Defining Horror, with Tomm Hulett

Defining Horror’ is our new series that explores the creative minds behind the horror games that we love. Each entry in the series will share new aspects of the creative process, shining light on a developer’s idea of what makes a quality horror experience, what elements are integral to a horror game, as well as what goes into effectively making an impact on the player. ‘Defining Horror’ is a series that aims to give gamers insight into what the horror genre means to those who have developed or are developing horror games.

Below you will find Tomm Hulett’s definition of horror.

Name: Tomm Hulett
Company: WayForward
Title: Game Director
Past Projects: Silent Hill: OriginsSilent Hill: Book of Memories, Persona 3.
Current Project: Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon because I DON’T KNOW!

Back in the day, I remember reading that RPGs were the most difficult type of game to create. That should probably be qualified as “good RPGs are the most difficult type of game to create”, and I’d hazard a guess it had to do with the number of characters needed, all taking part in a gripping story, with events and gameplay that are inherently linked, and engaging numbers behind the whole thing so you can’t get too overpowered but don’t have to spend 20 padded hours grinding. Of course, this was circa 1995 and Survival Horror as we know it hadn’t yet caught on. If asked today in 2013, I wouldn’t hesitate in declaring Horror the most difficult type of game to create (good horror, of course). I base this assessment only partially on my history creating games in the genre, but also by looking at the industry as a whole and seeing how few horror games get made, and how previously successful horror franchises turn into action games that play out like bishounen riffs on CoD’s zombie mode.

Honestly, on paper, Survival Horror is a bad horse to back. You can count the RE-makes and SH2’s on one hand, while the genre’s also-rans number much, much higher. (And even among the successes, only the good RE’s could actually be considered successful compared to other genres.) But why’s it so hard to make good horror?

To me, good Survival Horror is about mind games. To scare the player, you have to understand their emotional state. And, since every player is different and could be sitting down to play for four hours or fifteen minutes, there’s only one way to do that—direct them into a specific state yourself. The original Silent Hill blinds you, forces you into an alley where the camera does an impossible tilt before the world melts and knife children murder you, whereupon you wake up and a cop gives you a gun. …And then a freakish monster busts through the window. Konami had most people with the fog alone, but the creep show progressed, point by point, until everyone was on board. That “jump scare” worked, not because jump scares are scary (they’re not!) but because players felt the roller coaster drop was finished and they were on the ascent, safe, ready to explore for real and defend themselves eventually… maybe after finding some ammo.

This sort of emotional control is why Horror games should cling to save points like a life raft; in our auto-save world, it’s impossible to know when the player is resuming the action. How long will it take them to ease into the atmosphere? Did they quit and rejoin mid-action sequence? How much of a reminder do they need to start having fun again? With typewriters and little red squares, the designer knows exactly when the “sequence” begins, and can neglect save points until after the payoff (or better yet, to set up an even bigger payoff).

Every element of the game needs to be a tool in the successful horror designer’s toybox. Character design, abilities, combat, controls, save points, camera angles… Survival Horror games need to understand game design and work to subvert it. Game mechanics are the only common language gamers have (seeing as they come from many different countries, religions, economic backgrounds, and two or more different genders!), so that’s where the horror needs to start.

Which brings us to the first element of Horror that is “so hard to do” – breaking the rules. Any good game designer learns, or better still, simply understands “the rules” at a base level. What are the most engaging ways players can interface with the game environment? What obstacles do they face, and how can they overcome them? What should good controls feel like? How much hand-holding should the game provide? How can story be effectively conveyed? This type of stuff is in a designer’s blood, and if he’s lucky, the blood that pumps through his development team.

Survival Horror design is sweet poison in that bloodstream—or it should be. It needs to decay those design fundamentals so the end result isn’t afraid to punish its players, betray the mechanical expectations they didn’t even know they had. Don’t provide ammo when they’re going to need it—put it behind a fence so they’re keenly aware they don’t have it. Take away their visibility, purposefully yank the aim camera, whatever—break the rules. You can’t shock somebody with a game that massages muscle memory

Which isn’t to say just make a crappy game and declare it a horror masterpiece—like grammar, you need to know what you’re doing wrong and have a good reason to do it anyway. The original Silent Hill used fog to severely limit the player’s vision because it provided extremely brief glimpses of the danger all around the player, and forced them to explore to the edges of the world due to poor Harry Mason’s inability to see inches in front of his face (but mostly to hide the PS1’s pitiful draw distance).

But subverting common tropes is only half the mind games recipe. While a general common experience can be assumed, we haven’t all played the same games and internalized the same mechanics. A good horror game needs to also break its own rules. Which, naturally, requires that it establish rules in the first place. The player needs time to sink into the world, adapt to its ambiance, and (presume to) understand what makes it tick. This doesn’t have to mean “give them peaceful explore time before jacking it to hell” either. To steal an example from Brian Gomez, the first window in RE2 explodes with crows. Any time after that, when the player walks past a window, they tense up and fully expect avian horrors to emerge. It doesn’t happen again—but the fear is established. Windows become a symbol of danger. That’s an established rule that is broken to great effect.

