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Upending player expectations with the surreal horror game Anglerfish
Repetition can be a game design strength if planned carefully.
December 8, 2022
18 Min Read
Anglerfish is a horror game about surviving a night at the bar. Trouble is, there are all manner of monstrous creatures there. Also, every time you die, something changes. Those changes are dictated by how you died as well, creating an ever-shifting evening of dangers as you try to unravel the mysteries behind these lethal events. And not all of your answers will lurk within the game itself.
Game Developer spoke with writer, designer and programmer John Tinning, art and animation director Maria O. Christensen and music director Astrid Fabrin, who comprise Professional Villains, the development team behind this tricky horror game. We talk about using unexpected changes to unsettle the player, finding ways to turn the repetitive nature of games into a strength through careful design, and the appeal of hiding secrets in unexpected places (such as tying answers into the Steam reviews section).
Anglerfish is a horror game where the world changes with every death. What inspired you to create something like this?
A combination of an old idea, Markiplier, and a sequence with a monster dog. The first part of Anglerfish, which starts out as a strange dating game, was a very old game idea we had for a small free game. When we released the demo for Anglerfish, it was reminiscent of the old idea, and we released the demo first as a free dating game on Itch.io.
Four years ago, we made The ER, which was a free, six-minute horror game. It was part of a study we did on how to create flow in a linear game experience. The player starts in a room with three doors. Before the game is over, the player must go through each of these doors. For each door the player walks through, the story will unfold more and more. No matter which door the player takes, it’s always the right one, because the game changes depending on which choice the player makes. So, instead of there being one right door to progress the story, all three doors are the right door. This way, there's no wasted time for the player going in and out of wrong doors.
Because The ER was a very short experience, we added that the player could play the last part of the game multiple times, and each time the ending would change. We knew what ending you had last time, so we had a good idea of how to surprise you. Markiplier picked up The ER, and he really had fun with the part where the ending changes each time. That was the first time we knew that this design idea of repeating a sequence and changing something every time could lead to a unique and good experience for the player.
We then made The ER: Patient Typhon where we mostly used the part where the game changes depending on what the player does to create flow. We also did the opposite. When we wanted the player to feel lost, the choice they made was always the wrong one. We also started using the idea of changes as part of the game on a small scale. For example, there is a sequence in The ER: Patient Typhon where the player is chased by a monster dog in a big walk-in freezer. If the player survives this sequence but dies right after, the player starts in the freezer. This time, the dog is simply gone. The player now encounters it right after the freezer, where they are chased briefly. We watched quite a few Let's Plays of the game, and we could see that making this change after the player died made the players extra nervous, and gave extra loud screams when they met the dog in a new place.
Anglerfish is filled with strange places and creatures, but even stranger people. How did you come up with the visual designs for the bar, as well as the people and their costumes? What effect did you want these to have on the player?
We are interested in contrasts. Once we find something that catches our eye, we work to find some kind of contrast to it and then mix the two things together. Sometimes, it was inspired by something in the story. Other times, it was the visuals that inspired the story. Anglerfish is also part of a larger universe that we work with on an abstract level, which sometimes influences the choices we make. We work from the idea that if we can find something slightly different, visually, that captures us, it will probably capture others too. Something that draws us in and makes us want to explore this strange world and find out where the rabbit hole leads.
As death changes the game, it incentivizes dying, in a way, as it leads to new content and a new vision of the game world. What appealed to you about making death into a good thing? What thoughts went into turning it into something players wanted?
We always explore the game medium in some way when we make a game. We often take a point of departure with some element in games that usually doesn't work that well (or is downright boring) and try to see if we can make it interesting. Repetition is a big part of most games and is often a game's weak point. Especially in games with a focus on narrative. The Uncharted games are often a better Indiana Jones experience than most Indiana Jones movies are, right up until you repeatedly die in the same sequence that behaves exactly the same way every time you try to beat it. The emotion and excitement disappear more and more with each repetition.
Some games have already succeeded in solving this problem. For example, Dark Souls makes your death part of a hard-earned success. Or, you see it in roguelike games that randomly generate the world every time you die. But we are people who don’t get that big feeling of relief when we finally beat that boss in Dark Souls, and who miss what hand-designed levels can give that randomly generated ones cannot.
What caught our interest was how we could make a new take on how to use repetition as a game's strength instead of its weakness. We wanted to create a way in which both those who are good, and those [who are] less skilled at playing, get a unique and fun experience. For example, we work based on the idea that we should reward those who die in our game but do not give up.
The fact that every time you die there is a minor or major change in the game is what will probably lure you in. But we think it is the fact that the game shapes itself to a degree according to each player that makes the game interesting. Also, besides the game changing depending on how and where you died, it also changes in different ways because of the player. For example, the player can control which horror music will play in the game by using a jukebox in the bar. The player is allowed to make choices that affect the game world to some extent. The player has the opportunity to interact with the game world in many tiny, fun ways that can lead to small narratives. There are so many little extra secrets that we often only see ten to twenty percent of players find when they complete the game. This means that most players will find something unique that most others did not find.
