Slender is one of the few games that truly delivers a gripping, horrifying experience. While there is a so called "Survivor Horror" genre in the AAA games industry, when it comes to scaring your playerbase very few games of late actually play in the same league as Slender. Which is weird because Slender is more of a first pencil sketch of something than a full sized painting, it doesn't even feel finished, yet it seems to do a better job.
That is why Slender is a great game to analyze, because it seems unfinished and bare bones, you can see each individual part more clearly. So if you too are a sadistic human being, who only finds pleasure in torturing peasants, then take my metaphorical hand and let us wreak havoc!
While I am trying to not needlessly compare other games with Slender, I couldn't help myself to take Dead Space 2 in the equation. You don't need to have played the game, you just need to know the start of the game which you can watch in a Let's Play youtube video.
It helps a lot to watch people play the game you are trying to take apart. In this article, I am going to referene Nova's first Slender video. He played the game while he talked about his current gaming experience, GREAT! Usability technicians have to specifically ask a test user to talk out loud, that they talk about their experience. And here on Youtube there are hundreds of testpersons doing this all by themselves. Now that we got that out of the way, let's get cracking!
Concepts and Inner Fears
If you are out to scare your players, you need a scary concept, a setting for your game to play in. This can be almost everything from an abandoned spaceship to a haunted castle. Many horror projects just come up with an arbitrary dark place and venture on. But you could do a lot more with it, some concepts are more powerful than others. While you can horrify your gamers on an intergalactic cruiser, you can not haunt them in their real world, the gamers can simply turn off the computer and leave the horror behind. The reason why they can do that is they probably don't live on a huge space ship, there is nothing in the real world that would remind them of their harrowing experience. Most game designers would shrug their shoulders and leave it at that, but we are too evil to just walk away. So let's have a look how Slender did it:
Note: You are trying to scare a human being, a human being with primal fears. Evolutionary speaking, we are not one step away from our tribal ancestors, we are hard wired to feel threatened or scared by certain things.
You are in a fenced in forest, searching for sketches and walk away from a skinny guy in a business suit. At first glance this doesn't really look like a good idea for a horror game, but believe me it is a spark of genius.
First, in order to be scared, the player needs to immerse into the world. It is hard to do that when you have no clue about what you are doing and why you are here. Since Slender is plain simple, it doesn't require a lot of exposition to get you strapped in, the exposition it needs can actually be fed to the player via gameplay mechanics - but more to that later.
The other great thing about it is, we are already scared in forests at night. If you have been strolling around in the woods after sunset, you know what I am talking about. In a dark wood, your mind starts to play tricks on you, connects loose contours to monsters, your heart is beating faster, you are on alert. You have been hard wired to feel uncomfortable in such an area, it was beneficial to humans the first couple of thousand years they existed. We still have this primal fear in us, and Slender exploits for its personal enjoyment. Plus you have a chance that the player is visiting a forest at dusk after he or she played the game, the forest might remind them of their experience in Slender.
Starting off right
Time to immerse and the Monster
Compare the beginning of Slender to the first ten minutes of Dead Space 2 (walkthrough video here). The first 3 minutes of the game are plain cutscene exposition thrown at you. After that, a guy transforms into a monster you should be scared of right in front of your face! It would be an understatement to say that Dead Space lacks subtlety, horror doesn't work when the game tells you: "Alright I am going to scare you now; BOOOO! Are you scared yet? BOOOO, BOOOOOOOOH. How about now?"
Horror needs subtlety, horror needs time. That is why Slender lets you walk around in the forest for several minutes before showing anything remotely scary (other than the forest itself). When you watch Nova playing Slender, you see how he first screws around with the controls, how he tries to get his bearings before he can start concentrating on the game, and even then he needs some time before he starts connecting with the game, until Nova forgets that he is sitting in front of a PC screen and starts walking in the shoes of the protagonist, only then he starts to be sensitive to our game mechanics. So trying to scare the player before is just a waste of time and may even turn the uncomfortable setting to a ridicolous one. And we definitely don't want the player laughing at us.
It also doesn't help to show your monster cinematically lit right at the start of your game. No matter how scary your monster is, no matter how hideous it is, it isn't as scary as the monsters our immagination gives us. So instead of showing the monster before you even started the game, you should rather take the Amnesia approach. Let the player see your monster rarely in the dark, from a distance, distorted and loosely shaped. An unknown monster is usually more scary than one you know. If you do it right, if you just show bits and pieces of your monster, the player will create his own image that scares him or her to the bones. If you do it right, you can startle your player by just playing a faint growl of your monster.
