Frictional Thoughts: Alien, Amnesia And Horror Simulators

Over at Frictional Games’ official blog, creative director Thomas Grip has written an extensive and thoughtful analysis of Alien: Isolation. It’s worth reading in full, providing a brief history of the ‘horror simulator’ genre that runs from 3D Monster Maze (1982) to the modern interpretations found in Slender and the like. Isolation gets a post-mortem treatment that begins simply – “Alien: Isolation is an interesting game” – then veers into a wham-bam takedown – “At its core it fails to be a faithful emulation of the original Alien (1979) movie” – and, BOOM – “it really is just a pure horror simulator, like Slender or 3D Monster Maze, just with more sections to play through”.

Grip does have lots of positive things to say about Creative Assembly’s game though and a few thoughts for the future. That’s SOMA talk.

Note: the full blog post contains what I’d consider to be spoilers for Isolation. I haven’t included any below.

Grip divides horror games into two broad fields – those that play out in the style of a known genre but with a horror wrapping, and those that attempt to “recreate the happenings of a scary movie/novel”. These latter he calls ‘horror simulation’ games and 3D Monster Maze is selected as the earliest example. Character in maze must avoid entity in maze. That’s a different proposition to something like Dark Seed, which is a point and click adventure with ‘horror wrapping’ and a conveniently topical Giger-fuelled visual design.

Isolation, Grip argues, is very similar, at its base, to 3D Monster Maze.

The big feature in this game is that there is only one monster that can appear at any time. In many ways, it is really the 2014 version of 3D Monster Maze, in which the whole game was built around trying to figure out where the monster was located and how to avoid it. Alien: Isolation obviously has complexity far beyond that, but it is striking how similar the basics are.

He does talk about the human and android adversaries as well, but I think it’s fair to classify the alien as the ‘one monster’ in the game. That’s a fine distinction to make between one deadly force and all the others, but the fiction and the simulation both support it. The alien does not behave like the rest and it is not treated like the rest. Where Isolation fails, for Grip, is in the frustration that arises from the unpredictability of the alien. He’s not alone in that.

…this super focus on being a horror simulation, also starts showing cracks in the game as a whole. For instance, just like in older games of the same genre, Alien: Isolation can be very frustrating. The tension built up from being 20 minutes from your last save, quickly turns to anger and frustration when you are killed seemingly out of nowhere. While still vague (which is essential for giving rise to the right mind model), it is predictable enough for you to be able to get past any threats if you are just careful and cunning enough. Still, this part is divisive, as can be seen by the review scores and I have myself felt extremely frustrated with the game from time to time.

It certainly has been divisive. I think it’s a flawed masterpiece but I can understand why some people will find the flaws too damaging and distinctive. I think the majority of the game’s frustrations arise from a determination to follow a very deliberate series of design choices to the letter rather than a failure to achieve any desired objectives. Where it fails, it fails in good faith and is fully prepared to feel the pain of its own petard.

Grip makes it clear that he doesn’t consider these problems to be indicative of a failure.

While the frustration and bad pacing are clearly issues, I do not think they are that bad and, as noted above, it should be relatively easy to fix. What is a much bigger problem is how these system gives rise to a very simplistic narrative.

This is a much more interesting point and one that I struggled with myself. Grip isn’t talking about the game’s story here, in the larger sense, but about the narrative that is created and controlled by player action. It is, he reckons, a narrative of moving from one save point to the next, occasionally activating a piece of machinery or searching for a keycard.

The problems with objectives does not stop there though. Another issue is that they are all extremely simplistic and without any interesting narrative significance. They are all about powering up things or finding keycards. It is old school mission design with a thin layer of narrative coating. While these sort of boring objectives are pretty common in games, I think Alien: Isolation has an especially hard time getting away from it. Because the game is constantly so dense with information that you need to keep track of (save stations, motion tracker, alien signs, loot, resources, etc) you really cannot manage to keep any complex objectives in mind.

I don’t necessarily disagree, even though I think Isolation is an excellent game. Would I have preferred objectives and flow that didn’t occasionally remind me of playing repairman in Dead Space? Yes I would. But I found the interactions and the world that has been constructed around those objectives sufficiently engaging, even during the slightly baggy middle portion. Grip goes on to discuss how the problems he perceives might be fixed – having admitted that Amnesia was riddled with some of the same issues – and that’s when he turns to SOMA, the company’s next game.

I think that the answer lies in having some sort of uncertain outcome as an ingrained gameplay device. Instead of having the player fear “what if I lose my progress?” they should be thinking “what if I affect the world in a negative way?”