This can be especially fun with sequels betraying their precursors. The long hiking path that kicks off Silent Hill 2 is atmospheric and sort of cool if played in a vacuum—but if you played Silent Hill 1, with creatures bleeding out of the fog all over the place, and every noise being certain death, the weird rustling and growls that pursue James Sunderland create instant, gripping paranoia.

Establishing rules takes careful planning during development. Ideally as each mechanic is defined and designed, so are 10 or more ways to exploit or subvert it. Environments are conceptualized with full window dressing, built around the flow of fear and building up to the next scare. Really, the designers should be able to mentally play the game before a character model is even moving around gray boxes. Unfortunately most game development cycles don’t work that way. Mechanics are designed, levels are built, and then polished as much as possible, with fear and the finer details slipped in if there’s time.

To condense this ridiculous rant into a paragraph, Survival Horror means mind games—and mind games involve broken rules. This is why the really fantastic horror games are mainly coming from the indie space at the moment. Indies have the passion and time to delicately craft an experience that manipulates the player (and lower overhead means they can profit from the niche audience). Not only will a large team struggle to break the rules they’ve internalized; even when a developer “gets it”, the more risk-averse departments tend to squash quirky design as sales projections and focus tests predict grim results.

But that’s how horror films generally play out as well, isn’t it? The lower budget, passion-run films have all the real scares and surprises, while mainstream studios pump out safe gore fests each Halloween to profit off seasonal trends. Perhaps that’s just the fate of horror as a whole. In which case, I’m glad indies are getting more and more of a voice in the greater industry discussion—it means more Amnesias, more Lone Survivors, and heck even more Papers,Please.

- Tomm Hulett

  • The Sullivan

    Tom Hulett defining the horror genre looks extremly ironic to me.

    • Tomm Hulett

      You should give it a read and let me know what you disagree with. I’d be interested to hear it.

      • The Sullivan

        Is just that I don´t see any concordance between the things you did in your games and the things you said in the article.

        • Tomm Hulett

          That’s kind of what I was saying. Over a hundred people made those games. I was only Producer on 2 of them, and even then the Producer is not “God” (I did not choose BoM’s genre, for example). I won’t go into examples of what I did vs. what I didn’t do (since every time I do, the Hate Squad rushes out to accuse me of revisionist history) but the interview above reflects my views on Survival Horror. (and for what it’s worth, so do Blaustein’s and Barlow’s Defining Horror interviews).

          There you go.

  • Brandon

    Who said Tomm Hulett was defining the horror genre again? Sounds like one guy’s opinion, and one I happen to agree with.

    • Adam Tierney

      I agree, great read!

  • drachehexe

    I like his statement regarding save points. As a player who extremely hates autosave and not having the ability to save exactly when I want it’s good to understand that they are intentional and used to help keep the pacing smooth.

    • http://relyonhorror.com/ CJ Melendez

      I wish the telephone booths were savepoints in Downpour. Like calling Murphy’s wife and leaving her messages from prison. That would have rocked.

      • drachehexe

        Never got to play Downpour, I am an PC gamer exclusively…I haven’t touched a console game in years.

  • Nyar

    Sounds good overall but I gotta disagree with the save points thing. I think static save points just leave too much room for potential frustration. One thing I love about Silent Hill 2 and 3 on the PC is that you are allowed to save anywhere. So you can just stop and leave. This only improved my experience.

    Another example is Amnesia’s Save and Exit system. The game is consistently terrifying but you never have the chance to lose progress upon death nor do you have to worry about where to save.

    • drachehexe

      Yeah, I hate it if you can’t save where you want, but generally that developed because game designers get stupid when it comes to where to put them and when. I recently played through Borderlands 2, Metro 2033, and Assassins Creed III and thought their save systems were just horrible.

      If they were done right I could probably live with it, but very few games ever done it right.

      • Rourke Keegan

        I prefer a save-station system, but I think the point is that checkpoints kill the shit out of tension. One of my biggest issues with RE5 was that there was a checkpoint every five feet or so, and you could seriously quit whenever you wanted, buy some f.aid sprays, and go back, because you JUST checkpointed. It makes the game pitifully easy, even on the hardest difficulty, and removes the tension that older horror games have.

        • Nyar

          I think Resident Evil 5′s problems with horror extend well past its save and checkpoint system.

          Again, just using games like Amnesia as another counter. Mechanically, it is an extremely easy game to complete. And you never have to worry about losing progress when you die. Yet a lot of people agree it’s a damn terrifying game.

