The Disempowering Setting

All in all, I am seeing myself as a game designer in specific to mechanics and player interaction game play. What this means, is that my main focuses are first and foremost character, control, and camera – also known as the 3 C’s. This breaks up into the rules of the game, what the player can interact with in the game and how the mechanics and story work to provide the player with an overall experience. However, because I am a sole designer and developer, I am having to take this mindset and branch it into other areas including the art development and environmental direction.

This is something that actually really excites me, because horror games have a special allowance towards what an environment is used for. In other genres, the environment is usually used as just the setting to give the player a knowledge of the world around them in terms of what they may be able to expect – for example, Far Cry is set on a jungle island that is inhabited by tribe locals. You can expect there will be friendly/unfriendly animals, friendly/unfriendly tribes or settlements, and interesting landscape exploration. What allows for horror games to take their setting a step farther, is that the entire intention of the setting isn’t to make the player aware of their surroundings so much as to hinder their full understanding of them.

Psychologically in horror games, the intention is to disempower the player. To make them feel at a disadvantage in one or another, whether that is to a living entity or to the setting itself. Through this, the setting in and of itself can become a mechanic – it becomes a threat to the player – it disempowers them. The purpose of the setting is to encourage the feelings that the horror game in general want to pursue, it should embody the feeling that the player shouldn’t be there – that it is a place that holds residual horror and evil.

So, let’s think of some examples in movies and games of the setting becoming a form of disempowerment:

Monster House, Layers of Fear and P.T.

Monster House

In the kid’s film, Monster House, the story takes place primarily within a house across the street from the main protagonist. The owner has a history that has circulated through the neighbourhood as being a terrifying old man whom killed his wife and anyone who goes onto his property. The concept is strengthened through the old mans aversion to children stepping onto his lawn. The protagonist goes into the house with a couple of his friends, only to discover the old man isn’t the monster at all, it’s his house. The house becomes a dangerous setting with the walls, stairs, carpets, etc, all trying to get the children out. Though not exactly a horror, the concept is strong in terms of the overall disempowerment of the protagonists within it’s walls. They are not truly safe until they exit the house due to it’s complete control over the setting around them.

Layers of Fear

Layers of Fear relies on a few main mechanics to create suspense and fear for the player, with arguably the most powerful being the setting. The setting creates an extremely eerie and psychedelic landscape for the player in which they never feel at ease due to the surroundings constantly evolving in unnatural ways with little to no prediction capability. The setting relies heavily on jump scares for the release of tension, however I am primarily looking at the setting as the build up of tension. In this case, the surrounding environment is disempowering the player through its unpredictability. The player may walk into a lit room and up to an object to find themselves fall unexpectedly through the floor into a completely dark area. It’s flipping the player’s perception and overall empowerment on its head, they now are in an area completely at the mercy to anything they encounter due to their sudden lack of visibility. The setting continues to play on this kind of method even through it’s puzzles, in which the player must actually change their environment for the worse in order to obtain something they require – thus creating a sense of extreme unease and disempowerment due to their inability to escape through normal means.

P.T.

The setting of P.T. has set the tone for many horror games from it’s creation. You can even see the inspiration from P.T. in Layers of Fear in the ever changing and repeating corridors. Though this is a great mechanic and definitely is a highlight of creating a space where the player feels not only vulnerable but also completely isolated it won’t be the main focus for this conversation. Instead, I want to focus on the subtler disempowering notes that this games setting holds. In terms of location, it is in a house. Unlike many other games, the house feels rather accurate to normal metrics in terms of the hallway space and overall length. This creates an immense opportunity for tension build and overall disempowerment, as the setting relies heavily on 90 degree angles giving the player a very limited perception on their space. This creates a huge sense of isolation and claustrophobia, as well as an overall sense of helplessness as there are no options for the player to hide or escape in the narrow halls. The sense of turning the 90 degree corners is also a means to build suspense, as a player is anticipating that something will be around the corner every time they come across one.

So how will this be utilized in my game?

Well, as previously stated, my game is focused and inspired by the true story of H.H.Holmes’, “Murder Castle.” The murder castle had many unusual rooms and dead ends throughout the entirety of the building, in which residence would continuously get lost and tortured throughout. In my game, I will be playing on this history and slowly revealing it to the player through my mechanics of the note system, EMF system and radio voices in order to create a means to gain historic value. The overall level design will also be designed similar to that of P.T. in terms of claustrophobic hallways and will showcase a sense of isolation, as the player will not be able to return to the main portion of the hotel. The setting is also going to have elements of unpredictability, similar to that of Layers of Fear. H.H.Holmes was known to have control over doors and certain rooms within his Murder Castle in order to corner his victims into particular rooms for slaughter, this concept will be pulled into my setting as well – primarily with self closing doors – creating the embodiment that the setting is alive and trapping you.