A beautiful idea. In the majority of games, death has consequences for the player but not for the character or world, and that’s a problem if you want to teach people to fear failure. The fear becomes frustration if they are punished but the character simply revives at a save point and has to run the gauntlet again. But how to make the change?

This is what we are currently experimenting with in our upcoming game SOMA. Since I do not want to spoil the system I cannot go too in-depth on our approach, but I can give a basic outline. The idea is that by having choices inserted directly into the game world and have the way you chose to handle these change how the narrative unravels. These choices can simply be whether you interact with a certain object or not, or it can be more vague things, like how you behave around a certain creature.

Not branches in the narrative but smaller changes, some of them systemic, based on player behaviour and choice.

Our hope is that by having these sort of decisions as an integral part of the game world, that the player internalizes them and makes it part of their mind model. Then, just like the tension you feel by wondering where the next save station is in Alien: Isolation, you will feel tension by pondering what ramifications a certain set of actions might have.

Exciting. I think it’s important to make the distinction between ‘behaviour’ and ‘choice’. Games like The Walking Dead present choices that alter (or don’t alter) later events, while a game that doesn’t present binary choices but instead changes based on the player’s actions from moment to moment would be something altogether different. It’s something that we see in dynamic difficulty levels but it’d be fascinating to see it applied directly to a horror template.

As for Grip’s contention that Isolation fails as an emulation of the original film? Again, he’s right, even though I entirely disagree with the statement. That’s because I approached the question as to whether Isolation is a success in that regard or not from an entirely different angle, although not without acknowledging Grip’s take. Put simply, he believes that Isolation fails because it is not about the unknown – it is about a known entity, the alien itself, and the repetition of dealing with that entity means that we come to know even more about it. The horror and the mystery are lost, at least in part.

Hard to argue with that. In my review, I speculated that the alien is Isolation’s weakness in some ways, because the tension that builds in the opening scenes, before meeting the creature, is built on Ripley’s lack of knowledge. She doesn’t know what she’s up against and the fact that we do creates a distancing effect.

But Alien isn’t just about an alien. It’s about an entire world, interpreted and imagined through the glimpses of work and life that we’re shown. That’s what Isolation seems to understand and to deliver so effectively. If SOMA can create a credible sense of place to go with its clever ideas, it can’t come soon enough.

36 Comments

  1. GameCat says:

    I think that 3D Monster Maze horrors are flawed by design. Yes, they can build up some tension, but they doesn’t have any good device to relive it. Monster got you, game over, you must replay the same section for second (or third or tenth) time. Most of tension is gone, frustration starts to building up instead.

    Ironically, the “ability” to die in horror game is probably one of the worst thing you can include in genre.

    • epeternally says:

      “Ironically, the “ability” to die in horror game is probably one of the worst thing you can include in genre.”

      Completely on point. With the exception of Amnesia, which I think would be better without character deaths, I generally won’t touch horror games in which the player can die. This is what ruined Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Running from monsters was visceral the first time, predictable the second, and ungodly frustrating and not scary at all by the time you actually beat that section… which for me was in excess of ten attempts.

      • Bury The Hammer says:

        Surely the very reason to be scared is the possibility of dying? Or at least suffering some sort of penalty? If you started playing a game knowing nothing bad will happen no matter what, it becomes the equivalent of a ghost train – the décor is scary but, in the end, impotent.

        The most terrifying games I’ve ever played are things like getting to the final boss in Spelunky for the first time. You’re guaranteed nothing – it’s all up to you.

        • Bassen_Hjertelos says:

          One does not have to die for bad things to happen. Fear is the anticipation of doom. If you die in a game the anticipation is gone and the mechanics start to show. When that happens the proverbial game is over.

          • Smoky_the_Bear says:

            Surely you are contradicting yourself there because without any potential of doom then there can be no fear. Dying isn’t inherently bad, repeating the same crap over and over again is. If the game is mechanically sound and doesn’t become a case of trial and error every time something happens then there is no problem.

            A Machine for Pigs removed a lot of the failure states of A Dark Descent (the whole sanity/light mechanic etc). It was universally criticised compared to the original as being nothing more than a rollercoaster with little interaction. Remove death and you remove a large part of the “game” aspect of it, you are just being handheld through an experience. Making decisions that are the difference between failure (death) and progressing, for me, are largely what makes a horror game tense and interesting.

      • JiminyJickers says:

        For me, a normal save system where you can save when you want would solve the issue. Alien Isolation got way too frustrating for me in the end.

        People these days seems to think that being able to quicksave is a cheat. I remember Doom 3 and System Shock 2 being very scary games but still being able to quicksave. For me quicksave would remove the frustration yet keep the scariness factor.

