Horror Game Development – The Setting
Right, let’s continue on to our settings for the two games, and a bit about settings in general.
Setting is very important for games, because unlike books you can actually see things in a game. So if there is any one thing you want to really put thought into, it’s you settings. Which like everything else, should always serve a purpose. Usually by creating tension or apprehension in your players. Again, if you haven’t gone through the material in Horror 101, you really should. You are missing a lot if you don’t.
But will recap some of it here.
Basically the formula for horror is this. You make your player uneasy by presenting them with something creepy. You then create dread by forcing them to do something relating to the creepy thing they wont want to do. Like going from a creepy light hallway into a creepy dark hallway. Or just opening a door if you have given them a reason to not want to open it. You can then either use something alarming like a noise to keep increasing the tension, or go right into a scare to release it, creating fright.
For example, in Toxic Dawn they have to go into a building. It’s an apartment building. Which means walking past a lot of doors, which could have an infected person behind them. This is creepy. In order to progress they have to actually start opening those doors, which creates dread. Dragging things out for a bit and using the occasional noise to alarm them, we eventually get to the place where they just know there will be a big bad jump scare, and don’t do it. Then a bit after that we have an infected person open a door and attack them.
Which should be about 2/3rd the way up into the building. Which means we can do the same thing all over again. First give them a bit of breathing room, but they will be experiencing terror at this point because they now know their fears are justified, but now there is no obvious threat, so they are left with just with their apprehensions and worries. Let that build, throw in some sounds and fake outs, then hit them with an attack or something to frighten them, maybe have them fall through the floor of a room instead of just tossing another crazy plague victim at them.
Have them wounded and clothes torn, then they have to navigate back down through the building with infected people having heard the crash and come out to investigate. Which is more of a run and hide situation.
Take away something that made them feel safer in other words. Which is why I like mixing up game play. For the first part they have protection and can fight, in the second they are hurt and have become far more vulnerable, so they have to sneak and hide. We can exploit different sources of fear that way, instead of just doing the same thing over and over again.
In this case, the setting doesn’t have to look scary per se.
What’s scary is all those doors and not knowing what might still be alive behind any one of them. It’s also scary having horrible things happen in ordinary places, that everyone is used to. Most of the locations for Toxic Dawn will be perfectly every day, but have really terrible things going on in them. It’s a jarring clash.
Now, for Hunter Haunted, we can use everyday settings, and really creepy fucked up ones. I am seeing a central hub location, like an office, where the PC works from. They then go out on cases from there. Sort of like the Ghostbusters HQ in that game. Then each quest will take place in it’s own location, which can be pretty much anywhere. Since a lot of the game is going to riff on other movies and games, we can do all sorts of homages. A cabin in the woods setting, an insane asylum, a haunted hospital, a morgue, a cemetery, a library, a museum, a castle, a sewer, a haunted house, a haunted mansion, a hotel, a rural motel, an apartment building, a run down factory, etc.
Each area will have it’s own monsters, and challenges to deal with. They will be able to bring a limited amount of resources with them on each quest, based on the info they get before they go. Once that’s gone, they have to use what’s available at the location. It wont always be obvious what is useful, and they will have a limited amount of storage. Limited to what a person could realistically carry and be said to be mobile.
The main difference is that with the creepy settings, we start with a setting that creates unease from the get go. IE, you show them a really creepy looking place, then make them go into it. Then have it be just as creepy on the inside as the outside.
Here is a list of some creepy settings, and why they are creepy.
Hospitals: They make people think of death and sickness. Plus there are all those doors, and you have no idea what is behind them. New, really clean hospitals feel unnaturally sterile, while old hospitals tend to have a weight to them. It’s like all the years of death, dying, sickness and pain leave a pressure. Not everyone feels like that, but many do. There is also something about even crowded hospitals that makes you feel isolated and alone, and if they are empty it is even worse.
Seeing places empty that you are used to seeing lots of people in is always creepy.
Asylums are creepy for the same reasons.
Cemeteries: They make people think of dying, and you can’t see behind the grave stones. Lots of places to hide.
Hotels and Motels: Again, long corridors with lots of doors are inherently creepy. You don’t know what’s behind the doors, and in large hotels you can’t see around the corners in the hall ways. The decor is usually strange, despite being chosen to try and make people feel comfortable. You know other people have slept in that bed, and done who knows what in it. But at least the sheets are clean… right. Much like hospitals hotels and motels have histories, and we all know this. The older they are, the more lives have passed through them.
Motels have the addition of being cheaper, tending to be more run down, and in often less pleasant areas.
Let us also consider that what’s outside can make a big difference. At least in a temperate area the cold, bare trees and dryness of late autumn and winter is creepier than the wet, green or spring, and warmth of summer. Days are also longer in the warmer months, shorter in the colder months, meaning the cold months have more darkness.
A lonely country or mountain setting is creepier than the middle of a city, and there is nothing creepy about a beachside resort. Well, not for most people. Which would make it a good setting if your goal was to contrast the pleasant setting with horrible events.
Apartment buildings hit some of the same triggers.
Cabins in the woods: Any place that either is, or gives the impression of being, isolated away from civilization. Most people that play games live in communities, so any setting that takes them out of their comfort zone away from other people is creepy.
Sewers and Basements: Any place that creates feelings of claustrophobia and being cut off from the outside is creepy. Being up high in a building actually has the same effect. Basically any place that a person can’t just leave has a creepy quality. But you have to keep association in mind, what settings make people think of, what they associate with them. Sewers make people think of waste, filth, disease and bad smells. Basements, unfinished ones at least, also often have odd smells and the exposed pipes and such.
Libraries: Any place with lots of rows of shelves, or twisting corridors is vaguely creepy because you have to walk around corners a lot. You don’t know what’s around the next turn, which makes it creepy.
Museums tend to have lots of twists and turns, as well as all those old artifacts. Statues in the dark can be very creepy.
Places like department stores can be very creepy when dark or abandoned. You have things like mannequins, all those shelves and such.
Decay and Old Places: It makes people think of aging and dying. Plus people tend to dislike run down things. Sure, lots of people like things like old gas station signs. But no one likes stopping at a run down gas station in the middle of the night, on some lonely back road. Even if they are perfectly nice, just old, they still feel creepy.
Places we are used to seeing bright, shiny and showing signs of life just look creepy when they aren’t.
Unused Factories: Any place that was built for a purpose, but now it’s not being used and is creepy. Again, it’s just one of those weird psychology things. It’s like the abandoned town thing. We are used to seeing people in towns, so a run down ghost town is creepy. Likewise a factory or industrial park that was made to be used for something, that is sitting unused is dead in a way. Which makes it creepy. Also applies to houses and any other building really.
You can mix and match any of these broad concepts. An abandoned hotel combines the creepy elements of a hotel, with those of an unused factory. And of course they might have to go down into the basement.