Wednesday, 5 December 2012

High-Level Storytelling Design

Introduction
I recently started to play the demo for the upcoming adventure game Primordia. I really like the art-style, the setting, themes and the characters (perhaps with the exception of a somewhat annoying companion). Despite this I am finding myself not being that engaged when playing it. The main reason for this is that the game is in a very traditional point-and-click form, which means that it is mainly all about solving puzzles. Despite some good design and an in-game hint system, its gameplay back-bone is holding it back.
Note: This does not mean that Primordia is bad game though, more on this in the end notes.

At the same time we have currently been in the middle of going over some design thinking in our upcoming Super Secret Project. We have been trying to evolve the type of high level design we have used for our previous games and in that process encountered a few problems and come to a few intriguing insights.

The problems I had with Primordia and the issues we have had with our own project are closely related and deal with the high level design used for games focusing on story-telling. This sort of design is what this post will be about. I will start by going over the basic problems, then cover more recent advancements and finally outline our own approach.


The Immersion Conjecture
Since the middle of the 90s or so, the image of adventure games as the kings of videogame storytelling has slowly dwindled. Instead they have given way to more action oriented titles and nowadays most of the major storytelling efforts lie in the action-adventure genre. What has happened is that the puzzle-centric design has been replaced by one where some sort of core mechanic makes up the bulk of the experience.

I think neither of these approaches is a good way to properly do storytelling in a game. The problem with both are that they have a strong focus on the competitive aspect of games. In both of these designs the main goal is not about being immersed but about beating challenges. I have discussed this to great lengths in the paper The Self, Presence and Storytelling. The points important for this discussion are the following:

  • Challenge-oriented games have a core design which I call "black box design". This means that the main goal for the player is to intuitively figure out the game's underlying systems and to beat them.
  • When the focus is on a system of a game, it detracts attention from, or even directly contradicts, its fiction. As a result it diminishes the story aspects of the game.
  • The main focus of  games with storytelling should instead be on creating immersion or, more precisely put, a sense of presence. This is done by having a strong continuous input-out loop between the player and game.
Before going into high level approaches that focus on immersion, the normal adventure design need to be discussed. 


The Puzzle Approach
This approach is pretty much how all of the classic adventure games are built. In essence, they are made up from a set of interconnected tasks that need to be completed. In order to get to A you need to B and C, C requires that D and E are done and so forth. The entire game basically becomes a big puzzle for the player to solve.

This approach has its root in the very first adventure games ever made: Adventure. The game started out as a mapping of a cave system that the author, William Crowther, had been part of exploring. When making an interactive version of it, various puzzle elements, partly inspired by D & D, were added. Apparently the author did not find the virtual exploration of the caves engaging enough on its own. Something more was needed, and the puzzle elements was added to fill that void; a decision that would go on to influence the coming decades of adventure games. (I wonder how different history would be if Crowther had added some Dear Esther-like narrative instead!).

The reason why this approach is so successful is because it makes it very easy to weave an interactive environment together with a story. The puzzles always give the player various tasks to do which provides motivation to go forward. More importantly it serves as a mean for the player to become part of the game's world. It makes it meaningful to converse with characters and it forces players to understand how the virtual world works.

This comes as a cost though. Because the focus is on constantly providing riddles and quests for the player, the game must have a story that support this. There must be a reason for the player to question characters, ways to provide clear goals, plenty opportunity to set up obstacles and an environment that support clever puzzles. The result of this can be seen very clearly; most adventure game are either some variation on mystery/detective story or a classic, fairytale-like, grand quest one.

On top of this comes the problem discussed in the paper, namely that the constant scrutinizing of the game's world eats away on the player's make-belief. It is simply not possible for players to let story-engagement be their main focus. If they fail to stay in a puzzle solving mindset the game will refuse them to advance. This often leads to the somewhat weird situation where playing the game with a guide is more enjoyable than playing it the proper unguided way.

These problem have been known for quite a while, and in recent times some games have popped up that try to do things differently. I will now discuss the most widely used, and most successful, alternative.



The Linear Plot Approach
The basic premise for this approach is to craft the game like a normal non-interactive story. One then looks for parts were it is possible to insert some sort of player interaction and add these to the otherwise passive experience. (This is not how would go about creation such a game exactly, but it describes the type design quite nicely.) The first game I know that did this was Photopia, and it used it very successfully. It is widely regarded as a highly rewarding and emotional experience. The approach has been more popularized by Fahrenheit, which unfortunately got a much more negative response. More recently the approach gained a lot of success in Telltale's adaption of The Walking Dead and here this approach have really showed its advantage to a bigger audience. I think it is by far the best usage of a linear plot design done so far. To The Moon is another, and different, example that also uses this approach to great effect.

What makes this approach so effective is that it is much better at keeping up the narrative momentum. When using the puzzle approach, it is highly likely that players will get stuck and taken out of the experience. With the linear plot approach this happen very rarely since the game is so focused. Right before it is time to give the player control, the protagonist can pretty much explicitly state what is needed to be done without it feeling out of place.

What I find striking about this approach is the very strong scenes that the games let you take part in. Heavy has the basement capture and self-mutilation scene. Walking Dead has the staircase stand off and mercy killing scenes. By having a very strict and controlled path throughout the game, it is possible put the player inside very specific scenes that would have been hard to set up in other kind of games.

Another big advantage is that it allows for a lot more diverse stories, as there is much less pressure on building everything into a puzzle structure. The approach has focus on the presence building qualities of the game medium instead of the competitive (black-box) aspects. Games like Photopia and Walking Dead clearly show how effective this is and there is probably a lot more that can be explored here.

Of course all is not well with designing a game in this way. There are some areas that are really problematic. The main issue is that there is not really much interaction, especially when it comes to building a sense of presence. The basic premise of the approach is just this, so it is really an intrinsic fault and not that interesting to discuss. However, more subtle, and intriguing, problems arise when it comes to picking the actual parts where the interaction happen. Two main issues arise here.

One is that it is very hard to have some sort of consistency in interaction, partly because activities can be so diverse and partly because they happen so rarely. Heavy Rain went the route of QTE's and the result is not that good. While there are some really good scenes, as a whole there are just too many arbitrary button presses. Walking Dead does it a lot better with having a few types of more intuitive input, such as aiming a cross-hair and mashing a single button. But the infrequent usage and not always clear functioning makes this problematic still. Dialog usually work better, but that interaction lacks a tight feedback loop instead. (However, an interesting way in which both games try and make this more immersive if by having a time-limit and banging on about how every choice has consequences).

The other issue is that much of the sense of exploration evaporates. Whenever players are given a space to explore it is very confined and static. The cause of this is that the game always need to make sure that you can go back into "cut scene mode" after an interactive section is over. There is a bottleneck that needs to be reached with very specific requirements met. This means one has to be very careful about moving characters, changing the environment, and so on, in order for the next cut scene to feel coherent. There is also the problem of keeping the quality of characters when starting a less controlled section that lack the tightly polished look of a cut scene. This means only so much can be done with characters during these more open sequences. Finally, because you need to have some overall unity in the control scheme, any open sections can only have the simplest of input. Usually only movement is allowed and the rest handled by some sort of menu like system (basically like a point-and-click game). In the end interaction during these part come off as clunky and contrived.

