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.

Audio in the Horror Game Genre

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.

Procedural Content and Emergent Narrative

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.

Many people enjoy sharing their emergent narratives on Reddit and other platforms

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.

Enhancing Gameplay and Narrative through Diegetics

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

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.

Outlast

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

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!

The Boy and the Boat: Marrying Narrative and Level Design

Hello to everyone tuning in. My name is Will Mohr, level design lead here at RSPGames, and today I wanted to talk a bit about what I’ve learned as a designer from the latest God of War. GoW is a great example of how the disciplines of narrative, gameplay, and level design combine to create an impactful experience. Some of the topics I’ll be bringing up today are narrative vehicles, memorable side characters and dynamic level design. *Spoilers ahead, ye be warned!*

I’ve always been fascinated with how a game can weave a narrative into the fabric of its gameplay and subsequently build levels to surround them. Thinking about this concept conjures images of Edith Finch and Shadow of the Colossus, and now the newest GoW is part of that list. One of the ways the game has blended the three disciplines is using a simple canoe as a vehicle to further the narrative. The idea works in a multitude of different ways, the first (and maybe most obvious) being how it fits with the setting. The re-imagining of GoW opened up the Viking pantheon to Kratos’ wrath, and in doing so, introduced Viking culture to the GoW universe. A large part of Viking life was spent on boats, either surviving, pillaging or, more importantly, exploring. Those three aspects can be felt in-game, with the player using the boat as the vehicle to engage in all of these activities.

Another great part of the boat approach is the pacing provided by this slower mode of transportation. This pacing creates opportunities for character development through dialogue. Kratos obviously has not fully settled into his new role as a father, and getting some well deserved bonding time with his son, Atreus, is one of the main pillars of the game. These father-son moments are baked in the boat sections. The slower pace provides enough time to learn about this unlikely duo. You feel a sense of wonder as you enjoy a slow trip down a winding flooded cave with Atreus and, later, Mimir. Your companions give input on the current situation, location, or general lore of the area. I often found myself excited to hop in the boat once my main quest had been settled, and found new nuggets of information from my companions, as well as being treated to jaw droppingly gorgeous environments. I never felt that these interactions were ham-fisted or forced, à la the yearly CoD release. God of War doesn’t need to resort to having fast cars or flying planes to show of its environment; it has a small canoe, and that’s all it needs.

Lastly, I wanted to bring up the dynamic level design on display. By dynamic level design, I mean that a given area that changes its flow based on player actions. Early on in the game, players will make their way to the Lake of Nine. Unbeknownst to them, they have just rowed themselves into an open love letter to level designers everywhere (I keep that letter under my pillow). Here, the World Serpent is revealed from the depths of the Lake, sending shivers down your spine as you bask in the enormity of its size and the roar of its voice. The waves crash around the canoe and the water level lowers as the Serpent’s body lifts out of the Lake, allowing access to previously unknown areas as well as the hub, Tyr’s Bridge. Then you sit back and say, “Hmm, alright, that was a pretty creative use of space,” and you kind of put it out of your mind as you explore more of what the game has to offer. And then it happens again! What’s even more amazing is that everything is still accessible as the water level drops, so there is no fear of missing out on the optional side quests peppered around the Lake. As a fellow designer, I can’t imagine the amount of meetings that must have taken place while figuring out how all the areas connect. And again, the Lake of the Nine is traversed using the boat. There are a lot of great parts in the game, but this was my favorite. It all ties back with the narrative. If you’re up to date on your Norse mythology and what  the Serpent represents, you start to get the feeling that something ominous is about to unfold, aka Ragnarök.

The station’s signal seems to be getting fuzzy, so I’ll leave you all with some thoughts to stew on. While designing your levels, what affordances are you leaving for the narrative? What is your boat? Is there a way to make your design more dynamic? In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for wha-*static noises*…

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.

Puzzles: Stories Made of Gameplay

Hi, I’m Hunter Fraser. I’m the creative director at Regularly Scheduled Programming. I love all things game design and everything that surrounds it. I’ve been working on games in varying capacities for about five years now. To give you an idea of the stuff I’m into, some of my favorite games are Metal Gear Solid 2, Persona 4, and Bloodborne. Aside from great combat, story, gameplay and progression, I love puzzles. Through a year and a half’s worth of designing way more puzzles than I ever intended to, I’ve gained a pretty good grasp on how to make them interesting and feel more like a story than a puzzle.

The key thing you should avoid is designing puzzles that are the equivalent of giving the player a Sudoku book and announcing, “It’s puzzle time!” You don’t want a disjointed area with random puzzles that have absolutely nothing to do with each other slapped around, which I like to refer to as the “Room of Puzzles.” The way I’ve found to avoid this is to have an overall goal I would like to accomplish with the puzzle. This will help ensure there is motivation behind what you’re making the player do, and it allows you to structure cohesive puzzles that revolve around that motivation.

There are two great effects of this approach.

  1. It allows you to feed narrative to the player through the actions they’re carrying out and thus immerse them further.
  2. It will more then likely inspire a lot of creative ideas you would never have come up with otherwise.

A game I feel does this amazingly well is The Last Guardian. Every puzzle in that game is a vehicle to evolve the relationship between a young boy and the mythical beast Trico. The game’s opening puzzle is the story of the boy, played by you, nursing Trico back to health and gaining his trust. To get this across, Trico, who is chained up and clearly injured, has a very skittish reaction to you. The two points of interaction you have are some barrels of food and the spear stabbed into Trico’s leg. You can try feeding Trico at this point, but the beast doesn’t yet trust you enough to take anything from you.

The only thing left to do is to jump on Trico and remove the spear from his leg. At that moment, Trico isn’t happy, and he bucks you off, knocking you out. After you awaken, Trico warms up to you a bit more. He will eat the food you give him when you get a certain distance from him and make it look like you’re not watching. Once the beast receives enough food, he trusts the player enough to allow them on his back to unshackle his chains. After this scenario, trust is established and now the game can progress.

Something tells me this puzzle wasn’t just dreamt up and magically worked right off the bat. It most likely started with the end goal of wanting to forge a bond between the player and Trico. Conveying this could require research, like looking at how pets in real life react to new owners. This whole scenario is especially amazing because although it is really just a puzzle, it doesn’t feel that way due to the careful weaving of narrative and gameplay to be one and the same. This narrative context allows the player to come to logical conclusions about how to solve it. It’s like when you were a kid and your mom wanted to feed you vegetables, so she masked it in a food you really enjoy.

Where I’m really going with this is that puzzles are a great tool for telling compelling stories through gameplay, and for keeping your narrative something the player actively participates in rather then watches. When you slap puzzles about just because you think they’re mechanically interesting, they won’t hit as hard as you like because there’s no context. It just won’t feel impactful to the player.

Over the following weeks my colleagues at RSP Games will be bringing you new blog posts. Make sure to check them out, I know I’m super excited to see what they come up with. Thanks for reading!

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!