Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Exploratory Games

I'm reading a few threads about the new Mage setting (the only White Wolf setting I liked). A lot of people seem to dislike it because the new mage traditions don't have the same "bite" to them. They're all carefully explained in detail, but they don't have the same pull as the original traditions. Which were basically real-world stereotypes.

I can't speak to this personally - I haven't read the new Mage setting at all. But I can say that the original traditions were opportunities to explore facets of belief that you normally wouldn't have much chance to explore. Sure, I had an unreasonable love for the Sons of Ether. It let me explore the nature of mad science and the line between genius and insanity. It was interesting, when I was college-age.

But other players preferred other traditions. They had other things they wanted to explore, like the relationship between death and life, or the nature of truth. And the original traditions were set up to allow that.

This was the one thing White Wolf did well. Their rules were shit, their writing was stuffy and stilted, but they built factions which allowed every player to explore the part of humanity they felt like exploring. In all their systems, that was the real focus. That was why you would pick Malkavian, or whatever - you felt like exploring that facet of humanity.

I'd like to talk about this concept a bit more.

It's commonly understood that science fiction is actually highlighting the time it was written. So we get Metropolis (1927) which was about factories and unions. And we get The Matrix, which was about the internet. And we get District 9, which was about faltering socioeconomic structures... these things were commentary on their time. And they packed a punch because of it.

Sometimes you get something like Ghost in the Shell, which is a bit more visionary. But, by and large, science fiction is about pulling out the thorns that are poking us today and holding them up to the light.

This is very similar to what mage traditions allowed you to do. Essentially, roll-your-own science fiction. Minus the science.

So it got me thinking.

One of the things I do when I design a game is I try to make sure it highlights a nugget of human condition. I want every game to have, at its core, something with a feel to it. Like looking across an expanse of gray-tone rules and seeing a bright red or blue blotch. Nothing explicit, just something that the players will automatically incorporate into their game without even realizing it.

This is very similar to what White Wolf used to do.

You can't do it quite as aggressively as science fiction can. You can't do a District 9 or Ghost in the Shell game. Well, you can, but you'd have to be very, very careful, because the thing they want to say is mired in the actions characters happen to take.

To make it a proper game, you'd have to pull those things out of the realm of scripted interactions and into the realm of incentives. You can't simply have bad guys that pound on the idea that humans are not as inviolable as they think. You need to have the players participate in that same conversation.

For example, Solid State Society has a conspiracy where a gifted hacker works with the elderly to forcibly adopt abused children, wipe their memory, and replace those memories with happier memories involving their new grandma or grandpa. The ideas explored with this plot are complex and there is no simple answer, no simple right or wrong. It's a fairly compelling bit of science fiction.

But it's not a very compelling RPG setting. The whole thing is plot, is script. You can't just port it over.

Instead, you need to create a rule set or setting where the same kind of philosophical explorations can be made by the players. Don't force them to do it... just allow them to do it.

And that's where the difficulty comes. How do you design such a thing? Is it possible to design such a thing on purpose?

Well, it doesn't have to be a masterpiece. None of White Wolf's games were masterpieces - in fact, they were all total shit. But they have that kernel of depth to them - they let the player explore a part of humanity. Whatever part is currently poking their mind. So they are rightfully popular.

You could do the same thing with a Ghost in the Shell game. Allow the players to pick memory manipulation as a skill. And if they go crazy with power, fine - that's part of the game. That's part of exploring what it all means.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Heroes that Build

I've always wondered about tabletop games where the heroes are actually constructive forces. Normally, heroes are surgeons. They help by murdering large numbers of unhelpful things. They help by destroying. Well, at least surgeons stitch you up afterwards - so heroes are not even that nice.

Many of the games I've run featured the players in constructive roles as well. For example, having to build a base in addition to simply killing orcs, or having to make major policy decisions since they are considered arbiters of the Jedi order or whatever. It's fun to create, to alter without destroying. Here are some of the things I've learned and want to try more of.

1) Classic means of determining alignment mean very different things in a game where construction, socializing, and policy are major elements. Even if the game still features a lot of combat, the whole alignment scaffold is based entirely around the idea of fire-and-forget activities.

You need to expand that to focus on ongoing tasks instead. For example, you might have an architect alignment, where the hero wants to build the solution. Or a leader alignment, where the hero wants to guide the solution but has better things to do with his time than get his hands dirty. There are many ways to do this, and some systems have done some things along these lines, but it's good to make it explicit and focused on the game world you're creating.

You can go without this kind of scaffold, but the reason I call it a scaffold is because it is one. It gives the players something to stand on until they build their presence in the world. So I am generally in favor of some kind of alignment/personality scaffold.

2) Balance between classes and characters can get difficult. Characters that are better at different kinds of challenges mean you tend to have one or two active players and the rest are sitting on their asses. That's not a good way to run a tabletop - it's the Shadowrun Difficulty.

You have to build your world such that the constructive challenges work in much the same way as combat. That is, there are many roles, but everyone is always engaged. You can even borrow the framework completely if you're feeling uncreative, just port it over wholesale.