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          bsplines says:

          Even better, how about they let the player choose whether they want to quicksave or not? A simple toggle in the options menu or an easier difficulty setting that gives you that option would probably alleviate this frustration for a lot of players.

        • KenTWOu says:

          I remember Doom 3 and System Shock 2 being very scary games but still being able to quicksave. For me quicksave would remove the frustration yet keep the scariness factor.

          Different games, different balance, different scare factors, different save systems. System Shock 2 was balanced around resource management, weapon degradation and engagements with infinitely respawned enemies. That’s why the game could use quick save feature and being able to scare you. Quick save doesn’t eliminate tension in System Shock 2, but could ruin Dead Space or Alien:Isolation.

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      Harlander says:

      This is absolutely the case. Unfortunately, “the creature kills you” was too well-established to be avoided in Isolation..

    • Caiman says:

      I disagree, based purely on my own experience. 3D Monster Maze scarred me for life. I still cannot play it on an emulator, it’s that frightening. The prospect of being chased by something that has a profound impact on your progress (ie. game over) is powerful. In 3D Monster Maze there is no save function; it’s a rogue-like, and when you die that’s the end of the road. But the simple act of being confined in an environment with a monster is utterly frightening to me, the statement “RUN! HE’S BEHIND YOU!” that pops up under the maze when the T. rex is literally about to catch you sends an electric shock through my system and I panic.

      What frightens us is very personal, I think. I was always afraid of monsters under the bed, in the closet, in the dark, and games like 3D Monster Maze play on those fears. I know it has zero effect on other people, but what scares them leaves me cold. I still find it difficult playing games like Dead Space and Alien: Isolation because of that ingrained fear of the monster in the dark.

    • Razumen says:

      It’s not the ability to die that’s the issue, but rather the ease at which the game kills you. If the difficulty is so high that as a player you cannot help but die over and over, then it’s naturally going to become frustrating and lose it’s horror aspect.

      However, I think it’s appropiate here to distinguish between terror and horror. HORROR is fear of the unknown, the what-ifs, the unexplained sounds you hear in the basement late at night. TERROR is fear for one’s life, it’s fear of the man running after you with a chainsaw, it’s the adrenaline fuelled mortal panic. These are not always mutually exclusive things, but when we’re talking “horror” game design, they become very important concepts.

      I think people may disagree with me, but Alien Isolation is not a horror game: you know what’s chasing you, you know it’s capabilities (more or less), and you know, or can learn, how to avoid it. It’s really a terror game, like many in the recent trend of Slenderman, Outlast, SCP and the ilk. Because the monster’s danger lies simply in it’s ability to kill the player, death and the difficulty in avoiding in become a necessary feature. The unpredicatabity does add a bit of unknown to it, but that’s more to keep the difficulty high rather that evoke mystery or horror.

      If we compare Isolation to Silent Hill, you can see SH has a more strong emphasis on horror; where death is still possible, but more easily avoided. Instead, the game relies on the horrific, unknown nature of the environments and the monsters you face throughout the game. Instead of focusing on the chase of an agressor, where any wrong move can result in death, it focuses on cultivating a sense of mystery, dread, and foreboding – There’s always the threat of some sort of unkown danger, but the player has no way of knowing whether they’re truly safe or not.

      I like both styles of horror games personally, but it seems like they’re designed more around terror than horror lately, and I wish they’d either try and channel true horror more, or at least strike a balance between the two.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        This is an excellent point. I’d cite the early Resident Evil games as good examples too. They introduce you very early on to the zombies, which don’t really scare at all. Nothing else appears for a while save for a couple of dogs here and there (which do little more than provide a jump scare when they come crashing through a window or something).

        However, the game subtly hints at there being something else on its way, (strangely mutilated bodies, a person being dragged into a vent, slime on the walls etc), these things don’t show their face for a long while, but it creates an atmosphere of dread because you know it’s coming, you just have no idea when it’s coming and what it will be. Your example of Silent Hill is in much the same vein. They sort of broke the mold in Resident Evil 3 though with the big baddie Nemesis chasing you from the beginning and to my mind it is the weakest of the early Resi games. All of the other stuff you discovered seemed to have much less effect once you’d seen the main boss of the game and had it chasing you on multiple occasions.

        Look at horror movies, these work in much the same way. Recently they have resorted to increased gore to sell their horror movies (Saw etc), this does little more than try and make the viewer uncomfortable rather than scared and to me those movies are bad.
        Compare it to horror movies from decades ago, very little was seen. Jaws is a great example of this, people were terrified when it first came out and all that was needed was an underwater camera and a 2 note bass riff. When you actually saw the creature, it was a big rubber shark doll and looked ridiculous. Sometimes what you don’t see is far scarier, as you say, fear of the unknown.

