Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Horror

Scooby Doo. We all like to torture ourselves with shocks and climaxes that makes you want to run away. Well, many of us. But what exactly is scary? A 13 year old Hentai ghost girl with pitch black hair? Mice and rats? Empty environments with a threatening tune? Burning zombies that puke out their own balls? Let's see how Tower22 tries to make you cry.

When discussing stuff like environments or characters with my fellows, it appears that describing something scary is utterly difficult. Not just because I lack English words to do so, but also because fear is a very personal thing. The nightmares / "things" that scared me most are probably normal or just vague to others. When I would describe it, the reaction would probably be "and then?" or "oh....".

But let's give it a shot anyway. Luckily I've seen quite some horror-things. Virtual drama's I mean. Still can't compare my "experience" with children who saw their family getting murdered or something of course. Nah, Liveleaks movies don't make me vomit, but when drama becomes reality I rather skip it. Taliban shot in half is not really my cup of tea. Guess that's normal... there is a difference between a vivid fantasy or a sick fantasy :) No, when it comes to inspiration I focus on games, movies, dreams, random thoughts, personal phobia's and history. Yes, our history is full of drama. From mythological stories to gas chambers.

Too bad I have some memory-leaks as well, so I forgot a lot of things. But if I had to list a few of the most scary movies/games, the first things that come in my mind are:
- The Shining
- Resident Evil 1 Remake
- Amnesia (only did the demo recently, but that was already pretty damn scary)

What these three titles have in common might be the lack of gore. I enjoy intestines, monsters and tomato sauce. But over-the-top horror usually doesn't scare me that much (although Doom3 or Silent Hill did a good job). No, you won't be disgusted by these titles when comparing it to Braindead, The Thing, Cannibal Holocaust (wtf) or Dead Space. Blood and extreme situations are fun, and I'll sure put them in T22 (more than in Resident Evil games for example). We won't turn our heads for guts, bizarre chambers, nudity or extreme violence. Hey, the upcoming Demo movie will have a pretty dirty scene! I wouldn't mind if the PEGI rating becomes so high that I'm officially too young to program my own game :) BUT, blood, boobs and gore are not the Core Business.

Not a beautiful scene, but I was playing around with some new textures Julio made. Making an uncomfortable environment is at least as important than angry monsters.

Tower 22 horror fundaments
Extreme shock moments are tasty, but they only work a few times. So we'll have to place them wisely. So what could make a game/movie really scary? As said, opinions differ. But for me the "can't place it" and "continuous terror" are the keywords. With "can't place it" I mean situations that are so strange that your brain gets a blue-screen when trying to reason. Dreams are usually a good example. Scenery that might look pretty normal still don't make sense, as they don't have to obey the rules of logic. Chambers are suddenly replaced with something else. Persons transform into something different even while you are talking to them. And of course, guns always change into Super-soakers where you have to shout the "Bam!" gunfire yourself (don't worry, we won't use that trick). Silent Hill is a good example. Environments could suddenly change, putting you from one nightmare deeper into another. The character dialogs are so strange that you trust nobody, and even common objects or rooms don't feel like they were designed by humans. A few other examples are The Cube (movie) and some of the Clive Barker books (famous from Hellraiser).

The "continuous terror" thing is the feeling that you could get in troubles any time. Well. In action games like F.E.A.R. you actually are in trouble continuously. But once you learned how to fight it, it becomes "normal" (until you see that damn little girl again). Older Resident Evil games or Amnesia are much slower paced. You won't be fighting 600 zombies per minute. But when it happens, you'll get in panic. RE controls are difficult and you always lack ammunition. Amnesia doesn't give the player a defence mechanism at all. So, with every step you take, you are 200% alert. Even the safe-rooms with calming music in RE feel like a dangerous place. That's why ghost movies with cliché scary moments still work good in common.

Last, maybe we should try to add some emotional drama’s? You know, player lost his 3 year old son, his father is also his mother, witnessing how your best buddy gets eaten... No. You’ll be all alone in Tower22. For one, to enhance the claustrophobia and loneliness feeling. Second, I don’t believe in game-emotions. Don’t know about you, but I’m just to sober to create a bond with a polygonal character. When Richard gets brutally eaten by a shark in Resident Evil, I’m only interested in the shotgun he leaves behind. Thank you.

