Horror, humour and purgatory: In conversation with BioShock and The Magic Circle developer Jordan Thomas
Jordan Thomas has worked on some of the most intelligent and unsettling games of the past few decades, from Thief: Deadly Shadows and BioShock to the recently released The Magic Circle.
(Above: Jordan Thomas)
TM: I read a PC Gamer interview you did a few years ago with Kieron Gillen for Thief: Deadly Shadows [Thief 3] and you talked about how you wanted your scares to leave scars. How do you feel about that statement now?
JT: That interview has left its marks on me, I’ll tell you that much. I realise in hindsight how patient he was with me, given that it’s basically ten pages of me talking about myself. It’s definitely true that at that time I was interested in and supported by Randy Smith [director of Thief: Deadly Shadows] in the goal of making the scariest level of all time. I had this weird algorithm in my head where I would put the player through this terrifying rite of passage. The idea of traumatising the player was my way of making peace with the lack of control over what the players do. I’ve sort of explored that ever since to be honest.
“…so relentlessly suffused by dread that they can’t act up and start sabotaging your big, fat masterplan.”
At the time it was a fairly deft way to handle the player problem: to keep them so relentlessly suffused by dread that they can’t act up and start sabotaging your big, fat masterplan. So, that’s kind of what [the level “Robbing the Cradle”] was about, at least as I recall now. It was almost a sort of psychological warfare against the player. As time has gone on, I’ve allowed humour in and made it a bit more of a dialogue.
TM: What do you mean by that?
JT: I’m more interested in getting to know the player than I was back then. I’ve tried to add a little more dynamism to my work – a chance for the player to express themselves. Like in BioShock 1, the Sander Cohen level – you’re invited to participate in this awful work of snuff art. That was a baby step, but it was me trying to say, “hey, you’re a participant here too. Let’s sing a duet.” As you get deeper into that level there’s a sequence where you’re asked to dance in the spotlight while hundreds of Splicers descend on you. Players did pick up the joke and, despite being creeped out by the level, would time their wrench strikes to go with each crescendo, recognising that they were being asked to dance.
(Above: BioShock by 2K Games)
The hope was it felt less like they were trapped and more like they were having a conversation with someone twisted. That sort of theme continued all the way to my most recent game.
TM: It’s interesting what you say about BioShock, because in terms of unsettling the player what you describe seems to make them complicit in Cohen’s act. Is that an intended effect?
JT: I think my mental model of fear was maturing at the time. I was getting older and the idea of your own guilt – the transgressions inside yourself that you wish you could unsee – were becoming more interesting to me. You didn’t go to the Sander Cohen level to play psycho, but once you get going there’s a certain thrill to violent play and transgression. You could watch players start with a smirk and then by the end their brows would furrow and they’d say (laughing) “maybe I need to reevaluate my life.”
(Above: BioShock by 2K Games)
“As time has gone on I’ve seen that a certain amount of humour is an actual human response to loss of control.”
Back in the days of “The Cradle” I wanted to pretend that the relationship between horror and humour didn’t exist – I’d seen so many shlocky takes on horror that I just wanted to be brooding and dark in all things. As time has gone on I’ve seen that a certain amount of humour is an actual human response to loss of control. If you want to be honest about what people do when they’re scared – laughing is one of the possibilities.
TM: You said your newest game [The Magic Circle] isn’t a horror game, but is there an element of it that is similarly unsettling?
JT: I think the hope is that a realisation might strike you that you are slowly becoming guilty of the same things you’ve been subject to for the past couple of hours. I don’t want to explain the joke, but if you’re intimate with the ways in which games fail it may be scary in an entirely different way. Not in terms of jump scares, but just “oh god, is this really our world?”
TM: Playing to a small crowd there.
JT: Perhaps. And we knew that. Since Thief 3 everything I’ve worked on has had, tattooed across our eyelids, demands to be mainstream and reach the widest possible audience. With The Magic Circle I wanted to not be afraid of niche for once.
(Above: The Magic Circle by Question)
TM: It’s kind of a side point to this, but it’s really interesting that niche now exists. There’re quite a few recent games that play with that idea, as a commentary on how games work. It seems the industry has developed to the point where games like these can exist and thrive.
Going back to horror, though, I recently talked to [game writer and narrative designer] Tom Jubert and he said gameplay tells you to be scared, but story and environment tells you what to be scared of. How do you use environment to your advantage when crafting something like “The Cradle”?