  • Slick JMista

    The title of this article is incredibly oxymoronic.

    • Tomm Hulett

      Like I already said – read the article and tell me what you disagree with.

      • Slick JMista

        I don’t really care about what you have to say… Your games have already spoken for themselves.

        • Tomm Hulett

          Ignorance is mad edgy.

          • Slick JMista

            ‘Denial is a river in Egypt’.

            Is this going to be one of those conversations where you ‘beat around bush’ and ‘pass the buck’ when it comes to the abject obscurity of Silent Hill these days, or is it going to be one of those conversations where you try desperately to claim full credit for the tiniest positive things that can be said about the deplorable games you’ve worked on?

  • TommHuletHater

    Says the designer of Book Of Memories :/
    Not all people are born to make horror games.

    • Adam Tierney

      Actually, I handled most of the design on Book of Memories. Can I get a little hate over here, too, please? :)

      • Slick JMista

        How does it feel to know that your game was single-handedly responsible for putting the final nail in the coffin for the Silent hill franchise? I suppose that’s an accomplishment of sorts for you as most of the fanbase have been praying for this for a long, long time.
        How are the sales of BoM coming along by the way?
        Need me to donate for your Kickstarter projects?

        • Adam Tierney

          I wouldn’t personally consider the bitter SH fans “the fanbase.” It’s an angry, vocal minority compared to everyone that actually purchases the series. And if those fans hate really interesting titles like Shattered Memories and Downpour, then I don’t think there’s really much hope for them to every be happy with another SH game (even if the beloved Team Silent were to regroup to produce it). To ‘pray’ for a series to die really makes no sense to me, because there’s always the option to simply not purchase the games that don’t interest you. I don’t know why a series must cease to exist to satisfy a certain cross-section of fans.

          As for BoM, I’m very happy with a lot of what’s in that game. Obviously it got a fair amount of hatred from the angrier SH fans and some press, but that was been predicted a mile away. I do think that, considering the parameters of what was requested for the game (endless dungeon crawler, iso perspective, auto-generated stages, 4-player multiplayer) we did a pretty solid job. But I’m sure you would disagree (whether having played or not played the game). And that’s fine – we knew going in that there was gonna be a lot of hate surrounding this one. But the team had a fun time making it, and I’m proud of the final product. :)

          No idea on BoM sales (as the dev, we don’t typically have access to that info). But yes, I’d love it if you contributed to our Kickstarter! :D We love making original games like Shantae at WayForward, and I’m very excited to see how this new game turns out!

          And apologies for a bit of snark, but wouldn’t the final nail in a coffin always be put in single-handedly?

          • Slick JMista

            Whatever helps you sleep at night.
            P.S there’s a clear and logical reason for the hatred of the post Team Silent games. They are bastardizations of the source material ( your game being the best example) and helmed by people who lack the vision and talent to do justice to it.

          • Adam Tierney

            I respect your opinion! Sorry the game we made doesn’t appeal to you.

  • TommHuletHater

    Thanks for killing Silent Hill

  • Jordan Goodeye

    I think the Tomm Hulett hate is ridiculous. The man is a fan of the series just as much as anyone else. He has his own opinions and has a right to voice them. If anything, he went the extra step to try and keep the series going and keep making games that are like the ones he loved. He doesn’t have all the power and he isn’t solely responsible for the quality of a game. You can dislike any game you like, but don’t spew cynicism and hate towards someone who is just working to create something they love.

  • Gast0n

    This interview leaves me a bitter taste, I agree 100% on what he says yet I wish that he could have implemented maybe a 1% of this into the SH he was a producer.

  • Max

    “play out like bishounen riffs on CoD’s zombie mode”

    I’m sorry I didn’t get this. What do you mean by it?

    “The original Silent Hill used fog to severely limit the player’s vision
    because it provided extremely brief glimpses of the danger all around
    the player, and forced them to explore to the edges of the world due to
    poor Harry Mason’s inability to see inches in front of his face (but
    mostly to hide the PS1’s pitiful draw distance).”

    Yes, and it’s this idea. Being scared by the “unseen” is what made Silent Hill special on its own from other amazing horror games like Resident Evil.

    But you guys honestly killed that atmosphere in Silent Hill games like Homecoming, Shattered Memories and Downpour were bodies are being sliced in front of our faces like a Saw movie and instead of, for example, hearing the sound of the chainsaw cutting the bone along the screams of the person without needing to see it.

    There is a scene in SH3 HD were Harry’s face is visible…in that scene, it was not meant to be visible back in the PS2. That, among others have sadly ruined the experience of the games. I honesty can’t believe you we’re not able to fix these glitches. I’m not a programmer but I don’t think it’s that hard. Or even glitches of Downpour, I can maybe the problems that comes with HD edition games, but not Downpour’s glitches.