What ideas went into creating the many, many ways the player could die? How did you make these so surprising, silly, and scary?
We have been killing gamers for years now. We are big fans of horror movies. So, just for fun, we talk daily about ways our players can meet their death.
Overall, we probably have three categories of deaths: deaths from previous games that weren't used that we still like, death scenes we come up with while working on the game that we thought could be fun to do, and deaths that help tell the story.
Each death we then build on, either by building up to them or building upon them. Here are a few simple examples that do not spoil too much. We have a large, dangerous stone hanging from a chain in a room. Under the stone is a button. All players think the same thing: if they press the button, the stone will fall down and kill them. A large portion of them still push the button and get the stone in the head, after which they blame themselves. With this obvious setup, we build up to this simple death. It's a small build-up to a death, but it allows us to use this experience to build on other things you encounter later in the game.
An example where we build on a possible death is that, at one point in the game, the player enters a room where a monster is perfectly positioned for a shot in the back. If the player shoots the monster that has not detected the player in the back, the monster will be killed in one shot. The player usually sneaks close to the monster to do this. Only this one time, when the player is in this room, their shotgun will jam. The monster hears the player’s gun jam and turn around to attack. It is possible to survive this attack, but most players die. In each new round, the player gets their shotgun from their own personal butler. This time, he comments that he has fixed the player's shotgun so that it won’t jam again. However, the shotgun now makes a new sound when it’s fired. It makes a sound which nearly always leads to the player laughing.
These two examples were sequences we thought would be fun to do just to see how the player would react. That is probably one of the most important things. We try to make death sequences we want to see the player encounter. We are interested in seeing their choices, how they deal with danger, and how they react when they die. We believe, if we are excited to watch them play, then the things are probably exciting for them to play.
What challenges came from creating meaningful changes in the world with the many ways you could die? How did you make deaths feel meaningful through world changes? How did you come up with enough world changes to keep up with all of the deaths?
John, our writer and designer, has a master's degree in interactive dramaturgy and also works with developing interactive theater experiences. We've made some games that work somewhat the same way as Anglerfish where we've looked through hours of Let's Plays of these games. We have seen when people are loving our games and when they're pissed off at them. This, combined with our own experience of playing a lot of games, means we have a good idea when people need a laugh, a creepy surprise, or need to punch the game in the stomach. We have designed sequences in Anglerfish where the user can take a little revenge on the game when it has killed the player one too many times.
In addition, we invite playtesters to come and die in our home. You get a little too used to your own game. You think that if I can beat the game without dying, and you then make the whole game half as hard, then people won't die that much. We expected, for example, that people would die an average of eight to twelve times in a playthrough. Well, testers died a bit more than that. It helped give us an idea of how many extra things were needed to get it to work as desired.
We also used the playtests to make the world more exciting to explore. If there was one thing several of them investigated in the game where nothing happened, we added something. For example, there is a jar in a kitchen that everyone wanted to shoot for some reason. So, now a surprise comes out of that jar if you shoot at it, which gives a small hint about how to survive the room you're in. At the same time, we further developed the small jar surprise, so now it's part of a bigger secret.
Anglerfish is divided into three chapters that will be published fairly close together. The short amount of time between each chapter allows us to collect feedback from the players and add extra details like the secret in the jar. It helps us fine-tune the game so deaths feel more meaningful. The point is that the first players of the game help shape the game and that they should enjoy their own work. We are using the short break between each chapter to add new extra stuff.
Anglerfish hides its story deep down inside its twisting, varied worlds. What thoughts go into how you lay out a mysterious story so that players can't figure it out immediately and are instead encouraged to keep following breadcrumbs? How did you do this with Anglerfish?
In relation to the story, we are working on several layers. On a concrete level, it's about surviving a night at the Anglerfish bar. Finding a way to escape. On the abstract level, we work based on a thesis that says: "You feel life most, for better or for worse, when your expectations get broken." The framework we work within is the medium of games.
Anglerfish is a farce, which is not a typical game genre that takes place in a horror universe. It is also a mysterious game with a mysterious story. When we say farce, we mean “the little man against the system." We work with this on three levels.
1. The avatar in the game: a father struggling to come back home to his son.
2. Us, the small indie game developer against the big predictable game industry.
3. The player vs. the game.
It is by mixing these three parts together in one pot that we create Anglerfish’s "twisted" narrative as you say. All we're adding to the game is some kind of examination of these three levels in terms of: "You feel life most, for better or for worse, when your expectations get broken."
