I’m sure you’ve heard it said before: MMORPGs make for some pretty awful horror games. The trouble, I think, is that many staples of the medium – a deep, involved narrative, powerful psychological elements and a horrifying sense of isolation – are either extremely difficult or effectively impossible to achieve in a multiplayer environment. For most developers, it’s hardly even worth trying – far better to craft a fantastic single-player experience to be fondly remembered than try one’s hand at an MMO and fail miserably.
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking – what if it were actually possible to scare people – to well and truly terrify them – in a multi-player environment. What if it were actually possible to craft a full-featured, successful horror MMO? What might it look like, and what sort of features might it have?
Let’s find out, shall we?
This is probably the most important element of any horror game, bar none. If you can’t create an unnerving, discomforting atmosphere, your game’s fairly likely to fall flat. Pulling this off in an MMO is understandably more difficult than pulling it off in a standard horror title – you’ve got a completely different environment to work with, after all. One thing I’d highly recommend is that you play with light, vision, and, most importantly sound. As I mentioned in my review of A Machine For Pigs, the soundtrack was one of the chief reasons the game turned out as frightening as it was.
While there’s nothing wrong with setting up the game so that players, if they so choose, can kill one another, but it shouldn’t be a vital component of the game. Cross-faction warfare is all well and good in a traditional MMO…but this isn’t a traditional MMO we’re discussing here. Developers shouldn’t underestimate the value of forcing players to work together to survive, as well; that can actually be even nastier than fostering competition, as you’ll soon see.
This is yet one more difficult element to infuse into an MMO. To put it simply, a great many people who play MMOs aren’t like to be terribly interested in story-line. As such, in order to infuse this horror game with a story, we’re going to have to get creative. Peppering the environment with set-pieces that offer macabre hints regarding the narrative is a good start…but where do we go from there? Journal entries? Quests? NPCs?
Ultimately, I think what needs to happen is that any horror MMO worth its salt needs to be terrifying without necessarily needing a story, then have an underlying narrative that makes things even more frightening to those few who clue into it.
This is important for the success of any MMO, but particularly vital here. In your run-of-the-mill MMORPG, a glitch or bug can be somewhat frustrating, even game-breaking. Maybe you won’t be able to finish a quest or something along those lines. Irritating, no?
In a horror game, however, a bug can completely break immersion, snapping the player away from their anxiety and back to the real world in moments. For a horror MMO to truly work, there needs to be a few bugs and gameplay glitches as possible.
Jump scares are alright if used sparingly, and with proper build-up. The problem is that too many horror games overuse them. In this case, we can’t just throw our scare tactics into the faces of our players, nor can we hurl legions of monsters at them. That sort of thing doesn’t work so well in standard horror games; in an MMO it’d be positively ridiculous.
Instead, we need to be smart about how things are done.
Suffice it to say, a traditional combat and leveling system might not work in a horror title. I’ve heard multiple times from multiple players that you’re most afraid when you’re absolutely helpless. There needs to be some way to translate this into an MMO. If we’re going for a more competitive bent, we can allow players to attack one another with impunity, but make their combat tactics and weaponry positively useless against whatever monsters we throw their way.
Otherwise, perhaps it’s best if we tone down on the weaponry and spells. Might be a good idea to nix classes, too, and focus on adaptability as key to survival. Not a bad idea, that.
I have two words that will instantly make any WoW veteran groan and facepalm: Barrens Chat. The social nature of the MMORPG is also its ultimate downfall when it comes to truly instilling horror. It’s more than a little difficult to be truly afraid when some fourteen year old is babbling about what he did to your mother last night while everyone else goes on about how much they hate (or love) Obama/America/Christianity/Soccer Moms/Crocs.
What I propose, then, is this: Aside, perhaps, from team chat or safe-house conversation, get rid of global chat. Players can still maintain friends lists and send messages between them, but they won’t have to worry about distraction from walls upon walls of text. Also, it might be good to prevent the game from displaying names except in ‘safe zones’, or implement some sort of naming restriction.
One thing I’m a huge fan of is toying with a players’ perception. The game could make use of traditional MMORPG tropes – a dungeon looks at first like it’s filled with monsters, but then ends up being completely empty, with nothing but hollow whispers echoing off the walls. Layouts could change at a moments notice, items might disappear or reappear without warning, and auditory and visual hallucinations could be a regular occurrence. Of course, we’d need to occasionally have the hallucinations appear to be real (this should be done at random) to keep players on their toes.
In short, by making the player question pretty much everything about their perception of the world around them, they can be automatically predisposed to fear. One particular devious idea that’s come to mind is thus: the players are being hunted by a particularly gruesome monster. At some point, one of the two players in a party can hallucinate their comrade being killed by the monster – or better yet, either becoming it or simply disappearing. At that point, the game triggers a switch, and the player being subjected to the hallucination is cut off from all contact with their comrade for the duration. By the time they realize what happened, they’ll likely have already panicked.
One particularly cruel tactic could be to give the players good reason not to trust one another. In a competitive game, this is only normal; in a fully co-operative game, this could make any group yo
u form a harrowing experience unless you’re working with trusted friends. Perhaps certain creatures can possess allies without them realizing it. They act as normal for a time, until – snap – they’re attacking their friends.
The nature of an MMO that makes a horror game difficult to do could easily be turned around to make the experience even more terrifying. Players wouldn’t just be frantically searching for monsters – they’d also be looking over their shoulders at one another.
Two words: procedural generation. If players expect something to happen, they won’t be as frightened when it does. By using randomly-generated maps, monsters, and the like. an MMO can keep everyone on edge, as even veteran players won’t know exactly what’s coming around the next bend.