Tuesday 9 May 2017

6 Reasons For Having a Defenseless Protagonist

Not having any combat can be really helpful to horror games and crucial in delivering the desired experience. This article presents the top 6 reasons for this and also explains how it ties into narrative games in general.

Outlast 2 has recently been released and has spurred a lot of discussions around not giving the protagonist any means to fight back. I haven't played enough of the game to be able to give an overall impression of it (I'm just 30 minutes or so in), but I think I've seen enough to weigh in on the discussion. We at Frictional have been knee deep in this problem since 2006, and I've been up against the problem myself ever since I made my first hobby horror game in early 2000. This is something I've been thinking about for almost 20 years, and hence something I have a strong opinion about.

The discussions around weaponless protagonists is often focused on horror games. It's really a question that concerns narrative games in general, though, and isn't just about what sort of horror you want. It's really about what sort of approach you want to take to storytelling. It also has a lot to do with my recent post on mental models, which makes this a good time to go into it.


Let's start with the main reasons why you would want a game with a defenseless protagonist. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it brings up the most important reasons.

1. It makes the player assume the appropriate story role
To someone with only a hammer, every problem will look like a nail. The same is true for the tools that we give to a player. The actions that we let the player use informs them about the role they are supposed to play within the game. It's really hard to make the player feel like a detective if they never get to do any actual detecting.

Why is this the case? Because the way we interact with the world around us is via a mental model. This mental model is built from a network of connected attributes, all having do with the various aspects of our world. When taken together this gives us a sense of how the world behaves and what we are dealing with. So when we see a character looking for clues in a crime scene, interviewing witnesses and trying to piece together evidence, it'll point towards the idea that this person is trying to solve a crime. This creates a strong belief that the character is indeed a detective. If we are simply told a character is a detective but only see him chopping wood it is really hard to take the first statement seriously. You will never model this character as a detective. No matter how many times you tell me that a pile of sharp glass is a chair, I will not perceive it as one. It simply lacks any of the attributes that I associate with things that are chairs.

In the same way, in order for the player to feel like they are inside a horror story they need to have access to the actions of the protagonist of a horror story. In horror the protagonist is supposed to be vulnerable, uncertain, and out of their depth, and to get this across to the player you need to restrict their available actions to support this. A really simple way to do this is to simply skip any means of fighting back. Sure, you can always make weapons less effective in the game, but the moment you give them any sort of weapon it's likely to awaken deeply rooted mental models in the player. We humans are really good at generalizing and unconsciously judge many situations on the first pieces of evidence we can get our hands on. So when you introduce a weapon in a horror game, the player will view the game as one where the primary action is combat and then by assumption add a variety of other attributes to the experience. This is something we experienced firsthand when making Penumbra: Overture where player would even treat an old broom as a potential weapon.

2. It make monsters feel like threats

Just as the actions at your disposal informs your role, so do your interactions inform what sort of world you are in. If the player's main action is to shoot down monsters, the monsters become target practice. Again this is mental modeling. Just like we determine something to be a chair by determining its shape, how well it can be used for sitting, and so forth, we also evaluate any dangers by what attributes we can assign to them. When "thing that I shoot to generate fun gameplay" becomes a strong attribute for a monster, a lot of the horror is lost.

If, instead, monsters are things that the player interacts with only by running away and hiding from them, the mental model becomes quite different. You start to draw connections to other things that you would run away from, and this jacks much better into your primal fear response. The monster is no longer a game object connected to a core combat loop. Instead it becomes an unknown entity that you have no means to fight. This makes a huge difference to how the player perceives the threat.

3. It leaves more to the imagination
Another problem with being able to fight any creature is that this requires many close up encounters. You need to aim at the creatures, see feedback of them being hit and so forth. Most importantly, in order for this gameplay to work you need to have lots of actual confrontations. This goes against one of the most important rules in horror: leave the monsters as vague as possible.

When your gameplay doesn't rely on combat, it's much easier to keep the monster out of sight. When you are running and hiding, the monster doesn't really need to be visible at all. You can just rely on the player seeing quick glimpses, hearing sounds, watching a motion tracker and so on in order to sustain the gameplay. This gives a lot more room for the player's imagination, and allows them to conjure up far scarier monsters than what could be rendered using polygons.

4. It makes the player paranoid
Checking how much ammo you have left, thinking about what gun to have available, planning for ammo usage, looking for items and so on - all of these are activities that the player constantly has on their mind when playing a shooter. And all of these take up mental resources that could have been used for other things instead. It's very important to know that the player has a limited amount of focus and whenever you tell the player to give something their attention, something else will have less attention. Remember this as a designer: whenever you say yes to something, you say no to something else.

