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Games and the Fear of Death

By Shamus
on Wednesday Aug 20, 2008
Filed under:
Game Design


The convention is that survival horror games are very brutal and unforgiving. The combat is finicky and mistakes are devastating. Resources are scarce, and consuming too many now can mean hitting an impossible barrier down the line. Your character tends to die often. Even the ability to save is sometimes rationed. Allow me a moment of presumption and arrogance, but I think survival horror game designers have been undermining the very atmosphere they’re trying so hard to build. They’re doing it wrong.

Consider these two types of fear:

  1. Oh no! The grue is going to eat me! How horrible!
  2. Oh man. The grue is going to eat me and I haven’t saved in half an hour.

Now, if your goal is to just create a serious challenge for tenacious players to overcome (and some people really do like that sort of thing) then routine player death is a required component of that. But I think in most cases the extreme difficulty is part of a misguided attempt to make the game more frightening. You feel the first kind of fear when you’re immersed in the game. You only feel the second when you are not immersed. The first kind is the thrilling kind. The second is an immersion-breaking killjoy. Which means that – counter-intuitively – if you want to scare a player you should make every effort to avoid killing them.

You need to approach the game with an awareness of how much real threat you want vs. how much perceived threat you need to create the right atmosphere. They are not the same thing.

When it comes to movies, people like Spielberg regularly use this sort of thing to create nail-biting moments. If you take yourself out of the movie for a second, you know Spielberg isn’t going to let the dinosaur eat the little girl. You know she’s going to live until the end of the movie. Yet when the dino is snapping and missing her face by an inch it’s still edge-of-seat time, because you’re immersed in the movie. This often works even when you’ve seen the movie before and there can be no doubt in your mind about the survival of the girl. You’re fully aware that the real threat is zero, yet the perceived threat is off the charts. (Assuming you’re into dino movies. Naturally tastes differ.)

If they’re immersed, the player will fear death the same way they will fear for the life of Spielberg’s pint-sized protagonist. Actually dying is a bit of a let down, though. They end up at the menu. Suddenly they realize that the death they feared is more of an inconvenience than a source of terror. They remember that it’s all just a game, and that they just lost. They’re either annoyed that they have to replay a lot of the game or relieved that they just saved recently. Either way, they are out of the game and death is no longer the great unknown. It’s going to take them a while to settle back into character.

Worse, dying means replaying a section of the game, which is counter-productive if you’re trying to manipulate them. They will notice that cat that jumped out or the shutters that banged in the wind right when they entered the room. The sound of footsteps from the floor above they heard right when they opened the cupboard. It seemed unnerving the first time, but when it happens again your artifice behind the experience will be exposed. Like pulling back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, they will see that there was never anything to be afraid of in the first place. Making the player replay a section is like doing the same magic trick twice.

Thus the goal is to menace the player with death while doing your level best not to kill them, to cheat (on their behalf) as far as you can without getting caught. You have to walk a fine line: If you’re too harsh, the player is yanked out of the game and dumped back at the loading screen. If you’re too gentle, the illusion will be broken and the player will realize you’re all bark and no bite. The real art of scaring the player – behind the monsters and spooky sounds and blood and frightening imagery – is to strike the right balance between these two extremes, to make the perceived threat as high as possible and the real threat as low as possible.

I’ll offer a few meager suggestions of my own:

  1. Have monsters pause right in front of the player for a blood-chilling howl – it scares them silly, but it also gives them a chance to back off and take a free shot or run or whatever they’re doing in this context. Half-Life 2 did this with the fast zombies, and it was one of their more frightening moments, despite it making them less dangerous.
  2. Monsters should telegraph their arrival. Those moments between the point where the player realizes they’re about to be attacked and the actual onset of combat are the most suspenseful moments, and you want to hit that note as often as you can. Silent Hill does this with the static radio sounds that precede monsters. Half-Life 2 does this with the howling of the fast zombies and their clanking as they climb the drainpipes. Again, having the monsters make noise makes them more frightening and at the same time less dangerous.
  3. If you’ve got a third-person game: Have monsters grab and the players and shake them for a second or two before chowing down, giving the player time to recover or pull away. Like the zombie grabbing your ankle in Resident Evil, it’s really alarming to have something grasp your avatar like that, and it will get the player’s heart pounding. Many won’t even think about the fact that they didn’t get hurt, they’ll be too busy thinking, “Gah! It touched me!”
  4. Have monsters do less damage as the player’s health gets low. This one seems cheap and obvious, but Valve Software has been doing it for years and most people never even noticed. This works the other way as well: Healing resources heal you in proportion to how injured you are.
  5. Take a page from Spielberg’s dino, and have the monster lunge too soon or too late, so it will just barely miss them. You don’t want to do this every time, and you probably want to save it for special occasions to keep your monster from seeming incompetent. Perhaps have the monster miss once if the player is very low on health.

But in any game with combat governed by player skill, you have to allow for death and work to mitigate its negative effects on immersion.

One of your primary goals is going to be to conceal how much you’re helping the player. If the player stops fighting back – maybe they went to get the phone, or a sandwich, or the batteries died on the wireless controller – then the last thing you want is for them to come back and see they’re still alive after fifteen seconds of standing passively while the hellspawn nibble away at them. It will shatter your illusion, for good. So, standing still needs to be very deadly. The same can be said for hopeless situations: If the player gets surrounded and backed into a corner from which there is no possible escape, it’s better to kill them outright than to wait for their health bar to run out. You could make such a situation an insta-kill: The player is dragged into the mob (away from the camera) like your classic zombie-movie victim. Again, killing the player is bad, but revealing that monsters aren’t an imminent mortal threat is worse.