There is also a big problem when it comes to production. Simpler games like Photopia and To The Moon do not suffer so much from this, but in a game like Heavy Rain it is very evident. Because much of the game is not actively played but passively watched , the need for high quality cut scenes is a must. It needs to be made sure that the player can be engaged when the presence-feedback loop is weak or completely missing. This means tons of assets, which in turn requires the game to be planned far ahead. For instance, Heavy Rain had the complete script written before the production started. And then all motion capture and voice recording needed to be done before gameplay could be tried out. When it comes to making the actual game there is little room for change and iteration, and one basically has to stick with the script. This is a big disadvantage for interactive media as much of the real good stuff can come from unexpected directions.

While linear plot design gives a better sense of flow in the narrative and a more coherently immersive experience, it still feels lacking. The main problem is that there is so much interactive down-time and great loss in the feeling of exploration. There needs to be some other way of doing things. For our upcoming Super Secret Project we wanted to try a different route and craft an experience where you play the whole time.



The Scene Approach
The design that we have come up with is something I will refer to as the "Scene Approach". The basic idea is that you give the player an area, a scene, where they are free to roam. When appropriate players are able to leave and enter the next scene. Each scene should have a strong focus on some form of activity and/or theme  and be self contained. Moving on to the next scene should be evident, either by a very simple interaction (e.g. opening a door), some form of activity (e.g. starting a generator) or by reaching some sort of state (e.g. waiting for a 2 minutes). The same underlying base mechanics should be used throughout the game and interactions should behave in a consistent manner. The wanted end result is to have an experience where the narrative flows throughout the game, but retains a tight interaction loop and a strong sense of agency. It is basically about taking the better interactive moments from the linear plot approach and stretching them out into scenes with globally coherent interaction.

Is this really possible? The moments in the linear plot approach have been carefully set up and are normally extremely focused and contained. Is it really possible to recreate this in a more open environment and without any cut scenes? The scene approach cannot possibility recreate every situation found in a linear plot game, but if done correctly it should be possible to come pretty close.

The first requirement is that the levels need to be designed in such a way that players are rewarded and driven towards behaving in certain ways. For instance, in early designs we tried to give tons of freedom in what players could do, but much of this freedom resulted in actions that went against the narrative. This is negative freedom. Instead we have tried to limit actions into "what makes sense for the protagonist to do" and do so without breaking any sort of consistency. This is positive freedom. The goal is then to eliminate the negative freedom and maximize the positive one, which is very simple to say but have proven hard to do in practice.

Even with a neatly designed scene, all is not set. There is still the problem of communicating the goals. Early on I thought that it was just a matter of having an interesting enough environment and players would partake in the activities provided. The problem is that the larger the environments become the harder it is for players to figure out what is of interest and what is not. It is also very easy to loose ones sense of direction and become unsure of what to do next. This problem is even more severe now that we pulled back on the problem solving focus. Players are not in the mood for constantly looking for clues but are instead focused on soaking up the narrative and having an immersive experience. This is how we want them to be, and should thus not be something that hinders progress.

To get around this, we have had to made sure that the larger a scene is, the more clear and obvious your end goal becomes. Also, any activity in a large area should always be optional unless it is closely related, both spatially and conceptually, to the object or state that makes the game progress to the next scene. Whenever the player is required to carry out some activity, the scope of a scene need to be decreased. The greater the freedom is in terms of possible actions, the less actions must be compulsory.

The scenes themselves are not the only problem though. A perhaps even greater concern is how to connect them. At first I thought this would not be a big issue and that you could get away with pretty loose connections. Problems arise very quickly though, the main being that the experience simply stops making sense for the player. There must be some sort of logical connection and narrative flow between each scene. If not it becomes increasingly harder for player to figure out what they should be doing. This means either lowering the degrees of positive freedom or to have more set up for each scene. The first option gives something like Thirty Flights of Loving and the second is basically to use the linear plot approach. We do not want to do either, so having clear connections is a must.

This results in an a sort of curious conclusion. One of our goals in storytelling is to rely as little as possible on plot in order to give an experience with a strong sense of agency. However, in order to provide as much positive freedom as possible, it is essential that the scenes are put together in a very tight and engaging fashion. In other words, on a scene level there is a great need for a strong plot in order to have as little plot as possible in the actual scenes.

In turn this limits what kind of scenes that are possible. Now that the connections need to make sense, it is not possible to simply fill the game with scenes that lends themselves very well to our core mechanics. So far we have to been able to pull this off quite nicely, and we are slowly wrapping our minds around these concepts.


End Notes
This is not some final verdict on how to improve upon the adventure game genre. It just summarizes a bit on the design direction that we are taking for our next game. Nothing is final yet, so I am not sure how it all will turn out in the end, or how much of the above we will be actually using. This is at least our current thinking and what we are working on now.

Also have say few ending words on adventure games in general. It might sound in the beginning like I loathe traditional click and point games, but this is not the case. I have enjoyed playing a lot of adventure games, and using puzzle approach for high-level game design is a very valid one. The best adventure games really take advantage of this, for instance Monkey Island and Broken Sword. These games are made in a way that makes the design really works and creates a really memorable and unique experience. However, for some games, like Primordia, my main draw is not to have this kind of experience. In this game I am more interested in exploration and getting immersed in the world. The classic puzzle design does not do this properly and I feel as if my experience is not as good as it can be. Primordia is still a good game and it uses the setting nicely to create some interesting puzzles. But it feels like they could have taken a lot of the game's essence and packaged into a form that would have delivered it much better.



Monday, 8 October 2012

Humble beginnings of the HPL Engine

I recently stumbled upon some really old videos with gameplay tests in the HPL engine and decided they would be fun to show off. This was not our first foray into 3D first person horror (Unbirth was), but it was the first time the the HPL engine was used. All of these are gameplay videos are from a student project then know as "The Hatch" and later became the "Penumbra Tech Demo".



6th of December 2005 - First Gameplay Test
I had now been working on the engine from scratch since late July, so a little more than 5 months. It is fun to see that most of the important interaction features are in at this point. The sound system for the physics is actually pretty much the same we have used until Amnesia. Jens is the one who recorded this.




7th of February 2006 - Improved Gameplay Test
The engine is now a little bit more refined, mainly with interaction and speed I think. I think that the portal visibility system got added during this time (I actually remember that I came up with a solution in the parking lot when buying groceries for Christmas). Recorded by Jens as well.



23rd of March 2006 - AI Test
The first proper AI test. It now has all the basic systems in, pathfinding, hearing and so on. Most of these features actually survived until Amnesia as well (and still use some variants). It is great to see how the AI works with the physics and shoves the door open as you try to close it. Interestingly, this creature has the most complex pathfinding we have used so far since it had two separate ways of moving about. I recorded this myself and the resolution is so crappy because my computer was unable record and play the game at the same time otherwise.


4th of April 2006 - Kind of Proper Gameplay
Pretty much all features needed to power the gameplay in the tech demo is in now. I think I recorded it.

The final version of the tech demo can be found here.


