Monday 5 May 2014

Alien: Isolation and The Two Hardest Problems in Horror

So I recently saw this reaction video to Alien Isolation and I thought it showcased a few interesting problems with horror games. These are not issues that are specific to this game, but that plague horror games in general. We've had these problems in all of our games and are currently trying avoid them as much as possible in our upcoming game, SOMA. So I'm not trying to take a shot at Alien Isolation here (I'm looking forward to playing it!) but the video demonstrated these issues so clearly that it's worth focusing on it for this article. That said, let's move on to the two hardest problems in horror.

1) Death Means Relief and Repetition
If you watch the video you can see that the players aren't being freaked out of their minds when they die. They're laughing, and feeling relief. And the death sequence is non-interactive, which further enhances this sense of sitting back and becoming a spectator. You can clearly see the effect here, where there's a stark difference in emotion compared to the fear that was expressed earlier.  So when a death occurs, the situation has lost its sense of fear and the unknown. The player now knows what they're up against. It's gone from tense terror to "I need to beat this gameplay section".

We saw this in Penumbra Overture, where the player's experience of a chase sequence depended on the number of attempts. And what's important to note is that even if the first one or two attempts are exciting, the frustration that ensues from repeated attempts will spoil those initial memories and the sequence as a whole. Of course, there are only a certain percentage of players that will have this bad experience, and if that number's low enough it might not be such a big issue. But if your game is based around this kind of experience, like Alien Isolation and many other horror games are, then it becomes a much bigger problem. The game is under constant danger of losing its basic tension, the most fundamental ingredient of engagement that a lot of the game depends on.

What's the solution for this, then? The only proper solution is to make sure that death is postponed. Outlast has a monster that throws you to one side, giving you a chance to run off, a mechanic that works well in its story. Daylight has damage build up on the screen, which gives you time to escape. Both of these are great ways of extending the terror. Some kind of death must happen sooner or later, though, or the player will quickly realize that the monster is harmless - and that's no good at all. When death occurs I think it's important to remove this sense of repetition. For instance, in Amnesia we changed the map a bit after each death (which in some cases led to additional scares).

It might also be interesting to look into 'a fate worse than death', a subject that's perhaps too big to cover here (check here for some examples in various media). This is something we're trying out for SOMA right now. The basic idea is that "death" is not final but takes the player closer and closer to a very disturbing state of being.

I think the crucial point here though is to think outside the mechanics and to trust the player to be immersed in the fiction. From an abstract point of view of the game, there are only three options really: repeating, branching or skipping a section. Whichever is chosen the important thing is to keep the player in the right mindset and let their immersion do the bulk of the work.

2) Monster Exposure Makes The Horror Familiar
If you don't have weapons in your horror game - which, for many reasons, should be the case (for those needing arguments see this talk) - then you need to have some form of avoidance. This in turn leads to longer periods where the player's forced to pay attention to the danger, i.e. looking straight at it. This means that the player gets used to the monster,  figuring out details and their mental picture of the beast breaks down into the prosaic reality of the implementation. In the worst case, the player will start noticing AI glitches and animation issues. The possibility space for the danger is reduced and it becomes obvious to the player that the monster is just a puppet.

This is a serious problem. It's well known that the most effective horrors are the unseen ones. This is obvious in the most successful horror books and films. If games want to achieve good horror, they need to keep this in mind and be careful when and how the monster is seen. Having said that, I think that games have a bit more leeway, because players are not just passive observers but are also engaged in an activity and responsible for the outcome, and therefore prone to take the monster more seriously.

Which brings us to the first problem: showing the monster in a cutscene (as Alien: Isolation can be seen doing here). I can understand the reason for doing this, to be certain that the players "get it". But this is a major dent in the creature's effective level of horror. You leave the player passive, and free to notice tons of detail about the monster in a much more relaxed way than if they were the ones in control. It also means that you're missing out on making one of the most potent horror moments interactive. The reveal of the monster is almost always a high point in a horror story; it's such a waste to let it be a non-interactive part of the game. Actually, they've already had a good reveal moment here, which I feel could have been used better. This one also perfectly nails the proper alien look: a swirling mass of Giger-esque limbs and claws.

The problems deepens as the game progress. Here is a good example of this. Just imagine what sort of AI quirks and animation issues might pop up when you are under a desk and the alien is a few meters away in a tight space. On top of that, the player is getting a really good look at the creature, just throwing away any chance of the player having their own subjective mental image of the beast.

