Ian McCamant on dealing with immersion at IGRX 2017

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Ian McCamant on dealing with immersion at IGRX 2017

Immersion is a large field to cover in video game design. Ian believes that by following some simple rules you can help enhance your players experience from a first person perspective.

Ian McCamant is Tether’s lead narrative director. He has helped create a universe for Tether where choice oriented gameplay helps expand the story and  where a narrative of psychological horror takes center stage.

Indie Revolution Expo is a 3 day digital convention (completely free) centered on indie games, hosted by Indie Game Riot where Tether was exhibited along side many other wonderful indies.

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Blog #4: Built for Sin – Guilt as Gameplay

Category : Blog


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 through 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 behaviour 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. With the popularity of Fable, the notion of a binary morality system became standard issue in many RPG’s, and was soon picked up by shooters like BioShock.

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 before the final decision rockets you all the way to one end of the morality scale. 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 grey areas that make 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 change 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 a 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 prescribed morality of the choice. Even in titles such as Fable III, where a sort of tragic irony colours 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,  independent of any consequences.

This is particularly interesting since it separates moral choice experientially from the rote, reward-based logic that generally governs how we think of game design. We can see this at play in a title like TellTale’s The Walking Dead. The game is an endless succession of “damned-if you-do” moments culminating in devastating tragedy, and yet we remain absolutely rapt even in the absence of a definitive win-state or reward. According to Kant, this isn’t a fluke. It’s the entire point. Given that a morality is opposed to any self-interested inclination, he determines that there is only one form of feedback that tells you without a doubt that you are being moral:


Physical pain, psychological pain. It doesn’t matter what sort of pain as long as it hurts. It sounds brutal and sadistic, and it absolutely is, but it creates, as Kant notes, a quality of morality whereby we can appreciate it intellectually even though viscerally we experienced it as suffering. In his introduction to The Critique of Practical Reason, Stephen Engstrom explains that this pain gives way to “a feeling of respect for the moral law, a feeling that can come to have a positive aspect to the extent that we recognize that it is in the judgment of our own reason. Through this recognition, the feeling of respect takes on a certain elevating and ennobling character, insofar as its object is recognized to be a law that has its source in our own rational nature.”

To my mind, this concept perfectly accounts for the power of meaningful choice in games. Players are engaged by challenging, ethically complicated decisions against which they can apply judgment reached through their own reason. To have this effect, these decisions must confront us to some degree with a tragic pain. In the context of a game’s narrative, this pain manifests as guilt. The way in which the player considers this guilt, from an intellectual standpoint, is what allows the experience to resonate with the player and gives depth to their engagement with the game.

Guilt as Passive Feedback

It is important to understand the primacy of passive feedback in the implementation of guilt as gameplay. While there can certainly be active feedback systems to support them, the narrative design and the implications of the choices within the context of the story must effectively convey passive feedback, ensuring that the decisions made have gravity, and stick in the player’s mind long after the deed has been done. An active feedback system that is devoid of any passive feedback, which allows you to simply select between desired outcomes, does little aside from propping up a superficial fantasy. By contrast, passive feedback can color a player’s experience by playing with how they experience the context of their journey. Well executed player choice fully embraces this, relying upon the cultivation of guilt for its emotional yield.

In his talk at GDC 2014, Unreal 2 and Dead Space 2 designer Matthias Worch explained how agency is afforded to players in combat scenarios through an interplay of complicating mechanics which can be learned and beaten through applied knowledge. This deployment of guilt in the context of deep, ethical dilemmas ultimately serves the same purpose, of creating systemic challenge against which the player can apply their rationality, thus granting the player ethical agency.

Ian McCamant – Narrative Director & Co-Owner

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Blog #2: Beyond Stealth – Keeping Horror Fresh

Category : Blog


In 2010, fresh off the cult success of the Penumbra series, Swedish indie 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 the horror genre, especially as it found its way inevitably into the heavy hands of AAA American 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.

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 variations 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 7: 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 Amber: Journeys Beyond, Dark Fall: The Journal, Scratches, and Barrow Hill. Such games relied on little more than 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.

To understand this ostensibly transcendental element of horror, not easily pinned to a specific set of mechanics, we should look to the essence of horror itself. In her book Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, Adriana Cavarero carries out an etymological investigation of “horror,” particularly as contrasted to “terror,” and turns up some interesting definitional qualities.

For Cavarero, “terror” is rooted in survival. She writes:

Among the many ways of experiencing fear, or to be precise, the sudden start of fear called ‘fright’ in English […] terror connotes the one that acts immediately on the body, making it tremble and compelling it to take flight. […] Acting directly on them, terror moves bodies, drives them into motion. Its sphere of reference is that of a menace to the living being, which tries to escape by fleeing.

But wait. The heightened pulse, the pumping adrenaline, the visceral compulsion to flee–aren’t these the sensations we associate with contemporary horror games? To be sure, good horror games can inspire terror, and the paradigm put forth by Frictional prioritizes that in its mechanics. But for Cavarero, this is not true horror.

Horror, she says, is not about fleeing. Rather, it is about immobility, and inevitability.

