Last weekend, I dove headlong into the most self indulgent video game since Death Stranding: The Last of Us part 2. And much like Death Stranding, I loved every second of it. The game left me feeling depressed and emotionally drained from the level of empathy it forced me to feel. A big contributing factor to this was Naughty Dogs commitment to making their enemies feel like people and not just obstacles to overcome.
At face value, the game appears to be like many other stealth action games: stalk your target until no one’s watching, take them out, get discovered, take out a few more, hide and repeat with little to no remorse. That is until one of their friends discovers their corpse and yells, “They got Dana!” Wait what? That was a person with a name? No this is a video game, violence is fun, right? Remember Doom, RIP AND TEAR? As time went on after hearing countless enemies cry out for the death of their friends and being able to put a name to the face of my many victims, the tension of every encounter increased.
I started putting a lot more thought into the way the AI moved and their dialogue when on the hunt. I could feel a genuine murderous intent behind every action they took. In a set piece early on, you become cornered in a basement. Smoke bombs are thrown through the windows and enemies rush in for the kill. My hands were trembling at this point. I felt so vulnerable and I could feel how desperately these people wanted to kill me—not because they were programmed to do so, but because I’m the monster that murdered Dana, Alan, and their dog Lilly.
What’s even more interesting is that Naughty Dog have tried to evoke this feeling in their games for years now as one off story beats. In Uncharted 2, the final boss tried turning the player’s attention to the countless people they killed to get where they are now. In The Last of Us (part 1), the brutal finale uses the defenseless surgeons as a way to make players feel this empathy. But these moments are self contained, which allows players to shrug this feeling off easily. However in Part 2, they’ve embraced this as a core pillar and they make their players bathe in the guilt, regret, hate, and small windows of joy experienced by all the characters throughout it’s 30 hour run time. The key to this is the player experience provided by the AI design.
I’ve tried to be as vague as possible in this post, because I don’t want to give the impression that you can experience Pathologic by reading an analysis (especially not the sort of armchair stuff that I’m offering), but there will be some minor spoilers here. If you care about that kind of stuff, it’s worth going into Pathologic blind. If you don’t care, or if you’ve already played, then read on.
I impulse-bought Pathologic on GOG in 2014, at the start of my glorious return to PC gaming after half a decade of console life. I’d never heard of the game before, but the reviews were gushing and a skim of the description promised an “immersive survival horror RPG” with a Euro-folkpunk vibe, and that was enough for me. At some point shortly after, I fired it up, but the opening scene had no subtitles and the audio was muffled, so I shut it down. It then sat in my library, untouched for two years.
Not Your Dad’s Immersive Survival Horror RPG
I was reading an interview with Randy Smith in which Pathologic’s title was floated as a pioneering immersive sim, which brought it back onto my radar. Somehow I heard that it had received a new “Classic HD” remaster and, thinking that the subtitle issue might have been resolved, I decided to check it out. I’d taken two weeks off for the new year and decided to at least get past that weird opening scene in the theater before writing the whole mess off. The irony was not lost on me when I realized the game is largely unvoiced and is not lacking in text, thus rendering my subtitle judgement moot. But I was in for a bigger surprise than that.
The game absolutely kicked my ass. I was brutally murdered by a mugger on my first night. I starved to death when the price of food skyrocketed. I died of exhaustion trying to find my way through the labyrinthine streets. I died in my sleep after failing to note that some stat or another was approaching the breaking point before I bedded down.
And yet, beyond all this unyielding death, I was noticing perhaps the most sophisticated and literary narrative I’d ever encountered in a game. I was living the early days of a plague, and the level of nuance and detail in the behavior of the townsfolk at the level of the text was absolutely staggering. I was negotiating the transfer of emergency powers, administrating the construction of a clinic, advising on how best to negotiate a cure. There was a novelesque subtlety to each plot point.
What’s more, this creepy-quaint, magical realist, Euro-folk hamlet was supporting it all at the systemic level. Prices rose as panic buying ensued. Rumor spread about witchcraft as a possible source of the plague, and vigilantes started to spontaneously attack women in the streets. The infection meandered from district to district. The state sent in outside administrators and, eventually, the army. It was grim in a way that cut right to my bones, in a way that I’ve only seen approximated in a handful of games (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. springs to mind). But beyond grim, it felt real.
A Matter of Perspective
Pathologic is not a “traditional” immersive sim. It isn’t an homage to Thief or Deus Ex, it doesn’t feature a million-and-one-ways to get around a locked door, there are no vents to crawl through or physics objects to toss about. And yet, I might call it the finest immersive sim I’ve ever played. I can’t think of another game that has so thoroughly immersed me in a world to the point where I felt it in my gut (and the closest runner up is IPL’s follow-up The Void, so I’d say they’re onto something). But what makes Pathologic different is the way it shifts focus away from interactivity and hinges its design on creating immersion through perspective.
Perspective is at the heart of Pathologic. The game features three playable protagonists, each experiencing the same basic story from their respective viewpoint. The course of each protagonist’s arc is highly distinct, even featuring changes to the gameplay mechanics. As a result, they hold different ideologies, their friends and enemies are different, they talk to different people and get different information with which to form their markedly different opinions. Only by playing through all three can you gain a full picture of what’s going on in this plague-ridden village on the steppe.
Laying the Foundations
To craft these perspectives such that the player seamlessly adopts them, Pathologic deploys every aspect of its design to support its narrative and themes. The art direction and audio create a stage and backdrop against which the tastefully simulated town persists. The basics are all accounted for: villagers walk about, shops operate, every building can be entered (and looted).
Time passes, and it is not the arbitrary day and night cycle of your standard open-world shooter or RPG. You have twelve days to cure the town, and tasks are only available for a single day. If you fuck up and don’t get to something, somebody gets sick.
And layered on top of this are quirky, handcrafted behaviors triggered by plot events. Over the course of the game, mob rule increasingly overtakes the town. Looters and bandits flood the streets, the infected wander around the quarantine zones. The townsfolk turn to superstition and vigilante justice. Eventually the army shows up, maintaining order with rifles and hygiene with flamethrowers. As the plot spirals into utter despair, the citizens systemically lash out and slaughter each other.
When combined with the story being conveyed through dialogue with NPCs, the systems mesh to provide a social dynamic to the environment. The town becomes a character in its own right, the emergent discord representing the arc of its conflict with the plague and what that conflict represents for the town’s values. The effect is an exceptionally palpable sensation of desperation that permeates Pathologic’s atmosphere, and it places the player in a very specific headspace. And headspace really starts to matter as the motley cast of characters start whispering in your ear.