What this means is that when you remove any form of combat, the player has a lot of mental focus to spare. In fact, many players will have too much. This almost leaves the player is a state of sensory deprivation. The outcome of that is that they start to pay a lot of attention to small details. It makes players more paranoid, more prone to invent reasons for small sounds and so on. This is an extremely good state in which to play horror. It's also something you lose if you give the player too much else to think about. We noticed this ourselves in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, where many levels where made better by giving the player less to do. This encouraged them to fantasize more and gave the unintuitive result of increasing their engagement,

5. It makes it harder to optimize away emotions
A combat system is something that the player often has played hundreds of hours of before. Sometimes much, much more. There are lots of well-known tactics for dealing with encounters, and players often come with a huge instinctual toolset on how to bypass various dangers. What this means is that there is ample opportunity for the player to figure out ways to beat the monsters. In turn, this means that the monsters lose their core attribute, to be horrible threats, and instead just become standard gameplay objects.

It's much harder to do this in a game without combat. When you don't have a set loop that the player uses to interact with the game's world, it becomes much harder to figure out underlying systems and to optimize. This means that the player has to rely more on their imagination to make a mental model of the world and its inhabitants. If the systems that drive the monsters are obscure, you have to think of them as living, breathing creatures and this greatly heightens any emotions that you associate with them.

Of course, if you use non-combat oriented gameplay in the wrong way, you will fall into the same trap. This is something I'll go over in a bit.

6. It is a great design constraint
As I noted before, games are often too much fun for their own good. This is most certainly true for combat. In fact, combat is probably the most common core mechanic in games. It's really easy to come up with engaging ways for you to do it. So the moment that you decide that you will have combat, it makes it so much simpler to come up with engaging scenarios for a game. This means that you are very likely to overuse combat and to drop focus on the narrative you are trying to convey.

When plot dictates that the player has to go through a sewer, how should we make this section engaging? With combat this answer is easy: just add some monsters and have the player fight them. Problem solved! You see this over and over in games that use combat, especially horror games. Even though it is clear that the focus ought to be on delivering a certain end experience, there are tons of areas that, by being satisfied with just having simple combat, counteract this goal.

If you don't have combat, you don't have this option. If your basic gameplay is just running and hiding, it's actually quite the opposite: your core mechanics are not much fun. This means that you need to think of ways to vary them, you need to be careful when to use them and there need to be other activities involved. This forces you to avoid any easy solutions. Simply relying on "add some monsters for the player to encounter" will not work in the long run. It will soon become very tiresome to play the game, because you are relying gameplay that is, at its core, not engaging enough to be the driving force of the experience.


That concludes the list of the most important reasons why a defenseless protagonist is really good to have in a horror game. Now I will go over a few common counter-arguments, and respond to them.

Claim 1: "Without combat, the game becomes boring"
I think this is both true and untrue. 

It's true in the sense that in order to get the player to experience certain things, such as the paranoia that comes with sensory deprivation, your game simply cannot be too much fun. This is how narrative works in other media as well. Certain experiences cannot simply be made into a super-engaging package. There needs to be a certain level of "boredom" for it all to work. The experience as a whole must of course be engaging, but not every game can have the moment-to-moment excitement like something like Doom. 

It is untrue in the sense that we haven't yet seen what can be done without having combat. Many people simply compare the current state of games with defenseless protagonists to the current state of games with combat, and then take this as how it will always be. I think there's a lot that can be done in order to make interesting defenseless horror, or other narrative experiences for that matter, and still have a level of "gaminess" on par with that of a shooter. The problem is that combat gameplay comes naturally and has had 40 years to evolve; gameplay without combat is much harder and has had much less time to evolve.

I have to admit that I am growing quite bored with the standard "run and hide"-gameplay. I think it can work when used in short bursts, but it's far from an ideal solution. We need to think harder and dig deeper in order to improve gameplay for horror and other narrative games. That is basically what this whole blog is about and something Frictional Games is investing heavily in. This is uncharted territory and there is huge room for improvement.

Claim 2: "No combat leads to lots of trial and error"
If you look like a game like Outlast 2, this is certainly true. There are a bunch of sections where you have to replay over and over in order to continue. This all boils down to Outlast 2 using the "run and hide"-gameplay as a foundational element of the game, and it's interesting to discuss why this must give rise to so much trial and error.

