horror simulator works- In a horror simulator the player needs to be in control most of the time, and cutscenes should be minimal. So it is not possible to just rip out the mechanics and apply them as is. What we need to do is rethink how choices can be set up and what the effects can be.

We did some very early testing of this in Amnesia: Dark Descent and its free extra story Amnesia: Justine (2011). In The Dark Descent we have no proper choice, but there are some slight consequences to failure. If the player is killed by a monster, the world is slightly changed. This was not enough to be on the level of the tension gained from fear of losing progress, but it gained a certain level of uncertainty that helped to keep some of the fear. In Justine we also tried having optional puzzles, that resulted in a person getting killed if you failed. This also worked pretty well, and it meant that puzzles – a previously pretty separate element of gameplay – got more of a horror simulator feel (somewhat recreating scenes from movies such as Saw).

These are just small things though, and the big problem is to have it work on a larger scale in a smooth, coherent manner. I think the first step is to see if you could remove the penalty of death from standard sneaking gameplay, but still retain the same sense of tension. There are three big things to gain if this can be achieved. First, to remove a lot of the inherent frustration connected to the "fear of progress loss"-design, and have less risk of breaking immersion. Second, it will allow for more integration of exploration and more complicated objectives, as you remove the forced repetition coming a design based on difficulty. Third, it will give us a glimpse of how we expand the horror simulator and have it cover things beyond sneaking by and hiding from monsters. My hope is that we then could take a stab at making a proper horror simulation, a recreation of experiences like in the original Alien movie.

This is what we are currently experimenting with in our upcoming game SOMA. Since I do not want to spoil the system I cannot go too in-depth on our approach, but I can give a basic outline. The idea is that by having choices inserted directly into the game world and have the way you chose to handle these change how the narrative unravels. These choices can simply be whether you interact with a certain object or not, or it can be more vague things, like how you behave around a certain creature. The narrative effects will not be any sort of heavy branching, but smaller things things like making upcoming sections scarier (eg by removing lights), killing people you encounter, changing the way you perceive a character or even how you feel about yourself. Our hope is that by having these sort of decisions as an integral part of the game world, that the player internalizes them and makes it part of their mind model. Then, just like the tension you feel by wondering where the next save station is in Alien: Isolation, you will feel tension by pondering what ramifications a certain set of actions might have.

This is just a little step forward, and until we release the game, we will not know how well it works. I do think it is crucial that we start to think about these things though. Just as the horror genre stagnated in the mid 2000s, because horror was merely a wrapping, the same might happen if we fail to move beyond "chased by monster" scenarios. While there is nothing wrong with these sort of games, I think it would be foolish to be satisfied with just that. There is so much more to explore in horror, and the success of recent horror simulators gives me hope that video games can handle it.

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  1. Very nice article yet again. I love the clarity with which you discuss your design ideas. Your write-ups are becoming a regular read for me.

  2. I find it strange that a lengthy blog post about the evolution and future of horror games has no mention of virtual reality or the oculus rift. Alien: Isolation have even been used to showcase the rift. VR is most definitely the future of horror.

    1. That would have made the post wayyyy to long :D

      I am not so sure that horror's future is VR tbh. There is a lot of cool stuff with VR, but it cannot really help horror in a more interesting direction, which is moving away from the "monsters are out to get you" theme almost all horror games thrive on.

  3. Play "Pineview Drive" which is an excellent horror simulator. There are no puzzles and no great story, but the horror works fantadtic. There are very unique scare elements in this game.

    But I hope SOMA will have puzzles. I don't know if the definition of a simulation means just horror instead of puzzles. I always like puzzles like in an adventute game.

    I am also looking forward how well "The Evil Within" works. It seems to be a more like Resident Evil with similarities to Outlast. It's more action oriented, fun and violence than horror, but is looks really disturbing though.

  4. I really enjoyed the game but I hated how automatic it gets in the final sections. Anyway, I've been waiting for this article all week and what a great read! Thanks for taking the time to write it!


  5. Phew, I was cringing a bit about what I thought your conclusion was going to be as you got toward the end but you sort of turned it around.