Pathologic’s tutorial comes in the form of a short diatribe by a character known as an Executor. It explains the basics of the game, that time passes without regard to you and that missing important events is a very bad thing. Most crucially, however, it makes no bones about telling you that the NPCs will outright lie to your face. What the villagers tell you—and what you choose to believe—will define your perspective.
But Pathologic goes a step further. The quality of the writing is such that, from the sum total of the information conveyed to you in the course of a playthrough, the emergent effect is a strong identification with the outlook of whichever protagonist you are controlling. Even if you know the plot and intellectually disagree with the character’s principles, the dialogue shapes the story such that the player’s perspective settles naturally into that of the controlled hero.
This is not to say that the path is completely authored for a given protagonist. Although the game is quite rigidly linear, there are opportunities to make choices. There are even multiple endings, but the power to choose freely between them involves metagame elements that are best discovered on one’s own.
Credit must also be given again to the depth of the storytelling. Despite the extreme and at times fantastical nature of the story, the things the characters actually do are not just relatable, but intricately detailed. There is a lot of dialogue in the game, and much of it is devoted to the complex motivations of all the characters. Each of the primary NPCs has a vibrant personality and unique mannerisms through which their diverse worldviews are conveyed.
It’s clear that IPL put as much work into the dialogue as Looking Glass put into Thief‘s stealth. It is the foremost method through which the game’s identity is conveyed. The stories of the characters and the town, settled upon the foundation of despondency laid by the simulation, combine to form the meat and potatoes of Pathologic’s philosophy of immersion.
I Will Survive
If the story and systems are the meat and potatoes, then the survival mechanics are the gravy. They saturate the gameplay experience, elevating the desperation to knuckle-whitening levels. Pathologic’s survival stats are way on the far side of unforgiving. Indeed, the fragility of the protagonist is acknowledged in-world, with characters noting that the very air within the village weakens the constitution and tends those who breathe it towards infirmity.
In tandem with the survival mechanics runs the town’s economy. Prices change depending on what’s happening in the story, and if you’ve not stocked up before a price hike, you’ll be rooting around in the trash for something to barter with. You’ll be trading tchotchkes to little girls for ammo. You might rob or even kill someone just to ensure your own survival. And you will always feel, at best, as though you’re only just scraping by.
It’s a common anecdote in accounts of Pathologic that a struggling player has hawked their gun for food, and that on its own is testament to just how bracing resource management is in this game. Can you name another game where you’d sell your only weapon to keep from starving to death?
But you learn to live, teeth clenched, Sword of Damocles bearing down. And each and every decision you make matters more as a result. This goes all the way down from high level resource management to simply picking the quickest and safest way to get from point A to point B. Even just crossing the street can be a life or death experience.
The intense pressure of the stat management creates an urgency in which you have no time to detach yourself from the game. You have to remain inside of the character, working constantly to advance lest you fall idle and waste away. With the systems and story cradling you snugly in the perspective of your character, the survival mechanics strap you in.
And what a ride. The story of Pathologic is not merely rich and detailed, it’s sweeping and epic, emotional and full of intrigue and human drama, horrific and beautiful at the same time.
And it is all these things because of the pains it takes to create a perspective, a mentality that thoroughly shapes your experience of the game world. In this way, Pathologic ensures that you are not simply playing with a simulated sandbox of a world, but that you are fully inside of it, experiencing all of its pressures and demands and victories and moments of respite as viscerally as possible. And in doing so, it gets inside you.
But don’t take my word for it. Check out what Quintin Smith had to say about his experience playing Pathologic in sync with a friend in his excellent writeup:
“I played through the game at the same time as a friend. He chose the Bachelor, and I was the Haruspicus. Because we played at the same rate, we had the chance to discuss developments in the plot each day. […] My favourite was on day 9, some 20 hours into the game, when the same friend started talking about how he couldn’t play on for much longer. He said that if things didn’t resolve themselves soon he’d give up. He was so tired, he said.
The next day my character went to see the Bachelor to discuss some findings, and I found a man overcome with exhaustion. The Bachelor said that if we couldn’t discover the truth about this disease soon he was going to shoot himself rather than let the illness kill him.
This is what Pathologic does. It creates an interesting, desperate situation and brooks no compromise in letting you experience it. And in unflinchingly making you suffer, you identify with these characters you control to the point of becoming them.”
Immersive sims aren’t actually about the stealth or the shooting, the lockpicking or hacking, or even flushing every single toilet in a 3D building. They are about giving the player a tangible presence in a virtual world, and to this end, Pathologic is outstanding.
I finished my first Pathologic playthrough (as the Bachelor) just shy of the end of my vacation four years ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I’ve since completed the other characters as well, and can confidently say that each is utterly integral to the full story. From the moment I first finished it, I knew Pathologic would stand as one of my all time favorite games.
The agony of choice is all the rage in modern story-driven gaming. Moral and ethical decisions have become the go-to method of injecting substance and weight into interactive narrative, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. Indeed, choice is unique to interactive media, and is arguably its most fundamental aspect. What is interactivity if not some level of choice in how one experiences an environment? Even something as simple as selecting the right weapon to slaughter a demonic posse in Doom demonstrates that agency is always at the heart of interactivity.
The exploration of agency has come a long way over the short life of video games as narrative media. While the possibility of games with multiple endings was already being explored in the 1980’s, from Nobunaga’s Ambition to Sweet Home, the concept of an ethically-driven choice system would develop through the 90’s, and particularly in the RPG genre. The offerings of Interplay and BioWare, including such classics as Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Fallout, introduced characters with independent agendas who would react to the player’s behavior in the world. This could lead to all manner of emergent narrative developments, with characters abandoning or even attacking the player for veering too far along an opposing ethical axis. Morality systems even started to appear in some shooters, such as Dark Forces II, with the killing of civilians determining whether Kyle Katarn becomes a Jedi or a Sith. By the late ’00s, titles like Fable and Bioshock had cemented moral choice as a commodity within narrative design.
As the medium matured, however, there emerged a certain disillusionment with these dichotomous systems. The cracks began to show in its narrative applicability. The choice became less about immersive, situational decision making and more about commitment to one of two paths. BioWare’s Jade Empire provides a particularly egregious example, allowing the player to go through the entire game making small ethical decisions before the final decision rockets you all the way to one end of the morality scale or the other. While it can be great fun to choose between life as a saint and life as an utter bastard, it hinders interesting storytelling by glossing over the gray areas that makes morality so fascinating in the first place.
Active & Passive Feedback
When we talk about how choice has developed in games over the decades, what we’re really talking about is feedback. When I make a decision as a player, how does that affect the progression of my experience? Is it a simple matter of life or death? Does it affect my character’s personal arc? Are the ripples of my choice felt throughout the whole world? One approach to choice-feedback is to have an event-based system of consequences that actually changes the outcome of one or more of the game’s story arcs. It may be the death of a beloved character or the fall of an great empire, or even the unlocking of a unique ability or item. The more responsive the game world, the more likely a player is to feel powerful within that game world. We’ll call this “active feedback,” in which the game explicitly responds to a given player choice.
