Content Warning: While no imagery requires content warnings beyond “Not Safe For Work”, the article mentions mind control content, incest, and nonconsensual sex.(more…)
Content Warning: While no imagery requires content warnings beyond “Not Safe For Work”, the article mentions mind control content, incest, and nonconsensual sex.(more…)
I always feel nervous talking about game design, because, even as a critic who has examined, not just consumed, a lot of games, there’s always this voice saying “Nah, mate, you know noooothing.”
But y’know what? Fuck that voice, it’s time to talk horror. Specifically, how horror games are hard to do well, and some of the most common pitfalls.
No Individual Element Will Make A Game Horror
This is one of the most common ones, and, honestly, a flaw which many game designers can fall into even at the best of times… Your ingredients won’t work well if they don’t mix well. In fact, when adding a tool into the toybox, it can be very important to consider what it does. Let’s take, for example, the staple of many first person horror games: The Shit Light. The Shit Light (be it matches, oddly ineffective flashlights, or the phone-as-flashlight), just by the virtue of its addition, constrains you. And it constrains you, in many cases, more often than it frees you. You do, in fact, still have to pay attention to not just being empty rooms, or rooms that make no sense, or rooms that are fucking hard to navigate even without this inconvenience. You do, in fact, have to still pay attention to your gribbley, beastie, ghost or ghoulie, because they’re going to be lit up at some point. But now, everything you want the player to look at has to be easily covered by… Your shit light.
Now, here’s a question: Do you, in fact, need that shit light? Why is it there? I ask, because, funnily enough, this shit light ends up conflicting with another facet that often goes together with Shit Lights… The Highly Scripted Scare. A scare is, sadly, no good if you can’t experience it. Oh no, the… Er… What was that again? I couldn’t really tell, my light was too shit, and so it wasn’t scary. Was it sudden? Was it a jumpscare? Oh, er… Couldn’t really tell you.
Am I saying the Shit Light has no place anywhere? Well… No. In some games, it serves as a risk reward mechanic (The monsters can see you more easily, but you can interact with things.) In others, it’s a warning sign (The monster makes the light not work right.) In others still, it’s a light, but it’s not shit.
Sadly, just as there are ways to make a Shit Light useful, you equally have to take care not to turn it into arbitrary difficulty… Tattletail being a good example, as well as one that conflicts narratively. Not only is it a pretty shit light, not only does it have a nasty habit of winking off whenever Mama Tattletail is nearby… Turning it back on is noisy as hell. So, when are you most likely to recharge it? Er… When it winks out. When Mama Tattletail is going to speed her Furby ass toward you from nowhere. Because yes, occasionally it will just wink out on its own too.
Here’s the thing: It’s being wielded by a child. How many kids have you heard of who wouldn’t look for a different light, any other kind of light, that maybe doesn’t make noise which every kid knows is fucking asking for boogeyman induced death?
This, funnily enough, is a good segue into the next portion.
Because Reasons Doesn’t Cut It
One thing I see a lot of is a terminal lack of critical thinking on the part of the protagonist (Both by the writer/designer, and, as a consequence, the protagonist.) Tattletail is, as we’ve noted, an example, but it’s not the only one by a long shot. Part of this is, again, the use of an element of games design without thinking about the consequence (No, I do not, in fact, have to give a flying fuck about your amnesiac blank slate. Especially if they talk, cementing that they are not me.) But, unfortunately, horror is less horrific when you either don’t care about the protagonist, or think they’re… Well, candidates for a Darwin Award. Oh, hey, I’m in this haunted mansion… Why am I in this haunted mansion?
No, really… Why? This isn’t a question you can answer with “Just Because.” You don’t even have to work terribly hard at it. Let’s take SIREN, for the PS2, as an example of this. A lot of the characters are there because… Well, they live there, and shit’s gone to hell. They’re one of the “lucky” few, so the game quickly defines them, moves on. They’re defined by survival and escape. Kyoya Suda, one of the main characters, is a teenage mystery buff who decided to check out Hanuda because of the urban legends. He can’t leave, because he is, technically, dead. Tamon Takeuchi, similarly, is motivated by the legendry, but what keeps him in Hanuda is a combination of arrogance and professionalism. He will discover what happened!
Not all of them get equal screentime, not all of them survive. But all of them can have their goals, and even reasons why they can’t leave, established in a single sentence each.
