Ever felt like you were being watched? Me too, although this was probably because, well, I was…virtually at least, in Camel 101’s fantastically spooky new psychological horror, Those Who Remain (review here!). But what does it take to make a game genuinely scary and is the process as straight forward as some people think?
We here at GGS Towers reached out to two people very well acquainted with the genre, brothers Riccardo and Bruno Cesteiro (pictured below), the actual creators of Those Who Remain and self-confessed horror geeks, to see what the thought process behind the game was, whether they faced any particular challenges while developing it, and whether heavy breathing really is as important a sound effect as we think it is.
- Fear is a fundamental reaction that we all feel and many actively choose to seek out – that’s why we’re going to play Those Who Remain! How difficult is it to reproduce such an emotion in a game?
“It’s easy to scare a player, but it’s not that easy to cause fear. Any loud noise or sudden movement can momentarily scare the player – the typical jumpscare. Many horror games and movies rely solely on jumpscares to create a scary experience, but that doesn’t really work in my opinion. An overuse of this technique gets repetitive, predictable and annoying. That’s why one of the first design decisions that we made when we started the game, was that we were going to avoid using jumpscares. We don’t want to scare the player when he opens a door, just because someone appears screaming in front of the camera – we want the player to be afraid of what he’ll find behind the door. To achieve this, we created a tense and oppressive environment that keeps the player on edge, as he’s always being watched by creatures in the dark. While the player is apparently safe while staying in the light, he knows that a light can fail or something might go wrong, leaving him in the dark with the creatures. It’s not about building scary moments, but about building a scary environment that never leaves the player feeling completely safe. The world building and narrative needs to be on point with the progression of the story, giving clues and hints about what’s going on, but never revealing everything until the end of the adventure. Not knowing what the hell is going on can be scary too”
- When people think of fear they often think of things that go bump in the night but it’s the eerie screenshots from the game that make me feel most uneasy! How big a part does the environment play in a game such as this?
“The environment is especially important in Those Who Remain. One of the main mechanics of the game is that the player can’t go into the dark. There are shadowy figures in the darkness who will attack and kill whoever gets close. They’re always there, calmly waiting for the someone to approach or for a light to fail. The only weapon the player has to fight them is the light. It can be any light source: a lamp, a lighter, fire, a spotlight, etc. If it has light, it will make the shadow figures go away. The environment itself, or how to use it, is one of the puzzles of the game”
- Were there any moments during production when you feared the game wasn’t scary enough? And if so, what did you do to tweak them (if you’re able to say)?
“There was an interesting moment right at the start, when we were still designing some of the creatures of the game. We had a sort of wraiths that floated in the dark, and a giant crawling monster that appeared in specific places in the game. There was nothing wrong with their design, but after making a few tests, we felt that these monsters weren’t as scary as we wanted. I think because they felt so alien, so different from reality, that kind of broke the immersion. So we went back to the drawing board, and replaced the wraiths with the shadow people – dark humanoid figures with glowing eyes, who stand in the dark following the player with their gaze. The simple fact that they look like humans is so much scary than the monstrous creatures that we had before”
- Did you have to do much research in the way of fear itself or did you just rely on what you knew and thought was scary and went from there?
“We’re massive horror geeks ourselves, so we consume a lot of different horror media: games, movies, books and even immersive horror experiences. Sometimes it happens that I’m watching some movie and I notice something – either visual or narrative – that I really like, and I think to myself “this would fit nicely in a videogame”. So I would say that most of our background comes naturally, as we make a lot of research just by watching or reading things that we like. We did make a lot of research about demons and demonology, which was a lot of fun too. Yes – there’s a demon in the game”
- Was there a particular thing that inspired you to create Those Who Remain?
“There were several inspirations – what’s interesting is that most of them aren’t exactly horror. Twin Peaks is probably the biggest inspiration for the setting. Dormont, the fictional town where the action takes place, could be easily compared to Twin Peaks – it also looks like a calm and peaceful place where nothing special is going on, but it is in fact, harbouring dark secrets just beneath the surface. I’m a huge fan of David Lynch, and the way he blends everyday stuff with all the surreal weirdness that’s so typical of his work. We tried to capture some of that feeling too in the game. Stranger Things was another major inspiration. We were playing around with the idea of having portals and different dimensions, and how that would work in the game. Then came along Stranger Things with its upside down and we thought “this is it”. So we created our own version of the upside down, which is obviously different, with different rules and meanings, but that does carry some similarity. The shadow creatures that stand in the dark are quite reminiscent of the ghosts from John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, so there’s a bit of that too. Like I said, we’re huge horror geeks, so there are a lot of influences at play here. We did include several references and Easter eggs spread out throughout the game, as a way of paying homage to stuff that we love”
- The heavy breathing in the trailer almost put me on edge as much as the visuals! How essential are the sound effects to games like this?