Another sort of feedback emerges from the design of interesting dilemmas in themselves. This means that the player is presented with a choice that is contextualized by the narrative substance of the game world. While this choice may or may not tie directly into an active feedback mechanic, the heavy lifting is done on the part of the player based on the ideas the ethical choice presents. Adventure games like SOMA and Kentucky Route Zero have deftly applied this sort of choice system, which allows the player to define the interior world of the character rather than the external game world.
For instance, in SOMA, the protagonist, Simon, learns that he is simply a copy of his own brain from a century ago, transfused into a robot body. In one of the game’s subtler moments of choice, Simon finds the computer where his brain scan is stored and can opt, with little prompting, to delete the file. The decision has no bearing on the outcome of the game, but it is given significance by the narrative context, and so it gave me lengthy pause when I came across it. I debated over what to do, and it’s a decision that still stands out to me. The game effectively communicated consequence without a direct supporting event. We’ll call this “passive feedback.”
From a narrative perspective, crafting an interesting dilemma is far more valuable than simply providing the player with the opportunity to “opt in” to either good or evil. There’s little drama in being presented with a flagrantly Good or Evil option and then having the outcome reflect the proscribed morality of the choice. Even in titles such as Fable III, where a sort of tragic irony colors the moral binary, it does more to demonstrate the latent sadism of a binary ethical system than it does to offer anything truly innovative to the concept of choice and consequence in games. We as humans are conflicted, doubtful, anxious beings, and in life we never come across simple moral binaries. Our ethical dilemmas are defined by their agonizing, tragic quality, and the passive feedback of an ethical choice should reflect that complication and depth. The pain of such decisions is the spark of good drama.
But we can go one step further, and say that this pain is also central to morality itself, and how human beings experience satisfaction from making moral judgements. As game designers, understanding the philosophical basis for this satisfaction can be useful in constructing systems of morality within our games. For that, we should look to Immanuel Kant, the quintessential moral philosopher.
Morality is Pain: Kant
Kantian morality is complex and multifaceted, and the philosophically inclined should read The Critique of Practical Reason to understand it fully. For the sake of simplicity, we can say that it’s less about what is moral and more about how morality is determined in the first place. For Kant, morality is a logical form, a set of criteria by which human reason determines an ethical course of action. This opposes Kant to the common assumption that what is “good” is determined by a goal or objective, i.e. happiness, pleasure, ensuring future good, etc. Kant argued that morality must be more than a means to an end. It must be universally and unconditionally good in itself, regardless of the consequences. An individual person determines what action qualifies against this criteria though the use of their reason.
This formula is particularly interesting, since it separates moral choice from the rote, reward-based logic that generally governs how we think of game design. We can see this at play in a title like TellTale’s The Walking Dead. The game is an endless succession of “damned-if you-do” moments culminating in devastating tragedy, and yet we remain absolutely rapt even in the absence of a definitive win-state or reward. According to Kant, this isn’t a fluke. It’s the entire point. Given that a morality is opposed to any self-interested inclination, he determines that there is only one form of feedback that tells you without a doubt that you are being moral:
Physical pain, psychological pain. It doesn’t matter what sort of pain as long as it hurts. It sounds brutal and sadistic, and it absolutely is, but it creates, as Kant notes, a quality of morality whereby we can appreciate it intellectually even though viscerally we experienced it as suffering. In his introduction to The Critique of Practical Reason, Stephen Engstrom explains that this pain gives way to “a feeling of respect for the moral law, a feeling that can come to have a positive aspect to the extent that we recognize that it is in the judgment of our own reason. Through this recognition, the feeling of respect takes on a certain elevating and ennobling character, insofar as its object is recognized to be a law that has its source in our own rational nature.”
To my mind, this concept perfectly accounts for the power of meaningful choice in games. Players are engaged by challenging, ethically complicated decisions against which they can apply judgment reached through their own reason. To have this effect, these decisions must confront us to some degree with a tragic pain. In the context of a game’s narrative, this pain manifests as guilt. The way in which the player considers this guilt, from an intellectual standpoint, is what allows the experience to resonate with the player and gives depth to their engagement with the game.
Guilt as Passive Feedback
It is important to understand the primacy of passive feedback in the implementation of guilt as gameplay. While there can certainly be active feedback systems to support them, the narrative design and the implications of the choices within the context of the story must effectively convey passive feedback, ensuring that the decisions made have gravity, and stick in the player’s mind long after the deed has been done. An active feedback system that is devoid of any passive feedback, which allows you to simply select between desired outcomes, does little aside from propping up a superficial fantasy. By contrast, passive feedback can color a player’s experience by playing with how they experience the context of their journey. Well executed player choice fully embraces this, relying upon the cultivation of guilt for its emotional yield.
In his talk at GDC 2014, Unreal 2 and Dead Space 2 designer Matthias Worch explained how agency is afforded to players in combat scenarios through an interplay of complicating mechanics which can be learned and beaten through applied knowledge. This deployment of guilt in the context of deep, ethical dilemmas ultimately serves the same purpose, creating an emotional challenge against which the player can apply their rationality, thus granting the player ethical agency.
There is a caveat, however. We must not confuse the creation of compelling ethical narratives with simply piling on grimdarkness and feel-bad storytelling. The cultivation of quality guilt-based gameplay requires a deft manipulation of the benevolent and the brutal into nuanced moral constellations that involve the player at a visceral level and challenge their reason. With the rapid approach of The Last of Us Part 2, replete with its highly publicized dog-eat-dog (sorry) ethical philosophy, we may soon get a chance to see this painful art taken to the max. Will Naughty Dog succeed at creating a taught, compelling experience of the liminal spaces of morality, or will they slip lazily into nihilism?
It is common practice to think of games, in their narrative capacity, as a purely mimetic form. A game places you in a fictional scenario, in the shoes of a character or characters through which you experience a phantasmal world. You interact directly with a world represented through the art direction, mechanical design, etc. of the game. To some, it may be satisfactory to leave it at that. However, recent trends in indie titles hint at a more experimental orientation to narrative which not only presents something new, but also warrants a revisiting of how exactly a story is experienced in an interactive framework. Such a revisitation reveals the simple classification of game narrative as mimetic is problematic.
Strategy games offer an excellent example. Starcraft, for instance, positions the player as the commander of their chosen faction. But the interface implies that the player’s experience exceeds this characterization. The player is not an individual general in the thick of battle, or commanding from a field office. Rather, Starcraft, in accordance with the standards of the strategy genre, positions the player as an omnipotent eye in the sky, less a commander than a manifestation of the structure of command itself. Of course, such strategy games don’t deploy this device as an experiment. Rather, the interface necessitates this godlike position.