Similarly, “Because” doesn’t cut it for any element. Why is this house haunted again? Hadn’t they lived there for years with no trouble? Oh, they had? Huh. Why the doll-head jumpscare? Oh, there’s no real connection there? Ummm… Okay, beyond the momentary shock, that’s just confusing me. It’s not contributing to the mood. Now, not every question has to be answered. But at the very least, you want to ensure there is reasoning behind even your gribbley(s). Wobblyhead McSmudgyShadow does not, funnily enough, scare me, because firstly, I know nothing about him, and secondly, he looks silly. Also, why is he walking when he’s made of smokey shit? Why, when he has clearly demonstrated he can run fast enough to get into my face, then down the corridor before I can blink, is he slowly stalking me?
Oh, you didn’t think about that? No. No you didn’t. Consider this, though… The Necromorphs would just be ordinary monsters, if it weren’t for the thought put into their lifecycle. Consider: Not only are they twisted versions of us that are functionally immortal… Not only are they highly infectious and it isn’t obvious at first when someone is infected… You quickly realise that the only major reason limb trauma works so much better than just pumping them full of hot plasma death is because the thing, the thing controlling them as one, decides they’re no longer useful for their purpose… Namely, turning you into them. Conversely, part of the reason The Thing: The Videogame didn’t work is because the idea behind detecting Thingism (An established, pre-thought idea) was ruined, unfortunately without thinking too heavily about the consequences, by Thingism being a plot trigger, making your blood test items completely worthless.
See how these factors are starting to tie together. Oh… BOO!
Sound And Fury, Signifying… Nothing.
I’ve already mentioned how jumpscares, like any other element, can feel completely without context, without reason. What I haven’t mentioned is the noise element. Christ, these things are loud. And while there is a reason for this, it’s a pretty crap one: For shock value.
Shock, funnily enough, is not fear. It’s not unsettling. It’s not disturbing. It’s just “Thatwasloud oh, it’s gone, I can carry on now.”
Like the monsters, like the character, like the setting, like… Well, everything, context is important. I hear a baby giggling in a house, I am, funnily enough, not going to say “Wow, that’s creepy.” I’m going to say “Ah, yes, the giggling baby cry, stock in trade of someone who wants to put me off balance and hasn’t set this up in any way, shape or form.”
Well, no. What I’m actually going to say is “…Huh. [Moves on without further comment]”
However, if I am aware that there was indeed a dead child… Say… A particularly sadistic dead child, who is now a particularly sadistic ghost, then every time I hear them giggle, even if nothing happens, I am instantly in “Primed for bad shit” mode. A jumpscare, or even a cat-scare (so named because very often, a fake scare involved a startled cat in horror movies) works best when you’re already prepped for it by the atmosphere.
Inmates, a recent game I reviewed, decided that it was a good idea to do several things at once. None of them are awful on their own, but together, they added up to unpleasantness enough that I just got annoyed. Firstly, control was taken away so a monster could get me. Okay, this isn’t always a bad thing. Many’s the time a game has ambushed me in an end-of-level segment or cutscene, and mostly, I’m alright with this. It also decided to give the monster in question the most minimal prep-time (a droning infodump from a few minutes ago), so, when the protagonist yelled “OH NO, IT’S ROY”, my eyebrow raise knocked some plaster from the ceiling. The monster in question did that “I suddenly run really fast” thing, screamed in my face, and then… Almost a minute of a high pitched, tinnitus like sound. Also a slow cutscene of being dragged.
On their own, pretty much everything except the high pitched noise (Which just annoys and hurts the ears, rather than signalling a return to consciousness/dizziness) could have worked. If Roy had been prepped better, if I’d had a reason to care about Roy (Sir No Longer Appearing In This Production), if, for example, he was round the corner rather than doing the lightspeed jog the moment the door opened, then it probably would have worked better. As it is… Well, that was it for me, and not because it was too spooky. Mainly because I was just annoyed at how arbitrary it was.
Done well, sound is your best friend. The character’s footsteps echoing in a haunted castle, for example, really drive home how alone you are. But they, like everything else, require context, even if that context isn’t yet known to the player. Why is that wall… Scratching? Why do I hear… Whispering in this library? Like… Not even normal whispering… Bass whispering. Wait, is that gribbley saying things a human would have been saying in their position? Is it… Was it human?!?
A Curated Experience
When you get right down to it, horror seems to work best when it’s a linear, curated experience. In an open world, you have to work so much harder, so much tighter, to keep scaring people. Look at a lot of zombie games like Dead Island or the like. Most of the time, apart from maaaaybe their introductions, the zombies aren’t scary. They’re obstacles.