This is really hard to solve. Outlast has a good solution where they use the night vision mode on the camera to blur out the monster features and add creepy glowing  eyes. It doesn't work for the entire game, of course, but it makes it possible to have more glimpses of the monster without lessening the scare factor. In Amnesia we had the player's vision blur when a monster was in sight, something that worked pretty well. Or an even more successful monster was the water lurker, that just gave away its position with splashes in the water.

The best solution is really simple, though; keep monster encounters down to a minimum. I think the first basic problem is to rely on "monster hunts player" as a core gameplay foundation in the first place. This also exposes another big problem in horror games. If the monster hunting you is not what makes up the majority of the playing time then what does? This is an even harder nut to crack than the problems presented in this article.

In SOMA we try and solve this with a couple of tricks. First, all of the monsters are connected to the narrative; the more you figure out about them, the more you understand of the story. Therefore simply just looking for signs of monsters becomes a more interesting activity (compared to a game where the monster itself is not that interesting story-wise), and we can make do with fewer encounters. The inspiration from this comes from the SCP Foundation wiki, a collaborative database for weird artifacts, where many of the really spooky entries are just a collection of vague clues about a creature. Second, we keep the types of monsters fresh and varied throughout the game (which should fix one of the bigger issues in Amnesia: TDD). Finally, all of the monsters are connected to a sort of "worse than death" mechanic, to give the feeling that the encounters are more disturbing than simply "I will get a death screen if it catches me".

Again, I want to make it really clear that these problems are not specific to Alien: Isolation. These are things that just about every horror game struggle with, including our previous efforts and our upcoming Soma. Alien: Isolation is looking good and I'm excited to play it once it comes out. But that doesn't mean that it's not worthwhile looking closely at it and discussing any problems that might arise. Also, I felt the reaction video was great a springboard for the topics covered in this post. For me as a developer these sort of discussions are crucial, and whenever I see footage of a new horror game, I try to analyze what things might and might not work in it.

Finally, it's really fun to see this kind of game being made by a large studio. I wouldn't have imagined that happening a couple of years ago. No weapons, few monsters etc. are features not very common in a high budget game. Hopefully Alien Isolation will do well enough for us to see more of this!


  1. Great post! That's why you are the best in what you do! ^__^

  2. Hey Thomas,what do you think about "perma death" its when player dies and can only play from the beginning?What do you think about that element in horror games?

  3. I think that one of the things Alien Isolation doesn't do right is when the players can get a good look on the alien. To me the aliens in the movies were always vastly superior in observing the humans and being more frightening that way. In that one clip in Alien Isolation the player can pretty much just stand right next to it and just move around without it noticing, which puts me off.

  4. Thomas, I adore games you at Frictional Games create and I have a few thoughts which I noticed put me off in Amnesia games and I may try to give out few pointers as well, which I hope you consider even though I am a nobody.

    First and foremost. I wish to make perfectly clear that I do understand why musical score to alarm the player when a enemy is nearby is necessary, it is there to build atmosphere and warn the player of impeding doom. But sometimes I feel that less is more.

    Whenever I replay Amnesia and the various custom stories I always encounter the same fault. The music changes when danger is gone, I know I have hidden long enough and all the stress I have build up is instantly negated. Is there a way to go around this problem? Is there a way to trick the player into a false security using other noises and ambience instead of a musical score which changes when the enemy is no longer an issue?

    I know player may possibly feel cheated because of this, but I feel adamant that players should not only trust their ears when monster is gone, but also their eyes. When playing videogames the players are only gathering information using two of their five senses. And I wish the visual sense would be used more to confirm that the threat is truly gone.

    And again, less is sometimes more. Maybe an enemy which is completely silent could be implemented, not only it would be silent but an enemy which ''absorbs'' all the sounds around it and the player to create a field of complete silence. A threat that is visible not audible. Just an idea, which I would find irritating and nervewracking if I even encountered one in a videogame.

    Your Truly, The Silent

    1. Yes, the ambient music for creatures has problems.

      We are trying out a few different things here for SOMA and right now most of the creatures does not have any ambient music to them, but do have some music for an agitated state. So music plays when they are on the hunt and you need to be extra careful, and when it stops you know that danger is over. But the creature might still be around the corner, as there is no music that denotes its presence.

      Not sure yet if it will make huge difference, but I think it will at last lessen the probability of the player noticing a pattern but at the same time heightening tension and giving some alert on what kind of behavior to take (ie should I hide or explore?)