Exposition with no words
Slender does a very good job at explaining the small settings in it without any words. Let us analyze Nova's first experience with Slender's exposition:
While he is busy reading the title screen, he hears somebody walking around in the grass. Note that Nova says: "What's that noise, that's a fence". Then he already has control over the game, the first thing Nova does is turn around. He sees the fence and concludes that he climbed the fence and can't go back. That's a beautiful way to tell the player something without using one single word. He also doesn't ask why he climbed the fence in the first place. Climbing a fence is not abnormal, maybe the protagonist was curious, maybe he or she tried to cut through the area and save some time on the way home.
After all that, the game shows the only text message "Collect all 8 pages". Now you might think the exposition ends, but no, the game hasn't even started yet. Now the player has time to figure out the controls, you see Nova screwing around with the flashlight and searching for a sprint function. Slender also introduces the player to trails and split ups, Nova will be encountering those later on on a regular basis.
At 2:40, Nova finds his first page, he hears the heartbeat sound and concludes: "I bet that means the game has started", yes it does. Now the game has finally started, but I'd say the exposition is still not finished, Slender has to introduce Slender Man.
With only one page found, Slender Man always watches you from a distance, that is how you usually see him the first time. With the heartbeat sound, you know that he isn't here for your tax return, he doesn't walk towards you, but you know you should better run away.
Tools of Terror
The HUD of Nothingness
In Slender, there is almost nothing that resembles a HUD, and it is missing for a reason. You are used to In-Game HUDs, it is a small reminder that you are still playing a game. So they did the most minimalistic HUD they could. The only thing the HUD ever tells you is how to pick up pages. You don't necessarily need to know how to toggle the flashlight or how to sprint but picking up pages is essential. Everything else though is communicated via mechanics and sound effects. With practically no HUD, there is also nothing to stop you from forgetting that you are playing a game, that you are not in a forest with a business consultant.
The static has an obvious mechanic, it shows how close you are to losing of course. But it also has a function that is very helpful for a horror game: It obscures the monster.
We touched upon this before, a monster stays scarier the less you see about it and Slender Man is no exception. If you see this guy in a brightly lit room with time to examine him, he loses his scary potential as soon as you can start laughing at him. That's why the static is a very good tool for Slender Man, it ensures that you don't get a good look at him even when he is standing right in front of your face.
The Map of Disorientation
I guess you have already figured out that the Level Design tries to disorient the player. But how did they do that?
Now let's play try dissecting the map design. Go and play the game, don't take any pages. Instead, try to draw a map, what way you should go to get from one note to an other.
Have you caught their little tricks?
In general, you feel lost when you can't make any sense where you should be going, but you are only truly lost when everything looks the same to you. The developers played right into that. First by only using a limited number of models and textures for the trees and by reusing different set pieces with slight modifications. Not having the resources of a AAA studio can be beneficial too. I've counted at least two different bathroom buildings both looking very similar, but their pages are in very different places. Chances are the player has found the page in the first bathroom in the first playthrough. In the second round he or she has found the second building and searches at the place it was in the first building. This only helps to confuse the player and when they are being chased by the Slender Man.
But the set pieces are not the only tools to create confusion. The paths are also an essential piece of the puzzle. Each fork of the pathway looks almost indistinguishable. Together with the similar set pieces, they create another feeling of confusion, a general lost of direction: "I am walking in circles". The beauty behind that is, sometimes the player isn't, but when he or she can't distinguish a set piece from an other, it creates this feeling. It makes it a lot harder to keep track of your path "OK, I was at the truck and I took a left, then I was at the bathroom stall. I am now at the truck again so let's take a left again" and the player finds him or herself somewhere completely different. As if the paths are changing.
Sound of Immersion
Let's break up the sound design of Slender, I think the sound design mainly serves three different purposes:
As we concluded already, the silent beginning is here to let the player immerse. The tricky part is to make it feel organic, real. Go back and play the beginning again, before you have collected any pages, you hear a familiar chirping. Also very important, there are different sound effects for when you are walking in the grass or on a dirt path.
Unsettlement and Pressure
The sounds you hear when the game has started is basically for this, unsettling the player.