The first reason is that it is very hard to have a good analog feedback system. In a game with combat it's much easier to have stats for things like health and ammo which you can vary during an encounter and use as feedback. But in a game where you are trying to not get caught, the situation is much more binary. You either get caught or you don't. So the moment you need to give the player the feedback that they are "not playing correctly" that usually means killing them off, and forcing them to start over again.

The second reason is the fact that player failure means death and restart. This doesn't have to be the case. Few things break our immersion as much as having to replay the same section over and over. In fact, in order keep a level of presence you are almost obliged to make sure this never happens. Every time you pull the player out of the experience, you break the illusion and force them to build up the fantasy from (almost) scratch again. Player death is a huge problem in narrative games, and despite this, very few games try to deal with it.

Again this is something I think that has lots of room for improvement. It is also something that we at Frictional Games are trying to solve in both of our upcoming games. The goal is to have an experience where you never see a "Game Over" scene, yet feel a strong sense of being able to fail and is very anxious about not letting that occur. This is not an easy challenge, but it is also one with huge potential. Staying immersed and feeling your actions have consequences are big reasons why interactive storytelling is so interesting, and even small improvements can come have great impact.

Claim 3: "Not having combat is unrealistic"
This claim is highly dependant on what sort of experience you are trying to create. Sure, if you are doing a videogame version of Aliens or Deep Rising, it's a great fit. But as I have outlined in this ancient blog post, there are many different ways in which combat is featured in horror movies. If you want to do a videogame version of The Exorcist then combat will play a much smaller role - probably none. Most of the time, weapons are there as a last line of defense for the protagonist(s). From that angle it makes sense that you should have at least have some form of defense. But you also have to consider all of the negative aspects, many of which I listed earlier, that come along with having combat. If a horror story should "realistically" let the protagonist use a weapons in two or three places, then it might make more sense to try and make these places go away somehow.

Another way to approach this is to have combat in ways that doesn't imply your standard combat mechanics. Weapons could be puzzle items that the player have to be careful about when they use them. It's also possible to use the environment as a means of defense. The point I'm trying to make here is that it's possible to retain a sense of realism without reverting to full-blown combat mechanics.

Either way, I think the most important question to ask is: "What is the best way to achieve the intended experience?". If combat is the best way, even if you take all of the downsides into account, then by all means go in guns blazing!


Most of these discussions have centered around horror games, but really most of these things apply to any narrative game. It's not just horror games that strive to keep the player's imagination going or want to avoid players that optimize away emotions. These are foundational issues for any game that wants to try and tell a story. The problem of not being able to rely on an engaging set of core mechanics is also something that goes beyond horror games.

Thinking about why we want a defenseless protagonist in the first place and then figuring out means to make it better feels like a really important question to me. It connects to many of the core issues that face a game that wants to focus on narrative, and any improvements are bound to be helpful to interactive storytelling in general.

Next week I will present a system that will allow us to more easily think about these issues, and will hopefully also make it easier to find solutions.


  1. What I would suggest is make the game more systems driven in the vein of Deus Ex. Give us multiple non combative tool sets to play around with: the ability to hammer doors shut or set small traps and multiple ways to traverse the area, nothing too overpowered or anything that would blatantly break the game. Also branching narrative paths could go along way as well. Say if you do get caught in one instance, you don't necessarily die, but you're character is tortured and is taken down a different path and they lose an ability, It would encourage multiple play-throughs as well. You could also do something in the vein of Consortium and have it be an interactive murder mystery, but with Outlasts brand of stealth horror thrown in: Outlast meets Se7en.

    1. I like all of these suggestions! Some of these are even stuff we are considering for upcoming games :)

  2. Thank you, very good article (as always).
    I would say it would enhance the experience when you give them the opportunity to shoot in some places as you mentioned, like repairing a stationary flamethrower, or maneuver the player in some completely hopeless situation, and then give him a weapon with less ammo that he can just survive somehow.

    In SOMA for instance i found it a bit annoying, that you have this great physic based interaction system, with all the grabbable stuff everywhere, but there were no possibility to use it for instance for throwing at the monsters, (especially the hardest one at the end) to distract them a bit to have another second for escaping.

    1. We did have the option to throw stuff to distract. I think a big problem in SOMA was that maps were not properly designed with this in mind though, so there was not a lot of opportunity to use it.

      But yeah using various stuff you find around you as a last means to escape feels very fitting. Would be great to have something that emulates chase sequences from the movie Scream.

