Having beaten SOMA recently, I was curiously delving into the story, admiring the gorgeous, thoughtful, detailed, realistic environments created by Frictional Games, when I realized how much work and love must be put into the process of game developing.
It took them nearly five years to finally release a masterfully crafted masterpiece in science fiction storytelling and horror genre. Not only did they spend this time on the game itself, but also on the whole behind-the-scenes background being a great appendix to the plot. Maybe SOMA is not the most beautiful triple A game of 2015 technically, but it surely is amazing in terms of emotional quality, which is actually quite rare.
Let's think about it, why is there so many platformers, first-person shooters, third-person slashers or casual arcade games every year? Because they are relatively easy to make. I am not trying to question whether they are good or not, I want to point out that they need a different kind of effort than RPGs, adventure games or horrors.
Platformers have the simplest mechanics and do not require sophisticated engines, one just needs basic physics, some sprites and maybe basic plot. For shooters, most time is spent on level designing and mechanics, but there is not much philosophy in throwing dozens of similar enemies in the player's face. Arcade games are simple by definition, there is not much room to comment here.
Now, RPGs are probably the most complex, along with strategy games. In order to immerse the player into a virtual world a lot of work must be put into designing this world, which should appear to be lively and feel real to pull the player in. Without a really engaging story and challenging yet logical puzzles, adventure games are worthless. And horror games? Having a good bit of everything mentioned in the last two paragraphs, they need more!
Sophisticated 3D engine is crucial to immerse the player, including physics making the virtual world feel real, well-thought, preferably not too complicated mechanics, with almost no visible interface. Level designing is the hardest part. The player must believe that the world that he is looking at could actually be a reality, not only a pure fantasy. The game must play with the player's emotions, know when to scare and when to calm them down, since too long exposure to tension in darkness is going to make them used to it. Sounds also are an important factor. Lack of fitting sounds would decrease the quality of a horror game by at least fifty percent.
It must be also noticed that the player's death in horror games must be prevented as much as possible, yet at the same time they should be given thrilling challenges and senses of accomplishment. A typical game usually does something completely opposite! Dying is the essential part of most of them, whereas in horrors death most likely equals ruined immersion and ruined everything that makes the horror game a truly terrifying experience.
To make the world believable and engaging, the player must participate in a terrific story, a story of a person who behaves like a real human being in such life-threatening circumstances, not like an indestructible superhero. It must make the player want to explore places where one does not want to be in.
And where are enemies? Should they even be there? Should the player be given a weapon to be able to fight them? If monsters can be defeated or easily outrun, how can they be scary? If there is a terrific atmosphere, maybe the game does not need any monsters at all.
It is truly difficult to create a good horror experience. There is just so many things that can go wrong and only one of them must fall down to bring all the others with it. No other genre is trying to control the player's emotions as much as horrors. What is the worst, I consider Frictional Games the worldwide masters in this field, yet room for improvement can still be seen. Anyway, I am certain that we can expect better horrors with each year passing by, which is kind of scary in its own way...