Some people might instinctively back away from this kind of rule scaffold, thinking it limits the player's options. However, it serves the same purpose as a combat resolution mechanic does.It's no limit on role playing things, it's just a way to rapidly and interestingly deploy against varied challenges in the same way as when you would decide to take on those orcs.

3) Constructive play gets world-heavy. You end up with huge amounts of stuff accomplished. In an ordinary tabletop RPG, only a tiny fraction of the people you interact with ever come up again. In fact, you end up killing most of them, if you include monsters as people. But in a constructive game, you're actively building things, and that means you get more and more people, places, and history building up.

To keep this light and fun, you need a system for recording and referencing the world-building. I usually used cue cards with the character (or thing) drawn on one side and notes taken on the other. That works relatively well.

It means a lot when someone your players helped shows up to help them, or even if player character downtime is spent hanging out with people you rescued. Players can really get a feel for the fact that they helped build this world. They really feel heroic, on a level that +500 XP and a cache of gold doesn't convey.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Cross-pollination and Spaceships!

So, I was thinking about a spaceship game. I started thinking - instead of abandoning ships as you buy your way up the line, how about if you could just replace large chunks of it? There's never a feeling of abandoning the ship for something bigger - you're just growing the ship incrementally. A new saucer section, a new spine, a new crew frame, etc.

Then I realized this was essentially the same as a party-based RPG. The various big hunks of ship are party members, and the tweaking you do within each section is similar to equipping and skill-leveling.

So I began to think about cross-pollination. What mechanics could be taken from each side to create a fresh feel for the other side?

The first thing I thought of is that a starship's pieces do not act independently. Normally, you control all the pieces with a central command system that either simply assumes each system performs at peak or allows you to distribute points of energy between them.

Imagine if you had a party-based RPG - let's say, one where the party members are AI-controlled. Like Mass Effect, minus Shepard. Imagine if you had some measure of energy. Call it "command points" or "point points". Assigning these on the fly changes which characters take the lead, which characters use special abilities and limited resources, and so on. (You could also do this in a classic JRPG game, but it would be a bit clunkier.)

The idea is that you don't have a lot of time to give orders. There's no pausing. You can indicate locations (an attack flag, a retreat flag, etc) and alter the command point configuration, but the battle itself progresses quite fast, so choosing individual skills and aiming them would be too slow.

One of the big effects this would have is that the party members could be much more specialized. In fact, you could have much larger parties with much more specialized participants. The space elf doesn't charge forward when you give him command points - he heals and buffs. He takes potshots at low command levels, but if you want a charge, give the command points to the space orc.

Taking the party as a cohesive unit could be interesting.

Going the other way, the ship can also take on elements of the party mechanic system. In the bluntest way imaginable, you could just give each section of the ship its own commands in each turn of combat. If you do this, then each part of the ship has to have a diverse baseline of capability plus some specialties. This would be an interesting challenge from a design standpoint, but it could end up being even more interesting than as a party mechanic because a ship has crew. You could funnel crew between the various sections to enhance their capabilities, boost their repair rate, or avoid losing too many crew to a nasty missile volley.

Speaking of damage, what if we applied ship-style damage to RPGs?

Right now, RPGs basically ignore damage. If you're above 0 health, you're fine. But what if we introduced damage - if a character is wounded, they become less capable, at least until they patch themselves up.

The problem with this approach is that it is a positive feedback situation, where once you start getting damaged, you're in trouble. But we could balance this out by making all the characters gain energy (not health) when a character is damaged. This means that the other characters would be able to act at a much higher level when their teammates are injured. Depending on balancing, this could even mean that the party getting injured actually makes the team stronger, at least for this fight.

Of course, once you're out of combat, that adrenaline wears off and you're still injured. Now you've got to think about whether you can just bull through, or whether you need to back off, stealth a bit, recover a bit. Switch out the injured party member with a reserve...


Cross-pollination is fun.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Nature of a Stage

Let's talk about stages in a video game.

Let's start by talking about the difference between an old game and a new game. The most obvious difference is that in a modern game, you're generally regenerated 100% after each fight.

This difference is not as straightforward as you might think, but it is a good place to start.

If we imagine the power level of the party as it fights through a stage, in a modern game the curve goes up. The party gets stronger as they move through the stage, with occasional dips for minibosses and heavyweight encounters.

If we imagine the power level of the party in an oldschool game like Doom or Final Fantasy 1, it goes down. Occasionally it might pop up a bit if you find a resource cache, but in general the encounters wear on you.

This difference... is unfortunately not entirely straightforward. For example, in Final Fantasy 1, you actually are gaining power as you fight enemies. It's just that you're gaining long-term power while losing short-term power. This is a typical RPG situation.

So let's consider stages in a slightly different light: as treadmills or one-offs.

Treadmill stages are stages that can be farmed. For example, in an RPG you might exit a dungeon and re-enter it to farm the enemies. Or you might just get into umpteen million random encounters. This grinding is very much like an MMORPG - the stages are not really part of the plot, they're just parts of the world that maybe have some handwave towards being part of the plot.

