Monday, October 19, 2009

Design Reboot: Torch

Monday, October 19, 2009
What to do with Alone In The Dark?

Pictured: catwalk over electrified sludge, spider enemies, pipes.
The original was of the very first survival horror games. It went through increasingly abstruse sequels, until suffering the double indignity of an Uwe Boll movie adaptation and then a high profile reboot that was the most overstuffed hot mess of a game I can think of.

A short list of crimes:
  • control shenanigans
  • inventory system designed via divination/casting reptile bones
  • camera shenanigans
  • "cinematic" storytelling
  • mysterious powers
  • spider enemies
  • tentacle goop with mysterious powers
  • "cinematic" driving sequence
  • NYC-centrism
The game can't be faulted for a clear and admirable desire for innovation, despite its control issues. On the other hand, it's a posterchild for modern, multiplatform bloatware that overreaches in just about every category (if I want "cinematic," I'll go to the movies). Alone in the Dark seems like an ideal candidate for the "back to basics" treatment.

Jack White, of the White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather, is a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to making music in the studio. He's outspoken about wishing that bands were forced to make their first album on nothing more than a 4-track--and while with any such sweeping generalization it's easy to think of reasons why it's not the best idea, I find it an aspirational sentiment. Something about nailing the basics before you get fancy.

Disparition - Timi┼čoara

And in that spirit we frame today's design reboot: Torch. Take away the crawlie things, the Powers, mysterious past, the glowing tentacles that grab NPCs in scripted sequences, fixation on another medium's way of storytelling, scrape it all out and rinse with the garden hose--until you are only left with being alone, in the dark.

Torch is a game about delving deep into our most basic fears. Home invasion, kidnapping. There are no cutscenes, no long dialogues with celebrity voices. You play a string of characters that need to survive the worst night of their lives.

[A key inspiration: the film The Strangers. In his directoral debut, Brian Bertino takes a small cast, a single location, and sets about wreaking havoc with little more than mounting dread and suggestive framing. (Do not watch this movie with anyone who is even a little bit scared of home invasion.)]

Just as horror movies benefit from minimalist production, maximalist dread, Torch would be built from the two titular elements of survival horror. Probably near-third person or first person, set in small but densely constructed and detailed levels. The control layout would be adequate but unfussy, but this would be offset by a positively austere use of HUD elements (ideally none).
The game opens directly from the desktop with a black screen while loading, no splash or title screens. A text-only menu on black background. Players choose from a branching list of progressively worst-night-of-my-life scenarios of various ordinary characters, given first names only, a one or two word bio. Ellen, homemaker. Alex, dentist.

One of the first stories presented is being at home at night during a break-in. Barring aggressive play, it should be reasonably easy to "win," but the player has been given a taste of the atmospheric dread to come--NPC assailants vary their numbers, start locations and motivations on every playthrough.
Other early scenarios are a walk home at night, finding the car in a dim parking garage. A laundry list of sequences based on exactly the things we're most anxious about in life.

Through the shorter introductory scenarios, the player masters the essential survival skills: the flashlight, the small combat sequences (dictated by the abilities and identity character they're playing and weapons available), but mostly the timing/decisionmaking, situational awareness. Learning to take careful cues from the environment to survive. Running.

Soon the most difficult scenarios unlock. Waking up in the den of a serial killer (tonally dark but without any overtones of sexual abuse) with all but locked doors and needing to escape--you can try the phone, but how do you tell the police where you are? Violent home invasion, and the like.

Upon it's small, PC digital-only release, Torch is judged with a very favorable 83/100. Critics enjoy the freshness of the back to basics, no-frills approach to harrowing situations. The game doesn't take many hours on paper to complete, but played with headphones and the lights off, most players voluntarily take their time savoring the panic.


Robert Yang said...

I think this would be a really difficult concrete game design to realize - if you go back to basics, then you have to get those basics exactly right. What's the difference between a murderer hunting you down, and a frustratingly overpowered NPC following random unpredictable routes around a level that you haven't memorized? It's too fine of a line, I think.

"Home invasion" scenarios would be really difficult because the player has no attachment (or knowledge!) to their "home." It's so unfamiliar, it might as well be the same as the serial killer's den.

To create player attachment to location, they'd have to create the house themselves, a la Sims. (That'd be a cool scenario in the Sims, actually - suddenly in the middle of the night, there's a "fog of war" in your house and you have to escape a killer.)

