Three Things Artists Can Learn From Old Survival Horror Videogames

Well, it’s been a while since I last wrote an art-based article and, since I’ve returned to making more imaginative art (on a semi-regular basis, at least), I thought that I’d look at a few things that old survival horror videogames can teach artists. Although I’ve almost certainly talked about this topic before, it’s always worth returning to.

If you’ve never heard of survival horror videogames before, they were a genre of horror videogame that was popular during the 1990s and the early-mid 2000s. They were games that used a third-person perspective and had slightly more of an emphasis on exploration, atmosphere, storytelling and/or puzzle-solving than on combat.

Notable examples of the genre include games like “Alone In the Dark“, the first three “Resident Evil” games, the first three “Silent Hill” games and the “Project Zero”/”Fatal Frame” videogame series.

And, if you take artistic inspiration from them, you can make dramatic art that looks a bit like this upcoming digitally-edited painting of mine:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 25th June.

So, what can old survival horror videogames teach us about making art?

1) Perspective and composition: One of the interesting things about survival horror games from the 1990s is that, due to technical limitations, they would often use pre-made 2D backdrops rather than actual 3D locations. What this meant was that the game’s “camera” had to remain in a fixed position in each location (since the background was actually a 2D image). Yet, this technical limitation proved to be one of the best parts of these games. But, why?

Simply put, game designers of the time had to use this limitation to their advantage. In other words, they had to use perspective and composition in interesting and dramatic ways. Here’s an example from “Resident Evil 3” to show you what I mean:

This is a screenshot from the 2000 PC port of “Resident Evil 3” (1999).

Notice how the “camera” lurks far away from the main character, creating a sense of both impending danger and of being an insignificant part of a large uncaring world. Likewise, notice how some dramatic flames and burning pieces of wood have been placed in the close foreground, adding depth to the image and also “framing” the image slightly. All of these things were conscious creative decisions that give this moment in the game a little bit more atmosphere.

In other words, old survival horror games can teach us that both perspective and composition are integral parts of any painting or drawing. When used creatively, they can add instant visual interest and atmosphere to a piece of art.

2) Altered familiarity: If there’s one thing that made old survival horror games so eerily dramatic, it was that they would often take familiar locations and turn them into something a bit more dark and twisted. This contrast between the familiar and the unfamiliar is designed to evoke something that Sigmund Freud called “The Uncanny” and it not only adds instant atmosphere, but it also allows for a lot more visual creativity too.

In addition to the post-apocalyptic settings of “Resident Evil 3”, one of the best examples of this can be found in another horror sequel called “Silent Hill 3“. This is a game that will often take familiar locations (eg: subways, shopping centres, hospitals etc..) and turn them into something eerily terrifying. Here’s an example:

This is a screenshot from the PC version of “Silent Hill 3” (2003)

In this scene from “Silent Hill 3”, an ordinary location (a subway corridor) is turned into something much creepier through the addition of things that you wouldn’t expect to see in this location. The incongruous piles of old junk not only evoke a feeling of dereliction and decay, but they also present a menacing barrier to the player too. Likewise, some faded/dried blood spatter on the wall also helps to add to this sense of menace too.

So, if there’s another thing that old survival horror games can teach artists, it is to be a bit more creative with “familiar” locations. Whether you’re trying to add a sense of ominous horror to your artwork or whether you just want to add some quirky and comedic stuff to your art, don’t be afraid to be a little bit creative with “familiar” locations.

3) The lighting: You knew I was going to mention this. But, it’s worth mentioning anyway. If there’s one visual feature that really makes old survival horror games stand out from the crowd, it is the lighting.