    I really, really don't like heavy branching in storyline driven games, especially of the sort that affects the ending, unless it's done super well. Branching actually tends to exacerbate the "fear of progress loss" problem, in an unexpected way. Keeping the branching low, with consequences that become known quickly can mitigate this effect and work well, but it's a bit of a tightrope.

    The issue is that gamers are really used to the "restart from a save if you screw up" mechanic, and death is a pretty unambiguous "you've screwed up" signal. But there are occasions where you can get yourself into a situation without dying where you really feel you've screwed up enough to want to go back and try again. This basically negates all the "progress" you've made since whatever decision set you on the path you don't want to be on. In games where you don't find out that your choices have had negative consequences until much later, it can be really frustrating. I've had situations where I realize that something I did an hour or two ago is going to cause the game to kill off my favorite character, and I'm choosing between letting that happen or going back and playing through that big section of the game - neither option seems very fun, so I just quit the game. In the most extreme case, you can basically feel like you need to play the whole game over again to get a satisfying outcome. Don't do that to your players.

    In some cases, this works. I'm thinking of Heavy Rain, which is a super stressful experience, where you basically don't get the ability to save and your choices can have massive negative consequences. It balances things out a bit by giving you a lot of characters and making it such that screwing up with one of them doesn't tend to screw the rest over, and it's relatively hard to get a genuinely bad ending. But I think if I had played through it and got a bad ending, I probably wouldn't have picked it back up again, and wouldn't have felt nearly as good about the experience I had with it.

    Anyway, you do have to be a bit careful with your branching. What you don't want is to give the player a situation where they're choosing between dealing with big negative consequences they've created for themselves or reloading from a previous point and fixing their mistake. In that case, they've got the stress of dealing with two bad options and that stress is coming from sort of meta-game, out-of-narrative decision making, not from features of the setting or narrative or gameplay that you want them to focus on - what they become frustrated with is your game design. This is actually a lot more frustrating than simply dying and being forced to go back, because for the player "the game" is the set of choices they make, and you're making restarting from a save a choice and thus part of the game.

    Stealth games often have this problem, with players reloading the second they're spotted by anyone, so they can get that "never spotted" achievement - in this case, the save/reload choice becomes a big part of the game.

    One way to mitigate this is to make the possible branches somewhat balanced - don't make one obviously better than another, just make the payoff/setback mixture different. Maybe my choice made the lights go out in this section, but it did give me an item that I think will help later. That way you generate a kind of "that didn't work out exactly how I'd hoped, but let's see how this plays out" feeling instead of that "Oh, I've screwed up big time, I'd better try again" feeling.

    1. Yes, I second this. Everytime a lenghty game (5 hours+) gives branches I have to keep track and am always second guessing if I did the "right" thing. Takes me out of the game reality.

    2. Indeed. Branching is the same thing as losing progress, because of course you want to experience all the game's content.

      When you branch to ending X, you've lost all progress towards endings Y and Z.

    3. I like how Walking Dead handles it really. While there are stuff that changes, the bulk of the plot remains the same. So you never miss any of the big moments, (as you could in Heavy Rain).

      Also, I think one needs to let go a bit with this sort of thing. I also often fall into completionist thinking, when really the aim is to get my own personal narrative from it all. Once I manage to do that, it feels much better to play these games.

  6. Great read. Some things I totally agree with. It really felt that my true next objective is getting to the next save point and not achieving the next goal to bring the story forward.

    "[...] make the alien AI better adapt to the player's style, so if they hide a lot in lockers, it backs off quicker and keep things interesting and the pace at the right level." - with this I disagree. Seems like it encourages bad behaviour: hiding and staying one place is 'rewarded' with a less aggressive enemy. Should be the other way around for me, the enemy should seek you out more in hiding places so you do not rely on them as much.

    And I thought the Space Jockey scene was good for pacing. I need the balance of pressure on / pressure off to not be burned out by all the terror. (If anything in Alien: Isolation I felt that there was too much pressure on, especially the first time you met the Alien for real. It clings on too you for 1-2 levels too many in that early part of the game.) The Jockey scene was obvious fan service (good one at that, too), but also a great time too recharge your 'terror batteries'.

