Narrascope 2019 - Ian Thomas - Making Horror: Hacking the player's brain!
Industry veteran Ian Thomas talks about evoking emotions in the player’s head and how to closely connect player and character together, with example from video games, immersive theatre, and LARP.
- Suggestion and atmosphere is more powerful than detail
- You can use them to charge the player's emotional state
- t's important to leave space for the player's own imagination to engage with the material
- Use everything at hand to show, or invite an attitude, rather than tell people how to feel, or think
OUR BRAIN MAKES THINGS UP
It imposes faces where there aren't any. The brain is constantly scanning the environment and trying to impose patterns on it in case it sees a bear or a saber-toothed Tiger or another person who's going to stamp you. So dark shapes in the corner of a room that we extrapolate and turn into werewolves. It happens before your rational brain kicks in and knows what to do. We're good at imposing stories on patterns and we're also really, really good at lying to ourselves.
So let's take a quick example from Alien Isolation. You’re in a room in an alien base in the game, and there's a scuttling in the air ducts up there, and then it goes over there, and then an alien drops down. Basically it’s a sound effect there and then an animation, but we've imposed a story on those fragments of evidence already. We didn't see it crawling around the tunnels, but we could imagine it's crawling along the tunnels.
|In the middle of a ghost story LARP we had somebody asleep in bed and suddenly they wake up and smell burning and this fire coming up from under the door and smoke everywhere, and the door bursts open and this floating creatures zooms into the room turns, looks at her grins and then disappears again. That’s what the player reported anyhow…as it happened the floating puppet couldn't even turn its head and it absolutely couldn't grin. But because of the player’s mental state at that point, that's what they believe they saw.
A really good lesson to draw from that is to do everything in as much darkened smoke as you possibly can.
In things like Jaws the mechanical shark broke, so they could hardly ever show it on screen, which made for a much better horror movie, than if they'd had a rubber floppy shark in every scene.
Isn’t that why Aliens is an action movie? You see glimpses of the alien through bits of smoke, the body is basically a lycra suit with some panels on It, but it doesn't matter because you see it out of the corner of your eye, and the brain kicks in. And so by suggesting and just sketching out those things, the players brain does the work for you.
e.g. So you come into a room with a smashed mirror, a hammer on the floor and some blood over there and some teeth lying in the blood. And already, we're constructing stories of what happened here and how that might have come….and there's a lot of skill in environmental storytelling, not giving you all the facts because you're jumping to conclusions all the time.
e.g. If they saw the 3d model for a creature up close, and in good lighting they would think it's utterly ridiculous and it wouldn't be scary at all, it would just be a comedy thing. And we sort of reinforced that with the whole don't look at it message. Because the player isn't playing YOUR game. They're playing a mental model of the game they've constructed in their heads.
If you can see all the detail it isn't scary, make the brain do the work.
There's a book by a guy called Scott McCloud, who draws comics about making comics. He has a theory that the magic of comics lies in what happens between two panels in a comic book. It's entirely up to the reader to generate the moment between those two panels. And so that's hugely interactive, right?
For example, Agatha Christie has a line “she was the sort of woman who wore limp dresses”, which is just a great, it conjures different images in everybody's heads. Yeah. Or somebody like Raymond Chandler with his, she was a dame, the sort of game to make a bishop kick a hole in the stained glass window. He doesn't need to say anything else.
Making the player collaborate with you in building these spaces is important because it binds them into the world and immerses them in the world. It speaks to the difference between sympathy and empathy, the difference between controlling something at a distance, poking them, puppeteering them and being that person so a lot of the things we try and do is to collapse the player character down so that if something happens to the character, it's affects them directly rather than you feeling sorry for somebody else.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
In a game we made Soma, the lead character Simon is pretty vanilla very much a blank slate because we didn't want to impose too much of a personality on him because we don't want him to be too much variance with whoever happens to be playing. Another example would be this from our job the picture the second from our game God rescue Mary, which was a Christmas ghost story.
You can make a space feel magical. We did a little bit about it in this where you step into a beautifully decorated space, and there's a fire crackling in the heart, and there's the smell and all that kind of thing. So for me, an awful lot of it has to do with with mood and setting in an environment. There are also things you can do with language with characters, you can make people pay attention to certain characters, you can do things with eye contact, you can do things with gestures, if people have come across NLP, neuro linguistic programming, little sort of mirroring actions and things you can do, but it depends on the setting. It's easier in LARP, with good actors because you can use them to build bonds with character that you might not expect and then you can rip them apart. I think it's hard doing computer games but it is possible by use of the dialogue between you and that character for example, and if you've got animated scenes.
The reason fear and horror is easier is simply because of that fight or flight kind of hardwired thing that hindbrain thing kicks in.