When part two of Anglerfish comes out, pretty much everyone will be able to get a story that makes some sense when we talk about escaping from the bar. The first part builds up the mystery. Frog Fractions’ creator, Jim Stormdancer, once said something along the lines of: "the ending must be able to live up to the mystery you built up, or else you are kind of an a-hole." He was not too happy about the ending of the TV show Lost. So, the first ending in Anglerfish is a "Lost" ending, which quite a few horror games tend to fall back on. We also play around a bit with the fact that many players care a lot about there being a true ending or a happy ending.
However, there are stories in the game at deeper levels that require more from the player to understand what is going on. Stories about the main character and other characters in the game. Stories that tie the game together with other of our games. Stories about the gaming medium. This is for all those who want to dig a little deeper. It is mainly through repetition that these become visible.
But overall, Anglerfish is a classic B-horror story that wants to take you on a wild ride and ask you some weird questions about life and gaming.
You’ve mention that the game is a bit of a "love-and-hate" letter to the medium of games, one that came about from being given a grant to create an artistic study on the medium. Can you tell us a bit about how this artistic look at games formed Anglerfish?
The reason why we are in love with the gaming medium is that several games have managed to break our expectations in a positive way. They surprised us and took us places we hadn't been before. They were full of life. Games like these are still being made, thankfully. They are the ones we pay tribute to. At the same time, we must recognize that a large part of the gaming industry does everything they can not to surprise. It repeats the same things in the same way.
We were inspired by the production of the movie Natural Born Killers. Here, Oliver Stone told the creative people on the film that everything you are not normally allowed to do, bring it to the film and let’s see what it can do. What happens if you only save when you fail, i.e., die? If power-ups are not an advantage? If the game's options are part of the experience?
If you are in the game business, you may also have heard a lot of people preaching that a game must be able to be played forever. It's kind of been the "hot" thing in gaming for a while now. We personally do not think that the way many game developers solve this task is very good. Or that one game should be played forever. We therefore could not resist exploring this idea in a slightly new way by trying to exploit the uniqueness of the game medium. Because, where the film and the book cannot change the story every time the audience experiences them, the game can replace the killer or something similar.
Therefore, we made it so that each playthrough is a new take on the game. When we make a game, what you experience is not our only version of the game. Sometimes a first-person sci-fi shooter starts out as a third-person fantasy game. Therefore, the next playthroughs are a mix of the things that were not chosen to be part of [the first one], while also building on what you experienced in your last playthrough. Anglerfish does not continue indefinitely, so it is only up to three playthroughs. Playthroughs two and three are made for those who want to delve deeper into the world of Anglerfish. The first playthrough will lead to a completed experience. We think one of the most important things about games is that it has to end before we hate the game we loved to begin with.
Anglerfish was made on a very small budget, supported by the Danish Film Institute, which made it possible to take a lot of chances. We're trying to make a game we think might be fun. But since there aren't a lot of games exactly like us, we don't know for sure if it will be. We just trust that most of the players are up for joining us on this strange adventure. It is up to the players to assess whether we manage to break their expectations in a positive way.
You have tied the opening of an in-game door to the amount of Steam Reviews the game gets. What got you to do this? What appealed to you about having in-game events tied to some actions in the real world?
Anglerfish is an exploration of the game medium, and the game medium is not just games. It's gamers, Let's Players, gaming platforms, reviewers, bloggers, cosplayers, websites, fan art, and much more. We have tried to get as much as possible of all this in the game one way or another.
You ask about the Steam door. A door that will only open when there were one hundred reviews. What is behind that door is mainly something that is only relevant after the third part of the game is released. We expected the game to have one hundred reviews at the time. The point was to create some kind of mystery and, at the same time, point out that the game is only on Steam at the moment. What is behind this door is a form of commentary on Steam achievements, but these are given a more active role than they normally have in other games. So, it made sense for us to hint at what we're "talking" about on the other side of the door while making it mysterious because Anglerfish is a mysterious game. Therefore, we made the Steam door.
It also gave the player an opportunity to take an active role in opening the door. We did not ask for positive reviews. We also had several ideas for what should be behind the door. Depending on the response and how big it would be, it would be different things behind the door. Again, a way the players shape Anglerfish.
It's not the only way we've done things that extend beyond the game. One code for a door must be found on our website and another code must be found in a free game we have made for Anglerfish. In all three of these cases, it's bonus content that these strange things unlock. So, players can ignore them and still complete the game without any problems.
The free game is, for example, one we made before Anglerfish in order for it to be part of Anglerfish. It was used to test a lot of the things we wanted to work with in Anglerfish. So, it is also part of the game’s development history.
Some of the extra stuff we have in Anglerfish is a remake of that old free horror game, The ER, since that game is the reason why we got the idea for Anglerfish in the first place. Nobody needs to know any of this to enjoy the game, but it helps to make the game more fleshed out. If the player chooses to dig into Anglerfish, there is a good chance they will find some interesting.
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