Monday, 1 October 2012

Hiring: Level Designer Wanted

Frictional Games, the creators of Amnesia and Penumbra series, seeks a Level Designer for a new game project. Taking what we learned from our previous games we aim to take horror and interactive story-telling to the next level. We are looking for a talented individual to help us design and implement this vision.

Main Responsibilities:
  • To take creative decisions on how puzzles, events, layout are to be designed.
  • Through scripting implement gameplay in a level.
  • To place sounds, tweak lighting and similar things to create atmosphere.
  • Communicate with writers and artists on how to achieve the goals of a level.
  • Provide feedback on design suggestions and implemented gameplay.

Work conditions:
The job will be carried out on a distance so you need to be able to work from home. This means you must have a fast internet connection, strong work moral and live in a timezone near the Swedish one (which is GMT+1). If you are not living in Sweden, you must also be able to invoice (or at least be willing to set this up). The work environment at Frictional Games is quite open and you need to be able to schedule your own time and take initiative when required.

Required qualifications:
  • Having designed and implement gameplay for a commercial game or a released mod/indie project.
  • Progressive view on video games and a will to evolve the medium.
  • Excellent understanding of game design for adventure games and immersive simulations.
  • Good enough coding skills to implement your ideas.
  • Experience in working with 3D level editing software.
  • Good understanding of lighting and architecture in 3D scenes.
  • In-depth knowledge on how to create an interactive narrative.
  • Not be shy of learning new things and work in areas out of your comfort zone.

Further Qualifications:
  • Experience in writing fiction.
  • Skills in 3D modeling.
  • Experience in the horror-genre.
  • Interest in science and science-fiction.
  • Experience with Fmod and/or sound-editing.
Send your application to jobs@frictionalgames.com. Attach your CV to the mail, but provide links for other files or images.


Monday, 10 September 2012

Amnesia - Two Years Later

Introduction
It has now passed a little more than two years since we launched Amnesia and one year since the last report, so time for another! One would think that there is perhaps not much to be said this long after release, especially for a single player game with no built-in social features. But the fact is that Amnesia is still going very strong and 2012 will probably be the best financial year here at Frictional Games, which we would never had expected two years ago.

Sales
As always, let's start with the sales and some numbers. The first thing will be to figure out how many units we have sold in total, which is actually really hard to pin down. The biggest reasons for the uncertainty is that Amnesia was part of the Humble Indie Bundle (HIB) earlier this year and Potato Bundle last year. Both of these account for quite a lot of sales. Without counting the units bought there our total lands at 710 000 units. Adding all HIB and Potato Sack sales gets us to 1 360 000 units in total, which can be called the optimistic figure. This means that, optimistically speaking, Amnesia has sold almost 1.4 million units! This reasoning is not strictly speaking invalid, but I think that one should not really count anyone that bought the bundle and already owned Amnesia as a proper unit. A slightly pessimistic guess (not far from reality I think) is that 2/3 of every bundle and pack buyer already owned Amnesia. This gives us about 920 000 units in total, pessimistically speaking. So saying that we have sold a million units seems fair. Wait... a million units! Oh shit!!

Despite that huge number of sales, what I think is more interesting is how good the monthly sales still are. Not counting any discounts, the monthly full price sales lie at over 10 000 units. This means that less then every 5th minute someone in the world is buying a copy of Amnesia. This is totally insane to me. The figures themselves are far beyond any guesses we would have made two years ago. It is also insane, because this number is actually higher than it was around three months after initial launch. That a game can still be going this good two years after is truly remarkable.  This success is due to many factors, some of which are the uniqueness of the game (horror games without combat do not really exist on PC), the large modding community (more on this later) and the steady flood of YouTube clips (which is in turn is fueled by the modding community output).

Also worth noting that our Penumbra games are still going on at the same rate that they always have. They are still selling about the same numbers (a little more actually) as they did three years ago. This totals to about 900 units per month. Taking all sales together is more than enough to support the company, financing A Machine For Pigs (more on that later) and having some left over. This means that we are in a very good position and aim to use it to take more risk and try out new things (more on this later).

I think we have never disclosed how much we Amnesia cost to make, so might as well do that here. The (exactly) three years of development cost a total of 360 000 US Dollars. It has since earned more than ten times that. Take that investors we talked to in 2009!

Piracy
It has been over a year since we even thought about piracy. With sales as good as above we cannot really see this as an issue worth more than two lines in this post, so screw it.

Modding
I mentioned it a bit in last years summary, but feel it was not given enough focus. When we created the possibility of custom stories, it was something we thought of very late and I think Luis implemented it in less than a day. We put a few days on adding documentation our wiki as well, but all in all, it was a tiny effort compared to the rest of the game. Despite that, this aspect as been immensely important for the game and while it is hard to give any exact features in terms of sales, the influence on our community is easily seen. Before modding started, we had one or two daily post on our message boards. But as the modding community has grown, it is now up in over 40! (Remember this on the boards of a 2 year old a single player game.) There is even a long meme thread regarding the custom story community. What is interesting is that there are even internal expressions used, like "poofer", that we at Frictional did not know about and that was specific to Amnesia modding.

The output of modding community has been quite big as well. Amnesia is as of writing the 2nd most popular game at ModDB and sports 176 finished mods. Not only do this amount of user content lengthen the life of the game, it has also increased the amount of YouTube movies made with an Amnesia theme. There are lots of popular Let's Play channels that have devoted quite a bit of time with just playing various user-made custom stories. As mentioned earlier this have probably played a large role in keeping our monthly sales up.

It is quite clear that allowing users to create content is a feature worth putting time into. I also think that we managed to have a pretty good balance between having simple tools and still allowing a lot of possibilities. It is far from perfect though and for our new engine (which AMFP is not using) will have lots of improvements. It will still be possible to use the simple scripting as before, but now you can pretty much remake whatever you like and do not have to use a complicated total conversion to do so.

Future
The next big thing for us will be the release of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, which is a follow-up developed by thechineseroom and produced by us. This release will be very interesting in many ways. First of all it is a big experiment for us to do this sort of collaboration, so from the start we had no idea how it would turn out. Judging from the latest build we have nothing to worry about though, and so far it looks great. Another interesting aspect is how well it will sell compared to the initial Amnesia launch. Not only is the market a lot bigger now than two years ago, Amnesia is more known. The result will be very important to how we plan our future. Release for AMFP is expected early 2013.

At Frictional Games our main concern is our new super secret project. We do not want to say much about this project yet,but we can disclose that it will be horror and that it will be first person. One of the things I was most disappointed with in Amnesia was that it never really managed to deliver any deeper themes, but was more like a shallow fright-fest. For the new project we want to change that and really try and bring a certain theme to the front. Our hope is that this will create a very special experience, creating horror in a much more disturbing way. For the curious, some information on the path we are taking can be found in this paper. The game's current status is that we have pretty much all tech working, and have started to playtest the first parts. Still, a lot is up in the air and the current design is bound to change. While we do not want the project to go on forever, we want to use our good financial situation the best we can and make sure we do not just rush something out (which we did with Amnesia actually). Release will probably be some time in 2014.