  3. Let's see:

    "So when you introduce a weapon in a horror game, the player will view the game as one where the primary action is combat and then by assumption add a variety of other attributes to the experience. This is something we experienced firsthand when making Penumbra: Overture where player would even treat an old broom as a potential weapon."

    I don't really see that as a problem. In Penumbra you are supposed to survive within a mine full of dangerous creatures, of course you will see the broom as a potential weapon. Now, I suspect you are mostly referencing to the fact that adding weapons to the game will make players think that they are playing a combat-heavy game, even if that's not the case. Which is indeed a problem, but it can fixed. I think you underestimate a bit how making the weapons really weak can change the mental model of the player. I am pretty sure everyone who played the first Silent Hill realised pretty early that with certain kinds of enemies you have no chance using melee weapons. You can try it, but killing them that way is really hard, while just running away is much easier. So I think it's actually quite easy to make the combat last resort only. Just make it really hard.


    "When "thing that I shoot to generate fun gameplay" becomes a strong attribute for a monster, a lot of the horror is lost."

    That one has an easy fix too, just make the combat less fun, or no fun at all. Silent Hill did this pretty well with the clunkiness + limited resources combo.


    "Another problem with being able to fight any creature is that this requires many close up encounters. You need to aim at the creatures, see feedback of them being hit and so forth. Most importantly, in order for this gameplay to work you need to have lots of actual confrontations. This goes against one of the most important rules in horror: leave the monsters as vague as possible."

    Only a problem if the weapons are strong enough that charging at monsters is a fruitful tactic. If the weapons are really weak the player will only use them if he really has no better options, like when you are in a dead end and the monster is ready to attack you. Most games use combat as a central part of the gameplay but nothing forces you to use that approach.


    "When your gameplay doesn't rely on combat, it's much easier to keep the monster out of sight."

    True, but you can still use darkness, sanity effects etc. to make the monsters appear less clear. A good idea would be to make the monsters to dissolve after they die, so the player can not carefully inspect their corpses to get familiar with them.


    "What this means is that when you remove any form of combat, the player has a lot of mental focus to spare. In fact, many players will have too much. This almost leaves the player is a state of sensory deprivation. The outcome of that is that they start to pay a lot of attention to small details. It makes players more paranoid, more prone to invent reasons for small sounds and so on."

    Isn't that also true for games that feature combat? You hear a sound, you fantasize that a monster is near and you suddenly turn around just to check that no one is following you.


    "A combat system is something that the player often has played hundreds of hours of before. Sometimes much, much more. There are lots of well-known tactics for dealing with encounters(...)"

    You can still make the encounters really hard though. You can also use a variety of monsters with different gimmicks, so the player will never knows what he will face next.

    1. "So the moment that you decide that you will have combat, it makes it so much simpler to come up with engaging scenarios for a game. This means that you are very likely to overuse combat and to drop focus on the narrative you are trying to convey."

      Yes, that's true. That being said, I think that there is nothing wrong with making a combat-heavy horror\narrative game.


      I guess my solution is basically "make the combat hard". which leads us to the next point:

      "Few things break our immersion as much as having to replay the same section over and over. In fact, in order to keep a level of presence you are almost obliged to make sure this never happens. Every time you pull the player out of the experience, you break the illusion and force them to build up the fantasy from (almost) scratch again. Player death is a huge problem in narrative games, and despite this, very few games try to deal with it."

      True, game over screens break immersion. But it is important to consider here, are there better alternatives? The only ones that I can think of are:
      1. Multiple Deaths system similar to Until Dawn.
      2. Not having enemy encounters at all.
      The first solution is good, but it's only applicable to multiple character games. The second one dodges the problem by skipping the enemy encounters altogether.

      Now, there is also a third approach, which I am strongly opposed to: to include monster encounters, but making them easy. If the problem of hard encounters is that the game becomes more frustrating, the problem with easy encounters is that it reduces the monsters to simple annoyances, which is basically the single worse thing that can happen to a monster encounter.

    2. Two clarifications.

      1. I don't think that the defenceless protagonist approach is bad, I am simply defending the combat-heavy approach as a legit way to make a narrative/horror game.

      2. I am not opposed to the idea of not having enemy encounters in a horror game. But if a game has to include them as a basic ingredient of the gameplay, then there are only two good approaches (that I can think of, at least); Multiple deaths system or die and continue from the last save.

    3. I think you have some good points!

      Quick response:
      It is just worth noting that making a combat system with the right level of difficulty is really really hard. It varies so much which different players that what is hard for one player is easy for someone else. High difficulty can also make people force themselves to beat the game the hard way :)

      Only real solid way is having weapons with very little ammo so you can fight properly, but only in a few places. Worth noting that this is the "weapons as puzzle items" solution I suggested above.

