Four Basic Things That Horror Writers Can Learn From Classic Survival Horror Games

Well, although I had planned to write about webcomics (since I’m preparing a webcomic mini series for later this month), I thought that I’d talk about the horror genre again.

This is mostly because I’m still playing the PC port of “Silent Hill 3” at the time of writing. So, I thought that I’d look at a few things that classic-style survival horror games can teach horror writers.

1) Backstory: Even the less scary examples of survival horror games (eg: such as the original “Resident Evil) tend to include a lot of backstory. This backstory puts the events of the game into a larger context, in addition to being a potent source of horror in and of itself. However, backstories in survival horror games are usually relayed in brief and subtle moments – often with at least some details left chillingly mysterious.

Sometimes, the player will get to read a short document, but backstory will often be either relayed through a short comment when examining something or it will be relayed purely through background details. In other words, classic survival horror games provide plenty of examples of how to use the old “show, don’t tell” technique in a chilling way.

For a visual example of this, just take a look at this screenshot from “Alone In The Dark“:

This is a screenshot from “Alone In The Dark” (1992).

Even if you’ve never played the game before, you can instantly tell from the pentagram on the floor that this room has something to do with magic or mysticism. Then a glance at the skull on the shelf will probably tell you that this probably isn’t a good type of magic or mysticism. The narrow corridor outside the room and the stark stone floor also imply that the room could be a hidden room (it is!). All of these details instantly tell the audience something about the room without spelling everything out to them.

So, a few short visual descriptions that subtly hint at a much larger backstory can be a great way to add some extra horror to your story.

2) Symbolism: In many classic survival horror games, the monsters are just monsters. However, the “Silent Hill” games do something really interesting, which can be instructive to horror writers. In these games, the monsters are significantly scarier because they often have some kind of underlying theme or symbolism – which allows them to tap into other sources of horror.

Whilst the symbolism of the monsters in “Silent Hill 2” can’t really be discussed without spoiling the story of that game, the monsters in “Silent Hill 3” provide a great example of how to add extra depth, meaning and horror to monster design.

One way that “Silent Hill 3” makes it’s monsters more disturbing is through disease-related symbolism. These disease-based monsters include giant spinning mosquito-like creatures, undead nurses, bandage-covered zombie dogs and creatures that look like giant sentient tumours. Even monsters that are meant to symbolise other things still have a somewhat “diseased” appearance. This allows the game to tap into a realistic source of horror (eg: diseases) whilst still being a slightly fantastical game about a nightmare-like parallel world filled with monsters.

So, one way to make your horror fiction more disturbing is to think of a disturbing theme and then find a way to subtly hint at this through the way that the main source of horror in your story is presented.

3) Atmosphere and subtle horror: The scariest parts of classic survival horror games often aren’t the parts where a monster jumps out of nowhere and attacks the player. They are either the general atmosphere of the game and/or a few relatively subtle moments that, whilst often not directly threatening to the player’s character, help to stop the player from getting too complacent.

These can include things like a phone suddenly ringing, something scrawled on a wall, a creepy piece of background music, chaotic locations, something being subtly different when the main character returns to a familiar location etc… Although subtle moments of horror aren’t extremely scary in and of themselves, they help to maintain a feeling of suspense by creating a mysteriously threatening atmosphere.

And, yes, atmosphere matters a lot in the horror genre. Leaving aside technical limitations, there’s a reason why many classic survival horror games are set in places like old mansions, derelict buildings, coldly futuristic laboratories etc…

So, subtle horror and a creepy atmosphere matter a lot more than you might initially think.

4) Vulnerability: One of the main reasons why the first three “Silent Hill” games are a lot scarier than the first three “Resident Evil” games is because the main characters are presented as being more vulnerable.

Out of the five playable characters in the first three “Resident Evil” games, four are military/police characters (eg: Jill, Carlos, Chris and Leon) and one (eg: Claire) rides a motorbike and is related to one of these characters. In other words, they all seem like tough, fearless characters who are knowledgeable about handling dangerous situations. As such, these games are less scary.

