Gaming Your Way

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Is it survival horror ?

Every now and again I like to check in on the games on NG, to see if we've got any new comments as I think it's important to maintain a relationship with our players ( I wish I could say the same about Kong, but it usually just makes me angry. Sorry, but it's true ).

Anyway a recent comment really got under my skin, I don't know why, somethings just do don't they.

"It isn't scary. A rather glaring flaw in a Survival Horror game, isn't it?"

Ok, possibly a valid point, so I decided to look into scary games to see what we were doing wrong in comparison. I've finally bought Dead Space, after reading every other comment telling us that Outpost:Haven is so similar ( Oh you crazy kids, we stole everything from Alien Breed, not Dead Space. We're old ), so my survival horror playing is quite limited, the old Resident Evil games and that, so I'm sure there are other examples which will disprove my theories, let it be.

The core themes in survival horror gameplay seem to be:

- Restricted movement. You're always kind of sluggish which creates a feeling of vulnerability, which increases the fear. Knowing your avatar can't parkour up the wall to safety means you're always going to be drawn into a confrontation. They normally add a run button for those between the action bubble times, as you don't want to be plodding between scary rooms, but when you're in actual combat the run is usually pretty ineffective.

- Restricted view. RE and Dead Space use that over the shoulder 3rd person view for a reason. Your own avatar creates tension as it blocks a lot of your view, forcing you to rotate around to see that blind spot. It's the gaming equivalent of opening the big fridge door when you know the beast with the teeth and claws is going to be there when you close it again for a shock reveal.

- Monster closets. A jump is the easiest way to get a shock, the toaster makes me jump every time when it pops, and I know it's going to because I put the bread in there. A lot of games in this genre rely on that, the monster jumping out of nowhere to make you fill your pants. Which leads nicely onto...

-QTE. Tap the hell out of (A) to get away from the thing with the razor teeth, otherwise it's going to eat your face. The only way you can really have monster closets is to allow the player to break free ( And almost turn it into a mini-game ). Basically it's a fix for broken gameplay. If you played a platformer and a baddie appeared out of nowhere and killed you, you wouldn't play that game again as it's not fair. Monster closets aren't fair, so there needs to be a fix for that unfairness so they can keep the easy scares, and QTE's are just that.

- Limited Resources. In the DN8 games I tried to always make you, our sexy player, the most powerful thing on screen. You should always feel like you can kick arse, and it's just the sheer weight of numbers of the baddies which make it a challenge.
In a survival horror game it's the opposite. It goes back to that word again, vulnerability. You're always trying to get more ammo and health, and usually you have to sacrifice something cool out of your inventory to make room. You're traditionally the weakest thing in the game, it's an uphill struggle, good vs evil, Davis vs Goliath. Like most horror stories the end evil is always more powerful than the protagonists, and it depends on a mixture of their inherent goodness and cunning to beat the unbeatable. Survival horror games have just taken that and ran with it.

- Sights and sounds. A lot of games both visually and sonically play on our fears. It's an inbuilt impulse to dislike certain things, a rotting corpse is nasty because it's in our DNA to think it's nasty, it's to stop us eating it and getting ill. Animals that scurry and slither scare us on a deep biological level as we know they're a potential threat ( Even cats and dogs don't like shit like that, that's why they always spin around a couple of times before sitting down, to make sure there's nothing nasty beneath them to sink it's venom dripping fangs into them ). There's a reason bees are yellow and black, we have all these inbuilt hangups that are just part of us ( And for anyone reading thinking "I'm not scared of spiders though, and they scurry" well you're wrong. So very fucking wrong ).
There are quite a lot of key things like this, and a lot of survival horror games play on them, that's why you'll see a lot of baby type monsters in a game, we're designed to protect the young ( That's why kittens and puppies are so cute, big eyes, cute noses, they are things that we respond to and want to protect. Animals aren't silly ) so having the young turn against us and transform into something horrible jars us. Likewise things bursting out of bodies plays on our sexual hangups in a very deep way. These are cliches, but they work as they're built into is. How many games have you played with a creepy child's laughter, or a woman's scream ? These are on buttons for us.

