Cathode Tan - Games, Media and Geek Stuff
logo design by man bytes blog

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Remembering CS-Spookhouse

Mapping used to be a side hobby of mine, before I got into modding and, possibly more importantly, mapping required even more 3D modelling skills. It's highly doubtful you've seen anything of mine out there - unless you were of the old school Infiltration mod crowd and played DM-FultonRL at all. Fulton was based on the old office I used to work with and we used it often as a after hours LAN party map.

Those were the days.

The last map I took seriously and actually finished was CS-Spookhouse. It was intended to be a Halloween moment for csvegas, the old Counter-Strike server I used to help admin. I bring up all this nostalgia for Corvus' latest Round Table, which asks about fear in gaming. I fully intended Spookhouse to be ... well ... spooky. And I gotta say - it's really really hard.

It's not that I didn't go through a few hoops to try and make it creepy. I tried to model it after things I actually find effective in movies. I prefer the "odd noise" or "glimpse of shadow" scary as opposed to the "large demon chasing down the hall" scary. So the premise was to make a simple haunted house. I had triggers to make noises go off in rooms people weren't in. I had textures on walls that would only appear if the lights were off. I had translucent models which would only appear during lightning or in one instance ... if one was in a bathroom. Lights would go out on their own, there was a faucet of blood and some windows which would scatter into skulls.

Now there's two reasons you may not have heard of this map. One was that I was heavily involved with csvegas as a server and didn't care much about advertising the map elsewhere.

The other is that it pretty much flopped. Here's my guesses why:

Too much dark
Routinely the number one complaint about the map and why it didn't get much replay. And I completely admit ... the map was dark. The reason for that (and FPS fans get ready for this) ... was that you were supposed to use your flashlight. Course, unlike a certain other shooter, you could fire and aim the light at the same time. Course, I had also assumed that ala Unreal darkmatch - flashlights would prove a vital part of the gameplay. Not only did you need it to get around - it would also more easily give away your position.

Thing is - a lot people who play games like CS habitually are ... well ... creatures of habit. Maps which force them to ignore those habits generally just annoy them.

Random acts of spooky
I didn't want the overt or predictable. Like a big bloody corpse in the middle of the floor or whatnot. Problem is - you run the risk of people not noticing or caring too much about these smaller details. In a good horror movie, these small details can lead to a big sum of scare. In an action game, they're just trifles. Few people even noticed the ghosts in the bedroom on lightning flashes.

Low production values
I'm not a skinner or a modeller - so I was totally dependant on the stock Half-Life assets. Sure, there's quality stuff there - but at this time custom work was already becoming pretty standard. Maps like Dust were going to set a new standard of what could be done (not to mention ... what was that ... Villa?). Old hat is not scary.

In short, I was creating the wrong scenario for the audience. CS-Gorehouse ... that would probably have gone over like gangbusters. Custom models and textures dripped out with blood and guts. A showcase of horror or museum of images ... not sneaking around with subtle environment effects.

And that's the big problem horror games have ... it's not that hard to make these effects. It's hard to sell them. Doom III was dripping with production value ... but it failed to be received as a truly scary game. I think it's because id also failed to address their crowd. They relied heavily on their old stunts and pulled out nostalgia ... not fear.

For one thing - most people have to want to be scared to find anything scary. Suspension of disbelief is difficult enough on it's own and horror is possibly the hardest of the hard to sell to a reader/viewer/player. Most action gamers don't want to be scared - they want to be thrilled. It's the fundamental problem with crossing the genre gap. You have to sell to people with their guard down but their desire to be scared up.

The Blair Witch Project is my favorite litmus test. Ask anyone how they felt about the movie ... and then how they felt about it going in to the movie. Most people I know who ended up hating the movie went in after hearing all the hype about how scary it was ... and went in thinking "I bet it won't scare me." And it didn't. On the flipside - going in before the hype and most people were taken by surprise with the movie.

No other genre requires audience participation as much as horror. It's not that the weight isn't ultimately on the work itself, but much depends on the reader.

tagged: ,


Winkyboy said...

"Maps which force them to ignore those habits generally just annoy them."

Hear, Hear! That's something that annoys me to no end; Game players want the SAME thing over and over again... differently. That is, they want every realistic map that takes 3 seconds to figure out. No surprises, no changing rules, blah.

As for me, give me something crazy-new EVERY single time. Force everyone to play with flame throwers that double as jetpacks, I say! Give me falling platforms to jump between! It's not all about the point and click.

I had an idea for a scary game once... Hope you don't mind if I spout, as I'd love to someone put it into play, someday.

One player acts as a sort-of God-like entity that has limited ways of interacting with the environment, such as setting traps, making noises, moving shadows, or - depending on some kind of "power" available to him, sending actually monsters after the other players.

The other players, then, simply had to get to point B to survive, be it "surviving a night in a haunted house" or whatnot. The common players, however, would be governed by a fear level, that once it hit a certain point, they couldn't control their character as well -- so the character would run, hide, pass out, whatever. The fear level would be based on certain thing - close proximity to other players, witnessing the effects that the deity player sends, etc.

That's about it -- essentially, one player is actively trying to scare the other players to death :)

Josh said...

I really feel for mappers these days since I imagine they must be facing the same thing many a oldskool modder has ... people who just want high production values and not so much of the different in actual ... well ... level design.

I like the idea, btw. It's the kind of online experience I wish mods would be striving for. I point at mods here not to harp on a point I seem to be on lately :) but rather because I think it's easier for them to expirement with these social concepts than pure commercial titles. I don't know if it's that we've put the concept of a GameMaster out of reach of normal play - but letting one player be in "control" for a round was something that always interested me.

As an aside - before Dungeon Keeper ever hit shelves, The Brother and I thought it would be neat to do a kind of graphical MUD where during the day you could upkeep your castle with traps and monsters and whatnot ... but during the night people could try and raid for your stuff. Successful raids would result in more gold which could allow for better traps, etc.