The three main characters in the first three “Silent Hill” games are a lot more vulnerable. Harry from the first game is a father who is searching for his missing daughter. James from the second game is a bereaved man who has seen better days. Heather from the third game is a teenage girl who goes shopping and finds herself plunged into a series of nightmarish events. None of these characters have any military training or experience with weapons (and the combat in these games reflects this fact). As such, these games are considerably more scary.

So, the lesson here is that – if you want to make your horror story scarier – don’t make your main character a tough action hero! The more of a threat that your character is to the scary things in your story, the less scary those things will be.

——————

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Today’s Art (27th February 2018)

Woo hoo! Here’s the sixth, and final, comic in my “Damania Refracted” webcomic mini series. Don’t worry if you missed any of it, I’ll post a full retrospective here later tonight. Plus, you can find links to lots of my other webcomic mini series on this page.

And, yes, it has been way too long since I last made a comic about horror games. In case you’re wondering why the art in “Resident Evil” panel looks so bizarrely angular, it was an attempt at drawing something similar to the low-polygon visual style that the game’s 3D models use. Likewise, I really can’t draw Adam from “Realms Of The Haunting” very well.

But, yes, although old horror games are rarely scary, they’re one of the best expressions of everything great about the horror genre (in a similar way to horror/comedy movies).

Since this comic includes drawings of characters from various computer games, it is NOT released under any kind of Creative Commons licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Refracted – Old Horror Games Rule!” By C. A. Brown

Mini Review: “Derceto (V.3)” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/ “ZDoom” etc..)

2016 Artwork Derceto WAD review sketch

As regular readers of this site probably know, I’ve been a fan of the first (and only the first) “Alone In The Dark” game ever since I discovered it earlier this year. So, imagine my delight when I found a WAD for “Doom II”/ “Final Doom” that is based on this game.

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD, but it will probably work with most other modern source ports (except “Doom Retro”). However, it probably won’t work with the original versions of “Doom II” or “Final Doom”, since one part of this WAD requires jumping.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Derceto”:

Hmm... The attic has certainly seen better days...

Hmm… The attic has certainly seen better days…

“Derceto” is a single-level WAD that attempts to recreate the whole of the first “Alone In The Dark” game using the “Doom” engine. One of the first things that I will say here is that whilst this is a very good re-creation of “Alone In The Dark”, you shouldn’t expect a perfect re-creation.

Due to the use of the default textures and the limitations of the “Doom” engine, some slight changes have had to be made to the level. For example, it isn’t possible to have floors on top of each other – so the three floors of the house are still separated by staircases, but these are spread out more horizontally.

Still, as staircases go, this one is fairly impressive.

Still, as staircases go, this one is fairly impressive.

The famous hole in the floor is a lot less deadly than it was in the original game though.

The famous hole in the floor is a lot less deadly than it was in the original game though.

Even so, all of the familiar parts of the Derceto mansion are still here. There’s the gloomy library (complete with a puzzle), there’s the zombie-filled dining room and, yes, there’s even the underground maze too.

Yay! I remember this corridor! Best of all, the haunted paintings have been replaced by friendly cacodemons.

Yay! I remember this corridor! Best of all, the haunted paintings have been replaced by friendly cacodemons.

I'd just forgotten about THIS maze... only to be reminded of it again by this WAD. Oh joy!

I’d just forgotten about THIS maze… only to be reminded of it again by this WAD. Oh joy!

Although this area looks cooler in the original game, I'm still amazed that someone has been able to re-create it in "Doom II" :)

Although this area looks cooler in the original game, I’m still amazed that someone has been able to re-create it in “Doom II” 🙂

Although some of the recreated locations aren’t perfect, this WAD does a great job of recreating the atmosphere of the original “Alone In The Dark”. There are a couple of of creepy darkened rooms, a couple of slightly tricky puzzles and quite a few ominously gloomy corridors that help to add a bit of suspense to the level.

One problem I had initially when playing this level for the first time was that I couldn’t seem to find a way to complete it. However, after talking with the creator of the WAD (in the comments on another review) and re-playing the level (with “Pirate Doom), I discovered that there is actually a way to complete the level – however, it takes a bit of experimentation and observation to find it.

