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SOMA's Grip On YouTube Screamers, The Future Of Horror

Creeping With The Fishes, Pt 2

I played Amnesia: The Dark Descent spiritual/ghooooostual successor SOMA, and it didn't really do it for me. That said, Frictional creative director Thomas Grip's plans for the wetter-is-deader stroll into the maw of madness are quite interesting, though whether he can pull it all off remains to be seen. Today we continue on from our previous discussion, pushing doggedly forward into Grip's plan for possibly the longest build-up (five hours!) in horror gaming history, YouTube culture's effect on horror, procedurally generated scares and why they both aid and mortally wound true terror, modern horror's over-reliance on samey settings and tropes, and where Grip sees the genre heading in the future.

Agree or disagree, the man has some extremely illuminating perspectives, and you can't fault him for wanting to break away from the played-out influence of his own previous game. It's all below.

RPS: Would you say SOMA is less focused on individual encounters with monsters and monster-like substances?

Grip: Yeah, totally. From a sort of PR standpoint, when you’re talking about a game, it’s easy to say, oh, there are going to be monsters. I can talk about tons of monsters because it’s easy to talk about monsters without spoiling anything, just sticking to that mindset. It gets harder to talk about the other stuff, even though the other stuff is the important part of the game. There’s going to be monster encounters. People are going to run around screaming and make YouTube videos of that stuff.

But that’s just one of the things that we have. It’s one of the elements that we want to use to lead up to a greater whole, and hopefully that greater whole payoff – which is going to take a few hours of the game for you to really get into – is going to be a hell of a lot more disturbing than just having a monster breathing down your neck. If we can pull it off. We’ve had signs that we’re moving in the right direction here, but we’re not going to be sure for a while.

But yes, there’s going to be a larger payoff. This is going to be a horror game, but it’s much more about… There’s going to be puzzles too. There’s going to be environmental understanding and things like that. Enemy encounters are not going to be our focal point for the game. It’s just that that’s an easy thing to point out when you’re talking about the game. There’s a greater, big picture, holistic design thing that’s really our big purpose for the game. I can talk more about that if you want to.

RPS: So it's more focused on exploring themes, then? Things like consciousness, which you've been pretty vocal about?

Grip: Yeah. The thing I’d been thinking about a lot is, could you have a game that tells something interesting to the player about being a sentient being? Being conscious about yourself. Could you do that? What interests me about consciousness, which has been a hobby project for me for the last half of my life, is just the idea that… You have certain subjective experiences. You can’t doubt that you’re having them. You’re sure that you’re having them. But you can never make someone else convinced that you really have these experiences.

As far as we know, at least it seems like this in theory, we can’t just divide our brain down into the smallest pieces and find something that explains these subjective experiences to us. It lies at another level, or perhaps it lies as another substance, a soul or something like that.

What I didn't want to do is have a game where you just had a data dump, where you had the characters constantly babbling about different philosophical questions and whatnot. But we wanted to have something where the game makes you bring this up from within. The parts that you played in the game, this is where you seed the player with different questions. The robot that you encountered in the first place, that’s a seed. The different audio logs of the dead people, that’s a seed. The other creatures that you see later on, that’s also something that we start to build up.

Then, later on, we can hopefully use that [in some really crazy ways]. It’s risky. I know that some people are going to play through the game and not have… They’ll say, that wasn’t anything special. Others, hopefully – and this will hopefully be the majority – are going to say, oh shit, this was really freaky, I never thought about these things in this way. I don’t want the game to pose these questions to the player directly, but it’s something that comes up from within.

That’s the sort of grand plan with it all. I think it’s going to take four or five hours to really play out - which is more than half of the game - for this to really take hold of the player. It’s very tricky to get the hang of it. You have to go a bit on your gut feeling when you’re trying to steer the path for this. But that’s the grand thing that we’re after with this project.

RPS: I feel like Amnesia ended up finding a lot of fans from that YouTube culture, from people who really wanted to post videos of themselves getting scared and stuff like that. Do you think those same fans will give this game a chance, even if its buildup takes a whole lot longer?

