Fear Factors
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 12 (December 2004)

Fear Factors

Using various technical and artistic approaches, three developers have injected fear and horror into their recent game releases, producing unique and terrifying experiences that are not for the fainthearted.

In Doom 3, Id Software crafted a hellacious scenario—using state-of-the-art computer graphics and techniques—in which the player assumes the role of the main game character to confront horrific demons and zombies unleashed from hell. Meanwhile, gaming giant Konami employed both a riveting story and compelling graphics to place the player in the middle of a psychological nightmare for the latest release in its frightening franchise, Silent Hill 4: The Room. In Missing: Since January, game studio Lexis Numerique devised a new approach to instill fear, using reality and unusual mixed media—video, the Internet, and graphics—to immerse the player (acting as himself or herself rather than a game character) in the gripping story line, as the person matches wits against a serial killer.

Through spellbinding stories augmented with CG innovation and invention, these studios are delivering what, in effect, are real-time horror films that, because of their interactivity, deliver far more chills and thrills than a typical scary movie.

Cutting-edge CGI, including unified lighting and shadowing, gives players a hellish experience in Doom 3

In 1993, Id Software set a new standard in first-person shooter games with its flagship sci-fi horror title Doom, which, through a revolutionary game engine, upped the ante in gameplay and interactive graphics. Recently, Id and Activision gave the classic release, and the technologies used to create it, a total makeover, the result of which is Doom 3.

A retelling of the original tale as opposed to a sequel, Doom 3 employs state-of-the-art 3D technology, enabling the player to again assume the role of a marine stationed at a Union Aerospace Corporation facility, only this time on Mars instead of on one of the Martian moons. Just as before, a portal opens and demonic creatures from hell spring forth, forcing the main character and a handful of other survivors into a clash between good and evil.

With the game's sophisticated graphics, players are drawn into a frightening first-person gaming experience rife with moody environments and scary monsters. "From the near-cinema-quality visuals to the terrifying atmosphere and hyper-realistic environments, the whole game screams 'interactive horror film,'" says Id co-owner and CEO Todd Hollenshead.

From the beginning, players are immersed in the title and remain so through the last level largely because of the tight integration of the cinematics and the gameplay. As lead designer and Id Software co-owner Tim Willits explains, in most games, players know they aren't in gameplay mode anymore when they watch the cinematics, which are usually a higher quality because they are rendered outside of the game's graphics engine. "But when we pull the camera back and show the players a glimpse of some monsters they'll be encountering, those monsters in the cinematic look the same as those in-game," he says. "The visual quality and fidelity are exactly the same, rendered in real time through the Doom 3 engine built by [Id founder and technical director] John Carmack."

Doom 3, in fact, more closely reflects the vision Carmack had when he created the original Doom more than a decade earlier. After completing Quake III Arena in late 2000, Carmack began developing the new Doom 3 rendering engine, now available as a commercial license, to take advantage of some of the advancements the card vendors were making in hardware acceleration, particularly for calculating geometry and real-time lighting and shadowing. "Lighting and shadowing can be very moody and atmospheric, which is perfect for the level of fright we wanted in this game," states Hollenshead.

In fact, as programmer Robert Duffy points out, the Doom 3 engine is programmed for cinematic gaming, providing a landscape in which the Id designers and artists could utilize revolutionary graphics features and techniques, among them unified lighting and shadow-volume calculation, in which every light can cast shadows. "We are using the features of the latest graphics cards, but the actual image rendering is done in the engine, not the card, and that's what gives the imagery its unique look," says Duffy.

Taking advantage of a state-of-the-art graphics engine, Id Software raises the terror level in Doom 3 with film-like imagery, including detailed demons, moody environments, and eerie shadows.

In addition, Doom 3 uses normal mapping, a variation of bump mapping that, instead of just applying grayscales, uses all color channels (RGB) for per-pixel lighting. The color channels, obtained from a higher detailed version of an object to produce the same effects, allow an artist to add more shading to create the illusion of high detail on a low-res model. A sophisticated graphics technique, normal mapping had not been used to this extent in previous games because the imagery could not be processed fast enough on current hardware to support interactivity. However, Carmack, known for devising technical solutions that push the gaming industry forward, developed in-house techniques that overcame that hurdle and enabled the Doom 3 engine to "draw" what appear to be detailed characters and imagery in real time.

The team built high-poly (300,000 to three million), cinematic-quality models for the characters and monsters using mainly NewTek's LightWave, in addition to Pixologic's Zbrush. Next, the artists built lighter versions with lower poly counts of 1800 to 3000. Then, using the normal mapping technique, they generated the normal maps from the high-poly models and applied the maps to the lighter models. As a result, the lighter models render almost like the dense models, conveying height and surface anomalies, revealing, for example, every wrinkle, cut, and crease on a demon's skin.

