Ross is a writer, educator, and performer who lives and works in NYC. When he's not doing any of the aforementioned activities, he's playing video games.
(This piece has been lightly edited for clarity)
We interviewed the developers of Viviette about how they turned thousands of pixels into pure nightmare fuel.
Picture this: you’re minding your own business, wandering through a frightening mansion in search of your lost sister, when you spy something lying over in a corner you’re sure was empty before. You mosey on over to investigate, light your lamp, and to your surprise, it’s a — OMFG — decapitated cat. You look up, bewildered, to see your beloved sibling stooping near a window, her silhouette backlit by lightning, with something in her hand — a bloody kitchen knife. Just as she is about to plant the blade in your chest, you grab her by the wrists. A desperate struggle ensues, but you manage to throw her off. As she staggers, momentarily dazed, you race into the nearest room and slam the door behind you, but you can still hear her screaming outside. Now, imagine that in SNES-style, 2D action. Still scared?
The scene above is actually from the pixelated horror story Viviette, a puzzle-adventurer by DYA Games. While plenty of haters will argue that such a title can’t possibly be scary, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Turns out the devil’s not necessarily in the details; at least not in the 4K way you might think, anyway. Vivette — with its unnerving possession narrative, haunted setting, and motifs from and homages to the hair-raising genre — proves great horror’s more about the substance of the story than the medium it’s told through. We got the game’s creators on record to tell us about making such an unsettling 16-bit game. Here’s what they had to say.
Me: First, a fun question: what are your team’s top three horror movies of all time?
DYA Games: That’s very easy: The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963) and Halloween (1978).
What horror movies, stories, and/or games inspired Viviette?
With regards to setting, atmosphere, and story, Viviette is inspired by classic horror movies like The Innocents and The Haunting. Obviously, we’ve watched many other horror movies from different subgenres over time (giallo, slasher, supernatural, psychological, etc.), but we definitely prefer older, classic, subtle horror, where you just use acting and a series of sound and camera tricks to build tension. The viewer’s restless mind will do the rest. We’ve also read some Edgar Allan Poe short stories and some horror novels and comics as well, but they’re not our major influences.
For gameplay, our references are video games like Clock Tower, Haunting Ground, Resident Evil or Silent Hill, among others. Clock Tower was a quite innovative Super Famicom [SNES] game back in 1995, where you had to investigate the disappearance of your friends in a mansion while being chased by a madman with big scissors. In Haunting Ground, an underrated Capcom game for PlayStation 2, you’re also chased by some maniacs. Classic installments of Resident Evil and Silent Hill for PlayStation were milestones in gaming; they featured a very good use of camera angles and other horror movie tricks.
What made you go with a possession narrative in the game?
A supernatural narrative provides a bit more creative freedom, especially when creating interesting game events. That doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want without providing an in-game explanation before or after the supernatural event happens. We think a horror story must provide answers to all the questions it poses to viewers; otherwise, they will feel cheated at the end. In Viviette, all documents you get around the house and the good ending epilogue scene will answer some questions, making sense in the little, fantastic world we have created.
At first, we designed the game to have two different kinds of possessions (by a “good” spirit, the victim, and by a “bad” spirit, the killer), but we ended up finding it too obvious, so we tried to smudge the line between both. It’s difficult to explain without having Viviette’s full backstory and design overview, or without venturing into spoilers. Let’s say the game tells 50% of the actual backstory we wrote for it, enough to make sense. Everything else is left to interpretation.
Where did you get the idea for the game’s haunted-island-mansion setting?
We personally find these kinds of places very evocative. Old Gothic mansions, abbeys, and castles. Abandoned places where nature wreaks havoc. Vestiges of the past that tell a story on their own, with no words. Also, we have spent so much of our lives in a coastal town in southern Spain, so including the sea and wind in our adventures sends us back to where we feel we belong. In the game, we wanted to include a more expansive landscape — with a lighthouse — but we had to cut and discard many ideas because of time and budget constraints. Let’s not forget that we’re a small team of two brothers, and our independent games (always developed in less than a year) are self-funded and self-published.
How did you come up with the idea of creating a horror game in a 16-bit art style?