Grip: Our goal is not going to be to make a boring game, where you go through four or five hours of boring shit and then you finally get to some payoff. It’s going to be an Amnesia-like kind of game from the get-go. It’s just going to expand upon that experience and become something else. You can just play the game and have a fun monster experience. It’s not entirely what we’re aiming for, but the foundation of that experience is there. It’s crucial that you have that experience, like we talked about before, where you’re trying to second-guess where the monsters might be in the environment. It’s crucial to have that sort of experience to get to this other level. So yes, it’s definitely going to appeal to those players.

I think that most people who enjoyed Amnesia are going to enjoy SOMA as well. But our main angle when doing this is going to be this secondary layer. Also, it’s closing in on five years since we released Amnesia. There’s been tons of these experiences already. You’ve had Slender Man and all these other games that seem to be coming out, that have this theme where you’re chased by monsters and you’re running away screaming a lot. I think that many of the people who found that fresh, when they were playing Amnesia, might not find it so fresh four and a half years later on, depending on when they played Amnesia.

My hope is that these players are going to be looking for something new – what’s now new in horror – and that’s the sort of experience that we’re trying to provide. It just doesn’t feel like a good idea to make a game just like Amnesia, where we have tons of monsters and the player runs around screaming. I don’t feel like that’s the right way to progress from Amnesia.

RPS: Going back to that notion of horror games getting very popular on services like YouTube, that’s a recent trend that’s really taken off. It’s been interesting to see the genre evolve in response to that. A fair number of developers said, let’s go more procedural, let’s make the worlds more randomized so people can still play them and keep getting scared. How do you view that situation? Do you think it’s a good direction for horror to take?

Grip: It’s a double-edged sword. If you make it procedural, there are interesting things to do with it, because you can have discussions with other players – how did your round go? – and that can scare them. There’s something coming up soon, but you don’t know exactly when, so you get this procedural anticipation from just discussing with your friends about it.

It’s also cool with procedural, because you can possibly make games that are an hour long, that are very focused experiences, but if you have that procedural element, then [games can be shorter and more focused on replayability]. Each time you learn something new about the story. I guess that each playthrough in, like, Daylight is going to have new enemies and stuff like that popping up in various ways. All that is cool. You can build a lot of stuff.

But the thing you’re missing out on… In order to have really good horror, you need to have the player’s imagination start running wild. In order to have a really interesting imagination, that sort of mind model for the player to use when you’re evaluating the game, you need to have proper backstory, interesting events in the world and so forth, that build something up for the player to project into. If you just have a sort of random world, then there’s only so much to leverage. If you have the same backstory in this random world, the player’s going to make the same projections. They’re going to know when this sort of mind model starts failing, very quickly.

What I think is the really interesting part of horror, when your imagination is doing the most work, that’s going to disappear fairly quickly. You can still have the jump scares and the anticipatory scares and those sort of things, but they’re going to be very systemic in nature. You’re not going to have, as I said, the scenes with that guy standing and looking at the window and you’re wondering what the fuck is going on here. Those sorts of things are not that simple to get.

I think that from one standpoint, you can make a much more interesting horror game if it’s only meant to be played once. We used a lot of random events as well. In Amnesia, there’s tons of randomness to the insanity. It’s very hard to walk through the entire game getting all of the content the first time, because there’s tons of random stuff that only happens under certain conditions. The reason why we have that random stuff is not because we want the player to do many playthroughs, but because it should fit with their particular play style in the right way. For instance, if the player happened to run through a room three times, then a specific event should happen, or the chances of that specific event happening should increase.

That makes it more interesting for the player, even though they’ve run through that same room several times. You want to have the player adapt, in a way, and using randomness is something that we’ve found is a nice way of doing that. If you try and script it too much, you get into some fine-tuning problems. Randomness solves that in some weird ways for you.

I think what we want to focus on is these sorts of single-playthrough games, because that’s what we’ve done in the past. It would be interesting to explore the other one, but I think right now we’re better at doing what we’re doing.

RPS: I feel like horror is in an interesting place with the types of games that are coming out right now, but they still tend to stick to a series of genre tropes. Many of the settings are kinda same-ey. Even really good games, like Outlast, you were in an asylum, which is hardly unexplored territory for horror. Why hasn't there been a horror game set in, like, a really gross restaurant chain or a really weird Vegas club or a jazz festival gone mad?