I’ve said before that I think survival horror is one of the purest and most challenging forms of game design. Other genres can get by with amusing gameplay and graphical pizazz, but here you live and die on the strength of your ability to create an immersive experience. As most survival horror games have proven, you can create lots of stress by making a game with tricky combat and being stingy with healing supplies, and then spacing out save points as far as possible. Throw in a few cheap “gotcha” moments and you have the formula for a really nerve-wracking game. But creating fear requires a bit more finesse. This isn’t to say existing games aren’t scary at all. Some of them are excellent. It’s just that I think they could be even better if the weren’t undermining themselves so often.

Survival horror is very much a niche genre – much more niche than its movie counterpart – and I think this is because nobody has really tapped its potential yet. It might sound like hyperbole, but I honestly think that if a game designer would approach the task as someone working to create an experience, they could create one of those landmark titles that redefines the genre and sets the standard for future games.

Barring that, if I could get them to stop yanking me out of the world with meta-game decisions about when I should save the game I’d call it a step in the right direction.

Comments (89)

1 2

  1. IncredibleGeek says:

    I’m reminded of a moment in FEAR that sticks out to me as a good example of what you describe here. You’re crawling through dark pipes, you’ve been hearing noises all over the place, you’ve seen little glimpses of something around corners, and your flashlight is dying.

    All of a sudden bam! some little girl is headed right towards you not 10 feet away! You naturally panic and unload whatever weapon you happen to have with you and the apparition dissipates under the barrage of lead.

    At first you kind’ve wonder if your bullets really had any effect. Did is go away on it’s own? Was I just wasting ammo in a fit of panic? A friend of mine thought it was just a hallucination, so when he played through it, he went all tough guy and didn’t open up when she appeared. He promptly died. He was shocked.

  2. Eric Meyer says:

    I’m reminded of the first time I saw the “sentry gun” scene in the director’s cut of Aliens, after having seen the theatrical version quite a few times. It was remarkable: I knew there would be no casualties, but what I felt was quickly rising tension and even fear.

    So that’s another place game developers can look for sources of fearsome inspiration.

  3. Kennet says:

    “amusing gamplay amd graphical pizazz” <- I am assuming that was a typo? These articles are giving me an itching to make survival horror games. To bad I am only one man with no major game-company in my pocket...

  4. Shamus says:

    Kemmet: Thamks for poimting out typo. Fixed.

    Also: You and me both. I’m an RPG player at heart, but I think making spooky games is where the interesting work and opportunities exist.

  5. Nathanael Phillip Cole says:

    Sometimes, I’m curious if there are any games that you actually like.

  6. Jeremiah says:

    Handling character death can be a tricky thing. That goes for pretty much any medium. This wasn’t something I really thought about much until about a year or two ago when someone I know started talking about death in RPG’s (the tabletop kind) and it really made me think and I look at it a lot differently now. Before then, I (like probably a lot of people) saw character death as a necessary and important aspect of games.

    Now I realize there are many many ways to tell a good story and keep dramatic tension high and that death is pretty low on the list (at least for me).

    Back to your post: I think you’ve done an excellent job of seeing just how character death plays a role in this genre and how the idea of death, not just actual dying, can be much more satisfying although harder to utilize well.

  7. droid says:

    It’s not that counter-intuitive, it is like real life where if you want to scare me you should avoid killing me, cause then I would be beyond feeling.

  8. StingRay says:

    Fear is all about anticipation. Your imagination will always create something far worse than anything a designer might come up with. As such, you’re completely right, Shamus, about death. If the player is supposed to fear death, then it’s the anticipation of death that’s frightening. Death itself isn’t all that big a deal, in the end.

  9. Nick says:

    Another helpful tactic is creating less scripted events, and more random.

    Walking into a room the second time (after a game-save reload or a second run-through) is less fearful as the first, because you KNOW nothing will attack you until a certain point (Thief: Deadly Shadows, Cradle level), or after a certain sound.

    But with randomness, you may go into a room and not see a monster. Or it runs off instead of fighting (so you KNOW one is nearby, you just don’t know when it’ll attack). Or you hear the telltale sound of a monster attack, but it doesn’t actually attack (you spin circles, wondering from where the impending attack will come).

    Situations like the above create the feeling of possible death, instead of the feeling of “Gotta take out the ghoul in this room, when he pops out of the cupboard.” Games like the latter tend to make the monster, while predictable, scary only because it’s so hard to actually kill. The Pinkie in Doom3 is one such example of the latter. The former is not as common, but can be weak (a single shot) and STILL take you out.

    Which scares you more?

  10. GAZZA says:

    There are similar problems with pen-and-paper RPGs. Or at least I find it so – actually trying to scare players with a horror themed RPG is extremely difficult. I’ve tried it with Ravenloft, but D&D players are far too used to just killing monsters to get scared by them. I’ve tried it with White Wolf stuff, but that generally descends into Superheroes With Fangs (which is fine, but not the way that purists insist the game “should” be played).

    You can get tension occasionally – a nail biting fight against nasty opposition, at the climax of the night’s game – but it’s not really fear so much as excitement (and it is as likely to crop up in standard swords and sorcery fare). I’ve tried music, but that just gets distracting – and tinkering with the actual play environment (playing by candlelight, or other tricks like that) doesn’t really work too well either (just makes it harder to see the dice rolls). I suspect you could do it with some sort of non-randomised game more easily – a horror themed Amber game, or the like.

    Horror’s a tricky genre to get right, no matter what the medium. I do however unreservedly agree that actually killing the characters is generally a bad idea, no matter the medium. If you want to reinforce the idea that the big bad is … well, bad … then kill some nameless NPC/extra (depending on the medium). Don’t kill the stars – how can they be scared if they’re dead?