So where does that leave us with the Outpost games ? Pretty much screwed. We're a top down game which doesn't restrict the players view, as that would be cheating. We can't impair your field of view too much as then that becomes a mechanic [ Creating a forced sense of vulnerability ] which overrides the actual gameplay. Sure we can put you in a room and kill the lights, but we have to turn the lights back on before anything crawls out of the dark, otherwise it wouldn't be fair.
Likewise, we can't really use a Quick Time Event when you're under attack as, well, it's not really playing a game is it ? Mashing a key over and over to be released is a crude fix for a bigger problem. So many games which use that approach will have sequences when there are baddies lined up, and if you get it wrong you're button mashing one baddie and as soon as you break free the next one gets you. It's not enjoyable, it's just a sense of relief when it's over, as it means the frustrating part has ended. It's the gaming equivalent of scratching an itch. As we can't ( Or rather won't ) use QTE's, we can't have monster closets as such. Yes we have spawn holes, but they're always pretty well sign posted and they never trigger so close to you that you can't react.
One thing we did do was restrict movement to a certain degree. Your avatar moves pretty slowly, and even slower when shooting / collecting items / bumping into tables and chairs. This was slated so much that in a dot release of Outpost:Haven I speeded up the movement, and in both Swarm and O2 the movement is faster by default. Not a great success there then.

What other tropes can we take away and use in a top down 2D Flash survival horror ? We sort of limit your resources, but not to any huge degree because we can't use a lot of the above we have to depend on that old chestnut, weight of numbers, to create a sense of terror ( Look at any non-Resident Evil zombie game in the past forever, they're dumb and slow for the most part, but there's just so fucking many of them ), and in Outpost:Swarm we take that to the nth degree, that is basically the whole game.

One thing I didn't mention above was the narrative, as that's common in most games ( Even Donkey Kong has some bullshit story attached to it ). If we do that right, and ground it in realistic terms you can relate to, it can help give us some horror for "Free".
The whole Owlmen theme improved the Outpost games a lot, it hopefully stopped it being a battle between various sprites and became a unravelling mystery. There's a reason Stephen King mostly grounds his stories in realistic environments, it makes it easier for us the reader to believe it, and when the shit goes down it could be us there facing off with a clown with silver eyes. That's why we have papers scattered on the floor in Haven, you know by the time we have big mining ships in space like that paper won't be a thing anymore, we'll all have Google Glasses as contact lenses, or drilled straight into our brain. But to try and ground it in something relatable we use paper as a simple short hand for disarray. We've all unfortunately seen the after math of explosions in office buildings, and dozens of stray sheets of paper is one of the images you take away from that. It doesn't fit the time we're trying to portray, but it fits the theme we're aiming for.

Lastly, we can't compete visually with 3D survival horror games, we're restricted by the format we chose, but sound can make a large difference. I was really proud of the sound we had in O:H, it was so much work but well worth it. With O2 we're adding a lot more, I've just the other day added an "Ambient Sound Manager" which plays additional random noises in the background, which really adds to the experience.

Ok, we're at the end, well done for making it this far. The question was "Is it survival horror", and after looking at the genre, it's still hard to say. Cop out answer I know. We don't adhere to all the usual cliches, but I think it's more than a spooky version of Gauntlet. All I know is that one small comment, in what was really a great review by a Newgrounds member, has inspired me a lot. Both to look into the genre as a whole, and to try and make sure you mess your pants whilst playing O2.

Squize.

Comments (5) -

  • charlie

    10/6/2012 10:33:03 PM |

    How seriously to take comments is always a tough call, it's obvious to ignore ones like "well it's just shit", but sometimes they lean towards constructive criticism - and I guess this is one of those... But, it's easy to say something's wrong, without offering any pointers about how you could fix it.

    I think that in OH, the scariest level is the night vision one, and that's because of the restricted view (which as I recall you put in for technical reasons). But I also found this level a little more difficult to play than the others, so there's a trade off.

    Something that you use throughout is the lighting to hide the aliens. This, I think, does work really well, and allows for a 'jump'. (Is this a closet?).

    But either of these, or any other method you choose to add, is only going to work the first few times a player gets hit by it. And I'd be of the opinion that to overuse them (or anything else) would probably become irritating very quickly, and that's a far worse problem than it "not being scary".

    I agree that having aliens appear from nowhere is wrong in many ways, but maybe it would be good to have them appear at you in ways that you don't expect - in Aliens they had them drop thru the ceiling, you couldn't really use that because they would just appear, but perhaps you could have them come up thru the floor? (I think you may need to encourage greater use of the map to make this work). Or perhaps they could force a door if the player was nearby? Or even bust thru a wall?

    To go back to the original comment, I'm not sure that I found OH scary, this is probably due to age & temperament. But, it did make me jump in places, and I did think it was very atmospheric. I found the end boss really successfully creepy in a Giger-ish way.

    I'm not sure how much more scary than that you can hope to be?

  • John Heap

    10/13/2012 1:13:42 PM |

    Back in the day, 1984/5 if I remember rightly I wrote my scariest game ever. Alien on the Spectrum 48k, published by Argos Press. It didn't really have visuals, just a top down plan of the Nostromo, a menu of possible actions, and a ticker tape type news display. You could select the crew, see how they were, who they were with, (and the state they were in), and move them them a room at at time.
    You only saw the Alien when in the same room and thus usually too late. (The Spectrum Alien graphic was a bit of a let down, as your imagination was much better). What made it atmospheric was the sound of the doors (a la Star Trek) as your characters and the Alien moved from room to room.  So if your crew was still, the doors could only be the Alien, and you knew it was on the move. That and the beeping of a movement detector pick-up, really added to the tension.
    You are more scared of what might happen than what has - scared by what you can't see but know deep down is coming your way.

