I recently made a game for the Ludum Dare 48-hour competition, called 10 Seconds in Hell. You can watch my trailer for it here. The game has provoked strong reactions out of players. In this post-mortem I’ll describe the dynamics of the game, cover what I think worked to draw players in, speculate on what could have been improved, and finally, make a well-worn plea (that’s worth repeating) for developers to think a little differently about how they approach emotion in games.
10 Seconds in Hell is a first-person game with simple object interaction and an enforced time limit. The concept was inspired by the competition’s theme, which was itself “10 Seconds”. This fortunate coincidence pushed me to try something I’ve wanted to do for some time: create a game that is extremely short with a large number of endings. This is in contrast to most modern games, which last a long time and tend to have a single ending (or a small number of inconsequential/aesthetically different endings). Most modern games are long and thin, with a slight non-linear bulge in the middle. I wanted to make a game that was short and wide at the end. A game short enough the player doesn’t mind trying a million times to find something new.
The game takes place in one location—what appears to be a second story bedroom. The unnamed antagonist threatens to come upstairs if the player doesn’t come down in ten seconds. After some time the antagonist begins walking; when he opens the door to the room, the game ends.
Most modern games are long and thin, with a slight non-linear bulge in the middle. I wanted to make a game that was short and wide.
There are three objects the player can pick up: A photo, a baseball bat, and a gun. They are all hidden, obscured by magazines and stacks of irregular boxes labeled “junk”. There is a phone that can be interacted with but is useless. There are four different locations that affect the ending, depending on where the player is standing when time runs out: The central area, next to the window, beside the bed, and in the closet. These are non-obvious at first, but the last three are hinted at through voiceover cues as the player walks around the environment. There are three special actions the player can take that also change the outcome: She can jump out the window, she can open the door and go downstairs as requested, or she can block the door with the aforementioned “junk” boxes. The first two options end the game immediately, and the last one buys the player extra time to explore.
Even with a starting point as simple as this, the game provides numerous endings. These non-interactive segments unfold like a radio drama: The screen fades to black and the story is told through dialog and sound effects. Unless the player jumps out the window or opens the door herself, the ending is generated based on the world state (objects collected, location) via a series of if-then statements. Mathematically speaking, 10 Seconds in Hell has 20 endings. However, some of these endings have only a single line of dialog difference between them, so one could argue that there are fewer truly unique outcomes. At any rate, the results were diverse enough to encourage players to keep digging for hidden endings, even if they found the experience truly unnerving.
A Lot of Emotion from Very Little
And boy, did they find the experience unnerving. And I quote:
The first time I played this, I felt really scared.
This is definitely disturbing. Great job of creating a menacing atmosphere.
Very creepy. You had me on the edge of my seat.
A dark but great interpretation of the theme.
This is chilling. It’s very powerful.
I list these quotes not to toot my own horn, but to make a point. This is the graphical sophistication going on in the game:
The interactive objects are literally cubes with texture maps of the names of the objects. Everything else in the room is low-poly and has a simple diffuse map. I don’t even use global illumination, instead opting for fake bounce lights.
Remember our antagonist? The one who creates the menacing atmosphere? This is him:
He’s a pill shape with a little tag that says “EVIL” on it. You could do this game on the PS1. And yet the game caused reactions such as this:
Trying to hide in the closet and happening across the gun [was]… intense.
A gun that’s a cuboid primitive with the word “gun” slapped on it.
Why This Even Works
Why is the game so effective at provoking emotion? The answer is simple: Abstraction. The player character is never defined. The antagonist has no face, merely an object representing his location and the word “evil” as a hint. The “porn magazines” scattered about the place have no actual content on their covers. The photo has no image on it. The antagonist is never visually depicted entering the room; you only hear him enter after the screen fades to black. The game does not explicitly tell you why you are here, what happened before this moment, or what will happen after the ending. There is a gun, but you don’t decide when it goes off. We don’t even know that the voices of these people are real.
