So You Want To: Write A Survival Horror Game
"The door to safety is shut. There is no turning back."
Since fundamental plot concepts apply even here, be sure to check out the basics.
In terms of genre rules, Survival Horror
is as liberal as Post Modernism
, allowing for a great deal of rule malleability and boundary overlap. However, since said freedoms are given, be careful that it does not tip too close to Action Adventure lest the atmosphere and plot become somewhat tainted.
The best way to check this is to examine which "horror movie role" your character fits into; if you're giving the player a muscular hero wearing power armor
, loaded to the teeth
and sticking with buddies
over a Genre Blind
oaf who can barely function, please read through the fundamentals of the genre again.
That said, as long as caution is taken when coloring outside the lines, Survival Horror is pretty open to numerous themes and ideas. When writing, be sure to consider the following:
Covering the basics:
- Weaponry: Generally, you shouldn't give the player high-powered weapons until late in the game, if at all, and after the enemies have gone up in strength and difficulty. Most games restrict it to things like melee weapons, handguns, shotguns, hunting rifles, and other civilian weapons that one would expect to see lying around. By all means, avoid providing the player a BFG in anything except a New Game+. Above all, make sure it fits the theme of your setting.
- Also consider how proficient the protagonist should be with them. The key is to keep the protagonist feeling vulnerable, and limiting them to random flails of an Improvised Weapon can help keep them feeling desperate.
- In fact, you might even consider the idea of not allowing the protagonist to fight back at all, meaning they can only run from or, at best, stun enemies. Do not make the mistake of assuming that fighting and killing enemies are necessarily essential components.
- Nor should you make the mistake of assuming that the inability to kill enemies equates to giving the player no means to at least temporarily ward off threats. The need to stop what you were doing to run away from the Implacable Man every 30 seconds quickly stops being scary and starts being annoying, which is not the effect you're supposed to be going for.
- Health and ammo: How much of each should there be? Too little and the game will be Nintendo Hard... but it will also be scarier since every bullet and health pack counts. A fine balance between enough/too little should be found. Consider including multiple difficulty settings, with lower difficulty providing more health and ammo and vice versa.
- Building on the lack of ammo, some games also have melee weapons that take damage over time, eventually breaking or otherwise becoming unusable. This can be used to discourage players from getting gung-ho with melee combat, forcing them to stay on their toes and avoid enemies. If you do this, though, make sure you strike a balance between longevity and fragility — having a single pipe that can last you over an hour of combat defeats the purpose of breakable weapons, but that same pipe breaking after only four swings can violate the players' Willing Suspension of Disbelief and frustrate them.
- Honorable Mention goes to Left 4 Dead, which is Survival Horror only in the sense that it involves a Zombie Apocalypse. It does, however, have a really useful feature you could crib: the AI Director, which pays attention to what has happened recently and is in charge of all enemy, item, weapon and health placements. By tailoring those things to your recent performance, the AI Director can guarantee that you are always challenged, give you breathers after intense sections, and keep the game from getting stale, since you'll never face the same exact placement and composition of enemies even if you replay the same level five times. (Well, except for the Videogame Setpieces, but those are appropriate frantic even without procedural generation.)
- First-person or third-person perspective?: The former allows for the player to be snuck up on by enemies much more easily, since most of the screen is no longer visible, but it can also frustrate players when they can't tell where the enemy is; also, it can cause eyestrain at least where dark areas are concerned. The latter avoids this, but can remove some of the fear and add Fake Difficulty if there's poor camera control.
- How many enemies?: Some survival horror games get by with only one Implacable Man hunting the player, a la Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Others throw them into a zombie apocalypse. In the middle, a zombie apocalypse with a few iconic bosses/sub bosses can be used. In fact, it's possible to avoid standard enemies altogether by having the player trapped in a malevolent Genius Loci.
- What Sort of Scares?: Yahtzee divided monster scares into three; you might find others, but here are his:
- You walk by a cupboard and a monster jumps out and goes "A bloogy woogy woo!" (Cheap Cat Scare moments, basically. Useful if not overdone.)