  2. Muzman says:

    “It certainly has been divisive. I think it’s a flawed masterpiece but I can understand why some people will find the flaws too damaging and distinctive. I think the majority of the game’s frustrations arise from a determination to follow a very deliberate series of design choices to the letter rather than a failure to achieve any desired objectives.”

    Not that I’ve played it yet but, in videos it does become very obvious that the thing is not anywhere near as predictable as we’ve come to expect from your typical stealth enemies or the like. I can see how this could become frustrating from seemingly “unfair” deaths robbing you of progress. But at the same time it makes just waiting for it to turn around (and hoping it stays that way) exhilarating to watch in a way that pretty much no game opponents are these days.
    It does seem worth the potential cost to be that bold and interesting.

  3. meepmeep says:

    The thing that has put me off playing Alien:Isolation is hearing that the Alien can do impossible things, and literally appear from nowhere, preventing you from ever being sure of its location. This means that, when I cannot see it, it essentially doesn’t exist, which removes the whole ‘cat and mouse’ concept that should be core to the gameplay, and instead makes it ‘scripted game and mouse’.

    I have no problem with the idea of the Alien able to use a vast network of vents and tunnels to get ahead of and behind you, but to keep the game and strategy grounded, those vents and tunnels need to exist, and the alien to always be somewhere, doing something, even if I am not personally witness to it.

    In this respect, it is less than Monster Maze.

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      Harlander says:

      The thing that has put me off playing Alien:Isolation is hearing that the Alien can do impossible things, and literally appear from nowhere, preventing you from ever being sure of its location

      Having played through the game, I’m not certain that describing the creature as appearing from nowhere is accurate. It’s not modelled when it’s not moving about on the level geometry (i.e when it’s “in the vents”) but it always arrives in areas accessible by the omnipresent ceiling and wall vents. (I must admit that I was generally too nervous to consider whether or not the time it took to traverse from one vent to another was wholly reasonable)

      As for not being able to be sure of its location, isn’t that the point?

      • meepmeep says:

        I’ve heard that it can teleport – e.g. be behind you and then appear in a location in front of you only possible via the actual corridor you’re standing in. While this can be easily explained away via the alien having theoretical access to unmodelled vents etc, it to me undermines the idea of using your knowledge of the level’s layout and the alien’s potential locations to plan your moves, which is an inherent part of the hobby of monstermazing.

        I’m not saying that you should always know where it is, but that you should be able to constrain its location based on sightings and level layouts, and determining such constraints is part of this type of game (as in Amnesia: TDD).

      • mona says:

        I’ve definitely seen a reviewer somewhere saying that they caught the alien cheating (had it in sight down a hallway, turned around and entered a room to find it in there).

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    serioussgtstu says:

    “Isolation fails because it is not about the unknown – it is about a known entity, the alien itself, and the repetition of dealing with that entity means that we come to know even more about it. The horror and the mystery are lost, at least in part.”

    The way the games are currently produced is partly to blame for this particular failure when it comes to ‘big budget’ horror games. People expect to get at least a dozen or so hours out of a $50 title, and it is absolutely not possible for a horror game to maintain its momentum over such a long period. Ideally we’d pay $15 for a three hour game, but that pricing is impossible given the realities of contemporary game development.

    I don’t have a lot of experience with the genre myself, but I thought that Dead Space found a good middle ground; in that by the time I not longer found the Necromorphs intimidating, I’d become invested enough in upgrades system that shooting them with my shiny new toys was it’s own reward. Obviously that theme of empowerment goes against what CA were trying to achieve with Alien, but they should have found some substitute for the mid/late game once the Zenomorph looses its luster, or as I said, just made the game shorter.

    It’s a really difficult problem, and I think they would have annoyed people no matter which choice they made. That said I’m really looking forward to playing isolation once the consumer model Rift comes out. Staring at the art assets from Scott’s film up close in first person will be its own reward.

  5. Eight Rooks says:

    Another problem for me would be the implication that he thinks there is a “right” way to do these things, on any level, or that he isn’t acknowledging the flat-out objective fact that however he “fixes” these issues, lots and lots of people will still think he’s got it wrong. I’m definitely one of those people who will never play Isolation simply because I don’t care enough about the premise to find it worth putting up with the whole random stalk-and-slash mechanic. Basic gameplay systems are not truly scary. Ever. If you’re being chased by a monster where you (mostly) can’t fight it, can’t defeat it, you don’t know where it’s going to turn up and it can kill you at any time, taken in isolation (ho ho ho) that’s just silly boo scares at best, annoying at worst. Obviously lots of people disagree (even though they’re wrong), but there’s simply no way you’re going to get me to accept that basic core loop (run, hide, die, start again, run, hide etc.) without an absolutely terrific piece of world-building, storytelling etc. over the top and just “It’s Alien! The (retro-)future’s fucked!” simply isn’t enough for me.