    1. Dynamic punishments! Very interesting idea. I can't begin to guess at the intelligence, research and precision this would need to be executed in any way other than deeply frustrating. It's very hard to get a player feeling "that's unfair" with any sense of satisfaction.

  7. Eh hiding in closets and shit like that gets pretty damn old fast. I'd rather have some of those elements and then more interesting gameplay like puzzles or something. Alien: Isolation is pretty good but honestly, constantly going down hallways crouched moving at a snail's pace gets incredibly boring after awhile.

  8. I had a good time reading your blog. About the future of horror games though, I was thinking more of a world randomly generated, could be a spaceship, caverns, forest etc.. where the player(s) would have to fight something much more disturbing then a scripted AI: another player. For this to work a developer would have to make a game that works on both side. The horrific creature would play more of a seek and destroy side of game that wouln't be much more action oriented than horror, while the vulnerable player(s) would be cast in this procedural environment without specific indications to follow, maybe a hope to get rid of this thing if ingenious enough to set a trap or build a weapon. The hope to either escape or to kill the said monster would be the thin wire that keep the whole replayability, instead of a scripted story like all the horror games out there right now. I think the problem we are facing is a bit like all these movies inspired from books. The book is always better of course, because we conceive the story from our own mind while the movie is a visual replica of the director's point of view in function of the skill and influence he had while baking the project. I believe the same could be said with most games relying on a story. We do interact in a virtual world unlike watching a movie, but we are confronted, submitted to the vision of the director and if the main character does not behave like we would, than we lose a big part of the immersion in the process. The key to solve this would be to get rid of as much script as we can, while giving the possibility to interact more with the environment to use our creativity. I believe dynamism is the key not only for future horror games but for gaming in general. My two cents. Pardon my poor english!

  9. In another article we had a brief exchange regarding dynamic/reactive A.I. http://frictionalgames.blogspot.com/2012/09/amnesia-two-years-later.html?showComment=1347757585434#c6189189213819422094

    In my experience as a player, Alien Isolation nailed down the level design perfectly. You always had a place to hide, run into. You always had a way to escape. The major problem I had with it was the fact that the Xeno was very glued/tethered to the player. The experience didn't feel organic.

    What I explained in our past exchange was that as a player, I got to used to the idea of a danger and safe state. I asserted that a dynamic A.I and an interactive world - where making too much could have repercussions - is something that a horror game could use to remove these binary feelings and introduce a little bit of vagueness. I'm glad Creative Assembly felt the same way and made this game the way it is. In an interview I believe one of the designers states the design guide for the gameplay was that "the player never really felt safe". After playing the game, do you think your opinion about the problems that this kind of A.I has changed? If so, will anything like that be included in Soma? Thanks.

    1. We will be trying out some stuff with SOMA, and cannot really comment until we see how that goes :)

  10. Thomas, to be honest, I find the horror wraping/sim dividing a bit artificial. The difference seems to be mainly about the player's empowerment, but it's a false assumption to me that if you can kill the enemy (RE) then it's the wrapping, and if you can't then it's the sim (Amnesia). In both cases we're talking action (one is shooting, other is hide and seek) and in both cases the player "wins" over the enemy. The fact that one sort of win is through elimination and the other through outsmarting is a cosmetic difference to me.

    I also don't really buy the wrapping/sim because the argument that you can use the system to wrap around a different type of game (e.g. RE gameplay to make Gears of War) ...also applies perfectly to hide and seek. Clock Tower is Deus Ex or Metal Gear Solid in which you're out of ammo or have a "cannot be detected because they will raise the alarm" objective.

    I'm also not sure what's the usefulness of such distinction. Isn't a horror game simply a game that the main goal of is to make you shiver with fear or at the very least feel constant or frequent unease? I find kind of odd you so often mention a "proper horror" way, to be honest. "The Exorcist", "Alien", and "Rosemary's Baby" are all horror movies, and yet they couldn't be more different. Why can't we have the same with games? :)

  11. (1/2)
    The whole wrapping vs simulation is super fuzzy in the article, so gonna try and clear it up and perhaps you will find it more useful!

