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GAMBIT Spring Prototyping: #3

After the WILD success of our Shadow of the Colossus prototypes, Matt asked us to make a paper prototype of a survival horror game. Unlike last time, this would not be an adaptation of a specific, existing digital game but rather completely new that would fit into the survival horror genre. He also asked that we avoid using a standard 52 card deck (presumably because playing cards figured heavily in our Shadow of the Colossus prototypes), and to make use of space and an avatar with core verbs (two things which we had not really included in our previous games).

This struck us as a difficult task, since horror--survival or otherwise--seems to depend so much on instinctive reactions to frightening things that the player sees and hears, and a constant feeling of danger and vulnerability. Paper, Play-Doh, dice, and the other materials available to us aren't really the ideal tools for creating such effects.

Our first task was thus to try to pinpoint the elements that define the genre and that are essential in creating that feeling of horror, and then to figure out how to translate those elements into a form that was compatible with paper prototyping.

In our discussions on this topic, we identified a handful of concepts that we believed to be central to the survival horror genre. One is the idea of rationing: the player doesn't have enough of some vital resource and must plan carefully to conserve it. In many cases, ammunition is this limited resource, but there are other possibilities, including non-physical concepts like an action that one can only perform a set number of times.

We also concluded that combat should be de-emphasized in favor of evasion and avoidance, i.e. sneaking around and running away from antagonists. In the event that combat did play a part in our prototype, we thought that it should be weighted more toward strategy and planning--setting traps, for example.

Finally, we decided that we needed to find a way to include an atmosphere of strangeness and "eeriness" in our survival horror prototype. In our Shadow of the Colossus adaptations, we had focused more on gameplay and mechanics and had downplayed things like atmosphere.

Not only did we want to try a different approach with this new prototype, we also felt that such things were essential to conveying the feel of the genre, and that our prototype would be less effective without an appropriate fiction.

From this starting point, we created two different prototypes. The first grew out of discussion on how to handle space in the game. Early on, we decided that we wanted to avoid standard representations like tokens moving around a grid. We considered ideas like having the player explore a world in which space doesn't behave normally (for example, if the player moved two units to the left and then two to the right, he wouldn't end up in the space he started from), but couldn't figure out a way to effectively represent the warping of space in a prototype.

Eventually, we came up with a game in which the player takes on the role of a person who is hiding in a "panic room" inside his house and has to conceal his presence from an antagonist (controlled by a GM) who is searching the house for him. To do this, he would have to find a way to get rid of clues that show that he is in the house, or prevent the searcher from noticing those clues--for example, he might have to find a way to extinguish a fire burning in a fireplace, or distract the antagonist so that he doesn't notice the fact that the master bedroom is too short by a few feet because of the false wall hiding the panic room.

However, the player has to do all this without leaving the panic room, with only a map of the house and the items in the room to help him. In addition, the player has to keep track of his enemy's movements through the house and time his actions so that they don't attract attention. If the player wants to, say, use the fuse box in the room to cut power to the kitchen where a kettle is heating on the stove, he will have to make sure that his enemy is not anywhere near the kitchen when he does so, using pipes and ducts that conduct sound from different points of the house. Finally, the player can only complete a few actions per turn, and so has to choose carefully which to perform.

We also discussed aesthetic elements that we could add to the game: putting the player alone in a darkened room, with recorded sounds that would play--fire crackling, stairs creaking, footsteps on wood floors--to represent the searcher's movement about the house. These elements, unfortunately, were complex and not feasible for a paper prototype developed in a few hours.

As a result, we could not playtest the game entirely as we imagined it. We were able to play through and try out the puzzle-solving elements (figuring out where the antagonist is and what actions to take to prevent discovery), but we couldn't gather much data about whether our ideas for creating a feeling of horror were effective.

We also tried to take a novel approach to representing space in our second prototype, in which the player is trying to escape from a monster pursuing them through a labyrinth. We decided that it would heighten the feeling of dread if the player was not certain how far away the monster was, but only knew that the monster was getting nearer.

Thus, we came up with a system in which the distance between monster and player is represented by a length of string, most of which is concealed inside a box (so that the player cannot see how much string remains). Every time the monster moves closer to the player, the player pulls a unit of string out of the box, and when the entire string has been pulled out, the monster has caught up to the player and the player loses.

On each turn, the player is given a word that they must write with their left hand (or whichever hand is not dominant) in a certain amount of time--the word is presented as a spell or incantation which will indicate the correct way to go, and writing it successfully represents the player having cast the spell and moved forward.

If the player fails to write the word within the time limit, or writes it illegibly, then they are unable to make progress and the monster moves closer. If the player manages to write enough words (which increase in length as time goes on) before pulling the entire string from the box, then the player has reached the end of the maze (or other goal).

At the same time, the player is told that he is carrying his sick infant child that has a chance of sneezing at every turn--in fact, with each successive turn, the chance that the baby will sneeze increases. If the baby does sneeze (as determined by the roll of a die), the monster moves closer. However, the player has the option of briefly covering the baby's mouth to stifle a sneeze. What the player is not told is that if he does this more than three times over the course of the game, the child suffocates. If this happens, the player is not immediately informed, but the baby ceases to sneeze. Only if the player reaches the end of the maze do they learn that they have inadvertently smothered the baby that they were trying to keep safe.

As with the first prototype, we also tried to include some non-gameplay-based elements that would add to the horror feeling of the game. The words that the player has to write are all of a violent or gruesome nature ("cut", "stab", "eviscerate", etc.); the string that the player pulls starts out white but gets gradually redder as the player pulls it out, and ends in a quantity of red silk (originally we wanted to put something disgusting or frightening at the end of the string, but couldn't figure out how the mechanism that would reveal it would work); even the potential revelation at the end that you've suffocated the infant you carried with you is a fictional element not strictly necessary for gameplay but an addition that hopefully creates a sensation of shock and horror.

Overall, the most difficult part of creating a survival horror prototype may have been the "atmosphere" requirement. It was not terribly hard to put elements of rationing (limiting the number of times you could suppress the baby's sneeze, for example, or the number of actions you could perform in a certain turn) and evasion (escaping the minotaur, concealing your presence from the searcher) in our prototypes. Nor was it hard to test the prototypes to see how those elements worked during actual gameplay.

But making a game where the atmosphere or fiction is important automatically adds a second level of difficulty, because you have to make sure not only that the mechanics you have work and are fun, but that the game is creating the effect that you desire. This was where we ran into trouble with our games--we could playtest the puzzles of the first prototype, or the difficulty level of the word-writing mechanic for the second prototype, but without actually recording spooky sounds or constructing the box with the blood-red string, we couldn't predict how our attempts at unsettling the player would really work.

This may be the biggest advantage that digital games have over our paper prototypes: they can rely on graphics of terrifying zombies, grisly grunge maps, and ominous music to create an emotional effect, but we have to devise with more indirect and unconventional ways of eliciting fear or horror using simpler resources.

On the other hand, forcing us to figure out new ways of inflicting dread in players means that, should we wish to make a survival horror video game, we do have a greater repertoire of techniques at hand -- techniques we might not normally have come up with.

Next post: prototyping and playtesting the handwriting game!

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