Boston GameLoop is an annual game development unconference. I’ve been going for years, and I’m always impressed by the sheer wealth of knowledge available. I’ve written up my notes below, but I haven’t fleshed them out this year and they’re more than a bit incoherent (apologies for that!) I hope they’ll still be useful.
GameLoop participants: I have not attached anyone’s names to these writeups (except for talk leaders), and I’ve mostly scrubbed personal anecdotes out to maintain the privacy of attendees. Please contact me (carolyn at sibylmoon.com) if:
- I included something you said that should not be included, or
- I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
- You think I got something from the discussion wrong
Horror Games/Scary Games
Discussion leader: Arden Ripley
Mental illness horror perpetuates harmful stereotypes; this is not cool, don’t do that
Many different kinds of horror:
- TV Tropes “fridge horror”, when things become scary after the fact
- Environmental horror
- Jump scares
- Slowly dawning wrongness
- Existential horror
SOMA – same studio as Amnesia, no combat, very different
STALKER series – Russia/Ukraine, example of scarcity narrative
Pathologic – similar vein, plague/existential horror
Horror games rarely have morality systems – very shades-of-gray. Ambiguity and agency together inspire emotion and investment.
Playing a horror game isn’t like watching a horror movie – “Don’t go through the door!” You choose to go through.
Liz England – IF horror game (Her Pound of Flesh)
One horror source: uncaring world, impersonality of horror
Immersiveness as the key – mechanics subdued, tutorials either blended or concealed
Horror games often force you to make an authentic choice/action (even when they’re not actually branching games)
The Walking Dead (Telltale) <– to make this game extra creepy, let every dialogue sequence time out
What kind of person are you?
Active choices encourage connection. Passive do not. (Note: This was a recurring theme in the relationships talk as well.)
Zero Escape <– visual novels, metaaware
If a game is too scary, it will overwhelm players and they will quit. Think about what success means: are you okay with players quitting?
What kind of challenges are people up for? Always a fail state –
- horror games can make them feel scared/nauseous
- puzzle games (like The Witness) can make them feel stupid
- games like Dark Souls can make them feel bad at video games
Silent Hill 4 – repeatedly sends you back to your apartment as a safe place/save spot… and then the apartment starts morphing in subtle/awful ways
Save points help you control a player’s mindset when they return to the game
Forcing breaks in the game has pros and cons (see: the debate over Christine Love’s Hate Plus, which forces play over three real-time days, and also enough time to bake a cake)
IM/text message games on mobile <– immersive
Pacing is a key element in horror.
Mystery is a key draw in horror – why?
Mechanics: in a conserved resources game, there are two fail states:
- bottom the player out completely, and they feel too helpless to succeed/continue
- allow players to undo their own scarcity, and they gain too much control and the scariness ends
Non-horror games can have horror aspects – see nighttime in Starbound and Minecraft
Don’t Starve <– okay you finally have to try this (Note: you don’t, O Reader, but that’s literally what my note says)
The Long Dark
Horror stories: What are we afraid of?
Death is scary – but actually dying is jarring as heck, breaks immersion, shuts down the horror experience
Death does not have to be the source of scariness or the end of a game
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem <– lose control rather than dying
Avoid systems/story dissonance
Haunting Ground: cut scenes and situation-tailored death, AI learns where you hide
Common horror themes: being chased, hiding, powerlessness
The Forest <– Steam, impressions from first death
Demon Souls: Why go back when you’re safe? Works for some people not for others.
Make death part of the content – plot, character, situation
The Path: encourages you to break the in-game rules and seek out death, experiments with death as a win condition
Blocking death entirely can make players unhappy, removes agency (one of the Prince of Persia games did this, not the storytelling one)