    In order to get a clearer example, let's compare Steel Beats and any part of Call of Duty where you drive a tank (Battlefield 2's tank mission is probably even better to compare with, but haven't played that...). So both of these feature gameplay about driving a battle tank. But in Call of Duty the aim has been to create a fun experience that give the _sense_ of controlling a tank, while in Steel Beasts the aim has been to _replicate_ the experience of driving a tank. The gameplay in both of these games have the same thematic core, but they are very different. And that difference is not just in the low level details.

    When you play Steel Beasts, the tactics and feel is vastly different from a Call of Duty game. And using my terminology from the article above, SB is a tank simulation, while CoD is a tank wrapping. The important thing to note here is that the difference is not just about adding more and more features (while SB does have tons more than CoC), but what is crucial is these games have been designed with a totally different mindset. It is also important to note that while SB is very detailed, it still lacks LOTS of aspects of how it is being part of a tank crew (I was for a year in Swedish army, so which is why I took this as an example :) ) . But SB still feels pretty close to reality, and, more importantly, it does it best to not have anything that directly opposes how reality is like.

    The simulation and wrapping discussed above, is basically the same that I talk about in my article. A key difference is that we do not have any proper reality to strive towards when making a horror game. Not only in the sense that monsters doesn't exist, but that fictional horror has a certain fictional quality to it, but still retaining a sense of truth to the work. That is why I refrain talking to much about realism in the article, but refer to how it would play out in a film or novel, as that makes for a better foundation in regards to the experience that we want to strive for.

    Note that this does NOT mean that I want the games to have a structure similar to a movie/book. Hell, it doesn't even have to have the activities similar to one. The important thing is to provide an experience that has the same level of "truth" that a book would have.

    It is also worth noting that I am way to black and white in the article, defining them almost as strictly opposing terms. But the truth is that it is a lot more of a gray zone than that. Partly because games can contain both wrapping and simulation, just like a tank game can have some moments that are very realistic, and some that are just silly. For instance Silent Hill have some moments that are very much about horror sim (a scene in SH3 comes to mind where key code fails several times in a room filled with creepy bugs), that are mixed together with a bunch of wrapping (casually running around hitting monsters with a pick axe). An it is also a gray area partly because both the wrapping and simulation has degrees. A good example is just the realism settings in Steel Beasts, where you can sorta turn the knob on this. Alien Isolation also has this sorta stuff. For instance the whole sneaking feels pretty much much like a simulation whereas the save station spamming that sometimes is required certainly is not.

    1. (2/2)
      I also need to note that this does NOT assume any sort of empowerment. It is all about if the subjective narrative that arise from playing fits with the truth values that we have from books/films. I argue that Resident Evil and Silent Hill does quite poorly in this regard (this does not mean that they are poor games though, just poor horror simulators), whereas games such as Outlast and Alien Isolation fair much better. The misunderstanding probably stems from the fact that horror simulators with lots of empowerment does not really exist. The closest is probably something like manhunt, although I am vary of giving it much horror simulator status as I find the subjective narrative lacks proper motivation. (This also shows that this division of course have an obvious subjective component, as we can disagree what constitute a "truthful" narrative).

      You are right in that the gameplay in a horror simulation can be substituted just like in a horror wrapper, and it was not really correct of me to make such a stark distinction. Here too, there are far more gray areas than what comes through in the article.

      That said, I do think that once you have a simulation it is harder to properly convert to some other kind of thematic. For instance, Call of Duties tank gameplay could probably fairly easily be converted into a game where goblins ride giant beatles, but I think that doing the same for Steel Beasts would be much more difficult. And this not just because the details are so specifics, but because the details are all about making the experience feel authentic. They are not about what makes it the most fun, but what makes it feel most like controlling a battle tank in real life. The same is true for horror simulators. The engagement of hiding in a closet is much more tied to the thematics at hand, then picking up ammo boxes and shooting a gut gun is in Resident Evil. A conversion is not impossible though, but I think that the deeper you go into the simulation the harder it is gonna get. At the really deep end you will find mechanics and dynamics that could be, as analyzed by pure game theoretics, be awful. But that they really make sense because they really help bring forward a very specific form of experience.

