GDC Europe: Breaking rules in survival horror
At Gamescom prelude GDC Europe in Cologne yesterday, Brian Gomez, design director of the forthcoming Silent Hill: Downpour at Czech developer Vatra, spoke of the importance to the survival horror genre of breaking accepted development conventions.
"A good horror game immerses us in an atmosphere of dread, explores our fears, violates our comfort zones and allows us to experience the vicarious thrill of being preyed upon," Gomez said during his talk, Silent Hill: Past, Present and Future. "As games are so often about wish fulfilment and escapism, we are trying to elicit different feelings to other games, and therefore need a different set of rules.
"Survival horror is all about making players feel disempowered. As developers we are taught with the core rules not to take away player agency and control. But in survival horror we need to learn to break some of those rules.
"We are in the business of nightmare fulfilment. In survival horror games, this means disempowering the player, something that as game designers we are often taught not to do."
Gomez explained how the early survival horror games, following the template laid down by Resident Evil and bound by the limitations of contemporary hardware, were essentially "broken action games. They had poor cameras, appalling controls and a confusing interface. They often were an exercise in frustration, felt cumbersome, and pulled you out of the sense of immersion."
At the same time, they helped create that feeling in players of disempowerment. "Our interfaces and controls have improved greatly," he said. "We can make streamlimed minimalist HUDs, intuitive cameras. But when these advances are applied to the survival horror genre, the player becomes empowered again.
"This creates a difficulty for us in a genre which is all about disempowerment. We have to find ways to disempower the player again which aren't led by technical limitation."
Gomez and Vatra have done much to address this problem in Downpour, starting with art design. "Our monsters have been designed around psychology, not just aesthetics," he said. "Likewise, we fast discovered our protagonist's body language had to be fearful. If your avatar doesn't look scared then you as a player aren't going to feel scared or intimidated."
If that seems a reasonable way to create fear in players, Vatra's approach to combat sounds rather more contrived. "We increased the strength of the monsters so that, in many cases, fleeing is the smartest thing to do," he explained. "We also changed our cameras: we brought back some of those fixed angles from the early survival horror games."
Whether Vatra will succeed in its attempt to capture the spirit of the early survival horror games on modern consoles remains to be seen, of course. Regardless, it's a thought-provoking assessment of how the survival horror genre can remain relevant when its originator, Resident Evil, has long since embraced the modern focus on player agency. With Resident Evils 4 and 5 very much action horror, rather than survival horror games, and the upcoming Raccoon City a squad-based shooter, it is left to the Silent Hill series to fly the flag for traditional survival horror games on the current generation of consoles.
And, like Climax Studios' 2010 Wii title Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Gomez and Vatra have turned away from jump scares and towards psychology, his team looking within themselves. "We sat down and asked: 'What was the worst thing that ever happened to you in your life?' We went raw and deep," he said. "What we found is that fear is almost always about loss. We had to ask: 'What are you most afraid of losing?' That's what you should make your game about."