It is similar in choice-driven RPGs. In addition to the strategy elements of equipping and commanding your party, games like Dragon Age or Pillars of Eternity afford player participation in the development of the story. Through her choices, the player has a certain role in writing the story. Again, this is necessitated by the interface of the game, the mechanics which allow the player to engage with the story at its mimetic level.
In literature, diegesis refers to a manner of storytelling whereby the story is recounted, as opposed to mimesis, in which the story is represented directly. In film, the term has a different meaning, referring to whether an element of the film takes place at the level of the story or the level of the reader. Music, for instance, which can be heard by the character is diegetic, while the music of the soundtrack, which can only be heard by the audience, is extradiegetic. Games are in the unique position to bring these two meanings together. To illustrate this point, one can turn to recent walking simulators such as Sunset and The Moon Sliver.
Sunset, Tale of Tales’ quiet political romance of revolutionary failure, represents the juncture of diegesis in games. It sits on the border of mimesis and diegesis. At the purely mimetic, representational level, you are cast in the role of Angela, a young American expat in a communist Latin American republic. Angela works as a maid for Gabriel Ortega, a local aristocrat who, between appearances at concerts and gallery openings, is financing a revolution against the country’s despotic US-backed dictator.
The game takes place in a series of half-hour episodes, in which the player is given a list of chores and more or less free reign of Gabriel’s lavish apartment. The story is delivered in two ways: first through Angela’s poetic commentary on Ortega, spurred by her existence in his living space, and then through entries in Angela’s diary, which she can be inspired to write by sitting in Daniel’s easy chair. This is diegesis in it’s pure literary form. Angela recounts the game’s story to the player in a space that is contextualized by but separate from actual gameplay. Thus, the narrative is diegetic, but you, the player, are still largely mimetic, her actions being represented through engagement in her chores. Even Angela’s reflection in the glass surfaces around reinforce that you are Angela, and in fact the diary reveals that Angela herself is conscious of the apartment as a space that is separate from the action of the story.
The Moon Sliver goes a step further. You are left on an island with only the instruction to explore and, when night falls, enter the mountain. As you navigate the lonely beach, you uncover the story through letters and journal entries, as well as passages of prose that appear on screen as you move through significant areas. The cryptic narrative vaguely implies that you might be one of the characters about whom you are reading, but because your actions are not specifically contextualized within the narrative, you are kept at a distance. You are an observer, an audience to a story, merely following in the footsteps of a character whose ending has already been written.
In this sense, the player character is itself extradiegetic, to some extent, but not entirely. Unlike Starcraft, in which the extradiegetic orientation of the player is purely mechanical, The Moon Sliver intentionally blurs the line between diegesis and mimesis, allowing the player to exist in a sort of narrative limbo, somewhere between the lines of text and the physical game world. This is all the more underscored by the appearance of the text itself within the game world, hovering in the air as you wander. Are these suspended words in fact diegetic, appearing to the character as they do to the player?
This narrative mechanism is peculiar to the interactive immersion of games, and opens the door to new possibilities for storytelling and avant garde experimentation in the medium. Even more fundamental than the pretentious potential for deconstructionism and semiotics within games as literature, the quasi-diegetic space games naturally occupy, as entities of both story and interface, allows for new questions of narrative altogether.
In 2010, fresh off the cult success of the Penumbra series, Swedish indies Frictional Games put out Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The game was the epitome of the sleeper hit: ostensibly a niche title, it worked its way to household-name status and its influence permeated the industry. In horror gaming, where the groundwork laid by Alone in the Dark and its immortal progeny Resident Evil and Silent Hill had allowed itself to be carried away by a broader current of third-person shooting galleries, Amnesia’s no-combat stealth represented a bit of an oddity.
Though Frictional lead designer Thomas Grip has notably claimedResident Evil as a key inspiration to his approach to horror, Amnesia was, by my estimation, distinguished by a determined return to the philosophy of Clocktower. Focus on fleeing or hiding, rather than fighting, was a staple of the old Clocktower games, and such mechanics were largely ignored by horror games for a long time, especially as the genre found its way inevitably into the heavy hands of AAA development magnates. With Amnesia, Frictional reminded us that shooting things was not necessarily as scary as hiding from them, and thus revived a waning focus on vulnerability within survival horror.
Fragility as Fun
For Frictional, vulnerability is stealth based. Their elegant hide-and-seek mechanics have taken horror gaming by storm. Games such as Alien Isolation, Outlast, and Slender have found great success with only minor variation on Frictional’s approach. Even Shinji Mikami hopped aboard the low-combat stealth bandwagon with his two excellent Evil Within DLCs, The Assignment and The Consequence. Now, Resident Evil: Biohazard has exploded onto the scene, still clearly riding the shockwaves of Amnesia’s six-year-old impact.
The trend has been a good one, overall, refocusing horror gaming on the fundamentals. There is a risk, however, of the formula creating complacency on the part of game developers. Having “found the antidote,” so to speak, studios can replicate the sensation of horror by following a certain rubric of mechanics. Though the games may be quite excellent when presented properly, there’s still a stagnation. To continue to indefinitely produce low-combat stealth horror begins to give the impression that horror is low-combat stealth.
But this can’t be. The essence of horror is more than simply ducking from monsters in dark rooms, no matter how wonderful the execution may be. Indeed, many like myself can remember being thoroughly creeped out by horror point-and-clicks such as the Amber: Journeys Beyond, Dark Fall: The Journal, Scratches, and Barrow Hill. Such games relied on little more than an oppressive atmosphere to convey a sense of unease and dread. And yet, even in the absence of a proper failure state to threaten, these games still evoked fear.
Terror vs. Horror
To understand this ostensibly transcendental element of horror, not easily pinned to a specific set of mechanics, we should look to the essence of horror itself. In her book Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, Adriana Cavarero carries out an etymological investigation of “horror,” particularly as contrasted to “terror,” and turns up some interesting definitional qualities.
For Cavarero, “terror” is rooted in survival. She writes:
Among the many ways of experiencing fear, or to be precise, the sudden start of fear called ‘fright’ in English […] terror connotes the one that acts immediately on the body, making it tremble and compelling it to take flight. […] Acting directly on them, terror moves bodies, drives them into motion. Its sphere of reference is that of a menace to the living being, which tries to escape by fleeing.
But wait. The heightened pulse, the pumping adrenaline, the visceral compulsion to flee–aren’t these the sensations we associate with contemporary horror games? To be sure, good horror games can inspire terror, and the paradigm put forth by Frictional prioritizes that in its mechanics. But for Cavarero, this is not true horror.
