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Eight tools for creating chilling horror from the maker of FAITH

FAITH creator Mason Smith dropped by GDC 2021 with insights on how developers can scare the pants off players even when they’re only working with a handful of pixels.

The FAITH trilogy, created by Airdorf Games’ Mason Smith, is a niche-but-critically acclaimed horror series designed to look like a game you’d play on a computer from the late ‘80s, but with horror sensibilities borrowed from the Silent Hill series, P.T, or the Blair Witch Project films.

When you’re a small developer trying to go toe-to-toe with big powerhouses of horror, how do you frighten players with the handful of pixels available at your disposal? In his GDC 2021 talk, Smith broke down some basic components of his designer toolkit to help other developers claim their own space in the horror space.

Know what you want to accomplish

Smith’s toolkit for horror emerged from the challenge he gave himself when starting the FAITH series: “can I deliver an effective horror game using just basic graphics?” FAITH also mixes in the influences of the Satanic panic, the tragedy-laden moral panic of the 1980s.

Smith’s summed up his first “tool” as this: “Know what you want each design decision to accomplish in terms of narrative, mechanics, and affect.”

“For me, design choices come in the form of creating overlapping moments throughout the game.” If a player was telling a friend about this part of the game, what would they say?”

He demonstrated this using the forest section of the first FAITH game. “I specifically designed those areas like a grid, but it has these Pac-Man style wraparound warps.”

Combined with some randomized tiles, Smith said this technique was meant to make players feel lost in the woods with a demon chasing after them. “They’re lost in the woods…and it mimics the disoriented, isolated state I wanted to bring into this horror narrative.”

Embrace Minimalism

Smith said his second tool was to focus on keeping his games “simple.” “I have this ‘form-follow-function’ approach to the FAITH series. I firmly believe in having a consistent voice and executing on it. Can I sell a vignette or moment more elegantly?”

Interestingly, Smith delineated his minimalism from the tech industry’s more common minimalism that might inspire say, the classic iPod. “You can have a full screen of detailed stuff like here in P.T, probably my favorite horror game of all time, and I really like how it’s an example of minimalism. The story and mechanics are very simple.”

To push the fear of the unknown and keep things mysterious,  FAITH has very simple interactions and visuals. “It’s actually a struggle to not make things more detailed,” Smith said. “I often have to go back and make it less detailed, more chunky, because I want to create more fear of the unknown.”

Emphasize the character’s vulnerability

In horror, Smith said he sees the value of emphasizing the player character’s vulnerability. “Vulnerability is prolific in horror,” he said. “FAITH has a one-hit kill mechanic. It makes demon fight sin small rooms very intense. Anything that looks out of the ordinary, is colored differently, could be death.”

Over time, that spurs more paranoia and fear in players. “Players just get paranoid seeing anything out of the ordinary, and for me as a horror game designer, that’s great.”

Constant death can be terrifying, but if a section proves too difficult and players die repeatedly, the sense of horror can begin to fade. “The unknown becomes known again,” Smith said, and explained that QA testing on FAITH helped figure out if players were being sent too far back from certain deaths.

“I like to be generous with spawn points, or I identify where I need to put a closer spawn point near where a player dies again and again.”

Turn every mechanic against the player.

“The most provocative game design possibilities are found where the role for a designer as an advocate for the player is disrupted.”

That quote from Douglas Wilson and Miguel Stewart is a meaningful one for Smith. He described it as being kind of an invitation to find moments where you “mess with” players going against their interests and away from safety or conventionality.

He suggested tweaking the design mindset of “easy to learn, hard to master” and adding “and sometimes they may turn on you.” “Walking can suddenly become scary in FAITH,” he said with a laugh.

Earn the player’s trust, so you can shatter it

Smith described this rule in one simple phrase: “You can identify spaces that the player considers safe, and then you can invade that,’ he explained. He called out “save rooms,” unintrusive corridors, or even in the space where there just seem to be meaningless background objects.

He called out one specific example early in FAITH that caught YouTuber Marikiplier off guard. In the “wandering the forest” section of the first game, he dropped a random demon in disguised as a tree. The demon didn’t even chase after the player, it just looked like a tree, shapeshifted, then run off.

Then the next zone the player runs into is filled with the trees. None of them are demons, Markiplier still was visibly unsettled by their presence.

“I wanted there to be a random tree demon that makes the player not trust anything for the rest of the game.”

Show/tell the player exactly what’s going to happen

This tool is about creating anticipation or apprehension. “This is about giving players a little bit of what’s going to happen—not telling them when, how, or where it’s going to happen,” Smith said.

“But see this scary thing? It’s coming for you” is the impression Smith wants to leave players with when they’re in this moment.

Smith does this by having monsters appear out of windows and hinting locations in notes warning players away from unavoidable locations.

Put player character in the worst situation they can be in.

This toolkit is about creating moments that live in context with the rest of the game’s tone. Smith gave examples from other games that include losing your flashlight in Fatal Frame II, or a level set in the Xenomorph hive in Alien: Isolation.

At the macro level, these are about making standout pieces of content, in the micro-design, it’s about engineer scares that communicate “the danger is growing worse.”

Designing these moments well involves being fully aware of the player’s game loop, and considering what the worst situations that players have been trying to avoid are.

In FAITH, Smith engineered one of these moments by combining three elements: a pitch-black room, the demons that have been hunting the player, and a camera flash.

The only way to navigate the space becomes by firing the camera flash, but doing so gives players brief glimpses of the monsters hunting them. It’s a worse scenario than the rest of the game’s horror, because they’ve lost one of the last bits of agency that saved them in previous states: having perfect information about where to go and how to escape monsters.

Evaluate and re-evaluate every design choice

Smith kept this one short and simple. After crafting moments and vignettes, he stressed the importance of re-evaluating pieces to make sure they’re filled with horror and contributing to the broader collection of setpieces.

If something’s not working, or doesn’t blend well with existing mechanics, it just needs to be tossed out. Smith said he had to toss out a lengthy flashback to 1980 in FAITH’S first chapter because it messed up the pacing. It didn’t fit the ambiguous pacing, and reduced the uncertainty of what happened before the game’s current events.

Smith closed off his talk by adding a series of guidelines horror designers can take from. And in keeping with the horror genre’s need to throw players off, the guidelines were intentionally inconsistent.

“Consistency is good, and inconsistency is good,” Smith argued. “Building trust with the player is good, and also betraying that trust is good.”

And finally “Anticipation of what’s coming is good, and also surprising the player is good.”

All of these tools, combined with Smith’s 5 principals, helped FAITH become one of the critically acclaimed indie horror series that players know today.

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