The intention of the setting isn’t to scream in the players face that something is not right, but instead to subtly hint that this is a location they should not be; to reach into the players instincts and speak to the part of them that knows they shouldn’t be trespassing and that this is dangerous.

A talk that continues this subject that is rather good is Extra Credits: Places of Horror – The Secrets of Scary Settings

Level design images will be updated into the post shortly.

The Rise of Inspiration, Knowledge and Design: Finding my Mechanics

I have exciting news! Sort of…

My mechanics are finally settled!

So, from my previous post, we talked about mechanics as metaphor and the concept around what I am exploring in terms of what gameplay will involve and why I’ve made that choice in terms of the player. In order to fully understand how I came to my decisions, I need to walk you through my thought process and the discoveries I made along the way.

As you all know I am a narrative based person, but my design also tends to stray to the focus of the player. What will they experience? How can I bring about that experience/feeling? What else will they feel when they play? These are all the questions that go through my mind in every step of the design process; my main focus is always the player experience. With this in mind, I find that learning the psychology behind players is extremely important in designing for an experience. This lead me to looking at a few select books, specifically in the realm of game psychology and also horror (the genre of choice for my game). These books include:

  • How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design by Katherine Isbister
  • Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People who Play Them by Jamie Madigan
  • Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play by Clive Barker and Bernard Perron
  • The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design by Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten
  • Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques by Evan Skolnick
All books listed above can be found on Amazon.ca for purchase

All of these books have incredible insight into the methods in which players interpret games and how as a designer and developer you can work to achieve the experience you want in order to cause the feelings in the player that are intended. Each of these books gave me immense inspiration on mechanics that could suite my game and how I can interweave them into the experience and how I can explore new possibilities and worlds with the audience through this experience. However, I still lacked a clear goal and world outlook; despite reading these books I hadn’t been hit with the inspiration I was looking for and I still had no clue what I wanted to have my game focus on.

In comes more research. Any creative person will tell you that inspiration comes from experience and knowledge of things around you. As a creative, it’s in your capability to take these real-world inspirations and turn them into something out of this world and that’s what I needed to do; I needed to find my real-world inspiration. At first, I started watching every horror movie I could from the popular, “As Above so Below”, to all the “Paranormal Activity” films, to the cult classics such as “The Shining” and “IT”. I even started to delve into things that were more on the fantasy/drama scale, including “Pan’s Labyrinth”. All of these movies spoke to me in their own ways and gave me inspiration, but it was marred by my mind jumping from one instance to another and never fully settling on one thing. Since I’m on my own, I was having difficulty really settling on one particular concept.

So, what did I do? Well, I realized that searching through films, though great for inspiration, wasn’t going to stick. They were complete concepts, perfect in their own way and though I can get inspired and work from bits and pieces I knew it wasn’t where I was going to find a solid ground for what I wanted to be my focus. Instead, I decided to look to the real world. The real places that give people nightmares, the real experiences that make people jump or stay awake at night, the real feelings that people have. This is where I was going to find my golden piece of inspiration, and I did.

de35ca6d415fe16adb04a15a333a6467I looked back into my own past to see what had scared me. I led a pretty boring life, growing up in a small town, so not a whole heck of a lot stood out to me however one experience definitely did. So, once upon a time a friend and I were stalked by a creepy butcher man. I know, sounds ridiculous, but when you’re 10 that’s not a fun thing to have happen to you. The man followed us from one store to another, aisle by aisle, all while wearing a creepy grin on his face and a bloodied-up apron. Needless to say, we were horrified and convinced we were going to be kidnapped and murdered. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. We gave him the slip in one of the aisles, ran out of the store and got stopped at the lights. We turned around and there he was, still in the store, pressed against the glass staring at us. We both had nightmares for weeks.

With this in my mind, I knew the kind of feeling that could occur just by having someone follow you. With or without a real threat. But I wanted something more, even if it were cliché. So, in comes the Murder Castle. This place was a hotel built by H.H. Holmes, a serial killer in the mid-late 1800’s. He used the hotel to lure victims and kill them using his trapdoors, gas chambers, and murder rooms set up all throughout hidden areas of the hotel. Finally, something clicked. This was the inspiration I wanted, it fit my theme that I was originally going for and I could turn it into my own twisted story.