    Exceptions made for genres where resurrection is commonplace, or if there’s a possibility of only getting “mostly dead”. Scarring and mutilating are a much better idea for the purposes of fear than killing – if the tree-demon-thing had killed Ash, then it would have just been a short movie. But by possessing his hand and forcing him to cut it off himself, it not only freaked out the viewers but it led to some awesome chainsaw action…

  11. Fenix says:

    I remember my first time going through F.E.A.R. Just remembering all the “Did I just see that?!?”, and the “Holy $h!t” moments, definitely made it one of my favorite games to come out in a long time. Unfortunately I found the combat to feel a little iffy and sort of being a filler portion for the freak out moments.
    Oh, and as a side note. Many people seemed to think RE4 wasn’t really scary, and I agree for the most part, however, entering a dark hallway and hearing the heavy breathing of the regenerators still freaks me out.

  12. Arthur says:

    Here’s an idea: what about not telling the player precisely how much health they have? Just have some indication of when the main character is getting especially low on health (their heartbeat starts pounding in their ears, everything around them seems to slow down a little, the colours start draining out of everything, they stagger around and seem exhausted and about to drop, etc.), and make sure the character still looks bloodied and bruised when they get into a fight, but don’t actually tell them precisely how much damage they have taken, and how much they can take. If the player doesn’t know whether being grabbed by the throat by Pyramid Head and thrown against the wall takes out half their health in one hit, or is simply for flavour and doesn’t actually damage them (even though the character on the screen looks a bit more battered), then you’re really messing with their mind.

  13. Kevin says:

    One of my most memorable Silent Hill moments (other than SH1 when the world first went “dark”) was the very beginning of SH2 when you’re walking through a fog enshrouded forest… and you can hear things moving around you. You never see anything, and there’s nothing to fight, but it still creeped me right the hell out.

    BTW GAZZA, you can do similar things in a D&D game. Never let them see the monster, in fact, it’s almost better if they never even encounter it. But let them hear it. Let them see some horrible evidence of it’s passing. Let them find the shredded bodies of the senior adventuring party who could wipe their group with all hands tied. Then, in the middle of the night, with one character awake beside the embers of the evening’s fire, give them an earth shattering roar of anger and rage… close by… and watch what they do.

  14. Hawkehunt says:

    From a player perspective, that would both suck and be extremely awesome, tending towards the latter.

  15. Christian Groff says:

    Huzzah! I’m not a big fan of being frightened out of my shorts, but I like how you think, Shamus. Striking fear in people’s hearts is an art.

  16. Jonathan Grimwauld says:

    I am gonna have to checkout Silent Hill! I love the genre.
    I actually like painkiller because it has a decent underlying skin-crawling fear, even if it is very very predictable.

    And I’m reminded of the very first scary game I ever played – Abuse.

    Free Abuse – yeah, it loses the shiny scaryness after a while, but for a 2d scroller, it was amazing

  17. Crusader Corim says:

    The “not showing health” is used in the first 3 RE games (they give you a vague color, but no detail), and it’s a good idea. The scariest game I ever played was Eternal Darkness, and I think the reason that it worked is that it brought you into the game yourself. You felt like the game had it out for you, the player, as well as for your avatar, and the insanity effects that could hit either of you. It never broke immersion for me, and in fact, tended to deepen it. (One of my friends screamed like a woman at one of the scenes in that game)

  18. Russ says:

    One of the great ideas of horror is choosing to enter the darkness. There might be temporary safety by staying where you are, but that just means the darkness grows and will eventually consume you. So, you have to enter the darkness–in hopes of defeating it or surviving–so that it can’t consume you.

    Under this paradigm, the player should only be killed if they stop confronting the horror. Make it some sort of balancing act. Say, a sanity mechanism where the more the player confronts the darkness the more they go insane. They need a break from the horror to regain sanity, but if left for too long, the darkness consumes them and they are dead/insane/whatever.

    Perhaps when going insane (in the videogame) you start hearing whispers (are they coming or to get you or are you safe), hallucinate (are you shooting at a real monster or an imaginary one), and your vision darkness or gets blurry.

    Finally, here’s one other thing that has gotten me in the past:

    Normally monster X attacks on sight. However, this time, the monster that should attack me instead, spots the player and runs away. They have to ask themselves and answer quickly, “Should I throw caution to the wind and chase it down and prevent it from doing whatever it is planning on doing? Perhaps triggering a number of other encounters in the process? Or should I try not to panic, take a look of my surroundings and prepare for the worst.”

  19. Dev Null says:

    Shamus, about your linking of immersion with a demonstrably valid threat that (almost) never quite gets you. This balance between too easy (making the threat unbelievable) and too hard (beating you down and breaking immersion) is essentially a component of a known factor in psychology called flow. I’m not going to bang on about it, because I suspect its getting a little academic for a blog comment, but if you’re interested in what really drops people into an immersive experience, picking up something by Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi (who is a very clever man… with the world’s worst name to spell) on flow is pretty fascinating reading.

  20. Heph says:

    @Arthur: played it, no big deal. The way computer games are these days, it just means memorizing (or printing from the internet) a list like broken arm = about 25% gone, bruises in face = about 10% off, and so on. Hard to get right.

