PressA2Join recently had the opportunity to chat with Tristan Moore the Co-Founder of Broken Window Studios to talk about Survival Horror and their future release Grave which comes to the Xbox One later this year.
Editor: Survival Horror games have been scaring us ever since the early 80’s what is your first memory of the genre?
Tristan Moore: Well the first time I was ever scared by anything was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past when entering the dark world. After that I really didn’t play too many “scary” things in games until I got ahold of the first Resident Evil. I started with Chris and was horrified that I had to go up against the first zombie with nothing but the knife. For me, the original Playstation era was really the golden age of horror. Some of the best games of all time were made then.
Ed: How do you think the genre has evolved over the past 30 years?
TM: I think it has evolved a little bit strangely. It’s basically split off in two directions; on one side, you have the AAA games that used to be horror but are now more like action games with a horror skin; Resident Evil, Dead Space, Alan Wake, etc. Then on the other side you have games like Slender, Amnesia and Outlast, which are really intense, frightening experiences but don’t have any of the combative elements. The place where survival horror used to live was in the middle, where there was a balance between combat, violence and suspense. I think those games have somewhat gone away. That’s the space I’m hoping Grave will be able to fill.
Ed: In your opinion what makes for the best Survival Horror?
TM: Vulnerability. I don’t think you can be scared if you feel like you’re in total control. Mood, ambience and scares all play a part, but it ultimately doesn’t matter if you don’t feel that you’re fundamentally at risk. I think that’s the challenge the more action-centric horror games have traditionally had; how do you arm the player with an ever-expanding arsenal while maintaining the tension? I don’t think weapons and vulnerability are mutually exclusive, but you always have to feel like there’s something at stake. Otherwise it’s just a haunted house or a roller coaster.
Ed: Is there one particular game that stands out above the rest for you?
TM: The original Silent Hill is probably my favorite game of all time, and is definitely my favorite horror game. That game just has the perfect blend of everything; it’s genuinely scary, the atmosphere is amazing and the world really sucks you in. I still remember coming out of the dark world the first time and hearing the church bells ringing. It still gives me chills.
These days however, I think Amnesia: The Dark Descent is owed a huge debt. I think Amnesia basically brought horror back, and proved that you could mix up the formula to make a frightening experience. The newer horror titles are walking the path that Amnesia blazed, and it’s pretty hard to beat even now.
Ed: In your opinion what separates Survival Horror games for other genres?
TM: I think it’s one of the only genres that is primarily emotion-driven and yet focused on gameplay. In action games, there’s always a reflex challenge, in puzzle games there’s always a mental exercise. But horror games are in a very elite class where I can play them and have visceral, subconscious responses that I can’t control. I think in that way horror games fill a purpose that horror films did about 70 or 80 years ago; they tap into feelings that the audience has while they play that are really difficult for other genres to tackle. Horror is almost a glimpse at what all games will be when we start fully harnessing their potential.
Ed: When did you first come up with the idea to make a Survival Horror game and did any game or film influence you to begin creating one?
TM: Oh man, that’s funny question for me to answer. I decided I wanted to make games when I was 11 and I played the first Silent Hill. I have hundreds of pages of design documents on games that I designed from the time I was a kid. They sort of served as design “tests” before I got into games professionally, and my ideas evolved as I learned more about games. Grave is sort of my informal “doctoral thesis” on horror games, so I’d better get it right.
ED: For people who don’t know what Grave is all about can you give us some insight into what to expect?
TM: Grave is a game that is meant to bring back the style of play of old-school survival horror, but integrates it with elements that enhance vulnerability and take advantage of what we’ve learned about horror over the past decade of games. It takes place in a constantly changing surrealist landscape, where the layout of the world changes as time passes. Light is your only weapon and every creature you encounter reacts to it differently, so you have to be constantly watching out for cues about how to respond.
The single most important element we are following through with in Grave is that of consequence. In Grave, you’ll find these strange obelisks that let you save your progress. However, you can only use them during the day and they only appear in areas that are relatively safe. I think this is one of the elements that games like The Evil Within miss; just because a game is hard, doesn’t mean it is tense. Knowing that you have to venture out into the wilderness and that death could possibly cause you to lose progress is a big part of how older horror games worked. You don’t have to die every 5 minutes to be scared; the tension of possible loss does a lot of that for you, so we’re shifting the challenge dial away from “constant deaths” and towards “death matters when it happens.” I think that’s one of the important parts of the formula that makes horror games work,so we’re focusing on that a lot.
ED: In Grave you don’t have weapons to defend yourself but instead use light, do you prefer this kind of feature to the ones where you have weapons to help you?
TM: The choice of “light” based weapons was very specifically designed to give players agency and choices without shifting the power balance. All the most effective horror games of recent memory have made you essentially powerless; that’s because there’s a power creep in any game that gives you weapons. Eventually, you get good enough at the game that you end up more powerful than whatever is facing you. Most modern horror games get around this by giving you no recourse against the game’s monsters, but this really simplifies the gameplay and can become tiresome or predictable. If you’re not feeding much back into the experience, you can start to feel like your experiences are arbitrary or random.
Because we are using tools instead of guns in Grave, your inventory is a set of resources that don’t automatically equal success. In that way, we were borrowing from games like Metal Gear Solid; there’s always a right tool for a specific job. Not every creature is harmed or scared by light; some are actually attracted to it, and you need to pay careful attention in order to misdirect them. Making this choice about our inventory lets us have the best of both worlds; we can build gameplay that has the amount of depth and variety that traditional survival horror offered, but that still has a constant sense of vulnerability.