    2. Regarding ambient sounds in Amnesia, I always found that they were overused so much that much of their potential was lost. For example, sounds of chains rattling or footsteps or distant cries all hint that somebody is nearby, but hours into the game you haven't seen a single person yet. Imho the player quickly notices this and doesn't pay attention to certain sounds anymore because they are just everywhere and don't "mean" anything.

      What I'd like to see (or hear) is only sounds that really have a source (apart from ambient music). Then, when you hear footsteps in the other room, you can be sure someone is there. And when there's a special event you want to hint at with a sound, it would be taken more seriously by the player because they know that every sound has an actual source. You wouldn't need sudden loud roars of the enemies to signal that one is coming, something more subtle could have the same effect. And ideally that would also lead to the player paying more attention to its surrounding.

    3. A lot of this due to budget. We were amazed that not that many really noted, or at least cared bout, it though :)

      But yeah, a big thing in Soma is Taking The World Seriously. We want to players to look at things and take it sorta a face value. This is audiologs, layout, behavior and of course the different sounds.

      We'll have to see how well we can do it in the end :)

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    5. The music and the ambient music is an important factor in films and games. We have a well-know work in Alien, an excellent soundtrack with Jerry Goldsmith, and some effects Goldsmith too. This masterpiece demostrates that a good soundtrack can make a film, a better film or game. In the case of Alien: Isolation, we have the same soundtrack with the same ambient music.

    6. Isn't this what Irrational tried to do with the Boys of Silence, originally? But they discovered in testing that most players got confused as to what was going on.

      I just re-read it and it does sound a little different (no pun intended), in that they'd *collect* your sound and do more damage to you based on how much you'd "spent", but it's not exactly clear what wasn't working, it's just that Levine says that they tried dropping ambient noises, but the players failed to notice somehow.
      It's a brilliant idea, anyway, though.

  5. The problem is that we already know what the xenomorph looks and moves like even before we've played the game. Amnesia and Penumbra didn't have that problem which is why they were scary, at first. They did however lose their scariness mainly because of their AI, in my opinion.

    1. I think this could actually be a BIG advantage. I had a passage on this, but felt the article got way too much on the design of Alien Isolation then.
      But here comes a lil summary:

      Basically by having a known monsters you never have to even give the player a glimpse for it to become spooky. As the game takes place in the Alien universe 99% of all players will have a fairly good idea what they are up against. They come in with the right mind set from the get go. You do not have to have any expostion or similar, you can get right into the good stuff.

      Any sound or movement will be: Oh there is an Alien nearby! Slender The Arrival worked great with this, even though the start is without any sort of setup it is still super creepy from very meager means.

      In my Alien game the monster would only show up when you are about to die. Sorta like in the film. Nobody in the crew gets a good look of the monster until it is the last thing they see. You can use the motion scanner, slime trails, etc as hints that it is near. If the player should see it, they are screwed. And then try to have every sort of look at the alien as this sort of swirling mass where it is really hard to make out. Have some damn effect that distorts it, etc. You can be super vague with everything because players already know what the hell to expect and you can just play around with their expectations.

      Problem is how the hell gameplay would be in this sorta game and that is not easy to figure out. But I just wanted to sketch out that at least in theory having players knowing the creature does not have to be a negative, it can be used to great advantage.

    2. There's also the opposite approach (at least to an extent): let the player see the monsters full on - but this requires putting careful thought into monster design (visual & audio design of the monster, animation/behavior, backstory, etc...).
      The (original) Silent Hill series does this very well; it presents the player with really grotesque monsters that look strange and disturbing, make disturbing noises, move in disturbing ways, so they have this visceral, in your face aspect to them, and on top of that represent a reflection of the psychological horror that the game is all about. Sure, the fog and the darkness hide them when they are not in the immediate vicinity, but when they come close you, as a player, can get a pretty good look at them. And yes, the fact that their are driven by a not-too-sophisticated AI becomes apparent, the mechanics behind the experience start to show up, but it doesn't matter because you just can't stop starring at them. The fact that you can see the inner workings of the game becomes secondary because there's always something about the monsters that keeps you wondering and guessing. You're otherwise occupied. Are those stitches? Why is it's head shaking? Why is it sitting in the corner like that? What the hell is going on here?
      Now, granted, the fact that the earlier games were presented in relatively low resolution and had textures of limited detail helped - this provided empty space for the player's imagination to fill with personal horrors. But that doesn't mean that the same cannot be done in today's full HD glory - the approach just needs to be slightly modifed.
      Because today the player might be able to see every single detail, the monsters should be designed (and animated!) with great care, and with great attention to detail, to keep believability. However, the empty canvas for the player to project his own fears to cannot come from lack of visual information anymore - instead, one must try a more subtle, contextual approach: various hints in the design of the monster (of past events, of monster origin and nature, etc.), various hints in the way the monster behaves (during gameplay, when idle, or wandering around, or attacking the player), glimpses of a wider context during scripted sequences and/or cutscenes (when the player can discover things about the monster, and about how the creatures fit in the world) - things that will keep the player's imagination constantly at work.

