Thursday 18 August 2011

GDC Europe Sum-up

Me, Marc and Jens got back from GDC Europe yesterday so thought I should write a small summary of the trip.

First of, some thoughts on the lecture:

My talk was scheduled the first day and was the first time I have ever had this type of lecture so I was quite nervous. This meant I had a bit of trouble relaxing and enjoying the other talks before mine. Also, the night before I had had the final practice round for the lecture, making my dreams that night filled with nothing but fragmented sentences from my script, which of course tainted the next day too. My head contained little but the lecture.
My first plan had been to learn the entire lecture and not use any notes, but during practice I always managed to miss something and felt having some kind of notes was more secure. As the lecture slides was pretty much void of text and the actual images often not very descriptive to what I said, I had to keep everything in my head. In the end, I am happy I made the decision of having notes as I did get lost a few times, but could quickly get back by a glance. Hopefully nobody noticed anything.
When it was finally time for the talk I was really worried if any of the videos would work, as there had been numerous problems when testing at home. Fortunately all videos showed perfectly!
Overall, I think it all went quite well and the audience seem to enjoy it too. There are summaries of the lecture at Gamasutra and Gamespot, and I will see if I can get the script up too later on.
I was also involved in a panel with some other people. My five minute presentation was pretty much an extended version of an old blogpost.

Once my lecture was done I could finally relax and enjoy the various lectures a bit more. As always there is a great mixture in quality and content. My favorites were probably a lecture about RPG mechanics, a talk on horror by the developer of the upcoming Silent Hill Downpour (even though I disagreed with plenty) and a talk about performance capture (by one of the founders of Ninja Theory).

Apart from the GDC stuff, we also attended something called the NotGames Fest. It was an exhibit that showcased a bunch of games that did not have a big focus on "fun game mechanics", and Amnesia was one of these. It was all much more nicely setup than I thought it would be. Visitors had to enter a atmospherically lit, cave-like room built up from cardboard. It was quite moody and fitted the exhibit perfectly. I really liked how it contrasted the normal, ear-deafening, sensory overloading exhibits videogames are normally shown in and had a very calm and serene feel to it instead. I hope that there will be more game exhibitions like this!
At the evening the exhibit also had a BBQ featuring hot-dogs in round buns, which was felt a strange (but still tasted good). Jens told me this some German tradition. Anybody know anything more about this strange way of hot-dog consumption?

Also like to note that two guys form the Italian company Santa Ragione gave us a free copy of their horror board game "Escape from the Aliens in outer space". We tried it while waiting for our plane to take off and even though we were probably a bit too few it was really nice. Will definitively play it again.


  1. Nice summary! Are the GDC talks recorded and made available online sometime soon? I'd love to hear it myself instead of reading a round up.

    As to the hot-dog "tradition". It's not really a hot-dog, but a Bratwurst. At small street vendors, you eat them with (or in) a bun. If it wasn't a real Bratwurst but a hot-dog sausage, the vendor was just dumb, haha!

  2. It will become available at the GDC Vault, but not sure when and whether if it will be free or not.

  3. Hi,

    I'm happy to hear it all went well, despite the initial worries about forgetting the script.

    I had the same problem a couple of years back, but then I discovered a book called "Memo - den lette vej til bedre hukommelse" (Danish title). It's a book written by a Norwegian named Oddbjørn By, and in it he explains various techniques to remember things more easily. They are quite simple, yet very powerful.

    Memo is especially handy when talking in front of a bigger crowd. But you will be very calm using Memo, since you won't forget what you are going to say, but instead focus on how you are saying it.

