What Does Next-Generation Horror Design Look Like?
Ihave begun thinking about how I want to approach my fourth book on game design, which focuses on the horror genre. During October I tried to find current and recent titles that I could really dig into and enjoy. Instead, it made me think of my dream concept for a horror game and where I feel the genre needs to go. For today, we’re going to talk about why horror needs to take notes from roguelikes.
Fear of the Unknown
Horror, in any capacity, is about the unknown. The idea that you’re walking into a situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen can itself be terrifying. There are many iconic moments in videogame horror that are just that — the dog jumping through the window in Resident Evil, the first appearance by Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2, and the moment you realize just how much trouble you’re in with Outlast to name a few.
This is not the same as something like the Amnesia series or other examples that use an unreliable memory as a way of keeping the player in the dark. The story, like the character’s memory, will be sorted out at some point for either the twist or conclusion of the game. The best horror is not about having that “aha!” moment when everything is figured out. We can see similar aspects in some of the most iconic horror movies (at least in the early entries).
The problem with the unknown is that “unknown” only works one time. Those moments I mentioned two paragraphs up can only be experienced one time by the audience; after that, it just becomes another story beat that you’ll remember the next time you play.
This is where roguelike design can come in to greatly improve horror, but it must be a specific kind of random.
In my upcoming third book focusing on roguelike design, I talk about the misconception that any kind of random element will work with roguelikes. Good roguelike design is about a targeted form of randomization and procedural generation (in some cases).
The problem with a lot of the jumpscare-focused horror games is that the randomization is not about playing the game but trying to scare the player. In the Five Nights at Freddy’s series, the entire M.O. is about the jumpscare that’s coming to get you. The problem with this kind of random is that it’s not changing how you play the game, oftentimes, the actual way to play them is very mechanical and repetitive. Even if there is not a 100% fixed way to play, the randomization is often simple enough to figure out repeatable patterns.
The best roguelikes designers and their games explicitly target specific aspects of their games, so that the random or procedural generation can be used to get the most value. It’s not about creating pure chaos but having enough variance on the foundation that can lead to different experiences. There are horror games out there that use procedural generation, but it is of the most basic variety. Simply shuffling where the player needs to go in a fixed or small gamespace is not the randomization that we’re looking for.
For my dream concept, I envision a game where not only the enemy positions are different per playthrough, but so are the actual enemies who will appear. On top of that, game-affecting events will be randomly chosen in order to force the player to adapt on top of trying to survive. As we’ve talked about before, the best roguelikes give the player a basic idea of what to expect and then force them to adapt to the changing situations on each run.
The Perfect Pace
Speaking of “runs,” this is another area where roguelike and horror design should go together. The other problem that horror games have besides keeping the player in the dark is the length of the experience. Horror is very hard to sustain over extended periods of time and there is a limit to how much can be added to prolong it. Throwing in more enemies or required tasks to pad out the playtime doesn’t help to keep the player invested in the game. Also, repeating situations and gameplay loops will become tiresome and stretches out the horror, making it less effective.
Likewise, the longer a horror game, or series, goes on, the less mysterious everything becomes. You can only repeat the “It’s a strange town where strange things happen” plot so many times before people get bored, or you try to explain why it’s all happening.
Pacing is a problem that I’ve seen in the three latest Resident Evil titles, and a concern I have for RE8. Seven felt that it went on too long for the content that’s there, while 2 and 3 were too short on horror and filled most of its time with combat.
Therefore, roguelike design and pacing fit horror (as well as one example I’ll talk about next). Earlier in 2020, I spoke about my love of the upcoming game World of Horror and how it integrates mystery with horror, adapted to the shortened pace of a roguelike run. A typical play of the game is under an hour, but like any good roguelike, what happens in that hour is different each time you play. Implementing a run-based focus would also help to add length to the playtime of a horror game without impacting the game’s pacing.
Another option that we have seen lately is the idea of microgames focusing on horror elements. The Dread X Collection series is all about compilations of horror titles from well-known indie developers in the space. Each collection features titles made in a short period built on a specific theme, while the design can be anything.
The quality and design are as widely varied as they can be between the games, but more importantly, the Dread X Collection represents a different avenue for horror design. Focusing on bite-sized plays with unique game design, the games are just long enough to get their point across, without overstaying their welcome or losing the tension of playing them.
Having these as compilations also gets around the challenge of selling just one microgame. By putting together a pack, it allows the consumer to get more value and gives them a greater chance of finding one game they really enjoy from the set.
Figuring out Fighting
For our final point, we turn to one that I have talked about many times over: Horror games must have a way to “fight”. One of the major failings in my opinion of modern-day horror has been removing mechanics in favor of nothing. Many developers, such as Frictional with the Amnesia series, will defend this by saying that combat removes the fear and tension of a horror game.
In a way, they are correct, but it’s not as straightforward as that. The problem with horror titles like Resident Evil, Dead Space, Alan Wake, and other AA/AAA examples, is that the combat becomes a form of padding out the game. You can’t sustain a horror game by just adding more combat; it’s why the idea of an 8 hour plus horror game doesn’t work. Likewise, a horror game can’t work if the interaction is minimized.
If the player can only do one thing while playing (ie. run away) then every situation is about that. Instead of thinking on the fly, the game becomes a case of repeating the same thing over and over, which can kill the sense of horror. Combat in a horror game should not be mindless, but tactical. The player should feel that there is an obvious give and take in engaging with enemies. The point isn’t to make the player want to fight all the time but adding weight to each experience.
Combine this with a shorter pace, and I want to see horror adopt a more “visceral” form of combat. It shouldn’t be about the dangers of fighting 100 enemies, but just fighting one. This is often why we remember alpha antagonists like the Xenomorph of Alien Isolation, Mr. X of Resident Evil 2, and of course, Pyramid Head encounters in Silent Hill 2.
An important note, when we talk about fighting in horror games, that doesn’t always mean “to kill.” You can shoot Mr. X as many times as you want and stop him momentarily, but the player cannot kill him until the boss fights. Enemies should not be set to be triggered by the player but be active participants and hunt for them during the play. Again, the goal of all this is to make each run of a game as interesting and different as possible. There should also be ways to interact with the enemies that don’t involve combat.
I’ve lost count of the number of horror games that are all about avoidance, but never give the player any way of distracting enemies.
The Future of Fear
One of these days I should sit down and re-write my design doc for my horror idea, as I’m surprised more developers haven’t gone down this route yet. With the next generation of consoles coming out, it’s time to rethink horror design and combine that with the variety and tension of playing a good roguelike. We need to stop treating horror games as an eight to twenty-hour experience built on the same pool of jumpscares and hiding inside lockers.
There is a middle ground between the passive horror of the indie space, and the action-horror of AAA titles, now we just need to build on it.
If you’re interested in my books on design, Game Design Deep Dive Platformers, and 20 Essential Games to Study are out now. Game Design Deep Dive Roguelikes will be out in early 2021.
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