Blog #6: Freedom and Consequence – The Importance of Narrative in Choice Driven Games

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Blog #6: Freedom and Consequence – The Importance of Narrative in Choice Driven Games

Category : Blog

Even the briefest glance away from the slew of glorified rail-shooters that comprise the contemporary catalogue of modern, triple-A actioners reveals that the world of gaming narrative is bound up by the question of player choice. This is hardly a new phenomenon–indeed, the player’s freedom to impact a fantastic world according to their will traces its ancestry back a quarter of a century–but with the burgeoning indie development scene ramping up its popular market saturation, we’re beginning to see more and more experimentation and urgency, along with a swiftly maturing dialogue, in regards to freedom and consequence in the virtual realm. No longer will simple branching narrative do the trick. The gaming community is hungry for new models that emphasize intricacy and nuance. Players are seeking truly personal, unique experiences from games, and developers are scrambling to provide for them.

It hardly takes intense research to turn up evidence that consequence driven narrative in gaming is just reaching a rolling boil. Both Dontnod’s Life is Strange and Red Thread’s Dreamfall: Chapters go out of their way to prominently catalogue players’ choices and clearly demonstrate when their effects are in play. Indie titles such as Home and Kentucky Route Zero offer the ability to define the characters’ interior thoughts and perceptions, leading to a variety of subtle outcomes. BioWare and Obsidian are consistently refining an approach to CRPGs that has been cultivated since the Black Isle days, while inXile attempts to recapture and supercharge the lightning-in-a-bottle that was Planescape: Torment with the new instalment, Tides of Numenera. Eidos, for their part, are holding down their old stomping grounds, keeping the legendary Deus Ex franchise alive with more or less resounding success.

It’s tempting to get caught up in a purely mechanical discourse surrounding choice and freedom in games. Such was the way with the divisiveness of the Mass Effect series, where the tripartite system that had served as a staple of player input for all three games was considered insufficient for the finale. This perceived inadequacy was especially glaring when set up against the “Suicide Mission,” the intricate masterpiece of user agency that closed the second instalment of the series. It seems to me, however, that the common meme that reduces the problems of the Mass Effect saga’s final act to a mechanical question of colours is a bit of a red herring. After all, what made Mass Effect 2’s ending so special wasn’t the ending itself, which plays out essentially the same regardless of which beloved characters live or die. Rather, it was the way in which the relationships played out over the course of the game that lent impact to the events of the finale and changed the way you experienced a standardized set of events. For me, it wasn’t that Tali died during the Suicide Mission that broke my heart, but the relationship I had developed with Tali that imbued her death with meaning. Perhaps, then, Mass Effect 3 would have been better served with only a single ending, so that emotional investment could be focused on the journey to the ending–how Shepard navigated the tensions between the Quarians and the Geth, how she played out her relationships with her Liara and Garrus, and how she rallied the galaxy to face the Reapers.

I’m not here, however, to defend or decry Mass Effect 3, but rather to draw a distinction in the discourse of choice-driven gaming between the mechanical and the substantive. Simply put, I claim that what makes player choice significant is not choice itself as a mechanic, but powerful and significant narrative contextualization of the choices and the consequences they yield. Narrative strength, which allows a player to become meaningfully and emotionally invested in the game world and the characters that inhabit it, is what allows for the weight of consequence that we experience in response to our choices in the real world to be felt likewise in the virtual. A mechanical system of choice, no matter how intricately it branches or how many variables it takes into account, has no meaning without its context, a singular narrative drive. To put it another way, your effect upon a story is only as meaningful as the story itself. Let’s return to the list of developers I discussed above: Square Enix, Red Thread, Obsidian, etc. Who’s missing? Give up?


No developer so singularly personifies decontextualized choice as the legendary creators of the Elder Scrolls and ascendants to the Fallout throne. In so doing, they demonstrate the limits of sandbox gaming and offer a caveat about the nature of player freedom. Indeed, they are not the sole perpetrators of these shortcomings (I mentioned Home above, which I would argue is shamefully guilty of luring the player along with delectable tidbits of story before determinedly marching up its own ass and obscuring any profound meaning it had the potential to offer), but so prominent is Bethesda in the contemporary RPG discourse that they serve as the primmest of examples.  

Fallout: New Vegas, one of my favorite games of all-time.

Fallout: New Vegas, one of my favorite games of all-time.