Grip: First of all, I don’t think that tropes are necessarily bad. In SOMA we don’t have many tropes to rely on, and it’s been a problem, actually. Especially when we did a vertical slice a year ago. Some of the testers had a really hard time just figuring out their role in the world. I sort of feel like, in hindsight, we should have perhaps had some more tropes. In Amnesia it’s easy. You have amnesia and you’re in a spooky castle. Players have seen that in movies. It’s easy to play along with.

In this game, the setup is a little bit more complicated and unusual. People have a harder time grasping it. So tropes are not bad. I think the main thing that I would like to see more is not so much horror removed from tropes, but tropes being used in a gaming sense. Oh, you’re in an asylum and there’s monsters running around. That’s what’s expected. It’s not very interesting. It’s more interesting if you’re in an asylum and there are normal human beings there. I think it’s Section 9, or some other asylum movie? That was pretty great. It was just about the drama that surrounded the different characters. In order to make the next level in horror, it’s to go with that sort of drama more.

Right now we’re sort of in the slasher horror genre in games. You’re just running from evil dudes or evil monsters. It’d be nice to move away from that and get into something more like Omen or Exorcist territory, where you have a very normal situation at the start, with normal people, that escalates gradually throughout the movie and eventually reaches a crescendo.

Ringu was another great example of that. It also just escalates the story. The whole movie builds up to this scare at the end. There’s a lot of room to explore there for horror games, trying to do that sort of thing. I don’t recall any horror game projects that try to do something like that. It’s a very primal, get to the action as soon as possible kind of thing.

RPS: All of that in mind, what do you think the next step for horror is? Or do you think that there’s a bunch of next steps that are already all happening at once?

Grip: Obviously there’s a bunch of different steps. Back to the whole normal thing, one thing that interests me when you compare games to movies is that in movies, you can sort of doubt that there’s a haunting going on. A door opens for no reason? There could still be a natural explanation for that, which builds a bit of tension. But in games, if a door suddenly opens, you think in terms of systems and whatnot. I have a hard time imagining that a player would think, oh, that might have been the wind. They’ll just assume, nope, supernatural elements here I come. You lose some of the horror.

It would be interesting if you could go back to that a bit, so the player just starts thinking, is there really something here? They could have this complex mindset, this diverse mindset about the situation in the game. They’re actually going to consider that there might be a naturalistic experience in the different events that occur. I think that’s very interesting territory to explore. I’m not sure how you would go about doing that, other than that it’s going to involve tons and tons of buildup. But that would be an interesting route to take.

Then there’s also co-op horror. That’s very interesting. It’s something I haven’t seen, but one idea that’s been on my mind and that I’d like to try some time in the future… A sort of ghost hunting game, where you enter a mansion and you have different specialties. Someone’s the camera guy. Another is the medium. Another is the reader of ancient symbols or something like that. You have a very focused single-player experience or something like that.

Think about Left 4 Dead, but without any shooting. That would be really cool. I would love to see that explored somehow. If no one’s doing it, we might have to do it ourselves.

But that would be interesting. We’ve seen asymmetric multiplayer in horror. There are some projects coming in that vein, where one player is the ghost that’s doomed to haunt the place, and the other players are the ghostbusters or the victims. But they’re still reliant upon the old primal stuff. It’s fresh, but I feel like you could go even further with stuff like that.

There are also some interesting things in just an ARG-like thing. There were some games in the past, in the mid-‘90s, where they could call your phone in the middle of the night and things like that. I’m not sure who would want that. But it would be interesting to explore around that. Since then, our lives have become so digitalized that you could potentially do stuff like that – have ghosts popping up in your Twitter account. That could be really freaky. I’m not sure if it’s the best thing for some more mentally unstable people, but it’s interesting, what you could do with that. So that’s just some ideas off the top of my head, as far as where horror could go in the future.

RPS: Do you ever prototype out things like that to see if they work?

Grip: No, I don’t have time. I sort of hate myself right now because of that. SOMA is taking so much time. We’re going to try and make games faster in the future. Four and a half years… It just slowly devours and drains you. So I really hope we can get this out early next year. But I do write things down and try them out in my head. That’s about all I have time for. I’m a very focused person in that regard. If I’m reading a book, I have to read that whole book before I read anything else. I’m the same with game projects. I have to finish what I’m doing before I can start something else.

RPS: Thank you for your time. Now get back to work! (Kidding.)

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