It doesn't matter whether your power level goes up or down as you get into fights in a treadmill stage. Instead, what matters is how much time you spend to raise your long-term power level, and how unique/useful your level-ups (equipment, loot, etc) are.

One-off stages are stages that you can only visit once. If they are part of the world, once you've gone through them they are typically husks without any particular challenges. The point of a one-off stage is to squeeze as much out of them as possible in the limited amount of time you have with them.

Nearly all shooters are like this - you want to find the various caches and secret collectibles scattered throughout the stage, and you only get to go through the stage once. FTL has an interesting take, where you have to plot the least efficient path through the sector you can, while still not getting caught by the marching wall of death that moves ever right.

One-offs can also squeeze in the opposite direction, where you need to get through and hit the objectives while losing as few resources as possible. This is exceptionally rare outside of survival horror, but it is possible.

There are a few other pieces to designing a stage. So, let's hit them quick.

1) Is this a one-off stage or a treadmill stage? If a one-off stage, the stage can be built to have a progression (pieces of it explode, collapse, etc) while if it is a treadmill stage it has to remain relatively static.

2) Is the stage the challenge, or is the stage where you prepare to meet a final challenge? You don't actually need a boss if the stage itself is the challenge.

3) Is the stage window dressing, or does the aesthetic/conceit of the stage actually influence the nature of the stage's challenges and progressions?

4) Are the encounters bite-size servings or are they part of an ongoing challenge? If they are part of a cohesive challenge, they need to have long-lasting effects.

5) Is the stage progression interesting enough that the player cares? This is both the variety of the challenges and the way the plot unfolds.

6) Can the player interact with the stage itself, or is the stage just rails the player travels down? This means - can the player express himself by interacting with the stage? Not can he open doors or flush toilets, but can he actually change the way the stage plays out some? This can be taking alternate approaches (sniping from the rafters vs rushing in) or in altering the stage itself (using rockets to blow away walls like in XCOM).

There we go. Next time, we'll talk about party composition!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

City Games

There is a class of video game I really like. It's the games where you explore and interact with a city.

For example, the Saints Row games and Sleeping Dogs are about interacting with the city. You can call them "GTA clones", and I guess you can even play them like that, but I don't. I love wandering the city on foot. If you've never been sucked into that kind of play, this essay may be uninteresting.

It's not just GTA clones. Crackdown and one of the Naruto games both featured city exploration/interaction beautifully. On the other hand, many GTA clones (and the GTA series itself) are not really about city exploration in this manner.

Done right, the gameplay I'm talking about feels like a combination of mountain climbing, treasure hunting, and immersion. Cities are amazingly interesting places full of interesting terrain, nooks, and lived-in areas. I've played a huge number of Saints Row hours, but I can't get into GTA at all, because GTA doesn't provide that kind of play very well and Saints Row excels at it.

The big problem is that getting on a vehicle basically ruins that kind of play. You can't climb mountains, treasure hunt, or see the details of the city very well from a vehicle. But the GTA "genre" is theoretically defined by your ability to steal vehicles.

You can steal vehicles in Saints Row and Sleeping Dogs and Crackdown, but it's really not an interesting part of the game. The weakness of a vehicle game is that it has to spiral. You get a crappy car, then a better car, then a helicopter, then a jet, then a VTOL, then a superbike that can fly... mobility gameplay is one that spirals - you get more and more mobile.

On the other hand, city exploration and interaction doesn't. You can explore new areas of the city using the same level of mobility you start with because the point isn't your mobility - the point is the city you're exploring. By simply moving to a new part of the city, you uncover new architecture, new people, new shops, new hidden treasures, new sidequests, maybe even new enemies and NPCs.

This is why I played so much of these kinds of games. I literally spend hours just wandering the city.

So what I'd really like is a game where this is taken to a new level. Let me have fun designing a game in broad strokes.

This is a roguelike where the city unfolds as you explore it. Since there is no natural cap on exploration, there's no reason to put a cap on it by having a limited city. In addition, older regions can go "under construction" and go into a construction-zone style, then re-emerge as a new zone.

The key is that the city zones have to be designed to be interesting to foot exploration. This means variable height, somewhat-climbable buildings, collectables and unique shops.

Unique shops are really the major factor here. The replayability of games like Saints Row and Sleeping Dogs is limited by the amount of content you can discover. There are only so many costumes you can wear, only so many weapons you can try out.

But unique content is not impossible by any stretch. Generative content can create an infinite variety of clothes, guns, and vehicles. Different structurally as well as just in terms of color and texture. Eventually you'll encounter the full variety and effectively "get used to" the content, but it'll be an order of magnitude more bang for the buck. Wear mechanics that steadily destroy the unique content as you use it are also useful.

The other major factor that needs to be brought into play is NPC reactions. In most games, content is pretty much used by you to your own preference. However, there are limits to that - your taste is specific and that writes off the vast majority of the content. Therefore, the content needs to have a very strong game effect. Normally you could make it combat-related, but in this case the exploration/interaction mechanic is more important. Therefore, your gear should strongly affect your ability to explore. In this case, I would make it so that certain types of people will help you/let you into their buildings if you're dressed in their preferred manner.