For years we've been running laps where we form a supporting cast, we would hand out quite detailed descriptions of who you were and where you were from your greengrocer, you hate slugs, whatever it happens to be. And then when we started doing one off marks rather than anything continuous, we provide briefs to the players because they need to arrive at some context, they need to arrive with relationships, because if they don't have those relationships, you have no drama happening. They have to have secrets, they have to have all of this stuff. And so we started writing those kinds of briefs throughout our players as well. Until I went to one event run by somebody else, which is like the fifth in the series or something and I was given some briefing documents for the character I was paying to play. And it was just unplayable. It made me uncomfortable. That was the big problem is that I thought that I might perform this thing wrong and I was paying to beat it. So what did next... We had a quick back and forth with each player, which was john the player, a gardener who's nursing a dark secret or something basic like that. And they'd say, Yes, that sounds fine. And then, not long before the event, we'd send each play an individualized pack of paper. And those papers were in game pieces of paper, they're in character props. They might be a national identity card, which has things like your name and your place of birth and your age. There might be a magazine article about you a photograph from your lover, a bunch of correspondence, correspondence from other people. And we tried to build up a picture of what it's the space that your character took up in the world. What we tried not to do is to say how your character felt about any anything here and how they felt about any of this. Which meant that, for example, in one pack, there was clearly a story thatyour character had given up a baby when she was only a teenager, understood the birth certificates and as the adoption papers and all these kind of things, but we never said why she did it. Because we're leaving gaps, we're leaving holes for the player to bring their own interpretation and make the character their own and make it feel like it's them and to try and mesh the two things together.
Which meant that they bound in much more tightly to the characters and the emotion levels were much, much higher and things happen to them. There's an interesting side effect of all of this. For a start, it's still a lot of paper, it's 43 pages, but we hope it's more of a joy opening this parcel and going through it rather than anything else.
Secondly, if you forget anything, you take it all with you and you can look it up, you can go through your old letters and check things. And the third interesting thing is it's also a blackmail material, which means you've got deep personal secrets. If somebody uncovers it, they can use it for leverage. This is partly why I think first person helps horror quite a lot. Because you can't see behind the character, you're inside the eyes of the characters. Something's happening behind your ears and sound is massively important. But it's it's not just a case of being the player character. It's also the player experience.
For example again, when we were first developing Soma, the lead character spoke quite a lot to call attention to things we wanted to call attention to, for example, you would go into a room and he would go, Oh, look, there's a body in the corner. And you get this weird disconnect between the npc and the player. And so what we did was simply remove those lines and highlighted those things in other ways, and it worked a lot better.
SHOW WITH CONTROLLER FEEDBACK
It applies to things like control systems too. One of the games, you have a character who is trying to crawl through an electrified fence or a barbed wire fence, and you press one button, and you have to duck down and you press another button, then you have to bring up your neck like this. And then, and by the time you've got all the controls, Masters, your hands are kind of mashed in this weird shape around the controller. And there's so much tension built up here. And that's exactly what the character is feeling. They're completely tense. And in that situation, you've got this wonderful physical feedback loop, which is a really hard thing to do in games.
Even things like Rumble, because if you do it right, people won't even realize that they're feeling feedback through their fingers. It's just a kind of direct thing happening to them. And that’s the best thing.
We don't want the players to be thinking about our game as a puzzle. We want the players to be thinking about it as a horrific experience with a real creature in it. And again, that's partly about obscuring things, hiding things.
I’ve been to games where we've had weird ghostly effects, and a referee standing in one corner with a speaker. And that's just no good for emotion. Whereas if the mysterious noises are coming from nowhere, then that's fantastic. Similarly, if you're doing some ridiculous vision or trick, something like a floating creature or something like that, you don't want people to see the wires.
SHAPE THE PLAYER’S EMOTIONAL STATE
The best trailers get you into the right mental state to see that movie. The classic example of this is Hitchcock. When psycho first came out he issued a little booklet, which is how to survive your viewing of psycho. And he told everybody that there were two paramedics on call in the cinema in case anybody had a heart attack. Of course, it was all fiction it was just to get people in that particular mental state. You see the same in Disney as the huge build up to ghost train rides that kind of thing.
We call that crossing the threshold. It’s like going through the door, like going to an escape room. So the room has flickering lights and slightly cracked patina windows….So it can go into your box art. It can go into your advertising campaign, it can go into whatever you're doing at your stand at your convention. It can go into your UI and a great example of that is this game, Dead Space… So Isaac's oxygen meter and his health a part of his suit. They're part of the world. They're not floating above and out of the world. They're not numbers popping up on the screen. But this bit is cool, which is when he's using menus it's a hologram protected from his suit. And the cool thing about that is when you've got the menu open, it's real time and you can still be attacked from behind. So you can't be safe just by hitting escape.