In order to create a dramatic atmosphere, these games were usually either set at night or in gloomy locations of one kind or another. What this meant is that the designers could use lighting creatively. Not only do the dark backgrounds make the lighting stand out even more but it also means that the lighting can be used to draw the player’s attention to particular areas of the picture. Here’s an example from “Resident Evil 2”:

This is a screenshot from the PC version of “Resident Evil 2” (1998)

Notice how most of the foreground is shrouded in shadows, yet the stairs and the corner of the walkway are brightly lit. Not only does this add some visual interest to the picture, but the player is also quite literally being invited to “go into the light”, since the area you’re supposed to walk to (eg: the end of the walkway) is the most brightly-lit part of the picture.

So, what can we learn from this? Simply put, in addition to making sure that 30-50% of the total surface area of your picture is shrouded in gloom (so that the lighting looks more vivid by contrast), it also reminds us that lighting should be used to direct the audience’s attention towards interesting or important parts of the picture.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Some Thoughts On Creative Disappointments

Yes, I know, I can't draw Pyramid Head very well...

Yes, I know, I can’t draw Pyramid Head very well…

Sorry for yet another rambling article that starts off with a seemingly irrelevant topic but – shortly before I wrote this article – I learnt that “Silent Hills” has been cancelled (and, yes, these blog articles have very long lead times).

Normally, I wouldn’t be bothered by something like this, since I’m something of a retro gamer. The most modern “Silent Hill” game that I own is “Silent Hill 3” and I actually played this in 2004, only a year after it’s release. Back in those halcyon days, I was actually vaguely up to date with current gaming.

To say that I’m behind the times when it comes to gaming is something of an understatement – but, hey, gaming is a ridiculously expensive hobby these days and old games are just better (eg: there’s less intrusive DRM, they’re sensibly-priced, they’ll actually run on my computer, they have more challenging gameplay and there are mods instead of DLC).

Even though “Silent Hills” is a game that I probably wouldn’t have got round to playing until sometime in the late 2020s, it’s cancellation still seemed like a massive disappointment. And, well, this made me think about creative disappointments in general.

If you create things, you’re going to get disappointed occasionally. It happens to all of us. In fact, it happened to me twice during the last few days. I’d made two really cool skeleton-themed paintings and I was going to make a third one, but it failed miserably and I ended up abandoning it halfway through making it ( it’ll probably turn up in my next sketchbook post, I guess).

Likewise, I’d planned to make another comic featuring the characters from “Diabolical Sigil” (and “Damania“). This was going to be a “roaring twenties” wordless novel-style comic (eg: Roz would be a communist agitator, Harvey would be a gendarme, Derek would be an office clerk and Rox would be a femme fatale). I’d sketched out ideas for about the first four pages but, when it came to even making the cover – all of my enthusiasm for the project just evaporated.

My worst creative disappointment in recent years happened last spring when I’d planned to make a full-length graphic novel, based on an unpublished sci-fi/horror novella I wrote in 2010. This project started off absolutely brilliantly and it was going to be the kind of “serious” comic that I’d been meaning to write ever since I got into making comics. Here’s another “never seen before” page from it:

"Ephemera - Page 22" By C. A. Brown [2014]  (Unfortunately, this isn't the page where someone's head explodes or the surreal dream sequence featuring a burlesque cabaret, but I should at least pretend that this is a blog for general audiences.)

“Ephemera – Page 22” By C. A. Brown [2014]
(Unfortunately, this isn’t the page where someone’s head explodes or the surreal dream sequence featuring a burlesque cabaret, but I should at least pretend that this is a blog for general audiences.)

But, for a number of reasons, it failed miserably after 22 pages. In fact, it was another year before I even attempted to make narrative comics again. But, I learnt a lot of valuable lessons from this failed project – namely that I only really work well on short comics (that I can finish in 3-4 days) and that, if I’m making a comic, then it’s easier to make it in black and white.

And, well, as painful as creative disappointments can be – they exist for a reason. They exist to teach us more about ourselves and about our craft.

Like any type of mistake, we can learn a lot from our creative mistakes and our failed projects if we take the time to look at them closely and work out what exactly went wrong.