The closest we get to an explicit clue is at the very beginning, when the player character narrates, “I replayed the scene in my mind over and over, wondering how it could have gone differently. The only thing I remember clearly was the room where it happened. Everything else was a little hazy.” Thus the abstraction: We are exploring the player character’s mind, exploring possibilities. We will never know for sure what actually went down. And perhaps those voices sound so flat and artificial because she doesn’t want to remember every disturbing detail.
Why is the game so effective at provoking emotion? The answer is simple: Abstraction.
This is the oldest and most effective trick in horror: Don’t show the monster. The viewer’s imagination will always concoct something more terrifying and personal than anything you can depict. The player can’t help but project her own experience onto the player character. She can’t help but put a face—a personal face, unique for her—on the antagonist. By using symbolic imagery, the terror happens in mind of the player, not on the screen. This is a game of ideas, not of lush scenery designed by an army of 3D artists for the player to admire.
So was this disturbing world of abstraction my master vision all along? No! I didn’t plan for any of it. The art style was a direct result of the time limit imposed by the competition. Were it not for the 48-hour timer ticking away, I would have modeled the world thoroughly out of sheer adherence to convention, and the game would have suffered for it. Once I put the first slapdash “object name” texture on a cube in the name of efficiency, however, I had a hunch this might actually be a good direction. After I placed the poly plane with the word “EVIL” behind the antagonist, I knew for sure this was the way to go. I had also planned to replace the computer voices with real voice acting, but I think the synth voices add to the unsettling nature of the game.
How It Could Have Been Improved
There are a few places the game didn’t work out so well: It is unclear that object use and contextual voiceovers are temporarily disabled during the introduction, while you can still move around and drag objects. There is no way to skip dialog. There is no way to know if you’ve found every ending. The game could have possibly been improved by randomizing item spawn locations. On the purely technical end, there are some rough edges due to my lack of programming skill, such as the mouse cursor remaining active when playing the web version. Subtitles would increase accessibility. Finally, given the time, I could have put more work into making each of the endings truly unique.
The Sorcerer’s New Clothes
10 Seconds in Hell is emotional because of how little it shows the player. What’s happening in the world of AAA games at the moment, however, is the exact opposite trend, despite similar goals. On the stage at E3, David Cage unveiled Quantic Dream’s latest tech demo, “The Dark Sorcerer“. It used an impressive amount of polygons, complicated shader effects, realtime global lighting, and lots of motion capture. (It also relied on tired humor clichés such as the sassy black sidekick and camp at the expense of gay men, but that’s another article altogether. I’ll at least applaud them for the lack of male gaze in this outing. For better humor, play Sam & Max Hit the Road, a classic 2D adventure game.)
Part of Quantic Dream’s mission is to use advanced graphics technology to bring more emotion into games. The industry should—and unavoidably will—continue to explore the possibilities of new graphics power. New technology really can change the story experience, as anyone who’s played L.A. Noire can attest. And Quantum Dream themselves have shown their willingness to experiment with story-focused gameplay. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think photorealism is the only way to immerse players and provoke intense emotion. I did it in 48 hours with some cubes and awkward text-to-speech dialog.
10 Seconds in Hell is emotional because of how little it shows the player. What’s happening in the world of AAA games at the moment, however, is the exact opposite trend.
The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home touched me like no other game has, and it didn’t reserve a even a single tri for character models. A game as simple as Knytt, a low-res 2D platformer, can emotionally involve the player simply through contrasting visual and sound design. Meanwhile, most big-budget stories fall flat, or at best fall into B-movie territory, especially compared to other mediums.
Don’t rely on millions of tris to do the work for you, even if you are using next-gen technology. Do more with less. Explore what isn’t obvious. Learn from every other storytelling medium in existence: We can use all of them as we wish, even the radio play. Don’t limit yourself to genre stories. Don’t limit yourself to game genre conventions: the player doesn’t have to shoot at things with a gun just because she’s playing from a first-person perspective. It might be hard to break from convention in a way that’s marketable. It might be hard to wean gamers off the “shooter” in FPS. But we’ve got to keep trying. There are so many undiscovered endings.