Bethesda crafts its games as sandboxes populated with standalone questlines, none of which have more than a superficial bearing upon each other. In Skyrim, for instance, you are capable of rising through the ranks of countless organizations, joining in a civil war, and ultimately saving the realm from a scourge of dragons. Needless to say, the political implications of a solitary God-warrior escaping from the executioner and becoming the leader of essentially every major faction in the nation would probably manifest itself in a plethora of ways for each of the parties involved. Because of the cut-up approach to the plot, wherein the player must be able to complete all questlines without interfering with any other questlines, an Imperial soldier moonlighting as the Dark Brotherhood assassin who, you know, murders the emperor, will never be confronted with any representation of how these intimately entwined groups are affected by such an epic deed. Bethesda puts the knife in your hand and lets you murder the monarch, but robs you of the sense of power that comes from seeing the ramifications of the assassination play out.

Sure, there are simple examples of mutually exclusive quests, usually involving picking between two fundamentally identical sides or killing someone who would later provide another quest, but even these fail to meaningfully affect the structure of Skyrim as a living, breathing place. The most you get is dynamic background dialogue, whereby random people in the world will comment on what you’ve done, essentially amounting to commoners and guards saying, “I heard you completed this questline,” or the more intriguing variation, “rumour has it someone completed this questline.” Wink wink, nudge nudge. This is a common criticism of Bethesda’s worlds: that they are vibrant but ultimately flat. This is quite literal, for there is no grand forward progression within the game experience, only so many quests to check off. Ben Croshaw puts it nicely, saying that a game in which the player can do anything is a game that is about nothing.

Now, I don’t wish to make a sweeping generalization about the quality of Bethesda’s games, which I enjoy immensely. I easily clocked 100+ hours in both Oblivion and Skyrim, and in many real ways, I even count Morrowind as an exception to many (though certainly not all) of my complaints. However, the lack of driving narrative context bringing all the threads together leads to encounters like the comically awkward moment in Fallout 3, where your father gently chastises you for obliterating an entire town of innocents with a nuclear bomb.

By way of contrast, in BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, some companions will jump ship or come for your throat depending upon how virtuous or despotic your behaviour is. In Mass Effect 2, you’d better act quickly to save your kidnapped crew, or they’ll be liquefied by the Collectors. This is a far cry from Skyrim‘s civil war, which is more than happy to stop everything while you go spelunking for a few weeks. Imperial, Stormcloak, who really cares? The difference is just as superficial and aesthetic as the colours of Mass Effect’s finale, but the latter bears a greater emotional weight. Perhaps this is why Bethesda is able to get away with this narrative thinness while Bioware is passionately taken to task for any infraction.  


Fallout: New Vegas can serve as a near perfect side-by-side comparison. Obsidian, made up of several of the original Fallout and Fallout 2 designers, took Bethesda’s engine and applied Avellone & Co.’s  fierce storytelling to it. After sinking hours upon hours into the political machinations of the Mojave wasteland, you feel every bolstered alliance in the final battle, or perhaps wish you’d have thought twice before destroying all the SecuriBots. All of your actions have a perceptible effect on the final battle. The reason you can experience these consequences is that everything builds to a climax. A real climax, not the poorly realized empty sacrifice Fallout 3 offers. The difference is the sense of power derived from the feeling that you are making history in a living world.

The point here is not that BioWare, Obsidian, and Bethesda use drastically different mechanics. In fact, the point is that they don’t. Mass Effect has moments where you can choose between two functionally interchangeable factions, like the Quarians and Geth, which allow the plot to continue unhindered on the mechanical level. The difference is the story. If a character dies, I feel it because I have a history with them. When I choose between the Quarians and the Geth, my choice is loaded with history and meaning and informed by my personal relationships with Legion and Tali. Thus, even if the game continues mechanically, my experience is personally meaningful.

For developers, this means an increased emphasis upon writing. A great deal of discussion is devoted to the technological advancement of gaming, and while literary advancement is frequently mentioned, it is at best relegated to a sideline discussion. At worst, the notions of video games as a literary art form is reacted against, apparently afforded by a willful resistance to deeper meaning, a result perhaps of conservative anti-intellectualism. Dedicated writers are still a relative rarity in the development world, especially among the financially strapped indies.