JT: Back in the days of Thief 3, I definitely knew that if you showed too much of the shark it would lose all of its menace. It now cracks me up that Spielberg said that he wanted to show more of the shark but just couldn’t afford it. The first half of the “The Cradle” is a little exotic for a Thief mission in that there are no AI enemies to hunt you. You are just being hunted by sounds. You’re hunted by what you imagine coming after you. So yes, the more the environment can suggest than state, the more spare cycles you have to mentally scare yourself. People would imagine whatever they found to be the most menacing.
(Above: Thief: Deadly Shadows by Ion Storm)
In hindsight, it still feels like the purest thing I’ve done – the thing that is most at home with what games do well. I guess I’m actually keen to use some of those techniques again in whatever we do that’s upcoming. That idea of a kind of ecosystem in which the player is not the chief predator. In Thief 3, we used the brilliant sound work of Eric [Brosius] to make the dark seem anything but safe.
TM: I talked to an AI expert [Michael Cook] about Alien: Isolation, and he talked about the tricks developers use to make the AI seem more intelligent than it is. It’s a lot to do with suggestions, apparently, and what you think the AI is doing versus what it’s actually doing. Like you say, it’s this idea of not being able to see the shark.
JT: Absolutely. On that note, one of the things in hindsight that works really well about ‘The Cradle’ and Return to the Cathedral, which was Randy Smith’s really scary level in Thief 1, is that the AI aren’t allowed to over verbalise. Traditional stealth designers will say the AI should verbalise as much as possible and let the AI build a map of what they will do in response to what the player has done, so that you’re constantly improvising a kind of jazz with the game world. What these scary levels had to do was go in the other direction, where you had to observe and listen to sub-verbal barks. The end result is that you imagine so much more intelligence and menace.
(Above: Jordan Thomas (L) with fellow The Magic Circle developer Stephen Alexander (R))
TM: Going back to what you said earlier about how you felt your idea of horror had evolved. Can you say a bit more about that? Is how the industry handles horror becoming more sophisticated?
“Games are beginning to wilfully chafe under the boundaries of genre.”
JT: I think so. I think games are beginning to wilfully chafe under the boundaries of genre. A game that would’ve been considered a narratively focused point-and-click adventure can now have a really scary phase inside it, and nobody worries about going off the original market.
At least in the indie space it feels like boundaries are blurring, which is healthy. We’re also overexposed to a lot of tropes. As popular as jump scare games have become, they’re getting a little samey. You can see the zeitgeist tiring of them again because they keep using the same tricks.
A game such as Papo & Yo, where the monster has a very strong metaphorical and personal artistic component to it, and deals with a problem that affects thousands of families every day, that is much scarier to me. It leaves the boundaries of the game and becomes something you need to actually think about afterwards.
(Above: Papo & Yo by Minority)
As proud as I am of some of my work, I do feel like I’m constantly wanting to find a way to ask the player to engage in introspection. When I was younger I was very bound to genre, and now it’s more the terror of context. It’s the horror of what is our world is going to look like 50 years from now based on our actual choices. I guess my circle has expanded. The more that something resembles a great 90s horror movie, the less it can scare me now. Some of that is down to overexposure, and some of that is when I think of the experience of people less privileged in the world, I feel a new kind of empathetic fear. I can’t help but want to grapple with that instead of recycling the same old tropes.
I want to see more daylight horror, more horror of context or horror of personal investment. We played a little with that in BioShock 2, where we tried a proxy daughter figure that would be shaped by your own good or ill choices. Maybe there would be a certain amount of dread of having done it wrong, which I can echo now that I’m an actual parent. That stuff gets under my skin in a way that “will a monster eat me” does not any more.
(Above: Bioshock 2 by 2K Games)
TM: I wonder if the industry is at a splitting point now, especially with the emergence of virtual reality (VR). On the one hand, you can see that technology as being great for this shock of the new, Lumière-brothers-train-pulling-into-the-station jump scares. Maybe that frees up the non-VR sphere to explore what you’re talking about. I guess something like Papers, Please has an element of social horror in how it deals with institutional corruption. Perhaps there’s more opportunity for horror to widen in what it looks at.
“What’s scary is the idea of ‘what do we become?’”
JT: Sure. I mean, some people’s brains slide off anything political. But then you’ve got philosophical horror, or the horror of the thought experiment in something like SOMA. In the majority of games, the question of whether there is a monster is usually resolved before you start playing.