Frictional Games have also grown over the last year and we now employ 11 people, which feels very close to the maximum. At least the way we run the company right now. We also do not want to lose the small underdog spirit that has fueled us in the past. When you have such financially different situation compared to when you started I think it is easy to get caught up in expansion, wild ideas and basically do not get much done. So, we do our best to keep our feet firmly on the ground, to be strict on deadlines and to always remember our humble pasts. At the same time we will not take any easy solutions and play it safe. After the successes we have had, I think it is our responsibility to use our money and independence the best way possible.


Friday, 7 September 2012

Tech Feature: HDR Lighting


Introduction

Hello my name is Peter and I’m the new graphics and engine programmer. New is not really the correct word since I have been working at Frictional for a year now. During this time I have updated the engine and added a lot of new graphic features. This will be the first of my blog posts descripting the changes that have been made.


HDR


One of the biggest changes to the the new engine is the introduction of HDR (High Dynamic Range) Lighting. This is a technique to increase the detail of the lighting system. The benefit of using HDR is that bright things can be really bright, dark things can be really dark, and details can be seen in both.

In nature there is no limit to how bright something can be. The difference between a 60 W light bulb and sunshine hitting the earth is around 10 000 luminance (cd/m^2). This means that we need a way to store high intensity values while keeping the quality and precision of the dark areas. Thankfully there already exists a method for storing such values - by using floating point numbers.

We use a 16-bit fp RGBA buffer to store our lighting. This gives us enough of a dynamic range without taking up too much memory.


Tone mapping

A normal computer monitor can display 8-bit colors between the value of [0..1]. Because of this the monitor can not display a 16-bit HDR image directly. To be displayed the image will have to be converted to 8-bit while keeping as much of the details as possible.

Tone mapping is the process of converting an image of dynamic range to one with a clamped range between [0..1].

The simplest method for doing this is to use the Reinhard tone mapping algorithm.

vec3 color = x / (x + 1.0)

No matter how high x gets the final value will always stay between [0..1]. The problem with Reinhard is that it desaturates your dark colors and removes contrast. In the brighter parts of the image Reinhard produces great result with its soft highlights.

What you want to have is an algorithm that preserves the saturation of the color in the dark areas and that keeps as much of the contrast as possible.

I ended up choosing an algorithm created by John Hable for Uncharted 2.

vec3 Uncharted2Tonemap(vec3 x)
{
float A = 0.15;
float B = 0.50;
float C = 0.10;
float D = 0.20;
float E = 0.02;
float F = 0.30;

return ((x*(A*x+C*B)+D*E)/(x*(A*x+B)+D*F))-E/F;
}
Left: Long curve, Right: S-curve near dark values



This algorithm is based on a filmic tone mapping algorithm created by Kodak. It keeps the nice highlights from Reinhard while using a slightly S-shaped curve too keep the dark colors saturated.



Exposure

If you have been sitting in a dark room for some time and walk out into the sun, your eyes will not be ready for the bright light and you will have to squint. After a while your eyes will have adjusted to the light and it will not bother you anymore.

Exposure is a way to control the intensity of light that gets passed through the lens. In the eye this is controlled by the size of the pupil and in a camera it is done by selecting for how long the sensor should be active.

There are a few different ways to control exposure in a game. It can be controlled automatically by storing the average luminance over a few frames and calculating a exposure from that value.
We choose to go with a much simpler method that lets the artists control the exposure by dividing the level into areas that have different exposures. So in a dark area the exposure can be increased and in an outdoor area the exposure can be decreased.

vec3 color = Uncharted2Tonemap(scene_color * exposure)


White Point

A white point is used to increase the contrast of the image. This is the value that is selected to be the brightest any pixel can be. Pixels brighter than the white point will be clamped to 1.0.

vec3 color = Uncharted2Tonemap(scene_color * exposure) / Uncharted2Tonemap(white_point)

HDR Bloom

When a pixel is brighter than the white point it can be used to generate an additional post effect called HDR Bloom. Pixels that get too bright should start bleeding over to other nearby pixels, producing a halo around them. It is a subtle effect that adds realism to the image.

To solve this I use a few render passes. First a bright pass is applied to the image which removes all pixels that are below the white point and scales down all the pixels that are above it. The result is then blurred to create the halos. The blurred image is then added to the original image. The HDR Bloom effect must be performed before the tone mapping.


Final Thoughts

I would say that HDRL and filmic tone mapping is the most important part of any rendering pipeline. It greatly increases the quality of lighting and will make your game look much more realistic.

But HDR and tone mapping is all for nothing if your calculations are not done in linear color space. My next tech feature will focus on gamma correction and the linear color space.

References


Monday, 20 August 2012

The Self, Presence and Storytelling

At GDC last week I gave a talk called "The Self, Presence and StoryTelling". There will be a version of it up on the GDC Vault in 2 - 3 weeks I think and hopefully it will be free like last years' talk. Before that comes up I will put up a pdf version of the talk containing a bit more information (something I promised at the end of my talk). You can get hold of that here:

Download "The Self, Presence and Story-telling"

Get the mobi version here (thanks to Tomasz Rozanski for creating this).

The paper is basically a summary about a lot of the stuff that has been written on this blog. It is an attempt to define a new design approach that makes it easier to make games that can deal with a wider range of themes and let you play all the way through. I would be very interesting any feedback you got as I would like to keep the document updated and revised if there are any new insights or any info in it that is no longer true.

EDIT: Proof-read the paper a bit and made a little bit more readable.
EDIT2: Mobi version now available.


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Horror Tip: Slender

Slender is a short horror game really similar to Hide. You walk (or run) around in a monotone environment looking for notes, while there is a scary monster hunting you. Like Hide it is interesting to see how a simple setup can create a really spooky experience. The graphics are nothing special, the music is simple moody droning and the sound effects are of no great quality. Still, taking all together and put in an interactive space, it gets a lot more immersion than what you would expect. I think this is a great testament to the power of interaction to create a strong sense of presence in way that is much harder to accomplish in any other media.

The game only lasts for few minutes, which is good because there is so little to do that any longer would most certainly break the spell. This makes me wonder what would have to be needed to make an experience like that last for one to two hours. Adding too much would likely decrease the sense of dread, so one would have to be careful in lengthening it. Hope someone attempts to do this.

Some other stuff worth noting:

- The game hides the mechanics that govern how the monster hunts you down and what makes you eventually get killed. I think this was a good move as you are free to make up for yourself what happened. (Bound to only work on the first play-through though, but that does not have to be a bad thing).

- A lot of the creepiness is induced through sensory deprivation. You mostly only see the same vague shapes over and over and it is not long until you start to imagine things.

- It is interesting how effective the tunnel vision created by the flashlight is. There is just something about having these large chunks of your vision pitch black that make you unnerved.

Recommend you all to give it a go!

Downloads:
Mac  (alternative)
(there is no official website as far as I am aware)


Sunday, 24 June 2012

Thoughts of The Walking Dead (ep1)




Introduction
I played through the first episode of The Walking Dead recently and few stuff popped up that I thought was worth discussing. For those of you who do not know what The Walking Dead is, it is a horror adventure game based upon a comic book (which is now also tv-series) featuring Heavy Rain inspired gameplay. It is developed by Tell Tale (makers of the Sam and Max reboot, etc) and is released on an episodic basis. I was unsure if Tell Tale could deliver a game with this kind of atmosphere, but having played I have to say that it is quite successful. The first episode is not a master piece by any means, but contain a few things worth bringing up.