Actually, sharing with NPCs is important in general. You can only ever be one person wearing one thing, driving one car, shooting one gun, using one dance choreography, eating one pie, living in one hourse, whatever. By introducing NPCs that hang around, you allow the player to equip them or influence their choice of equipment.

You have to be careful not to make them burdens, but in this kind of gameplay that's actually pretty easy. They can hang out, follow you around, show up randomly, whatever - as long as they don't actively get in your way when you're trying to jump around, it's all good. You can even use them to help you explore, giving you a leg up or distracting a nosy cop or something.

I'd play that game... basically forever.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Character Creation as World Introduction

One of the things I like to think about is different methods of character generation, both in a tabletop RPG and in computer games. Even if your system is stock d20 or whatever, by changing the way that characters are created, you can get a very different kind of game.

Character creation is usually viewed in two ways:

1) A tactical choice where the party sets up the basis for their interaction with the world at large. This is the "we need a cleric" style that's been popular in D&D since the beginning.

2) A storytelling choice where the party creates hooks for the GM to use in the story. This is uncommon in something like D&D, but shows up more in some other game systems.

However, there is a third thing character creation does:

3) It introduces the player to the world.

This isn't normally considered, because most people play in the same world repeatedly. Even if they play in different worlds, the worlds are actually so similar that they know exactly what to expect. I mean, hopping from Dragon's Age to Oblivion and even to Icewind Dale - these are technically unrelated, different worlds.

Except they're not. They're all the same. So the character creation system tends to be mechanical and coldly statistical. In some cases there are hints or post-creation 57 hour tutorials covering the difference between the races or whatever, but in general, it's all stats.

I'm someone who thinks the world plays a much larger role in the player experience than the story does. So I don't like the idea of playing in the same world over and over. I want to play in radically different worlds, so I can have different experiences. And I want to GM in different worlds, so I can GM different experiences.

When you do that, you have to get the players pumped about the world as rapidly as possible. They have to really want to live in that world, and they have to know enough about it that they don't feel completely lost when the game begins.

You can do this by having some kind of extensive intro sequence, but that's dull and pedantic. A better way is to let the players uncover facets of the world while designing characters!

Here are two ways I've started using:

1) Splash pages. 
If you have classes, make the initial list a series of art splash pages that cast the class in the best possible light of awesome. The details can come later: you want the players to think "holy shitballs I want to play a doombaker."

This doubles as getting them involved in the world as long as your classes are related to your world. In classic fantasy worlds, they aren't. The existence of four different magician subclasses distinguished by how they memorize which spells doesn't make you go "YEAH THIS IS AWESOME". On the other hand, a class which has magic injected under their skin in tattoo form? That plays well! Distinctive, interesting, and easy for the imagination to get excited about.

2) Combinatorial characters.
Classically, characters are point-spend, where you assemble them from very fine constituent parts. Do you want an endurance of 17 or 16? Do you want this perk or that one?

This is great if you're operating in a known world and are seeking greater control over the tactical face you present. But if it's an unknown setting, those choices are actually paralyzing. There is literally no possible way to know whether having sixth sense or combat reflexes is better for your character design. Those kinds of details only make sense when you have a strong grasp on the underlying systems and how they interact with the world you're playing in.

Instead, use chunkier components. Instead of carefully weighting their stats, allow players to simply choose A, B, or C - several times.

I did this in several builds of Bastard Star Wars. There were several slender decks of cards, each for one component of the character. Backstory, species, training, and talent, usually. Randomly draw from each deck and let the players trade with each other. Add in the ability to draw a few more cards from a deck of your choice so that nobody is too disappointed.

This works pretty well because it pushes the player to experience a specific class or character they would not have built on their own, but still feel is cool. It also introduces them to many of the concepts of the universe, and allows them to build a character without knowing anything about the game system (while teaching them some small amount about it).

Another idea I'm working with is a universe-hopping game, where play is split between three distinct universes. Each universe has different rules and, therefore, different classes. The idea is that when you make a character, you do so simply by choosing one class from each universe.

The class list itself "explains" the universes, because the classes have a strong cultural bind to the universe. For example, in a "high fantasy" universe, the "elf" class is a stereotypical, oldschool elf. But it is made distinct by the flavor that the other classes you chose in the other universes bring in. You're still an elf in the fantasy universe, but you're an elf with unique flavor. Of course, your elfiness bleeds over into the other universes, so if you were, say, a talking stuffed animal in another universe, you would be a bit fey for a talking stuffed animal.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on character creation today.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Games and Difficulty

One of the things I like about Roguelikes is that you can lose. I mean, really lose.

Most modern games are carefully balanced so you can pretty much use the same set of tactics throughout the whole game. You might lose, but it lightly respawns you a few seconds back and lets you win using the same tactic again.