ED: With recent releases of Evil Within, Outlast and Alien Isolation do you think Survival Horror is currently experiencing a resurgence of some form?
TM: I think people are finally realizing in AAA that the market is large, and one genre doesn’t fit all players. I don’t think the interest for survival horror ever really went away, but we stopped seeing games in the genre because publishers were more comfortable with action games. I’m really excited to see games like Alien Isolation, where the AAA space is essentially learning from what the indies are doing. I think that is a really promising turn.
ED: What have you been playing recently or is there anything you’d recommend?
TM: I’ve had a hard time finding spare moments to play games! When I do play, I’m usually checking out indie games or killing a few friends in Advanced Warfare. I just recently played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and I think it was a really worthwhile experience. It was actually a pretty creepy game too, which I was surprised by.
ED: Is there a game you feel didn’t get the recognition it deserved and why?
TM: I think State of Decay was a really overlooked game. I’m not a huge fan of the zombie thing these days, but that game had some of the most interesting mechanics I’ve seen in that type of environment. I love the way that game makes you constantly vulnerable, in a way that is really credible and fair. I’m glad they are doing a re-release in April; they deserve more attention.
ED: Horror films have been around for many decades now, is there any particular one that you’re fond of?
TM: Some of my favorite films are Requiem for a Dream, Session 9, Jacob’s Ladder, the original Night of the Living Dead, Stalker and everything David Lynch ever did. I’m a big fan of how horror serves as a window into the subconscious mind. That’s part of why Grave has so many surrealist elements; I think horror lets us explore aspects of consciousness and thought that would be difficult to tackle otherwise.
ED: How much of an influence do you think the films have on the games?
TM: There’s this eternal struggle between movies and games, and I think a lot of game developers have film envy. I get why that is; film is ubiquitous, and I think is one of the most expressive mediums ever. I think the trick for game developers is to strike a balance of being influenced by film without trying to recreate it. We need more gameplay in our games, not more cutscenes or scripted moments.
ED: We’ve seen Outlast, Slender and Amnesia all have great success on the PC with 2 of those games making it to the Xbox recently. Will Grave be released across all platforms on the same date?
TM: I can’t formally announce platform timing unfortunately. It’s just hard to say right now. We have a smaller project coming out in April and we’re hoping to use it to test out the process before we go through all the platform-specific stuff for grave. We’re a small studio, and we just don’t know exactly how hard it will be for us to hit all the certification requirements for each platform. In an ideal world, we’d like to launch everything together. If not, we’re going to do Steam and PC platforms first, then do the PS4/Xbox One editions slightly later. It all depends, so we’ll see how it goes.
ED: You advertised for backers to help fund Grave throughout it’s creation using Kickstarter. Do you think this is a great way for people that are not in the games development business to be a part of something that could be potentially huge?
TM: I really do, on both sides. For us, we absolutely would not have been able to make Grave without Kickstarter. Since we got that funding, we’ve been able to grow the concept of the game and build something that I’m really proud of. We did it with basically our own gumption and determination. I think people who are interested in getting into games should know that it can happen, even if it seems impossible. Hard work pays off when you have things like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.
For backers, I think it gives everyone the chance to be the first ones in on something that can end up being really awesome. If Grave gets really popular, our backers will have made that happen and been there before it was a big thing. I think there’s something special about being the guy who “got it” before everyone else did. We offered a lot of rewards that give people the ability to be part of the game as well, so I think that’s extra cool for those who were really passionate.
ED: Would you say that being part of an Independent games studio has its flaws or advantages when it comes to making games nowadays?
TM: Everything has trade-offs. I have worked at a couple of larger studios, and the reality is that 50 people weigh in on every decision you make. It’s part of why horror games had so much trouble through the 2000’s; if higher ups feel nervous they’ll want you to change what you’re trying to do to make it “safer.” Sometimes you’ll be working on a project for months and then find out someone at the top cancelled it or decided to scrap the work. It’s all business and sometimes wasting a little money is better for them than going farther and losing a lot.
I personally don’t have the patience for that. I want to be able to go into work each day and make real, substantial impacts with the work that I do. It’s hard because there’s no safety net or infrastructure to support us; if something doesn’t get finished it’s because one of the six of us didn’t get it done. That being said, I don’t want to make “safe” games; I want to make crazy stuff that tests the boundaries and puts us at risk for the possibility of a huge success or totally new experience. I think you can only do that if you’re independent.
ED: You were accepted into the ID@Xbox Program which has helped release games on the Xbox One such as #IDARB, Never Alone and Flockers. How do you feel that has helped you in the development of Grave and would you recommend them to game designers looking to get their game made?
TM: Well, there’s a little misunderstanding about how that works. Microsoft hasn’t been “helping” us make the game. ID@Xbox is a way for us to bring Grave to the Xbox One, which we’re thrilled to do. That being said, we’re making the game ourselves. We have gotten dev kits and resources from Microsoft for building the game to XB1, but we aren’t getting money or resources. They’re a platform, not a publisher. We’re still essentially self-publishing, and that means we’re responsible for everything at our studio, funding and managing our resources.
That being said, their team has been great to work with and they’ve done some awesome things like taking Grave to E3, which gives us the chance to show off the game and build our audience. I think everyone at Sony and Microsoft realizes that this generation is different from the previous ones, and that small studios are the ones that can tip the balance in the console war. It’s great that small teams like ours can be represented along with the big boys.
Ed: Thank you for chatting with us Tristan
Broken Window Studio’s Grave will be released later this year on the Xbox One, PS4 and P.C for more information on the game head over to www.grave-game.com
We had the chance to play the Grave Alpha Demo. Remember that this is an early Demo and a far cry from the finished game. Check it out!