Graphics
The comic-book inspired art direction combined with so-so animations does not look all that inviting and immersive. But when you play the game, it works very well and does the job. This even though the drama of the game is mostly about close-up dialog and relationships. I think this is a very important lesson about not having to have photo realistic graphics even though the game is meant to focus on human emotions. I have a hard time saying that Heavy Rain, which as a lot more gloss on its visual, managed to elicit any more emotions from me. However, watching trailers, Heavy Rain seems a lot better in this aspect and I thought Walking Dead looked downright horrible at times. But in-game it turned out not be really matter. This is also lesson in taking care of how you present the game in trailers and such, and make sure that the feelings you get from actually playing the game comes across.

Choices
Just like in Heavy Rain, a big feature is to make hard decisions throughout the game. You must choose who to save, whether to lie or not, etc. Most of these are made using timed dialog choices, where you only have a short time to decide what to do. On paper I think it sounds okay, but I just do not like how it feels when actually playing. There is just something that bothers me in knowing that all of these choices are prefabricated and that I the choice I did not make might have been better. And it does not really matter that the choices do not affect the game mechanically (eg like in Mass Effect where bad choice might mean less gain), there is just something holding me back from playing along with it.
I think a big problem is that it is way too obvious that you are actually making a choice. Supporting this hypothesis is that the game by default gives a pop-up hint of the consequences of a choice (eg that a character trust you less), and removing this makes it a lot better (but still not good enough). A few choices are made in a sort of "Virtua Cop"-like manner where you have to point a cross-hair over a target and then choose an action. It is not always clear that these are actual choices, in part because it is much more analog (not just choosing from a list of options) and partly because it is less clear that you can only can choose a ONE of the presented alternatives. These sequences did not bother me at all as much as the dialog options.

Pixel hunting
While the game does a lot to remove annoying adventure game features and make a smoother experience, it also falls back upon some annoying aspects of the genre. The most obvious is that of pixel hunting. There are only really two major adventure-game like puzzles in the game and both of these has the player searching for one or several objects, non-obviously located, in the environment. The worst of these is a remote control that is hidden in  drawer which is not accessible until you have done certain unrelated actions. This caused me to wander aimlessly in the scene for far too long.
I think it is really important to try and minimize this sort of things as it makes you go about exploring the scenes in a very unnatural way. Best is if the player can sort a puzzle out without having to search every nook and cranny for items.

Repetition
Once you get caught up wandering without any real goal, like I mentioned above, you start doing the same things over and over. This is when you start noticing the slim output of lines that characters have. When asked the same question, they just repeat the same line they gave before. This is especially jarring when it amounts to longer exchange between the protagonist and a supporting character. Repeating canned responses like this really breaks the sense of immersion for me. I just simply cannot role-play when I am subjected to this sort of repetition.
I think the game should have removed hot-spots, given leading answers from characters (especially the protagonist), etc. Anything to push me in the direction and to keep up the make-belief that it is real characters inhabiting the virtual world. Now they just come of as cardboard signs the moment you start wandering off the intended path.

End Notes

I'd say that The Walking Dead is worth playing and being just over 2 hours of gameplay in the first episode it just not that much wasted time in case you end up hating it. While the game did not blow me away, I was pleasantly surprised and am intrigued to see how the next episode will turn out.

If anyone else has played the game, I would love to hear your thoughts on the following.:

- What did you think of the graphics? Was the discrepancy between trailer and in-game also large?
- What did you like the choices? Did it feel like you could roleplay or was it hard to put as side that there was a better choice?
- How did you feel about the repeated lines? Not bothering at all, or a nail in eye each time they were encounter?


Sunday, 17 June 2012

Thoughts on Lone Survivor


Introduction
I just a finished Lone Survivor and because there is so much interesting stuff going on in it, I thought it was worth to write a blog post about it. At first glance Lone Survivor might look like some kind of 2D Silent Hill ripoff*, but there is a lot more to it than what is perceived at first sight.
In summary, Lone Survivor is basically about surviving in a world where most people been turned into monsters. You play as a guy that have been holed up alone in an apartment for quite some time and who is no longer sure what is real and what is not. It is viewed from a 2D side-scrolling perspective with pixel the size of fists, forcing you to imagine what most objects really look like. The story and atmosphere is very Lynchian in tone and filled all kinds of wonderful strangeness. Most of the gameplay is about conserving various resources, exploring the environment (with a map straight out of Silent Hill) and shooting / avoiding bad guys. I thought the first half of the game was really good, but later on it becomes a bit repetitive and fails to be as engaging as it was starting out. The game is truly a diamond in the rough though and implements some truly innovative features that are well worth discussing.


One large world
A striking feature of the game is that you can always go back to the room you started (and most other places you visit). In fact it is vital for your survival in the game. You need to go back to save the game, cook food,  check radio messages, etc. This creates a constant need to come back to your home base and it helps build up a solid sense of place. Also, many locations have characters and objects that reward you when revisited, adding to the feel of a persistent and real world.
This is not something new for videogames (many rpgs and some adventure games feature similar mechanics), but I cannot name a single horror game that use it. By allowing the protagonist to always have his own place to go back to, it increase the survival aspect of the game immensely. The simple act of forcing you to cook your food at home greatly enhances this feeling, and is so much more immersive eating what you find on the spot. Mechanics like that also make the environment seem more real and objects like stove pop out from the background to become something with a purpose.


Backtracking
There is a bad side to the open world design though, and that is backtracking. I have covered this subject earlier, and Lone Survivor brings out some new aspects to problem. The intial reaction to backtracking is that it is an annoyance to the player, but on some further consideration it is clear that is quite important. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, having the player revisit areas makes the game's world feel much more alive. Therefore, backtracking in Lone Survivor is a crucial element, and not something that one should simply try and minimize. However, while the backtracking helps build the world of the game, it backfires very easily. Traversing the same section of the map easily becomes repetitive, and you as a player quickly try and find ways to get it over with faster. When you get into this mind set, you are pulled out of the world, thus counteracting the building of presence it should be doing in the first place!
For instance, Lone Survivor feature a system to travel instantly back and forth between the apartment and last place you visited by looking into a mirror. This is a neat way of fixing quick traversal as it works with the story of the game, keeping the player's sense of presence. However, once the need arise to start going back and forth a lot, you stop roleplaying along with the mirror gazing, and it decays into an abstract tool for accessing abstract mechanics of the game such as saving. The same happens when trying to sneak past an enemy multiple times or even just walking the same path over and over. The travels become an monotonous chore and the feeling of immersion fades.
So how can this be fixed? First of all, a solution is not to try and remove the backtracking. As mentioned earlier, this is a crucial part of the experience. What should be focused on instead is to make the backtracking more varied and make sure the player does not feel inclined to (or is discouraged from) doing it too many times in a row. The experience should be designed in such a way that even though the player is going back a familiar path, the act of traveling should be in itself engaging, and not just a means to an end to use some kind of mechanic. This does not mean that it must be fun, it can actually be boring, but just that it is presented in such a manner that the player sees the journey as an important aspect of the experience. This is not an easy thing to accomplish especially in an open world design, where the designer has much less control over the flow of the game. But if considered from the start I do not see any problem with achieving it, and to have other mechanics work with it. Which brings me to next topic.