    And the exact same principle is going to apply to whatever he comes up with or has come up with for Soma. If you attempt to influence what players do or evaluate how they “behave” in any way whatsoever then a significant segment of them will react by saying “Stop interfering with my escapist power fantasy! I play games to do whatever I want with no consequences! You don’t get to comment on that in any capacity!” or more simply “God, this game’s shit, innit?” Any developer saying “Game X fails to do (whatever) because of the way it’s designed, our new game and its awesome proprietary tech will eliminate or alleviate that problem” should realise that whatever they’re doing it’ll never amount to anything more than swings and roundabouts, at least to some degree. However clever your systems are, those systems are not what provokes an actual emotive response, and however well-hidden you think they are, some people will always see straight through them and decide “This is shit”. Lengthy analyses like this just seem to try and avoid conceding that IMO.

    Given that Amnesia couldn’t dress its systems up very well (silly grimdark fantasy, terrible voice acting) and the first Penumbra couldn’t either (mediocre writing, primitive, dated design) I’m not terribly confident I’m going to be buying Soma. But eh, I’ll keep an eye on it, all the same.

    • FuriKuri says:

      I think you have the wrong impression about Alien: Isolation. Fundamentally it is not about “running away” from the alien, it is about avoiding it via stealth and distraction. If it spots you, you’re dead – only once did I ever manage to run away from it once spotted and that was only due to having a fair distance between us and having enough time to scramble into a locker. When the alien is present a *lot* of the time is actually spent with you knowing exactly where it is and watching it brush past you mere inches away. This is where the tension comes from – not so much the horror of the alien itself but the knowledge that a fuckup on your part is what will get you killed. When it disappears into the vents it becomes a more paranoid experience but between the motion scanner and decent headphones I never felt its sudden reappearances to be completely unexpected or ‘cheap’.

      Overall I’d say the experience was quite reminiscent of Thief – outside of the purposefully atmospheric opening sections of the game it is more about the fear of being “caught” whilst carrying out your objectives than about jump scares.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        But that is jump scares, to me. It’s “You are tasked with getting from A to B. A monster is wandering around! It might be at A, B, C or D – you just don’t know. If it pops up, your only option is to hide, or it will kill you! Have fun.” That – that objective, expressed like that – is crap, to me. Without the ability to fight back, to resist in any meaningful way, without any way to know exactly where the threat is coming from – I’m simply not interested. It isn’t scary, or horrific, it’s merely frustrating. If, if the developers have put a really good story over the top, a great piece of world-building and characterisation that convinces me, that gets me emotionally invested, then I might play it for the fiction, but I’d still be doing it on sufferance, still thinking the underlying mechanics were essentially contrived at best, outright shit at worst. I don’t feel enough for the universe of the Alien films to tempt me into buying Isolation. I don’t care about Amnesia enough to keep playing (I own it, never finished it, probably never will). I definitely didn’t care for the first Penumbra (own all three, beat the first, it was rubbish, felt no desire to play the others).

        I only consider it horrific or scary if I actually care about more than avoiding a fail state. When the game is intent on convincing me that at any time it could jump out and goose me for no real reason and lose me an hour’s play or whatever, that mechanic by itself is not scary. It’s a little kid running up and kicking you, then running away again.

        The thing about Soma is anything can be interpreted as a fail state if it’s not the outcome you want, and if you give the player the ability to make significant changes within the gameworld without explicitly informing them precisely how to make those changes then a significant number of people will get angry because they feel you made them fail. But then if you inform people they have to pull lever A to see ending 1 or whatever then people will quite understandably complain you’re being prescriptive. There is no “right” way to do it, and I think writing lengthy articles on “Here’s why game A doesn’t do anything interesting with horror and why our game B will” feels kinda disingenuous when you should know that no matter how innovative you think your game design is a large number of people will get angry with game B for the exact same reasons they got angry with game A.

        • Joshua Northey says:

          I am no great lover of this genre, but I also think you are just thinking about the games too much. Almost any non-multiplayer game falls apart if you really deconstruct it, and so do many of the multiplayer ones. Hell half the computer gaming world is a dressed up “progress quest”. You are weak, you face slightly weaker antagonists, you get slightly stronger, now you face slightly stronger antagonists. It is all just pushing numbers around on spreadsheets if you think about it too much. I think you have to let go a bit and let yourself get immersed in it.

