Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
It is evident in speaking with Tristan Parrish Moore, lead designer on Grave, an open world survival horror game, that he has thought about what makes them scary. He speaks in fluid paragraphs about where survival horror went wrong and how modern games like Amnesia and Outlast have resurrected the genre in a meaningful way.
Discussion, it should be noted, is a particular strength of Parrish Moore’s. He is an energetic conversationalist, well-spoken and passionate – and quite philosophical about game development – which makes him the perfect spokesman for Grave.
For example, to place Grave in context with earlier, more combat-focused survival games, he said, “The thing that survival horror did is it introduced a lot of mechanics that are inherently intuitive and fun to use, like shooting things and engaging in combat, killing zombies, all that kind of stuff. And then they basically set up a format where they were like, ‘But don’t use that, because it’s not effective or you don’t have enough ammo.'”
He has a point.
Which is one of the reasons why players in Grave will be equipped not with shotguns or magnum pistols but with fire to defend themselves. We’re not talking rocket launchers or flame throwers, either. Weak road flares and campfires keep the enemy at bay, but I don’t get the sense that players will be fighting monsters any more than they did in, say, Fatal Frame or the early Silent Hill games.
Grave will be about avoidance, and maybe defense, depending on how players decide to interact with this unsettling open world. They will toil in an vast desert landscape during the day, hunting for supplies that will help them survive near-hellish, nightly encounters overrun with monsters. They decided to split the game into two almost equal parts, so that the day environment would allow for a near-freedom in exploration without combat, and the other would emphasize how the environment allowed little-to-no protection against the creatures that arose from it. It’s kind of like the most horrific parts of Amnesia blended with something out a survival game.
But don’t expect to be picking berries all day. Though there is an element of resource management, Grave is not purely about going into the wild. “It’s not like ‘Don’t Starve,’ where you’re literally trying to survive in the wilderness or something,” Parrish Moore said. “It’s more akin to the old school survival horror concept of resource management as a method of surviving encounters with creatures.”
Think of the backpack from Resident Evil. Only so many items can be stuffed in there, so players will have to be cautious with how they hoard their supplies. They won’t be able to amass a collection of items to buffer themselves from danger, because the game will dynamically change in order to prevent players from becoming overpowered. In games like Dead Space, the idea of scarcity is drilled so purposefully into a gamer’s mind that s/he usually ends up with dozens of clips of unused ammo by the end. Not here. Grave doesn’t want to give the illusion of ammo scarcity but to deliver on it.
“We borrowed a little bit from stealth games, the idea of the right tool for the right job, so rather than having weapons that are inherently on a linear scale of being more or less powerful, each of those tools is contextually relevant.” Sometimes one item may be useful against one enemy and totally worthless against another, in other words, says Parrish Moore.
Which enhances the overall effect the procedurally-generated aspect of the game. Not only will players be subjected to an arid wasteland, but the wasteland will change around them to keep them from becoming too comfortable. The daytime land, from what I understand, is more or less stable – it does change somewhat – and that is when players are meant to explore, to gather resources, and to build a nest for the night.
When the sun goes down, however, nothing is safe. Not only is the physical structure of the world up for on-the-fly changes, but so is the length of night. So not only might you be subjected to an unfamiliar world, but the very length of time spent in darkness might be stretched to heighten the sense of terror and dread.
It’s a cool hook, and this divided world offers something more than just pure, unadulterated terror. Parrish Moore said, “The emotional levels that you get from exploring during the day and being in those moments of calm actually really enhances the horror experience when it comes to nighttime.”
The rules for death are less defined so far, according to the lead designer. Right now, permadeath is not a key aspect of the story mode. They are designing the game around two modes – story and survival – in which death is death in one and a more elastic concept in the other.
“We have an alternate roguelike survival campaign,” he said, “which is just a continuous trek through the experience, and during that when you die it’s over.” The game gets increasingly, exasperatingly more difficult, and death is final.
His thoughts on the story mode aren’t entirely more magnanimous to the player. There would be a penalty for death, sure – loss of items, a forced change in environment – but players would continue on despite that. “In the story mode, we’re almost treating more like you’re stuck in Hell, essentially. The world is oppressive and unending, so when you die you’re not released from it,” he said.
Parrish Moore compares the experience to early open world games, like Grand Theft Auto, in which players become excluded from the current encounter but can persist and keep playing. Again, it seems to represent a merging of open world, roguelike, and survival horror ideas.
Grave is currently seeking $30,000 via Kickstarter, a number drawn through some serious number-crunching. A lot of the development has occurred after work, long into the night, over the course of the last several months or so in order to bring the game to fruition. Parrish Moore even offhandedly mentioned that they thought about naming the studio After Dark Games (not knowing it was already taken), due mostly to the manner in which the game was coming together.
The game is slated for release on Windows, Mac, and Linux and will feature Oculus Rift support, and the team has experienced zero interference since the much-discussed Facebook acquisition. It is expected for a 2015 release, though no exact date has been announced yet. To support the game, head on over to its Kickstarter.
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