The Gamasutra Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.
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WHO: Jordan King, creator of Black Eyed Priest Games
Hello! I'm Jordan King, creator of Black Eyed Priest Games. I currently live in Louisville, KY with my wife, three cats, and one pit-mix who believes he is our son. I started seriously pursuing a game developer career after a brief comic book writing stint that made me realize that making games is much more fun to do. As of now, I have been an independent game developer for a little over a year and I love every minute of it.
When I started my journey, my goal was clear: make games I would want to play. I'm also a fan of grindhouse cinema, 80s horror movies, and just underground schlock in general (well, you see what dark, dank tunnel this is going down…). Some of the games I have put out over the past year include, Shotgun, Now Entering: Quiet Haven, and most recently, the Puppet Combo-published Tonight It Follows.
WHAT: Designing memorable 'B-movie' enemies
Something I am very passionate about is the enemy design, and not only enemy design but also how they make the player feel. Enemies who either employ a memorable design or a dynamic behavior can really leave a lasting impact on us.
I think sometimes, not only us as developers, but also players, we forget that we can take enemy design a step forward in the impressions they can leave. I personally call this the "Goomba Trope." In game development, the standard has traditionally been to just change an enemy design based upon its characteristics within a game. Thus, Goombas move left to right, Piranha Plants are stationary and shoot fire, etc. All Goombas look and act the same and all Piranha Plants look and act the same.
Since B-movies were ultimately my main inspiration, and in my attempt to marry the two media of film and video games, I took a look at what makes these cult celluloid classics, well, cult classics. For me, it is the characters. I'm not talking about award-worthy acting or writing, but character actors such as Miguel Nunez, Danielle Harris, Rutger Hauer, and Tony Todd go a long way in creating that lasting connection between our hearts and these films.
While they aren't considered DiCaprios, Pitts, or Cruises, they more than make up for it because they embody fun. They have to wear their characters on their sleeves and show us who they are - usually without the amount of dialogue most Hollywood features get. This is a connection between these B-movies and video games. They're supposed to be fun! I knew that I could channel the fun personalities and spirits of these films into my games.
With my passions identified, it was time to start designing my first game, SHOTGUN. You play as a hell-bent mother who dons homemade armor and blasts her way through a ruthless gang's hideout to save her son. There are around 40 enemies in the short romp, each one is different from the last, and each only shows up once. Really, I thought of myself as a director and each enemy part of my cast. Do I want to add another enemy to this room? Well, I need to go find another thespian looking for work!
Speaking to the development side of things for a moment, the investment in going with this approach is considerable. I could have finished SHOTGUN in half the time it took if I went with the traditional approach. However, we are indie developers and we're not too keen on tradition. I work as a solo developer on top of this, so in the infant stages of development for the game, knowing that I was going to spend a great deal of time on enemy design, animations, and programming, I chose to go with an 8bit style. It saved some time, and also was a perfect aesthetic for games inspired by films from 30+ years ago and my 8bit loves.
However, even with the simple art style, there was much to do. Every enemy not only had to be unique, but they needed to also be interesting. They all have to have to wear their own story and show who they are in their appearance, just like the best character actors needed to convey who they are without a top-notch script or budget.
Not only that, but when each of these characters meet their demise to the wrong end of a double barrel (this being a homage to exploitation flicks after all), they all had to have their own over the top death animation. This was done to make the game feel more dynamic and give the player the satisfaction and feeling that their actions impact this coked-up world in a unique way.
It might be juvenile, but I also find over the top 8bit violence to be pretty hilarious. And in the end, that's what it's all about. Having fun and maybe experiencing something new.
I had a great deal of fun designing the enemies too, probably more fun than any aspect of game development. I mean, we have some real "characters" here. Clowns with machine guns, a pioneering furry with a knife, and my personal favorite, a guy that pulls a pistol on you from what is most definitely an unsanitary place. And I'm not even going to get into what's goin' on in that dank basement (you'll have to play the game and see for yourself).
