If there is one game genre that always inspires scepticism in me (besides how awkward it is we use film genres for games, but that’s a discussion for another day), it is horror. Don’t get me wrong though, I thoroughly enjoyed (and still enjoy) the first four Silent Hill games and Resident Evil 2.
However, the line between enjoyable romp and frustration can usually be boil down to year of release. The games of old managed a blend of combat and vulnerability. In contrast you have on one side the action-horror title: where you’re stuck with so much ammo in your pockets thatyour trousers risk falling to your ankles. On the other hand you might be trapped in a walking simulator horror title where you creep from corner to corner using only the most basic stealth mechanics while punishing you for observing what you’re meant to avoid (likely so your imagination ramps the fear factor up in ways art struggles with).
This is without dipping into the glee developers seem to get when the publisher forgets to yank back on the leash, and they fill the title with jump scares. Don’t even get me started on if a horror game should or should not scare and how much (mostly because the genre classification in games still sucks).
So I was at first partially dismissive when I saw Syndrome at EGX Rezzed, mentally chalking it as “eh, walking simulator in the dark or massacre simulator of ghoulies.” Digging more into it, and trying it out at EGX Rezzed, it seemed to have more similarities with horror games of old like System Shock (just, well, without the RPG elements). So I became curious of if this would scratch the itch of old.
I interviewed Ricardo Cesteiro, managing partner and producer at Camel 101, about how Syndrome differentiates itself while revisiting the past.
Kailan May: How will Syndrome balance between being an action-horror title (e.g. Evil Within) and being a straight-horror walking simulator (e.g. Amnesia: The Dark Decent), instead existing in the Resident Evil/System Shock sweet spot?
Ricardo Cesteiro: When we started working on this game, there was one major idea that we had in mind. It was that the player should be vulnerable, but not completely vulnerable. If the player has access to a huge arsenal, he’s not vulnerable. He’s just fighting enemies in a horror setting. But we also didn’t want to repeat the formula of running and hiding from the monsters.
It all comes down to giving the player a chance to fight but with limited weapons. In Syndrome, the player can find several different weapons, but ammo is very scarce, which means it must be wisely spent in the toughest encounters. Most of the times the player will have the option to fight, hide or create distractions.
KM: How will your game balance between having your melee weapon be a dead-weight or an over-powered tool of destruction?
RC: The melee weapon in Syndrome is the only one that doesn’t require ammunition. But it spends stamina, which means that the player can’t keep striking the enemies over and over. Stamina recovers over time, so the player also needs to block enemy attacks before attacking. Since running requires stamina too, the player won’t be able to run away if he keeps attacking the enemy.
(this feature wasn’t implemented yet on the EGX Rezzed build)
When mastered, this weapon can be somewhat effective against the basic monsters, but it will be almost useless against the most powerful ones.
KM: Some horror games in the past have featured a sanity metre (e.g. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem), will your game feature a mechanic like it?
RC: The main character is a bit troubled, as he’s suffering from hallucinations and lack of memory.
This all ties in with the story, but it has no specific mechanic.
KM:The mechanic of having a map has seen a mixed history in the past, with different amounts of information being displayed (e.g. where you’ve been, where to go, where you are, if doors are locked, any misc notes) assuming you even have a map. How will your map mechanic work?
RC: Another thing that had in mind with this game, is that we didn’t want to spoon-feed the player, telling him exactly where he needed to go and what to do. But we didn’t want him to feel helpless too. Again it’s a question of balance.
The player has access to a floor map that details where which specific room is. And the objectives will tell the player what he needs to do. So it’s somewhat easy to understand what needs to be done without having an arrow pointing to the exact location of the next objective.
There are also subtle hints and data logs that can be found by searching around in lockers, computers etc. These sometimes provide useful information like the location of keys or passwords.
KM: How will Syndrome handle saving?
RC: We’re going with a more classic approach in Syndrome.
There are specific locations spread around the ship where the player can save the game. He can go there anytime and save the progress. There’s no quick-save, though. It’s all up to the player.
KM: There has been a trend in horror games to favour dark and rustic corridors that tend to blur together into a confusing frustrating mess, seemingly afraid to use colour and light at all as though it will remove all the horror from a game despite effective use in the past. Even when trying your game in the EGX Rezzed demo, I found myself getting lost in the dark rustic corridors of the ship, without a torch on hand. Will Syndrome‘s corridors be constantly dark and shades of grey and brown?
