Sunday, 14 February 2016

Silent Hill 2: How to Design Survival Horror (Fear Itself)

Last time I talked about designing Silent Hill for Pelgrane's Fear Itself. Now I'd like to spend some time discussing what makes Silent Hill tick, and to do that I'm going to talk about survival horror as a genre.

Survival horror, appropriately enough, is a subgenre of horror in which the survival of the protagonist is what drives the narrative and provides the scares. It isn't about external threat - though there are plenty of those - but about the internal, as the vulnerable, easily killed protagonist tries desperately to exist in a world inimical not just to all life but to the protagonist's life specifically. There's a healthy dose of paranoia here, but then, is it really paranoia if the world is out to get you?

What in Silent Hill makes this apparent?

  1. Even the normal is a little weird. There's a moment in Silent Hill 2 where James Sunderland explores Neely's Bar. Like everything else in Silent Hill, Neely's is deserted. However there's an odd note painted roughly on the window: There Was A HOLE Here. Now It's Gone. The meaning of this note is unexplained, leaving it up to the player to decide just how to interpret it. However the mere fact that it exists begs all kinds of questions, the most obvious being, who wrote it? Who's supposed to read it? Is it like graffiti, a message for anyone, or was it intended for James specifically? There's nothing more normal than a bar, but adding that extra touch makes it seem somehow other, perhaps even tied specifically into the threat that may yet engulf James. This crops up again and again, perhaps best in the town itself, where you can wander the streets only to find that your path is cut off by a vast chasm. How did that happen? What kind of tectonic event can cause a rift like that, and yet leave the buildings roundabout still standing? Or what about the fog that swallows the town whole, or the way everyone else you meet seems either to accept the situation or to perceive things very differently than you ...
  2. The weird is very weird. If you play the game more than once, the characters get the chance to pick up and use different items in different ways. Often this means getting a better weapon, perhaps a chainsaw or a flamethrower. However in Silent Hill 2 James has the option of picking up a peculiar star stone which, if he uses it in exactly the right way in exactly the right places, opens up the true meaning of reality. Again, as with point 1, there's a strong presentment that these things are set here specifically for James to find, to use, to explore, further establishing the central concept that nothing happens by chance. The strange, twisted creatures James encounters are designed especially for him; they play on his frustrated sexuality, his darker side. But who or what did this? Or was it James himself ...
  3. Sure, you can find weapons, but don't expect them to help. Stick with a nail in it, pistol, shotgun, rifle; all are useful tools, but when the chips are down it won't matter what you're armed with. The real threat here is from within. That's why Silent Hill often has a suicide option as one of the alternate endings. In Gumshoe terms your dwindling Stability is the problem you'll have to manage, or die trying. 
    1. Using Night of the Living Dead as an example, although zombies are clawing at the walls the real threat is that posed by your fellow survivors. They all fight like cats in a sack, convinced beyond reason that their plan is the best plan. They have a rifle, a defensible position, molotov cocktails, and what happens? Chaos and blood, that's what happens. In survival horror if you depend on guns to see you through, you might as well climb into your grave and beat the rush.
  4. Supplies are limited. In Silent Hill the protagonist eats health packs and drug ampules like they were candy. There's never enough. You wander the streets half dead, because you only have one or two health packs left and you know, just know that you need to save health packs more than you need to actually be healthy right now. In Gumshoe, items like these might count as free Medic pools, perhaps 1 point for Health Drinks, 3 for Health Packs and 5 for ampules. Funny thing about those pools; in my experience players either consume them early and then regret it later, when they've got nothing, or they save them and save them and save them, waiting against the time when they're desperate. Which, oddly enough, is exactly how players of survival horror video games behave. 
  5. The enemy is very dangerous. The external threats the player faces are always real. There are no Mooks in survival horror. Some may hit harder than others, but they all hit hard, and you misjudge the threat at your peril. The same applies to traps and other potentially harmful situations. Stick your hand in the wrong place and you may lose a few fingers. Not that this ever stopped James Sunderland, but still ...  
  6. Everything happens for a reason, and that reason is usually bad for you. As in you specifically, not you, the abstract. This goes back to the Neely's Bar note. When something happens, when you go to a location, when you encounter a Shadow, these places, people and incidents exist because of you. They are linked to you, and often are a reflection of your mental state. As in, your rapidly deteriorating mental state. This is the polar opposite of Lovecraftian horror, in which the whole point is how powerless we are, how insignificant, in the face of cosmic forces. Nothing could be further from the truth here. In Silent Hill, and to a great degree in survival horror as a genre, the protagonist is the most important person in the entire universe. Without that person, none of this could happen. In fact, in Silent Hill there's good reason for thinking that the entire mess is the protagonist's own making.
    1. The cavalry isn't coming, by the way. If you stick yourself in a cupboard somewhere and huddle up, crying softly, waiting for the police or the army to rescue you, good luck and God bless. Just remember what happened when the survivors in Return of the Living Dead called the telephone number printed on the side of the can of toxic waste.
It's a good idea for the Keeper to discuss things with the players beforehand. Much of what's about to happen will depend on their characters, that Worst Thing they did, their state of mind, fears, and goals. For that to really be effective the Keeper needs to at least sketch out some scenes and ideas in advance. Even in a landscape as malleable as Silent Hill, it's helpful to set a few boundaries. Not unlike massive chasms in an otherwise pristine street, these boundaries funnel the character towards the desired destination.

Always bear in mind that the two most important aspects of survival horror are these:

First, it is always about the character, not the situation. Nobody cares about a zombie apocalypse if there are no brains to munch on, nobody cares about dinosaurs on the rampage if all the humans have already escaped via helicopter, and nobody, but nobody, cares about a spooky castle on a desolate peak if the protagonists skip past it and go on vacation in Monaco instead.  This isn't about sinister plots or grand Illuminati-style machinations. This is about what happens to ordinary people when plunged into extraordinary circumstances.

Second, not only is the threat real, it will almost certainly be fatal for someone. Probably several someones, in group-style play. When six co-eds vacation in that charming little cottage in the woods by the lake, it's practically guaranteed that only one or two, at the very most, will come back to tell the tale. Or to take the Silent Hill route, it's perfectly possible for James Sunderland to survive every single threat the town has to throw at him, and still have his life ruined.

Now, enough of that, I think. Next time, something completely different!

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