And yeah, despite what marketing may have you believe, there’s room for linear, curated experiences. They’re fine. Heck, some of the best fun I’ve had in recent years haven’t been sandboxes, or open world RPG extravaganzas. But trying to have your cake and eat it is probably going to cause pain. For example, Joana’s World, another horror game I reviewed, had an entire block of houses and a park. Wiiiith the small problem that the game’s events only involved two of those houses. It also wouldn’t allow you to do things until the plot mandated you do them, such as not being able to pick up your front door keys or flashlight until… Well, you needed them, even knowing that you needed them beforehand. The first because who doesn’t pick up their front door keys before they prepare to go out (unless they’ve forgotten), and secondly because this is a first person horror game, and it is a flashlight.
Equally, though, we tie back to Because Reasons, with the note that when you block something off, there has to be a reasonable, in context explanation for it. My personal favourite for slightly nonsensical obstacles is one that you see time and time and time again… The hospital bed/curtain. Sometimes they’re in piles (You Are Empty, some Silent Hill games), and this is pretty reasonable. But more often, they’re just… There. You can’t climb them, even though they’re short. You can’t move them, even though they’re wheeled.
“But Jamie, not everything can be moved in a videogame, or chaos will ensue! Rains of frogs, cats and dogs living together!” True. But if you’re reduced to “A hospital bed” rather than… I don’t know, a barricade, a big hole in the floor, barbed wire (don’t laugh, I’m sure you could find a context for that!) … Something that isn’t easily moved, but makes sense for what’s going on or where you are, then you’re mostly going to have to rely on that other aspect of subtle game design… Making the bit blocked off with a single trolley and a hospital curtain less interesting.
Remember, you can just block players off from somewhere. It’s fine. Really it is.
Some Final Caveats
Okay, so I’m picturing some folks getting a little purple in the face while reading this, and others may well have peaced out already, so let’s finish this up with some simple, final points. First up, if you actively enjoy any of the games I’ve mentioned as having unfun elements for me, good for you, keep on doing that! I’m a reviewer, not the fun police.
Secondly, everything I’ve described here are guidelines, not rules. You see a way you think you can make a relatively open game genuinely creepy, cool, work at that, lemme know how it goes. These are, however, guidelines based on both common sense, study, and experience. But, again, I am not the fun police, you want to make a game with a contextless spoop, walking very slowly around an entire block of flats, while hunting for the Eight Random Items We’re Not Telling You About Beyond “Find Eight Thingumajigs” and babies are giggling in a creepy fashion almost constantly, then cool. Just don’t expect me to touch the damn thing.
I hope these have helped. I hope these have illuminated, and I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice: Play horror games. Even some of the ones lambasted. Examine how they make you feel, ask why they make you feel that way, and how they’ve made you feel that way. And if you decide to make a horror game, ask whether or not you can apply something as is (You don’t, for example, need your game to be in a dark place), and see what your players feel.
CONTENT WARNING: Cacklingly Evil Corporations do things that would be considered triggering, such as forced impregnation, human experimentation and trafficking, wilful use of deathtraps, and other creepy shit that would horrify normal people and cause them to get locked up.
Playing Stasis (a “dystopian sci-fi horror” adventure game that got no small amount of critical acclaim at the time it came out, and is apparently getting a sequel) has reminded me how much CacklinglyEvilCorps piss me off. Not because they’re so obviously evil. But because they’re stupid, badly written evil. Oh, and let’s not forget, often edgy evil too. Because, y’know, nothing says evil like [insert horrific thing because reasons here]!
We’ll come back to Cayne Corporation, and how thickly that got laid on, in a bit. But first, let’s talk about a pair of supposedly massively evil corps in movies: OCP and Weyland-Yutani. It may shock you to notice, but they’re not actually that evil. Doing bad things, yes. But in a way that makes sense. Let’s start with Weyland Yutani, as they appear in the first three Alien films.
At the beginning, they are just The Corporation. The Company Store. Sure, Ash goes murderous, and you have the directive “Crew Expendable” , but up to that point? We can tell they do mining or extraction of some kind, that they have contracts, and employees, and, at worst, they’re penny pinchers.