      Finally, I think the real importance of this division is when you go about designing a game. You then must be very clear on what your end goal is. The design goals behind Steel Beasts and the Call of Duty tank driving segment are vastly different. Even before anything is on paper, the basic ideas on what the end experience should be like, are worlds apart. And the same is true, or at least should be, for horror wrappers and horror simulators. I think you need to know to what extent you want to be a simulation / wrapper and then base a number of decisions around that. For instance, I feel that a number of issues with Alien: Isolation might have come from not properly thinking about this. Not only a personal, say creative lead, level of design, but, more importantly, on how the team members approach the game as a whole on what sort of game it is that they are building. I would for instance doubt someone on the Steel Beasts team would suggest that you get repaired by driving into a certain garage, but whereas in the Call of Duty variant that would be perfectly alright. Weird shit can start happening, and the subjective narrative suffers, when you start mixing this stuff up too much. (Although it is fuzz here too, as I think Silent Hill does a pretty good job at mixing this sorta stuff up).

      There, now you should have a clearer picture I hope. I would be really interested in hearing if you still find it all artificial and not useful.

    2. I get it, but I am still not sure if that distinction is needed. In my Digital Dragons talk I mentioned that gameplay does not matter, and the story does not matter -- all of that changes during the development. What matters is the Core Idea.

      Now, applying it here, I could say that the difference between the sim and the wrapper is really about the way the Core Idea is shaped. For example, the Core Idea of Call of Duty is "bombastic war adventure". When you have the core idea like that, simulating a tank properly does not support it, on the contrary, it would be against the "bombastic" part.

      In the case of "Steel Beasts", its Core Idea is "what's it like to be in a tank". Authenticity (not realism) matters, and the game does everything it can (I assume) to support that Core Idea.

      I think the problem with a lot of games -- including the ones you mentioned, like SH -- is that they are not focused on the Core Idea enough. Hence a lot of "grey zones". They may have value, i.e. they maybe help pacing and variety, but the lack of design discipline can dilute the core message and may cause confusion.

      Note that "bombastic war experience" is a wrapper in your meaning. It's easy to replace the words after "bombastic", so you can have e.g. "bombastic pulp adventure" (Uncharted). In the case of "what's it like to be in a tank" there's not much you can change, and if you change it -- e.g. to "what's it like to be a sniper" -- we're talking about a completely different game, of course.

      So, again, I know what you mean (I especially liked the example with the verbs), but I am not sure if that distinction eases the act of creation. Possibly yes, and my Core Idea approach is merely a different side of the same coin :)

    3. When doing labels such as wrapping vs simulation, I think it is easy to get carried away, and that I sorta did that :) So just wanna quickly track back so I get the to original (and core issue):

      First up, just thinking of horror games in terms of wrapping and simulation is a failure. There are so many other facets that needs to be taken into account. It might also be that a certain creative goal does not really work well with it. For instance, it is hard, and probably not helpful, to discuss whether Ethan Carter is a horror simulation or wrapper, because it feels like the attention is really elsewhere.

      There is also a certain ad-hoc reasoning on the stuff in the Alien article. The trend is pretty clear only after the fact and it is hard to say if it would have been a good distinction say 15 years ago when many of the games mentioned were not out yet.

      I am not saying that I think the terms are meaningless. I just wanna add this as a note that it is not super important horror game classification system. It is just a helper when you try to think about design of horror games (or battle tank games!) and is to be used when it feels useful and NOT be held as some dogmatic design belief. I am writing this mostly to just remind myself :P And partly also to make anyone reading this does not get too hung up on this.

      However, there is a certain aspect of this that I think you are missing in the replies, and I feel I have to point out in case the point is lost:

      The real core issue here is not just the difference in central thematic ideas, but more a level of adherence to a truthful narrative. While Alien: Isolation has a lot of weird stuff happening, I think that there is much larger focus in the design on creating something that feels truthful to the thematic underpinnings. You want the player to act on what it is that they can "see" (mean this here in the very broad sense) and not what the mechanical systems tell them. You can retell parts of your gameplay experience in Alien Isolation without it feeling crazy or immediately gamey. This is something that is just not true to Silent Hill.