But seeing as the player-creation aspect would be so easy to "game" and make a fool out of the killer NPC's AI, I'm of the opinion that the most successful horror FPS levels are in the Thief series - the thrill of trespassing but getting discovered. Or the first half of the Cradle in Thief 3.

Gabe said...

Sounds like the sort of thing that would go well with an SDK for fans to work with it.
For how this would play, I can only imagine it working as a heavily scripted sort of thing- your character starts in a set place and enemies come from set directions at set times, designed to herd the player through the level and the scares and confrontations. They feel like they're dynamically fleeing from bad guys, but actually they're following the singular set path to success there is.
Also I've never seen that movie, but the face on the dude in that The Strangers screenshot is creeping me out.

I can remember a similar look being used for a creepy face in Afraid of Monsters: Director's Cut, which I'd recommend you play if you're looking for ideas on how a game can make you panic and freak out, since I've never played a game better at inspiring it. I've seen many hardcore experienced gamers say they quit AoM in the middle of the first level and uninstalled it, cause it was too intense for them.
A shame, because it gets even worse/better later on. At one point in the third to last section of the game, you're left alone out in the woods, almost completely pitch black, with monsters that blend in with tree branches, among others. The path forward leads through abandoned houses and shacks, storm runoff tunnels, and large open fields where you suddenly find yourself surrounded by 30 twitching, supernaturally fast Jacob's Ladder inspired monsters after a couple moments of fake peace.

gauss said...

Robert: good comments. I don't know if a player really has to know a house to be scared about the idea of a home invasion, but it is one of those things that you can confirm or deny quickly enough with a little testing.

I did also consider the set-up where the game would be played with the same familiar layout, and that the action would be built around knowing a medium/large house layout intimately... or say you're trapped in the serial killer's den, and before you make your very difficult multi-stage escape attempt, you could go into "memory mode", which would be like a 3d flythrough of the house, built on (incomplete) exposure to the layout over time. Bonus if it could be presented like Photosynth content:
I ended up widening out the game description to include various scenarios, and not just trapped in the serial killer's house, but that's really the core one and I know it could be done effectively. A single NPC in the level that you're very scared of could be very interesting.

There's a PS2 game that's almost all based around "running away" as the primary activity--anyone know what it's called? I'm going to have to look it up.
I'm also enamored of two-stage gameplay models, anything that includes a setup/preparation phase and then a plan execution phase.
The old Crystal Dynamics game, The Horde, is a superior example.

Gabe: I never played AoM somehow, guess that one slipped by me. Watched a little of a playthrough on youtube and it does look pretty great though.

I suppose I should also have listed one of my prime examples--might still edit the article, in fact--which is SWAT 4. There's an awfully spooky mission to a serial killer's house, and part of what makes the SWAT 4 missions so effective is that the NPCs are randomly placed throughout the level, and can freely move. Especially in areas with multiple passages/exits, this can get dicey very quickly unless you keep your wits about you/keep your team covering all angles.
It's an inspiration because knowing there's the killer in the house, and remembering how scary that was, made me think of a game where you weren't armed but had the same feeling. Except only this time you were trying to keep away from the killer, not find him and shoot him as a SWAT guy.

Sean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave said...

For the PS2 game, are you thinking of clock Tower 3 or Haunting Ground/Demento? Both of those have you playing as a young girl and tend to revolve around fleeing from deranged killers and other enemies with extremely limited means of fighting back.

I'm not sure how well I see the home invasion scenario translating as an emotional experience for the gamer, assuming that you drop them into the house at the start of the scenario with the invasion already underway. I'd say that one of the most essential components of a good "home invasion" revolves around you being familiar with the layout of the house, although there are definitely other scenarios such as the serial killer's lair that you describe that would work well to drop you into the middle of the situation. Also, the home invasion genre tends to rely on interspersing the activities of the invader with those of the resident in order to raise tension, which would be more difficult do with the subjective nature of most games being seen only from the protagonist's perspective. For me, the main failing of The Strangers was that Bertino never actually established a coherent geography for the house, so I frequently felt that there was no actual sense of how close the protagonists were to being discovered by the killers. They could have been one room away or cutting in an entirely separate house, and at the end of 2 hours I still had no idea how any of the rooms were laid out or how they connected to each other for the location the entire movie took place in.