However, freedom and consequence are the logical battlefields upon which an interactive literary medium should stake its claim to legitimacy. Already games like Dreamfall: Chapters are striving to present stories that allow for us to affect worlds meaningfully in thematically rich ways. Dreamfall’s Zoe Castillo and Kian Alvane are central players in the living history of the twin worlds, Stark and Arcadia. Each action they take, each decision they make, all of their choices are reflected back at them through fully realized and beautifully written narrative arcs. For instance, if you want to save Zoe’s relationship with her boyfriend Reza, you must actively work to heal the rift between them, or else experience the melancholy disintegration of their romance. Such a model demands that the player take ownership of their agency, and this ownership extends from the intimately personal relationships to the grand, sweeping politics and spiritualities of Stark and Arcadia. The choices build, the consequences compound, and you occupy a living world that reacts as you touch it.

This sense of agency, delivered as a rule through strong narrative, more than anything, is what draws players into a universe and makes choice driven gaming the truly magical thing that it is.

Ian McCamant – Narrative Director & Co-Owner

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Blog #5: Video Games Are Better With Stories

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Category : Blog


The notion that games somehow constitute a qualitatively inferior narrative medium when compared to books or film is an idiocy repeated time and again in literary criticism, the blame for which goes, as usual, to the specialists.

Ian Bogost is one such specialist, who chose to take a turn at repeating the aforementioned idiocy in an article entitled “Video Games Are Better Without Stories,” published in the Atlantic. Bogost’s masturbatory screed weaves haphazardly around Doom and Bioshock, finally wandering through Gone Home to arrive at it’s real target, the recently released What Remains of Edith Finch. His thesis, meandering and convoluted as it is, seems to be that any story these games might have to offer would be inherently better conveyed in the form of a film or novel.


The justifications offered for this position are paper-thin and superficial, bolstered more by smug self-importance than any genuine analysis of either games or narrative, though Bogost is supposedly a lauded academic in both fields. Given that the entire piece relies upon the reader simply accepting Bogost’s vapid valuation of three distinct narrative media, the piece serves more to beg one big, pretentious, out-of-touch question rather than offer any insight into gaming. Ultimately, Bogost advocates a severely limited, stagnant fate for games as a mode of entertainment reminiscent of my paternal grandparents’ stunted outlook on television in its early years. In the hopes of wresting the discourse from the clutches of this dull myopia, let’s dive into Bogost’s claims directly.

At the outset, Bogost states in no uncertain terms that, “Film, television, and literature all tell stories better [than games].” That no explicit evidence is offered for this claim is unsurprising, given the dubious demonstrability of such a subjective claim. The closest we are offered is Bogost’s foundational strawman: taking the fantasy of Star Trek’s holodeck as an example, he argues that the end goal of narrative in games are stories which replicate one-to-one the responsiveness of real life. “It would be like living in a novel,” he writes, “where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.” We can surmise, then, that what compares film and print narratives favorably to games, for Bogost, is a lack of pretense toward imitating real-world causality as a means of simulating agency. In the environmental storytelling of games, by contrast, Bogost sees only an insufficient illusion of causality.  “Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive,” he demands, “when all the player does is assemble something from parts?”

By taking these premises for granted, Bogost creates for himself a lovely set of goalposts on rollerskates. If we assume that the value of game narratives hinge on the ability of the game design to directly represent this sort of causality, than any example which pulls back the curtain and reveals the illusion behind the experience serves to bolster Bogost’s claims. Imagine such a criteria being leveled at film! Are we to say that a war film is cheapened because the scores of extras aren’t actually killed in a hail of bullets? Is the drama of a love scene spoiled by the fact that the sex is simulated and just beyond the edge of the frame lies a full film crew and catering tables? Of course not!


The crucial error that Bogost makes here is that he takes the illusion of the player experience as the truth of narrative design. He assumes that the goal is an experience which offers infinite permutations depending on the behavior of a free subject. This, however, is not a description of narrative at all, but rather an account of the logical conclusion of a strictly mechanics-based model of game design that Bogost advocates at the end of his article. “[G]ames are the aesthetic form of everyday objects,” he writes, arguing that the real purpose of games as a medium is to simply serve as a psychotic sandbox whereby certain rules and mechanics can determine behavior in response to input. The idea that this serves as a critique of narrative is absurd.