    Anyway, I’ll admit to not being a survival horror fan, myself, but….no, I realyl do’nt get this post. Perceived threat can be smaller than the actual threat (oh, he’s not going to do…what the hell? he just sliced my head off?!), but hardly ever greater, for me, anyway. If I know there’s little chance of death, I’m not scared. If the zombies catching me just means a minigame fo some sort – I’ll either like the minigame and let them get me, or not like it and avoid getting caught because of that…which is a lot worse immersionwise than having to remember to save.
    Can’t help it, maybe it’s just my personality, but suggestions 1 and 2 just make them easier to kill or lower their threat – “I know they’re not really all that dangerous, so why should I care about them?” or “if they catch me, I get a new 5 second head start, so I’ll slow down now”.
    Suggestions 4 and 5 are similar to one another – make the player last longer when the health meter gets low, either because the monsters do less damage or because their chance to miss increases. If they start missing, it’s either by reducing their chance, so random, so, rather useless information; if they will *always* miss the first killing blow, or the first blow after my health dropped to 25%, or whatever, I’ll start takign it in consideration. The second one’s even worse for that. It just reminds me of my car’s fuel gauge. I *know* that when it says it’s half-way full, it’s actually still over 3/4, so I just adjust my view on it. *nowing* that monsters take as much time to get me from 100% to 50% as they do from 25% to 0%, jsut means the health meter is skewed, not anything extra terrifying.

    Frankly, any way death is handled will, to me, have similar immersion breaking effects. Either it’s a reload, or it means losing X bonus points or progress made or whatever (which usually, to me, just means reload anyway), or it means an XP penalty, or some sort of monetary loss (think Diablo II). These are reasons to make me fear death, but nothing in-game will cause me to be scared for my avatar’s life….Worstt hat can happen is some sort of out-game punishment (XP penalty or time loss), otherwise…I don’t care.

    A way to make death mean something, and yet, not have it be completely immersion breaking, would actually sort of resort back to having multiple lives. But instead of lives, have differetn antagonists. A family of five trying to get out of Zombieville, if your avatar, the man, dies, you can play on with, say, the mother…But she’ll be slightly weaker and be heartbroken at the end,b ecause, you know, her husband died. She dies as well? Try again with the teenage son…But his ending’ll be even less happy. And so on. Obviously, any part of the game needs to be passable by any avatar and such things, and since the number’d haev to be limited, it’d create new problems and may cause game-ending scenarios (as in, damn, I’ve lost X in part A. Now I’ll never get past part B!).
    ‘course, new people can be acquired throughout the game to replace fallen ones (up to a point), but it’ll still make the ending less happy. Hurray! you saved…err…5 people out of a village of 120? Damn, you’re a sucky hero. Man, i’m going to need some therapy to get over seeing my father eaten alive :-(

    Note that even this type of death, to me, would probably result in a reload. I’m the type of person who wants to end a game as well as possible, alwyas having 2,000,000 health potions (or whatever) left over by the end of the game :-P

    Than again, as noted, I’m really not a Survival Horror player type.

  21. Shamus says:

    Dev Null: Thanks so much for that link.

  22. henebry says:

    Gazza: the best rpg system for horror is Call of Cthulhu, especially if you’ve got an experienced GM and a bunch of newbie players. Your character is equipped with a long list of everyday skills (Accounting, Listen, Sneak, Spot Hidden, etc.) and unless he can justify it by reference to back story, only minimal combat skill or equipment. Along with the rest of the party (perhaps a journalist and a schoolteacher) this accountant faces a well-financed cult equipped with hired goons and a high priest capable of summoning creatures from outer space. Worst of all, the more the party learns about what’s really going on, the closer the characters come to losing their sanity altogether.

  23. Skelnik says:

    My first encounter in survival horror is the Aliens mod for Doom 2. In particular, the first level didn’t have any enemies at all, but with the music and ambient sounds, you were creeping around every corner waiting for something to jump out at you.

    Oh, and I think Yahtzee is poking fun at you at the end of this week’s Zero Punctuation.

  24. kmc says:

    If you’ll forgive me for an argument that’s a bit of a stretch, I totally agree. I remember reading that, in dog training, a very effective way to get desired behavior is, eventually, give a treat only once in a great while. The idea is that, on an instinctive level, animals, including us, remember the things better that cause a great emotional reaction but happen very rarely. Therefore, if you only give a dog a treat once every ten times, the reaction to the treat is positive, and the other nine times, he is left in anticipation.
    Maybe it’s not true, but it sounds pretty viable, and from my own experience, I would bet that it would be a very successful gameplay rhythm: the player for whom, say, 95-99% of all encounters result in the anticipation of death has more invested, is more immersed, and is gaming at a higher level of emotional involvement.

  25. Susie says:

    The scariest moment in Amber for me was when I was exploring the house, and turned on the TV … until that point I didn’t think I could really die. I didn’t die, of course, but that made the poltergeist with the knives even scarier.

    Actually, as soon as I was finished exploring the house, the game stopped being at all scary.

  26. bryce says:

    of course, in my masochistic dreams I’ve always wanted a game in which if you die, the game ends and then uninstalls itself, and leaves a nastygram in the registry to prevent you from ever installing the game again.

  27. Alan De Smet says:

    GAZZA (10): I love the idea of a horror RPG, and have played a fair number, but they are flawed. The “try to simulate the real world” style of design doesn’t really capture what is important, so D&D Ravenloft or Call of Cthulhu are flawed. The result focuses on the numbers. Unknown Armies with its lightweight resolution system and detailed sanity system is better, but not ideal.

    I suggest checking out Dread (By Epidiah Ravachol and published by the Impossible Dread. It’s a white book with a bloody handprint. I’m not talking about Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium from Malignant Games/Neoplastic Press.) Dread chucks the core RPG assumptions out the window and starts over to build something specifically suited to horror. There is lots of good stuff in there, but the thing most people notice is the conflict resolution system. The summarize, you play Jenga. If you want to do something, and the GM decides it’s uncertain, you have to do one turn of Jenga. You can refuse, in which case your character fails but survives. If you succeed at the turn of Jenga, your character succeeds. If you fail, your character dies (or is otherwise written out). While seemingly silly, it’s far more immersive than dice and numbers, and it naturally builds up the tension as you go as the Jenga tower becomes less and less stable. The ability to refuse a turn creates very traditional horror scenarios where the protagonist fails as something, getting close to death, but somehow surviving.

