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Sandbox Survival Horror

“I forgot how scary Minecraft was when you aren’t on peaceful. They should reclassify it from sandbox to survival horror.”

This is something a friend of mine said to me yesterday. He meant it as a silly little joke, but it really got me thinking. Have we ever had a sandbox horror game before?

All logic and common sense about game design would state that a sandbox horror game simply wouldn’t work. Horror demands a great deal of careful pacing, and a nonlinear game simply cannot offer that. Even a great deal of linear “horror” games fail to offer that — I’ve said as much regarding FEAR 2 and DOOM 3. I’ve heard similar complaints about the Dead Space series, though I haven’t played much of it so I can’t really say.

Still though, my curiosity has certainly been piqued, and I’d really like to see a sandbox horror game attempted. I can imagine a game where you’re able to explore different areas of a dark, scary gameworld infested by powerful monsters you have to avoid.

Interestingly, the closest I think we’ve come to a sandbox horror game would be Minecraft, which I suppose is fitting, since that’s what brought up the subject. Even though the entire world is procedurally generated, it still can be very spooky when you’re exploring deep caves spiced with monsters. The darkness of the environment sets the atmosphere. You tend to hear the monsters before you can see them, which is very unsettling. And then when the monsters suddenly attack it’s very sudden and frightening, without feeling too much like an unfair jump-out-scare.

It’s like procedurally generated pacing. This usually doesn’t affect me very much though, because I tend to turn on my own music while I’m playing Minecraft. And it’s hard to feel genuinely frightened when you’re listening to Blood Elf Druids.

The 1.8 patch has done much to add to the whole horror vibe, I think. The addition of hunger really adds to the tension, since you know that every moment you spend exploring is costing you more food. Survival elements tend to go hand-in-hand with horror — after all, the genre tends to be formally known as Survival Horror.

And then there’s the newest enemy, the Enderman.

I think the Enderman is brilliantly designed for horror.  It’s neutral to you until you look directly at it, in which it becomes hostile and opens its mouth, staring ominously. Then once you look away, it speeds toward you at a rapid pace, even teleporting if it’s very far away.

To me it feels very reminiscent of the gameplay mechanic in Penumbra and Amnesia, in which looking directly at a monster causes you to panic and give away your position. This essentially forces you to look away from the monster, which is a great way to bring tension. Humans are naturally inclined to look at everything, especially the unknown, so when we’re called upon specifically to look away from something, it’s hard to resist looking right at it. This also means we don’t get a very good look at the monster, which works really well since a monster is generally scarier the less you see of it.

So in short, Minecraft can actually be quite a scary game when played on Survival mode. I don’t think it really stands up as a horror game when compared to the likes of Amnesia: The Dark Descent or (reportedly) Silent Hill 2, but if a horror game is classified as a game that scares you, Minecraft might actually count as Sandbox Survival Horror.

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6 responses

  1. I don’t think an open-world sandbox survival horror game would be that hard to make.

    A zombie apocalypse game (cliched as it may be these days) is pretty much tailor made for this. Fisrt, make an expansive city area akin to say GTA’s liberty city and give it a load of interior areas. Populate it with procedurally generated zombie swarms similar to Left 4 Dead works. Drop it random item spawns of weapons and supplies. Finally, spawn the player somewhere randomly. Bam, there’s your sandbox survival horror game.

    If that seems a little light on story then add in some other survivors you can interact with and/or underground government facilities to find with shadowy documents on the cause of the zombie virus. Bonus points if the whole city can be somewhat procedurally generated, leading to a feeling of newness with each new game.

    I think that would pretty much be gaming perfection for me.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    • Have you checked out Project Zomboid (http://projectzomboid.com/blog/)? It’s still in the early stages, but the goal is for it to be a procedurally generated zombie apocalypse game. From the videos I’ve seen of people playing it in its current pre-alpha state, it could really be exactly the type of thing that you’re looking for.

      A small example to stand for all: the opening title when you start a new game reads: “This is the story of how you died.” There is no good ending. Eventually, the zombies will feast on your flesh (or you’ll succumb to hunger, depression, other survivors…). The question is how much you accomplish and how long you last in the meantime.

      September 18, 2011 at 3:13 PM

      • JPH

        I tried the demo. Seemed pretty screwy. My house caught on fire and the zombies mauled me to death before I got through the tutorial.

        Still, it looks like it might have potential.

        September 18, 2011 at 3:54 PM

      • A game in which you can fail in the tutorial for leaving a can of soup in the oven and subsequently burning to death is not the kind of zombie apocalypse game I’m interested in. Having to restart the game due to that is purely obnoxious.

        It looked like a pretty cool game despite that though.

        September 18, 2011 at 6:46 PM

  2. There was Nosferatu: The Wrath of Malachi (http://www.mobygames.com/game/windows/nosferatu-the-wrath-of-malachi), that offers an open castle full of monsters to explore with randomly generated content. By the way, it sucked. First, the “missions” are time-based, so forget about pace and exploration: it was run or game over. Second, the creatures respawned; the health kits and ammo, didn’t. Nice concept, good graphics but poor design decisions.

    I would buy a good open-world survival horror anytime and it’s good to know that Minecraft is not only about rising massive constructions and like.

    September 18, 2011 at 5:59 PM

  3. krellen

    It’s not a huge sandbox, but Dead Rising is pretty sandbox-y.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:00 PM

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