Beyond Stealth: Keeping Horror Gaming Fresh

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 claimed Resident 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.

Adriana Cavarero

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.

Adriana Cavarero

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.

Chris Priestman

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.

P.T. and the Legacy of Silent Hill 4

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 Hills P.T. can be found without leaving the franchise.

The Room

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. Several members of 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.

I can’t wait.

Brothers: All the Feels in One Input

In recent years, Josef Fares has become known variously for developing co-op prison break adventure A Way Out and his industry folk hero moment cursing the Oscars (among other things) at the 2017 Game Awards. Even with this exposure, his first outing in games remains his most magnificent achievement. I’m speaking, of course, about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

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.

Split Personality

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.

Stronger Together

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.

Torn Asunder

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.

Pushing On

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.