Four Ideas for Survival Horror Games.
“Okay, this is a bit outside your remit, man. You're a review blog. For review people,” you might be saying, if you're the kind of person who reads blogs and formulates ideas about what their remits are, which I am. “Not a writing blog, for writing people.”
Which is true – although creative writing is my field of choice – but I'd say this still qualifies, because by formulating ideas that would fit within a genre, we can examine both the essential elements of this genre and ways in which the people working in it could push the boat out a little, and do so in a fun way!
It is totally not because I've not had a full night's sleep for a week, and I'm in a constant state of disorientation and confusion, and thinking critically about things is hard. That's my story, and I will clumsily shank the one who disagrees with me.
On to the ideas!
The Silver Bed.
This one is prompted mostly by Spec-Ops: The Line and Silent Hill: Homecoming. Spoiler alert, in Homecoming, you initially appear to be a PTSD-ridden soldier returning from war to find that your home has become a survival horror game, but it shortly turns out that it was all a misunderstanding, and you've never been a soldier.
What a wasted opportunity. PTSD, and the horrors of war, is the perfect grist for the mill of survival horror games. It's bizarre that Silent Hill would pass that up for a storyline that is mediocre at best.
So here's the premise: You are a young soldier returning from war. You go to sleep on your first night back, after a celebration in which a few eerie things that you put down to exhaustion happen, and wake up to find that your small, sleepy town has been drowned in sand. Or ash. It's not clear. Everybody is missing. What few news reports you can find say there was a massive dust storm.
But surprise! There are monsters that come from the sands, led by the Sandman. They have something to 'talk' to you about: Namely that you've seen or done something awful, and now that awful thing has come back to get you.
Also, survival horror games often benefit from the use of a recurring landscape element – water in Silent Hill: Downpour, ice in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Here it's sand (or ash). Slowly spreading sand (or ash). Slowly spreading and decaying everything around it.
Far more interesting than Homecoming.
I rambled about this on tumblr, mostly as a joke, and then it slowly started to formulate into something more serious. You are a husky. A voice-acted husky, although you can probably only remark 'I am a husky,' because I've always thought that given the opportunity, dogs would talk entirely in declaratory statements of painfully obvious truths. You're a husky sleighdog, and you're on a research mission up in the Arctic with your human handlers, who are archaeologists who have discovered a cool, hidden town, and it looks ancient.
But all your humans have gone missing, and because you are a good husky it's up to you to go find them. So you travel through the town, fleeing and fending off monsters that start off humanoid, but slowly become more lupine over the game, and encountering pictures and carvings depicting the Wolf God that the town's inhabitants worshipped (you can't read, obviously, so it has to be pictures).
As you discover more and more of your dead humans (who, frustratingly, cannot be woken up by dancing about them and barking), and uncover more and more of the mystery, you realise that you killed all of them. The game culminates in some manner of horrifying boss battle, but at the end, it's unclear whether you're just a delusional huskyface, or if you're under the influence of the Wolf God, or if you are the Wolf God.
The point of this, really, is that there's a certain amount of horror to be derived from taking an innocent – and nothing is more innocent than a dog – and running them through the Standard Survival Horror Storyline of 'in abandoned place, supernatural beings, oh no, you did something terrible in the past and forgot' that seems to show up everywhere. There's also a certain amount of macabre horror to taking something hilarious and ridiculous and making it was unpleasant and dark as you can.
Twelve Nights On.
A lot of these follow the old standard 'you are an awful person, and now the world is punishing you with survival horror' trope that was popularised by Silent Hill 2. There's a reason for this: I really like Silent Hill 2. But let's break away from that. Let's have something where not only are you not a bad person at all, you're not even that important in the survival horror setting.
You are a resident of Hong Kong. A very normal resident. After a car accident, you wake up in hospital, but it's abandoned and falling apart. You go outside, but Hong Kong is twisted and distorted, and everything's wrong, and monsters are chasing you. You also realise that you were comatose for exactly twelve nights, which is a little strange. You're not the only one, either: In fact, the only people who are around at all are twelve-hundred people who were all unconscious for exactly twelve nights, and have only just woken up.
Making your way through the city, you discover, bit by bit, what happened on those twelve nights, a story which includes the awakening of eldritch abominations and the end of the world, and a lot of other things that you are in no way related to or the general cause of. You also discover why you and 1199 other residents of Hong Kong are still around when everyone else has vanished. It also has nothing to do with any dark thing in your past, because the darkest thing you've ever done is that one time you broke up with somebody by text, and it was all really awkward, okay? They were a really awkward person.
A survival horror game set on … the internet.
Or an artificial reality version thereof. In this game, you are a detective in a cyber crimes division, and you have logged in to the artificial reality worldwide network called the Wire, to investigate a user-heavy server nearly crippled by odd glitches. When you get there, though, you find you can't leave – nobody there can leave. The computerised environments have been warped into fragmented, Escher-like versions of themselves, strange glitch creatures are a-roaming, and the Wire itself seems to be out to get you, digging up records of a past left forgotten in order to torment you.
Again, the idea is to twist around the standard survival horror formula. Again, you are a person with a dark secret in their past – although you are probably not a terrible person, and the survival horror-ishness has nothing to do with anything you've done, so much as it is the villain deciding to psychologically torment you -, arrived at an isolated area where you cannot return to the outside world, with forces greater than you can comprehend pressing in on you. Except that place is an artificial reality, and you are essentially exploring and being tormented by the internet.
Opportunities abound for interesting gameplay mechanics, horror moments (computer malfunctions can be terrifying even if you're not stuck inside them), and the slow, creeping realisation that outside the Wire, something horrible might be happening with your body. Also social satire, one supposes, but I've never been fond of internet-based social satire, as it's always come off as 'argh, technology! It burns!'