  28. Heph says:

    Jenga. Seriously? Wow. Got to try that one. Practically speechless here (but I still post this bit of useless drivel. Hurray internet!)

  29. Galen says:

    I’m not a fan of these kinds of games but that’s mostly because I never tried. So my opinion is kinda moot. But from what Shamus has been saying I think that one key way to fix the problem of losing immersion by dying and losing immersion by never dying, could be helped along with other characters.

    If the AI was smart enough then why not have other people in the creepy zombie infested mansion? One thing that always threw me out of the immersion of creepy movies and the like is because the hero is so stupid. I think to myself, “Come on man, it’s full of horrible things of pain and you’re going in ALONE?! I would never do that.” From there I lose track of the movie and start thinking how I would have done it if it were me. Point is, railroading the character to do something stupid (eg. walking into certain doom ALONE) kinda ruins it for me. Other character’s with you makes sense.

    I realize that many people prefer to go it alone simply because the characters get stuck between two chairs and are rendered immobile until they get eaten. They shoot maybe one round per zombie and let you hang out in front while wasting the enemy. There are two options to fix this, 1. SPEND TIME ON MAKING AI! It’s a little old now but SW republic commandos had a good step in the right direction. your buddies DUCKED WHEN WALKING THROUGH YOUR LINE OF FIRE! So make the AI good. 2. Were someone to still want to go it alone, leave the option alone for the NPCs to stay back. In a safe place. Like, a base of some sort. Where they don’t get eaten because they wandered off. Ever.

    So Npc’s are logical and could work. How does this fix the original problem though? Not only are you trying to save your own butt, but now you have to make sure that your buddies aren’t overwhelmed. There is a fine line here between the good AI where the npc can defend itself and making it invulnerable. But I think having intelligent npcs that are just as powerful but can be overwhelmed would really be a step in the right direction. So now the character has to stay alive, while making sure his npcs stay alive. Again, nobody wants to babysit the hulk who never fires his blasted gun. So the npcs need to be just as vulnerable as you but not defenseless. If you incorporate enough into the npc, I imagine your team jabbering in hushed voices about themselves while crawling through the damp dark pipe. No I think if this were done right it would ADD to the mood. The player is now focused on hearing the backstories of the characters so they have not left the immersion while doing the seemingly mundane task of crawling through a pipe. Then when the zombie drops in while you were distracted you are even more shocked because you weren’t paying full attention.

    So npcs make sense, work if they are intelligent, become a liability to protect, and add more depth to the game.

    Dying. There are those of us who cried when our pikmin were eaten alive. There aren’t many of those people but if the backstory is there, the player develops a bond to these people especially since you’re crawling around zombie infested areas with death at every turn. When one of your npcs dies you’ve lost something major, but it wasn’t the immersion. It was a major setback but you are still in the game. This brings us to another problem, the “oh crap! Bob died! *reset*” problem. A nice way to fix this is to not have the character DIE die, but be incapacitated long enough for it to be a setback for you. They’re out of it so long that you would go insane just waiting, but not so long that you feel you need to start over.

    So now you worry not only about keeping yourself alive, but also making sure you aren’t set back by ‘losing’ one of your new friends. Death is real in the game because you keep seeing it happen, but not so bad that you feel you might as well quit. The major problem here is the balance of your npc, nobody wants to babysit necessary wimps. Again i refer back to SW republic commandos. That game had the right balance. By the end when red died, I felt bad. Maybe I’m just a sissy. Lemme know on that.

    And then we open up the door for co-op mode. But I don’t run this blog and this post is too freaking long as it is. But npcs definately make that an option.

  30. Daemian Lucifer says:


    “These articles are giving me an itching to make survival horror games. To bad I am only one man with no major game-company in my pocket…”

    That didnt stop yahtzee to make the chzo games.True,those arent really survival horrors,but they are tense.Even though there are incredebly few places where you can really die.

    @Heph & Galen

    The way of changing protagonists you described is how X-com deals with death.Sure,a few of your men can die,but as long as theres some left in the squad,you can finish the mission.And there are quite a few tense parts in that game.

  31. John says:

    How about the idea of the creeping death? You’ve been infected, things are going wrong, your arm is slowly turning black. You have to find an antidote or a cure or a blessing, but you don’t know how long you have…

  32. Galen says:

    It’s funny how the two people with the longest posts both admit to not playing this sort of game in the first place. Oh, and naturally the npc way works a lot better with say resident evil and the survival, more than the stealth. “Oh crap Bob got spotted and attracted a horde of zombies. Well he was a good soldier. *sneak away*”

  33. trousercuit says:

    FWIW, the first Metroid Prime did this very well in its opening sequence. There was nothing especially dangerous in the derelict Space Pirate vessel. The worst it had were mindless turrets and injured pirates. It was basically the tutorial section, so you could only die if you stood still in the wrong place. But with the music, the dead giant alien thing, the mangled pirate bodies, the logs of biological experiments gone wrong, the caged beasties you *knew* you’d have too deal with sometime (if they didn’t break out now), and creepy swarms of alien bugs (that did almost no damage), it totally freaked me out. I also played it first in the dark, late at night…

    It stopped freaking me out during the first boss fight. I was suddenly in familiar territory: find the weak spot and shoot it. Ah, well. They had a great thing going, but it wasn’t meant to be survival horror. It did a spanking job at it for a while, though.

