Friday, 30 October 2015

Competent Protagonists in Horror

Various RPGs have played with the idea of letting characters just succeed at things they "should" (in some narrative sense) be able to do. In some it's an explicit rule, in others it's GM guidance, in still others it's a product of difficulty-based modifiers as they relate to mechanical character skill.

Reading Shamus Young's latest post about horror games, I suddenly wondered whether any computer games play with this idea?

The idea that struck me was that first-person games I've seen (which is an admittedly very limited subset) seem to fall into three categories.

You've got your full-blown FPSes which aren't trying to be anything else; you've got hybrids like Mass Effect where atmosphere, conversation and exploration are supposed to be part of the game but combat is essential; and you've got anti-combat games which want you to focus on other approaches to dealing with challenges.

In the straight FPS, the emphasis is on players developing suitable skill to dodge attacks, position themselves and shoot enemies effectively. The protagonists are usually supposed to be expert soldiers, assassins or whatnot.

Although the game emphasises how badass your character is, fundamentally it's up to the player to achieve badassery by getting good at the fighting. Failed attacks are just part of the learning process. As the game progresses, the

In the hybrids, things are much the same, except there might be less explicit emphasis on badassery, depending on the character backstory. If they're going for a horror atmosphere, they do it through set dressing, themes, gore and cutscenes. The combat isn't the whole focus, so these are less inclined to set up increasingly technical tests of player skill.

The third kind I've seen in two game types: the Thief series, and horror games. What tends to happen here is that combat is actually really really hard, because fighting things is very much not how you are supposed to win. You might well have to fight things, but the designers want to discourage you from treating the game like an FPS where you mow your way through enemy hordes to victory. They normally do this in two ways.

The first is to make you really vulnerable, so that a very small number of mistakes on your part will kill you. Sometimes they couple this with a recovery system so that they can create a sense of pressure: you regularly get attacked and "badly hurt", you can recover if you flee, but trying to stay and fight will get you killed quickly.

The second is simply to make the combat mechanically hard to do well. Horror games I've actually played tend to do this a lot, so your movements are slow and clunky, the controls feel unresponsive, it's hard to aim and fire at moving enemy targets, your character gets knocked back and turned around, creatures attack from inconvenient angles, and so on and so forth. I suspect the fact that this is probably easier to program than well-balanced combat may help!

What I'm wondering is whether you could take a very different approach, and have character skill determine success while still building a horror-type game. You play, oh, Yvette McBadass, trained soldier. You find yourself dealing with some scary stuff, but although it's deeply unsetting and sometimes terrifying, that doesn't mean you forget everything you learned. The difficulty comes about in making decisions about courses of action, weighing up risks, and knowing that you can't actually kill everything yourself.

It might work something like this.

Yvette skulks through an abandoned... oh, let's say multi-storey supermarket. A grobbler slutches nearby, looking for prey. It's only a minor monstrosity. The player doesn't need to worry about mechanical skill if they want to kill it. The combat in this game is very simple: you simply move to a position where Yvette can bring her weapon to bear effectively, and the screen indicates (colour changes, icons, I dunno) that a takedown is available, and if you press Enter Yvette kills the grobbler. She's a competent soldier, and the game reflects that competence.

Maybe there are different levels of certainty: an icon that shifts from red (I can't get it from here) through yellow (reasonable shot, might wound it, might miss entirely) up to green (I can do this). Range, the target's movement, and Yvette's state of mind affect these: she can take a sniper shot on an unsuspecting target very reliably, but hitting something that's charging down on her is much harder because of the movement and the stress. But that's down to Yvette, not the player: the player just presses Enter.

The difficulty is the rest of it. How does Yvette get to a good position to take down the grobbler? Lining up the shot isn't instant, so she really wants to avoid being seen - it could rush her and throw off her aim. She could work her way to a sniping position and take it down, but that means a lot of extra sneaking, and who knows what else is lurking around? Wasting time on a safe shot might cause other problems (in the game, it should). Taking down the grobbler is reassuring, but is it better just to try and give it a wide berth rather than risk trying to kill it? Shooting makes noise, and that will attract other things. Sure, she can find a way to take down this grobbler, but what if another five come running?

This would sort of change the dynamic of the game. It would be less offputting for players concerned about their own skill: I'm pretty rubbish at FPSes, so I'm okay carefully lining up sniper targets, but terrible at jump scares and hitting anything that's charging me to rip my face off. It also offers some different story options, because when a protagonist is terrible at fighting, there's a limited set of excuses you can offer to explain why they're taking huge risks.

That doesn't need to dramatically change the nature of the game. While you can reliably kill monsters, it's still not a game about killing monsters. Killing monsters is one possible option open to you, but it has many drawbacks, requires careful planning, and doesn't necessarily help you towards your goal. To put it another way, in Deathwatch you canonically play a demigod who can reliably command just about anyone to do just about anything, plus you can reliably kill anyone who disobeys, but that doesn't make it a game about ruling over millions of Imperial citizens.

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