Violent death is a part of the picture, but not the central part. There is no question of evading death. In contrast to what occurs with terror, in horror there is no instinctive movement of flight in order to survive, much less the contagious turmoil of panic. […] Gripped by revulsion in the face of a form of violence that appears more inadmissable than death, the body reacts as if nailed to the spot, hairs standing on end.

The epitome of such an inadmissable violence, which causes such revulsion, Cavarero identifies as dismemberment. The brutal disfigurement of the body 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.

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 mind is underground developer Kitty Horrorshow’s horror gem Anatomy. Many reviews are quick to note Anatomy’s lo-fi atmosphere, exquisite sound design, and bizarre writing when discussing what makes the game so nail-bitingly effective, but only Chris Priestman, in his review of the game for Kill Screen, really zeros in on its design formula:

Whereas a lot of videogame horror lets you walk into a room and then have a monster spring out on you unexpectedly—a cheap scare—ANATOMY whispers in your ear that there’s probably a monster in a room before you enter it, letting your own expectations grind you down to a tense wreck of a person. That it does this again and again draws the debilitating effect out, masterfully building up the terror but constantly denying you the begging release of a scream. It’s the kind of horror that gets so deep into you that it seems to scratch away at your bones. I’d liken the effect to being dragged perpetually across a saw blade.

It’s fitting, in a way, that such a simple game as Anatomy manages this effect so effortlessly. Horror is a genre predicated on base, primal emotion. Only once we strip away the fluff can we really understand what makes the genre work. Not that there’s no place for production value, but the design foundation needs to be strong or everything falls flat. To that end, much thought is being put into horror design at Freesphere, both for our current title, Tether, and for future titles as well.

Ian McCamant – Narrative Director & Co-Owner

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Blog #1: How To Scare Players

Category : Blog

As an indie game developer with a passion for horror, I have been wanting to make a blog post talking about my personal game-design philosophy. In this post, I will define what I believe haunts and scares a player.

So, let’s start out with a definition of both the terms that are important here:

To Scare: To frighten, to strike with sudden fear, to alarm.

To Haunt: To cause repeated discomfort or anxiety.

Looking at both of those definitions, we can say that a scare is a temporary feeling when you are made aware of something unexpected. A scary feeling can also be created when you know what something has done or could do and you feel threatened because of this. Let’s take a look at some games of the past to get a good feeling of what has been scary.

One of my favourite examples is the famous dog scene in Resident Evil. When the player reached a certain area in the hallway the dog jumps out of the window in front of the camera, something that startled most players.

Why did the player get startled when this happened? Because up until this point the player has never encountered a dog. Sure the player saw them earlier in the game through a cinematic, but the player knew they would not be interacting with the dog at that moment. However, when the dog jumps through the window, the player panics. The player had thought all they had to worry about was zombie’s because the dogs were outside. No windows had been broken before, and in all likeliness, this thought had never really entered the player’s head. But when all of this happened, it broke all the rules that had been subconsciously established in the player’s head up until this point.


The classic of all jump-scares. The Resident Evil infamous dog scene.

If the player feels comfortable, then break what they ‘know’ about the game. This is the classic jump scare technique, as used effectively in Resident Evil.

However, if you keep breaking the rules and re-use the jump scare too often, you risk losing the tension you have created thus far. As a result, players will subconsciously learn when to expect the next scare. Earn your jump scares. It’s interesting to see that in the remastering of Resident Evil, the dog scene was removed as players knew when to expect it.

Let’s open the door into another game, a more recent one, Soma. This game thrives on building up the anxiety of the player. While this game does not have much use for jump scares, it uses tension and anxiety built up in the player over time to create something that haunts the player.

Frictional Games uses a mixtures sounds, musical queue changes, visuals and other clever techniques to build up this anxiety within the player. It’s not until later in the game that you encounter something that can harm you (the player). But until that point, the player does not know this. The player does not know
what an enemy looks like, when it’s going to show up, or what it does. They know nothing. This only amplifies the tension brought out by the sounds, visuals etc. If you give the player no knowledge of a monster in a horror game they are forced to create one by themselves. Welcome to the imagination.


SOMA does a good job of creating player tension.

Your imagination is more powerful than anything any developer can do to create fear in a player. This is what makes Soma so impactful (narrative excluded for which it excels again) and what makes it so widely talked about as one of the scariest games of all time. So the longer we don’t show an enemy, the more time it gives the player to ‘create’ their own enemy from the depths of their imagination, which believe me, can often be more horrifying than any creature made by developers. The idea of this technique is that the player will begin to ‘see’ things in the darkness and build up that ever important tension themselves.

It’s easy to scare players when they don’t know what’s around the corner or behind the door. But does that leave a lasting impression on the game? Will players remember a game strictly consisting of just jump scares? Probably not. However, if we can build up fear and tension using a range of techniques (which I will explain in later blog posts) then the scare has more of a lasting impact. If we can create lasting moments of horror and tension we can let the player’s imagination take over. When the imagination takes over. The possibilities are limitless.

Mark Gregory – Creative Director & Co-Owner