    I can really recommend the book (which should be available in Swedish, too):

  4. Congrats!. :D

    The Gamespot article about the Vatra Games' SH presentatation Thomas speaks about:

    I disagree with some things myself, but I like what they said about:
    'The team also spent a lot of time working on Murphy's body language. In the beginning, Gomez said, it didn't seem like he was in the world at all. His animations were stilted and limited, and he wouldn't react to anything in the environment. To help draw the player in, the game needed a protagonist to approach scenes of gore with caution and jump when something startled him. "The animators killed themselves doing this," Gomez added, but he feels it made all the difference in the end. '

    I love it, because this kind of subtle detail can really help build up the atmosphere and enhance the feeling of immersion, if done right. Especially since most of us are very good (by nature, not relative to each other) in recognizing other people's feelings and identifying with them. Remember the mirror neurons Thomas introduces us to? Well, they don't stop with physical sensations.

    However, this means that we are also very good at detecting fake emotions, and fake body language - which is why creating really believable human characters is extremely hard - no movie has yet been made featuring a hyper-realistic, entirely believable, full-CGI human character up close, for an extendend period of time. Not to mention games, where sometimes even bird animation can feel wrong (a specific scene in my mind), and humans mostly sway left-right in a sinusoidal pattern when they talk...

    Sadly, from what I've seen, guys at Vatra aren't quite up to the task... I hope I'm wrong, but somehow... the non-mocap animations of the main character feel wrong... and the mocap-ed actor exaggerates a bit...

  5. Regarding the body language:
    Really agree with this too. Will be fun to see how that turns out.


    Hope to meet you again soon guys, you rock!

  7. Someone posted a comment in the latest Horror Tip's comment section about a YouTube video featuring a list of top 10 free horror games.

    Since it's really a gem, that video, I decided to repost that here, so:
    HORROR TIP: Top Ten Scariest FREE Games

  8. So, I just read the summaries of your presentation and could only agree to all points, mentioned and even stumbled upon new aspects, I was oblivious to before. ( I will have to examine the 'death mecanic' in the game, as I never actually died and now feel the need to explore, what I missed out on.)

    However, I think there is another major factor, adding to the horror experience in all of Frictional Games' horror titles, which was not included in your presentation.

    This factor would be the perspective, in this case a first-person perspective. In my opinion, the perspective, out of which you play a horror game, can contribute to a game's atmosphere or completely destroy it.
    In the best case scenario, a first-person view will intensify the sense of immersion for the player and will even help him to identify himself with the game character in a deeper sense, resulting in a more 'authentic' experience.
    The limited sight is another attractive aspect in favour of this perspective, as the player is threatened, not only by a dangerous environment, but also one, which he has a very limited overview of. For instance, if he hears a sound, he will have to turn around, in order to ensure safety, or discover a intimidating threat, he has to react to quickly. A task even more daunting, if you have a constrained sight.
    This might be true for third-person cameras as well, but the main difference is, that a first-person view is a) less likely to be abused, by players changing the angle, to peer around corners etc. and b) less prone to glitches and concluding frustration, since the player has 100% control over the camera angle. 'Bad camera' is an alarmingly common complaint about non AAA third-person titles.
    (Another factor, which is unique to first-person perspectives, is the fact, that the player cannot see most parts of the character, unless he looks in a mirror. This unknown component opens up a whole set of possibilities in terms of game-design and story-telling.)

    The worst case scenario, of course would consist of a player, feeling a disconnect from his character, due to the ego-view.
    It happens a lot, when characters talk to much. It might be a good thing for 'escapist-making-the-player-feel-like-a-badass' titles, in which more or less clever one-liners contribute to the experience, but definitely is out of place in a horror game, where to much output from the character could make the player consider the character as someone entirely different from his own.

    Another interesting point, closely related to the last point, is the body-language of a video-game character (in horror games). It is a difficult matter, since the inclusion of body-language as an automatic reaction of the character to the world, as aspired by the creators of 'SH:Downpour', can easily go in either way.
    Including realistic reactions in the form of body-language, might add to the perceived picture of a game, but at the same time, it robs the player of control and immersion, since it is not the player, who might jump back, if afraid, but the character, he steers through the world.
    The inclusion of a small 'dodge' move, enabling the player himself to jump back, if startled and/or a 'shielding raise of arms', as automatically done by most human beings, might be another solution, which could prove to be more adequate in a horror game.
    In other, more subtle and natural ways, a believable body-language will, of course contribute to the game's quality. (Like shaky hands or signs of disgust, while interacting with objects.)