So the physical threats in SOMA to me hold no inherent dread, but the concepts that are explored in the game are existentially terrifying. That, I think, is the brilliance of that game, in that it has a healthy ecology that makes you physically afraid for your character’s life, but what’s scary is the idea of ‘what do we become?’ I applaud those guys. They’re definitely at the top of their game. It’s lovely to me when somebody is willing to make their horror also about ideas.
(Above: SOMA by Frictional Games)
TM: I talked to Thomas Grip, the creative director at Frictional Games, and asked him about how he encourages movement through a game when the player is scared shitless the whole time. He said they actually rely on that, because the instinct is to get out of there as soon as possible.
“If you can scare people to the extent that they keep wanting to go forward, that’s hitting the bullseye.”
JT: Like I say, I still have to congratulate them for finding the sweet spot, because that is done with a deft hand. If you can scare people to the extent that they keep wanting to go forward, that’s hitting the bullseye. The concern that I had was about the opposite effect, where the player goes “NOPE”. I think SOMA walks the line. A lot of what makes it scary is cognitive terror, and they pace it well. There’s also a lot of pure problem-solving and exploration.
TM: He’s being modest then.
JT: They’ve practiced. They’ve gone through many horror games to find that balance.
TM: Another thing I like about their games is the sense of tactility. Like in Amnesia, where you have this sense of physically having to open doors. It slows everything down and makes it seem almost grippable. You have this physical investment in the area of the game.
JT: Yeah. That sense of physical investment works well in horror games when it seems reality is slipping. In Memories of a Broken Dimension there’s this almost ontological horror, where your personal existence and the entire universe does not make sense. That game is the standout of that glitch horror genre, though. The problem with those games is that people already know they’re playing a game – a piece of unreality – and so if there are no rules or internal logic, it feels like anything goes and you become numb to it. I guess because I was raised on RPGs where there’s a very strong underlying set of rules – what I liked was the idea that there’s a strong internal logic.
(Above: Memories of a Broken Dimension by Ezra Hanson-White)
Jumping back to [Thief 3’s] Robbing The Cradle, and I guess to an extent Fort Frolic [in BioShock], every light in both of those levels is controlled centrally and reacts to AI proximity or the emotion of the overall figure you’re interacting with. The hope is the level is always speaking the same language. If lights start to flicker or you get jumped by a former inmate, it’s not because I scripted it but because you happened to run into them when looting some golden teeth in the morgue. That guy didn’t cheat to get there. Paradoxically, it makes the whole thing feel more real and like you’re part of an ecosystem.
TM: Put that in opposition to something like Dark Souls or Bloodborne. I find those games very eerie but it’s for a very different reason. Every time you die, everything is in the same place. There’s something unreal about the whole situation, where everything is like clockwork – reset when you die, and you’re trapped in that.
“It’s the horror of purgatory.”
JT: I completely agree. It’s the horror of purgatory. It’s not dread so much as this cycle you’re trapped in, and ascent out of it is going to be incredibly hard. I love those games’ control of tone; how everyone you speak to seems a little bit cryptic, a little bit amused but also a little bit lost.
They do a tremendous job of making everyone seem like they’re in some great cosmic rock tumbler and all the edges are being filed off. Eventually they won’t recognise themselves or one another.
(Above: Dark Souls by From Software)
TM: The dialogue really reminds me of David Lynch films. The dialogue in his films is great because if you look at it on the page it looks like a normal phrase in English, but there’s something just off about it. It’s hard to pin down where it’s coming from. It loses its hinge, its centre and it just tumbles.
Going back a bit, I’m curious about this idea of horror reflecting social fears, with Godzilla and the nuclear bomb being a famous example, or George Romero’s zombies and rampant consumerism. I wonder if there’s something in us having an increasing reliance on digital structures and the fear of them falling apart. Maybe that could be a root for this emergence of games that break down, with The Magic Circle falling into that niche to some degree.
JT: The last frontier is that everything goes wrong. The author doesn’t have your back. The software is breaking down. There’s this game, called Calendula, that doesn’t want to be played – it’s all about trying to stop you from playing it.
To some extent there’s this idea of what happens when the machine stops, like that E M Forster story. It’s the last thing we’re afraid of… We are looking into that last place, where you’re betrayed by a force that even the author doesn’t have control of – where you ask yourself “am I even supposed to be seeing this?”