And then we come to the second film and… Nobody on the board knows, or claims to know, of any such thing happening. In fact, we get a little nuance, because Van Leeuwen, the CEO, mentions that Wey-Yu has quite a lucrative sideline in… Terraforming planets. Shake-And-Bake colonies. Their colonies are apparently safe enough for families to join up (With, of course, the exception of LV-426 and, y’know, all the other LV numbers that get mentioned in the media of the expanded universe), and, before Carter Burke and the assholes he works for stick their finger in? What we see is normal, everyday frontier town analogies. They do medicine. They technically own the Marine Corp… They have nuance, and are not just black and white.
While we’re on the subject of Carter Burke, his motivation? Profit. As it turns out, Xenomorphs have all sorts of applications, and not just in the CacklinglyEvilCorp section of Wey-Yu that is the Bioeweapons division. Wey-Yu, as a whole, isn’t really the villain, so much as an element of an otherwise normal, if penny pinching and exploitative corporation.
Alien 3, of course, throws large portions of that out the window. We never even see Wey-Yu as an organisation, except, of course, the CacklinglyEvilCorp portion toward the end. Even the folks who attract the Bioweapons crowd by alerting them to Ripley’s presence aren’t doing it because they’re cacklingly evil. They’re doing it because a) They consider Ripley a disruptive influence , and b) There’s a reward.
So… Wey-Yu: Not as cacklingly evil as you’d think. But what about OCP?
OCP are an interesting one, because they’re inept, and that’s where the dystopia comes from. They own the police, and their main reason for RoboCop programmes? Again, penny pinching. Their reason for putting all those dumb rules in RoboCop’s brain? Because what he was doing up to that point was considered Bad PR. Y’know, something an actual company would care about. But it’s not until the series hits its nadir that they relentlessly pursue and antagonise. RoboCops 1 and 2, they are, yes, an Evil Corporation. But they act in a very corporate fashion, which is why the parody works so well with them.
But then we come back to Cayne Corporation. Cayne is one of many CacklinglyEvilCorps, from Armacham to Umbrella, and the main hallmark of the CacklinglyEvilCorp is that there is little, if any nuance. In the case of Cayne Corporation, let’s put together a rough timeline of the Groomlake, the setting of Stasis.
First up, way back when, the Eugenics Wars happened. This was apparently some attempt at creating Post-Humans that went horribly wrong.
Then we get the Groomlake. From the beginning, it’s involved in human trafficking and experimentation, and cloning. The head of the ship, Dr. Malan, seems to think he can do Post-Humans better than whatever idiots tried way back when, and hires as his top research staff some highly questionable folks, including a drug addicted serial killing doctor. Because, y’know, nobody bats an eyelid at such things.
The good doctor then encourages his other staff to do incredibly stupid things, including letting the serial killing doctor indulge his hobby, and mulch the experiments, which then turns into a semi-sentient fungus because reasons. This, in turn, affects the mass cloning (Which is at least partially using Dr. Malan’s hybrid babies, created by forced impregnation), and hydroponics, affecting some bees so one turns into a supermutant. Oh, and experimenting on employees, which often kills them.
He also cures and keeps hold of the protagonists’ daughter, for reasons.
Nobody bats an eyelid at Cayne Corporation. Except to send a spy who will hopefully steal Dr. Malan’s research, in the name of profit.
The clones and hybrids start wearing people’s skin and taking their Personal Data Tags (Which are grafted to their spines because reasons), so as to get around the ship to murder people. The fungus starts mind controlling everyone. A nurse realises they’re involved in human trafficking, tries to get a family off ship, and is shot.
Nobody bats an eyelid. Sometime during this, the protagonist’s wife has been put into Dr. Malan’s programme. You remember, the one about trying to breed post humans, forcibly. Because reasons.
John (J) Maracheck, living Aliens reference and punching bag of Stasis, is one of the few survivors, along with Dr. Malan, Te’Ah the corporate spy, and John’s small child, who is still being cared for by Dr. Malan because reasons. After witnessing the after-effects of Dr. Malan’s fuckery, having to do horrifying things, he confronts Dr. Malan. Who then kills the child he’d been taking care of and cured, right in front of her dad, because reasons. Then everyone dies.
How much of this, do you think, could the Cayne Corporation actually call a profit on, even assuming their sole motive is profit? At what point, do you think, did anyone on any corporate board ever think “Yes, this is a good investment, and will surely not be a sinkhole of money and death?”
No, it’s villainy for the sake of villainy, stupidity pretending to be smart, and at least two fridgings because let’s hurt this guy who, against a corporation, probably wouldn’t matter in the god-damn slightest.
