Built for Sin: Guilt as Gameplay

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:

Pain.

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?

Between the Lines: Games and Diegesis

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.

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.

The Lost Legacy of Condemned: Criminal Origins

Once Upon a Time

It was 2005, about half a decade before Amnesia: The Dark Descent would update the Clocktower formula and spark ten years of stealth horror. The era of the “old-school” survival horror games was effectively over. Resident Evil’s fourth installment had just introduced a fresh approach with a new emphasis on buttery smooth third-person shooting, and with the Dark Ages of Adventure Gaming in full swing, horror gaming was drifting into the action genre.

This was not an entirely comfortable marriage of genres. The classic Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill franchises would spend the rest of the oughties releasing their weakest entries. New IPs like The Darkness would find an identity more as action games with horror aesthetics than proper horror. Even Dead Space, probably the best mainstream survival horror series of the period, demonstrated the tension between horror and action with divisive design choices that careened the third installment into Cover-Based Shooterville. Horror gaming was adrift in troubled water.

There were, however, a handful of exceptions. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth hearkened back to Clive Barker’s Undying, while Monolith Productions released two titles in the same year, each representing a different response to the state of the horror genre. The first was F.E.A.R., which planted its flag firmly on the action side of things, but kept it fresh with the inventive choice of marrying Hong Kong-style gun-fu with elements of J-Horror. F.E.A.R. would go on to be a successful franchise, spawning a few mediocre triple-A FPS sequels.

2005’s second Monolith game was Condemned: Criminal Origins. It, too, got a mediocre sequel, though ultimately the IP has faded into relative obscurity. It comes up in discussions of underrated horror games of yesteryear, but has yet to receive any manner of proper remaster. Its modding community is nonexistent, it’s available only on Steam, and it requires a fair amount of elbow grease to get it running right on modern machines. Its style remains largely unimitated or riffed-upon, and there’s not been anything quite like it since (including its own gallivanting, crossbow-brandishing sequel).

This is strange to me, because Condemned is, to my mind, one of the finest horror games ever made.

Condemned Spaces

The creation of atmosphere is central to horror. The right context with the right feel can make even innocuous things buzz with foreboding. Condemned’s mastery of set and setting creates a relentless, oppressive atmosphere that gives the entire experience a crushing weight. Protagonist Ethan is an FBI agent who’s been framed for the murder of two city cops, meaning he spends the overwhelming majority of the game on the lam. He stays off the beaten path, so the entirety of the game’s action takes place in the lonely places, derelict buildings, subways, and sewers. These desolate urban labyrinths ensure you never feel the comfort of civilization. These are condemned spaces, quite literally.

What little you hear about the inhabited world beyond these abandoned places indicates that the city is embrangled in a Dionysian miasma of havoc and ruin, and in the apocalyptic halls of each level, you encounter the people who have succumbed. The city’s homeless stalk these chambers, frenzied from poverty, drug addiction, and the supernatural influence of some Lovecraftian god of crime. They attack anyone who bothers them, including each other. Enemy infighting is common, and lends to the feeling of a world truly cursed by chaos and psychosis.

Sticks and Stones

Condemned’s combat may be its standout feature. With a focus on improvised melee, the combat design revolves around a loop of striking and blocking with blunt and sharp instruments yanked from the environment. The enemy AI, powered by the same groundbreaking GOAP system developed by Monolith’s Jeff Orkin for F.E.A.R., is scrappy, smart, and vicious. Defensive play is encouraged, and the blocking mechanics prohibit turtling by design, meaning you have to stay on your toes to survive.

As with any good survival horror game, the player is fragile, and every single hit hurts. Ethan himself is not as nimble as a typical FPS action hero. He moves fairly slowly, can only run for so long before becoming winded, and he can’t jump. He is, however, capable of delivering a solid kick, useful for make space when in a brawl. It’s an approach that makes you incredibly aware of your virtual body in a deeply immersive way. It makes combat feel truly messy, just like a real hand-to-hand fight.

The sound design supports the combat beautifully. The tormented souls you have to fight wail in fury and agony, and Ethan grunts and swears as he struggles. It’s the sort of thing that would be easy to overdo, and it constantly threatens to veer into self indulgence, but it never does. It simply compounds the desperation of the experience. Monolith described the combat as “visceral.” I’d call it utterly brutal.

Self-Condemnation

But the true brilliance of Condemned’s horror comes in a moment that isn’t explicitly in the game. It’s the kind of thing that you feel on a gut level, even if you don’t specifically think it during play. It’s a moment that only occurs in the form of an epiphany when you take the time to reflect on everything you’re experiencing.

The remote corners of the city are teeming with cursed vagrants, wielding pipes and conduits as weapons and attacking each other. And as Ethan crawls around these lonely zones, he too wields these pipes and conduits to defend himself against the homeless. Flung far into these condemned spaces, on the run from his own agency, Ethan is just like the vagrants. He’s just a madman brandishing a bloodied piece of rebar, fighting the other cursed souls in the city’s underside.

This is why Condemned’s horror is so effective. The game, through design and aesthetic, places you in a headspace of nihilism and fury, an attempt to give the player a glimpse at the bubbling chaos swirling beneath the thin membrane of civilization. It’s the horror of alienation from society, of being cast out and alone, confronting the raw brutality of the world. These places are condemned. These people are condemned. And you are condemned.

When you finally meet the being at the heart of things, a demonic avatar of the game loop you’ve been indulging in for the past 8 hours, it registers in your gut—if not in your mind—that you’ve been playing by his rules the entire time. He’s been in your head as much as he’s been in your enemies’.

And that makes it personal.

15 Years Later

In the years after Condemned, horror gaming floundered in its uncertain identity. Resident Evil’s atrocious fifth and sixth entries turned the series into shallow, formulaic shooters, and Silent Hill was handed over to American developers who struggled to offer anything but an unconvincing impersonation of Team Silent’s brilliance. Condemned 2: Bloodshot failed to capture the urgency and desolation of the first title, trading in its predecessor’s grit for more typical pulp power fantasies. In 2010, Amnesia came along and made combat in horror unfashionable.

And yet Condemned still channels a raw, filthy terror, a grungy approach to horror that has barely been emulated since. Condemned demonstrated that combat-heavy survival horror was possible while maintaining the vulnerability and brutality that lies at the heart of the genre. To me, it feels like an entire pathway of survival horror design left untraveled. But it’s never too late to start.

Don’t Touch That Dial!

Hello world, and welcome to Regularly Scheduled Programming. Six months ago, a ragtag group of Canadian game designers (and one American expat) decided to join forces with one mission: to make games that mean something. We believe that games offer the opportunity to create experiences well beyond the limits of other media, and we’re thrilled to be taking our first step out across the airwaves and into the world.

Here on our blog, we’ll be broadcasting what’s currently happening at RSP, what we’re making, what we’re playing, and what we’re thinking about all of it. We’ve got lots of exciting things in the works, and we can’t wait to share them with you. Make sure to follow us on Twitter to continue the conversation and stay up-to-date on all things RSP!

Stay tuned!