          That said like you I just don’t find horror games scary because frequently I don’t really find them believable. I have heard good things about this one though so I may try it.

  6. AshRolls says:

    The ‘frustration’ really also depends on the length of play sessions. I have really been enjoying (loving!) Alien: Isolation in small doses, long enough to get immersed in the world but not too long so that having to repeat sections after a death becomes a chore. After starting up the game the next day a section that was frustrating the night before becomes fresh and enjoyable again.

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      See I have the exact opposite viewpoint when it comes to games. I cannot quit having failed a section of a game knowing I have 20 minutes of replaying to do. When I think about starting it up again the next day it just gives me the “ugh, this bit again” feeling and I am more likely to just not play the game at all and go play something else because I don’t want to start my playsession on the same thing that frustrated the crap out of me the night before.

      There are quite a few games this happened to me with that I just never went back to, or waited months/years before replaying after I hit a frustrating section and just lost the will to load the game up again. After a week or two the prospect of going back becomes less appealing because you have forgotten what was going on and don’t care as much about the storyline.

  7. Casimir's Blake says:

    Certainly narrative improvements in gaming – in general – should be welcomed and I look forward to SOMA with interest to see what it brings to the horror table. But I do hope Alien: Isolation will convince other developers to take sound design more seriously. So many games have had generic sound effects and music that barely add anything to a game beyond “being appropriate”, but Thief, System Shock, Penumbra, Amnesia and now Alien: Isolation (particularly as one of the most important game mechanics requires the player to LISTEN) eschew this notion in favour of painting a rich audio soundscape.

    Trouble is most people are so damned obsessed with graphics, audio becomes less important. Considering how many people out there actually enjoy the likes of Adele or Katy Perry though, I shouldn’t be surprised…

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      There is also the issue that a lot of gamers are used to playing games with the TV going, or music playing, or youtube on a second screen. I’m one of these people and sound design that is integral to playing the game like in Alien: Isolation can kinda remove people from their regular gaming habits, meaning you can only focus on the game and have nothing else going on around you. While this isn’t a bad thing I can see why it is offputting to some and why it is less focused on by companies, it essentially makes it an entirely solo experience at that point.

  8. ukpanik says:

    The graphics, atmosphere and sound were great. Gameplay was poor.
    I was expecting an open design but got linear path, set pieces and forced interaction (you could watch those two guys fighting for eternity until you intervened.) Basically an interactive Ghost Train.
    I would have liked the opportunity, even if remote, of finishing the game without actually seeing the Alien. Just knowing it could be anywhere was scary enough. That would require an open design tho and brave developers.

  9. cardboardartisan says:

    Reposting my comment from the frictional blog:

    I really, really don’t like heavy branching in storyline driven games, especially of the sort that affects the ending, unless it’s done super well. Branching actually tends to exacerbate the “fear of progress loss” problem, in an unexpected way. Keeping the branching low, with consequences that become known quickly can mitigate this effect and work well, but it’s a bit of a tightrope.

    The issue is that gamers are really used to the “restart from a save if you screw up” mechanic, and death is a pretty unambiguous “you’ve screwed up” signal. But there are occasions where you can get yourself into a situation without dying where you really feel you’ve screwed up enough to want to go back and try again. This basically negates all the “progress” you’ve made since whatever decision set you on the path you don’t want to be on. In games where you don’t find out that your choices have had negative consequences until much later, it can be really frustrating. I’ve had situations where I realize that something I did an hour or two ago is going to cause the game to kill off my favorite character, and I’m choosing between letting that happen or going back and playing through that big section of the game – neither option seems very fun, so I just quit the game. In the most extreme case, you can basically feel like you need to play the whole game over again to get a satisfying outcome. Don’t do that to your players.

    In some cases, this works. I’m thinking of Heavy Rain, which is a super stressful experience, where you basically don’t get the ability to save and your choices can have massive negative consequences. It balances things out a bit by giving you a lot of characters and making it such that screwing up with one of them doesn’t tend to screw the rest over, and it’s relatively hard to get a genuinely bad ending. But I think if I had played through it and got a bad ending, I probably wouldn’t have picked it back up again, and wouldn’t have felt nearly as good about the experience I had with it.

    Anyway, you do have to be a bit careful with your branching. What you don’t want is to give the player a situation where they’re choosing between dealing with big negative consequences they’ve created for themselves or reloading from a previous point and fixing their mistake. In that case, they’ve got the stress of dealing with two bad options and that stress is coming from sort of meta-game, out-of-narrative decision making, not from features of the setting or narrative or gameplay that you want them to focus on – what they become frustrated with is your game design. This is actually a lot more frustrating than simply dying and being forced to go back, because for the player “the game” is the set of choices they make, and you’re making restarting from a save a choice and thus part of the game.