Meanwhile, the group generated the textures from photographic references and from scratch, and applied the surfaces to the models using Adobe's Photoshop. With Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint, the artists fixed and smoothed the exposed seams on the creatures' bodies. They then augmented the details by adding bump mapping to the flat surfaces, making them appear uneven and curved, a key feature because the light and shadows react appropriately based on the contour of the bump map.

To complete the game, the group devised a customized particle editor and effects compositing system for realistically generating fire, smoke, hair, and weather effects. The team also created a proprietary physics system, so if the player shoots a hanging light fixture, for example, it will swing back and forth, and the projected shadows will move accordingly. For the character and monster animations, the group used a commercial package, Alias's Maya, and for managing all the source code and assets (which total 2.5gb), it used Avid/NxN's Alienbrain software.

"This is the first shipping game title that gives you near-cinematic image quality in real time," says Duffy. To put the team's accomplishment into perspective: One level of Doom 3 has more media and art assets than the entire Quake III Arena game, which is only a few years old.

Another of the group's hurdles was getting the title to run on a range of computers, as the team spent the last few months of the project tweaking the engine and the game so it would run on a "typical" gaming computer. Currently, Id is working on an Xbox version of the release, which is expected to be available next year and will incorporate new Xbox Live features including a co-operative mode. The console game will maintain Doom 3's unique look and state-of-the-art features, since Carmack developed the Doom 3 rendering core with the Xbox in mind. However, the console's memory limitations are requiring the team to rework some of the assets found in the PC version. Meanwhile, Id and Activision just announced Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil, an expansion pack for the PC version.
The dim, industrial style of the game's indoor environments, set upon a reddish Martian landscape, provide a sense of foreboding.

Without a doubt, Doom 3 raises the level of graphic quality—and virtual terror—in a game, and has been called one of the scariest games ever by the Associated Press. Thanks to the slow pace, players embark on a suspenseful journey through the gloomy environments, where, lurking in the dark for their next victim may be some of the most nightmarish creatures ever conceived, from an array of flesh-torn zombies armed with their own brutal strength or weapons of mass destruction, to deadly demons of every size and shape, including a mechanical/organic bull-like creature with razor claws and needle-sharp teeth, to the gruesome, bodiless flaming heads whose shrill cries often can be heard in the distance as they search for their next soul.

"Doom is so dynamic, it's hard to not feel as if you are a part of this frightening experience," says Scott.

Fear hits home in Silent Hill 4, which uses compelling CGI and a terrifying tale to create a horrific 'head game'

By enhancing the features that have defined its Silent Hill brand of psychological horror—intense gameplay, dark, highly detailed imagery, and a bone-chilling story—Konami Digital Entertainment has raised the terror level in gaming with Silent Hill 4: The Room. "By transforming a would-be sanctuary—the player's room—into an unpredictable and inescapable nightmare, players will find themselves in uncharted territory as they explore a nightmarish alternate reality to unravel a truly unnerving mystery," says Wilson Cheng, Silent Hill 4's product manager.

The story unfolds in a sleepy village near the infamous town of Silent Hill, the setting in the series's previous titles. It's here where the new protagonist, Henry Townshend, awakens from a nightmare to find that he is trapped in his apartment, where a portal has appeared, through which heinous creatures and the ghastly undead lie in wait.

According to sub-producer Akihiro Imamura, users who play horror-genre games expect to be horrified, and one way the team met that challenge was with a riveting narrative. "In a game environment, the player controls the main character, so it's necessary that the player relate to the character's emotions, or the story will not be entertaining and the player will not experience the intended horror," he says. "From a story perspective, we created a strong motive, like how to get out of a locked room that is gradually being invaded. Early in the game, the room is still safe, but the player senses that something is wrong, and as the story progresses, we raise the level of horror, turning the room into a deadly place."
The artists augmented Silent Hill 4's imagery with a grayish filter that gives this psychological thriller a dingy, institutional look.

The group set the player view to a first-person "real-world" perspective inside the room, making it easier for players to relate to the character. Alternatively, the game engine, developed in-house, uses a third-person "alternate reality" view when the player travels to horrific other worlds, allowing the player to witness the fear and pain of the main character as he encounters the monsters, says Imamura.

Complementing the story are stylized motion-captured characters, horrific creatures, and dreary, institutional-like environments filled with rusty, decaying objects, all created using Sony Computer Entertainment's development tool set and Alias's Maya. Because of platform limitations, the artists were forced to reduce the number of polygons for each character on the screen, making up for this deficit with rich, precise textures created in Adobe's Photoshop.

Using fog and other elemental effects, the artists created an unsettling game atmosphere. They augmented the style with an extra layer of "creepiness" achieved with a grayish filter that gave some scenes a grainy, scratched film effect. Aside from adding an edgy quality, this look becomes quite chilling when used with the haunting music, bizarre monsters, and dramatic narrative—so much so that players may never again feel safe in their rooms.