      Again the Steel Beasts versus Call of Duty comparison works. The narrative that plays out is much more truthful in SB, whereas in CoD it only really makes sense as a game.

      And this again ties in why I feel okay with calling horror simulator games "proper" (even though this statement includes a healthy dose of bias of course): The moment to moment gameplay in a horror simulator just feels more true to its source material.

      And it is here where I feel that the most important point lies. The horror wrapping and simulation labels are not really that much important. But the real issue is how you approach the narrative that plays out for the player.

  12. 1/2
    Horror wrapping only brings more confusion to the matter. We already have a way to talk about not only horror wrapping, but also love wrapping, thriller wrapping, sci-fi wrapping and so on. We call it genre. And you can pretty much tell the same story in whatever wrapper you want. And your choice of genre will be detrimental or beneficial to that particular story. Genre is not what you say, it's how you say it. And virtually no work of fiction, if it's any good, is only one genre. Psycho is a thriller/mystery before it even thinks of being a horror. That is to say, you can completely remove all the horror elements in Psycho and it would still work as a terrific story. Compare this to removing the horror in a horror game and see what you're left with, story wise.

    I find it surprising that there is such a big emphasis put on creating scenes fit for a horror movie or novel. Or "recreating/simulating" that "kind" of horror. This is a bit like saying, if I write a couple of scenes fit for a horror novel, I can string them together, and I will have a horror novel. You won't. More importantly perhaps, you simulate novels and movies, but what about novels and movies, what do *they* simulate? Themselves? Life? And this completely misses the point that video games are a medium separate from novels and movies. This is like asking a writer to put a jump scare in a novel. It cannot be done, it doesn't work that way. Or, asking a screenwriter to give you the same depth as a novel, in whatever genre you want. Actually the major thing that separates novels from movies is not the visual dimension of the movie, it's the number of pages of the screenplay. The irony is the movie still has to be written first. Depth requires pages, and there are only so much pages you can fit in 90 minutes. Alien: Isolation is ~15 hours. The story fits on one page.

    You talk about higher level narratives but *the* problem of horror as a genre is precisely that the story in horror tends to be extremely flat with no character definition whatsoever. Alien: Isolation hits a new low. As a writer I would call making shameless character definition in loading screens as taking the piss. "Ripley is not a violent person, but will defend herself if she needs to.". Seriously? Things like this happen because the emphasis is never on the story, always on gameplay and individual "scary" scenes. I feel the process is something like, the scene comes first, or the mechanic, and you shoehorn that in the story. And the story will end up as contrived, flat, forgettable and in the way. That is all well and good, most people will never have a problem with that. On the off chance they want a story, they read a novel, not play a video game. Do you want a game to be a valid alternative for a movie or even a novel in terms of story? Trying for that would be a huge gamble for a developer.

  13. 2/2
    One example why the story constantly fails in games is because it does everything it can to screw itself up. Amnesia had diary pages, other games have audio logs, computer terminals, or whatever. All they do is to say, let me stop the story, completely, for a moment, because something interesting happened in a different place, at a different time. The action is not here, now, imminent. The Exorcist for example has this, but at the beginning of the movie. Merrin finds the amulet. If this was a flashback in the middle of the movie it would derail the pacing. This problem is inherent to the story. You talked about the faint, distant beeping of save stations. Suppose your horror story is, suddenly out of nowhere a sound appears, a faint, distant beeping. Your goal is to find the source of the sound. Or just have the sound become louder and louder. This simple minded example of story requires no backstory. Unless you feel the need to have the past justify the sound. But we haven't written anything else yet, there is no reason why you *need* that. Kafka's "The Burrow" is a beautiful exploration of the horror of sound.

    Another example is having death as a possibility. That seems counterintuitive. You cannot die while reading a novel because of the novel. You cannot die while watching a movie because of the movie. In fact, most writers and directors would tell you it would be a very bad idea to have the story stop. If anything else, you cannot recreate the experience of a novel/movie because of things like this. Different medium, different rules.