      For example, consider how in SH3 Valtiel is sometimes seen in the background turning wheels? I mean, WTF? Right? Then, in the same game, consider how he only occasionally appears to drag you away when you die. That just scratches the surface of what can actually be done. For example, often in games monsters, wen they see you, just go straight for you in a generic way. What if a monster decides to circle around in a sinister way instead? Or if it just stands till for a few moments to give you a funny look. And maybe a groan? Imagine if you somehow customized the engine to enable you to script the monster so that it can, when it attack, groan angrily at you in frustration when you successfully evade it. And then later have a moster of the same type behave in a completely different way, thus giving character to the two instances of the same enemy. Or what if a player witnessed a really elaborate and "realistic", and disturbing, scene of one monster attacking and killing another? (Not the quick bood-splash-on-the-wall type of scene, but a longer scene, one that would higlight the agony and make the player think "I don't want that to happen to me!").

      Basically, all this can be seen as using highly customized and scene-specific mechanics to create more psychological horror on top of what the core gameplay provides.

  6. Well, there is a game that suffered from these two points a lot more than any "horror" I have played otherwise, and I am afraid to say that it is Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.

    1) Death is relief and repetition: Death in the game was of absolutely no consequence as even in pretend, your character doesn't actually die. It just gets carried off.

    2) Exposure to the monster. Pretty self explanatory for anyone who played more than an hour of the game, really.

  7. Thomas, re: showing the monster. The actual quote from King is different, but I like this paraphrase: "when you hear scratches in the night, open the door and see a two meters high cockroach, somewhere deep down you're disappointed it's not ten meters high". Now, the actual, much longer quote is here:

    1. That was great stuff! It made me go ahead and order the book :)

      But I do sorta think there are ways to make the thing behind the door really scary. But it is really, really hard. The idea is that there is something that turns the whole concept around and brings forward a concept that makes it all so much scarier.

      For instance the now way too cliche "it was all in your head" trope could once have had this effect. This says something about the nature of the character, and nature of reality itself in a way, that is way scarier than any sort of physical monster. Because it connects to our own life. Lovecraft also does this a bit by connecting the monsters to the vastness of the universe and the utter insignificance of us humans.

      We are trying to do this in SOMA, but boy is this hard :P Relies so much on having a lot of ideas coming together a specific moment and that is really hard in a game. I think we can only hope for a fraction of players to get this feeling, but just having that would make me extremely satisfied and see it as a success.

  8. Well, not to be a smart ass, but just make it so you don't die and don't see the monster.

    1. There has to be some kind of penalty for failure. The game isn't going to hold any kind of tension without that element.

  9. So in Amnesia:TDD, when you die,
    the monster spawns elsewhere? I was under the impression based on my playthrough that the monsters just went away which killed all the tension for me because I wasn't afraid to die

  10. It's a great piece for discourse, Thomas. Especially insightful in light of your development on SOMA (which I am rabidly anticipating).
    I love the idea of a game that levies "a Fate Worse than Death" on the player instead of just outright killing them and restarting.

    It probably wouldn't make sense in terms of preserving the design, but what about a game that rewards a player for staying alive, meaning that if you are caught, then you miss out on some minor elements of the story, or perhaps some decisions are taken away from the player? So the end result is that things become more jumbled or confused-- maybe not for the main plot points, but supplemental background material, but the clearest, most coherent story goes to the person who makes the least mistakes? Kind of like what you were going for with the map changes in Amnesia: TDD (I didn't realize that was happening, by the way). I don't think we should penalize people for not being able to play the game extremely well, but it would be interesting if people had very different experiences depending on how well they are able to keep away from the Big Bad. Then it would encourage a certain kind of replayability (kind of like Iron Man mode). Then at the end of a story chapter, you could have notes ripped off the summary page, or at the end of the game give some meter as to how "authentic" or complete the story is?

    Of course, people would probably resort to the save/reload mechanic, but there's probably ways to overcome this as well. Like certain kinds of checkpoints, or even better, the game remembers certain flags across saves, if the Iron Man mode is chosen.