    4. "It is just worth noting that making a combat system with the right level of difficulty is really really hard. It varies so much which different players that what is hard for one player is easy for someone else. "

      Are we talking about making the game hard for:
      1. A combat-heavy game?
      2. A game where combat is the last line of defense?

      In the first case, you just can't make the game beatable for every type of player, so you have to target for the higher levels of the spectrum. Which has the downside of discouraging potential buyers. From the other hard you can add difficulty levels. I don't think a difficulty slider is a hard feature to implement, just design the system with the hardcore players in mind, and make a few easier modes by adding more HP.

      In the second case, you can just make the combat borderline impossible so no one can use combat as a fruitful tactic. A good example is playing Silent Hill 1 by using only the knife as a a weapon, you will just have to run away against most of the enemies. A second way to do it is by randomisation: The weapons have the potential to damage and push back the enemy, but the chances for it to happen with each hit are, let's say 25%. Now, no sane player will try to beat the game by fighting, but it can work as a last line of defense, attempting a quick hit at the enemy in order to run away.

  4. [b]Player chooses, game obeys.[/b]

    Some people choose to fight in percieved life-threatening situations. Adrenaline makes brain to react faster so they have quickly build or have picked up tool which becomes an improvisatory weapon. Like in Africa some people defended themselves from a lion with a stone.
    So, I generally don't agree that every human would react the same in life-threatening event or simulated game.
    I think game should allow player to choose how to deal with it.
    Players who played Destiny, Bioshock or Doom will probably react by picking/building themselves weapon in the game. Some players would choose to be defensless and run and hide.

    [b]Making defensless route not "boring"[/b]

    There are other means to respond in game.
    There could be
    [*]trickster tools in the gameplay like bludgeoning club (Thief) to knock out smaller sized A.I. or to stun bigger sized A.I.
    when they don't spot you in near proximity.

    [*]tools to decieve or outsmart enemy A.I.[/LIST]

  5. While I'm fond of games where the player is defenseless, I feel compelled to play devils advocate and offer some counterpoints.

    Point 1: Having no means of self-defense can create dissonance between the player and their role as well. Often in horror movies, characters make very stupid, ill-informed decisions and it takes us out of the movie. Not offering an option which, at least superficially, seems like a common-sense solution may cause the player to question the judgement of the character which they themselves control; if their life was on the line, why would the protagonist not attempt to fight back?

    Point 2: Resident Evil 7 frequently presents monsters which are seemingly invulnerable, and even regenerate lost limbs. I think this is potentially more terrifying than simply running away because it grants the implication of the enemy's comparative superiority over the player and makes the player feel a greater sense of hopelessness by giving the promise of power and security before rendering it inert.

    Point 3: I realize this is a very reductio ad absurdum argument, but "It leaves more to the imagination" can be used to justify pretty much any lack of a feature. You could minimize the amount of times the player sees the monster by making the game a text adventure. This principle is raised a lot for horror even though at the end of the day we all know what Cthulhu looks like. A foe doesn't necessarily lose their enigma when we see what they look like, I think a well-designed horror creature is like an M.C. Escher sketch- the longer you look at it, the less sense it makes.

    Point 4: I agree that the player's attention should be treated as a limited resource; there are times in horror games where I'm more focused on preserving my inventory than the world around me, but are all thoughts that emerge from using weapons necessarily counter-intuitive to the end goal of allowing a player experience fear? I think that if the player is forced to choose between fight or flight, that creates an uncertainty which doesn't exist when the player already knows "flight" is the only option.

    Point 5: You say that combat removes the aspect of the monster that makes it a horrible threat, but from the other side of the equation, what distinguishes an enemy you can only interact with passively from a fancy environmental set piece? In other words, if from the moment I hear an enemy I know the solution is "don't be noticed, if I am, run for cover" what incentive do I have to question my approach with each enemy regardless of how unique their behavior or appearance is?

    Point 6: Designers should always be encouraged to question conventions. How one can create an engaging and memorable experience without giving the player defensive abilities is a great question. But asking how one can be given power and be more afraid than they would be without it is also quite an interesting question.

    1. Good points, I especially like 2 and 5.

      Adding to these, having a combat system gives you the opportunity to design dreadful encounters for the player, that require good combat skills or having enough ammo to kill them. With the run & hide system the player knows that there will always be a wardrobe nearby to hide.