Combat
Combat is a quite a big part in Lone Survivor and comes with a bunch of problems. I think the main issue is that it overexposures you to the monsters of the game. Because forcing the player to deal with enemy encounter is such a big part of the game, one very quickly becomes used to the look of the creatures. This is quite a shame, because the ambiguous pixel graphics are quite good at depicting them in a moody and disturbing way. But after staring at a monster for the tenth time in a row most of the effect is lost. I think the encounters should have been briefer and more sparse.
A problem that Lone Survivor does avoid is that of combat detracting from the focus of the experience. Normally in horror games, having combat means that the player looks forward to monster encounters, since fighting them is so gratifying. Not so here. You only have a single gun as a weapon and shooting is quite clumsy, but simplistic and mechanically stable enough for it to be easily used as intended. It is not something that you have very fun doing though and mostly you do it simply because it is the easiest way of bypassing a threat (which works great with the story).
There are more problems to the combat though, and all are connected to the backtracking. First off, the game features a standard "die and retry" death mechanic that I do not think fits very well. Whenever you die, you almost always have to go back the exact same path that you did before and repeat the same sequence of actions. This essentially requires the player to do even more (non-engaging) backtracking, something that is already lessening immersion for the player. Given the strange story and gameplay based on resource management, I think death could have been implemented in numerous other ways without resorting to the standard trial and error way. For instance the player restart from the scene of death, but lose precious resources, gain some kind of injury or just be transported back to bed with any progress intact.
Having to sneak past enemies is also part of the game's combat mechanic, and at first it works quite well. However, because of the backtracking it soon becomes necessary to sneak past the enemy over and over again. This repetition not only makes the whole gameplay boring, it also pulls the player out of the immersive atmosphere and sneaking becomes an abstract mechanistic obstacle. A big part of the game is to choose whether to use lethal force or not, but choosing the stealth option is far less appealing, not only because it is quickly becomes a chore, but because it pulls you out of the experience.
In Lone Survivor combat is quite important for both story and gameplay reasons, so I do not think simply removing it would be an option. Instead, I think that having more dynamic enemy encounters could make most problems go away. This way the player does not always have to use repeat a section of stealth when backtracking. Monster exposure could also be better controlled this way. By keeping track of how the player is doing, the game could spawn enemies as needed.


Dynamic systems
What was I liked the best of about Lone Survivor was the dynamic nature of the game. The player consantly needs to keep track of health/hunger, sanity, ammunition along with a few other things. These are not just abstract meters the player need to keep in balance, but things that affect how the game plays out. For instance, the game triggers some scenes not based on where the player is located, but on how the current stats are. So for instance, running out of ammunition has a special scene associated with it. The protagonist also constantly comments on his current state in various ways which I thought really helped in building atmosphere.
Mot having strictly laid out events makes Lone Survivor feels so much more alive. I only wish that the game would have gone full out with it. The path the player needs to take to the game is still quite static, and have little dynamic elements to it. Because the story is so strange and fragmented the game could easily have had a random order of the important scenes. Instead of forcing a strict order on puzzles, items and major events, these could have depended on how the way the player played the game. This could also solve some backtracking problems and make sure the player found certain things in a specific order no matter how they chose to go. Solutions to puzzles could also depend on what the player currently had available. This kind of of design does not have to require any sophisticated algorithms either, but could use simple means and still be very much designed (as opposed to completely random).
Having a world that shapes according to the world is something I think can be very useful for story focused games. While Lone Survivor does not fully implement something like this, the element that it does have is a good indicator of what could be done.


Importance of text
Another thing I really liked in game was the great usage of text. In our age of crisp graphics and high quality voice overs, I think good old text is much underused. Because of the low fidelity graphics in Lone Survivor, writing plays a crucial part in giving feedback to the player. That does not mean that text does all of the work though, rather it is complemented by both sound and graphics, forming a nice synthesis. Here are some examples:

  • When using the radio, a brief sound sample of radio static is heard as the text of the transmission is displayed. This simple sound effect really sets the mood for how the text should be read and greatly adds to the experience. Another great thing about using text in these instances is that it handles repetition much better. Reading the same text a few times is not nearly as repetitive as hearing the same voice-over repeated. 
  • It is through text that most of the feelings of the protagonist are shown. Sometimes this is accompanied by audio/visuals, but mostly it is just presented as pure text. This is yet another great application for text, and while it can be a bit annoying to have to press a button for it to go away, overall it really helps to make the character's mood come across. Also, like with the radio message, repetition is a lot less problematic what a voice-over would be.
  • One point int game, the player is standing on balcony with nothing more than a house front seen in the background. But if you interact at a certain spot, the protagonist describes what he sees looking out over the city. I thought this worked nicely and really fitted with the protagonists situation of being locked inside an apartment complex. I actually think having had some image shown of the cityscape would have been a lot less effective, but when you have a lot of resources at your disposal  it is hard to forget that less might sometimes be more.
This is just a few samples of the great usage of text in Lone survivor. Of course it is far from the only game  to do this, but I think it is a fine example of its potential.
Text is much easier to autogenerate and to transform in various ways, lending it to dynamic systems a lot better than voices. It also leaves more to the imagination and can work great when combined with sound and graphics. It is important not to forget about and consider having it as an integral part of the game. As seen in Lone Survivor much of the text based stuff works because so integrated into the experience.


Multiple endings
The last thing I want to discuss, is the multiple endings of Lone Survivor. Not the actual story content of the endings, but of how the overall structure is designed. Basically, the player gets one of three endings based on how you have performed during the game. In doing so, it takes a lot of different variables into account (which are actually shown at the end of the game). So the game collects very personal data from you, and yet there are only three (not very personal) prefabricated endings to be seen.
When finishing a game with multiple endings I always get a feeling of having been cheated. A game with a single ending, even if it is not that good, almost always feel better than a game where I know there are more endings to be seen. Suddenly the game sets up a sort of competitive goal that I was not asking for: "see if you can find all endings" or "now try and get the proper ending" and I get the feeling that I am missing out on the full experience or that what I had was not the proper one.
I think that a better way of doing it would have been to have a dynamic final sequence tailored based upon the choices that you have. This would have made the ending much more personal and it would not be possible to simply look it up on YouTube. But that is just in theory of course, it is hard to say how it would work in practice.
Heavy rain does similar thing to do this, and have a certain number of smaller clips that are chosen based upon certain options during the play-through. I did not find this very satisfying either, and the problem here is that it is very easy to look up each of the individual clips. So to avoid that, the final scenes must be quite dynamic and details based on how the game was played.
Actually, I think the best choice is to not have an ending sequence at all and have the game play all the way to the credits. It is actually a bit strange that having played a game to the very end, we are rewarded with a non-interactive cut-scene. Pretty much every story based game works like this. But if the interaction continued all to the end, I think you could have a lot of differences and it would leave one feeling a lot less cheated.