RC: The action in Syndrome takes place aboard a ship. The ship has 8 decks: the lower floors have the machinery and cargo bays, and are darkest and dirtier. The upper flowers have the living areas and the officer’s quarters. These are clean and shiny.
We want to create the feeling of going down = getting darker, even though we’re inside the ship. So yeah, we have variety of colors and environments in different areas of the ship.
And the player finds a flashlight shortly after starting the game, so he won’t be lost in complete darkness.
KM: What type of scares will Syndrome contain and how will it achieve the style?
RC: We’re going with a more atmospheric horror style.
A horror game is all about immersion and tension, and we’re doing by creating a place that feels alive, so that it feels really scary. If we fail to immerse the player, then the place won’t feel scary. We play a lot with shadows, lights and sounds, but the whole story and narrative add up a lot to the fear factor too. Not just the particular details of what’s going on with the main character, but also the backstory of what happened with the crew of the ship. These can be learned by picking up text logs / journals from dead crew members.
We tried to avoid the typical jump scares, as they get repetitive and frustrating after a while.
KM: Will your game be story heavy or favour focusing on just providing a horror environment?
RC: We focused on both: a strong narrative and an immersive horror environment.
As I mentioned before, the main character is suffering from a few mental issues: lack of memory and hallucinations. Shortly after starting the game, he’ll meet two other characters over the radio that will try to help him. But each one of them has a different version of what happened in the ship.
So everything will be a bit confusing in the start. He doesn’t know who to trust, and he doesn’t even know if everything he sees is real. As the game progresses, the story unravels and he slowly recovers his memory. But things don’t end there. There’ll still be a situation that needs to be solved. So yes, we’re putting a lot of effort into creating a powerful story.
KM: How will Syndrome deliver its story?
RC: We’re trying to create a really immersive experience, so we decided to stay away from cutscenes. The use of cutscenes gives us more options while unraveling the story or highlighting a particular event, but they also break immersion. Whenever a cutscene starts, the controls are taken away from the player. His mental state automatically goes into a “safe area,” as no one can harm him during a cutscene.
We decided that whenever something happens in Syndrome, like dialogs or random events, the action is never taken away from the player. Like this, things are always totally unexpected (or so we hope).
KM: What will you be creeping around hiding from? Will there be one enemy type through-out the game (akin to Amnesia: The Dark Decent) or various types of different strengths (akin to Resident Evil)?
RC: There are several types of enemies in the game, each with their own strengths. The most basic enemies are slow and not too strong. Others are just faster, and then there are some really strong guys that are almost impossible to outrun. Some of them also have particular weakness that the player can use to his advantage.
The enemies are constructs made of mixed flesh and machine.
KM: Will these beings of flesh and steel be new creations to the universe (lore wise) or will they be familiar territory for the main character?
RC: The creatures are a complete surprise to the character, and to everyone else. Before the incident aboard the spaceship, no one ever had any contact with them.
It’s the first contact, so it’s unfamiliar territory for everyone.
KM: Will there be VR capability and how do you think it will affect playing Syndrome?
RC: Yes, we’re working on Oculus support right now. We’re aiming to have it available upon release. We’ll probably add Vive support too after release, since we’re a bit time constrained to do it now.
VR can make a game really come alive. It’s the difference of playing a game or being inside a game. That’s one of the reasons why we want Syndrome to be really immersive: like I mentioned before, cutscenes can break the immersion, but in VR it’s even worse. So when we started development, we already had this in mind.
Horror games are currently some of the best experiences to be played in VR so, we definitely think that Syndrome will be great too.
KM: Do you have a release date yet? Is there any confirmed platforms it will be on and do you have a price in mind for it?
RC: We’re aiming for a June / July release on PC, PS4, Xbox One, Mac and Linux.
As for the price, we can’t say yet.
When I got to try Syndrome out, as I said in the interview, I did have problems with it. The map environment I stumbled around in was in the lower decks where it was dark and shades of brown and grey. It even got to the point where I had to ask the developer to help me, as without a torch I managed to get lost in a T junction corridor. There was also the concern of how I was easily able to get into a rhythm quickly of beating a cyborg off with my wrench to kill it (although it took a lot of hits).
However, if the game follows the path the developer laid out in the answers I got, I believe it stands a strong chance of being an interesting horror game. This is especially considering it’ll hopefully have VR support on release, which I believe lends itself perfectly to atmospherically scary horror games. Although the atmospheric horror genre is a balancing beam that, while tricky to nail, is always satisfying when it is pulled off.
You can find Syndrome here.