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An Interview With the Man Behind Psychological Horror NEET
Horror games are quite the interesting breed. They come in all shapes and sizes, from AAA zombie slayers to indie games centering around a baby, horror is quite the diverse genre. One topic that’s never been tackled for horror games however, is being a gamer. Okay, well your average gamer might not fit the quota of a ‘NEET,’ but the premise of NEET should be relatable to many.
NEET is an acronym for Not in Education, Employment or Training, and our specific NEET in the game is the stereotypical basement/attic dweller. However, he finds his comfortable life disrupted when strange occurrences begin in his house. I caught up with the sole developer Antoine St-Jaques for an informative interview of both the game and horror titles in general.
On /v/ (4chan’s video game board), you mentioned a unique death mechanic where the level ‘restarts.’ What purpose does that mechanic serve?
This is what took me quite a while to figure out but I knew it was a problem that needed attention to make the project interesting and different. I strongly believe that breaking the rules is what makes great horror. This is why scary segments in normal video games are so spooky, you don’t expect it, and it shouldn’t be there. Think of that shark in Banjo-Kazooie. You’re running and flying around jumping on everybody’s head making the whole game your b****, but then you want to get that jinjo under the ground and the music starts, he’s coming for you but you can’t back out. You’re deep in water and it’s so slow – you feel stuck and he’s gonna get you. Inconsistency, changing things around and going from invincible to powerless really creates tension.
When you die in a horror game, the only rational thing to be scared of is to lose progress. Dying in itself has no other consequence, but you don’t think that much about that when you’re scared in the heat of the moment (except in hardcore mode but that’s out of the question). When you’re properly scared, you think about logical things such as “oh s*** he’s gonna get me” and “what the f*** was that.” One of the great things I read about horror is that people aren’t afraid of your monster, they’re afraid of being afraid.
So do you need to actually die? Could horror games be just one long masterfully orchestrated play that make you s*** your pants the whole while? I think there’s a bit of that since when you die, a couple of bad things happen (by neutralizing fear that is):
First of all death offers relief. When you’re being chased by a monster and you get caught, the tension does reach some form of climax because of the “oh s*** he got me.” Right after that? You’ll be thinking about all the progress you lost, how you’re going to approach the situation this time and you might not realize it but you’ve gained a lot of power from death and in a bad way. I’m saying in a bad way because power can give great effects. A simple example would be to give a gun to the player and after a couple enemies, a big one comes at you and the gun breaks. What do you do now? Death does not do that.
Second, You get a feel for the mechanic of the game. You kind of guess how the AI works and what you can do against it. When you know exactly how the AI of a monster works and what you can abuse to overcome the game, you’re not afraid anymore because you know what it’s gonna do in X situation, and knowing is not half the battle in horror, it’s the whole thing (not today G.I. Joe).
Third is repetition. Repetition can only bring boredom and frustration. Because you know what’s going to happen, which neutralizes all fear, but eventually all you’ll be thinking about is “can I just beat/skip this god d*** level already?” and that is not really being afraid. That’s the kind of feeling you save for cellphone companies.
So what should I do if I can’t make you die like usual games do?
I’ll try and break the rules of usual video games, and then my own rules. Because even if I don’t do death like the usual video game, you’ll get used to the way I do it.
At first I thought I could just control every death and decide that at X moment, you will die thinking you made a wrong decision/played badly. This would make it so that there’s no real challenge and death would start meaning progress. Another option is to make you THINK that you restart like in usual games but then things are a little bit different. Furniture changed place, the people now look scared of something, some scene has a slightly creepier or just different outcome. Stuff that just make you think “okay something’s weird here”. You go through the game but then you start understanding this mechanic too. So I have to change it all up again by not killing you but using other NPC’s that are given importance and emotional implications through storytelling. This can be hard to but it’s all about writing good characters.
Now, I do all this project by myself so far so can I do all these things? Well I hope so.
You’ve also mentioned a deep sea level. How will that pan out?
The deep sea level is something I’d really love to get right. Technically it has it already so I’d have to really want to mess it up.
Deep sea really is excellent in horror because the player already has all these preconceived ideas of what horrible things can hide down there and will start getting paranoid about it. Afraid of being afraid, you imagine all those things by yourself and you loathe the moment something will happen. A recurring idea in making horror is that the less you show, the better. The ocean is just this abyss notorious for it’s bad things that aren’t sushi. So take it slow and let the player think about all that for a while.
It also is a naturally gigantic open space, which by itself can freak people out sometimes. I really love the water level/boss in Shadow of the Colossus because it drops you in this huge lake and you know something surely is hiding in there. But it all comes together thanks to another element.
Ocean things usually happen to be made to go fast in the ocean. Wikipedia says one of the world records for fastest swimming speed was like 5 mph so seeing some gigantic monster coming for you reinforces the element of prey and predator a little.
The surprise of being thrown into the ocean is also great. You see this huge body of water and think “oh boy would it be a bad idea to go in there” and then something forces you to go in there and you’re all alone with your ideas.
I might play around with claustrophobia too. Submarines are scary. Being out of air is scary. A Submarine going too deep and pressure doing its thing could be interesting with a bunch of sound effects.
I have a couple of ideas but I know I’ll want feedback on the whole thing before going too far. It’d really be a shame to make a bad water level.