Doing this requires a certain amount of emotional distance, so it’s perfectly ok to wait until several days/weeks/months/years after your crushing disappointment before you look at it closely and try to learn from it, but you must do this at some point. After all, it may well prevent your next project from becoming another disappointment.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

A Geeky Way To Beat Writer’s Block (Plus An Exclusive Drawing)

Yes, "Silent Hill 3" was the last "Silent Hill" game I actually played.

Yes, “Silent Hill 3” was the last “Silent Hill” game I actually played.

Well, yet again, I’m going to have to start an article about writing fiction and/or comics by rambling about videogames for five or six paragraphs. And, like with yesterday’s article, there’s a very good reason for this. Plus, in case it gets boring, I’ll also include an exclusive drawing too.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I saw some gameplay footage of the demo of the latest “Silent Hill” game and I was seriously impressed by it. It was dark, it was atmospheric, it was surreal and it was genuinely creepy.

For a short while at least, it actually made me feel kind of bad about being a retro gamer – since this was actually a good modern game and I didn’t have anything current enough to play it on.

My amazement at this upcoming game was compounded when I found some wonderfully unsettling, disturbing and nightmarish concept footage for the game on Youtube. And, then I vaguely started to feel in the mood for writing some horror fiction – but I couldn’t come up with any good story ideas, so I just made this creepy drawing instead:

"Horror Doodle" By C. A. Brown

“Horror Doodle” By C. A. Brown

Just as I was finishing this drawing, I suddenly realised something interesting – I didn’t want to write a horror story, I wanted to make the next “Silent Hill” game. So, I asked myself “If I was making a Silent Hill game, what would the story for it look like?”

Within less than a minute, I’d already scribbled a short plot summary in my sketchbook. Although it involved the haunted town of Silent Hill, the central themes in it were very different from the themes that usually appear in a “Silent Hill” game.

In fact, I realised that – with a few alterations – my idea for a “Silent Hill” game might actually make a very interesting stand-alone horror story, with no connection whatsoever to “Silent Hill”. That is, of course, if I ever get back into actually writing fiction again….

So, why is any of this relevant to you?

Well, if you’ve got writer’s block, then it can be a good idea to take a look at your favourite film, game, TV and/or movie franchise and ask yourself this simple question: “If I could make a new addition to this series, what would it look like?

Just think about it for a second – if it’s something that you really love, then there’s a good chance that it won’t take you too long to come up with a few ideas of your own. After all, you’re thinking about something that has fired your imagination and fuelled your daydreams for years.

Not only that, there’s a good chance that whatever story idea you come up with will contain a lot more of your own imagination than you expect. After all, you are a different person to the people who created your favourite things and your imagination is fairly different from theirs.

Now, of course, you could just take the easy route and just start writing fan fiction. But, let’s face it, you won’t be able to publish this properly and it’ll be seen by many readers as a “second-rate” type of fiction. So, what can you do to make sure that your great new idea isn’t wasted on a fan fiction site?

It’s simple, see what you can change about it in order to turn it into something totally new and original. And, yes, you will probably have to change a lot – literally all of the settings, characters, backstories etc… will have to be changed for starters. Not only that, it’s generally a good idea to make more changes than this just to be on the safe side.

Ideally, the only thing that you should keep is the basic skeleton of a story idea (eg: “this happens to the main character, which means that…”) that you came up with when you started this exercise. Everything else should be new and original.

And, in case that you’re worried that this is “cheating” – it’s been done before by famous writers and in famous movies. I mean, the excellently creepy “Final Destination” horror movie series emerged from what was originally going to be a script for an episode of “The X-Files” and, of course, E. L. James’ badly-written “Fifty Shades Of Grey” novel started out as a piece of *ugh* “Twilight” fan fiction.

So, whilst this technique may or may not lead to you writing good fiction – it will at least give you a story idea or two. Plus, it will save you from having to resort to writing fan fiction too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