I’ll tell you one I kick myself for not really doing but it takes some setup.
I’ve been messing around in game development since 1999 or 2000, mostly fangames at first but about ten years ago I finally started inching my way towards original products. That’s because, in 2002 or so a friend needed isometric sprites for a project he was working on and asked his friends to contribute because it was a parody game about the community we were all in.
I got him his sprites, but I made a little minigame out of it. I took zombie sprites from Diablo 2 and sounds from Resident Evil and I mixed them all together with hand-made headstones and fences in to this small maze. After I gave him his sprites I continued to poke at this little maze game I’d made and I sent it to a few more friends to see what they thought of it, but one of them told me something unexpected: it scared them.
It scared them?
It wasn’t my intention to scare anyone – zombies were just a generic enemy, there was barely any gameplay, but somehow I’d stumbled upon creating a creepy enough atmosphere that I spooked a friend of mine.
But what is scary? How do you define it? For the next five years, I tried to figure this out. I thought hard about what “scary” is. The end result came out in 2005, my first original game, called “The House.” Downloads aren’t available anymore because it uses a lot of stolen assets (I didn’t have confidence in my own abilities), but some people have told me it’s a legitimately scary game and that’s because it heavily leans on the unknown and the unpredictable. It’s a fairly generic setup: you are investigating a haunted house and there are a lot of scary set pieces.
The catch is that none of the game is scripted. I’d learned about how narratives build up to a climax so I ended up implementing a dynamic system where every room had multiple kinds of scary events that could happen, and the player had free reign to explore at their leisure. Think of it like Left 4 Dead’s AI director, but instead of controlling how many zombies you face, it controls what happens in a given room. Maybe you just hear creaky floorboards, but as the invisible tension meter raises, maybe chairs start to move. A television you passed in one room has turned itself on. Knives fly off the kitchen counter. Hallucinations. You are either killed by the ghosts, or you figure out the secret to escape.
For the record, Left 4 Dead came out in 2008. My game had an AI Director three years before theirs did.
The problem: the game was in 2D. It was still isometric. I was big on “connecting” the player to the gameplay on screen. When you started, it asked you for your name, and that would even be incorporated in to the gameplay. Immersion was key. But that’s hard to do with sprite art ripped from Zombies Ate My Neighbors and a top down, third-person camera.
So after “The House” came out in 2005, I began writing a design document for a bigger, better, more robust version of the same concept, but this time, as a first person game. This was right at the start of the big ghost hunting TV craze, so I wrote it up as you being a cameraman for a small news station sent out to the local haunted mansion in the middle of the woods. You were to shoot a puff piece with a snide reporter. “We go in, I pretend to hear all these spooky sounds, and we dub it all in during post. It’s what everybody does. Easy money.”
Of course, that wouldn’t be the case.
All the tenants from The House would be present – you’d be free to explore the entire mansion with no clearly definable path, and as you played, an invisible director would ramp up the tension and the scares. The camera gimmick meant your hands were always occupied and you had to rely on your partner for environmental interactions. They’d also be your connection to the world; they’d comment on things the player couldn’t experience, like smells and the feel of texture. I’d even written scenarios where maybe your partner panics and starts acting as if they’re hearing things that aren’t actually audible to the player. But the general idea would be to never fully commit one way or the other if it was something actually supernatural in order to keep players guessing (and maintain a suspension of disbelief).
I’d also envisioned other ways to draw the player in to the world. I envisioned it as a Half-Life 2 mod so I could have access to their Havok Physics engine just for environmental interaction. I’d also thought of many more events, like a pseudo-branching pathway system where the game gave you free reign to tackle a situation multiple ways but wouldn’t necessarily convey to you that you were making a choice (an early one is that the game would start with you and your partner in a taxi that was to drop you off at the mansion; your partner would prompt you to pay the driver and either you could walk up and press the use key to pay him or you could just book it and run without paying)
I’d actually written a somewhat meaty design document, with basic puzzle mechanics and a narrative flow that would eventually leave the player character feeling totally hopeless, but I never developed the skills to create 3D maps or models. Even now, I still haven’t learned. So, the design document got filed away on my computer for “later.”
Seven years later, we enter the new horror game renaissance. Games like Slender and Outlast nail the feeling of being a cameraman who can only witness the horrors unfold before them. At some point, I remember reading an article by the developers behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent, describing their methods for creating a spooky game, and I thought “Wow, we came to some of the same conclusions” for how to do horror.
Today, I still haven’t learned 3D modeling and the horror game ideas I stumbled on some ten years ago are starting to feel a little played out by other developers who got to them before I could.