The game seems to be filled with some subtle scares (The back of the chair looking like a coffin) and some more upfront ones (The skull). How are you planning on balancing it out?
Sadly, horror games sometimes overuse jump-scares and even though the shock value can be high, overusing them quickly gets old and annoying. It will almost always work, but I think that jump-scares need to be few and far between and require proper build-up to really give a great effect or else it feels cheap. The skeleton is a jump-scare but I thought that the picture on the wall slowly coming out of the wall was a nice idea. You approach because the silly skeleton speaks, but then you see that something’s about to happen so you stand back and here it comes, that creepy low-poly head.
My original idea was to make a game based around the idea that everything is Mimics. If you’ve played a game with mimic chests, you’ll understand how terrifying these are. I thought, what if the save point, the inventory, the weapons would be mimics? So I really want to minimize jump-scares and focus on the other types of fear that come with uncertainty.
By changing small things subtly you make people realize that horrible things are happening. It just hits them and they feel a chill going down their spine.
For example, some guy was talking about a room in which you can peek by looking through the keyhole. You see a person facing a wall in there. If you go away and look back in the hole, all you can see is red.
You’re later told that in that very room was a murderer with a red eye. This always requires more work to pull off because you have to think about it, but I think that it really makes for great moments.
The fact that the whole game will have varied levels (the house, the forest, the deep sea level, etc) will let me explore a lot of different fears people have like mannequins, spiders and all that. It’s also fun that the idea is to break the rules because I can give the player all sorts of powers and remove them every other level. The game will stay fresh that way.
So, the whole concept of the game seems to revolve around wasted life and the NEET lifestyle. While the coffin and crib seem to represent that well, will everything be representing the ‘NEET life?’
Not everything of course but the main elements will relate to it. Like the Silent Hill games, it will be a journey through all the emotions and thoughts of the character, here facing adulthood and the world of responsibilities.
So it will certainly feel dream-like but I also want to give the world its own story, even if it’s a mysterious one. I loved how Dark Souls handled lore by putting you in a certain setting with a very vague goal and then subtly leaving things for the player to find. I’m still working on story to make sure it’s all working out. I already have a merchant character that could be really great. He’d be a skeleton/corpse hung by strings like a puppet. The strings go through the roof so you know you’re not dealing with the skeleton but with something that’s doesn’t want to be seen. For all kinds of reasons, it’d be pretty interesting.
One thing I always try to keep in mind is that this is a video game. I can make everything that comes through my mind reality if I’m clever about designing it. For example, if I want to make a forest, it doesn’t have to be filled with trees. It’s a very simple idea, but it can make for incredibly original moments.
The you.jpg idea seems pretty meta. How many other meta elements are you putting into the game?
Ah yes. If the player does replace the you.jpg texture by his own face or even someone else’s, there could be some really messed up things to do with it simply by using mirrors to reinforce the atmosphere of being in the game or by using it on other characters and maybe even monsters that shapeshift to go with a delicious The Thing segment.
I also wanted to do things that would make the player think the game broke like giving him noclip for a while but then punishing him for using it or even make the escape button stop working during very scary moments so he can’t noclip out of the game. Some people came up with the idea of changing the background image of the player’s desktop and opening the computer’s cd tray during a very tense moment but what if you had wires all over the front of your computer and opening the tray would make something fall. I’d be mad and I don’t want people to experience that either (the idea is evil as hell and would get great results though).
I was thinking that some NPCs could mention a .exe file being installed on your computer that would turn random files into screamers so the player can be paranoid about his own computer after closing the game. It would have to be done well not to break immersion but I can see it happen.
The you.jpg really has a lot of potential though since you can do everything with simple textures.
While I loved the idea of the desktop at the time and I still love it now, do you feel that the meta elements such as you.jpg could drag the player out of the game?
To be honest I really don’t know. I see both scenarios as possible (ruining or reinforcing atmosphere) so for the moment you.jpg is an optional feature. For the background image, the surprise when you want to leave the game after being scared only to find another element of the game taunting you as your background image would surely be nice to have. It could tie in with a character that controls things outside of the game world or a specific story where the conclusion is only told after you close the game. What I’m going to do is have friends test it with and without it when I get more content to see what they think and if it might be better to just abandon the idea.
In other words, your opinion is as good as mine.
What other horror titles are inspiring NEET?
The game will have its own unique style but of course the classic Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and Fatal Frame series are very great mentors to name a few. There are segments that were very special in each game of the series and are worth adapting to NEET but there are also lessons to take from them as to what shouldn’t come back.
I’m studying and reading a lot about great moments in non-horror games. Moments like the cradle level in Thief 3, how to give a feeling of dread like Majora’s Mask did or simply the more creepy monsters in Ocarina of Time‘s shadow temple. All of these get their fear factor in the fact that power is taken from you and you don’t know how to deal with it – the struggle if you want.
I think that horror in other mediums like movies and books are also worth taking inspiration from. What made those movies and books great? How did they make the user feel these emotions? It’s very interesting to learn about all that and trying to apply it to video games.
One final question, any shoutouts you would like to make?
I already have to thank the people who participated in the threads for sharing all these great discussions and helping me shape up the game. I hope I can make all these great ideas come to reality and that the game will be as good as it can sound on paper.
And thanks to you for giving me the opportunity to share my ideas.
Thanks to Antoine for allowing me to pick his brain, and check out his blogspot for updates on the game!