    Stealth games often have this problem, with players reloading the second they’re spotted by anyone, so they can get that “never spotted” achievement – in this case, the save/reload choice becomes a big part of the game.

    One way to mitigate this is to make the possible branches somewhat balanced – don’t make one obviously better than another, just make the payoff/setback mixture different. Maybe my choice made the lights go out in this section, but it did give me an item that I think will help later. That way you generate a kind of “that didn’t work out exactly how I’d hoped, but let’s see how this plays out” feeling instead of that “Oh, I’ve screwed up big time, I’d better try again” feeling.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      And this is partly what I was referring to in my comment above. If I were a designer, my thoughts would be – don’t like the branching path you ended up on? Tough. It should not be my responsibility to make sure everyone’s “happy” with whatever choice they made. Until you’ve got flawless human AI (and possibly fully-immersive VR) and the player can scream at the NPC in person that’s not what I mmmeant then you’re always, always, always going to make a lot of people unhappy that the game didn’t give them precisely the ending they wanted and they don’t understand how they ended up there. All you can do is write the best story you can – you can’t worry too much about making sure every last person interprets it “correctly” and gets to pick the right path from A to Z.

      What you don’t want is to give the player a situation where they’re choosing between dealing with big negative consequences they’ve created for themselves or reloading from a previous point and fixing their mistake.

      I recognise that there are solid game design principles connected to this, but it’s also the kind of thinking that leads to the cretins trying to “fix” Analogue. At some point the designer has to say that to experience their story along branch X requires mistakes to have been made, and the player has to say no, I need to stop thinking I must have the “best” of all possible playthroughs (or that they automatically know what the “best” possible playthrough even is – Shadow of the Colossus would not be a better game with the opportunity to avoid killing any of the colossi or dodging that ending).

      • cardboardartisan says:

        I see what you’re saying, and I think that the way you’ve chosen to articulate your point illustrates another important point: there are a lot of different types of gamers who want different things from the games they play. You’ve focused on telling a good story as the primary responsibility of the game designer, and sort of suggested that other things might sometimes have to be compromised to tell that story.

        I admit to being relatively far towards the other end of a spectrum when it comes to the issue of “story” in games: while I certainly don’t mind if a game tries to tell me an interesting story, I don’t think of games primarily as playable stories, and I generally don’t want the games that I play to focus too much on the story (especially not above everything else). I’m a storyteller (I write fiction) and I’m also a part-time game developer, so I love stories and games, but I recognize that often telling a good story and making a good game can require very different things that end up conflicting with one another.

        I come to games for moment-to-moment gameplay and for “micronarrative” moments: small things that are cool and unexpected, little stories that I can walk away with about what happened (whether planned by the developer or organically occurring), rather than higher level plot arcs.

        Games can be “story driven” without being too “story focused”. If the story motivates the gameplay, that can be a good thing. But if the game is just a vehicle for the story, and gameplay is sacrificed for the story, I’d rather just take the story in through some other medium and not have to suffer through annoying mechanics or the possibility that I might end up on some less interesting track.

        My point was in part just that branching is fairly hard to do in a way that doesn’t negatively affect gameplay. There are ways to do it right. One option I didn’t mention in my previous post is going for a relatively short form experience and offering a lot of replayability to explore the branches. But if you’re giving me a big AAA game, with 50+ hours of gameplay, I’m not going to want to play through it again to get the more interesting outcome, or have to be wondering if something I did a couple levels back is preventing me from getting a more satisfying experience.

        I’m not actually as concerned about the feelings of gamers who feel like they have to get the “best possible playthrough”, all achievements, whatever. But there are situations where you realize you’ve put yourself in a situation where you’re going to have a lot less fun with the game than you could have, or get a much less interesting storyline. If every branch is just as interesting, or you have the opportunity to see lots of them without grinding for hours, that’s great. But there are games where you can put a lot of work into less interesting paths, and what’s the point of including those?

        What I was worried about when it comes to that blog post is this: if you use branching narrative as a kind of “threat” to replace death, you’re almost by definition including “bad” branches. They have to be careful that they’re not using these bad branches to threaten the player with a worse gameplay experience, because if they are, they’re going to be generating a worse gameplay problem than they set out to fix. The lingering “should I reload and try again” question is more disruptive to gameplay (not to mention atmosphere and narrative) than the “die and try again” mechanic.