Borderlands 2 reminded me of how much I like having to struggle at a game. I don't know whether it was on purpose, or just because they aggressively balanced for multiplayer, but sometimes the game throws situations at me that are very close to impossible. You're in a pitched battle against a colony of groundsquids and suddenly a badass varkid evolves into a super badass varkid that you literally cannot kill. Even just stumbling across a constructor miniboss is a serious challenge that can't be approached head on.

So I find myself scrambling to find a tactic that might work. Sometimes, I just sprint by and depend on the enemy's pretty low follow radius. Other times, I back off and snipe from an excessively long range. Other times, I use my power, run around dodging like mad until it regenerates, use my power, repeat.

It's really a lot more intense and interesting than the bevy of boring "carefully balanced" games I've played recently.

Minecraft is hard, too, but it's not the same kind of hard. Minecraft is very much a "you die instantly and lose craploads of progress" sort of game. Borderlands 2 is a "well, that didn't work, let's try something else" kind of game.

Borderlands 2 is not perfect at this by any stretch. It's got some very aggravating flaws and the design is not built to take advantage of this kind of occasional overly hard challenge. But when it comes together and offers you a situation you know isn't scripted, and you know they aren't going to pull your fat out of the fire at the last second, and you know you can figure out some way to get past... it feels really great!

Boy, I really miss games like that.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Gasp! Scary!

Now that Halloween is safely tucked behind us, we can get on with the true nightmare season: Christmas. To that end, I'm going to talk about scary games! Specifically, I'm going to design a scary game using some basic principles and techniques that we'll discuss.

First thing first, my pet theory about scary games is that they operate on a steady diet of information imbalance. However, even if you don't buy that line, the techniques included here are used frequently and pretty well tested.

Alright, from that perspective, let's talk about what makes a game scary!

Normally, people talk about setting, monster, hero. I personally feel that's not really a very good way to approach game design, but let's hit on some of the basics.

Dark and foggy, you can hear the monsters long before you can see them. Who knows where they'll jump out from! 

This is a classic example of a very basic philosophy, and one followed by every kind of scary game. Even non-scary games have scary enemies by having them follow these rules even in pretty friendly, brightly-lit surroundings (for example, the hands that reach out from the ground and drag Link back to the dungeon entrance).

I view this as a kind of information imbalance. The setting says that we're in danger, but doesn't give us any precise timing or magnitude. In an action game like Half Life 2, rooms/areas are generally self-contained. When you approach one, you understand that you're likely to face a certain kind of conflict and with a certain difficulty. You can often see enemies before they see you, and, of course, abuse of quicksaves and replays give you even more solid information about the enemy.

On the other hand, a proper horror game tells you that you're in danger... but never tells you how much danger, how soon. The sound of a gently hooting monkey tells you that one of those damn cryomonkeys is around here somewhere, but it's a very tense time hunting for it. The bank of large windows tells you that zombie dogs or birds are likely to burst through, but not when, nor how many. Rooms and areas frequently have no role in delineating challenges - challenges frequently start halfway through a room, or when you're just about to switch rooms.

In other words, the beating heart of the "dark, foggy, hear-em-before-you-see-em" setting is the setting telling you that there are enemies around... but not telling you when or where or how many. This isn't some exact science. If you can hear an enemy in the darkness, you can usually tell how many there are, and perhaps even a vague idea of where they are. If you step into a graveyard, you can be assured that they'll come up from the graves, so you know where they are... but not when, nor how many.

This is the art of giving the player just enough information to feel threatened, but not enough information to actually do anything concrete about it. The best the player can do is hug the walls, creep along, and keep their guard up.

Trapped and powerless, you fight overwhelming odds.

We talk about this when considering setting/hero design, but in honesty this is a mix-up. This conflates a movie setting design concern and a game setting design concern, even though they are actually two different concerns both served by a similar design principle.

In a movie, isolating a weak hero is a matter of making sense. If a killer started stalking me, I'd just pop over to the police station. So you have to explain why the hero doesn't do that. There are more ways to do it than simple isolation. Fight Club has some very scary moments where it becomes obvious that the police are in on it, and Terminator has some scary moments where it becomes obvious the police can't help. Neither features isolation as such, but they both solve the same basic problem: they both deny the hero the chance to get out of the situation.

In a game, that's not quite as pressing. Instead, the focus is on the level of power the hero has over his surroundings, rather than whether the hero can get out of trouble. Protagonists in video games are extremely active, aggressive, "solution-focused" individuals because that's the nature of playing a video game. Therefore, the setting is less about trapping them and more about depowering them.

Scary game heroes tend to move around a lot. In fact, movement is often the primary method a horror game player expresses himself. A game like Battlefield and a scary game might both feature moving, shooting, collecting stuff... but which elements are expressive will be different. A player in Battlefield expresses himself by how he shoots and strafes and takes cover. A player in Resident Evil expresses himself in how he moves from location to location, desperately gathering tiny bits of strength.

This is one reason why the "safe zone" plays radically different roles in games and movies. In movies, the safe zone exists so that the monster can eventually break in and make things horrifying. In games, the safe zone is a part of the player's ability to express himself. If you remove or damage the safe zone, the player loses the anchor of their expressive play. Moving from place to place matters far less if all places are equally unsafe!