- You look at the cupboard and realize there's a monster behind you. And you just know he's going to go "A bloogy woogy woo!" at some point, but he doesn't, and you're terrified to turn around because what he'd do then would be even worse. (Here, your mind does most of the work: Nothing Is Scarier.)
- The monster says "A bloogy woogy woo," but he's all the way across the room and coming very slowly toward you, giving you plenty of time to get away. (Not usually so scary, but on the other hand, there's always the Advancing Wall of Doom, where the monster acts as a visceral time limit on the actions you're taking to get away from it, and every little mistake or back-track makes it more intense.)
- What "flavor" of horror?: Western horror is visceral (the horror comes from the threat of being eaten or otherwise painfully murdered; a prime example would be Dead Space, where the enemies are basically Zerg Rush zombies with tentacles and claws and have to be mauled to death), while eastern horror is cerebral (feelings of isolation and paranoia, some Rule of Symbolism, and "being trapped with something that hates you in a very passive-aggressive way"; a prime example would be Silent Hill where there are few enemies, but the ones that are there are very symbolic and can be tied directly to regrets, frustrations and mental trauma). Something in the middle would be like The Thing, where you're soaked in as much Paranoia Fuel as the writer thinks he can get away with, and he then provides a lit match in the form of an enemy popping messily out of a teammate. You could have something down the middle by starting out fighting hordes of zombies, and as you start to get mentally fatigued, pile on more and more Freudian imagery until the player is fighting (un)living H. R. Giger sculptures.
- Why Don't You Just Leave?: Not such an issue in a broken starship, but in a monster-infested suburbia, why not just hop the next bus out of town? Some games forget to give the hero a darn good reason for sticking around when there are monsters trying to eat his soul. The reason could be external or internal, ranging from "surrounded by desert" and "impassable forcefield" to "my daughter's here somewhere and I'm not leaving till I've found her." But steer clear of the milder forms, like "the bridge is out" (why not just swim across the river?) or "oh gee I might have to walk a couple miles down the road." At any rate, go read up on the Monster in the House plot in Ten Movie Plots, which is basically what Survival Horror is.
- Villain Decay: Because of the nature of the player as a monster-killing dynamo, they may become a One-Man Army despite starting the game as an Action Survivor. As a result, players may lose that initial dread you worked so hard to get as the monster stop being scary. Common ways to avoid this is to make most enemies particularly weak on purpose, but giving them Zerg Rush tactics to keep them frightening en masse. Creating a few Sub Boss enemies to harass players, or even an Implacable Man that they can't kill for most of the game, and can survive only by fleeing, are other means to curb the player's confidence as they hit their stride. If you must use Demonic Spiders, make sure they aren't "cheap".
- Camera Control: In a movie, a monster popping up out of nowhere is scary. In a videogame, a monster popping up out of nowhere is also scary, but if overdone can be a little annoying. In a movie, a hero who doesn't look both ways and gets mugged by the monster is subject to audience mockery. In a videogame, a camera that can't be made to focus on the places the player expects a monster to come out of is Camera Screw, and damn annoying! So, use the former, avoid the latter.
- Pacing: To quote Yahtzee again: "There haven't been any mainstream survival-horror games this year, just a lot of action games where the enemies have arms growing out of their tits." Gribbly enemies and atmosphere come to naught when one goes through zombies (or whatever) like popcorn and the story's done in four hours.
- Claustrophobia, Agoraphobia... or both? Most Survival Horror games cause dread with small, cramped spaces and strange, hard to locate sounds. You never know what horror lies behind a new... or old... door. This is because it's usually thematically appropriate, since most of these games are in a Closed Circle. However, some games manage to avoid the monotony of a sewer, haunted house, or cramped spaceship by adding vast, "empty" areas. The trick is to somehow hide the enemies, be it by playing possum, invisibility, impenetrable darkness, fog, or some other means.
- Rather than over-the-top gore, make the setting a Sugar Bowl (or more accurately, a Crapsaccharine World). Make the players fear the cuddly berserker teddy bears! Have the player run in fear of the pack of singing bunnies who want nothing more than to eat their flesh!