  • Squize

    10/13/2012 2:15:12 PM |

    Thanks for the replies, I'm pleasantly surprised anyone made it to the end.

    ( I must be imagining it, but I'm sure there was a 3rd comment posted on here ? I remember getting an email about it, but I can't find it in my trash folder and it's obviously not here. Things like that bug the hell out of me ).

    Charlie, great points mate. The comment in the review didn't eat away at me or anything, just got under my skin enough to make me think we could improve things, which is what a review should do really.
    And you're right, we're pretty much left with jumps to scare the player ( Although I'm hoping the sound will help create a sense of unease ), which means custom coding as many as we can.

    In saying that, I was reading something the other day where hard-core gamers don't like cut scenes as it takes them out of the action, and they know they're safe, whereas casual gamers enjoy them as it's a safety zone for them. So where we're having some cut scenes I think a lot of the jump scares we add will have to be interactive ( Which again limits us in a way, for example I can't have a grate fly open and steam shoot out when you're in a middle of a fire fight ).

    Basically we can have jumps, or action, but not really both at the same time too much, so I have to avoid each level being a case of action-action-quiet section-action as the player will soon learn that the jumps occur in the quiet sections and they'll lose their value ( It's like a FPS when you stumble across a load of health packs and ammo, it may as well say "Boss fight coming up" ). Level design with good pacing and a fair progression is hard :)

    I did actually forget the final boss was very baby like ( And the night vision level put so many people off that I had to tweak it in a dot update, for some reason when the lights went off people would move about so when they came back on they'd be in a difficult position, which is something I'd never have anticipated. Like in real life if the lights go off you stay still as you know you'll step on a plug or catch your leg on a table ).

    John, I could read stories like that all day long, thanks for posting ( Just having a fan boy moment, not often we have ex-Denton Design coders drop by ).
    It's very true though, implied terror is often scarier than out and out terror, that's why the Paranormal Activity films work so well and something like Cloverfield falls apart once you see the big bad.

  • Thomas Gunn

    10/21/2012 3:26:53 AM |


    - Restricted movement: You pulled this off very well in the first OP:H. When ever you start to line up your sights to aim you slowed down, when ever you're hurt you slow down and so on. Moving backwards is another place you could slow down the player. On the flip side I think a sprint ability you could use (and lose if your wearing too much armor but that's only if your adding upgradeable armor in OP2) would help because its a bitch to move from room to room after you've cleared them.

    - Restricted view: The night-vision level was a great example of this but the grainy look of the level sometimes camouflaged the creds. Another good thing you could do to restrict the view is to have a black level or sudden power outage and your flashlight only illuminates the area in front of you. You did this at the end of the finale level as you were leaving and it scared the shit out of me. I cannot tell you how disappointing it was when the AI took over and it turned into a cut scene.

    - Monster closets: Power outages as mentioned above is a good way to do this. Having something sneak up behind you and say "boo" is just damn scary. The guys who hid in dark corners weren't that scary unless the managed to sneak up on you (which happened rarely because you didn't have enough dark corners that DIDN'T have things hiding in them) and the lil guys who swarmed out of the ground weren't that big of a deal because the poped out slowly and if you ran away they would stop spawning completely besides the face you could see them coming from a mile away the spawn points were obvious (except for the hanger level where they poped out of thin air).

    -QTE: IT CAN BE DONE! you just need to be able to shove everyone back at the same time if your being swarmed. But I agree IT SHOULDN'T BE DONE!

    - Limited Resources: Wasn't that bad in normal mode. I could stand with a LOT less ammo if I could be sure I wasn't fucked completely when I ran out. The pistol is useless it needs mods. I heard you say somewhere that it was ether a pistol or a knife for a backup weapon: I'd choose a knife over that pistol any day. It needs MODS!!!

    - Sights and sounds: The sights were great, the sounds were redundant. If they see you they scream at you with the same scream every time.

    One thing I didn't mention above was the narrative...: Very good. It all comes together in the end but one problem I had was that it progressed in a normal fashion. I wold have liked to have seen a snip-it of something about human gene splicing on the second level. as it was it felt like I was reading a book not finding flash drives in a random order so that it all comes together in the end. Also I would have liked to have seen things added in like random information and statistics (remember that email from Oliver Ashcroft to Strix about the gene splicing? I would have loved to have found that casualty doc somewhere when I didn't know what it meant).