Meanwhile, a second game featuring the Cayne Corporation is in the works. I don’t have terribly high hopes, especially after seeing this screenshot.
Yeaaaaaahhhh… Because that makes all the fucking sense. Periodic reminder: The setpieces are in the writing, not the writing being around the setpieces. Forget this, and you have setpieces that end up being “because reasons”, and large swathes of your plot being the same.
We’ve all seen games where there is “optional content that adds to the story.” Similarly, there are games where playing again introduces new things. But there are times when the execution of these features can harm perception of a game. For this mini-essay, I’m going to be picking on two games: Arkham Knight, and Zero Time Dilemma. In both cases, I’m going to be presenting a before and after seeing this. On the Arkham Knight front, we’re dealing with “optional content” , and for Zero Time Dilemma, it’s a second playthrough thing. Let’s start with that.
Zero Time Dilemma: Before
Omigod, how annoyed I was when Delta got revealed. “It was me all along, the pretend deaf, blind man in a wheelchair I don’t need, who’s been watching you and controlling your every move! All for the best of motives, of course, and all this pain and suffering you’ve personally experienced? Means jack shit because I, personally, didn’t do anything. It was all those other Deltas in other timelines!”
I was all ready for a rant about ableist writing. I was all ready for talking about how the reveal was poorly foreshadowed. Here, we have a deaf and blind man who’s ignored, who you have no clue about his existence before a certain scene involving twins being copy-pasted through time-space, and then it turns out it was all a cheap trick. Even when we get to the “After”, Delta is an asshole. But this rant? Technically unjustified.
Zero Time Dilemma: After
Because then I looked up signs for Delta’s existence. Oh, they’re there alright. But many of them are super ambiguous, and only a few am I kicking myself for missing (The Q-Team death shower, for example, has three puddles of flesh. Except Sean is a robot, and doesn’t have flesh. Then again, there’s no wires or electronics either.) Shadows on the camera that are actually Q/Delta/Zero and his wheelchair. That one scene where Sean and Eric look like they’re talking to the dog (via a cut between Eric and the dog, Gab), but are actually talking to Q/Delta.
There’s just one problem. A lot of these require a second playthrough, or even a third, if you’re even halfway good at Zero Escape games. I finished the game in one solid block, one night, all achievements. And that hurt my perception of this particular plot point, because, with ZTD, there are no other outcomes. It is a Visual Novel in the purest sense because you get all the Bad Ends along the way, and there is one, True End. So, for many, the question would be “Why go back?”
There’s your answer. You sort of have to to properly understand how you’ve been led by the nose. And there’s no incentive to when you think you’ve had a Not Twist pulled on you. It wasn’t. It’s just a lot of the foreshadowing was ambiguous enough that you thought it was.
Of course, it doesn’t stop Delta being an asshole, in any of the timelines he’s in. He’s not a hero for what he does. He’s not an antihero for what he does. He’s a villain who, in his world (and only in his world), technically won. We’ll leave aside the question of “Well, how the hell does Delta exist in all those timelines when he was only born in one and copied to one other?” , because the narrative does leave room for saying he was copied to a lot of timelines, not all of which we’d see.
So what about Arkham Knight?
Arkham Knight: Before
Ohhh boy. Arkham Knight kicked up one hell of a stink, not only for its shoddy PC port, but for its treatment of women characters in the games. Of particular note would be Barbara Gordon, whose suicide raised many an angry cry of “FRIDGE FRIDGE FRIDGE!” , and, in the DLC, Francine Langstrom, wife of the man who would become ManBat, who is just… Dead. Before the story even begins. Now, for those who don’t get what the cry of “FRIDGE!” means, it refers to a somewhat sexist piece of comics writing called “Women in Refrigerators”, where the death of a woman character is used purely to motivate the hero or otherwise affect him. If you guessed that the original, trope naming example was of a woman being hacked up and placed in a hero’s refrigerator, you’d win an imaginary cookie.
It’s not the only example of writing perceived as shoddy in Arkham Knight, and not the only shitty character treatment. Poison Ivy, despite being a Chekhov’s Immune Person, spends most of the game in jail. She doesn’t, to my knowledge, plead with Batman to be let out, and, until a pivotal scene, she doesn’t mention how her plants, the supposed core of her character, will also die if Scarecrow releases his fear toxin. After this pivotal scene, she sacrifices herself for Gotham. These treatments were bad enough that even male writers, such as myself, Evan Narcisse (Kotaku) , and Elijah Beahm (Gameskinny) noticed.