Horror, she says, is not about fleeing. Rather, it is about immobility, and inevitability.
Violent death is a part of the picture, but not the central part. There is no question of evading death. In contrast to what occurs with terror, in horror there is no instinctive movement of flight in order to survive, much less the contagious turmoil of panic. […] Gripped by revulsion in the face of a form of violence that appears more inadmissible than death, the body reacts as if nailed to the spot, hairs standing on end.
The epitome of such an inadmissible violence, which causes such revulsion, Cavarero identifies as dismemberment. Brutal disfigurement inflicts horror upon the body through the medium of agonizing immobility. I think it’s safe to say that, while disfigurement certainly has a very literal place in horror, we can extrapolate the concept into the figurative. Disfigurement can take many forms, both somatic and psychical, and immobilizing revulsion can be exacted by all.
To be sure, horror, understood this way, has defined memorable moments within contemporary gaming. Both Outlast and its Whistleblower DLC come immediately to mind. Richard Trager in the former and Eddie Gluskin in the latter each star in marvelous scripted sequences in which the player’s physical body is tied down and subjected to violent disassembly. But this seems almost a mechanical truism: immobility represented by a cutscene. Simply wresting control away from the player and splashing viscera here and there is a ham-handed approach to a paralysis that can be just as existential as physical. Sometimes, immobility is not merely about the inability to move, but about the terrible uselessness of movement in the first place. Hopelessness is a kind of paralysis.
Anatomy of Horror
This is the next step. Designing horror means designing existential paralysis. It means creating situations that thematically or literally represent immobility in the face of revulsion. It also means bringing these concepts out of cutscenes and into the realm of full, immersive interactivity. We must be able to create this sensation without grabbing the controls from the player and forcing it down their throats. As an interactive medium, gaming is uniquely poised for a deep inquiry into mobility and how it can be manipulated to create experiences.
One example which jumps immediately to the forefront is underground developer Kitty Horrorshow’s horror gem Anatomy. Many reviews are quick to note Anatomy’s lo-fi atmosphere, exquisite sound design, and bizarre writing when discussing what makes the game so nail-bitingly effective, but only Chris Priestman, in his review of the game for Kill Screen, really zeros in on its design formula:
Whereas a lot of videogame horror lets you walk into a room and then have a monster spring out on you unexpectedly—a cheap scare—ANATOMY whispers in your ear that there’s probably a monster in a room before you enter it, letting your own expectations grind you down to a tense wreck of a person. That it does this again and again draws the debilitating effect out, masterfully building up the terror but constantly denying you the begging release of a scream. It’s the kind of horror that gets so deep into you that it seems to scratch away at your bones. I’d liken the effect to being dragged perpetually across a saw blade.
It’s fitting, in a way, that such a simple game as Anatomy manages this effect so effortlessly. Horror is a genre predicated on base, primal emotion. Only once we strip away the fluff can we really understand what makes the genre work. Not that there’s no place for production value, but the design foundation needs to be strong or everything falls flat. To that end, much thought is being put into horror design at RSP as we work on our new title.
In just ten days, our first game, Veiled, will be one year old. It’s fitting, then, that P.T., one of our chief influences in making our debut, has been on my mind. But in the design process of Veiled, we found that P.T. was only a jumping-off point. As we conceived of our game’s unique identity, we found that we could trace the ideas of P.T. beyond the teaser itself and into a rich history of horror games, and even ideas that had already taken root, though somewhat forgotten, in the Silent Hill franchise.
When P.T. unassumingly appeared in the Playstation Store in 2014, it changed the face of survival horror. Presented as an indie title from an unknown studio, its uncanny domestic setting and minimalistic design melded together into an experience that received overwhelming acclaim for its ability to create dread. Despite its notoriously obscure puzzle design, players dove into the game, with the first finishers cracking the mystery only a few hours after launch.
Of course, this was no indie title. A full playthrough climaxed with an announcement trailer for a new Silent Hill release helmed by the legendary Hideo Kojima, but by the time anyone realized this, P.T. had already managed to transcend the nostalgia hype. Far from relying on the check-cashing iconography and adoration the series boasts, Kojima and co. created an experience that stood on its own two feet, igniting the Silent Hill fan community with a wholly new excitement for the beloved series.
This was a crucial move, as the Silent Hill franchise has been fraught since original developers Team Silent abdicated control of the series. Any meaningful new announcement had to demonstrate that the series was returning to a level of innovation and sophistication the fans had grown to love in the early entries. By masquerading as an unknown indie game (oh, to be a fly on the wall in those Konami marketing meetings), P.T. ensured that the rose-tinting of both Silent Hill’s and Kojima’s respective fandoms could not take credit for the hook. To this end, the mission was a resounding success.
Everyone Wants a Piece
Silent Hills was cancelled less than a year after P.T. was released, but the next five years of horror gaming were haunted by its ghost. P.T.’s elegant, minimalist horror served as a wellspring of inspiration for indie devs, with an outpouring of riffs on the theme coming from across the spectrum of production value. High gloss homages like Allison Road (itself subsequently cancelled) and Visage have stood alongside lower-fi endeavors like Infliction and properly avant-garde pieces such as Anatomy. In the AA world, games like The Park and Bloober Team’s entire oeuvre from Layers of Fear forward have proudly taken up the P.T. mantle.
The ripples were felt in AAA as well, as Resident Evil abruptly veered away from the trashy TPS formula it had fallen into after failing to understand the appeal of RE4 and became a vibey, first person experience revealed in RE7‘s Beginning Hour demo. In many ways, we can thank the Resident Evil team for not allowing Silent Hills tragic death (at the hands of Konami’s diabolical pachinko empire) to be in vain. While indies have certainly carried the torch of P.T.’s project, it was the AAA sphere, where game design innovation goes to die, that really stood to lose or gain from Kojima’s work.
Everything Old is New Again
P.T. was hailed for being cutting-edge, winning the NAVGTR award for Innovation in Game Technology. Journalists and players lavished praise on the originality of the design, but it is important to look at the lineage that led up to P.T.
Perhaps the most clear path to P.T. starts with the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. With Amnesia, Frictional Games provided a pared down experience focusing on exploration and vulnerability. Gone was the arsenal of both classic and contemporary survival horror. The player was outfitted only with simple stealth mechanics to circumvent the threats in the environment.
P.T. followed this thread further, stripping out the stealth elements and deconstructing the horror experience down to two discrete moments: opening a door and rounding a corner. Also palpable is the influence of the walking sim genre, popularized with the release of The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther, an Amnesia contemporary. Both of these titles have served to define minimalist game design since their release, and their influence certainly created the fertile ground from which P.T. would spring.