    Anyway that's my two cents worth. Hope its helpful.
    -Tommy Gunn

  • Squize

    10/21/2012 7:10:52 PM |

    Wow, now that's a hell of a comment :)

    Movement: We got so much grief for the slow movement it was untrue. I think it's about expectations. If the game had been a slight character in a haunted house with a candle and an axe people would have been fine, instead they were presented with mini Master Chiefs bristling with weapons, and expected it to play like the majority of those games do ( Like Swarm does really ).
    The sprint button idea, again that feels like a fix. A lot of survival games have them so you can skip the dull bits when backtracking etc. I remember one of the Tomb Raiders had a "Move faster on a ladder" button, which I could never understand, just default to her moving faster, it's a ladder, I want to get to the top / bottom of it as quickly as possible, it shouldn't be an option.
    I'm not sure what the fix for that is, we do accelerate the player after a little while ( Albeit in a clunky one ) and the original second level had a lot removed from it, because of the very issue of it's boring working down long corridors without anything happening.
    It's something we're going to have to play with, I don't think we're far off getting it right, but it isn't there yet.

    View: Sorry about the cut scene ending :) Yep I want to play with light and sound a lot more in O2, it's our "easiest" scare method. I really liked the night vision level, but it just wasn't popular. I don't know if that was expectations again, or players thought it was too forced in its restrictiveness or it was just too hard. I think maybe all 3.

    Monster closets: Yeah we did over use the "Red eyes" ( Imaginative naming I know ). The problem we have with jump scares involving baddies is that they're bullet sponges. I wanted them to feel like a 1000 lb of teeth and claws, and that it would be an effort to put one down, so we can't have them jumping out at you too much as it just wouldn't be fair, if we did that we'd have to do something like put a medi-pack near by to make up for basically cheating the player, and I'm not really a lover of that.
    That's why the red eyes were much weaker, it was to give the player both a scare and a chance, if they were skilful enough, to get away scot free.
    I've got some ideas for one shot closet based scares, with O2 we're going for more larger big set pieces, we want it to be more filmic, so those closet based scares should fit in well.

    QTE: :)

    Resources: Yeah a lot of people have flagged up the pistol as being basically shit. Where it came from was Alien Breed. You'd play that and run out of ammo, and that would be it, you're screwed. You're either looking for ammo which isn't there, or trying to find a baddie to put you out of your misery so you could start afresh.
    The pistol was my fix for that, it was never meant to be used as an actual weapon, more a case of "You're screwed now, may as well go down fighting and hope you can get to a console".
    We had a lot of debates about the whole ammo thing, a lot of people saying that it should be weapon specific rather than generic as it is now. I still think generic is the right way to go, our maps are a fraction of the size of FPS games. I'm hoping our solution for the actual amount of ammo will evolve as we get the gameplay in place.

    Sounds: The "Here comes trouble" warning shriek does need looking at :) Overall though I'm really pleased with the sounds in O:H, there are well over a 100 sounds in there, which is a silly amount for a Flash game.
    One thing I'm really pleased with is that we tracked the number of people muting the game, and percentage wise it was really low, much lower than some of our other games.

    Narrative: I've got a bit of a confession about that :) I just made it up as I went along. I had the basic ideas, the Ule madness sweeping the crew, Stryx being the head arsehole, the cult of the Owlmen. Everything though was just made up on the spot, nothing was ever re-written once it was done, I'd write a couple of those emails every couple of days when I wanted a break from coding.
    It's a really great way to do it, as I literally didn't know where the story was going myself. O2 is going to be exactly the same, we've got the levels planned out and I'll just build a story around that ( I want to focus more on the cult / survivors this time, I don't think we're going to have a big bad, not a human one who'll need plotting anyway ).
    Where it fell down slightly was the end boss, the genetically altered Stryx. In my head we were going to have a Queen Alien and eggs and just be Aliens basically. Lux wanted to merge an alien with tech, like an alien super solider ultimate weapon type thing, and I can't remember exactly what happened, but I think that was put on the back burner and then he sent over the final boss animation, which is just so stunning, I love it. That meant I only had a handful of emails left to force that part of the story in there, that it was Stryx experimenting to try and make himself the ultimate weapon, and it going badly wrong.
    I would have liked to have mixed the order of them up more, it was a little linear especially with the end part due to the change in story, but you've got to keep in mind we had players who couldn't even open the 2nd door on the first level. Although we try and cater to the smarter players, we can't be too obscure as to have too many people switch off from the story as once they lose interest in it we lose them as players.

    In O2 we swap between the two characters in time, we continue right from the end of O:H, then cut back a couple of hours before back to the very first level when they're together. I know now I'm going to be explaining that a lot the comments :)

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a great well thought out post mate.

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