  34. Kiwipolish says:

    @ Arthur Re: Not showing the Player’s Health

    Have you ever played the Call of Cthulhu X-box (or PC, which is sadly buggier) game? They did that, with the only visible cue to the player’s health being the character model on the menu screen, which would be appropriately battered and bloodied depending on the damage he’d taken. Not to mention, his injuries had effects on your gameplay – broken legs made him limp, too much blood loss and his vision would become blurry and monochrome, and failing to treat heavily bleeding wounds in a certain amount of time would lower your maximum health. It actually worked rather well, and the game itself was surprisingly good and genuinely terrifying (considering we had picked it up for $20 brand new, we assumed it would suck). The only trouble it had was exactly what Shamus mentioned – certain points in the game were so hard you would die a million times, and it became more frustrating than scary.

  35. Arthur says:

    @Heph: The fact that you suggest that you’d actually print off a list of what sort of damage each thing does off the internet leads to another point for me: the thing which really destroys survival horror games is walkthroughs. Being shown, in a clear and concise manner, what you can expect to happen, what you need to do, and what the internal workings of the game are pretty much destroys any hope the game has of inspiring suspense (through gameplay, at least – I know Silent Hill 2 pretty much off by heart and the story still scares me, but the gameplay really doesn’t any more). I would argue, in fact, that if you want to design a really good survival horror game, you really need to discourage players from reading walkthroughs, or at the very least don’t do stuff which encourages them to go scampering to a walkthrough.

  36. Kilmor says:

    RE4 does this somewhat well with the mostly invisible insect monsters. You can hear them and get very itchy on the trigger but very hard to tell where they’re at.

    Also, the grey elasti-men , the first time one of those got back up off the ground and immediately began feasting on the inside of my neck, I about peed myself.

  37. trousercuit says:

    Shamus, it sounds like the emotion you want to imbue is properly called “dread”: a fear of anticipated horrors. The main idea is that the one thing that actually happens is much milder than the sum of the thousand things that *might*. I seem to remember an article by Orson Scott Card on the subject, but I can’t find it online. Here’s an article by someone who agrees with Card on the subject, though.

  38. Daemian Lucifer says:


    Why?If you want to read a walkthrough before playing a game and thus ruin your experience completelly,then you are paying for the wrong kind of entertainment,but that is your choice.Walkthroughs dont ruin anything,and can be quite helpful from time to time.Just because some people dont know how to use them/are enjoying the games in a very weird manner,doesnt mean that walkthroughs are the problem.

  39. In the opening of the article, it almost seemed as if you were describing good old Nethack.

  40. Joshua says:

    Another thing that is good in survival horror would be the “holy shit that was close” feeling.

    Could be pulled with maybe a strange convulsing monster that zigzags its way towards its target, and the only way to kill it is to shoot it in a weak spot. (Maybe the head.) It would move extremely fast at long range, making the player try to shoot it a lot, but as it gets closer, it begins to slow down and the player’s adrenaline-fueled aim manages to take it down when the difficulty is lowered. So the player thinks they managed to kill the super-fast crazy thing just before it managed to kill them, even though the monster was going slower than it was before, and may have even stopped for a horroar.

    Did that work? “Horroar”?

  41. Death: someone wrote an article in the Escapist about player deaths in single-player RPGs, arguing that “quicksaves + frequent dying” operate at cross-purposes; rather than enhancing the sense of risk, frequent deaths are at best a minor annoyance and at worst a total immersion breaker. I’d say the same is true of all SP story-focused games: when player death is easily undone, all you’re doing is disrupting the flow of the narrative. The quicksave-reload mechanic is a crutch that game designers need to learn to do without, IMHO.

    Fear vs dread: someone once said that fear is what you feel when the monster leaps through a window at you, while dread is what you feel while waiting for the monster to attack; i.e., it’s surprise vs suspense. Of the two, dread is more effective and longer-lasting, but much harder to pull off, because you’re constantly trying to convince the player that something bad is about to happen. I.e., it’s about the perception of potential danger, rather than actually being attacked.

    [This, incidentally, is one of the things F.E.A.R. gets wrong, because at a certain point I realized Alma isn’t a real threat; her appearances stop being scary when you realize she can’t hurt you.]

  42. Drew says:

    Daemian Lucifer:

    I think Arthur’s point was that the following sequence is quite common:

    1) Player installs game, starts enjoying it, really gets into the suspense
    2) Player runs into a ridiculously hard/complicated section of game that defies logic
    3) Player finds himself a walkthrough to pass this section
    4) Player reads a little more of the walkthrough, just to see if there’s anything else he needs to know
    5) Player ends up losing all sense of suspense, because he’s already read what’s coming

    The walkthrough isn’t a bad thing by itself, but its very existence can lead to a situation where something which would be frightening on its own loses a lot of what it has going for it. For example, maybe there is a long section of the game with no meaningful danger, but which hints at danger constantly. When the walkthrough says “Don’t worry, there’s nothing that will attack you” for that section, all of a sudden the fear is gone. Or instead of running around frantically looking for some switch you just KNOW has to be nearby while all the while being chased by a madman, you know where that switch is from the walkthrough, and several minutes of tension are gone.

    I think it’s a fair point that in this age of freely available walkthroughs for any and every game, designers need to change their approaches and can’t necessarily count on surprising a player. OR, players need to resist the urge to go to that omniscient walkthrough any time they’re stuck. Focus on enjoying the game, not just beating it.

  43. Wood says:

    “amusing gamplay amd graphical pizazz” <- I am assuming that was a typo?

  44. Heph says:

    I do agree with the bit about a walkthrough often destroying suspense and immersion. It’s still frequenbtly used – often just for that.

  45. Nazgul says:

    I too was struck by the parallels to pen-and-paper RPGs. As the DM, you usually want to bring the fear of death (or worse) without actually killing off the players, unless they well and truly have crossed a line that makes them deserve it. But you can’t fudge it too far the other way or they’ll expect you to save them again and again with yet another “unlucky” roll. It’s easier in some systems/genres than others.