In most computer games like Doom 3 and Silent Hill 4: The Room, developers immerse the player in the action using a range of tactics: an engrossing story that elicits emotion, a first-person viewpoint that places the player in the middle of the drama, or compelling, lifelike imagery that helps suspend disbelief, if even for only a moment. Despite these efforts, a person is still usually acutely aware of playing a character in a game. However, in DreamCatcher/The Adventure Company's Missing: Since January, a player actually becomes a character in the game. The result is a frighteningly immersive experience unlike any other.

"In most games, you play someone else who has great superpowers, such as big firepower or unrealistic physical abilities," says Djamil Kemal, editorial manager at French game studio Lexis Numerique, which developed the title. "In Missing, you play as yourself, with your own skills."

The PC game also features an innovative blend of mixed-media gameplay in which the player uses a CD-ROM and the Internet to solve the disappearance of journalists Jack Lorski and his girlfriend while they were investigating a series of serial killings for a documentary. Soon after they vanish, SKL-Network, the agency Jack works for, receives a haunting CD-ROM showing video footage he had obtained throughout his investigation. But the disc is more than a prop in the story; it marks the start of a chilling game of cat and mouse between the player and a mad killer known as The Phoenix.

The player is drawn into the drama after the police and SKL-Network ask the public for help. The person is then provided a copy of the CD-ROM, which, in addition to the video footage, also contains a number of clues and puzzles constructed by the killer to draw the player deeper into his web. Yet, unlike other adventure games, Missing mixes the kind of arbitrary puzzles usually found in adventure games with a style of play that blurs the line between gaming and reality, and takes problem solving in computer games to a new level.

At times, players must use their Internet browser to search more than 300 Web sites—some are real-world pages, while others are phony, set up for the game. And little do players know that their progress is being tracked, and that as they work to unravel the mystery, they'll catch the attention of others involved in the case—other players and central story figures, as well as the serial killer.

"As the game progresses, the player will begin receiving e-mails from virtual characters as well as disturbing messages from The Phoenix," explains Kemal. Some of the messages are automatically generated; others are personalized by a real-life support team.

One unique aspect of the game is that it blends fiction and reality on multiple levels so the player finds it difficult to distinguish between the two, from the e-mails to the Web sites to the locales in the video. Sometimes the information sought by the player is fake, and other times it relates to actual events, locations, and people.

When Lexis Numerique first devised the concept for the game four years ago, it had so-called actors begin laying a trail by sprinkling information on the Internet about themselves that would give them a "history," thereby making them seem real. Later, the developer spent another year setting up a more elaborate system of truths and deceptions, even soliciting actual news organizations to participate. "The missing person is a French journalist, and we knew that if this event had occurred in real life, every newspaper would have covered the story," explains Kemal. "So we asked news organizations to allow us to plant information regarding the characters on their sites. Many of them declined because of ethics. But, eventually, we were able to persuade some of them, including Liberation, one of the most important French daily newspapers."

The agreements came after the developer devised a technical solution, an Internet intelligence engine created in Java for the Internet search engines on partners' sites, to circumvent the issue of planting "false" information on legitimate sites. "Everyone who is playing the game knows the name of the missing person, Jack Lorski, so when they search legitimate sites, they will find the planted articles. Those not playing the game will not be looking for that person or even know who he is," explains Kemal. "But if a player sends a link for a fake article to someone else, a 'smoke' line appears saying the article is fiction."
In Missing, gameplay becomes real as players use the Internet and other media, including nearly an hour of video footage containing real and synthetic locations, to solve a contrived murder mystery.

Using this methodology, Lexis Numerique was able to sign on 300 official Web sites to embed game information. Players will even find fake book titles on online shops, though they will be "sold out." "We believe Missing is not just entertainment, but a form of art, and many of our partners wanted to participate on that basis," says Kemal. Augmenting the real pages are 100 "dummy" Web locations set up by the developer to serve as backups, ensuring that players will have access to the desired information. Players will not be able to distinguish between these and the authentic sites, which blurs the fact/fiction line even more.

"We provide the information in layers—with some locations containing totally useless data—to make the experience seem real," says Kemal, noting that players will have to search only about 25 or so sites, not all 400, to acquire the clues. Some of the hints are about actual events, which required the development team to thoroughly research locations, happenings, and people, including a real-life 17th-century alchemist who is at the heart of the killer's vengeance. How well players do and where they end up in the game, however, depends on how well they complete the research and decipher the clues.

