(Disclaimer: I originally wrote this post a year ago, but never shared it here.)
As a video game designer and producer myself, I sometimes have to take a step back and examine the state of the medium as a whole, ask questions of How, Who, and Why? And tonight I find myself focusing on a particular subset of the horror game genre, that of survival indie horror. And in particular, I find myself asking:
How do these games start off so beautifully well, sky-rocketing to not just inobscurity but almost household names, before suddenly and immediately plummeting to their own demise?
I'm talking about games like Hello Neighbor, We Happy Few, Bendy and the Ink Machine, and to a different extent but still meteoric fall, Five Nights at Freddy's, and Poppy's Playtime. Games that, when they were introduced, they were so hugely popular, such massive hits, that many of them even received toy deals, often before the game had even been completed. Games that seemed to capture the entire gaming community as a whole, before suddenly, irrevocably losing every millimeter of that standing.
And I think I have an answer, but it's not an answer indie game developers are going to like.
Each of these games has excellent character design, particularly for the "villains", the characters out to get you. Every single one of them. They're all memorable, even from a brief introduction; they all stand out, and make the player want to know more. What exactly is happening with Freddy Fazbear, that animatronic puppet character from a children's pizzaria? What happened to Bendy, a seemingly fully-living, possibly even fully-sapient creature made entirely of cartoonist's ink? Why is the neighbor, seemingly just a crotchety old man except his house is absolutely bonkers, obsessed to the point of killing the player character with keeping the inside of his house a secret? What's going on with the people in We Happy Few, seemingly twisted into terrifying mockeries of humanity by some sort of drug?
In each of these cases, we the community got a taste.
In some, that taste was ostensibly the game. Five Nights at Freddy's is itself a standalone, albeit extremely simple and rather short. Bendy and the Ink Machine released "Chapter One" as seemingly its own standalone piece, that would then tie in with more games later. Still others, that taste was an open beta, or even perhaps an open alpha. Hello Neighbor and We Happy Few fall into this category, with the latter even billing itself as something of a "playable teaser" for the full game. We got a taste of what the game was going to be, and that taste was really, REALLY good. We wanted more.
But then, the "more" came. Bendy Chapter Two came out. The full release of Hello Neighbor and We Happy Few came out. Five Nights at Freddy's 2, then 3, then 4, then Sister Location, then FNAF World, then— You get the idea.
Not invariably—in the case of Bendy and FNAF, it took several additional pieces—but as we got a bigger taste, the full concept wasn't very good. We Happy Few turned out to be a series of short, disjointed pieces taking place in this world, and each piece was frustratingly bad. Hello Neighbor introduced the story, and the backstory of the neighbor, and it was just... not that great. Bendy, as the games continued, they felt like they wore on; new characters were being added, but nothing new was being introduced. And FNAF, hoo boy, FNAF.
The problem is threefold:
- Either the game wasn't originally fully fleshed-out upon release of the first piece, or else it otherwise hadn't been given really good thought. With FNAF, this is slightly more understandable; the first game really was supposed to be it. The success of the first game is what drove Cawthon to make more, to come up with such a massive convoluted mess (that then culminates in one of the most broken games of modern times, FNAF: Security Breach). But, in every other case, the problem was, they had an idea for a villain, or they had a neat idea for a game even, they just didn't have a good idea for a narrative. Which brings us to point 2.
- The creator, in each case, wasn't a writer. If you've ever read Scott Cawthon's books, they're terrible. We Happy Few had some of the worst stories in modern gaming, both because there was no understanding of character AND no understanding of narrative. Hello Neighbor almost feels like it wasn't supposed to even HAVE a narrative, like one was thrust upon it to make it feel like a "full game", like you just shelled out $50 for a game that was free before, for a good reason. Bendy, it feels like they had a concept for that character, and they kinda spilled all the beans in the first part (even though it wasn't explicitly stated, it was still super-easy to figure out), so they had to keep "putting off" that reveal by extending the story, introducing more characters that befell the same fate—willingly or no. They showed their hand at the beginning and tried to "fix" it by hoping everyone would forget over time. (Spoiler alert: They forgot, all right.)
- Because each game was "teased", the end result that people expected and wanted could never have been what the end result was going to be. There were many and varied fan theories for each game, some of them absolutely wild! But, part of completing the narrative is necessarily ripping off the bandage; people can speculate, "Ooh, I bet it's nasty under there!" or "Oh gosh, did he get in a fight with the neighbor dog?" until it's revealed it was just a poison ivy rash. And for some, that's what they wanted, that's what they expected. But in each of these cases, the fan theories got so wildly out of control, and again, rarely did the creators have an actual endgame in mind.
Let's take a look at where something like that went exceptionally well: Steven Universe.
Steven Universe is ostensibly a silly kids show about the titular character and his "family", the Crystal Gems. As the series went on, many themes turned quite dark, and the fan theories again went WAY out there. BUT, the series creator had the whole thing mapped out from the start, literally months before it was even pitched to Cartoon Network. She knew what she was doing, and she did each reveal spectacularly well.
Was each reveal what people wanted, or even expected? No, of course not. But, in each case, it was understandable, because every last element of the reveal was present from the very beginning. The series didn't lose popularity as these reveals happened; it gained it! And even when the series was over, it was so wildly successful that they made a movie, AND a second series. (Even so, again, the creator knew what she was doing!)
So, what are my recommendations to aspiring indie horror game creators?
- Flesh out the entire concept BEFORE you produce one single line of code. Have the character designs down; know WHY they act the way they do. Know where the story's going to go, what's going to happen, both within that entry and perhaps in continuation, if that's what you want to do.
- If you don't know narrative, either take classes or hire a writer. Seriously. This is so dramatically important, I can't really stress that enough.
- I know this one's going to get a lot of hate, but: If you're going to tease your game, don't make it playable. Or, if you do, just be absolutely certain you've hit the first two recommendations. Even if you don't mean to, if the world is fully fleshed-out, your details will tell the player quite a bit, and keep everything consistent and possibly even within, if not expectations, then at least the realm of possibility.
You do these three things, I'm not going to guarantee you'll build gold, but you'll be far more likely.