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.
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.
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.