- Instead of trapping the hero in a remote, monster filled location they must escape, place them in a densely populated environment where no one will help them.
- Don't be cribbin' Silent Hill, use locations other than (or in addition to) the Abandoned Hospital and Mannequin factories. Or use them in an unexpected way: the Hospital is completely clean. Too clean, even. And then the steam-punk zombie orderlies show up to "clean up" the mess that is the player.
- Cold-Blooded Torture is often done only by the villain. But is it too much to ask that the bad guy gets a taste of his own medicine for once? It's horror, use it as the Moral Event Horizon for the PC.
- Try setting your game in a historical period or a fantasy setting instead of the usual modern or sci-fi style setting. Army of Darkness and Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare have deadite/zombie attacks in 1300's England and in The Wild West, for example.
- Can't think of any cool monsters? Maybe try making a completely realistic survival horror. Perhaps take a setting that could be a shooter such as a crime infested district or a wartorn city, but replace the skilled hero with a terrified, weak protagonist. It's a good way of showing how terrifying such a situation would be in real life, and lets you think outside the box in terms of gameplay; how do you take out that squad of trained soldiers with assault rifles if your pistol only has enough to take down two at most? Plus, when the monsters are human any misanthropic lessons you want to impart have a greater impact then if it was just zombies.
Tension and Suspense
Building tension is one of the key elements of most horror. This holds true in film, literature, and games. It winds the player up, makes them anticipate and jumpy. The more tense they are, the more impact the horror will have. Fortunately, there are many ways to work tension and suspense into a video game, and most horror games will exploit a combination of these things to make the scares effective:
- Have sections dedicated to building up the danger without actually releasing it yet. The player is required to venture into a dangerous and frightening place. Sinister Silhouettes will be glimpsed in the distance, only to flit away before the player can get to them. Horrible scurrying and growling will pass by the player without seeing what caused it. A Red Shirt getting grabbed and pulled off into the darkness, followed by distant screams as the player ventures on. Turn out the lights unexpectedly, then turn them back on or activate a flashlight. Build up danger around corners, then do not deliver that danger. Give players glimpses of the horrors that they can expect without making them confront them directly. Do not let this go on forever, but stretch it out a bit.
- Eventually the tension will have to break, and the action will pick up. However, even action scenes have their own kind of tension, putting pressure on the player to perform. Having to do fine actions while under pressure is much more tense and difficult than performing those same actions while unhurried. Taking careful aim to pull off a headshot is one of those things. Watching life, ammunition, or other supplies gradually dwindle to nothing will get the player progressively more worried. Even if the game has little in the way of the player's ability to defend themselves, there are ways to build this pressure up. Having to quickly open a door to escape a threat is much more tense if it involves more than just the press of a button. Having to click and drag a mouse on the doorknob, or having to make a certain specific motion with a thumbstick to get it to swing open will ratchet up the player's sense of danger as they try to fumble their way through it in a panic.
- While the high-tension segments are the meat of the game, do give the players a chance to unwind a little. After a particularly climatic scene, give a bit of a Breather Level. Or just when circumstances seem the most difficult, give the player a temporary power up to surge their way through and clear it. Let the player have a Hope Spot before snatching it away from them. Let the tension ease out a bit after a time. You want to be frequently building tension, rather than maintain it indefinitely, and for that you need to release some of the previously built tension. A little relaxation once in a while will make the horrors to come seem worse by comparison. If you keep the tension up to long, the player will get too emotionally fatigued to continue playing.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- Isolation: The player is usually completely alone for most of the game except for the hordes of fiends out for their blood. To emphasize this, add cutscenes or in-game dialog where the character freaks out, curses at monsters, or otherwise tries to keep it together. No need to make them a Heroic Mime, this isn't an Action Adventure after all.
- Pay Evil unto Evil: When the plot of a survival horror game features Sealed Evil in a Can or simple "mundane" debauchery and carnage, the only way for the innocent to escape is to pay with blood... which calls to more blood. Having the protagonist fight the evil on a physical and moral dimension can add a lot of meat to the game. So introduce some branching choices, and if you have a Karma Meter, consider making the Bad Ending one where the hero becomes the new "king" of hell.