    In the end, that question will boil down to, what kind of experience, you want the player to have. More of an 'cinematic', in which the player is more of an observer, or a more 'immersive', in which the player takes the role of the respective character.

    (This has gotten quite lengthy. Maybe I should start a blog as well. ;) )

  9. About body language - and especially reactions to the in-game events: these movements are mostly not conscious, so taking control from the player partly or entirely for a moment is just the thing that goes along with this - one doesn't have control over reflex action in the real world, right.

    As long as it doesn't interrupt gameplay, and as long as it's not happening as a generic response to every situation - since then it just starts to feel fake. This kind of thing needs to be well thought out & designed like everything else in a game.

  10. About body language again:
    I think it is best implementation in stuff like walk cycles, having the player look at a object in the environment (James looking at enemy corpses in SH2 was quite nifty, and so on), handling of items, etc.
    I really liked the idea that when moving across dead monster instead of the usually brute plowing that happens, the character is animated as if carefully stepping over the body of the creature. I think that can evoke a real presence, normally enemies disappear when you kill them (in terms of interaction) but like this they are always present and this makes the virtual world seem more like a real place. And it of course opens up to all kinds of scares.

    What I really hope Silent Hill Downpour does NOT do is to have cutscenes during scary moments. I so hate that when the camera swoops, control is lost and a monster about to come at the player is shown. It is just so damn stupid. Owell, ranted about this in an old post already:

  11. Could you tell for what the silent hill guys stand for that you disagree with ?

  12. - "Could you tell for what the silent hill guys stand for that you disagree with ?"
    At the end of the talk the guy (who was actually brought in as a sort of consultant) talked about the future of horror, mentioning stuff like co-op, better graphics (giving LA noir as an example) and control of the audience (kintect used as an example). There were also some mentions earlier that combat was important.

    He did give a pretty good overview of the genre and horror in general though (especially given the short time-span). And I also liked when he discussed Clive Barker's "levels of fear" (cannot recall the exact name), that placed antagonist on scale from "just" being something kills the player to something that possesses and gives no chance of escape.

  13. About body language:

    I reckon empathy for fear is a good way to go about it, but I think the idea of actually evoking fear directly to be more effective. Because the level of empathy that people have varies a lot. Some people even think that empathy is a myth.

    Whereas designing most of the scares to directly cause fear would leave the door open for non-empaths.

  14. @Lance: could you elaborate on what you mean by "directly cause fear"?
    The body language would be just a component of the overall immersion-increasing toolset - not the main thing. And it doesn't necessarily pertain to horror games - it can work everywhere if done right - even in FPS, by manipulating the camera.

    Anyway, there are so many ways a horror game can cause some sort of fear, uneasiness, dread... But, the fact that this is all happening in a game makes it indirect by nature - and this is the very thing that immersion-increasing "tricks" try to overcome.

    If by "direct" you mean jump-scares, as opposed to "indirect" long-term, slow-building psychological horror - horror games use both, but those that rely on jump-scares are considered cheap.

  15. @Anonymous: I mean direct as in not using the player character as an empathic surrogate. Evoking fear by making the player anxious about what will happen to themselves.

    Also, I never really felt affected by horror films that rely mostly on empathy. Not that I'm not a empathic person, it's just that watching somebody scream in fear doesn't do anything for me. It could do well as a supplement, so long as it doesn't drag the other elements down.

    Also also, yes, jump-scares are cheap.

  16. It was great meeting you, Thomas. Looking forward to the next occasion. In Montréal?

  17. Michael Samyn:
    Ah yeah. Besides having to fly oversees alone, Montréal is sure to be fun!

  18. Wanna see something creepy?

  19. Your blog posts have really got me thinking lately of what horror/fear actually is and what it is caused by. Keep in mind that I am but a novice in game theory, and especially new to horror games in general, so my ideas may be a little rough around the edges. The subject of some of my thoughts lately has been how best to cause fear and scare people, as I would eventually like to be involved in creating a survival horror game. Perhaps I will try and make a simple one after I finish some tools for Driver, but I digress. The kind of fear that I wish to instill is the deep, psychological fear that can truly make a game scary, as opposed to the jump scares employed in other games.