Naturally, a game would largely avoid these pitfalls being that all movement through the enviroment is completely fluid as opposed to omnipotent cutting, but I feel like in most situations a player would be more prepared to accept and become involved in a Clock Tower/SWAT 4 type scenario where they are exploring an unfamiliar locale and discovering it at the same rate as their avatar as opposed to a The Strangers/Funny Games scenario where the avatar knows the layout of their house intimately and must contend with marauders hunting them.

Perhaps something like the opening sequence of High Tension, where the protagonist is at a friend's vacation home while the killer is stalking through the house looking for signs of survival would be a good model for a scenario like this. You'd have to cover your tracks, but if you played well enough, you could conceivably survive the scenario without the killer ever knowing you were even in the house. Kind of a combination of Clock Tower with the opening scenario of Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, if that makes sense.

Chris said...


Mark said...

Playing in a confined, familiar space that is turned against you has plenty of potential. But I think that the idea would benefit from less of a focus on the immediate situation and horror-setpiece where you're stuck in a house with killers looking for you. It's a home-invasion, so the player should start in control before they lose it. The in-built tension and nervousness you get from 'survive for as long as you can before you die' objectives from other games could be put to good use here. The challenge ramps up and even when things are easy-going the player is tense because a mistake here could cost you big later.
Have it really be the 'worst night of their lives' with the player starting immersed in a fairly ordinary night for their character. The player is able to wander around, maybe some kind of task they have to keep doing which they find easy at first but which gets harder later on (such as taking pills to stop yourself passing out from whatever illness). Soon you hear laughs outside and rocks are thrown in through windows, the phone is cut. Gameplay takes the form of defense, the player locking doors and pushing shelves in front of windows to try and stop people getting in, they should have the layout of the building pretty well figured by now.
It's an endless onslaught, and gradually the player runs out of resources and rooms are breached, the invaders being dangerous enough that their potential presence in a room should deter the player from hanging around areas they known invaders can move in and out of(so you don't need entire rooms fulling up with goons to make the player feel areas that are broken into are no-go zones).
Soon the player is pushed back and has to sneak through breached areas and scrape together their last resources to survive minute-to-minute, such as locking doors in invaders faces which are then broken down in order to stymie death for a little while longer. THEN you get your tense chases through the house the player has built a bond with defending it room by room. That way they really get the feeling of something they're close with being turned against them, until the player holds out long enough for the sun to rise and the invaders to dissappear. So then the player has won and the main character has survived! (suffering ptsd for the rest of their lives, but the player doesn't have to worry about that kind of thing)

Johnnyburn said...

Nice idea, Jack.

Related to the comment about knowing what the invader is doing, and the comments about knowing the geography of the house -- I was just thinking about what this would be like played 3rd person from above.

It will never be as immersive, but the gameplay hashes out in a more straightforward way.

Of course, then it turns into Pac-Man.

Next week's Design Reboot: 1st person Pac-Man. "A junkie looks for his fix roaming the maze-like streets of a dystopian near-future, pursued by the 'ghosts' of his past."

gauss said...

John: Well geez, scratch that easy update out of the running.

Great comments, Dave and Mark.

Dave I think you've got a pretty good handle on both the sort of mood I was shooting for, as you're familiar with the touchstones, and the interesting sort of... modularities, we might say, that would come with the territory. I'm not against the idea of a game that could even be played as both sides of a home invasion scenario; I think perspective-taking is an inherent strength of the medium that is often overlooked. I think it's interesting you'd bring up Quantic Dream's Fahrenheit, as there is a company totally hung up on perspective switching, which fascinates me.

As I commented earlier, I really enjoy games with two-stage gameplay, but the way you describe it, there sounds no need for two discrete stages. A longer set-up period, which reveals critical gameplay related traits (this character has a broken arm, this one is a diabetic, this character is asthmatic, etc.) would allow for the player to get to know their character as well as their critical house layout/"turf" in a low-stress environment, with the understanding that progressing forward is going to ratchet up the danger.
Anyway, lots of great ideas here.

Mark: Extending the role-taking to a full night in the life of the character is really excellent, not only because despite the hypothetical nature of these ideas, it's still worthwhile to consider things in terms of smart production. Building a house or a parking garage or an apartment complex is awfully expensive if it's only for a brief segment of gameplay, but if it's the staging for a more prolonged sequence then it makes more sense. And as has been pointed out, it takes time to build tension.

Anyway, great discussion, hope it continues. I've been obsessed for a long time with game designs that focus or are set in primarily in a small, richly detailed but closed location, and this has moved up as one of my favorites.