Reaching further back, I would also point to point and click titles such as Hue Forest’s Amber: Journeys Beyond, Darkling Room’s Dark Fall: The Journal, and Senscape’s Scratches as examples of exploration based horror experiences focused on the creation of dread rather than generating fear from skill challenges. Even P.T.’s obtuse puzzles play as a nod to the “moon logic” of the old P&C days.
But while all of these titles contributed to creating the world in which it was designed, the true progenitor of the Silent HillsP.T. can be found without leaving the franchise.
Silent Hill 4: The Room was the last Silent Hill title developed by Team Silent, the end of an era and a contentious swan song among fans. The game puts the player in the existentially fraught shoes of Henry Townshend, who has been unable to leave his apartment in five days due to a surreal cat’s cradle of chains and padlocks blocking the door. Discovering a portal to other places has appeared in his bathroom, Henry begins to uncover the dark history of his apartment and its connection to the town of Silent Hill.
The latter half of the game is often criticized for its escort mission structure, boasting incredibly frustrating friendly AI and taxing enemy encounters that brutally spikes the game’s difficulty, and naturally the substance of The Room is constantly compared to the series crown jewel Silent Hill 2. I would argue, however, that such a comparison is unfair, as The Room’s aims were significantly different from those of any prior entries in the franchise. Personally, I adore the first four original games, and could compellingly argue for any of them as my favorite, but where SH2 (and, I’d argue, SH3 as well) demonstrated the finest the traditional survival horror design had to offer, The Room aimed to push the limits and create something new.
Silent Hill 4’s namesake, the titular room, is the mechanism by which the game introduces its innovation. Universally praised (and rightly so) as a design element, Henry’s apartment is the emotional crux of The Room’s horror. Travesered in first person–a first for the series–the apartment serves as a hub world, from which Henry embarks into realms unknown, which each play more or less like classic Silent Hill games. The apartment is also Henry’s haven, to which he can retreat when these other worlds get the best of him. Ominous as it is, the apartment offers a safe space for the player to heal and save, store items, and just take a breather from SH4’s vicious survival horror gameplay loops, confident in their safety.
At least at first.
Around the midpoint of the game, the room is compromised. Spirits invade it and must be repelled using limited resources. Health no longer regenerates in the apartment and unexorcised ghosts can easily overpower poor Henry. The entire environment deteriorates, with all aesthetic trappings designed to be as oppressive as possible. The windows rattle, your item box is possessed, a hideous apparition leers through the peephole on the other side of the front door. The violations are relentless, and this is the brilliance of The Room: it gets the player comfortable in a space before sadistically turning that space of comfort against the player.
We’re Just Getting Started
It’s certainly not novel to draw a connection between P.T. and The Room. Visage notably features a replica of the Henry Townshend’s apartment as an easter egg, and has used a rendering of the chained door on its loading screens. Severalmembersof the Silent Hill fandom have covered the aesthetic and design similarities between P.T. and The Room in detail, noting parallels in everything from the first person perspective to the presence of ghosts, from the motif of a confined and increasingly hostile environment to the scrawling of bloody messages across the entrances, from the ominous radio broadcasts to the holes in bathroom walls offering a view to an Other Place. All of this is certainly striking and worthy of continued discussion and analysis.
But for me, the core kinship between P.T. and The Room rests on this principle of the uncanny, in which an environment grows progressively more alienating, leverage dread and vulnerability to elicit a visceral fear within the player. As a far briefer game, and in keeping with its minimalistic approach, P.T. eschews The Room’s extended process of familiarizing the player with the apartment, foreign instead a rapid ramp-up. It relies upon its photorealistic suburban environment to provide a prepackaged familiarity which can be subsequently undermined to devastating effect.
For years, complaints in the forums have indicated a fear that SH4 had abandoned too many of the trappings of its predecessors, but P.T. gives the lie to this argument, stripping away the jaunts into traditional survival horror altogether and isolating the concept of “the room” itself. The audience response speaks for itself: the least traditional idea from SH4 is enduring, now inextricably enmeshed within the Silent Hill public consciousness.
To this end, perhaps we can say that The Room was ahead of its time, and that P.T., bringing with it the lessons of Amnesia and Dear Esther, was the culmination of The Room’s project, at serving as a channel for its ingenious design philosophy to permeate the horror gaming consciousness. The influence of P.T. is only just beginning, and the horror design philosophy of weaponizing the player’s comfort zone itself will continue to evolve. The legacy of P.T., and of Silent Hill 4: The Room before it, will persist.
And before we get started, let me just say MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. I’m going to be talking about the most significant moment in the game, so if you haven’t yet JUST GO PLAY IT NOW. Forget the blog and go right to the source. I promise my feelings won’t be hurt.
The basic premise of Brothers is simple. Following their mother’s drowning, young Naiee and his older brother Naia live with their widowed father in a tiny seaside hamlet in a fantasy world inspired by Scandinavian folklore. When their father falls ill with a mysterious disease, the boys depart in search of the Tree of Life, from which they can acquire a healing elixir to save dear old dad. The setting is gorgeously realized, with the story conveyed through the beautiful animation of the characters. There is no proper dialogue, as all conversation is conducted in an unsubtitled glossolalia.
It is the game’s controls, however, that are truly innovative, making brilliant and elegant use of the gamepad. Brothers requires the player to simultaneously control Naiee and Naia to overcome obstacles. To this end, each brother is controlled with one analog stick for movement and its corresponding trigger for interaction. The player is responsible for coordinating solutions to environmental puzzles and combat challenges.
It’s a fun gameplay loop that provides just enough difficulty to be engaging, without ever feeling clunky or unfair. More than that, it elegantly uses UI to create a connection between the player and the characters, both individually and as a duo.
Each of the brothers has his own beneficial qualities–Naiee is small and nimble, while the older Naia is stronger and braver. Small environmental challenges may cater to just one of the brothers’ abilities, but larger challenges, such as maneuvering a rowboat or flying an ornithopter, require them to work together. The result is a beautiful and tangible fraternal dynamic conveyed almost entirely through gameplay itself.
Nowhere is this conveyed more clearly than through the swimming mechanic. Naiee is terrified of water after witnessing his mother’s drowning and can’t swim. Naia, doesn’t struggle with the same phobia, and so Naiee must cling to his brother’s back as he swims for the both of them. The player is involved in this action at every level: Naiee’s interaction input must be engaged while Naia handles movement input. The presentation involves the player in the dynamics of Naiee’s trauma and his relationship with Naia at a tactile level, a perfect example of the kind of storytelling techniques that are exclusively available to games.
Brothers’ intense ludonarrative consonance provides an incredible opportunity for character development through the controls themselves. In the course of their journey, Naiee and Naia encounter a third companion, a mysterious young woman set to be executed by a mountain tribe.