- Playing The Player. Give him (assumed to be a guy for the sake of convenience) a Sanity Meter, and "comforts" to counteract his mental fatigue. If he goes for the home-cooked meals and/or treat food, make the monsters fat. If he reaches for the booze and pills, give them meth-head complexions. If he heads for the whorehouse, make them voluptuous. If he exercises to take his mind off things, make them athletic. If he uses the Finishing Move a lot, have them drip gore from a footprint in their chest, and make them a mass of heavy bruises and Cranial Eruptions. Going to church a lot? Sinister Ministers and Naughty Nuns. Be sure to have them all reduce the same amount of stress, or they'll favour one over the other for that reason rather than that's how they unwind. Sanity effects should be in full swing, also using the same motifs, like gnashing, gaping maws, bleeding walls of bruised flesh, distorted religeous heraldry, and Vagina Dentata.
- In some places, if the players come back to scour for items, spawn monsters. This will create a sense of unease and a feeling that even if they clear out a room, they are never safe. Use this sparingly, though, because this can be overused and might be considered comical if used enough.
- I'm Not Afraid Of You. instead of having a guns-blazing, gory finale, the protagonist (probably after Villain Decay has set in for the player) looks the Big Bad square in the eye and tells it to "fuck off."
- Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain. Center of mass is really easy. Now, you've got to pull off a very difficult shot over and over. Or be eaten alive.
- Cuckold. Horror can be derived from sources other than violent dismemberment.
- Was Once a Man: What do you mean 'it used to be a person?' The (usually, violently abrupt) distortion of the human form is creepy. Bits missing or bits that shouldn't be there (wrong place, too many, painful-looking augmentations, etc.) make the mind reel, and so is the threat of it happening to you or someone you care about. But Wait, There's More! Having it happen slowly and inexhorably over the course of the game, searching for the cure, and then finding it, only to discover it doesn't work or there's none left because you waited too long adds that little bit of Player Punch for getting the Downer Ending.
- Making the monsters so inhuman, then reveal it's this trope near the end can be equally horrify, if not more so. This is, however, much harder to pull. Mess it up, and your players will think it's Ass Pull. Do it right, and you leave them chill with how people can turn into these abominations.
Tropes to Consider
- Action Survivor: The main character should be, at best, a Badass Normal. Super Soldier space marines in Powered Armor are best left to classic First-Person Shooters.
- Red Shirt To add that little extra bit of "You're fucked, my friend," have the enemies take said Space marines apart.
- You can potentially get away with using stronger and more able protagonists by scaling the threats accordingly, though here the balance issues between enemy challenge, ammo/health items, and other factors becomes crucial to avoid Villain Decay.
- Adult Fear: My kid's in some serious shit, and I'm not sure I can help.
- Always Close
- Body Horror: There is so much you can do with this trope!
- But Thou Must / Stupidity Is the Only Option: The only thing worse than monsters? Forcing the player into a trap. Worse than forcing them into a trap? Make nothing happen.
- Bystander Syndrome / Police Are Useless / There Are No Therapists
- Collapsing Lair: Good for preventing immediate escapes or subverting a Hope Spot.
- Convenient Cranny: Letting a player crawl in a tiny hole to hide is great for enforcing cowardice and fear.
- Cosmic Horror Story: When normal freaks aren't enough, it's time to go one step further...
- Cutscene Incompetence: Best avoided. Making the player watch the protagonist accidentally set off a booby trap will just irritate them. Making the player unwillingly set it off will surprise them and make them panic.
- Escape Tropes
- Everything Trying to Kill You: Not only recommended, but encouraged!
- Go Mad from the Isolation / Monster Delay: Remember: the only thing scarier than something is nothing. It might sound lazy, but letting the player's imagination do the work is much better than anything you can throw at them.
- Grotesque Gallery: Ugly drooling monsters, a guy with a pyramid on his head and so on. You need something you don't want to meet in a dark alley in order to scare and traumatise people.
- Nightmare Fuel: It's not enough to unintentionally scare people. The whole point of survival horror is to scare the living daylights out of the player.