    Suppose there is no penalty in death. You wouldn't even have to play the same portion again, it would go on, somehow. Yes but then you have another problem. "What would have happened if I didn't die? Am I now missing a part of the story? Or perhaps getting something I wouldn't have got if I didn't die?" And if you spend you time asking this, you are no longer immersed.

    I would go on but the comment box feels increasingly small. I like that there is a search for "something more".

  14. Excellent article. You, people at Frictional, know how to think outside the box.

    Just one thing, I don't agree about the criticisms because the game can't capture the same unknown feeling than the first movie. Unless they stray away from the source material, I'm not seeing that as possible.

  15. I have been waiting for a game to scare me as much as A:I does. Outlast & Amnesia are creepy, but A:I has me on the edge of my seat and taking breaks because it gets so intense at times. It has simplistic objectives, but they're not as bad as people make it out to seem. I actually enjoy the story overall. This game obviously has it's flaws, but in the end I think it's a fresh breath of air for the survivor horror genre.

    Looking forward to trying out SOMA :)

    1. Alien just isn't intense in a good way, and I think that's what the author is saying. It's just frustration more than being actually scared. The alien is so damn random sometimes and will appear out of nowhere that it's just bad.

    2. I completely disagree. The unpredictability of the Alien is what actually scares me. Not knowing where he's going to pop up. One time I went to save my game thinking I was safe and out of nowhere BAM! his tale pierced right through and let me tell you a game has never jumped like this one does. I don't find it to be frustrating in any way.

    3. I do find it curious though that he isn't slimy and wet, especially his mouth. That image of the dripping alien mouth was, is, iconic. I wonder why it's not in the game.

    4. Yeah I was wondering about that the other day. The only time you do get to see slime is when it's dripping from the vents.

    5. Jump scares are the cheapest type of horror. It's more annoying than anything.

    6. Well this isn't jump scare as traditionally understood (scripted jump scare) in this case. I would not qualify this as cheap, as it could have been avoided by the player being more cautious.

    7. Often the alien looks too skinny. It gets old seeing the teeth in your face too. One fan brought up the sounds it makes are way too grumpy and mammalian. I like the hisses and screeches only.

  16. Have any of you tried the P.T. demo on PS4? That is incredible if you haven't.

  17. Part of the problem is that players need to be given a somewhat fragile state of comfort and security in their environment. Walking normally, interacting freely with your environment for decent spans only to be punctuated by a cause for alarm is much scarier than crawling around and hiding constantly.

    That's one of the biggest problems in the recent crop of horror games. (along with mandatory first person and wholesale omission of combat) If a player is intended to never feel safe, there's no contrast, no impact. A single noise in the middle of the night can terrify a person, constant noise becomes blunted or ignored. Just as a single, constant source of distress (the bogeyman) becomes rote.

    70's horror movies had an excellent grasp of this concept. In a lot of them, it wasn't even considered a slow build up. It was the empty, stark, nothing of real life that surrounded and encompassed the brief spikes of terror. It reminds the viewer no matter how surreal their experiences are, they're still grounded in the same dry reality as their own. Room ambience and analog tape noise were also hugely beneficial to that effect; the idea that there's this persistent noise floor.

    I think another issue is the emphasis on the dilapidated and grotesque. These are great things, but again, without contrast they're simply drab. Masashi Tsuboyama was a master of effective art design in this regard. Even in a flawed game like Silent Hill 4, there are areas where the inhuman, unnatural and dirty are evenly matched with a seemingly time displaced exquisite beauty.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. First person I think is actually a much better perspective for horror.

  18. Excellent article. Your "Penumbra" (1 and 2) still is the best horror game out there. Well, along with SH, which is a timeless classic for me.