    On the subject of jump-scares, when is it appropriate to add them in to a game? I remember in Amnesia a specific scare that I thought to be a jump scare, the iron-maiden in the torture rooms. I thought this one to be very appropriate and fitting though, as it was (at least to me) expected, and despite expecting such a scare the player continues anyway. The fact that it actually happens is somewhat unexpected, since most of the game does not have such types of scares and so makes this one more of a shock. Whether or not that is how it was intended to be experienced, it did not feel cheap to me like many jump scares in other games have. Having it fully brought upon themselves by the player's curiosity I feel justifies a jump scare to a certain extent, as long as such events are well managed. Having a scare occur many times would cause it to be expected and lessen its impact. Although jump-scares are not my favorite horror game mechanic, they have a place if well thought out.

    As for the psychological aspect of fear, it is a subject which is harder for me to figure out. What causes this kind of fear? Fear of the unknown certainly plays a large part, but this may lead to problems in game design. How much needs to be revealed to a player for them to truly fear what lays ahead of them? Too much and the fear of the unknown and the imagination that increases the fear is lost, but too little and the players may not have something for their imagination to expand upon. The proper balance must be found, which can differ depending on the situation. Anticipation of a fear-inducing event would be another important aspect of creating a more deep rooted psychological fear. But this leads me to another question. Would the anticipation cause more fear if there were certain signs that an event were about to happen, where the event always happens when those signs appear, or would it cause more fear if the event does not always occur or has unclear signs before it happens, leading the player to be unknowing and unprepared for the next encounter? Atmosphere of course is an important part of the fear and anticipation as well, I wouldn't exactly be afraid of Amnesia's monsters if they were walking around in a sunlit meadow.

    Well that will be the end of my rambling for today, hopefully it will help me to clarify and amend my thoughts, and is of course open to discourse.

  20. @someone972:

    A few quick comments:
    For me, horror games (or movies, or literature) is all about making people have some sort of experience related to, and hopefully think and develop an attitude towards the things they normally shun from, things their silly superstitions prevent them from exploring, things they that are happening or have happened in the world that are too disturbing to their everyday life so that they pretend they never happened, or things they never new a human being is capable of. How many people have stopped and thought about the life of those who die of starvation, or those who lost their loved ones in a war of crazy politicians, or those who have survived a rape, or those who suffer from a horrible illness? Most people are ignorant of these things, and even have prejudices towards some social categories. Some people faint when they see blood, some people feel uneasy near those who lack a limb, some people avoid saying the word "cancer", some people fail to report domestic violence because they feel they should mind their own business...
    Is this acceptable? Is this right?
    Then again, horror genre often goes further than that, asking: how do we know what is right, and what's wrong? Is this something universal? Does it change in time? Is this just a kind of social "agreement", or the moral system has an internal cause? Maybe we evolved our moral code? If so, would an intelligent alien race have a moral system completely unlike our own?

    Horror art makes us stop and think.
    So, besides just being fun in an unusual way, there is as much depth and as much philosophical thought in horror as in any other art form.

    It is important to be aware of this "dark side", not just because this awareness will, should a crisis come, enable you to stay composed enough to look for a way out, but also because you can't truly fight for a better world and a better society, unless you know what monsters humans can be.

  21. @someone972

    I like your ramblings.

    "But this leads me to another question. Would the anticipation cause more fear if there were certain signs that an event were about to happen, where the event always happens when those signs appear, or would it cause more fear if the event does not always occur or has unclear signs before it happens, leading the player to be unknowing and unprepared for the next encounter? "

    The good thing about this is that the player is not going to rationalize the patterns of the game to this extent, but the anxious limbic part of the brain probably will. The reason why this is good is that the emotional response is there and the player can't consciously prepare for it.


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