Anyway, the game side of the design - helping the player express himself in how he travels - means that scary games need to have a very nuanced travel system. You can travel within a room - for example, skirting around the other side of a kitchen island, or sticking to the top of a rafter so the milling zombies won't get you. In that case, travel is tactical. You're choosing a path based on how well you can keep up your guard and whether there's any loot to be had over there.

You can travel between rooms - walking through gateways, opening doors, etc. This is strategic play, where you are deciding whether the timing for that room is right, or whether to hold off and explore other, safer areas and gather more power first, or maybe whether to return to your safe room... just in case.

You can also travel between zones, such as changing from the house to the back yard, or from the factory to the underground labyrinth. The biggest difference between zones is the chunking factor. Each zone essentially resets your strategic options, since you have to rediscover the safe rooms, map out the connectivity, and judge each room for safety all over again. Backtracking is typically not scary unless the zone has significantly changed since the last time you explored it... because you've already explored it. You've already done the sweaty-palms risk analysis.

As to my pet "information imbalance" theory, exploration of the areas is about gathering what information you can and trying to plot a safest possible course through it. There are many times where you'd prefer to tackle a dangerous room over one that looks safe, just because you can clearly see all the dangers in the dangerous room and the safe room has some information still hidden away.

Winning or losing? It's always losing.

In most scary games, a big part of the game is the idea that fighting an enemy is always a loss. Even if you win, you've expended valuable resources. This leads to radically optimizing your playthrough. For example, mastering the melee weapon so you can kill the minor enemies without losing any resources (although with a risk of getting injured).

One of the fundamental principles you'll always hear bandied about is that you need to have a powerless hero. However, I don't believe that to be true for a video game. A movie, sure. But in a video game, rather than the power level of the hero, the dynamics of conflict are more important.

Basically, a scary game's fights are always losses. There is no way to win a fight such that you come out of the other end better than you went in. Even boss fights - the reward isn't more power. It's just an open door. This is in direct opposition to action games, where the enemies drop ammo and health and experience points.

You gain power by scrounging and scavenging from your surroundings. You spend power on the enemies you fight. That's the scary game dynamic. The core of this is the tension - not knowing whether you'll be able to scrounge up enough to get past the enemies.

Risk, pressure, and regret.

A common line of thinking is that there's got to be risk in order to be scary. There's certainly some of that, yeah. But you need to be clear about whether you're talking about pass/fail risk (dying, failing the mission), story risk (can you defeat the oogie-boogie man?), or attrition risk (can you keep things from getting worse?).

The scariest games are scary because of attrition risk leading to pass/fail risk. A game where you have to restart the mission if you're noticed isn't going to be scary, it's going to be a mechanical aptitude test where you replay the mission over and over.

Instead, what's scary is when things get worse. If the player has unlimited save/load capability, this attrition needs to be quite slow so that he doesn't feel any given conflict went badly enough to make him reload. If the player doesn't have much save/load capability, it doesn't have to be as slow.

Things getting worse include mostly losing health, ammo, and maybe sanity points. It is possible to add in a lot of other "getting worse" factors if your game is going to be unusual, but in general attrition simply makes the next wave of enemies feel more dangerous because you are closer to being unable to deal with them.

Of course, the balance here is quite difficult. What one player may find a grueling last-ditch effort to squeak by a zombie using your last bullet, another player might be able to cruise by with just their fists. Nothing says this clearer than Thief, where getting in melee combat was supposed to be a knuckle-biting "you will die!" experience... but some players are good enough they can just gut everyone they see.

Because this is so hard to balance, a lot of designers lean heavily on story beats. They introduce "story risk" like "the house is on fire! Run!" Story risk will resolve the same way for every player, so it's a known level of pressure. Of course, that known level of pressure is much, much lower than the pressure of a properly balanced attrition situation.

Often, the story beats are also used to 'reset' the attrition-based power level, essentially capping how absurdly overpowered a skilled player can get. Another big limit is inventory management, which keeps really skilled players from collecting a massive stockpile of resources.

Some story beats feature a choice where you can do either A or B. We still stick with this idea as if it were actually a tense situation, but 99% of the time it's pretty boring. In order to make it tense, you have to do two things.

1) You have to make the choice actually hard. Not simply the same choice over and over again. IE, not "good vs evil" or any other 'A vs B' that repeats. Instead, each decision must exercise a different kind of choice. Good vs evil. Honor vs glory. Love vs good. Health vs authority. Whatever you can come up with.

2) The choice has to matter a lot, for a long time. The player has to regret that they didn't make the opposite choice. That way, when the next choice comes along, they are more crippled by it.

Screwing with the player's expression: the mastery of pacing.

The player expresses himself by how he travels in the game. This is where a player's delicate sense of risk, pressure, skill, and reward come together to express the player's personality. It is the paintbrush with which the player paints.

Therefore, it's also a major part of the scary.