The Web searches are just one function of the Internet engine's AI. The intelligence also determines whether a person is taking a break from gameplay or struggling to find a certain solution. And, it serves as the "eyes" of the serial killer, recognizing when to send e-mails, which usually occurs immediately after a major clue is found. "We want players to feel like this guy, this serial killer, is now watching them, and that he is a real person," notes Kemal. Moreover, the system must determine when the e-mail should be automatically generated or sent by a live person.
At times, Missing employs jittery video images to mimic a handheld camera look, adding a mysterious quality to the visuals. In fact, the game studio received a prestigious French film award for its video techniques used in the title.

In addition, the engine analyzes a person's progress and, depending on how he or she is doing, will increase or decrease the difficulty to meet that level of play. In this way, the game appeals to a range of people, from hard-core gamers to casual players. For example, the engine may help the player along by sending e-mails from fake partners who are willing to share clues. "In this way, the game is playable by everyone," says Kemal. "And the process occurs seamlessly. If we were to ask the player what level of difficulty he or she wants to play, then the experience would become less real."

Taking another novel approach, Missing uses live-action video (nearly 45 minutes), rather than CG or animated cut-scenes, to reveal past and present events that make the experience more authentic. Using Sony's TRV900 and PDX-10 digital cameras, the team spent one year filming those scenes in eight countries across Europe using a cast of professional actors. The group even added a scratchy quality to the video and introduced camera jitter to simulate a handheld look, as if the journalists took turns filming each other during their investigation. "We didn't want anyone to think there was a third person there filming the action," Kemal says.

After acquiring the footage, the group edited it in Adobe's Premiere and After Effects, augmenting the segments with effects or enhancements using After Effects plug-ins and proprietary software. "Many of the problems we faced were resolved through lighting. Everything was filmed outdoors and in many locations, and the lighting conditions were always changing," explains Kemal. "So we used the tools to create the same levels of density and contrast in the video."

According to Kemal, the group was challenged with achieving a high-quality video image that looked authentic and was crisp enough to let a player zoom into certain segments to find clues. The team solved this by making two movies for the same scene, with the exact same points of view, except that one was filmed in high definition and the other in standard definition. The software loads the HD movie only when the player wants to magnify the imagery, which eliminates computer RAM issues.

As a result of all its efforts on the video front, the developer received the prestigious French film industry's CNC Award for Interactive Creation, given for artistic and technical achievement.

In addition to the high-quality SD and HD video, the game contains an eclectic mix of 2D and 3D visuals, as well as photographs, documents, and drawings. The graphics, created in Adobe's Photoshop and Discreet's 3ds max, appear within the various puzzles and mini-games. According to Kemal, the team reviewed a tremendous amount of information about serial killers when it began exploring the game's art direction, and came up with a design that could have been made by The Phoenix, as opposed to an accomplished digital artist who would have tremendous programming skills. "The killer wouldn't have spent hours learning programming tools," Kemal reasons. "So we used Macromedia's Director; it's a program the killer could have learned to use in a short period of time."

Enabling users to to play themselves in a computer game is indeed a unique approach. EA's Majestic attempted the concept earlier, but the game failed for a number of reasons, among them the communication methods—late-night phone calls and faxes—that proved too intrusive, a problem that Lexis Numerique appeared to have considered and overcome with its AI engine.

According to Kemal, it was only a matter of time before the various media—the Internet, movies, and games—converged. Yet, far more important than the particular technologies is the storytelling. "The technology is not supposed to be the core of the game, so we made it seamless to the player," says Kemal. Like in the early days of the film industry, games are slowly evolving from mere technical exercises to titles that evoke emotion. "Technology has reached a level where we see amazing CG in titles like Doom 3, but to make an experience seem all the more real, we need to generate feelings, and that's easier to do by showing real people," he says. "So after you see clips of the journalists interacting and slowly falling in love, you are far more affected by their abduction than you would have been if they were a pair of rendered characters."

In fact, Lexis Numerique's novel approach in Missing earned the developer a number of accolades for game innovation at this year's E3 game conference.

Perhaps the best comment Kemal has heard, though, concerning the game was from a player with bandaged knee. "He had been playing In Memoriam (Lexis Numerique's European version of Missing) and was so startled after receiving an e-mail from The Phoenix that he had jumped up and hit his leg on the table," says Kemal. "For him, the experience became real. And that was our intention."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.

In an unusual approach for a game, Lexis Numerique used video and 2D graphics that have an amateurish quality, which supports Missing's story line that the killer himself has created the imagery.

Id's former engines, such as those employed in Quake III, used "pre-baked," or static, lighting. However, with unified lighting, the dark areas of the long, creepy corridors become that much darker. "You can really appreciate all the subtle shadows and the way the light moves around objects in the environments," says lead artist Kenneth Scott. "In Doom 3, the lighting is dynamic and realistic. If the player moves a flashlight over a corrugated surface, the tiny shadows pouring over all the surfaces will shift based on the direction of the light. It looks real, and the player becomes more immersed in the story and the action."

Missing brings fear to life in this video-based reality game