    I always remember the original Doom as perhaps the scariest computer game I’ve played, much more so that the “horror” genre games I have tried. Some of the latter let you relax way too much between encounters.

  46. Arkmagius says:

    > 2. Oh man. The grue is going to eat me and I haven't
    > saved in half an hour.

    That’s the problem I have with Hitman: Blood Money. I’m stuck playing at Rookie and Normal difficulty because they limit your saves as you go up the difficulty curve. It’s the most artificial device I’ve seen in a game, and it really doesn’t work. It makes me not want to play, since I use elaborate, tedious to set up, half-an-hour or more assassination schemes. A death on higher difficulty just makes me turn the console off rather than start all over.

    (Also, Blood Money is the most immersive non-RPG I’ve played in a long time. There’s something about not being shot at unless you screw up that makes it more… real. And it has about as many ways to complete each level as Deus Ex did. If you can get past the violence (and indeed, the basic premise: the tutorial does an incredible job of explaining just how evil you are), it’s a good game, despite the flaws.)

  47. kmc says:

    On the NPC issue: I wonder how much the company would put the suspense at risk. However, I’m not ready to rule it out, and what if, instead of being irritatingly prone to death, they were incapacitated (as someone suggested earlier), and to proceed you have two choices. Leave them behind, possibly losing an important asset, or help them in some way, maybe even mini-games involving using your environment to cobble together crutches or splits or something that would then cause you to linger in a dangerous (but not yet deadly) area that you’d rather move past.

  48. Ben says:

    For me, personally, the most scary thing in games is gore. Not run of the mill gore, because obviously that is a given in almost every game these days, but absolutely horrific “holy crap did that just HAPPEN?” gore. The prime example of this is when the chainsaw guys catch you in Resi 4 and saw off your head, slowly and deliberately. Yuck. I was creeped OUT.
    Have you heard about the Splatterhouse remake they’re doing? Apparently it has completely real-time damage. Coupled with the fact that your character can’t really die, this makes for some squicky gameplay when you get caught in a maelstrom of hungry flesh-eating zombies.

  49. Matt` says:

    Sounds like Valve are going for the “make it easier if you do badly, make it harder if you do well” mechanic in Left4Dead.

    So when you have a stack of ammo and full health, you can expect a zombie horde around the next corner, followed by a big bad bastard of a boss.

    When you’re all limping along, barely scraping together enough bullets to put down a lame horse, it’ll go easier on you and provide some medpacks or ammo crates.

    Hopefully it won’t go too far with this… it should always still be possible to fail.

  50. Alexis says:

    I despise games where you can paint yourself into a hole unknowingly. Eg Ninja Gaiden 2, which ends in a series of boss battles. If you try and do those without HP items, you WILL fail, and there is no opportunity to go farm.

    I also dislike, on some level, every game that makes me save. I don’t want to know such a thing as a savegame exists. I want to just turn it on and start playing. Anything else creates metagaming and needless frustration – like any outdated mechanic (eg permadeath and the Review Board in Bard’s Tale).

    Death penalties suck. I already lost my time.

    Casual games seem to grok this. Imagine if after losing Bejeweled, you had to wait 60s before you were allowed to start a new game. Craziness.

    Imagine if you had to save your score. So to get the high score, you had to ‘quickload’ after every game when you didn’t beat it. People would probably claim intense use of the save system like this was cheating…

  51. Kaeltik says:

    Just brainstorming here:

    A buddy and I are working on an endless maze/dungeon generator. Basically, you enter a maze and whenever you approach the “edge”, it generates more maze. If an option is toggled, then as soon as you get a certain distance into the new section, it forgets the old one, so if you backtrack, the path is different. Each maze is “perfect”, in that there is exactly one path from every point to every other point, so there is no danger of getting trapped in a loop and every subsection is traversable. (The dungeon version introduces doors, so there are multiple paths. Perfect mazes make terrible dungeon crawls.)

    What would it be like to be chased through something like that by nasty, half-seen things? What if a bunch of unique avatars are released into the maze at once and you can split up or stick together as you choose? If you split up, you hear the others scream in agony and can stumble across recognizable bits of gore. If you stick together, the guy running in the rear will occasionally get grabbed when no one is looking.

    Speed would be the key: keep moving and stay vigilant and the odds of death stay low; fall behind the pack or stop paying attention and you may die.

    Mechanistically, it would have to be online, maybe an MMO model. Death would irrevocable and your previous save is deleted when you restart. Saving then becomes just something you do when you have to step away.

    The characters can grab a couple bits of equipment here and there, but the point is to see how far you can get, not to develop any character stats or find some real big gun. Maybe if folks feel the need for closure, once your aggregate survival time or distance traveled reaches some mark you can find an end to the maze, after some sort of suitably stressful endgame challenge.

    The trick to maintaining suspense would be to avoid direct revelation of some dangers and to avoid repetition. Again, this might require a development team in the MMO mold.

    Unless someone can come up with a procedural way to generate new horror.

  52. Daemian Lucifer says:


    At least its not like the original hitman where you had no saves at all.The most DIAS game Ive ever played.*grumbles!*


    Well made NPCs work.Look at alyx in HL2.She cant die(maybe she can,but then she has a bajillion health or something),but you do care for her.Of course,this requires a good story,personality and AI to be developed,and thats massive work.

  53. Dev Null says:

    A buddy and I are working on an endless maze/dungeon generator.
    What would it be like to be chased through something like that by nasty, half-seen things?