        • Smoky_the_Bear says:

          I actually like branching stories for precisely the reasons you highlighted as bad to be honest. Take away one of the main characters because it was an unavoidable plot point and you are just dragging me along for the ride, like a movie. Take away one of my favourite characters because of something I did myself, a decision I made, that loss becomes emotionally much more powerful. Interactivity is one of the huge draws of video games, being able to impact things around you personally rather than watching a preset sequence as decided by the writer or director is a great feeling, there is no reason why this shouldn’t apply to storyline too.

          No story should be 100% roses and kittens, there should be ups and downs, when I am responsible for those ups and downs the story will have much more impact on me. It also makes my particular story feel more unique because of the choices I made. Therefore I do not understand the mentality of going back to redo something because it didn’t turn out 100% how you like it. Processing the story as it initially unfolded and dealing with the consequences of your choices is a much more powerful experience than simply using a mulligan every time something goes wrong.

          The old saying goes “The journey is more important than the destination”, that certainly applies here, allow yourself to be immersed in the story and let it carry you through it’s ups and downs rather than constantly analysing the best case scenario all the time and allowing yourself to be frustrated when that doesn’t happen. Because a story where you are at least partly responsible for those particular set of ups and downs can be so much more rewarding than one where you have no control.

          I will say that when it comes to story, I don’t favour or disfavour it. I will happily play a game with a great story regardless of mechanics (I have a penchant for point and clickers for example). I’ll also happily play something with no story at all if it has solid gameplay mechanics, it depends what mood I’m in mostly. I think it comes down to what the game is trying to achieve.

          I don’t understand these people that will review a game and spend all the time criticising poor story when that is not the point of the game. Shadow Warrior is a good example of this, it was an incredibly well made game mechanically, the shooting/slashing is super satisfying and the game play is incredibly smooth and fun.
          I’ve seen people criticise the game for poor story and the fact you are playing a character called “Lo Wang” as the primary focus of their assessment. This is missing the point, the game is not designed for a story lover and anyone looking for such a game should stay well away. Likewise, don’t buy a point and click then bitch about it being slow and mechanically bad.

          That said I do get your point, obviously it is the writers job to make sure all paths are similarly equal in quality and there there isn’t a “bad path”. “Some less interesting track” shouldn’t exist although this is of course subjective to each individual.

          I think it also needs saying that the game should do a good enough job of making sure that the player doesn’t really know where the branching paths will lead. An example of this being Dragon Age, I had no idea when I killed Wrynn in the mage tower that she would become a playable character had I played it differently, I only found this out after finishing the game and reading it on t’internet. If the players choices are sufficiently brought to the front with other options pushed away then I don’t see the problem and if you are going through the game thinking “what if I did that instead” and perpetually resetting the game to discover your favourite outcome in every situation, you are just simply doing it wrong.

  10. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    I trust the guys who took a Wikipedia entry on “Medieval torture devices” and made it into a level in their medieval castle, to provide a truly innovative experience full of mystery. When that Iron Maiden popped open I was like HOLY CRAP! THIS GAME IS A SUCCESS!

    • Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

      Dying in a horror game? Who needs that??? Let’s have you teleport 20 feet away instead. The less “gameplay” to distract you from scripted loud noises and multi-page fanfiction the better.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        True, and at that point my standard response would be “Why play the damn thing in the first place?”. Might as well go on Youtube and find the person with the least annoying screech I can and watch them play through it.

  11. KenTWOu says:

    Would I have preferred objectives and flow that didn’t occasionally remind me of playing repairman in Dead Space? Yes I would.

    There is an article about that: Alien Isolation and in-game technology. It implies it was intentional.

  12. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Interesting article. Can’t wait to play SOMA. I was a little worried Frictional would get muscled out of sublime first person horror now the AAA studios are moving in, so it’s great to see their verdict of alien is “it’s ok, but we can do better”.

    On choice vs decisions: I finally got round to playing Pathologic last week which is a) astounding and b) the best example I’ve seen of a decision based rpg. It’s a consequences simulator. Everyday there is a huge list of very important and useful sounding things to do in the one quarantined town, but the clock keeps on ticking and unless you are super human or make some seriously lucky breaks you will never complete them all. It becomes a game about prioritising, choosing allegiances, placing selfish goals above others or vice versa. And then despairing at the consequences. It’s incredible. A game that actually treats you like an adult, not a child who can choose the ‘good or evil’ option. I know some think it detracts from a game to force the player to fail at some things but if it’s done right, like Pathologic, the carrot of success is always dangling within reach. It’s only as night falls and your character nears death from hunger and exhaustion that you swallow hard and say you’ve done all you can today. What will tomorrow bring.

    I think that’s the sort of thing Thomas is trying to get at above. Really hope the Pathologic remake does it justice, it will be a revelation to so many. Looking forward to seeing what Frictional do with SOMA too.