After the odd way my senior project last semester ended, I was looking forward to starting on something new. Given my fascination with horror games (and especially because of an article I wrote on them last semester), I was promptly picked up by a senior team that decided to continue, as they were working on a horror game called Last Light (working title).
As much as I’m excited to make levels on this project, playing the game in its current state revealed a number of issues with the underlying rules and mechanics. Having learned last semester that a solid set of gameplay systems is necessary for a strong level design base, I brought up my concerns with the team, and expressed an interest in focusing on this aspect first before diving blindly into making levels. Taking this period at the start to align the game’s components also gives us a good opportunity to construct a better narrative framework, in order to better know what themes and settings these levels would cater to.
Last Light‘s gameplay is centered around the use of a mechanically-powered flashlight with limited power- use of it will drain the battery. The flashlight can, however, be recharged by shaking it, which will take a certain amount of time, and leave the player in the dark during.
An example of a “shake flashlight”.
The interesting part is where the main enemy comes in- the main antagonist is a cloud of micro-organisms only able to traverse in dark areas. As such, the player’s flashlight becomes a tool to halt the enemy’s progress, but is constantly at risk of running out of power. I think the inherent tension involved with these two systems is a really interesting place to start. They are, however, not without their problems.
As it is currently implemented, the monster isn’t really in the game at all. The substitute for its behavior was having the player take damage while standing in the dark, and resetting their health to full when entering a light area. As I’m sure you can imagine, this isn’t particularly compelling gameplay, but I do understand that a team of four college seniors weren’t keen on implementing an AI controlled enemy in one semester.
My main issue is that, though it is a really interesting concept for a monster, it can’t really be seen as a singular entity, at least not in the current implementation. Horror games (at least as of late) usually have few principal enemies at any point, but they are seen as things that can be avoided, tricked, and navigated around. In Outlast, for instance, Chris Walker is a recurring enemy that the player can navigate around:
Markiplier encountering an enemy in Outlast
Or there’s the more intense approach that Alien: Isolation takes, which is having the titular alien chase the player persistently across vast swaths of the game, being controlled entirely by some hunting AI routines:
An example of gameplay with the alien in Alien: Isolation
But to have the monster serve more as an environmental hazard is very… odd. I believe that the intent is to make it greater resemble conventional enemies, though we need to take time in the next couple of weeks to define some of its behaviors.
The other big issue with the game is its very loose narrative right now. As it is, there’s a premise: the player character is looking for her brother in a subway complex after the power goes out, and is pursued by flesh-eating micro-organisms. Other than the initial setting of a subway station, though, there isn’t much defined in the way of a plot, or subsequent locations, which are absolutely necessary to know when creating levels.
The monster is also lacking in this regard: while inherent “coolness” is always a plus, there doesn’t seem to be much of a deeper fear behind the micro-organism cloud. Academic criticism of horror media has often noted that effective monsters in the genre are often symbolic of the audience’s fear of something. If we can get our antagonist to really embody something that upsets our classmates, then we’ll be that much better off to express something deeper with our game.
Extra Credits talking about symbolism applied to horror monsters
These are just a couple of problems that we’re up against, and I’m sure that we’ll run into more as production progresses. Hopefully we can nail these aspects down in the next couple of weeks.