    2. You bring up soem good stuff.

      Not sure that #2 needs to mean a full blown combat system though, could have weapons as items or just ability to through physics objects for this one.

      #4 is a really good one! Heard it before and forgot to bring it. Having a choice between flight or fight adds uncertainty and can be really good. However, do we really need a proper combat system (ala RE) for this?

      For 5: Does weapons really need to be your own means of interacting with monsters? For instance think of how you interact with monsters in movies like The Exorcist or The Conjuring.

  6. Interesting to hear that you are actively exploring different avenues of approach in horror games. I can't wait to see what you figure out.

    When it comes to combat in horror games, I tend to agree with you. But I know from personal experience that even full-fledged combat games immediately gives that horror-vibe the moment you are perfectly aware that there is no fighting back. If one is considering a horror experience with combat partially involved, the most important thing would be to somehow make it perfectly clear what you should do. Otherwise it can easily become frustrating and break immersion.

    1. A weapon I feel should be the "blunt solution" to the puzzle/inventory using "sharp solution". It bails you out of a tight spot but it is loud, it brings unwanted attention and you will never have enough ammo to actually survive through violence. But it can save you when you see a monster and there is a switch that can be shot, a gas main that can be ignited. Invoke the inner jock in a slasher film who thinks his strength can overcome the serial killer only to be the victim himself.

  7. One thing that came to mind besides some of the points youve made about Outlast 2 is that horror's identification is becoming shortsighted. I think there is a lot of unexplored space to "types" of horror, for example, some of the best Japanese horror movies I've seen have no visible monsters no gore and instill a crazy sense of dread. I remember one in particular where it built so much tension that I had turned off the movie at a scene where all that was happening was a slow zoom on a normal looking residential house. Let that sink in for a bit. Or more well known horror films like Audition which has a REALLY slow burn approach to horror with a crazy payoff. Don't get me wrong I actually really enjoyed Outlast 2 and most well made horror games but I think there is a lot of unexplored territory.

  8. I'd just like to point one 2 things. The first is just meant to reinforce your point on penumbra. Remember the section in the mines when you are being chased by the zombie dogs? That sectioned scared me immensely at first, but what I ended up doing is stack a bunch of crates, pile a bunch of rocks around said crates, attract the dogs on purpose and kill them off with the stones. Even though combat in penumbra was brilliantly inconvenient, once I was given the option to fight, I found a way to use the mechanics in a way they were never supposed to be used to trivialize that part of the game. This is why I preferred the black plague over overture.

    My second point is about outlast 2. I disagree that the trial and error in this particular game is because of the hide and seek gameplay. Sure, once you decide that this is your core gameplay trial and error will occur,but there was much less of it in both of the previous 2 outlast games as well as amnesia and soma. To me it was mostly a result of poor signposting and inconsistent world design (some times you can leap over 2 meter chasms, but other times it's like playing doom 1. A knee high log will bring your character to a full stop.

    Keep up the amazing work and announce your games already, we are on pins and needles here!

    PS: How hard is it to develop a game like the hobby horror game you mentioned? Any chance we can take a look at it?

    1. Here it is:

      Nowdays it is quite easy to do something like that. Look into gamemaker or similar tools

  9. Also, and sorry for spamming,could you make another post about how Soma is selling, I'm really curious. I love that game, one of the best games I've ever played!

  10. Question: Is it possible to design dual gameplay system within 4-layer narrative approach?

    In one playthrough, player can get one experience and in second playthrough, he can get different angle of the narrative using silghtly different gameplay system.

    Question about branching storyline and characters:
    If player will have decisions over some aspects of the story, will this impact future events?

    For example, acting differently in second playthrough, narrative could change a bit.

  11. Whether or not combat makes sense depends on the situation. When the monster is a ghost, I understand not being able to fight back since the monster is intangible. When the "monster" is a crazy person, being completely unable to fight back feels like a limitation imposed by the director. This can lead to a problem when your gameplay loop becomes:

    1. The monster sees you. The only response is to run and break line of sight.
    2. Hide until the monster forgets about you. Maybe throw an object to make a distraction.
    3. Search for the exit, moving slowly to avoid being detected by the monster.

    You'll notice that there's not a whole lot of alternate ways to handle each problem. So you either have to add alternate solutions to problems, or make your game short enough that this doesn't become repetitive. So what can you do to add more gameplay options?