In terms of the difficulty, “Derceto” is a slightly more challenging WAD than I had originally expected. Whilst it isn’t too difficult, don’t expect it to be easy either. A lot of the difficulty comes from the fact that you won’t get any weapons other than the basic pistol and basic shotgun during the earlier parts of the level. In addition to this, there are also plenty of cramped corridors (some of which contain revenants) and at least two arch-viles in this level:

Well, it's still a "Doom II" level. So, including at least one of these creatures is pretty much mandatory.

Well, it’s still a “Doom II” level. So, including at least one of these creatures is pretty much mandatory.

In terms ot the music, I’m not sure if the background music is part of the “Alone In The Dark” soundtrack, but it’s the kind of ominously creepy music that you would expect to find when playing a level set in a haunted mansion.

All in all, although “Derceto” isn’t a “100% perfect” recreation of “Alone In The Dark”, it’s still a really cool level that certainly captures at least some of the atmosphere of the original game.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “Alone In The Dark” (Retro Computer Game)

2016 Artwork Alone In The Dark Review Sketch

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been playing the original “Alone In The Dark” recently and, well, I’m quite honestly astonished that it’s taken me until now to play (and complete) this game. Especially considering that I was a huge “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill” fan when I was a teenager.

Yes, I tried to find the demo of “Alone In The Dark” aeons ago (and may have even played a small part of it). In fact, about eight or nine years ago, I bought a copy of “Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare” but I got completely stuck on one part of it and abandoned it in frustration.

However, I didn’t really discover the original “Alone In The Dark” until a couple of days before I originally wrote this review (several months ago).

At the time, a collection of the first three “Alone In The Dark” games was on special offer on GoG. And, since I was in a slightly glum mood at the time, I decided that a horror game from the 1990s might be just the thing to cheer me up. It worked 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Alone In The Dark”:

Alone in the dark 1 leaving

“Alone In The Dark” is a survival horror game from 1992. No, it isn’t a survival horror game, it is the survival horror game!

It was the very first game of it’s kind and, if you’ve played the original “Resident Evil“, then it’ll suddenly become clear exactly where that ‘groundbreaking’ game got it’s inspiration from. That is to say, there are lots of things in “Alone In The Dark” that “Resident Evil” *ahem* borrowed four years later.

If this looks familiar, then just remember that THIS game came out four years BEFORE "Resident Evil" did....

If this looks familiar, then just remember that THIS game came out four years BEFORE “Resident Evil” did….

 Again, this game came out four years BEFORE "Resident Evil"....

Again, this game came out four years BEFORE “Resident Evil”….

In “Alone In The Dark” you can play as either Edward Carnby or Emily Hartwood. Although there don’t seem to be any gameplay differences between the characters, their backstories are slightly different. Not only does this game give you the option of choosing a character, but each character actually has a proper backstory too.

I played as Emily Hartwood, who is summoned to the mysterious Derceto Mansion after her uncle mysteriously hanged himself in the attic.

This attic. The one you're standing in right now! Don't worry though, it isn't haunted...

This attic. The one you’re standing in right now! Don’t worry though, it isn’t haunted…

The beginning of this game is, quite simply, sublime. If you just wander around the attic aimlessly and look at everything, then a monster will jump through the window and attack you. After dying a couple of times, you start to wonder whether it’s a good idea to push a nearby cabinet in front of the window. Needless to say, this does the job. So, you stand there with a smug grin on your face as the monster outside howls mournfully and claws uselessly at the cabinet.

Then, a few seconds, later, you hear a quiet creaking sound. In the distance, a trapdoor gently swings open and a zombie slowly climbs out. If this sort of thing makes you spontaneously smile or suddenly burst into laughter, then you’re going to love this game 🙂

Seriously, this scene is hilarious :)

Seriously, this scene is hilarious 🙂

Although this game is ostensibly a horror game, the passage of time has turned it into something far better than just a horror game. It’s a dark comedy game. A totally unintentional one, but a bloody good one! Seriously, this game made me smile so many times 🙂

I don't know whether I want to hug it or fight it. I love this game :)

I don’t know whether I want to hug it or fight it. I love this game 🙂

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I felt like this game had been made specifically for me. The (unintentional) humour was exactly my type of humour, the monster designs were amusingly inventive, the graphics were gleefully cartoonish, the atmosphere of the mansion was wonderfully gothic, and the horror elements of the game trod a fine line between being creepy and funny.