A final note on this: In Amnesia we tried to have multiple endings, with the idea that each ending should fit the playing style of the player. So a player that played very aggressively would get a that kind of ending and so on. However we only collected data for very few (two or so actually) events, making any guess on the player style of play close to random. In the end, the endings (or the final sequence for that manner) were not received very well. Even though having multiple endings often sounds good in theory, I do not think we will be used it again, because it has a such a high risk of backfiring.


End notes
Lone Survivor is in no way a perfect game, but it is filled with lots of great and original ideas. If you are the slightest interested in horror games you should really give it a go. It is easily one of the most original and fresh horror games I have played for a couple of years.


*The designer actually did make a so called demake of SH2 called "Soundless Mountain II"


Thursday, 31 May 2012

Humble Indie Bundle V

We at Frictional Games are yet again part of a Humble Indie Bundle and this time it is quite the pack. Our contribution is Amnesia: The Dark Descent and it is joined by Limbo, Bastion, Psychonauts and Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery. This pack of games is offered to a price of your own choosing, and part of the revenue, you chose how much, will go to charity. This video will explain more:





I think the all of the games that Amnesia share the bundle with are quite special, and are all really worth playing if you haven't yet.

Sword and Sworcery was my top from last year and there is a lot to learn from playing it. Foremost, it has this magical blend of music, gameplay and graphics that really shows of the strengths of the medium. It is clear that this is not a game that has been created to be some kind of competition, but to create a special, mystical experience. This is something we need more of.

Limbo manages to create a very tense atmosphere, but more importantly it how to use a very simplistic control scheme to create great variety. Nowadays, game often require you to learn tons of buttons, but in Limbo you understand all required controls after a few minutes of play. And yet the game manages to give you varied activities from start to finish. It also never takes away control from the player, allowing for a highly interactive narrative experience.

Bastion is excellent in the way it builds up its fiction. The constant voice over gives meaning to your actions and also let you see the world in a quite different way than you would have otherwise. As the flowing narrative unfolds, enemies stop being cannon fodder and instead feel like proper denizens of the world. By small means a  lot of depth is added to the game, and I highly recommend it in a lesson on how to do story exposition.

Finally, Psychonauts paint up a vibrant world filled with quirky, interesting and yet human characters. What I liked best about it is how the core theme of the game, to enter people's minds, really merges both gameplay and storytelling. Actually playing the game does not simply servers as some filler between plot points, but actually adds depth to the narrative.

Also, note that the sound tracks of all games comes along with the bundle! I mean, the awesome sound track from Sword &  Sworcery is enough reason to buy the bundle alone. The music from Bastion is not bad either...


Thursday, 26 April 2012

10 Ways to Evolve Horror Games

Introduction
Around 10 years ago, a lot of very interesting and ground breaking horror games were released. These include Silent Hill (1999), Fatal Frame (2001), Forbidden Siren (2003) and a few more. Since then not much has happened in the video-game horror genre and little has evolved. So what exactly can be done to push horror in video-games further? To answer that I will here present a list of my top 10 things I think could take horror game to the next level:


1) Normality
In most games the player usually starts out in some strange and not very normal situation. In our own game, Amnesia, the story takes place in early 19th century and has the protagonist waking up in gothic castle. Not something very easy to relate to. Other games see the player has some secret agent, has them trapped in a spooky town/village, etc. All of these are very abnormal situations, and something few of us will ever find ourselves in.

However, much of the good horror in other media starts of very mundane. They build on the having the audience strongly relating to what is taking place and being able to draw close parallels to their own lives. For horror games this would mean to establish a very familiar situation and then slowly introduce the horror there. The goal is for the terror to not just be inside the game's virtual world, but to reach into the real as well.


2) Long Build-up
Most games want to kick off the action as soon as possible. Even games with a drawn-out introduction, like Silent Hill 2, introduce the horror elements very early on. The problem is that sustaining a really high level of terror is only possible shorter bursts and the more the audience has to contrast to, the greater the peaks intensity will feel. Ring (Japanese version) is a prime example of this. While it does kick off the horror early on, the whole movie is basically one long build-up to a final scare moment. Horror video-games need to embrace this sort of thing more, but in order to do so a two common traits need to let go. First of all, the game must rely a lot less on a repeatable core mechanic, since we want the player to deal with actual horror elements as little as possible. Secondly, we must perhaps revise the game length and be satisfied with an experience lasting three hours or less, so that all focus can be on establishing a single (or just few) peaks of terror.


3) Doubt
Many of the best horror stories raise the question whether a phenomena really exists. Is the protagonist really seeing ghosts, or  is it all in her mind? Since other media like film and books are very grounded in our reality, this sort of thing comes natural (although it is still not always easy to sustain). However, in video-games the player is in a virtual world with its own rules and entities, and this leaves little room for the player to doubt if anything could really exist. Solving this is not an easy feat though, but I think a first step is to embrace the previous two entries in this list, normality and a long build-up. If the player can relate to the game as "real-life" and gets enough time to establish this idea, then she will eventually start to compare any features of the virtual world with the real. Eventually she might doubting if the ghosts, monsters or whatnot are really there. Also, some sort of sanity mechanic can also do the trick, but it must be a lot more subtle then any previous attempt. The player cannot see it as a game system, but has to view it has a feature of their own mind. This is not an easy thing to establish, but that is not the same as it is impossible.


4) Minimal Combat
I have talked plenty about this before (see here and here for instance), but it is worth stating again. The worst thing about combat is that it makes the player focus on all the wrong things, and makes them miss many of the subtle cues that are so important to an effective atmosphere. It also establishes a core game system that makes the player so much more comfortable in the game's world. And comfort is not something we want when our goal is to induce intense feelings of terror.

Still, combat is not a bad thing and one could use it in ways that evokes helplessness instead. For instance, by giving the player weapons that are ineffective the desperation of the situation is further heightened. This is a slippery slope though as once you show a weapon to the player it instantly puts them in an action game mindset. That does not mean weapons and combat should be abolished, but that one should thread very carefully, and finding the right balance is a big challenge for future horror games.


5) No Enemies
By this I do not mean that there should be no threats to the player lurking about. What I mean is that we need to stop thinking of any creatures that we put into the game as "enemies". The word enemy makes us think about war and physical conflict, which is really not the focus in a horror game. It also makes us think less about why these creatures are in our virtual world. The word enemy is such an easy label to put on other beings, and then not worry about anything except that we need to destroy or avoid them. This is how wars work after all.

If we instead think of these creatures as merely inhabitants of our virtual worlds we need to ask ourselves why they are there, what their motivations are and so forth. This brings a new depth to the game which is bound to color the player's imagination. If we can establish our hostile beings as calculating, intelligent beings with an agenda, we vastly increase the intensity of any encounter and can make the terror so much stronger.


6) Open world
By this I do not mean that horror games should strive to be GTA-like sandbox experiences, but simply that they should allow more freedom of movement. Most horror games set up a very strict path for the player to follow even if they have, like Silent Hill, a large world to explore. Instead I think the games should allow for the player to skip certain areas and to go about in the world in a free way. This increases the player's feeling of being in a real world, increasing any emotions associated with it. This is also closely related to the goal of achieving normality. Without a forced structure and more open world, it should be easier to give the sense of everyday life.