    And then you could eat the big proton pill and chase the ghosts, but only for a little while. And sometimes, there’d be fruit. *wink*

  54. Justin says:

    I’ve seen a few mentions of flow in the other comments, and it reminded me of Beyond Good and Evil. I know that it isn’t survival horror, but there was excellent flow. To wit: the cut scenes were all done with the game engine, and I sat and watched the opening cinema in awe. Then the monster whacked me! There was no clear demarcation of the end of the cinema. This kind of thing happened more than once, to the point that I kept trying to control my avatar at all times. I think that would be an excellent way to dial up the tension and maintain the ever-important immersion that you need to have a really good horror game.

  55. Heph says:

    @Alexis and Kaeltik. That was sort of what they were going for with the save-and-exit bit of Diablo II. Worst way of handling saving ever. Either allowing saving when I want it, allow saving only in certain areas, or allow only autosaving by the game. Saving “only when you need to stop playing” just means more frustration to some, like myself.

  56. Claire says:

    Hm. Frequent death, or death with consequences? Why not both? *re-installs nethack*

    (two weeks later, and finally home from coloring at the psych hospital for a while)

    Oh, right. That’s why.

  57. Tom Armitage says:

    I’m playing Ico for the first time at the moment.

    (I know, I know).

    It’s not survival horror, but it’s interesting how the “survival” and “fear” instincts kick in precisely because there’s no HUD. Ico has no health; apart from falling too far, he basically can only be knocked over. So Yorda serves as a health-bar of sorts: if she gets sucked too far into the shadow-portal, it’s game over, man.

    And nothing’s more frightening than a health bar that’s off-screen: when you can’t see Yorda, you panic, and as you hold R1 to focus on her, you lose sight of Ico. You quickly mitigate fear, because it’s very easy to pull her out of the hole, and you have quite a while to do it… but because there’s no gauge or number by her, as she sinks in, the pressure is much greater: either she’s alright or she’s not, and it could change any minute… so you just have to cope.

    (Incidentally: although changed in the action-heavy RE4, the earlier Resident Evil’s did health quite well – no on-screen health bar, and a very crude on in the menu that basically said “Good”, “Alright”, “Nearly Dead”. Your character’s animation and textures served, most of the time, as crude damage feedback).

  58. Freykin says:

    Heph: Diablo II also autosaves at set intervals, without telling you. I forget how frequent it is, but it’s fairly often.

  59. Bizarre says:

    I’m reminded of Arcadia in BioShock.

    The first Houdini Splicer you meet, the one who begs you to save him, calls out “Oh Jesus, help me!”, the one you always seem to be one step behind until you hit a dead end.

    Then you turn around.

    I nearly jumped out of my chair.

    Of course, then you end up slaughtering them by the dozen with explosive buckshot and electrified crossbow bolts. But that first time you ever meet one was one of the best immersive moments I’ve experienced in a game.

  60. Heph says:

    @freykin: Yes, but you can’t *load* from those saves, they’re only useful if the game crashes on you.
    The only way to exit DII (legitimately) is by saving and exiting. And you always restart in town, no matter where you were at the moment of an auto-save. Which turns them into horrible, treasure-stealing monstrosities, really.

  61. kmc says:

    Just thought about this today–if you used the half-life engine, for instance, you could make a portal gun where you only controlled one end of the portal. It could have a limited number of uses, or maybe a set number per time period, because you wouldn’t have to use it to play the game, and it wouldn’t give you that much of a benefit. You’d never know where the portal would open out on to. You could see through it, just like in Portal itself, but you’d have to wait until you used it to find out whether it allowed you access to a safer or unexplored area, or whether it opened out onto the room full of zombies you just left. It would only really work in games where you had more sandbox mechanics in play, I think.

  62. DarkLadyWolf says:

    I know others have mentioned it, but the very first level of Shalebridge Cradle from Thief: Deadly Shadows was brilliantly executed.

    There were no enemies. None. And yet, even knowing that, even knowing that I could wander around unharmed, I was tense, I moved from shadow to shadow; and any time I had to move into the light to look at something closer, I felt the hairs of the back of my neck prickling.

    The rest of the Cradle, once they introduced actual enemies, was just as tense, but for different reasons. Interestingly, most of the enemies died very easily, so weren’t much of a threat. But the background sounds, the atmosphere, kept the whole thing wound up tightly.

    That’s how it should be!

  63. R4byde says:

    Sounds like Valve are going for the “make it easier if you do badly, make it harder if you do well” mechanic in Left4Dead.

    So when you have a stack of ammo and full health, you can expect a zombie horde around the next corner, followed by a big bad bastard of a boss.

    When you're all limping along, barely scraping together enough bullets to put down a lame horse, it'll go easier on you and provide some medpacks or ammo crates.

    Hopefully it won't go too far with this… it should always still be possible to fail.

    Bah, it’s Valve we’re talking about here, of course they’ll make it far too easy just like all their other games. If someone(Me) who has never played your game(Half-life 1) before, can beat it first time through playing on the hardest difficulty without EVER dieing,(Besides those God-Awful jumping bits.) you have some problems.

  64. The more I reflect, the more I’m convinced that a level design where you have to sneak and explore until you are ready to “solve” the level by running like heck through it to the next level offers some fun. Perhaps not every level, but a survival sneak/explore/sneak/run like heck game offers some fun.

    You don’t have the ability to fight much, just the ability to run like heck.

    So you have to scout, get tools, pass codes, etc. and then make your break and run for it.

    Each level is a complex explorable puzzle, where one slip and the eat you (though you obviously will try to run for it, just not being prepared).

    Has some pulse pounding potential.

    I need to think about how I would put it together.

    Zombies out of the sewers and you were left behind in your hospital bed? You need to sneak into the middle of the city, grab some mcguffin and get out alive? (The cure in a lab, the ransom for your kid, your kid perhaps?).

    I think lots of running from things you can’t beat would add something to a game, especially if some of them are faster than you are.

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