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  • Permadeath As A Mechanic In Survival Horror

    [12.19.19]
    - Carlos Garcia de la Filia
  • When we started working on Song of Horror, we wanted the game to be focused on two pillars: we wanted players to feel defenseless against The Presence, the AI entity that adapts to their gameplay, and we also wanted permadeath to be an important trait of the game. After five years of developing Song of Horror, we believe we have accomplished both.

    Implementing permadeath in a narrative-driven game can be a tricky feature. How do you design a game with unique characters in a way that each and every one of them can add something to the story? How do you design it so you can continue investigating if they die?

    At Protocol Games, we didn't want players to experience Song of Horror as a game where you have lives. Instead, we believed those lives might be represented by other characters. So, if you die in Song of Horror, that death means something. This means you won't be able to play with that character again. And that decision has its consequences: from a gameplay perspective, some are better than others at investigating, while there are a few that are best suited to fend off The Presence's attacks. And, from a purely emotional standpoint, picking your favorite character means you get to play with them and experience their personal viewpoint, but it also means you're putting them at risk.

    We also felt you needed one central character. Daniel, that has to survive the whole story, but we liked the idea of having a supporting cast of individuals that you can lose forever if they die. This doesn't mean that Daniel can't die. He can, but his death will be similar to what happens when you die in a roguelike or when you run out of time in the original Prince of Persia: you go back to the beginning... or do you? This kind of absolute permadeath makes sense when the average run time before the loss of a character is short enough, but not when players might be forced to, in essence, repeat multiple hours of content. So we reached a compromise: it would not be a pure permadeath that sets you back the whole game, but rather one that takes you to the beginning of the current episode, which is also what happens if you lose all available characters for a given episode in which Daniel takes no part.

    Let's put it this way: we split the black-and-white mechanic of permadeath into several shades of gray, the lightest being for his companions and the darkest meant for Daniel himself. And that's why we believe that having this group of people will be interesting: players will have their favorites. It is interesting to create some sort of bond with the player: What will happen to them? Where are their limits in the investigation?

    Song of Horror is a narrative-driven game and Daniel's story is central to it: we follow him since the moment he gets trapped by the music box's melody until he discovers everything that's behind it.

    If Daniel is lost, his journey would cease to make sense; that's why we chose to let other characters leave the investigation in hands of another to support the main arc.

    Permadeath and its effects on narrative

     It sounds complex and, believe us, it has been difficult to implement. Writing a story knowing that you have a bunch of characters that may -or may not- make it until the end has been a challenge.

    From the very beginning, we were convinced that we wanted a game that paid a tribute to the classics of the genre. We played Resident EvilSilent Hill or Fatal Frame when we were young. These are games with strong characters driving the story. Sometimes, their strength comes not only from having a strong lead but from a group of supporting characters that help you create a richer atmosphere. It is also a great tool for game mechanics since it allows you to introduce different playstyles.

    To accomplish this, it was also important to avoid any mechanic related to shooting guns or any other weapons. To prevent players from feeling safe we needed to encourage them to run, hide and struggle with The Presence, and the only way to do it was by eliminating any temptation to give them tools that felt really powerful, such as a shotgun, that made them feel indestructible. It was absolutely necessary in order to generate the creepy atmosphere we were looking for, while also portraying what The Presence is about. We didn't want to create an enemy you defeat by shooting at it.

    Our approach to this idea of a group of characters that would support the lead was simple: we didn't want to introduce them all at once. Instead, we wanted players to unveil them as the story unfolds. That way, we ensure several things: we keep each Song of Horror episode fresh, with new additions to the cast that offer new ways to investigate. But, more importantly, we manage to keep up the tempo: if a player could choose any of the characters from the very beginning, we'd risk all of them dying very soon in the game. It was crucial to avoid this in order to prevent Song of Horror from turning into a monotonous game.

    In the end, we have 13 playable characters, but we have managed to group them in a way that introduces only two to three new ones in every episode. How you manage them and how you keep them alive is up to you. The idea might remind you of the mechanics in classic games such as Maniac Mansion: every individual has unique traits that will help you in different ways during the investigation.

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