So, here we are. I have discovered my world and the concepts I want to explore; the feelings of desperation and intrigue, of fear and deception, of discovery and loss. The game will now take place a hotel in which has been kept in operation and its original state from the 1920’s. One wing has been quarantined off for 10 years due to a constant stream of suicides that has plagued it since the hotels opening. You are a ghost hunter and thrill seeker, wanting to understand what caused the people to do this to themselves, or was something more sinister at work?

The player will be equipped with an EMF reader (electro-magnetic frequency) and will be used in order to locate objects using a blip sound and to warn of oncoming ghosts using a whirring sound and lights. This not only will replicate the “real” notion of ghost hunting, but will also be utilized as a method of fearing a possible threat and can be used to build suspense while also being used as a form of radar or minimap to locations of interest using a hot or cold method of blip sounds. The player will also be equipped with a radio-like device in which they will be able to hear ghosts throughout the playthrough, bringing contextual story into play.

That’s where I am at so far, this blog is long enough and I will post another one in the next week to showcase the progression even further!

Cheers!

Deep Dive: Annotated Bibliography

Deep Dive Statement

To discover the methods in which narrative integrates with game mechanics and level design.

Frasca, Gonzala. “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” Introduction. The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Mark J.P Wolf and Bernard Perron. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 2003. N.Web. 10 Oct. 2016 <http://www.ludology.org/articles/VGT_final.pdf&gt;.

This particular document describes the differences between narrative and simulation and explores the depths of narrative in a more academic sense. This includes viewing classic literature methods and how they apply to the game world. This is particularly important, as many narrative designers and video game writers have a background in classic literature/english and will provide the appropriate background information on the topic as a whole.
GDC. Emotional Journey: BioWare’s Methods to Bring Narrative into Levels.GDC Vault.
BioWare, 2013. Web. 30 May 2016.

This is an approximately one hour long GDC talk on BioWare’s method to bring the narrative components of their games into the levels and the level design. This is of particular interest to myself, as my main research question and component is how narratives are told and how they work with the associating teams in order to bring a narrative fully into the game world and build on the fantasy. This GDC talk encompasses all of that, and answers many questions and comments on the overall process of working between level designers, gameplay designers, writers, and narrative designers.

Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories?” Games Studies. The International Journal of
Computer Game Research, July 2001. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

This article articulates the concept and construct of games telling stories, and if they even do in general. It goes over the definition of story, what the means in society, and how games contribute to the story telling narrative. The article also discusses ideal stories and back stories, how these stories can translate to the player, and delves into the concepts of the player’s perception of the fantasy the game is providing them through story – whether that be environmentally driven, vocally driven, or text driven.

Koenitz, Hartmut. “Interactive Storytelling Paradigms and Representations: A Humanities-Based Perspective.” Research Gate. University of Georgia, 04 Apr. 2016. Web. 29 May 2016.

This reviews narrative models and their ability to make a distinct relationship with the medium that they are collaborating or interacting with. It scrutinizes the context and scope of narrative models in the humanities field and how it could improve AI research to available narrative models and allow for codification and re-use of adaption strategies. This is a little out there for my personal research, but it is an interesting perspective on how some areas of the industry may move their narrative basis too, or how they can readily scope a massive narrative using AI. An example of this that I already know of is Fallout 4.

Majewski, Jakub. “Theorising Video Game Narrative.” Thesis. Bond University,
2003. Theorising Video Game Narrative. Bond University, 18 June 2008. Web. 09 Oct. 2016. < http://www.cs.vu.nl/~eliens/.CREATE/local/story/mthesis_jakub.pdf&gt;

This is a minor thesis for a degree in master of film and television program at the Centre for Film, Television and Interactive Media School of Humanities and Social Sciences Bond University. The paper describes the characteristics that are particular to games versus classic non-interactive narrative forms and constructs a three set model for video game narratives including: linear ‘string of pearls’, the ‘branching narrative’ model, and the ‘amusement park’ model.

Rouse III, Richard. Game Design Theory & Practice. Ed. Steve Ogden and Noah Falstein. 2nd ed. Texas: Wordware, 2005. Print.

This textbook covers an array of subjects that can be attributed to the overall concepts of games as well as covers the concept of narrative being an integral section of game experience and game feel. It specifically outlines emergence, non-linearity in games, implementation of non-linearity, and modeling reality or the fantasy of the game. There is also a chapter (Chapter 11) on storytelling in which goes through the methods of storytelling, linear and non-linear writing and pitfalls, and working with the gameplay.
Part of the research paper I am writing will also discuss level design and storytelling with the environment, which this book also talks about in Chapter 23, specifically on page 458 for storytelling.