Enemies are scary, sure. Especially when there is no way to win, just ways to lose less badly. But enemies are adrenaline-scary, not the kind of creeping, continual terror you feel when properly put into a scary situation.

You can get that by screwing with the player's primary means of expression. How do you screw with the player's travelling? Well, you can do it by brute force or with incentives.

A brute force example is when you can't travel freely. The floor collapses from beneath you. Enemies block your path out. You can't move over to where the enemies are, but they can still strike at you. You can also do it with some level of subtlety - fires you take damage from if you get too close, water that slows you to a crawl, ladders that leave you exposed while you climb...

Incentives are when there's no fundamental issue with the level, but their choices are suddenly much more difficult. For example, if you hear a cryokinetic monkey hooting, you'll want to hunt it down without exposing yourself to potential blasts. If there's a monster hunting you down, you'll want to run perfectly without getting caught. If there's an ammo cache on the other end of the room, you'll want to go there even though it's a wide open space...

Both brute force and incentive systems require a sense of pacing. If every floor falls out from under you, you're going to start treating it as a system-level rule and incorporating it into your basic play. So enough time has to pass between floors falling out from under you that you aren't worried about that particular problem any more.

Scary Challenges

A lot of scary games revolve around "how do I do this thing" puzzles. The most famous are Resident-Evil-style "puzzles" like "find the octagonal handle for the cupboard inside the demon statue's left foot, then gather up some slug resin so you can combine it with a banana and glue it into the cupboard so you can open the cupboard and get a triangular key".

These puzzles are derided as being very silly, but their opacity is on purpose. If you had a challenge where you knew the solution and were making concrete progress towards it, you're not going to be as tense. You know where the end is, you can measure your exact progress... not as tense.

These puzzles are everywhere, but usually they aren't quite so silly. For example, having to swing a catwalk around so you can cross a gap is the same kind of puzzle. It's not completely opaque, but you have to figure out that it's even possible.

These challenges are most brutal when you add time pressure in. For example, having to figure out how to rotate some statues while a boss monster continually chases you around. These will frequently result in death, so carefully play test them for balance.


There's a lot of talk about NPCs and their role in horror games. Some scary games extensively feature NPCs in both major and minor roles. In others, you never talk to a single living soul.

One of the problems with NPCs is that they are generally reassuring. If there's someone to help you, then you have a safety net. This is why, in general, NPCs in horror games are either evil or burdensome.

Putting aside evil NPCs, burdensome NPCs are a mixed bag.

Having something to protect is very powerful... but you have to want to protect it! Frequently, burdensome NPCs are just plain annoying, to the point where you start to hate them.

You could theoretically fix this by making the NPCs much more intelligent (AI-wise), but this would fundamentally be making them less burdensome, and it would take a lot of effort.

Two easier solutions are to make the NPC remote, or to make the player choose to take them. If the NPC is remote, you can simply hook triggers into the game world. If X time passes, they get injured. If you collect Y prisms, they give you a better gun. Remote NPCs don't have any AI worth speaking of, and basically serve to put a human face on in-game challenges.

Making the player choose to take NPCs requires an adaptive/open world, since the player might choose differently at any given moment. A player that chooses to do something will generally be a lot more accepting of the difficulties involved than a player who is simply forced to do it. Choosing to do an escort mission is a lot more acceptable than being forced to... even if the player is eventually more or less forced to choose to do an escort mission. The act of opting in is powerful, even if there's really no way to opt out.

Fumbles and bad controls.

A lot of scary games have very bad controls. The reason for this is fourfold.

Firstly, very bad controls are a source of weakness, making the hero less capable of dealing with the enemies. Since dealing with the enemies is always supposed to be a losing proposition, bad controls cement the deal.

Secondly, bad controls are equalizers. Very skilled players shine with responsive, tight controls. While skilled players will still be better than unskilled players with clumsy controls, the difference will not be as large.

Thirdly, bad controls respond very aggressively to player panic. If a player is scared, their ability to use your shitty control scheme drops much faster than if your control scheme was really great. Therefore, if the player is scared, they will get even more scared because now they are shit.

Fourthly, it radically increases the pressure by making it harder to gather and react to information. Awkward cameras and controls don't just make combat harder - they make it slower and more difficult to gather and react to all sorts of information, including things like room layout, hidden items, NPC interaction, inventory management...

How is all that information imbalance?

I've explained a few of the above things as being based on information imbalance, but others I've left unexplained. And, of course, my pet theory is just my pet theory, so I didn't want it to intrude much.

Some of the things above - such as equalizing skill between players - aren't based on information imbalance. I don't think information imbalance is every little thing that could ever be scary. But I do feel that information imbalance is fundamentally scary, or least very high-pressure.

For example, when you are playing poker, there's a desperate push to read your opponent's faces, to count cards, to control your own expressions. The pressure of playing poker, even just with free chips, is tangible. And it's all thanks to the information imbalance. The high-level play of poker is almost entirely about gaining the edge in information.

There are a lot of different kinds of information imbalance. Let's mention some of them.