Of course, things could get missed. And they do. But does it make it any better?
Arkham Knight: After
In the case of Barbara Gordon, the words “It gets better later!” have been used often, in one form or another. Barbara didn’t really die, it was a Fear Toxin hallucination. She saves her dad, Batman, and distracts Scarecrow, throwing herself off a building because she knows the Bat will save her. She helps in one of the final fights, hacking an army of drones.
But, as AnnotatedDC (Among many others) points out, this doesn’t change the fact that she spends the majority of the game either a captive (Damselled) or with Batman and Gordon both being manipulated into distrusting each other, leading to this “It gets better later!”, by said fake suicide, which, sorry to say, “Gets Better” crowd, still makes it a Fridging. Similarly, Francine Langstrom, if you go back to the Langstrom lab after doing the Manbat quest, has vanished, leaving a message behind in blood that deeply implies she has become a (Wo)ManBat also. Batman is still emotionally affected into doing the thing. Batman still does the thing. And, to make things even more fun, this is an example of something you most likely will miss, because you’re given no reason to go back there that I’m aware of.
Oh, and Poison Ivy may not have actually died, because there’s a plant where she fell. That one you at least have a chance of spotting without knowing that it’s there… But it’s extremely ambiguous whether that’s a good sign, or a monument to the sacrifice that, unfortunately, doesn’t make the writing of that arc any better. Nor does it make her design in Arkham Knight any less sexualised. People have seriously said to me that the design in Arkham Knight is less sexualised than The Animated Series. Here’s the two side by side for comparison. One of them is slightly better.
Catwoman, who you may have noticed wasn’t talked about until now, does, genuinely, get somewhat better. She’s freed somewhere around the halfway point, and, providing you get all the Riddler Trophies, gets her own back on Mr. Edward Nygma. Of course, you only get the “freed” part unless you do get all the Riddler Trophies (And not even that until you do a certain proportion), and, while the trophies are easier to get, and in smaller numbers than Origins, it’s still a collectathon task that not every Arkham Knight player has done.
So, Arkham Knight: Not quite as badly written as folks say, does have its high points… But still not great.
It’s important, when designing a game, to be aware that tying your story to optional content, or a second playthrough, may not necessarily be a good thing, because if it’s something important to that story, like Dr. Mrs. Langstrom not actually being dead, then perception of your game can become somewhat negative.
Okay, so this past month has seen, seemingly, the unwelcome return of “Oh, but this is challenging!” to the Mad Welshman’s hearing. And I’m getting rather sick of the phrase, because it often disguises just plain bad design. So let’s talk about some common pitfalls here.
It Gets Better Much Later!
This is what we, in the criticising/design end of things, like to call a “Difficulty curve problem” or an “Interest curve problem.” If you are having to tell me that the game gets better later to keep me playing now, then something has gone wrong. And usually, it’s not understanding what makes a challenging fight challenging, or an area/encounter interesting.
A challenging encounter is one where you are given time to understand the rules of engagement, but will still get your shit wrecked if you don’t have the skill. The Asylum Demon from Dark Souls is a good example of this, as you can run away quite effectively for some time (In fact, the fight is optional the first time through.) He swings. He butt stomps. He telegraphs. That last bit is important. Equally important, even though it doesn’t seem it, is that you know what effect you’re having.
An uncomfortable encounter would be one where there are wrinkles that you would be unaware of until the fight is underway, causing problems down the line. A good example of this would be from the Persona series, where a specific encounter, Nyx/Night Queen, will charm your healer, who then… Heals said encounter up to full health. Because it’s relatively pattern based, it can be planned for and countered, but it’s an unpleasant surprise that can lead to a slow death and frustration the first time round. Hope you saved!
A bad encounter is one where nothing is telegraphed, or there’s something for which you have no counter beyond memorisation and/or flawless execution. An example of this would be Mind Flayers from the original Eye of the Beholder, whose awesome powers are represented by… An invisible ranged attack that can cause an all party paralyse, aka “Might as well be a game over.” Not even a late game enemy needs something like this.
Interest, unfortunately, is much harder to gauge. Even an engagingly written Wall-O-Text(TM) is going to turn some people off, whereas a five minute cutscene might have people sitting on the edge of their seats. But there are some things that aren’t recommended, and I’ll go into some of them a little further on.