Mechanics as Metaphors

 


What is the purpose to mechanics? What are they there to do for the player? How can you make them do more?

So this is a question that has been rattling around in my brain for a while now in terms of my game. For my game, I know that I want to do a psychological horror. I know I want mechanics that influence decision and result in an outcome different than that from another decision. I know that I want this branching and for that to have an impact on the player. But what is the best way to do this?

My first instinct was narrative, since I am a narrative based designer. I instantly went to the realm in my head that thought I could add story context to it, maybe add some environmental story telling elements. This could in turn bring awareness to the player what is happening, and how that affects them throughout the gameplay; but is this the right choice? Will it pack the punch that I want to their psyche? And the answer is, maybe… but probably not.

I knew there needed to be more and I wanted there to be more. There was just something too cop-out toned about throwing a narrative on top of mechanics in order to gauge a reactionary response; it felt too lazy. This got me thinking about my mechanics themselves and how to tie them in with this story and tone I want to set, that the mechanics themselves need to be used as metaphors for the overall experience; they need to mean more than simple gameplay.


So how am I going to do this?

Good question, and it’s something that I am trying to figure out further at the moment. The first steps for me though are researching games that have done this successfully and the methodology they used in order to do it as well as watching talks on other designers opinions on the method that I am approaching.

Specifically I have been looking into: Soma, Spec Ops: The Line, Silent Hill 2, Loneliness, Firewatch, and all games done by ThatGameCompany.

For talks I have been listening to GDC talks specifically on Soma and then YouTube videos by Extra Credits (links to these talks will be at the end of the blog).

So far in this research I have seen concepts that I personally want to explore further and are my goals to explore them to really settle my mechanics and overall tone and narrative for the game by next week. The concepts that I am going to touch on here are the ones that I find most integral to my own game including answering the fundamental question of: What is it we’re exploring with the game?, the overall choice structure, tying mechanics with tone, and narrative as a mechanic.


What are we exploring?

This is an integral question in which I think as a designer I have been skirting around for some time because it’s a hard one to answer. Shockingly enough, it’s probably the first one I should have tried answering because it makes the entirety of the process of choosing mechanics and solidifying ideas that much easier when you have the overarching goal in mind. It reduces the focus of your game to focus on that overarching construct of what the game means to a player and what that means for development.

Now this is something that I am learning throughout my design and development, is that I need to learn to trust the audience. Many games in the AAA sector, really spell out the world for gamers and leave very little in terms of imagination and it’s easy to look at these games for inspiration since they are the ones raking in money, garnering major reviews and buzz, and overall being successful. However, imagination can be key in getting your game to have the tone you want to present and it’s key to trust the audience to get to that conclusion.

An example of this is Silent Hill 2, they really pushed some boundaries in terms of imagination and the interpretation the player could have in terms of the mechanic metaphors that were at play and what it means to them; the narrative discourse of perspective and focalization really drives this home in that game. The use of fog in that game as a metaphor for the claustrophobic feeling that is created through the psychosis that this character is experiencing is undeniable. They are specifically exploring a disturbed mind, and this is how one may picture it; foggy, claustrophobic and with limited understanding of the world around them.

In terms of my game, I still need to answer this integral question and it’s first on my list of things to accomplish coming into the week. For this is what I know will really set the tone and structure of my game and will only give me a clearer focus going into the rest.


Without this fundamental question answered, I am hesitant to talk on the next two topics that I have listed above until I have met them with solid conclusion BUT they will be answered in the following weeks of this dev log. So stay tuned!

Thanks for reading!


Links:

The Imperative Need for Pre-Production

Most bad video games are the result of bad production methodology that is to say bad planning… unbelievably common in the industry, and responsible for a plethora of bad games – the complete lack of pre-production. – Extra Credits

In the industry pre-production is a practice that is looked upon very differently from studio to studio and raises many issues as well as many solutions to the overall game making process. Below we’ll discuss the pros and cons of pre-production as well as my use of the overall pre-production method.

THE PROS

It allows for planning!

The biggest pro that pre-production offers is that it allows for a group of individuals – or a single individual – to PLAN their product out for the sum of the design process and scheduling tasks; narrowing down the harder important questions and answering them before jumping into full scale production.

For those of you who have done a largImage result for planning memee project – be it professionally or academically – how often do you think… “I wish I had planned this better.” OR “I don’t understand how we got to this point?” OR the scariest question of all… “What is our goal, what are we trying to achieve?” It may be surprising how many teams and individuals go through these questions more than halfway through production and don’t have the answer to them nor the time to answer them.