We really wanted to see a horror game made in a true, polished, 16-bit style, i.e. the horror game that never happened on the Super Nintendo (aside from Clock Tower). A game that could feature an unsettling, immersive, and plausible atmosphere regardless of it being made in 2D with a JRPG top-down view. Anyway, this idea comes from afar, when we were just starting to toy with game-making tools like RPG Maker 2003. Over more than a decade, until Viviette’s development actually started (March 1, 2018), there were countless times when we mentioned how amazing it would be to play a 2D Resident Evil-like game. We even made many prototypes, including a RE-like game, and a Halloween-like game. Now we have all the knowledge and skills to make it a reality, and Viviette is just the first step.
How do you think you managed to overcome the challenges of making a 16-bit game scary?
First, making a scary game is easier in 3D than 2D. This is a fact. But putting that aside, we think the key in any game, even non-horror ones, is setting and atmosphere (visuals and music). All our previous published arcade games feature original, believable settings and pretty good original soundtracks, which help with immersion regardless of genre. So, for Viviette, besides that (high-quality 16-bit visuals and sound), we implemented a series of tricks to build up tension, a specific requirement of horror.
For example, while the exterior of the house is wide open and harmless, all interiors are narrow and dark, with obscure background music, so each time you enter the house you’ll notice that tension builds, and vice versa. The alchemical lamp provides an irregular light intensity and limited visibility, which is a must in any horror game. We obviously have some jump-scares to release tension, but they’re very well integrated in the scenario. The randomness of apparitions and behavior of the killer also builds and releases tension. Documents, sound effects tricks…
But the best trick (or at least the one we’re most proud of) that probably went unnoticed is the camera movement. Have you noticed the main character is always in the center of the view and that the camera follows him wherever he goes? Even in small rooms that fit the entire screen? The maps are never static on camera. With this simple trick, you provide a much more dynamic and enclosing experience that messes with the player’s head, their sense of direction and environmental perception…in a 2D top-down game to boot!
What would you say to people who claim that 16-bit games can’t be scary?
They’re right! It’s very difficult to be scary with a pure 16-bit pixel art game due to, among other things, the low resolution and visual style. If players don’t want to immerse themselves into the adventure, then there’s little the game can do to be effective. That’s why these type of games, 2D pixel art horror games, are quite niche, and very risky from a business point of view. But if players decide to submerge themselves in the story, suspending their disbelief and forgetting it’s just a game, they’ll probably have a good time.
What do you think makes the best kind of horror story?
You cannot please everyone with the same story. With that said, we that doesn’t abuse the usual weak points of the human alert system (for example, a sudden loud sound, blood and gore, gross stuff, etc.). But since you’re asking for the story, we would say that psychological horror works better in the non-visual written form, and it’s a good approach to subtle horror. This is a complex subject and there are excellent articles on the web about it. Just Google it.
But, in a nutshell, we think the key factor in a horror story (or any story, actually) is the main character and their reactions. Usually, you’ll want your main character to be powerless and vulnerable (you can’t fight back). You’ll also want them to be attached to the events in some way (you’re looking for your sister). And the main character should show personality progression. For example, you try to be understanding at the beginning, but you end up being tired and angry at the end. Everything else is just a matter of adding common and effective horror elements — those that trigger our alert system. Unpredictability and madness work pretty well on horror stories in our experience.
What are some of your favorite scary moments from the game?
We’d say the game isn’t scary, it’s unsettling. Even so, almost all the jump scares are unpredictable, so all those encountered in the game are really fun to watch. On the other hand, we don’t consider Viviette a jump scare-based game at all. When we watch people play the game for the first time, we enjoy how their sense of tension is built up and released and how they start figuring out things and tying up loose ends. It’s definitely an experience to be played, not watched, but we still like watching anyway.
A lot of good horror movies get sequels. Will Viviette?
No. We don’t make direct sequels of our games. Of course, we love how immersive Viviette is, even for us, the creators. So we’ll definitely continue exploring these kinds of games where setting, atmosphere, and exploration are key factors. We’re working on our next project already.
Be sure to keep tabs on what DYA Games is up to (they put out a new game nearly every year), and should you be brave enough, we double-dog dare you to pick up a copy of Viviette from the Nintendo eShop or Steam. You’re chicken if not, but beware: it’s not for the fainthearted, even if it’s just a 16-bit puzzle game. Watch the bloodcurdling trailer and see for yourself. Mwahahaha…