Every now and again I like to check in on the games on NG, to see if we've got any new comments as I think it's important to maintain a relationship with our players ( I wish I could say the same about Kong, but it usually just makes me angry. Sorry, but it's true ).
Anyway a recent comment really got under my skin, I don't know why, somethings just do don't they.
"It isn't scary. A rather glaring flaw in a Survival Horror game, isn't it?"
Ok, possibly a valid point, so I decided to look into scary games to see what we were doing wrong in comparison. I've finally bought Dead Space, after reading every other comment telling us that Outpost:Haven is so similar ( Oh you crazy kids, we stole everything from Alien Breed, not Dead Space. We're old ), so my survival horror playing is quite limited, the old Resident Evil games and that, so I'm sure there are other examples which will disprove my theories, let it be.
The core themes in survival horror gameplay seem to be:
- Restricted movement. You're always kind of sluggish which creates a feeling of vulnerability, which increases the fear. Knowing your avatar can't parkour up the wall to safety means you're always going to be drawn into a confrontation. They normally add a run button for those between the action bubble times, as you don't want to be plodding between scary rooms, but when you're in actual combat the run is usually pretty ineffective.
- Restricted view. RE and Dead Space use that over the shoulder 3rd person view for a reason. Your own avatar creates tension as it blocks a lot of your view, forcing you to rotate around to see that blind spot. It's the gaming equivalent of opening the big fridge door when you know the beast with the teeth and claws is going to be there when you close it again for a shock reveal.
- Monster closets. A jump is the easiest way to get a shock, the toaster makes me jump every time when it pops, and I know it's going to because I put the bread in there. A lot of games in this genre rely on that, the monster jumping out of nowhere to make you fill your pants. Which leads nicely onto...
-QTE. Tap the hell out of (A) to get away from the thing with the razor teeth, otherwise it's going to eat your face. The only way you can really have monster closets is to allow the player to break free ( And almost turn it into a mini-game ). Basically it's a fix for broken gameplay. If you played a platformer and a baddie appeared out of nowhere and killed you, you wouldn't play that game again as it's not fair. Monster closets aren't fair, so there needs to be a fix for that unfairness so they can keep the easy scares, and QTE's are just that.
- Limited Resources. In the DN8 games I tried to always make you, our sexy player, the most powerful thing on screen. You should always feel like you can kick arse, and it's just the sheer weight of numbers of the baddies which make it a challenge.
In a survival horror game it's the opposite. It goes back to that word again, vulnerability. You're always trying to get more ammo and health, and usually you have to sacrifice something cool out of your inventory to make room. You're traditionally the weakest thing in the game, it's an uphill struggle, good vs evil, Davis vs Goliath. Like most horror stories the end evil is always more powerful than the protagonists, and it depends on a mixture of their inherent goodness and cunning to beat the unbeatable. Survival horror games have just taken that and ran with it.
- Sights and sounds. A lot of games both visually and sonically play on our fears. It's an inbuilt impulse to dislike certain things, a rotting corpse is nasty because it's in our DNA to think it's nasty, it's to stop us eating it and getting ill. Animals that scurry and slither scare us on a deep biological level as we know they're a potential threat ( Even cats and dogs don't like shit like that, that's why they always spin around a couple of times before sitting down, to make sure there's nothing nasty beneath them to sink it's venom dripping fangs into them ). There's a reason bees are yellow and black, we have all these inbuilt hangups that are just part of us ( And for anyone reading thinking "I'm not scared of spiders though, and they scurry" well you're wrong. So very fucking wrong ).
There are quite a lot of key things like this, and a lot of survival horror games play on them, that's why you'll see a lot of baby type monsters in a game, we're designed to protect the young ( That's why kittens and puppies are so cute, big eyes, cute noses, they are things that we respond to and want to protect. Animals aren't silly ) so having the young turn against us and transform into something horrible jars us. Likewise things bursting out of bodies plays on our sexual hangups in a very deep way. These are cliches, but they work as they're built into is. How many games have you played with a creepy child's laughter, or a woman's scream ? These are on buttons for us.
So where does that leave us with the Outpost games ? Pretty much screwed. We're a top down game which doesn't restrict the players view, as that would be cheating. We can't impair your field of view too much as then that becomes a mechanic [ Creating a forced sense of vulnerability ] which overrides the actual gameplay. Sure we can put you in a room and kill the lights, but we have to turn the lights back on before anything crawls out of the dark, otherwise it wouldn't be fair.
Likewise, we can't really use a Quick Time Event when you're under attack as, well, it's not really playing a game is it ? Mashing a key over and over to be released is a crude fix for a bigger problem. So many games which use that approach will have sequences when there are baddies lined up, and if you get it wrong you're button mashing one baddie and as soon as you break free the next one gets you. It's not enjoyable, it's just a sense of relief when it's over, as it means the frustrating part has ended. It's the gaming equivalent of scratching an itch. As we can't ( Or rather won't ) use QTE's, we can't have monster closets as such. Yes we have spawn holes, but they're always pretty well sign posted and they never trigger so close to you that you can't react.
One thing we did do was restrict movement to a certain degree. Your avatar moves pretty slowly, and even slower when shooting / collecting items / bumping into tables and chairs. This was slated so much that in a dot release of Outpost:Haven I speeded up the movement, and in both Swarm and O2 the movement is faster by default. Not a great success there then.
What other tropes can we take away and use in a top down 2D Flash survival horror ? We sort of limit your resources, but not to any huge degree because we can't use a lot of the above we have to depend on that old chestnut, weight of numbers, to create a sense of terror ( Look at any non-Resident Evil zombie game in the past forever, they're dumb and slow for the most part, but there's just so fucking many of them ), and in Outpost:Swarm we take that to the nth degree, that is basically the whole game.
One thing I didn't mention above was the narrative, as that's common in most games ( Even Donkey Kong has some bullshit story attached to it ). If we do that right, and ground it in realistic terms you can relate to, it can help give us some horror for "Free".
The whole Owlmen theme improved the Outpost games a lot, it hopefully stopped it being a battle between various sprites and became a unravelling mystery. There's a reason Stephen King mostly grounds his stories in realistic environments, it makes it easier for us the reader to believe it, and when the shit goes down it could be us there facing off with a clown with silver eyes. That's why we have papers scattered on the floor in Haven, you know by the time we have big mining ships in space like that paper won't be a thing anymore, we'll all have Google Glasses as contact lenses, or drilled straight into our brain. But to try and ground it in something relatable we use paper as a simple short hand for disarray. We've all unfortunately seen the after math of explosions in office buildings, and dozens of stray sheets of paper is one of the images you take away from that. It doesn't fit the time we're trying to portray, but it fits the theme we're aiming for.
Lastly, we can't compete visually with 3D survival horror games, we're restricted by the format we chose, but sound can make a large difference. I was really proud of the sound we had in O:H, it was so much work but well worth it. With O2 we're adding a lot more, I've just the other day added an "Ambient Sound Manager" which plays additional random noises in the background, which really adds to the experience.
Ok, we're at the end, well done for making it this far. The question was "Is it survival horror", and after looking at the genre, it's still hard to say. Cop out answer I know. We don't adhere to all the usual cliches, but I think it's more than a spooky version of Gauntlet. All I know is that one small comment, in what was really a great review by a Newgrounds member, has inspired me a lot. Both to look into the genre as a whole, and to try and make sure you mess your pants whilst playing O2.