- No Escape but Down: An abyss is a perfect fit for fear of the unknown.
- Nothing Is Scarier: Ditto.
- Paranoia Fuel: Remember - since surviving is difficult, be sure to pad out the potentially boring bits with lots of suspense.
- Psychological Horror
- Surreal Horror
- Zombie Apocalypse: Not essential, but still used a lot. Give it a twist to make it less "generic zombie", but in keeping with the "nobody can/will help" concept.
Set Designer / Location Scout
Very important, since it help set the mood. Generally, it has to be a scary place. Is it a town in the American Midwest? A small village? a spaceship?
Or maybe it's all inside the head of your hero.
The main idea is to build a feeling of fear and isolation. Potential tropes include:
Also consider that a big part of horror is the familiar acting in an unexpected and horrifying way. Thus, a familiar location that has been distorted may be more effective than strange architecture or locations that most of the audience will never see. Also has the advantage of making people squeamish when they return to these places in real life, thanks to the Tetris Effect
- Ideally none beyond puzzle items (i.e. keys) and small numbers of health items.
- If weapons are added, use Improvised Weapons that inevitably become useless at an inopportune moment. So 2X4's, assorted sports equipment, severed limbs, etc.
- For obvious reasons, avoid decent weapons and useful props until later, or be sure to force either low ammo drops or minimal stopping force.
- Depends on the setting and character.
- For the main character, give them relatively normal clothes for the setting and for their position in life. Jackets and vests seem to hold popularity, but as long as you can show how average your character is, you can justify helplessness.
- Remember that if your protagonist must have protection, it needs to be flimsy.
- For The Load, consider something cumbersome or inappropriate for survival.
- If there happens to be any Crazy Survivalist types around, they should wear makeshift but tough armor so it implies that they're making do with what they can in the situation, but add a few bloodstains and nasty looking Improvised Weapons to imply they're not exactly the good guys in this situation.
Think carefully whether the protagonist should meet anyone at all. Though groups of allies can work, it can be more unnerving and isolating if no one is encountered.
Furthermore, a friendly, normal and reliable character can reduce tension if not used carefully. Consider making all characters strange and unreliable in some way, unsympathetic or downright malevolent. Any sympathetic and helpful characters should either die quickly, get separated from the player, turn on the player, or be The Load
that has to be protected. Having said character be kidnapped may
work, but beware turning things into a case of "The princess is in another castle".
To this end, if you must
have additional allies, the following come especially recommended:
- Resident Evil and Silent Hill are the trope codifiers for the genre. Resident Evil's brand of horror is heavily focused on grotesque abominations and zombie mayhem, while Silent Hill helped pioneer the more psychological brand of survival horror. Both spawned long-running franchises that continue strong to this day, with several installments of varying quality each under their belts.
- The Penumbra series and its spiritual successor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, made by Frictional Games. They are played from a first-person perspective, but the similarities to contemporary FPS games end there. Combat is almost non-existent, and certainly not advisable, forcing the player to rely on stealth and good old-fashioned running like hell. Amnesia in particular has developed quite the reputation for being possibly the most pants-wettingly terrifying game ever made, with Yahtzee describing it as being "unmatched as a constipation aid".
- Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, described on this very wiki as "Resident Evil meets Call of Cthulhu". It is known for its Sanity Meter, which, if it should fall too low, would not only cause your character to see things that aren't there, but would make the player experience such things as well, with volume shifts, controller malfunctions, fake memory card deletions, and the video feed cutting out.
- Metro 2033 is a prime example for having all the proper trappings of the genre. Ammo is scarce, things you need are always in short supply, fights almost always end in a net loss, and there is no solution to the world's problem. The gameplay elements are taken Up to Eleven in Ranger Mode, where every shot will be carefully aimed, each filter will be used to its limit, the knife will be used more than guns, and attempts will be made to avoid each unnecessary fight. Oh, and the mutants are horrific and nauseating to the fullest extent of the words.