  19. I see two new impulses which should be tested out: In good movies you have moments of tension and moments of relaxiation. This should also be part of mentally challenging games like the ones with simulated horror. Instead of being consistantly chased, you might have times where the games focuses mainly on storytelling and encourages the player to explore the secrets. There can still be decisions involved which give the player time. In between you are pressured by constant insecurity like it is done in you mentioned horror titles. You might say: This concept is in use already and you would be right! I mean, it would worth the shot to drive it to the extremes. I am not quite sure, however, if this could increase the predictibility too much like "I know, am Iam save now. Being-chased-by-monster-modus off, stoy-decision-modus on.". Therefore, we need some gameplay elements that act in between. Actions you take in the chase-part have sometimes (in a few cases) influence on what comes in the more stoy-focused period and vice versa.

    You mentioned you design choice for SOMA that the behavior of the player in his/her environment can change outcoms to a small degree. This is a great idea, too. The player actually changes the future outcome on a whimp without being able to predict it (at least in the first playthrough). Does the bashing mountain of horrific meat bashes an additional pathway open which can be used to escape? Who knows when you normally expeience doors to be locked and blocked the whole game before? What happens, if you running aound instinguishes the candles which light the room? Does opening one of many doors/pathways lets the ai in a house ciculate and the same light-extinguishing happens and you ae left alone in the darkness? Positive, negative or neutral things can happen on the fly while you are following the seemingly simple rules of being the chased.

  20. very goodddddd.......

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  22. I think the effect of death in horror games is something that could be more complicated than just trying something over again or just a slight change. It should really affect they environment in a way. Much like in the game Star Wars: Battlefront on their conquest mode in which if you lose a battle, you have to either try to take the planet back later once you have more troops available to help you win the planet back or when you get a temporary advantage that you can get. In games like Amnesia it would have really set an thought of "I really don't want to die", other than just "If I die I will just redo this action again until I get it correct", because if you die and you were supposed to do an action only at that moment which might allow you to escape the monster. If this action did not happen then the player would have to progress with that mistake. If the player dies then they have to live with the action they did or didn't do and find another way to progress in the game. A way for this scenario to be more complex is a way to fix the problem in order to not have to go down a path they might feel frightened to go down. This would make for a very complicated game, but I feel that this could lead to the player really feeling that they are creating a story and puts them in the spotlight of real decisions. The horror aspect of this can be from "did I choose the better path" or "I need to fix this, so because I really don't want to go that way". This type of mechanic in games can have so many directions it could go making the player feel like every decision counts, because they themselves can be thrown into their own nightmares, which could be biased on their on decisions and throw them into an area that was the last type of area they wanted to go in based on their previous choice of path through the game. I can not wait to go into this genre's industry. Horror is absolutely my favorite genre of games to code and I cannot wait to jump into this career.

  23. Late to the party but however. First, brilliant post. I'd like to thank Thomas and the guys at Frictional for creating such great experiences as Black Plague and The Dark Descent, two of my favourite games of all time. I wanted to share some of my thoughts on Alien Isolation, as I'm finding out i'm having the best time thinking about games than actually playing them, lately (and this must have something to do with 'modern' gaming). I consider Alien Isolation to be an exemplification how NOT to do a survival horror game. The stress here is on 'horror'and 'game'. The survival simulation part is what come out better in A:I, but that is not something i'm really interested in. A:I is a game meant to be beaten rather than to be experienced, like many other video games out here, is designed from a zero-sum game perspective: one side wins, the other loses. The Alien AI almost personifies the 'game as something to be beaten', which seems to be a dogma in USA triple A gaming culture, apparently (this is not for bashing, it's just a fact: in other languages, Italian for instance, a video game can be 'completed' or not, but never 'beaten' as it was an actual opponent). This is the crucial difference from games like Amnesia, in my opinion. Amnesia plays out like a non-zero-sum game, more like a book or a movie: you don't 'beat' a book, you may enjoy it or not; the fun is in the experience, not in reaching the last page (even if reading a book may be a challenge to someone); in that regard, orchestration is simply a necessity. Amnesia was heavily orchestrated, and sometimes that showed, but that was for the good. You can't just throw in some AI and pretend it's 'emergent gameplay', especially if what emerges is repetition and tedium. It's a cheap excuse, one that allows for a non-existent story, uninteresting characters and bad design choices, all of which featured heavily in A:I.