    Speaking of good books to add to your reading list, this discussion reminds me of a few... If you can track it down, tabletop game designer Kenneth Hite wrote an excellent book called Nightmares of Mine wherein he breaks horror down to the constituent elements of Terror, Dread and Gore. By far my favourite feeling is Dread, that creepy, sort of spooky feeling of tension and anticipation, and it's one that Amnesia TDD did so very well. In most instances of Dread, the lurking horror itself is never seen, but merely suggested. Or the protagonist afterwards realises the danger he or she was in.

    Cinematically, I love the examples of the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the creature/ghost is never seen, but only hinted at via a discussion heard from other characters. Something that was also excellently handled in the opening moments of The Blair Witch Project. The townsfolk describing the strange old hair-covered woman living in the woods was a masterstroke of foreshadowing and good storytelling, IMO.

    Although H.P. Lovecraft is often lauded for his "cosmic horror," I think the real master of Dread was England's M.R. James. I started with Casting the Runes but I think Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad is probably one of the more famous stories by James. I think in some ways, James is a much better storyteller than Lovecraft, but maybe not the breadth of imagination (he sticks mainly to ghost stories).

    Although he is perhaps not the equal of M.R. James, A.N.L. Munby's stories share quite a lot in common with James' mastery of Dread. A few of the stories in The Alabaster Hand are definitely worth a look.

  11. I was able to play the demo for Isolation at Rezzed last month. I got killed by the alien A LOT during the confrontation at the end of the demo. Every time you got killed you had to sit through a protracted sequence in which control is taken away from you and you are made to watch the creature's trademark killing flourish. The game is going to have serious problems if this is what each confrontation amounts to.

    I understand that the creators are tying to employ a cat and mouse dynamic to the finished game, in which the alien adapts to your actions as you do to it. That might extend the horror, as tactics you used before become ineffectual.

    I do think culture has grown accustomed to the alien creature though, ever since it gained the label 'xenomorph' its lost its potency. The whole point of Alien was the creature for constantly changing and the audience never had a clear sense of what the monster looked like, at least until the very end, by the time Ripley faces her fear head on. Maybe its time for a redesign...

    Good insight though, I am both eager and terrified to play SOMA... Also, I wrote my impressions of the Isolation demo in long form here:

  12. If Thomas Grip played Alien Isolation like I did, he'd know that how the developers are trying to avoid the "death = relief" problem by making the xenomorph AI dynamic. I died twice in that demo and because of the AI's unpredictability, it made each trek to progress further into the game that more tense.

    When you get more time to look at the enemy, I'm still worried that I'll die so even if I got a good look at its intricacies, I'm no less scared of its abilities.

    Grip's idea of having the story and exploration tie into the monster is interesting and I can't wait for SOMA either. I've seen developers be critical of other games in their own genre and I like them challenging each other, but sometimes it doesn't pan out in the final game because of certain limitations so I hope SOMA proves he can walk the walk, too.

  13. Thomas, I generally find your idea very interesting. I also thought about that. But there's an other problem that occurs. I want to tell something about this sentence:

    "The basic idea is that "death" is not final but takes the player closer and closer to a very disturbing state of being."

    At the point where the player find out this mechanics, he wants to die. Because he wants to see what the game will do and if there are some additional happenings he otherwise would miss. That's the big problem! The player will experiment what happens when to die/get attacked.

    How will you avoid this problem?

    1. One way to avoid it I think, is to make it worthwhile (gameplay and storywise significantly more interesting) for the player to survive. Then you'd two aspects of the game sort of competing for players attention, and that's not a bad thing. It depends also on how the player dies: if it's because of a more aggressive/reckless play style - than that's OK. Some players will try to keep their character as safe and as sane as possible, others will "roleplay" a character that is more disoriented, disturbed, and struggles to get through the game. What the game should do though is somehow "punish" the player for simply intentionally dying over and over, instead of playing (the punishment can simply be that nothing interesting happens in that case); the problem is - how to detect this behavior, and distinguish it from (what seems like) genuine playthrough.

  14. Regarding "a fate worse than death", I had the pleasure of playing the free text adventure game Cyberqueen the other day. Without going into spoilers, the way it extends the horror of the situation after failing felt new to me. Failure was felt, but the disorientation felt on top of the increasingly horrific descriptions made it an interesting experience.

    I realize that the game itself is short and linear however, so I haven't a clue as to how it could be incorporated into larger, more expansive games. Does seem like an interesting method to handle deaths however.


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