After rescuing the woman, she attracts the affections of Naia, who in turn begins to neglect his younger brother’s concerns. When the woman turns out to be a monstrous spider-creature in disguise, the brothers must work together to defeat her and escape her web. Tragically, Naia is brutally wounded in the struggle.
For the next brief stretch of the game, Naiee becomes responsible for literally supporting his other brother as he limps along. It’s a heart-wrenching inversion of the swimming mechanic, and it provides a genuine character beat perfectly realized through gameplay. Through hardship and tragedy, Naiee is growing up.
This personal growth is fully encapsulated when Naiee must leave Naia at the base of the Tree of Life and ascend alone to secure the elixir. When he returns to Naia, it’s too late. The older boy has succumbed to his wounds and Naiee is left alone.
With Me in Spirit
Naiee’s journey isn’t over yet. He manages to hitch a ride with a friendly gryphon back to the shores of his village, but his path back to his home is blocked by an inlet from the ocean. With no Naia there to carry him across on his back, Naiee must swim for himself.
When attempting to swim across, the player will discover that Naiee’s navigation won’t cut it. His analog stick will take him waist deep, but no further. It is only when Naia’s analog stick is used in conjunction that Naiee fully commits and launches himself into a breaststroke. The moment is absolutely staggering.
Through just a single input, Brothers creates the experience of Naiee using the memory of his brother, held deep in his heart, to find the courage to overcome his deepest trauma. It works on the player by evoking the memory and association of this character through his input commands, while at the same time implying a “wholeness” achieved by Naiee through adoption of both sticks for movement, something approximating the more traditional third-person controls. The design succeeds in blending the ludic and narrative elements into a single, deeply impactful moment. I’m hard pressed to think of a more perfect and elegant example of emotion through gameplay.
After playing Brothers and being blown away by its quiet genius, I was eagerly awaiting the release of A Way Out. As a diehard couch co-op lover, I wanted to see what sort of innovation the creators of Brothers would bring to a proper two-player experience. And while A Way Out is quite good, it is at its best when it is emulating its predecessor. Working your way through the rapids in a rowboat, coordinating with your friend as you each work your respective oars, or keeping a lookout for each other as you sneak around the infirmary or chisel your way through your cell walls, all of this is great fun and creates a feeling of genuine collaboration.
But nothing in A Way Out achieves the singular heartbreak, the overwhelming emotion of that lone, fateful input as Naiee summons the spirit of his brother and pushes off to conquer the abyss of his fear. This is the benchmark to which we as game designers must aspire if we are to truly realize the potential of our medium.
Until we introduce scratch and sniff cards, with players waiting with bated breath for the on-screen prompt to stop playing the game and begin furiously revealing the smell that the developers intended to accompany a specific moment or place in the game. Or better yet, jelly beans with specific flavours we’re encouraged to snack on, along with a car wash array of devices to pinch, tickle and spray you, we’re restricted (at the moment) to two senses when playing video games (three if you want to count controller vibrations).
Audio accomplishes a similar goal to the visuals of a game: they’re both trying to communicate the idea of a world that the developers intend and working in a symbiotic way to achieve this. They both employ similar techniques within their own realms.
Foreshadowing is especially prevalent in horror. You want to give glimpses of what the player will have to encounter in the probable near future. This puts the player on edge, warning them to be extra vigilant. While the game will visually present you with disturbing or frightening imagery to accomplish this, music might swell upon the discovery and continue to permeate throughout.
Until that music stops, you are not safe.
This kind of Pavlovian conditioning can also be turned on its heels however. Conditioning a fear response specifically to musical cues means that you can surprise them more effectively when a chase or enemy encounter arrives without warning.
When you’re stripped of a sense, the other senses tend to compensate to allow for a greater chance of survival.
Outlast 2 introduces a new gadget to the player’s arsenal: the camera microphone. There’s a stealth sequence where you’re tasked with crossing a corn field while roaming enemies try to find you. You cannot see anything, and by the time a flashlight beam pierces through the corn in your direction, the enemy is most likely too close for comfort. The game has restricted one of your senses, but the microphone let’s you hear enemies’ relative positions (the audio level meter on the left-hand side also visually confirming this). It was even later patched by Red Barrels to consume no batteries, incentivizing players to use it more liberally, which I absolutely did.
This concept can also be generalized to whenever you can use audio to estimate an enemy’s location in a space without needing to see them. Listening for Jack’s taunts in Resident Evil 7 from around a corner, letting you know you should double back and attempt a different route for instance. Audio stingers can also be implemented to let the players know they’ve been spotted even if they are looking the other way, like in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
So far, audio in horror games can be used as a form of communication to the player on two levels: both as a Pavlovian mechanic of inducing fear, as well as providing a different source of contextual information besides visual. The next one is self-explanatory: atmosphere.
There’s a reason that Yamaoka’s Silent Hill scores involve the duality of rust and ash, as well as existentialism, paranoia and nostalgia. Alien: Isolation’s faithful recreation of the late 70s visual and sonic palette, as well as the stomach-churning sound of the alien travelling through the vents, creates a phenomenal atmosphere. Amnesia’s score grounding you in its Gothic aesthetic, while distant and hallucinatory audio flashbacks leave you unsettled. Or the sudden isolation one feels from the jarringly quiet school sequences of Outlast 2, suddenly craving for the raving crickets and crazed cultist’s ramblings. Crafting an ambiance that sounds realistic and yet otherworldly in its emphasis on unpleasant frequencies and sounds,along with the visuals, can create an atmosphere that the player wants to desperately leave not out of boredom, but out of fear.
In the case of atmosphere, knowing when to use music and when to let the ambiance breathe is a difficult and precise process. Outlast 2 for instance, has excellent moments where you’re just listening to the Arizonian desert. Additionally, some of the music cues that play while your record disturbing events, along with the frenetic chase sequences, are also effective. There are cases where I find the music is a bit too loud during some stealth sections however and robs the player of immersion. Granted, there are some games that manage to have wall to wall music effectively: Yamaoka’s scores for Silent Hill are iconic for this reason, and Rule of Rose’s string quartets contribute to the strange ambiance that the game puts forth. The opposite is true as well, Silent Hill P.T. uses music extremely sparingly, employing an ambient track to foreshadow certain moments only. Every game has its own genetics and figuring out the right dose of music and ambiance is going to be different for each one.
These three concepts represent but a fraction of how audio is important to horror games, but I thought they were important to outline. Horror is a fascinating genre to explore in interactive media, because it requires a lot of fine tuning and experimentation to arrive at the most effective result. The ebb and flow of knowing when to actively scare the player versus letting the dread accumulate is tricky, but it is a welcome exercise.
