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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:

Choices, Choices...

  • 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.

Pitfalls

  • 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.

Potential Subversions

  • 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.

Writers Lounge:

Suggested Themes and Aesops

Potential Motifs

Suggested Plots

Tropes to Consider

Departments

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.

Props Department

  • 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.

Costume Designer

  • 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.

Casting Director

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:

Stunt Department

Extra Credit

The Greats

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.

Honorable Mentions


Write A Superhero ComicSoYouWantTo/See The IndexWrite A Teen Drama

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