7) Agency
Horror games are so effective because they can make the player feel as they are there when the horror happens. Other media, especially in the horror genre, have to try really hard to accomplish this, but for games it comes almost automatically. It is then a waste that many horror games does not take advantage of this properly and destroy the sense of agency in all kind of ways. By far the biggest culprit are cut-scenes, especially when they take away control at scary moments when the player's actions should matter the most. Another problem is connected with the open world entry above and the player constantly being fed where to go and what to do.

The way to go forward here is to make sure that the player is involved in all actions that take place. The scenes that are so often left out (and replaced by cutscenes) are often vital aspects of the horror experience. Whenever possible, the playing should be doing instead of simply watching.


8) Reflection
The video game medium can better than any other give sense of responsibility. If something, caused by the protagonist, happens on the screen then the player has been part of that. This opens up for the game to be able to reflect itself upon the player and to make players think about themselves while playing. Games have been trying to do this in the past, but I do not think it has come very far yet. So called moral choices are very common in games, but are hampered by being obvious predefined selections (chose A, B or C) and by being connected to the game dynamics (making the choice more about what is best for the player stats wise). I think that the choices need to come out as much more organic for the player to truly feel as if they have caused them. To be able to do this a strong sense of agency (as mentioned in the previous entry) must be achieved and the player must truly feel like it was their own choice (which ties into the "open world"-entry above).

I also think that this can be taken a lot further than simply testing the player's ethics. It can put player in very uncomfortable situations and to really make them evaluate themselves as human beings. The game could also lure them into mind states that they never thought they had in them. It can explore the nature of good and evil and similar subjects in away that would be impossible other medium. In the end this can lead to some really personal and terrifying experiences.


9) Implications
What really brings some horror home is how it has some kind of implications in real life. This can be something like the fear of TV-sets that Ring manages to achieve, or the bleak and disturbing universe that Lovecraft's stories paint. Elements like these are almost entirely missing from video games and again it ties into other entries on the list. Normality is probably the most important, and if we are able to achieve that it will be much easier to tie stuff of the game into everyday life. A game that can achieve this successfully takes the horror to a new level, by being something that the player carries with them long after having put down the controller.


10) Human interaction
The final entry will also be the hardest one: to bring human drama into the game's actions. Most horror in other media does not have the phenomena/situation per se as its focus, but instead its effect on people. The Exorcist is a great example of this, and so is The Shining. However, in video-games the main actions still revolve around inanimate objects or brainless foes. By having the player's actions being directly tied to other people, the horror gets so much more personal and intense.

Achieving this is not an easy task though. My opinion is that it is not a technical problem, but one of design and to place a larger burden on the player's imagination. Simulating a fully (or at least seemingly) sentient  human being is a really hard problem. Simple solutions like dialog trees come often out as stiff and prefabricated. Instead one should go the route of simple actions, like Ico for instance, and build upon that by being vague and hinting instead of trying replicate a book or movie. Exactly how to go about is an open question, but the any steps closer to success can mean a lot of the horror experience.


End Notes
That concludes my 10 steps for better horror games. It will be fun to see if they are still valid 10 years from now or not. If you have any other ideas on how to evolve horror games, please say so in the comments!


Friday, 23 March 2012

Unconventional Design Tips

The general advice for upstarting developers seem to be to focus on mechanics, building fast a prototype, getting the core game fun and and so. For instance CliffyB did so at GDC 2012. This is not bad per se, but it is really not the only way to make games and usually, and this is the issue, result in the same kind of experiences. So to create a counterweight to this, I decided to make my own list of design advice. Here goes:

Build top-down
Find some core mechanic of controlling and interacting with the game, be that sidescrolling shooter, point and click or whatnot and then focus on the big picture. What feelings should game create, what is the theme, what kind of message should the game get across? This means creating an overarching structure for the game first, and then when you start designing the mechanics, levels, etc you make sure that it goes along with this. By doing so you can design games that try and convey things not possible over shorter time spans. It lets you control build-up and emotional journey to a much greater degree.

Design and create chronologically
Try and see the development process as a very extended playthrough of the game. By designing and producing the initial level/area/etc first you get a better feel for the player's journey through the game. This make it easier to understand the how the holistic experience will play out, and it allows you to always base later levels/areas/etc upon what the player's frame of find (as it is formed by the previous experiences) is at that point.
Of course you can still go back and change things as needed, and this is often required later. But you want to stick with the chronological structure until as much as possible of the game is completed.

Do not care about fun
First of, despite what some might say, fun is a very specific word and leaves out many type of experiences. For instance very few people would call "Schindler's List" fun. Hence you should not use fun, unless you are specifically after creating a "fun time". A better word to use is "engaging" which can be used to describe the quality of anything depressing dramas and lighthearted comedies.
Second, what you want to care about are your high-level goals. The most vital part is that anything you add to the videogame serve these. If making them fun help this purpose, then by all means make them fun. But if you want the player to be part of a dark and disturbing journey, then fun is most likely not what you want to aim for.

Proper assets early
Art assets such as a graphics, music and sound effects are far more important than what some might argue. Not all videogame ideas can be properly evaluated by using simple blocks and beeps. What the player sees and hears has a great impact on how they can relate to the game. Sometimes mechanics that at first seem really crappy, can start to shine once higher quality assets are used. If you want the player to experience a story by moving through an environment, then you need to have the audio-visual feedback that immerse them in that.
This does not have to mean that full production quality assets are needed and it is not always easy to know when your prototype looks and sounds good enough. But if make sure to keep in mind that the underlying system is not everything, then that is one step in the right direction.

Diversity in the world, not game core

Do not think that everything you want to represent in the game needs to be inside the core mechanics. Instead, keep the mechanics simple and then let the world do the work in delivering a wider experience. For instance in Limbo, there are only a few core actions available for the player, yet the game keeps the activities varied and unique through out the game.
This is the hard way of designing games as you cannot simply extrapolate from a prototype, but the end result is a deep experience that is easy to get into.

Do it as short as possible

Do not make a game that is the best value possible. Let the videogames say what you want it to and then STOP. Do not try and drag sections out for no real reason. In the end what you want to create is a product that delivers your high level purposes in the best way possible.
This is also a legit business choice as you do not compete with other time consuming videogames. If your game does not take up huge amounts of time and yet gives the player a coherent and fulfilling experience, there is a bigger chance they will have time and motivation to give it a go. I would also rather see a world with many smaller interesting experiences than long ones whose only motive is to eat as much time as they possibly can.


There you go! Now of course these tips are not some ancient wisdom that lead you to the path of glory. One must always try and figure out the best process for the type of game you want to make. But what I hope this does is to show any aspiring developer that there is more ways to create videogames than the conventional ones. At Frictional Games we pretty much follow the above and have managed stay in business for over five years and are currently financially stable. So what I just said are tips that have been tried in practice.


If you know any other tips that goes against the "fun mechanics are everything" line of thinking, do share!