Hi, my name is Erdem Günay, and I’m a game designer here at RSP Games. My background is in programming, and procedurally generated content has always fascinated me, both from a developer and a player perspective.
One of my favourite game series is XCOM. I have spent more than 250 hours on the rebooted series. I think XCOM games have incredible replay value and, after all that time, I still get attached to my soldiers. Losing a soldier hurts, not just because the soldiers are a resource in the game, but also because I’m emotionally invested in their well being.
Why do I get attached to my XCOM soldiers? I spend time with them. Losing a rookie in their first mission still hurts but If I lose a soldier I’ve spent multiple missions with, succeeding and failing together, I form a bond with them. XCOM is a tense game. There are so many things that can go wrong every single turn. If no plan survives first contact with the enemy, as the old army adage goes, then XCOM is a game about broken plans and how to come back from them. Still, when I lose a soldier, it usually comes with guilt, I feel like I have failed that soldier in my capacity as commander.
Many features in the game support this bond players form with their soldiers. These characters are randomly generated, but the players can customize them freely. Once an individual character becomes uniquely recognizable, the player can develop a connection with them. However, visual uniqueness and different names are not enough. The game should support this connection with gameplay mechanics. Having different stats, skills, traits helps immensely. If these traits are personality traits that also affect gameplay, even better.
Just like most similar games of the genre, XCOM and XCOM 2 have memorials that the players can visit and see a list of soldiers that fell under their command, and how they died. The developers acknowledge this bond that forms organically and support it. In XCOM 2, soldiers can retreat, carrying their unconscious comrades. If one of your soldiers becomes ‘Missing in Action,’ the game provides you missions where you can break them out of captivity. With all these tools the game offers, the players go through their own story, not knowing who will die and who will survive, not even knowing if their campaign will be a successful one or not.
This is what I love about emergent narratives. The game provides the rules and the dice rolls, and the bulk of the story is shaped by the player decisions. The narrative grows out of the collaboration between the game’s systems and the player. I love the agency this approach gives me as the player over the narrative.
These emergent narratives are highly personal. They are incredibly meaningful to the person that experienced them, because they emerged from their own decisions. And a good portion of the narrative happens in their mind. We have a tendency to seek patterns in information we receive. Once the game provides us with emergent events, we connect the dots and write the story ourselves. When you know the story is being written in real time and is not predetermined, the stakes are real. As I get attached to a certain adventurer in Darkest Dungeon, I have no way of knowing if she will survive the next dungeon.
From a design standpoint, I can also see the disadvantages of an emergent narrative structure. They may never be as impactful as a story hand crafted by an author, and it requires an extra amount of work from the developers, as there is so much more that can go wrong when the subsystems interact with each other in an unexpected manner. A good amount of variety in these subsystems is required to keep the repetition to a minimum. These subsystems also need to be designed around player decision, because an event that emerges from an interaction between two NPCs (or one that is called just with random number generation) is way less interesting than an event caused by the player action. This also means that, in order for these emergent events to be interesting, the gameplay consequences need to be meaningful.
However, it’s also hard for these types of games to break the niche barrier. They usually require a certain type of player. They rely on the player’s engagement with the game’s systems, which in turn depends on the smooth functioning of these systems in order to maintain the immersion. The moment the game feels arbitrarily unfair, or bugs out, the pattern won’t make sense anymore and the narrative is no more.
Emergent narrative, when it fits the game, can create amazing experiences and add replayability to a game. There have been many games that use it successfully, and I believe we will see even more innovative examples of it in the future.
Greetings everyone! My name is Neil Hansen and I’m the Executive Producer here at RSP Games. I want to talk to you about some of my favourite uses of diegetics in games. “Diegetics” refer to an approach to UI design where the interface that the player experiences actually exists for the characters in the world of the game, as opposed to being an abstract overlay that the player sees but the characters can’t. Used effectively, diegetics elevate the gameplay experience to a whole new level.
I guess I should start with a bit of an origin story. I come from a programming and design background, and since I started my quest to become a game dev about 5 years ago, I have been lucky enough to dip my toes in pretty much all aspects of game development. I’ve always had a deep appreciation for games that incorporate diegetics into their design to further a narrative and enhance gameplay elements. I’m going to have to call upon some of my favorite games for examples of this.
Dead Space gave me my first real run in with diegetics as a player, and I fell in love. It serves as a great example of a game that almost entirely uses diegetic UI and does a fantastic job of using it to further gameplay while also fitting the narrative of the world. In Dead Space, you play as an engineer with a high tech suit. The suit has special gauges incorporated into your back to display things like the player’s health and stamina, allowing for quick reference during combat. Your weapon’s active ammo count displays as a projection from the weapon, and even the player’s inventory is projected from the mask. Accessing the UI doesn’t stop the game while it’s being used. The combination of these elements really drives home the power of this suit and underscores that it is really the only thing standing between you and what surely is instant death.
The Outlast franchise absolutely terrifies me, and part of the credit has to be given to the diegetic nature of the game’s UI. In both entries, you play as an investigative journalist who has gotten himself caught among a group crazy homicidal maniacs with nothing to help but your video camera. Oh man! Yeah, the diegetic UI of the camera does an amazing job at tying the experience together. At its core, Outlast plays as a survival game with very sparse resources, and it emphasizes this with the camera. It challenges the player to manage the camera’s battery and light emission in order to progress through the game. The camera furthers narrative through the rewatching of recorded footage, while its use as the player’s main light source (with an agonizingly short battery life) really adds to the distressing atmosphere of the game.
Firewatch is a gorgeous game and also contains my favourite example of diegesis. Yes, I know, I could talk all day about the walkie talkie, but that’s just not me. The map and compass, on the other hand, offer the perfect examples to me of gameplay elements that not only fit in so beautifully with the world of the game (and is also just really fun to use), but provide essential tools for navigation and judging your progression. As you explore, you will fill in you map with trails and notes found in stash boxes on maps written by other lookouts. The feeling of walking through the forest with a half-filled-out map and a compass trying to get your bearings, all while talking on a walkie-talkie about strange happenings around you to a coworker you’ve never met– well, it really puts you inside the mystery of the game’s story and definitely compelled me to get to the bottom of it.
These are just a few examples I’ll spout off for you that display my point. Diegetics provide a great tool that can be used to both drive narrative and further immerse players in the experience. When used effectively, diegetics allow simple and otherwise mundane tasks to hugely impact a game’s atmosphere and really enhance gameplay. Now believe me, if the guys here at RSP let me I could go for a forever talking about great games that do just this, but sadly I think my time is up for now. Hopefully you’ve picked up on what I’m getting at here and if you’ve gotten this far I’d like to thank you so much for tuning in. Until next time!