In terms of game design, this causesimportant game design building concepts such as characterization, story, art, fantasy and even mechanics to get pushed back into the, “We’ll think about this later,” bin. That is a dangerous place for them to be.

Planning is pretty much everything when it comes to a larger production in which multiple members or even an individual is going to be given tasks based on core concepts. These core concepts should be thought through initially before jumping into the production phase. I have personally experienced and seen countless projects that had cool high concepts – but never thought past that – and ended up failing due to the groups inability and/or lack of forethought to think concepts through before jumping into production. It lead to multiple problems occurring in which the game wasn’t fun, was overly complicated, mechanics didn’t mesh, the story was confusing or juxtaposing the mechanics, etc. It is almost guaranteed that a project will run into more problems without the use of a pre-production phase to plan and ask the big questions.

Pre-production allows for a lot of the lack of planning issues to be resolved or at least discussed prior to production and development. It allows for pillars, core mechanics, gameplay feel, emotional response, audience, market, budget, licensing, prototyping/proof of concept, timeline, pipelines, etc. to all be thought through and roughly planned in order for greater organization during production.

The Journey to Production

Remember, this planning isn’t concrete throughout production – it will change – but it’s always good to have a rough start before jumping headfirst into anything. Think of it like a safety net, a cushion to catch you when you get a little lost on your goals or scope.

The scope and budget

Since pre-production relies heavily on mentally constructing the game and getting a proof of concept functioning, it speaks volumes about your scope. It allows for everyone to see what is necessary for the game to succeed and prioritize those things to create a successful product. This in turn, allows for producers and directors to see what is possible and necessary in an allotted period of time and to accommodate to that.

Due to this, it typically allows for savings on a company or individual level as the production time tends to be shorter and more well rounded, losing less time on feature creep and unnecessary systems, art and design creation. Pre-production is also one of the cheapest periods for the company, so invest into that!

Open communication

It allows for executives, producers, and directors to see what the project is and the general outline of the concept before jumping full scale into the production phase with their team. This puts everyone on the same page before the heavy lifting begins and emerging problems need to be fixed.

THE CONS

Lack of timelines… when do you stop?

A big issue with pre-production is that there is no rule of when enough is enough to start into development. This can create an almost “lazy” mentality in which teams get stuck in a pre-production worm hole that no one wants to crawl out of.

There is a fix to this
however… prep your pre-production. In other words, set a schedule for what you want accomplished throughout this concept phase and set a deadline for when this needs to be finished.

Team necessities and roles

In my case since I am working individually, I wear the hats of all the roles which brings me away from this particular con. However, I want to talk about it in a small sense just to bring it into the conversation space for those who are working in groups.

So what do you do with your programmers? The pre-production phase is mostly on paper, meaning that some group members – namely programmers – are not in heavy use at this time. You may need one or two on a small pre-production project to get tools and prototypes going, but very rarely will you need your whole team force in pre-production. This in a large industry showcases a huge investment into team members that are doing essentially no work, but getting paid the same amount.

My Pre-Production Steps
* This list is my interpretation from a reference found here

  1. Prove that there’s a market.
    • You can see if there is a market for the high concept you are proposing, in the terms of genre, platform, etc.
  2. Figure out the pillars of your game.
    • They form the base of everything you work from and they are something you cannot do without.
  3. Figure out a pre-production schedule/plan.
    • Includes timelines, deliverables and milestones. This schedule may need to be adapted throughout the process, so you should schedule room for these changes.
  4. Buy the licensing for the engine and software you’ll be using.
    • This will allow you to know what you are capable of using for the software and engine. (If you are building your own engine, now is the time to start)
  5. Create game prototypes.
    • Both physical and digital to prove game play and give a better understanding of the game constructs.
  6. Create a design document/pitch document
    1. Should include your fantasy, genre, platform, pillars, core mechanics + description, design progression, overall inspiration, art direction and game feel.
  7. Make a game development timeline.
  8. Create project tools (engine widgets to aid in production/development).
  9. Setup a budget (if applicable). This will be prone to fluctuation.
  10. Create a marketing strategy.
  11. Figure out Concept art, audio, narrative and UI.
  12. Create sample levels.
  13. Figure out the game progression, narrative, level, chapter, etc. Create a draft of them.
  14. Pipe lines and procedures, assets and feature lists, testing plans and version control.
    • Create the basics of them, it’s mostly about having a starting point as these will all evolve throughout production when needed.

Example images of my process for my concept work of the horror game WT: Welcome Home: