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  • Permadeath As A Mechanic In Survival Horror

    [12.19.19]
    - Carlos Garcia de la Filia

  • You won't play the same game twice

    As we explaned before, we decided to go with a main character and a supporting group so the narrative could play a central role in the game. But implementing permadeath meant a series of challenges that we had to face. We had to tell the story in a way that allowed for the deaths of certain characters to not affect the main plot.

    But we also felt that, given the possibility of having to replay an entire episode, it would be nice to for gameplay to feel as different as possible from the one you already experienced. That's how The Presence came to be and how we created the unique events that are scattered through each and every episode.

    Giving the players different play styles in every episode led us to only introduce a few characters per episode. Getting the exact number was a challenge as well. We had to think carefully about how many of them should appear in every episode and when they should enter the story. We also did so in order to help players. In a game with permadeath, we wanted to avoid the potential snowball effect of a struggling player losing a lot of the characters in a single episode and thus making the rest of the game impossibly difficult for themselves, especially in the first episode, where the player is supposed to be learning the ropes.

    Not only was this decision related to gameplay and balance, it was also both a necessity and a boon in terms of storytelling. We already had to walk a fine line designing the script to be as modular as possible with the current number of characters, while also aiming to maintain player interest and internal coherence, no matter what situation the player finds himself in. Having so many supporting characters meant that every cutscene had to be made taking into account which ones were alive in order to maintain continuity every time you play.

    Our references

    As we stated earlier, we love survival horror classics and some of them were an inspiration to us. But we didn't want to be simple copycats. Instead, we tried to take bits and ideas that we found interesting and adapt them to fit a game with permadeath.

    For example, we didn't like that sense of security that comes right after saving your progress because, let's face it, you know that you won't lose virtually anything if you die immediately after. While the moment right before saving can be a rightly tense one, we felt that manual saving of any kind would do more to undermine what we were trying to accomplish than to help it.

    Instead of creating tension-relief cycles tied to save points inside a given episode, we wanted the episode itself to be the "tension" part of the cycle, and the narrative between episodes to be a moment of respite, enabling the player to enjoy it to the fullest.

    Within an episode, however, and especially because it can take the player several hours to complete each one, we were aware that keeping the tension sky-high at all times would not only be a fool's errand, but also counterproductive to the experience (tension and stress can easily turn into frustration, after all), so we gave The Presence the tools to create its own dynamic mini-cycles of tension-relief, of danger and relative safety, so the gameplay of an episode doesn't feel stale even if you have already played through it.

    There's also a third pillar: when do we want tension and stress to reach their peak? The answer for us has always been "right before the end of an episode". Placing the mandatory save point before the "final boss" would definitely ruin that moment for us. On the other hand, reaching that moment with your favorite character, or with only one remaining... that's something else entirely.

    Song of Horror is available now. Players are able to play the first two Episodes and get a taste of what it means to take care of a group of characters than don't have infinite lives. Every decision counts, and every investigator in this story matters. How they end up is in your hands... And yours alone.

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