To correct this, we must first understand that the end goal of narrative design in games is not the Borgesian nightmare that Bogost proposes, whereby the story of a game simply serves as a direct representation of how events proceed via causality in reality. In fact, narrative serves games best in the role of a limiting contextualization which imbues the rote mechanical actions with meaning. It is not crucial that games behave precisely as the real world does; Bogost is right that this is impossible. Indeed, he might be surprised to learn all the ways in which what he believes he is experiencing when he watches a film is actually the product of carefully crafted illusion, or just how much he actually suspends disbelief when reading that novel that strikes him offhand as being so viscerally real. The trick is not to create a virtual world that perpetually behaves precisely like the real world, but rather to craft an experience in which a sense of agency is conveyed to the player within the bounds of the design. Thomas Grip puts it perfectly in a post on the Frictional blog:

This is the power of narrative context. By wrapping gameplay actions in storytelling the experience that emerges exceeds the sum of its parts. Taken solely on their own merit, the gameplay mechanics don’t feel very engaging. But when used in the right environment they work far better at providing the intended experience…

That this passes over Bogost’s head is unsurprising, given the feeble account of gaming history he offers. Jumping from a pair of first-person shooters to a walking simulator, he completely circumnavigates point-and-click adventure games, a genre that remains influential to this day. He uses soccer and Monopoly to exemplify the rote, mechanical nature of games that he advocates as the true essence of the media, but he never once mentions the elaborate pen-and-paper RPGs that gave rise to some of the greatest game stories of all time. To be sure, why would he bring these up when it’s so much easier to cherry-pick gaming’s diverse history and dismiss the entire field of narrative design with a snarky quip about how uncommon good writing is in video games?


In the last portion of his article, Bogost attempts to dismantle any claim that a game like Edith Finch demonstrates the narrative power of games. He lists off a number of ways in which the gameplay in Edith Finch serves in symbiosis with its narrative ends, before dismissing them all on a spurious basis.

These are remarkable accomplishments. But they are not feats of storytelling, at all [sic]. Rather, they are novel expressions of the capacities of a real-time 3-D engine. The ability to render light and shadow, to model structure and turn it into obstacle, to trick the eye into believing a flat surface is a bookshelf or a cavern, and to allow the player to maneuver a camera through that environment, pretending that it its a character. Edith Finch is a story about a family, sure, but first it’s a device made of the conventions of 3-D gaming…

It is inexplicable to me why narrative conveyed through a given medium is somehow devalued because of the very traits of that medium. You could just as easily say that the Coppola’s The Godfather is not a feat of storytelling, but a feat of moving cameras around, filming actors with lights shining on them, and editing them all together in the cutting room. You could argue that Toni Morrison’s Beloved is less a feat of storytelling and more a feat of syntactical and grammatical arrangement of words. The idea that somehow the use of the medium’s formal qualities to tell a story would cheapen the story itself, or even the very notion of storytelling within the medium, is beyond inane. Here, Bogost is simply a lost soul grasping at straws, left behind by the progression of the very disciplines in which he is supposed to be so credentialed.

Nowhere is this clearer than when Bogost describes his thought process while playing Edith Finch. “Yes, sure, you can tell a story in a game. But what a lot of work that is, when it’s so much easier to watch television, or to read.” This notion is the peak of Bogost’s hubris, not only that his own laziness should set the standard for how a story should be told, but that the stories of books and film are stories meant for consumption by the lazy. It certainly leads one to wonder how little work was required on the part of Bogost to achieve all of his academic titles. While others were poring over texts, piecing together analyses, carefully crafting tales, perhaps he was kicking back in front of the TV while the scholarly commendations stacked themselves.


By the end, Bogost tries to put a positive spin on all of this, presumably to allay the concern that a professor of interactive computing and game designer might not actually care that much for games. It’s not that games shouldn’t ever tell stories, he says, it’s just that storytelling itself isn’t all that great a goal. Indeed, I’ve not played any of Bogost’s games. They may be quite good. It’s not uncommon that a creator’s work is more articulate than the creator themselves. I’m sure The Howard Dean for Iowa Game is utterly enthralling, and that Cow Clicker’s satire of social gaming is ingeniously scathing. What is abundantly clear, however, is that Bogost has an incredibly limited view of how games can achieve greatness. After dismissing narrative, Bogost opts for an equivocal prescription: games must “[take] the tidy, ordinary world apart and [put] it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.”

The irony here is that this description could just as easily describe the art of storytelling, the chief goal of which is to mold reality into a fascinating experience. Games provide a visceral, immersive take on that, both in spite of and even because of their artificial nature. It would be truly a shame if gaming were to abdicate its position on the cutting edge of narrative media.

Ian McCamant – Narrative Director & Co-Owner

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Blog #4: Built for Sin – Guilt as Gameplay

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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

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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