The Last Place You’ll Look
This one can especially be a problem for exploration games, like Metroidvanias, but some people just don’t get that many players will do anything, anything rather than look somewhere they’ve been discouraged to. This is one where I’m not going to name names, but give a possibility, to show you what sort of things you really want to avoid.
The first, and best, would be the Heat Suit in the Lava Place. Okay, so on the one hand, props for thematic placement… But I’m not talking about the edge of such a place. Oh, no. We’re talking at the edges of your health requirements. We’re talking a case of “If you have X health powerups, and pass the obstacles along the way well (or flawlessly) while taking the damage over time from over heat, you’ll be able to get the Heat Suit, which stops that damage over time effect.” A perfect example of this was provided by one of my twitter followers, where, in La Mulana, the Ice Cape (Which reduces lava damage) is at the end of the Inferno Cavern (Which not only has lava, but fireballs that will often knock you into the lava.)
Don’t do this. Don’t ever do this. First off, what the heck is it doing all the way there? How did the normal schmoes get it, before everything went to hell? How did it get there? How will anybody know? And this applies to a lot of things, because players can be easily discouraged. Let’s say there’s something that jams your minimap. Let’s say knowing where you are is kind of important. Players won’t want to explore that jammed area until they know how to deal with it. If the thing you need to deal with it is in that area, then congratulations, you have basically created an old-school game maze, a piece of artificial padding that’s been despised since… Well, a long damn time.
While we’re on the subject…
The Maze. Because.
That “Because” is kind of important. Putting a maze in your level design for no good reason is going to annoy people. Especially if it’s a teleporter maze, where there’s no frame of reference. Especially if you can’t leave some sort of breadcrumb trail. Especially if you can’t pick those “breadcrumbs” back up again, and need them.
Realms of the Haunting, for all that it had a strong, interesting early game, suffers really badly from this in the latter half. At least two hedge mazes, at least two cave mazes, and a couple of maze puzzles. That game suffered because of that. Yours doesn’t have to. Yes, there have been clever mazes (And clever pseudo-mazes.) That doesn’t change the fact that often, it’s a lazy puzzle.
The Random Chance of Instant Death
This one mostly applies to RPGs, but there’s an analogue in some strategy games. Essentially, sometimes, monsters in games have a random chance, if they hit you, of straight up killing you. Often, this goes along with random encounters, or scripted, yet invisible encounters. So you walk into a fight and… Oh, bad luck, hope you saved before that fight!
Yeah, nobody’s going to ever claim that was fair. Or much of a challenge on either side. Either the insta-death doesn’t proc, and the monster wastes its life trying to kill you, or it does, and you’ve got nothing left but to reload an earlier save. I could point to an absolute multitude of early RPGs that do this, including… Er… Most of the CRPGs of the 80s and 90s.
Thing is, this applies to pretty much any game where you can be dicked out of a victory by nothing more than chance. Need to roll seventeen sixes on 20 d6 to win a game? That’s bad. On a related note, you have the…
Oh, that extra life looks really tempting, doesn’t it? Shame that if you try and get it, you’re going to die. Well, chalk that up to learning a lesson abo- What, you thought you didn’t have to go through that tough segment it’s at the end of again? Ahaha no. Go directly to checkpoint, do not pass go, and do not collect your extra life. To make it worse, sometimes it’s not an extra life. Sometimes, it’s not even a real power up. When you just can’t reach it, ever, that’s lacklustre design. When you can, but can’t get anywhere without dying? You’ve been Gotcha’d, and it’s bad design.
Gotcha Enemies/FUCKING BATS/Gotcha Spikes
There is a reason Castlevania bats have mostly gone out of fashion… Because everybody knows they’re difficulty padding. For those who don’t know why bats (or birds, or spiders, or medusa heads) are considered such a bane, let’s consider a jump. If you are skilled, you will make that jump. Okay, that’s fair.
Now add knockback on a hit from an enemy or obstacle. Put that enemy in the middle, and make sure it dies in one hit. Okay, now it’s challenging, because there’s a timing element too.
Now replace that enemy you know with bats. There is never one bat. They either move toward some point on you (Often below or above your weapon’s hitbox), or they move in a predetermined fashion across the screen from a random point. Congratulations, you’ve just gotten pissed off at the fifth time you’ve been knocked into that pit, and very possibly died.
Another variant of this is the Gotcha Enemy, the one that is either on your target platform in an obstacle course, or appears just as you’re about to land. Unlike the other examples, it can’t be killed in one hit. So you’re going to get knocked back unless you have some other resource to deal with it… You know, into that pit. Which kills you.