Information gaps are when you are given some information, but there are gaps. These gaps create pressure. For example, if you hear a hooting cryomonkey, you know that there is one... but not exactly where, or when you'll run into him. If you look into a room and see a cupboard, you know you can open it and there might be stuff inside. But you don't know how much stuff, or whether there's going to be a trap along the way.

The gaps create pressure not just to fill them in, but also to nullify them completely. If you hear a monkey hooting, you can try to fill in the gaps by hunting down the monkey on your own terms... or by skirting the area and blitzing through, trying to make it so that the encounter never happens at all. Similarly, if you suspect there is a trap in a room, you might try to navigate such that it will trigger when you are in the perfect position to weather it, rather than stumbling in as the designers intend.

Information scavenging is a primary method to try to fill in gaps or decide to go around. This involves skirting the edge of the situation looking for insights before approaching. It's valuable both as tension and as pacing.

Information delays are when you have information, but either too far in advance or not far enough in advance to be comfortable with it. This isn't the same as information gaps, because you have more or less complete information. An easy example of this is when monsters burst through a window. Yeah, you can see them. You know what they are, where they are. But can you act on that information rapidly enough?

You can go the other way, too. If you know right away that the final boss of the factory is Glouberk and he's in the manager's office, there can be a lot of pressure as the knowledge builds. You discover fragments of information that make Glouberk more menacing. You see the manager's office window from the factory floor and it's covered in goop... there's no surprise - eventually, you walk in and fight Glouberk. But even though there's no surprise, the delay is uncomfortably long, long enough for the pressure to keep building up. This only really works if you can keep flicking the player with reminders and additional bits of pressure - otherwise, they'll forget all about it pretty quick.

Bleed control is when you are the information source, and you are trying to limit how much you reveal, or perhaps even distribute misinformation. It also may involve trying to goad others into revealing more than they want to.

Chance is when you know roughly how likely something is, but you don't know how the dice will land. For example, you can release a chandelier and it'll crush anyone beneath it. You decide to use it on a heavyweight enemy in the room... but it's difficult to line up. There's not really any missing information, here. There's just a chance you'll hit them, and a chance you won't.

Chance is a bit iffy, because it adds a lot of chaos into what is typically a very carefully balanced experience. However, if you're making a less carefully balanced game, chance can play a very good role. Just remember: this is about having all the information and choosing to gamble, not about randomly getting screwed over.

Information pressure is when you have information, but if you don't act on it, it will either lose value or things will get worse. Pressure doesn't necessarily mean time pressure, although that is the most common.

Information swamping is when you have too much information and the challenge is to figure out which bits matter.


So, if we take the information imbalance thing as a solid idea, can we come up with any other game mechanics that might be scary and aren't on that list?

Well, the format of modern scary games is such that some obvious mechanics aren't used. Chance, information pressure, and information swamping are all not very common in scary games, because scary games are fundamentally tightly scripted.

If we move to an unscripted scary game, we can radically amp up the roles these things play. For example, the game could revolve around high-stakes betting. It's a very popular subgenre in anime these days, sometimes revolving around a specific game (mahjong) or a random assortment of anything-goes high-stakes betting.

We could set our game in a town or school. Something high-pressure has happened - the town has been flung into a new dimension, your school grades depend on bids, etc. The result is an open-world game where all the NPCs have challenges you can accept.

In order to make it scary, we don't have to make it foggy, and we don't have to make traveling our primary mechanic. Instead, we can create the feeling of pressure through the less commonly used mechanics.

A big part of making it scary is to make the world wear down on your resources, and make the resources only gainable through betting. So there is a heavy attrition as the world gets more and more difficult to deal with. NPCs change as time goes on - the things they can provide, the things they are willing to do, the gambles they offer. The fear is, on the surface, because of the human flaws of these people who don't always cooperate to survive. At a deeper, mechanical level, the fear is because of the need to constantly make dangerous gambles to survive another day.

So the core play is deciding which gambles to take in which order. The resources you gain from gambles might be resources required to survive the world's attrition, but sometimes can be used to make other gambles easier or clearer. For example, if you win an easy gamble with someone for the right to have them cooperate with you, then you'll have an easier time with a poker game because they are signalling you while looking at your opponent's hands.

The game is about taking risks. To a lesser extent, it is about gathering enough information about any given risk to know what the risk actually is. Also, whether to expend valuable resources on making the risk less dangerous.

The game is about an information flood. You have to figure out which of the townsfolk are offering what kinds of deals, and glean out which gambles are worth taking and in what order.

The game is about information pressure. If you don't take a gamble soon, it's going to change as things get worse. David won't always be offering a simple high-low card pull wagering his help vs a can of beans. Maybe the gambles he offers will get more dangerous. Maybe less.

And of course, the game is about how the NPCs react to the grinding attrition of the world. This will vary not just by NPC, but by the various things you might do to help them (probably in gambles). For example, it may be that losing a gamble will allow an NPC to survive another day...

That game could be pretty scary.

It could also be tense but not scary if you allow for saving/loading or make the world's attrition level too low or make the NPCs too cooperative.