- Slender: The Eight Pages. Together with the aforementioned Amnesia, this game is often credited with helping to revive survival horror as a mainstream genre in the late '00s. Also together with Amnesia, it helped popularize a particular type of gameplay that's since been employed by many indie horror games: a fully unarmed and defenseless protagonist, an unstoppable villain (in this case, Slender Man), gameplay progression revolving around collecting items from the environment, and a heavy profusion of jump scares. The first game is free, so there's little excuse not to play it. It later got a full-length retail sequel, Slender: The Arrival.
The Epic Fails
- The 2008 reboot of Alone in the Dark. Shitty controls just make people Rage Quit, it does nothing for tension.
- Vampire Rain from AQ Interactive. A failed attempt to mash Metal Gear Solid with Survival Horror, the game is especially notorious for having a thinly-written plot with wooden voice acting, dreadful dialogue, lousy gameplay, horrendous enemy A.I. and inconsistent difficulty. Moreover, the most innovative thing in the game is that your knife (a melee weapon) actually requires ammo to use. (Facepalm)
- Ju-On: The Grudge, a game also from AQ Interactive. Notorious for having cheap scares that a 12-year old won't scream at, horrid controls, ludicrously short amount of gameplay, and poor sound effects, it will more likely put the player to sleep than wet his or her pants. Sad part is, the controls would have been less of an issue if they at least utilized the Wii Nunchuck; instead, you have to push the A Button to advance while tilting the Wiimote to turn. All at the speed of molasses.
- AMY, a downloadable game from Vectorcell, is a prime example of how not to make a Survival Horror game for your PlayStation 3 or Xbox360. As these reviews point out, there's nothing quite like a perfect storm of horrible controls, repetitive scares, and Fake Difficulty to buzz-kill an otherwise interesting premise.
- F.E.A.R. is a combination of the tropes of FPS games and Japanese ghost movies a la Ringu. While it's quite possibly the most action-heavy game on this list, and only included here because of its supernatural horror elements, the two genres it draws from go together well enough to make it a worthwhile experience.
- The System Shock games and their Spiritual Successor, the BioShock series, are also examples of horror-shooters done right. In particular, in SS 2 A Space Marine Is You, and it substracts nothing from the game's spookiness.
- The Siren games are a decidedly Japanese take on the Zombie Apocalypse, with a heavy focus on stealth rather than combat.
- Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth. While quite buggy, it is still widely regarded as one of the best adaptations of the works of H.P. Lovecraft ever made.
- Clock Tower was one of the first survival horror games to render the player completely unarmed and helpless. You instead have to rely on your wits to escape a scissor-wielding psycho. Also check out its spiritual successor Haunting Ground, which gives the player a Canine Companion who can fight enemies, just so long as you treat him properly.
- Fatal Frame. Your only weapon is a camera, so while the game gives you a means to fight back, it still takes away the psychological comfort of being armed with a "real" weapon.
- Dead Space: uses 3rd person shooter elements and gives a combat focused play, while throwing hordes of grotesque untraditional zombies at the player that can only be killed through removing limbs, as well as claustrophobic environments.
- Ao Oni, Ib and The Witch's House. Horror on a shoestring budget. Proof that games with simple graphics can still be scary.
- OFF gets an honorable mention in its combination of deranged art styles, rule of perception, and its skill at Playing The Player.
- The Suffering. Prison is Hell, indeed. Although it ends up being more action-packed than most other horror games on the list, its messed-up monsters and even MORE messed-up storyline still make it a gripping experience. Special mention for the imagery of a prison besieged by demons, psychological freak-outs galore, and a morality system leading to different endings — endings that carry over to the sequel, Ties That Bind.
- Manhunt. Trading away supernatural entities for all-too-human criminals, these games are notable for their stealth mechanics, compelling atmosphere, and brutally gory executions that whipped the Moral Guardians into a riot. The first game follows the story of a Death Row inmate forced into playing The Most Dangerous Game at the behest of a Snuff Film director, and the second is about two Bedlam House patients forced into unraveling a Government Conspiracy. The first game truly nails its atmosphere, and while the second game got some flack for being a Slasher Movie Cliché Storm, it's still worth checking out, especially since its main twist makes it a more compelling video game adaptation of Fight Club than the actual video game.