In horror, it's not only about those moments of jump scares, the moments where something leaps out and you kind of leap out of your skin. What we tried to do is consider what happens when the player puts the controller down and is lying in their bed. What thoughts can we put in their head at that point, because those are far more effective long term,
So …a 1950s themed event. Players arrive at this lodge at the end of the road. They're normal 21st century people at this point. And they are greeted by some of the crew of the game. And they get changed into their 1950s outfits. And this just in the background, a doll kind of musical tone playing in the background, some sort of low level Horror Music without really paying attention to it. And as it gets dark, I take each of them individually into a room just to make sure they're happy with the characters happy with the rules, happy with how the game is going to work. And then I get each one to draw a card from a deck of Tarot. And they take the card and they look at the cards and show me the card and I write it down, had no meaning whatsoever, nothing to do with the game whatsoever. It's just starting to make them wonder about their fate…. And the second thing is I get them to stand up against the wall, close their eyes, and I take their photograph with a bright flash. Again, absolutely no reason for that in any way at all. But I had people coming to me afterwards going, I thought I was going to find my photograph in a morgue or something like that. And it's just to try and sort of push them gently from one side to another to get them to the point where you throw them into the game. And the point we throw them into the game is when they’ve been driven up by car from the local station but there's flooding so they have to get out of the car and they have to carry their backpacks themselves up into up into the dark woods. It’s night-time and as they walk up the through the woods in a small groups kind of five or six people, there's mist rising around them from the trees because of course, the special effects department are out there, creating some fog. And they meet somebody on the road who's a servant from the house carrying a lantern. And they lead them through the darkness to an entirely darkened house because there's been a power cut. And so they're led into this dark house. And they leave their bags in the hole and they join the growing group of people in the front room, and then it's a Christmas ghost story. So the front rooms actually done up pretty nicely. We've got sort of Christmas essense in there, we've got mulled wine for them to drink and they're sort of gathering there. But the rest of the house around them is dark and just as they're sort of settling into things a servant will come and tap them on the shoulder and say, Excuse me, madam, your rooms ready, please come with me. And we take that individual player out. And we take them with one small candle and we lead them by the most secure route they can possibly find through this ancient sprawling manor house up to a room somewhere we'd leave them with that candle in that room in the dark on their own. Of course, we set dressed all those rooms. And most of those rooms are connected in some way with a ghost to their theme. They've got things like the, the, the happy couple, or you open your wardrobe and there's a whole pile of photos, which are a shrine to a 1930s, movie star, all these kind of things. So that's, you know, the House did an awful lot of work for us anyway, just because of its character. But the second thing is they find their luggage has been unpacked and put away. And this is interesting for a bunch of reasons. Firstly, it reminds the player of the genre that they're in and how it works. And then they need to start following those rules, because that's the sort of thing that happens in that house. At that time period, it puts them into that mindset.
It's also a violation for the character because if you remember, they probably have a bunch of blackmail material in those bags, which we gave them earlier, and who knows what the servants saw. So it puts them on edge.
So it's a really interesting way of getting them just on the edge of jumping at shadows just on the edge of feeling uncomfortable out of their depth before we start throwing ghosts at them, and we didn't actually throw ghosts at them until I think the next day there may have been a few spooky noises. But one player left that first night because he couldn't cope with the the levels of fear.
STAGE WAR STORY MOMENTS
For lots and games these days, it comes back to this thing that I call war stories, which is what do you want people to be sitting around talking about in a bar after your game is over what do you want them to be telling other people about for years and years about this thing that happened and happened to them? Things like that moment where Hulk punched Thor, you know, we have these moments where people are going, did you see that bit where is great, but it's so much better when it's personalized. And it's a personal experience, partly because they love telling it, but partly because those tales grow.
You don't need everybody to see them actually. In fact, sometimes it's better if only a few people see them because the stories are so much better than the thing that actually happened when you get right down to it.
So we do a lot of our design around these things.
If we're working with three musketeers source material we ask, what makes you feel like a musketeer? What would make you feel like you could become a musketeer? Is it the moment when you are dueling the Cardinals gods and there's 50 of them and you can drop a chandelier on somebody's head? And if we can find ways to allow the players to have those moments, whether they're deeply scripted set pieces, or whether they are built into the rule system for them, so that they might happen, or whether we just leave the ingredients for that thing lying about
for it to happen, then that's brilliant, we've won if they come out, having experienced any of those things was make them feel at that.
It's an opportunity for moments and that's how we build our LARP games.
And it's also how we design some of the computer games that I'm involved with. At that point we can look at act breaks and rise and fall. But they're all built around these pillar moments. If the connecting material is great, that's fantastic. It really raises the bar for the rest of the game. But if all you have is the connecting material, you don't have those pillar moments, nobody will remember your story and the thing that you may and in a more traditional story format could be things like a major reversal or a twist, or it could be a hugely emotional moment between two characters. It doesn't have to have explosions. It just has to be a twist.
And to do this, my best advice is use everything that you have you sound smell, use graphics, use your cover art, use your PR emails that go out to people, badges, whatever you can, music.
Thomas, Ian. 2019. Narrascope 2019 - Ian Thomas - Making Horror: Hacking the player's brain! edited by Narrascope 2019. U.S.: YouTube.
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