All of this astonishingly great (unintentional) dark humour is complimented by a brilliantly melodramatic H.P.Lovecraft-inspired backstory that is revealed through numerous documents that you can find scattered around the mansion.

If you buy the GoG version of this game, then all of these documents are also read aloud by a hilariously melodramatic cast of voice actors, who sound like they came from a vintage horror movie. Seriously, I really love this game 🙂

 *rolls eyes* It's spelled "Ia!", do you WANT Cthulhu to devour your soul or not?

*rolls eyes* It’s spelled “Ia!”, do you WANT Cthulhu to devour your soul or not?

In terms of the gameplay, I would say that it’s fairly standard 1990s survival horror gameplay but, well, this game invented that type of gameplay. As you would expect, you explore the mansion, solve puzzles, read documents and fight monsters.

In terms of the controls, they’re what you would expect. You use the arrow keys for movement and the spacebar can be used to either perform actions or ready your weapons. The camera angles, naturally, can change several times within the same room. Personally, I love this aspect of old survival horror games, but modern gamers might find it confusing.

One slight problem with the movement system is that, whilst your character can run, you have to tap the up arrow quickly and then hold it down in order to move at anything faster than a snail’s pace. Needless to say that this gameplay mechanic can be tempermental to say the least….

In order to select items, or to choose what types of action you want to perform (eg: searching, pushing, fighting or jumping), you can press “i” to bring up the inventory screen:

Yay! Inventory :)

Yay! Inventory 🙂

Like in all classic survival horror games, your inventory is limited. However, this is calculated using a weight-based system. So, you can’t really tell whether you have any inventory slots left until you try to pick something up. But, unlike “Resident Evil”, if your inventory is full, you can just drop any unwanted items and come back for them later.

Yes, it's actually MORE realistic than "Resident Evil". You can actually just leave unwanted items on the floor!

Yes, it’s actually MORE realistic than “Resident Evil”. You can actually just leave unwanted items on the floor!

Yes, you don’t have to search for item boxes to leave your stuff in! You can save your game literally wherever you want! You also don’t have to sit through an annoying animation every time you walk through a door (you just walk up to the door, your character opens it and it stays open).

Did I forget to mention that this game came out four years before “Resident Evil” did? And the gameplay is still more advanced!

There's even a hilarious in-game animation when you use one of the (scarce) health items. Again, this game came out four years BEFORE "Resident Evil". And it does everything much better than that game does!

There’s even a hilarious in-game animation when you use one of the (scarce) health items. Again, this game came out four years BEFORE “Resident Evil”. And it does everything much better than that game does!

One cool thing about this game is that you don’t always have to fight the monsters. Although combat is unavoidable in some areas, you can sometimes find another way of dealing with any creatures you encounter: Likewise, some weapons won’t always work in every situation.

Yes, if you're going to fight the pirate, you'd better use a sword. Oh, did I mention that there are pirates in this game? Pirates!!! :)

Yes, if you’re going to fight the pirate, you’d better use a sword. Oh, did I mention that there are pirates in this game? Pirates!!! 🙂

Growing up on "Resident Evil", I just instinctively drew my pistol and started blasting away fairly soon after I entered this room. When I read a walkthrough later, I learnt that there's another - sneakier- way of dealing with these zombies...

Growing up on “Resident Evil”, I just instinctively drew my pistol and started blasting away fairly soon after I entered this room. When I read a walkthrough later, I learnt that there’s another – sneakier- way of dealing with these zombies…

However, the combat system is a little bit clunky, to put it mildly. You hold the spacebar to draw your weapon and then you use the arrow keys to either aim or use it.

With bladed weapons, you can use the left and right arrows to slash and the up arrow to swing your weapon downwards. With projectile weapons, you use the left and right arrows to aim and the up arrow to fire.