Below are some of my favorite enemies across all my games so far that are close to my heart, whether in design or how they act within the game.
THE FOLLOWER (Tonight It Follows)
The main antagonist in "Tonight It Follows", The Follower is an unstoppable force that follows you throughout the game, being the only enemy that you can't kill. I got his design from a time in my life when I had sleep paralysis, and one of the scariest things from those experiences was him coming out of the darkness with those long squirmy fingers of his and wrapping them around my throat. In the game, he represents guilt from the past that the main character is trying to run from.
TALL MAN (Witching Hour at Hell House)
Wearing a Krueger-esque shirt, The Tall Man is one of three "bosses" from the escape the room game Witching Hour at Hell House. He used to own the house that you are trapped in and was corrupted into what he is now by a strange force residing in the basement. When he finally appears in the game, he proves to be a pretty intense match. You have limited shots in the shotgun you have just found and must connect with him 3 times. That is pretty hard to do as he teleports, re-appears, and then darts towards the player. Almost similar to a fight with Jaws from the NES - you only have a small window of opportunity to deal damage. To make matters worse, he knows when you run out of ammo and relentlessly chases you if that should happen.
While he is your standard "pig butcher slasher", I really like his cameo in Shotgun. Shotgun is an action game, and Porksy has taken a lot of people by surprise when you enter his lair. The tone of the game immediately shifts from survival to horror. He jumps at unsuspecting players from out of a room, squealing like a pig and revving his chainsaw. He also takes many more shots to bring down compared to your regular coke-sniffing punk. Venturing further you can uncover exactly what he was doing in the basement, and come face to face with one of his previous victims.
BROKEN NECK MAN (Peepaw)
This unfortunate spirit actually does no harm to the player. In Peepaw there are a few safe rooms you can duck in, catch your breath, and think about your surroundings before venturing back into the dangerous dark house. It's in these safe rooms that Broken Neck Man appears randomly to give a good jolt of fear when you were expecting to be safe. While he doesn't kill the player, he does a nice job making it feel that there truly is nowhere safe in the house. Some people don't even realize he doesn't harm you - when they see him they run back into danger! He really just wants to talk, but due to his condition can only get a few gurgles out.
FLESH MARIONETTE / SOMETHING BEHIND THE SHEETS (Tonight It Follows)
Some of my favorite scares in horror games are when the developers draw your eyes towards a certain object you believe will offer the next jolt, all for something completely different to happen. In Tonight It Follows, our player is walking next to a hanging sheet that obviously has someone standing behind it, just waiting to jump out. That never happens, but what does happen is this fleshy marionette comes along from the room you were just in. I like his design a lot and was probably my most Silent Hill-esque enemy.
I love horror elements that just seem impossible, or "this can't be happening", as his appearance presents this question as his strings continue off the top of the screen "who is controlling him from above?"
So far, I have been happy with my games. As creators, we are never really fully satisfied, and there are definitely some things that I would have done differently if I could go back.
In the end, I feel that taking the time to create such unique enemies really helps give your game the variation and voice it needs to leave a lasting impression on the player. We use many different aspects in our games to reach the player, be they gameplay, interesting environments, an engaging story, or a relatable player character.
Enemies can also be used to give the game extra character, just like side characters can enhance a film. They can be used to make a level more memorable, add lore to a story based on their appearance, or be used to get across to the player what kind of world they are in. Not only that, but players do appreciate the "small" touches within games they play -- especially in a generally-soulless triple-A-ruled gaming landscape. Just taking the time to differentiate your enemies can go a long way in conveying your passion for the game at hand.
In my as-of-now limited experience, I have received a great deal of positive feedback about the enemies within my games. The emotions they have raised have included laughs, frights, and simple amusement in their colorful designs. Being sent fanart of an enemy you created is also a huge honor, and goes to show that people really can relate to and attach themselves to enemies. I believe that, without the attitude I have towards enemy design and the importance I give it, I would not have been able to carve out the little identity that I have. It has become a part of what is expected from my work, and has helped me find a "calling card."