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False Starts: Why Silent Hill Downpour’s Opening Is a Poor Tutorial

A part 1 examination of the beginning of Silent Hill: Downpour, and the difficulties of teaching players how to play a horror game.

Game Developer, Staff

April 4, 2012

5 Min Read

“Our intent was that the player would just hit an enemy, then run off and wait until the danger was over. We had a clumsy combat system, non-practical weapons…it turns out, that if you give the player the opportunity to kill something, they will. If only armed with a puny little hammer versus a huge demon dog, the player will still try to bash his brains in. Either the player finds a way to abuse the system, killing the enemy and diminishing the fear, or they’d keep dying, and get angry and say the combat sucked, and the game sucked.”                                                                                                                               —Thomas Grip  
Director of Amnesia: The Dark Descent

 What you just read was the director of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, talking about his team’s decision to eliminate combat from their game. This quote has been running through my head quite a bit after recently finishing the latest Silent Hill game, Downpour. The title got reamed in the press for (mainly) what was considered poor combat that made many sections of the game unduly frustrating.

However, I don’t think that is the real issue. In fact, it seemed obvious to me that the combat was intentionally designed to be difficult and unwieldy in some very creative ways, but the developers failed to explain to players that combat is an absolute last resort, and the game’s opening sequence exacerbates this problem.

In the excerpt above, Thomas Grip states that when combat was included in Amnesia they found players would approach enemies with the intention of fighting much more often, even though the system was not designed for that. And of course, we are to blame.

After decades of combat-centric titles, we’ve led players to believe that if we put a weapon in their hands, they should be able to kill something with it efficiently and expertly. The player’s negative response to the combat is based on the belief that they should be able to handle any adversary that comes their way. In essence, ineffectual combat is equated to a design flaw, as opposed to a deliberate decision.

With Downpour, you have a fighting system clearly designed to be difficult and ineffectual. The player can only carry two weapons at once (one gun, one melee), and your hand-to-hand weapons degrade rapidly and then break. With a gun, Murphy’s aim is shaky at best. You cannot move and guard at the same time, and you can generally only block one enemy at a time, or others will swarm and rip you apart. Ammo and medical supplies are scarce, and one enemy can be a challenge to overcome.

Meanwhile, you can generally outrun most of your pursuers given a little time. It would seem Vatra did everything they could to inform the player that combat was not the optimal route through the game, though it was not perceived this way. Part of it is the simple expectation that comes when combat is a part of the game ( the aforementioned  quote on players being trained to destroy threats) but the other is the way it’s presented.

Where Vatra stumbled—and where many developers should pay attention—is in the game’s opening moments. Downpour, while having a fantastic beginning from a narrative perspective, misleads the player when it comes to the gameplay, outlining an experience vastly different than the rest of the game.

The problem? It opens with a fight scene.

While stabbing a man to death in a prison shower is a gripping beginning, filling your head with questions about your character, it incorrectly teaches the player how to approach the game.  Why?  Because fighting is the first thing you learn. You don’t explore, you don’t solve puzzles, you don’t manage supplies, you don’t go through a scare sequence—you kill a man.

And however poor the combat system was purposefully designed, by opening with a fighting sequence you align in the players mind that fighting is one of the main pillars of gameplay. We have been trained to learn gameplay elements in the order of importance—whatever you do first, you’ll be doing for a while.

By structuring this opening, fighting takes precedent over many other aspects of gameplay, making players think it is the “right” way to get through the game ( even if only on a subconscious level), and hindering many newcomers from enjoying the experience.

Let’s look at some other game openings for comparison. Take Half-Life 2. Billed as a more cerebral first person shooter, the opening of this game doesn’t even given you a gun until nearly 90 minutes in. Until then, the game emphasizes narrative, exploration, light puzzle solving, and throws in one hell chase scene to keep things interesting.While shooting is a major component of the game, many more of the levels revolve around navigation/puzzle solving than you’d think. Hell, the final two levels have virtually no traditional shooting whatsoever. And in starting like this, the player is prepared to not have an experience like every other first-person shooter.

Conversely, an action game like God of War opens with a massive, spectacular action sequence.In God of War 3, the entire first level is prolonged, multi-stage boss fight designed to throw you in and teach you the combat mechanics. In addition, the fight sequences are broken up by some light platforming and puzzle solving, so when those elements become more prominent in the game it’s not jarring.  Each title encapsulates its elements in the opening, in specifically the order of how much you’ll be engaging in them.

Downpour doesn’t, which to those new to survival-horror could be damper their enjoyment of the game.  Silent Hill 2 did a much better job at opening—the first 40 minutes are primarily exploration, narrative, and puzzle solving. By the time you fight an enemy, the town is completely overrun and you have no health items to keep yourself protected. Therefore, you learn that combat will not be the most effective means through the game.

However, that’s only a small part of the problem. Horror games have always had difficulty with keeping combat systems functional yet not overpowered, and next week I’m going to take a look at different ways several games tried getting around problem so that players feel threatened but unencumbered by poor design.'

Stay Tuned for Part 2

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