    1. Add traps. You can make the monster stuck, or set off an alarm to disorient a blind enemy.
    2. Add reasons to not rush to the exit. You can have extra bits of plot like books or logs in combat areas, to incentivize players to stay. You can also have one-time use items to heal, or free yourself when the monster grabs you.
    3. Add basic combat. You can make it so the player can only impede, but never kill, the monster. Or you can make weapons/ammo so limited that the player can only kill a fraction of the enemies.
    4. Make defeating the monster a puzzle. If you have combat, you can give the monster plot armor that must first be removed. You can make a boss that can only be defeated using the environment.
    5. Add wild cards. Perhaps the player has an AI ally. The player has to protect this player, but maybe the player can sacrifice them to escape. The player can lure the monster to attack a wild animal, or maybe even lure 2 rival monsters into fighting each other?

    That's all I can think of for now. Feel free to add others!

    1. I think the best solution is to not think about what happens at the encounter, but what happens BEFORE it. It is here I think we should try and add more options.

  12. 99% of horror games with weapons and combat and 1% not , the boredom and repetition comes from the 99%, the weaponless horror games has its Broad audience, everyone who don't like games without combat can go and play a thousands of games with weapons and combat

    1. "It is just worth noting that making a combat system with the right level of difficulty is really really hard"

      It is, but this apply to every system.

      I don't see how making a combat system with the right level of difficulty is any harder than making a puzzle, or a chase sequence with the right level of difficulty.

    2. Oops, replied to the wrong person.

  13. Wonderful article ! :-) I think I'll be using it from now on whenever I run into a "video games need violence-capable protagonists" argument somewhere.

    I know stealth games or traditional stealth genre mechanics have already been brought up in this discussion - they obviously became a popular adoption for newer survival horrors, with FG having a massive influence on that - but I'd like to make a detour towards that genre regardless.

    To date, the most critically praised stealth games I've come across seem to have one thing in common, even if they otherwise have different gameplay mechanics. That thing is the exact topic of this latest article - character de-powerment, with an added logical/narrative justification for it.

    One example out of many... Take the good old Thief trilogy. The mindset the player needed for stealth there worked not because the player said to himself "Okay, I won't kill the guards/monsters this time", but because he genuinely knew there aren't many lifelines that could save him if he tried to brute-force his way through missions via violence. There were lifelines - one could wait until guards cooled down, throw a stun bomb and hide, or do some basic self-defence - but they weren't something the player could abuse endlessly before they were caught and killed. Though Garrett isn't a completely defenceless character and you can use a small, measured amount of violence as the player, you will fail if you start thinking of it as a working method (or core mechanic). A violent approach will get you nowhere and only stir up more trouble (for both the character and the player).

    From the outset, the games give you plenty of clear hints - in the narrative as well as the gameplay - why Garrett's decidedly not a ninja, not a master swordsman, not a superpowered individual. The only thing he seems to be good at is sneaking, snooping around and planning the next heist. The player can make him good at what he does by respecting the character's in-universe personal limitations. To be Garrett, the player needs to think and move and work like a spook, a sleuth, a problem-solver. His first unconscious reaction needs to be "How can I avoid that threat and figure out how to enter that off-limits area ?" instead of "How do I kill those guards in the way ?". I think those three games succeed at that. Many players no doubt started playing one of those installments like they would a shooter or any other action game. Those who didn't give up soon realised how baked-in and necessary, but also organic the stealth gameplay really is.

  14. (continued)

    To make the stealth worthwhile and central, and not just an optional gimmick, you need to communicate to the players: "Here's how the stealth works. More importantly, here's WHY the stealth works. Try it out. Oh, and you can use violence - but bear in mind, there will be various repercussions to using violence." Since I'm using Thief as an example: You could theoretically kill a guard there, then wash away a puddle of blood with a water arrow and hide the guard far from plain sight and well-lit spaces. A stealthy use of violence. But even if the player manages such a thing, there is an ongoing sense of tension that is hard to deny. The guard under attack yells and screams, potentially calling in reinforcements.

    And yet, the player could have avoided the entire issue by simply ignoring the usual "kill everything in sight" reflex we associate with most action games. He could have simply knocked out the guard, or just get very good at sneaking past the guard's sport or patrol route. And so on... That there is tension even in stealthily killing an NPC opponent and disposing of him just goes to show where the game's design emphasis is: It's not a power fantasy. Your character is a common criminal with some neat skills, but the world isn't a setpiece that revolves around him and in his favour. Killing in the games' setting is a criminal act, murder. Killing armed guards means alerting more guards and the authorities, etc., etc. The player has a lot of pressure put on him just for having the sheer determination to use killing or violence as his primary approach to things. Unsurprisingly enough, many players eventually learn that even stealthy killing won't get them far. Stealth brings the most desirable results. Not only in terms of final scores for a mission, but also in terms of making the player "feel cozy", not giving them the feeling that they need to be paranoid about the guards finding out about their crimes and mischief. This leads to the player starting to genuinely appreciate stealth, and simultaneously moving away from the "brute force solves all" approach. The player doesn't even have to commit stealthy kills to feel paranoid. Even going the fully pacifist route and only knocking guards out still leads to the player being forced to hide the unconscious NPCs. It's a very different use of violence (from an ethical/narrative/higher difficulty objectives perspective), but the overall paranoia or tension forced onto the player is largelly the same.