“Sound effects are VERY important in this game. We decided early on that we didn’t want to have music, as it can break the immersion of the player. It works in movies, it works in action games, but in horror games, it’s debatable. We wanted the player to be fully immersed in what he was saying, so the plan was always to focus on environmental sound effects. So, we started placing a few sounds ourselves, here and there, to see how it felt. We’re not audio designers ourselves, but we can do the minimum. It sounded really good, we were happy. Further down the line, we got the help of two really talented sound designers, who remade everything. When they came aboard, we saw the huge difference that their work made, and how our previous sounds were really not up to the required standard. Sound is always important, but it’s especially important in a scary exploration game like Those Who Remain”
- I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume that you all enjoy games like this(?). How important was that with regard to working on Those Who Remain? Was there anyone on the team who didn’t like these types of games? How did they handle it?
“That is a very correct assessment, we all enjoy this kind of games. I think it’s very important to work on something that we enjoy ourselves, as we can place ourselves (or at least try) on the other side of the screen, and imagine what the player will feel. It’s completely different than working on a genre that we don’t have a strong connection with. That’s when it becomes more like work and less like passion. Working on this game has obviously been a lot of work, but above all it’s been like our own piece of art, built with passion. We tend to choose genres that appeal to everyone in the team, so that everyone is really motivated to work on it. It is probably also worth noting that we are a small team of 3 core people”
- In your opinion(s), what’s been the best horror title that you can remember playing?
“Choosing one is always difficult. The Resident evil series has a special place in my heart, but the game that made me scream the most in the recent years was probably Alien Isolation”
9. I’ve fantastic memories of being completely freaked out by Silent Hill way back when. Those Who Remain reminds me a little of this, for whatever reasons. Is it flattering to hear comparisons like that from the community or would you rather not hear them?
“It’s a double-edged sword, really. Of course that it’s incredibly flattering to hear someone compare our game to Silent Hill or Alan Wake, as these are games that we grew up playing ourselves, games that left a mark in history and in the genre. On the other hand, it’s a bit scary to see that comparison, as that can lead to really high expectations, and we obviously can’t create a game on the same level as a studio with a budget hundreds of times bigger than ours. It always leaves a smile on my face, though. It feels incredibly rewarding”
- For gamers not a fan of the genre, how would you convince them to give Those Who Remain a shot?
“Those Who Remain is not a typical, classic horror game. Not only is it not based on jumpscares, but it also has a few gameplay twists that make it stand apart from the competition. One of them I already explained before – the fact that the player needs to use light to clear a path through the dark. The other is that the player will have to travel through an alternate dimension, something that feels like a twisted version of our own reality. And what happens in one reality, affects the other. These two twists allow us to have an extra layer of complexity in the puzzles, as the player needs to pay attention to both planes of reality. We also have a deep emotional narrative that addresses sensitive subjects like bullying, infidelity, and suicide – and that will hopefully stay on the player’s mind after finishing the game. There are also three different endings based on the player’s actions. Since the whole premise of the game is choices and consequences, we want players to feel the weight of their actions too”
- A few years back, when I was working a QA late shift on Alien: Isolation, I remember a tester screaming when the alien jumped out at them at one point – they’d been completely immersed! During the production process did anyone manage to freak themselves out like this while working on a particular part of the game late at night or something?
“Let me start by saying I answered Alien Isolation in a previous question before reading this. I completely understand what that tester felt, there was a lot of screaming and cursing in this house when I played that game. There were a few episodes when that happened, but only a couple of times. We’re a very small team, so we know the game and all its ramifications like the back of our hand. But something more interesting happened in a few places of the game. When the game was in ALPHA, we started testing the game with closed groups in partner schools and universities. These tests were extremely important for us, not to catch bugs, but to identify the complexity of the puzzles and game flow. If there was something too hard, we would add a new tip or clue; if it was too easy, we would make it more complex. And so, in the first of these test sessions, I was walking around the room while everyone was playing with their headphones on, and I started noticing the testers were getting scared in places that weren’t supposed to be scary. We didn’t plan anything special for that particular area, but they were getting scared nonetheless. That episode left a smile on my face. In that moment, I knew that we had achieved exactly what we were aiming for”
It’s awesome to get an insight into the minds behind the games we’ve loved playing, especially when they’re as in depth and honest as these. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as we enjoyed asking them! Those Who Remain is out now on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, and Mac OS.