But let’s say it doesn’t kill you. This gives us an example of the Gotcha spikes! You fall, and, holy of holies, there’s a platform, you’re not going to die!
Except you are, because you can’t control your movement while being knocked back, and you need to go right, not left to land on it. Everywhere else is spikes. For extra dickmovery, let’s imagine that platform is actually where you need to go to complete the level.
You’d think this was me making things up. But no, these are things that have happened in older games before. Mostly in the Mega Man and Castlevania series, both of which are well known for their equivalents of FUCKING BATS (Which, in Castlevania’s case, is where the term came from.)
Read My Mind.
This one is particularly bad with adventure games and RPGs, because it’s long been accepted that both genres can have puzzles, and maybe should have puzzles… But the art of designing a puzzle is a tricky one, because not only do you have to know the solution before you write it, you have to think really hard about whether you would, in the situation your character is in, arrive at that solution too. We even have a name for it, based on a game by Jane Jensen (Who normally writes much better puzzles, to be perfectly fair): Cat Hair Moustache. Of course, this includes a multitude of sins, including bad signposting, bad logic, and lack of clarity.
Gobliiins, by Coktelvision, has entertaining animations, endearing characters, and only got better with the addition of music and cheesy VA. However, it suffered from all three of these problems, and it was only made worse by a health bar system that would lose you the game if you screwed up enough. Hey, maybe punching/magicking/using this thing would he- Oh, wait, no, it dropped our health bar because it was secretly full of snakes/spiders/a possibly undead gribbley. One of those things, by the way, was an integral part of a puzzle, but if not handled in exactly the correct way, would give you a game over quite quickly.
Some of the hidden rules behind Gobliiins you learn quite quickly (Never ask Dwayne to use a stick shaped object on anything but the thing he’s meant to, or he will bash himself on the head.) Others, you can never be certain of.
And so it becomes a game of trial and error, because there is only one solution (Sometimes two), and sometimes, it involves moon logic (Such as opening a cupboard by throwing a dart at a picture of its owner) or just guessing which one is right (Which apples are safe to make big and carry to fill a gap in a bridge?)
I’m Not Going To Tell You
Sometimes, you don’t actually have the information you need to make a solid decision. This one comes in several varieties, but the core question in each of them is “Should I, as my character, know what I don’t know?” If the answer is “Yes”, then you have correctly identified the game padding its difficulty. Unfortunately, part of the problem here is that, a lot of the time, you don’t know it’s there to be important. For example, ally kills in Disgaea bar you from the best ending, but the criteria for it? It’s somewhat picky.
Now, I want to be completely fair here, and mention that, in one particular case, it’s because of factors outside the developer’s control. Specifically, copyrighting of sanity meters. That’s right, that whole “Your vision gets fucked up when looking at a creepy thing” comes from designers having to get around paying extra money because they can’t give you a number to tell you how scared you are.
Hoo boy. This is a really common one. From the multi-stage boss without a checkpoint, to the one button runners without a checkpoint, ignoring checkpoints if your game is already challenging (or just plain difficult) takes it to a whole other level of fuck you. Let’s take the one button runner example. There is a game, that I will not name, which has a cool soundtrack, some great customisation, acknowledges that colour blindness is a thing, and has some cool set pieces within its limited repertoire. But none of this is very useful, because, since not a single level has checkpoints. In game, I’m hearing the same thirty seconds to a minute (On a particularly bad day, 15 seconds) over and over again, I’m not seeing most of the set pieces, and due to this, I have a playtime of… An hour, gained in ten minute dribs and drabs once in a blue moon, since I bought it two months ago. I have beaten two levels. Is it because I’m bad at the game? No, it’s because a one-button runner is already a challenging genre, and having not a single checkpoint in a five to ten minute level requiring quick input and pattern memorisation pushes it from “Challenging” to “No, fuck you.”
Things To Keep In Mind
A clever designer can make these things not seem so bad. Well, most of them. Hidden stats, for example, are pretty much “flavour” in many racing games, and you don’t need to know the hidden stats to play Pokemon. Sometimes, they’re limitations. But they can nearly all be taken out of your game, if you make one, with just a little forethought.
Ask questions as you design.
Ask folks to test your game, and watch folks playing your game. They will surprise you.
Look at older games, and learn from their mistakes.
Don’t blame me for any complaints if you don’t.