Another cool bonus is that, unlike in "Resident Evil", the knife is actually a reasonably decent weapon here. You only have to hit a zombie with it four times, rather than thirty....

Another cool bonus is that, unlike in “Resident Evil”, the knife is actually a reasonably decent weapon here. You only have to hit a zombie with it four times, rather than thirty….

The main “problems” with the combat system are either aiming the guns in the right direction, or timing your attacks so that they’ll actually hit the monster you’re fighting. If you play for a while, then you’ll probably get used to this and see it as part of the game’s charm.

Not to mention that, since this is a proper survival horror game, it isn’t an action game! The clunky combat makes every battle appropriately challenging, and it reinforces the idea that you’re just an ordinary person who is trapped in a house filled with much more powerful monsters.

Plus, when your character inevitably dies horribly, you’re treated to a wonderfully theatrical (which you can skip by pressing “Esc” if you get bored of it) cutscene featuring their body being dragged through a stone corridor by a zombie and placed on a sacrificial altar. Then you are rewarded by this really cool picture:

- *Sigh* Remember when really cool artwork was actually an integral part of the horror genre? Yes, I miss it too!

– *Sigh* Remember when really cool artwork was actually an integral part of the horror genre? Yes, I miss it too!

As for the puzzles, they start out reasonably well. In fact, this was one of the things that made me really happy when I started playing this game – I could solve the puzzles on my own. However, after playing about half of the game, I started to get stuck. Eventually, I checked a walkthrough. Then, a while later, I checked it again. Soon, I found myself relying on it quite heavily.

Then again, I’m terrible at both adventure game puzzles and survival horror game puzzles, so it was really wonderful to at least get through half of the game without having to use a walkthrough. Still, I didn’t really play this game for the puzzles. I played it for the atmosphere, the exploration, the unintentional comedy and just for the sake of playing it.

As for the graphics, they work surprisingly well. For a game that came out twenty four years ago, the 3D graphics aren’t bad. In fact, they’re astonishing when you consider that most games at the time (and for about a year or so afterwards) didn’t use 3D graphics extensively.

One cool thing about the old 3D graphics is that they make the main characters look like characters from a 1990s Saturday morning cartoon. If you grew up in the 1990s, then you’ll probably find this wonderfully nostalgic 🙂

Seriously, she looks like a character from "Rugrats".

Seriously, she looks like a character from “Rugrats”.

Curses! Foiled again! And I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn't for those meddling kids!

Curses! Foiled again! And I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!

Not to mention that I absolutely love the vintage fashions in this game too. Seriously, I love the fact that -even with a relatively small number of polygons- both characters actually look like they genuinely come from the 1920s/1930s.

As for the rest of the artwork in the game, the pre-rendered backgrounds have aged fairly well, since they now look wonderfully cartoonish, rather than “realistic” . Plus, being a game from the early-mid 1990s, “Alone In The Dark” features quite a bit of really cool pixel art too 🙂

*Sigh* I miss the days when games featured awesome pixel art AND clever compositional tricks too.

*Sigh* I miss the days when games featured awesome pixel art AND clever compositional tricks too.

As for the music, it’s fairly decent. Like in many later survival horror games, one cool feature is that dramatic music will start playing whenever you encounter a monster. Plus, if you get this game on GoG, then you’ll also get a free MP3 copy of the soundtrack too.

All in all, I loved this game 🙂 If someone had made a computer game just for me, it would look like this game.

When I was a teenager, I thought that the early “Resident Evil” games were the games that defined the survival horror genre (even if I later thought that the second and third “Silent Hill” games were better). This game blows all of the classic “Resident Evil” games out of the water! Not only are the gameplay mechanics a lot better, but it’s also crammed with (unintentional) dark comedy, Lovecraftian mysteries and all sorts of other cool stuff.

If you’re a survival horror fan, you need to play this game. In fact, I’m astonished that it took me until 2016 to play it. That would be almost as unthinkable as being a fan of FPS games and never playing the old “Doom” games (which, in terms of gameplay, are still better than most of the FPS games that came after them… including “Doom 3”).

If I had to give this game a rating out of five, it would get at least five. Maybe even six.