The first sound effect you hear is the famous heartbeat track. It is good at telling the player "something is here with you, you are not alone!". As you collect pages, the game puts in more and more sound effects. First a weird humming noise, which enforces the strange feeling the player already has, that Slender Man isn't from this world. Later on, Slender introduces the howling wind noise which makes the player feel as if the whole forest is after him.
It is also important to note that because the sound effects come over time, they create a feeling of "everything is getting worse, everything gets more dangerous" as you get closer and closer to your goal, it feels like you are going straight towards your doom. Which is an excellent feeling for a horror game.
The Piano of Shock
There is sadly very little to say about the sound effect itself. It is an awesome sound effect that fits perfectly, done.
It is worth considering however, when the effect is played. The guys behind Slender did an awesome job to analyze when a player actually sees Slender Man, when it is a shock moment that needs to be enforced by this sound for maximum shock effect.
Decisions of Doom
While playing Slender, you are constantly making decisions. Yes you are, you just don't notice it. Go back to Nova and watch him again strolling away from the fence the first time. He says once: "Oh wait, this shit splits". Yes indeed it does, you have to make an arbitrary decision. This mechanic alone seems a bit werid, but have patience, it will become clear when we talk about Slender Man.
How the Accountant brings it all together
Now, let's talk about Slender Man. He alone isn't actually as interesting as for example the Level Design, but when you look at him together with the other Tools of Terror, you start to see what the Dynamics of the game are. Now, Slender Man has two completely different mechanics that they may be considered different Slender Men:
The Accountant of Stalking
This is the normal Slender Man, always watching you from a distance when you turn around. That is to say, almost always. He sometimes isn't there, which makes him a bit more strange and confusing. Together with the unsettling sound, he provides pressure to the player. The player doesn't actually need to sprint as much as he does, but it feels necessary.
The sound effects and Slender Man together with the decisions the player has to make, forms a dynamic of increasing panic. You have to decide what way to take, one, both or none can lead you to a place you have already been. You don't know, you can't know, but you have to take the right way. The player has to do such decisions regularly, with the flashlight, with the path, even with the sprint function all while he feels increasingly uncomfortable, while he gets more and more panicky. Increasing panic means the player gets more and more sensitive to when Slender Man goes in for the kill.
Accountant of Instant Transmission
I guess you have noticed already, Slender Man is able to teleport around the map as much as he likes. As the game progresses, he gets more and more aggressive with his teleportations. It is a bit counter intuitive, but Slender is actualy scarier when the player knows about it. Together with the trees or claustrophobic bathroom buildings,it forms tension. Slender Man could at any moment be around the next corner. You know he is going to be behind a tree at some point, you look again but he isn't there this time, maybe around the next tree... it gives tension similar to russian roulette, it builds up together with the panic.
Now the player is ready for the shock moment, when Slender Man is suddenly standing in front of him. Together with the sound effect, it forms a shocking experience that doesn't lose its power even as the player knows what is happening.
The End of all
Slender really ends when you collected all eight pages, but what does happen? All the sound effects stop, for a brief moment you think you have survived this, but then Slender Man takes you. No matter what you do, no matter how good you are, Slender Man will take you. This is very important, because if the game would end differently, you could feel accomplished, it would be easier to leave this unpleasant memory behind. The next time you pick up Slender, you know you are doomed, you can't get away no matter what.
And that's it, Slender works with simple tools but the genius behind the game is how each piece plays together. They knew exactly what their horror experience is made of, what dynamics they needed and how they can deliver on those with their mechanics.
From a Game Design perspective, horror games are extremely interesting. Because their mechanics are not fun, you don't like collecting pages. It is solely how the mechanics play together, what feelings they manage to bring up, why the gamers play Slender. So horror games should interest any aspiring Game Designer, they are a great platform for experimenting with how different mechanics play together and what effect they have on the player. In the end, that is what we are creating. Experiences.
Article Update Log
19 April 2013: updated "HUD of Nothingness" 18 April 2013: Initial release
About the Author(s)
Armed with programming skills of a computer science student, the willpower of a lion and a cup of coffee I started my first game project heads on! In only a few months, I managed to FAIL SPECTACULARLY in everything I hoped to achieve. After some minor days of crying in the corner, I realised that, while not having a game, I aquired a lot of experience in game design and project management. Now iI can say very accurately where my expectations went off course, why and how it impacted the project. I am by no means an expert, but I try to get there and on my way, I try to share my experience in the hope that there will be less aspiring game developers crying.