Concept work
All right, put these ingredients in the blender, add some blood-sauce, and it should give a Tower22 meal. Should be easy for Jamie Oliver. But of course, making up a character that actually scares you (after seeing so many dirty monsters in other games/movies already) or an empty environment that makes you nervous just by the looks and sound, is darn difficult. So how should we accomplish this task? Every room, object, sound, music, creature or piece of story that goes into the game should get a "DTS" (Damn-that's-scary) label first. Considering that the content should make up a game that takes at least 8 hours (still short if you ask me), this will be an even more challenging task than programming an engine that can render blood decals.

Made within 13 minutes. And my digital drawing skills really aren't good! Making quick concepts first helps you creating an "inspiration source", and prevents wasting a lot of time on working out your first silly ideas in detail already. Would this curious guy make it into the game?

It all starts with making concepts. Don't work-out a super-cool one armed dude with a burned skin texture and a loose intestine right away. The more hours you put in a drawing or model, the harder it will get to take distance of it (and the more precious time wasted when it gets discarded). Maybe other team members don't really like it (but don't dare to say because you spend so much effort and love in it). Or you'll realise it's pretty stupid actually, a few days or weeks later.

Therefore, start with quick concept drawings or reference pictures. When a weird idea pops-up, write and draw it on the paper. If you browse accidentally on a cool photo, store it. If you saw a nice movie, list it. The more ideas, the better. Instead of trying to make the perfect bogeyman right from the start, collect as many as possible ideas. It doesn't matter if your concept drawing sucks or not. Since you didn't spend much time on it you can throw it away without hard feelings. Or just extract the good-parts from it. Like the pose, anatomy or other gadgets.

After making a new concept, let it rest. Let's see if you & the others still like it one week later. If so, you can work out the concept (or parts of it) to a more detailed version. Still keep it simple so adjustments can be done quickly. If your team still likes it after that, the concept can finally move to the production assembly line. Make a cool detailed poster as input material for the 3D modellers, etcetera. Sure, that's a lot of work. But at least your game (or whatever you are making) won't be littered by spoilsports. Remember, one dull character can seriously injure the tension of a horror game. And if the environments don't work, the game simply gets boring.

Would that be enough to make it scary? Who knows. But I always keep a saying from an American Vietnam veteran in mind. Don't know how it exactly went anymore, but he wrote:
"It were not the (few) actual enemy encounters that feared us. It was the constant knowledge that we *could* encounter the enemy, any time". Piece bro.

Same hall, but with our Red Alert friend. Can't see it here yet, but I added "mirrors" to the engine. You know, for high reflective marble floors, water or... mirrors.


  1. Hi, I've started to read your blog liek two weaks ago and I really like it. I even wanted to suggest you to play Amnesia game ;)

    Getting back to scene, i think it would eb much scarier if the picutre would not look like brand new. ;)

  2. Hey, and welcome!
    Recently I played the Amnesia demo. Indeed a scary game. In fact maybe even more than the average shoot'm-up horror game. You really panic when encountering the enemy, without a shotgun for a change. Being sort of defenseless for the enemy is one of those elements T22 will also use.

    About the brand-new look, the sketch above is just a quicky. Brain thinks, hand moves, voila. I'm not really handy with a tablet anyway. Still prefer paper, ink & pastel, although it takes ages to finish something then :)

    The in-game screenshots may look too polished too. Luckily there are plenty of (post)effects to experiment with. High contrasts, darkness, colorizing, saturating (like the old-paper Sepia filter), blurring, adding noise, and so on. It will be certainly used, though we still have to figure when & how. Having dark fog or an old-film filter applied all the time may get annoying after a while.

  3. I was refering to the in-game screenshot with the picture of Stalin;) I would never dare to criticize your sketch casue I think it is really good. Way better than I would ever draw by hand :)

    What I meant about the scene with Stalin is that the walls are old, moisty, dusty but the picture of Stalin which is looking like a brand new. And this makes some contrast. Thats all what I Wanted to say :)

  4. You're right. Stalin won't be in the game though, just placed his head to decorate the otherwise very empty (test)hall. Later on most objects will probably have a layer of dust, smear, rust or other effects to remove the brand-new look ;)