What Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs Can Teach Us About Video Game Design
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs released yesterday. I've already finished playing it (given its length, that's not as much of an accomplishment as one might expect). After having some time to look back on my experience, I've come to conclude that it stands among the finest survival horror games I've ever played.
No, I'm not just fanboying, nor am I measuring it based on its not-inconsiderable pedigree. I admit that the game's far from perfect - it's much too short, and fraught with a number of graphical and gameplay bugs. At the same time, I must acknowledge that The Chinese Room did with their game, the techniques they used to frighten players; these are vital components in the design of any survival horror game.
In short, anyone who's thinking of making their own horror game would do well to take a look at Machine For Pigs. It provides a rather brilliant example of what to do - and what not to do - if you want your players to be well and truly terrified. Here's just a few lessons that can be learned from the game:
Interface And Immersion
Machine For Pigs differed from The Dark Descent in a number of different ways. Chief among these was the fact that many of the systems present in the previous title were pared down or removed altogether. There is no inventory system. There is no health indicator, no stamina meter, and no need to keep track of your lantern oil (Oswald Mandus's lamp is electrical). In short, save for the journal interface, there is nothing separating you from the game.
This was, I understand, a conscious choice on the part of the developer, in order to help players further immerse themselves in the game. The more immersed a player becomes, the more easily they can be made to experience fear. When you design your interface, be sure to ask yourself whether or not it could be better streamlined to draw people deeper into the game.
Sound And Atmosphere
A Machine For Pigs had one of the most phenomenal soundtracks I've ever experienced...yet it didn't actually have a great deal of music. What it had instead was a rich collection of ambient sound, all designed to bring players to the edge of their seat with anxiety. Nary a sound in the game was pleasant - even the organ in the church had a menacing, frightful sound to it.
What was masterful about the sound wasn't the effects - distressing though they were - but the way in which they were used. The Chinese Room combined the distressing sound with a sinister environment to create a feeling of constant menace; one which featured a slow-build up of tension that never seemed to release, even when the monsters suddenly started appearing.
The Less You See, The Scarier It Gets
Towards the end of Machine For Pigs, you saw more and more of the creatures you'd been encountering throughout. While this served to have a rather profound psychological impact on the player (at least, it did on me), it also served the secondary purpose of making the monsters considerably less intimidating. Rather than some huge, formless mass that was trying to kill me, I simply saw a collection of sad, malformed experiments gone wrong.
Likely as not, that was a conscious choice by the developer. That might not work for everyone, and the early segments of the game drove home the old adage "less is more."
It's something a lot of games - and a lot of movies - don't ever really seem to get: the less you see of something, the more terrifying it is. Your mind fills in the blanks, often defaulting to the worst explanation or description possible. Darkness works wonders for that, and don't underestimate the power of subtlety, either. Avoid too many jump scares.
For me, some of the most frightening parts of the game weren't when I was running from the beasts - it was towards the beginning, when the game spent a full hour taunting me with the notion that something bad was about to happen...
Then nothing did.
Preying On Primal Fear
The loss of one's mind. Missing children. Darkness. Grotesque, inhuman monsters with voices that somehow sit on the threshold between man and beast. Rivers of blood. The thundering sound of a massive, alien machine in a dark enclosure. A sense of deep, abiding isolation. A close brush with the madness that any man could easily descend to. Encounters with beasts before which we are little more than insects. These are just a few of the deep, primal fears that A Machine For Pigs taps into.
If you're going to design a survival horror game, the best way to do it is to think about what scares you - I mean, what really, truly scares you. Call to mind the most frightening images and ideas you can, and start jotting them down. Eventually, you should have the beginnings of something grand.
You can get your copy of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs on Amazon here.