  15. (continued)

    Furthermore, while the tension one feels over killing stealthily is a gameplay roadblock to players misinterpreting the game's core mechanics (and thus ignoring non-violent sneaking), there is also a narrative roadblock. The writing and voice acting in the Thief games, despite their age, make guards into more than just generic NPCs. They will repeat their lines from time to time, but their little asides about their daily lives and what they think and feel makes them more relatable and human. Suddenly, just because of some cleverly added content (that many would dismiss as unimportant), the game gives you an incentive to see things differently, to think about those guards as more than just faceless adversaries. Suddenly, they're characters of their own - bit characters, sure - but characters nonetheless. Of course, this is somewhat manipulative towards the player. It plays on a sense of guilt and compassion, just like the gameplay roadblock played on a sense of "Will they find out ?!" paranoia. However, I feel it's just as valid a form of minor emotional manipulation as said paranoia/tension. It gets the player into yet another particular mindset: "These guards are human beings just like Garrett, or just like you... They have their lives, families, they feel pain. Do you really want to kill them or brutalise them ?" That mindset, along with the mindset gained from the gameplay-based tension (especially if violence is used), and the mindset created by pure physical/mechanical feedback ("he really can't fight off three attacking guards and an angry powerful monster") is what helps the player realise WHY stealth and de-powerment are a meaningful part of the game. The 'rules' (for lack of a better term) are layed out clearly, they're communicated to the player in multiple and varied ways. The player is given ample opportunities to grasp these 'rules' naturally and equally naturally immerse himself not only in the gameplay, but in the games' setting and its atmosphere. It's a fairly equal marriage of gameplay design, narrative design and art design, all coming together as working whole.

  16. Would be interesting to see how you guys would make a cooperative horror game. How do you maintain the sense of horror and presence with 2 or more players in the game.

    Offtopic. Also think you guys should do a World of Darkness (or better yet if you can talk Paradox into it, Chronicles of Darkness) game. 2 cents.

    you guys do great work.

  17. oh, also offtopic, would be good if you could add cloudsync on steam for all your games, I've lost many, many hours of gameplay.

  18. I would argue that giving the player the means to fight back creates more anxiety than not having combat at all. Classic horror games like Silent Hill or Resident Evil do this nicely: The combat is awkward, you feel weak, you want to avoid it and only fight back if you have to. Sometimes you're not sure if you should fight and waste precious ammo or run. If the player knows that combat is not even a factor, they don't have to make that choice and there is less pressure. By having an enemy nearby, the player is already distracted from the narrative, whether they can fight back or not. If the designer wants to have the player focus more on the narrative for a while, they can create 'safe sections'.

    A more recent title that had a nice balance in this regard imo (if you exclude the way too overpowered flamethrower) is Alien: Isolation. If you decide to use your limited ammo to dispose of a synthetic, you alert the Alien. You can temporarily scare it off by throwing an IED, but the best you can hope for is to get it off your back for a short while.

  19. I loved Penumbra and Amnesia -- not so much, just like many other games with impossible to confront enemies.

    See, for me the hide in the closet solution is not really an interaction with the monster, and ultimately with the game.

    Also, not being able to hit an entity comes across as a gamey manipulative construct which leads to frustration and not much else. I don't really think that fear has anything to do with frustration, does it?

    It's sort of a version of an invisible wall. -- extremely annoying, but at least it's not chasing you.

    Now, I of course studied the post, but I have some very decent counter examples for you. Like Condemned: The Criminal Origins and Alien: Isolation. Granted the Isolation had whole bunch of problems, like insignificance of players' actions, but the combat part was solid. That said, me personally, I hated android encounters, I'm only talking of xenomorphs here -- even though I did have a weapon, every encounter was terrifying, I really doubt it if it still was the same if I didn't have any weapons -- in that case it would be "ah whatever my actions don't make any difference".

    Sorry for this hectic mess, it's hard to type on mobile.


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