Andrew Holliday said...

Man, you listen to some dark music.

The vibe I got from the video was more depressing than tense or frightening. It doesn't seem like it matches the game you're describing, which would be based more around the visceral terror of blindness and danger, rather than creeping existential dread.

Charles said...

This is an awesome discussion everyone.

I have no experience in the game design field to speak of, so if my comments seem inexperienced or severely flawed, I apologize in advance.

Now that that's out of the way...

I don't have much experience with horror games other than the Resident Evil series, but one that I did play extensively was Dead Space.

My friend and I rented the game, skeptical of the reports of just how scary this space-horror concept was. In our confidence that it wouldn't be all that scary, we decided to go for as much immersion as possible, turning off the lights, our cell phones, etc.

And boy did we pay for arrogance. I'll never forget that first sequence where everything goes to hell (after you have already crashed on the Ishamura), when the lights go out and the only things you can see through the flashing red quarantine lights are glimpses of your party being ripped to shreds and having their blood splattered all over the glass right in front of you, and somehow, out of the chaos you hear the words, "Run Isaac!" about the time one of those necromorphs jumps out of a vent behind you as you run weaponless down that narrow hall, all the while hearing the breaking of vents and the scrapes and snarls of terrible, terrible things coming to rip you to pieces.

My friend and I were both screaming throughout the sequence. It was a cacophony of "OH *bleeps*"s and "RUN RUN RUN! TURN! RUN!" all jumbled into the sirens and the screams and scrapes and Isaacs heavy breathing/stomping, and then our heavy breathing once we were 'in the clear' (though not really).

Anyway, I suppose the really scary thing from that point on was the feeling of isolation. To me, this is where Dead Space really shined. Even while playing the game sitting next to my best friend, I still felt completely and utterly alone. I also never felt safe. The real-time inventory just put it over the top. On more than one occasion I broke out of inventory frantically pointing my gun around the screen because I heard some of the ambient scraping noises. No breaks in the horror. It really gave you the feeling that you are with the character on the longest night of his life.

I'll try to sum up my contribution into this: anything you can do to add to the feeling of being completely alone in a terrifying situation would greatly aid in creating suspense for a horror game. Combining the elements that you all have mentioned above, like close-in spaces and having enemies that occupy areas which makes them nigh off limits will serve to really amp up the feeling that you're stuck in there alone with some truly awful people.

Also, I think Mark's idea of having the player experience everyday life of the protagonist, and then flipping it over on top of them, is spot on. The more connected you can get to your character before bad things happen will make you become more invested in your character's well being, and hence, add to the tension when their life is in danger.

Lastly, I think something to really help with the thrill factor here are the sounds. Perhaps as the night goes on and exhaustion from lack of sleep/survival efforts set in, the character starts to hear breathing, or heavy footfalls in the room over, wall scrapes, and all other manner of creepy noises.

Again, great thread everyone. I agree with Jack and hope that it continues.

Anonymous said...

Gausswerks guy, you have good taste in games.

I picture this game and it reminds me of Condemned. Condemned in your own home would be terrible. Especially if the home invaders are quick bastards, like they'd actually SPRINT at you. Yikes. That's terrible as in causing fear.

Dread Lord CyberSkull said...

Probably too nerve-wracking for me, but I have a friend that would thrive on this game.

gauss said...

Charles--belatedly, thanks a lot.

Anonymous: thank you, I try. Condemned was pretty landmark in it's way--I think it was particularly successful in terms of visceral melee combat from a first person perspective, which is no mean feat.

DLCS: Haha yeah, super spooky games are not for everyone, and certainly not to be played all the time if you ask me. Games are like food, the more varied you can be generally the better you are overall. But if I could work on a game that provided the USDA recommended daily super-scary portion, I'd be pretty happy.

quantumdot said...

I feel like the recent Ju-On game attempted to do the same sort of thing, except without the procedural element and with some Wiimote wiggle and waggle. I'm not sure how well it succeeded, but it was a novel try all the same.

I don't know if we could ever fully simulate the sense of the game being one's "home"--though I know from personal gaming experience that finding myself in an unfamiliar-but-"safe" location and then having that safety pulled out from under me is just as scarier, if not more.

ScottMcTony said...

"What's the difference between a murderer hunting you down, and a frustratingly overpowered NPC following random unpredictable routes around a level that you haven't memorized?"

The difference is Haunting Ground and Amnesia to Clock Tower 2.

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